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Helen Kelly: A leader who inspired and well respected

Helen Kelly was a leader who inspired love and respect. I am one of the many who knew her but was not in her inner circle.

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Photo: Maarten Holl/Fairfax Helen Kelly – President of the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions

However, we had a connection that goes back to a unique childhood.

Our childhood on the political left in Wellington was steeped in activism for workers’ rights and social justice, and marked our lives in different ways.

Some of the children of that sub-culture became allergic to politics due to the unrelenting and intense sectarian environment and the literal table thumping at our kitchen tables.

Others, like Helen and myself, took on the tradition but adapted it to our time. We grew up in the ’60s and ’70s watching our fathers shouting from the granite steps of Parliament, beneath banners for no nukes, union rights, against troops to Vietnam and eventually the Springbok tour.

Our mothers were no less political and also managed their households while participating in untold meetings, marches and rallies.

It was the era of the hand-operated Gestetner machine which laboriously copied leaflets, no photocopier, let alone the internet. It was the era when women were often not visible union leaders but led anyway, carrying the domestic and social responsibilities as well.

Our families were close friends and my parents named me after Helen’s mother, the redoubtable Cath Kelly, who at 90 years outlives so many.

The Wellington left families had been part of the 1951 lock-out support network and had weathered the Trades Hall bombing.

They knew being union was not a middle-class game and the song Which Side are you On? was a defining question.

While my old man played the guitar and led the singing of Joe Hill, Hold that Line and The People’s Flag, Pat Kelly made speeches in that Liverpudlian accent, which was both stirring and authentically working class.

Although I did not always know what he was saying!

The Delahuntys, Kellys, Bollingers and Longs (Dan Long was head of the PSA and Margaret Long was an equal pay champion) and other left families all socialised unless there was a political schism.

One such schism took place between Pat Kelly and Jim Delahunty.

These two radical, pugnacious gentlemen fell out over a point of policy and that was the end of that. This seemed normal to us kids, although it now seems unimagineably narrow minded.

I blame my father, although he eventually mellowed to the point where he could admit people who disagreed with him might be worth speaking to.

Different days, days of political passion, and, at heart, this small community passed on much more than schisms and songs to its inheritors. They passed on an unshakeable loyalty to justice.

This inheritance was evident in the dedicated life and work of Helen Kelly. She took this loyalty to justice to a new level when she became ill.

She was loyal to the end to using her voice for the marginalised, be they loggers or farm labourers, miners’ widows or other sick people denied marijuana for pain relief.

I would argue that our childhood shaped her absolute determination and analysis, but the courage and kindness evident in her living fully and bravely for others to the end is beyond any tradition.

We grew up knowing we had a duty to stand up, to use our voices, to change the world. I recall Wellington in those days in black and white; it was always a windy day, we were always marching up Parliament Drive.

The stock exchange was hardly ever on the news, and the church of the free market had yet to infect politics beyond all recognition.

Nevertheless the struggle between the powerful and powerless was relentless, as it still is today. Left-wing politics needs to remember what has and hasn’t changed as we celebrate the life of Helen Kelly – not only for her political leadership but for her truly generous humanity.

 

Articel Written by Catherine Delahunty, and originally posted on stuff.co.nz

 

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