Feargal Sharkey brings star quality – and rage – to conference

Fringe hears speech from the former singer and now passionate campaigner against water pollution

Feargal Sharkey with UNISON delegates. Photo: Steve Forrest/Workers’ Photos

UNISON’s national delegate conference (NDC) enjoyed a spot of real star quality earlier this week, when a fringe meeting on the climate crisis saw a special guest in singer and clean water campaigner Feargal Sharkey.

“My father would be cock-a-hoop that I was standing on a union platform,” he told those attending.

His dad was a trade union official who took him to his first union meeting at age eight – “I was traumatised!”

But his mother was “the real political leader” in the Sharkey home. She insisted that dad piled them all in the car on 21 April 1969 to join the People’s Democracy Civil Rights March.

“Normal people can achieve the most remarkable things,” he said.

“The school teachers, the housewives, the electricians, the bricklayers and the poets.”

Climate change is going on right now, he says, and talks of the catastrophic levels of rainfall being experienced – “33mm of rain in just 10 minutes” in a dry part of Spain recently.

“Why am I here? I like standing around in rivers and have since I was 11.” It was when fly fishing that Feargal realised what was happening to his beloved rivers. He tried to get the Environment Agency to tackle the issue.

He explains that chalk streams are incredibly rare and support a special ecology, yet the River Ver in St Albans has had sewage pumped into it by Thames Water.

Last year alone, English companies spent 4.6m hours last year spewing sewage into rivers and seas, while the Environment Agency has had its budget slashed by 57%.

“Share my rage, share my outrage,” he urged them.

The meeting also heard from Tony Wright, the chair of UNISON’s policy development and campaigns committee, who opened by noting the news earlier in the day that, in parts of the US and on mainland Europe, there have been warnings about how extreme temperatures could cause serious problems in the coming days and weeks.

He said that he was so frustrated that reports such as this routinely don’t mention climate change.

Why, he asked, is this a trade union issue? “It’s the most existential threat we face, as trade unionists and human beings,” said Tony.

National officer Donna Rowe-Merriman told those present: “Climate change affects us all.” She explained that UNISON members include those who work in energy, transport, water and the environment.

A “concerted effort by all sectors of society” to disinvest from fossil fuels is vital, and actions have to be “bold and decisive”.

She notes that mining communities were “decimated” in the transition away from coal in the 1980s; it was “not a just transition” and “we will not allow that to happen again”.

Michelle Singleton, UNISON policy lead on the environment, told the meeting the union was intending to enable more members to become active on the issue.