#HeartNUJ: An unusual route to NUJ membership
10 February 2017
Gerry Carson, PR rep, chair of the union's Belfast and district branch and joint chair of the Irish executive council
I joined the National Union of Journalists almost 40 years ago. It was in the days of copy-takers, telephone lines and fax machines. No smartphones, no internet, nothing digital, sound-men, lighting assistants, PAs, and drivers. No online joining trade unions, no Facebook, Twitter or apps.
Before joining from the ranks of the then just growing world of public relations, I had never heard of the NUJ. At least not until the Belfast branch of the union decided to "black" (refuse to use) my press releases because I was not a member of the union.
At that time, in the mid 70s, Northern Ireland was caught up in the so-called "Troubles" when sectarian killings were tearing the province asunder. Armed police patrolled the streets and British troops, bristling with weapons, moved around in armoured personnel carriers. While shopping, body searches were the norm. Security raids brought housing developments under siege, instant riots and buses burning were obstacles on the way to work.
For me, newly appointed to the role of public relations officer for the Eastern Health and Social Services Board, it was the start of a career that saw me work with incredible colleagues in bringing new and lasting relationships to working with local, national and international media.
This board was not only responsible for the world-famous Royal Group of Hospitals, but also managed the Belfast City, the Mater Infirmorum and the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald, all key centres of excellence in treating and caring for the casualties of the times. I was the head of the media team which released all media information about casualties and controlled media access to clinicians and hospital representatives.
It turned out to be a 24-hour, seven-day commitment with an always-on emergency pager which in later times was accompanied by the mobile phone
– I was the first in the UK health service to bring the car-based mobile telephone into daily operation.
So when the Belfast branch "blacked" my news releases, it simply made it almost impossible for the media to obtain crucial and accurate information about causalities and so negotiations began between the board's chief executive and officers of the Belfast branch, aggrieved that the post of PRO had been given to me, a non-NUJ member.
The reality was that I had been a public relations consultant before being appointed to the board, initially as assistant PRO, and later when the PRO post-holder left, I got the job as PRO in a publicly advertised contest.
The way forward, my CEO agreed with the NUJ representatives, was for me to join the union, which I did, simply because I had never realised that the NUJ covered people like me who worked in PR and public affairs. And no one in the union at that time in Belfast had ever asked me to join!
So I became not just a member, but an activist when I realised just what the NUJ rules and code of conduct meant, not only in terms of protecting the rights of members and acting for them, but also in adhering to and striving always to implement the rules on how members perform their jobs.
These rules include the defence and promotion of freedom of the press, broadcasting, freedom of speech and information, the defence and promotion of trade union principles and organisation, the elimination of all forms of harassment, prejudice and discrimination and the defence and promotion of peace, social justice and civil liberty.
How could I, working in Northern Ireland, not join an organisation with such noble aims, standards and objectives, and which looks after members throughout the UK and the island of Ireland? It's a union for all those working in the various strands of the media and information services.
The Belfast and district branch, now 91 years' old, has on many occasions during the Troubles, and during our present uneasy peace, had to deal with death threats and attacks on our members by various paramilitary faction and groups, including the shooting of two members by Loyalist activists.
If I had to name my NUJ heroes, I would choose the late Lionel Morrison, union activist and the union’s first black president, and the investigative journalist and Belfast branch secretary, Marty O'Hagan, whose 2001 assassination has to date resulted in no convictions.