Obituary: John McCormack, Scottish miner, footballer and trade union leader

John McCormack, socialist and trade union leader. Born: 18 October 1933. Died: 23 May 2020, aged 86

John McCormack, seated centre, with members of the Polmaise Colliery branch of the National Union of Mineworkers in 1979
John McCormack, seated centre, with members of the Polmaise Colliery branch of the National Union of Mineworkers in 1979

John “Cory” McCormack was not a big man in physical stature but he had a big heart and an abundance of courage.

In his pit village of Fallin he was a legend who devoted much of his life to the service of other people. He also made his mark nationally as a socialist and trade union leader.

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Cory was born in the miners’ blocks in Fallin in 1933, the oldest of four brothers. He left Fallin Public School at the age of 14 to work at Polmaise Colliery, where he was employed until his retirement in 1985. He was a lad o’ many pairts: Master of Ceremonies at Fallin Miners’ Welfare Club, singer, dancer, fiery orator and raconteur extraordinaire. He was also a nifty professional footballer with Falkirk and Alloa Athletic and used to attend training sessions at Brockville Park, Falkirk, in the morning before starting back-shift down the pit in the afternoon.

I first came across Cory in 1974, shortly after I was selected as Labour Parliamentary candidate for West Stirlingshire. Polmaise Colliery in Fallin was the only pit left in the constituency and Cory was Chairman of the Polmaise branch of the National Union of Mineworkers(NUM). Cory bluntly told me that if I wanted to earn the miners’ support, I would have to get up at 5am to address pit-head meetings at the start of every shift, then go underground and crawl along the coal-face to get some experience of the miners’ working conditions. In Cory’s eyes, I must have passed the test, because it was largely due to his influence that I won the backing of the mining communities.

Cory and his fellow workers were shocked when, in 1977, the National Coal Board (NCB)announced a proposal to close Polmaise Colliery, which at that time employed about 700 miners. Virtually every household in Fallin had a connection with the pit, which also employed people from Cowie, Plean, Bannockburn, Stirling and further afield. Cory immediately organised a mass meeting of the workforce. Also in attendance were Jimmy Cowan, Scottish Director of the NCB, Mick McGahey, President of NUM Scotland, and myself. Cory chaired the meeting and his speech was a virtuoso performance. He pointed out that Polmaise had hundreds of thousands of tons of workable coal reserves and every effort must be made to save the pit because closure would have a devastating effect on the local community.

When one guy in the audience asked a question about redundancy payment, Cory almost jumped down his throat, making it absolutely clear that redundancy and closure were not on the agenda. There was no way that his members were going to be “bought off”. Jimmy Cowan got the message and the closure was stopped.

For many families, Cory’s victory meant bread on the table for some years to come, but this would not last for ever. When Margaret Thatcher appointed Ian MacGregor Chairman of the NCB, the writing was on the wall. In early 1984, MacGregor announced the closure of Polmaise and, when the NCB refused to negotiate, Cory and his colleagues felt they had no alternative but to take strike action. Under Cory’s leadership, Polmaise was the first pit in Britain to go on strike in the prelude to the national strike of 1984-85.

During that prolonged dispute, the local miners’ support for the strike was so solid that there was never any need for a picket line at Polmaise. Even Mick McGahey found that difficult to believe.

Cory always maintained that the 1984-85 strike was a courageous effort by the miners to save their industry. Today there is no deep coal mining left in Britain. Cory went to his grave believing that Margaret Thatcher deliberately killed the coal industry but she would never succeed in killing the spirit of the mining communities.

After nearly 40 years at Polmaise, retirement gave Cory a well-earned opportunity to spend more time with his beloved wife, Elspeth, until her death two years ago. He is survived by his daughter Coreen, son-in-law Jimmy, granddaughter Charlene, great-granddaughter Erin and brothers, James and Angus

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Even after he stopped work in the mining industry, Cory’s instinct to help others never ceased. A few years ago he was involved in the rescue of a mother and her young children who were trapped in a fire at their home in Fallin. By all accounts, Cory was the hero of the hour who came on the scene before the Fire Brigade arrived.

Cory sustained serious injury as a result of the incident but it was typical of his modesty that he was reluctant to speak about it.

His character was hewn out of the coal-face: courage, solidarity, comradeship, leadership. They are values which will live on in the spirit of John “Cory” McCormack.

Dennis Canavan

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