Nevin, Donal (1924–2012), trade unionist and historian, was born on 20 January 1924 at 8 Cornmarket Row, Limerick, the home of his parents, Thomas Nevin, a cabinet maker, and his wife Alice. He was the second youngest of eight children (three girls and five boys). Nevin won a local authority scholarship to attend Sexton Street CBS in the city and read widely in the nearby Carnegie Library. He won first prize in an Oireachtas essay competition and achieved an excellent leaving certificate, gaining six honours. In 1941 he joined the statistical branch of the Department of Industry and Commerce. Impressed by the desire of ‘Young’ Jim Larkin (qv) to alleviate poverty and address social injustice, he joined the Labour Party and became a key advisor to Larkin in the 1950s.
Nevin was a member of the clerical branch of the Workers Union of Ireland (WUI) and in February 1949 joined the Irish Trade Union Congress (ITUC) as research officer, a new post created at the urging of John Swift (qv) to provide research support to affiliated unions and contribute to union submissions made to the Labour Court. In 1950 Nevin began publishing Trade Union Information, a regular bulletin collecting industrial statistics, economic data and relevant legislation, which was widely relied upon across the trade union movement. He produced it for the next three decades, latterly with the assistance of his wife and daughter. He also published in the Journal of the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland and became a prominent member of that society. In the mid-1950s Nevin’s submissions on behalf of various trade unions to the Prices Advisory Board demonstrated a mastery of relevant statistics and economic models and he was often a member of trade union delegations to the government. During the 1950s he appeared regularly on Radio Éireann panel shows which addressed topical political and socio-economic issues and on similar television programmes in the following decade. In addition, Nevin regularly addressed regional and sectoral trade union groups, professional bodies, and the People’s College (set up in 1948 to provide education for workers). On 22 September 1960 in the Pro-Cathedral, Dublin, he married Maura Murphy; she and their daughter Anne, were integral to his life.
Nevin was active in the Seán Connolly branch of the Labour Party, a hive of intellectuals and bohemians which met in Eustace Street, Dublin. In the late 1950s he was chairman of the Dublin Regional Council of the Labour Party. He was also honorary parliamentary officer, essentially an unofficial part-time parliamentary assistant to all Labour TDs, before this role was formally filled by Catherine McGuinness from 1961. Nevin wrote a major speech delivered by the Labour Party leader William Norton (qv) in February 1958 that was published as a pamphlet, Labour’s way. It embodied much of Larkin’s thinking in advocating economic planning and urging major capital investment to spur public enterprise and create employment. Nevin was director of elections for the party at the June 1958 Dublin South Central by-election and led informal talks with Seán MacBride (qv) and Con Lehane (qv) exploring a possible merger with Clann na Poblachta.
Nevin frequently addressed party conferences and was – somewhat unusually – popular with both trade union and constituency representatives. Had he been willing to court public approval and engage in partisan debate, he probably could have successfully pursued political office. He was a close friend of Frank Cluskey (qv) – both were protégés of Larkin – and was his election agent for many decades. However once Cluskey was elected to the dáil in 1964, Nevin receded from party leader Brendan Corish’s (qv) ‘kitchen cabinet’ to focus on trade union activities (Puirséil, 241).
When the ITUC merged with the Conference of Irish Unions to form the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) in September 1959, Nevin was appointed research officer. His socialist and internationalist views informed his initially tepid support for Ireland joining the EEC and this was reinforced after he served on the Committee on Industrial Organisation established by Seán Lemass (qv) to prepare the Irish economy for European competition. Nevin recognised the likely ensuing economic development would raise livings standards and gradually warmed to the European project, in contrast to the senior ICTU leadership who campaigned against accession in 1972.
In the late 1960s Nevin presciently warned of both a precipitous decline in agricultural employment and a major population boom in the east of Ireland. He saw the ensuing rapid, large-scale urban expansion as inevitable (which would significantly inflate urban land values) and called for tax mechanisms to redistribute some of the wealth accruing to landowners. After accession to the EEC in 1973, Nevin served on the executive of the European Trade Union Conference and on the advisory committee of the European Social Fund. On both he sought enhanced trade union rights and increased funding for vocational training programmes. He also agitated for the full implementation by the Irish government of European directives on workers’ rights and social affairs, notably the 1975 equal pay directive.
This was a cause close to Nevin’s heart. On becoming assistant general secretary of the ICTU in July 1966, he campaigned for the full implementation of pay equality between men and women, and personally composed the ICTU’s submission (1970) to the Commission on the Status of Women, characterising the state’s treatment of women as backward and unjustifiable. He publicly supported the 1973 Irish Widow’s Association campaign for equitable treatment regarding sickness and unemployment benefits. He frequently highlighted the variable detrimental impact of economic deprivation upon women and in 1977 observed how two thirds of adult women aged under twenty-four were unemployed. Nevin also sought improved pay and conditions for part-time workers (usually women), an issue previously of little interest to male union leaders.
Since 1963 Nevin had been a member of the National Industrial Economic Council established by Lemass to consult with unions and employers on economic policy, and from 1973 he served on the succeeding National Economic and Social Council. The social welfare policies of the 1973–7 Fine Gael–Labour coalition government, in which Cluskey was minister for social welfare, were influenced by Nevin, not least the creation of the National Committee to Combat Poverty (later ‘Combat Poverty’), on which he served. Nevin frequently called for a more equitable distribution of the tax burden. He served on the Commission on Taxation (1957–63) which urged the adoption of the PAYE system for personal income tax, and on the succeeding Commission on Taxation (1980–85). A key promoter of the PAYE protests held in the early 1980s, he supported a tax on property and argued that PAYE workers shouldered too much of the tax burden and highlighted the prevalence of widespread and unpunished tax evasion. He frequently called for farmers with significant income or assets to be assessed for tax, and later chaired (1993–6) the Working Group on the Integration of the Tax and Social Welfare systems; the ensuing report urged their simplification to incentivise work.
During the mid-1980s Nevin blamed private sector managerial incompetence for Ireland’s economic malaise, highlighting their failure to avail of low Irish labour costs and their squandering of generous state and EEC subsidies. He favoured greater state enterprise to create jobs and was a vocal critic of the auction politics and inflationary budgets that characterised Irish electoral politics in the 1980s, deploring the ‘deception of the electorate by both main parties’ (Ir. Times, 3 Sept. 1984). He was though often pragmatic in economic matters, working well with Fine Gael ministers in the coalitions of 1981–2 and 1982–7 and supporting the Fianna Fáil government’s 1987 Programme for National Recovery, the first social partnership deal between government, employers, trade unions and farmers. Recognising cohesion was sometimes lacking across the trade union movement, he urged the merger of smaller unions, and chaired unsuccessful merger talks between the major teaching unions in 1975–6 and 1990–91.
Nevin’s participation in a legion of commissions, review groups, committees, associations, trusts and corporate bodies over five decades was Stakhanovite. In 1960 he was a founding member of the ESRI, served on its council for over four decades and was president in 2002–04. A founding governor of the Irish Times Trust (1974–2002), he was a director of the Irish Times Ltd and (from 1994) vice-chairman of both. Inter alia, he was a member of the Broadcasting Review Committee, the Commission on Remuneration and Conditions in the Defence Forces, the Higher Education Authority, the Health Research Board, the National Roads Authority, the board of the CSO and the Irish Council for People with Disabilities. He was also a trustee of the Bewley Community, the People’s College, Focus Ireland and the Abbey Theatre, as well as a governor of the Irish Hospice Foundation. His strongly held religious beliefs (informed by catholicism but not overawed by it) did much to motivate his committed pursuit of social justice. In 1983 Nevin and the ICTU opposed the constitutional amendment banning abortion and in 1986 they campaigned for a constitutional referendum on divorce. Nevin sited both policy stances as supporting individual civil rights (he was a member of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties). He was a founding member of what became the Dublin Civic Action group, established in 1966 to protect Dublin’s Georgian heritage, and a frequent protestor against Dublin Corporation’s decision to build their new civic offices on a former Viking settlement at Wood Quay. It was Nevin who suggested that Oisín Kelly (qv) should be commissioned to create the statue of ‘Big’ Jim Larkin (qv) erected in 1979 in O’Connell Street, Dublin, and he also selected the inscriptions on its base.
Keenly interested in international politics, he was an ardent pacifist and a founding member of the Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in 1958. He also served on the executive of the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement from the late 1950s, garnering support from Irish labour organisations. After he succeeded Ruaidhrí Roberts (qv) as ICTU general secretary in 1982, he established a liaison committee with the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement, campaigned for tighter restrictions on trade with South Africa, and was prominent in demonstrations against sporting interactions with the apartheid state.
On his retirement from the ICTU after forty years’ service in January 1989, Nevin presented five decades of ICTU and other union records to the NAI, the first such major deposit by a non-governmental organisation. Some left-wing critics (such as Noel Browne (qv)) claimed that his involvement in a multitude of organisations made him an ‘insider’, unwilling to mount any radical challenge to the status quo. However, many others respected Nevin for his statistical rigour, economic nous and expert marshalling of data and evidence, which he employed judiciously to champion the welfare of workers. Taciturn and focused, he contributed to meetings only when strictly necessary. Admirers attributed his reticence to an innate lack of personal ambition and a selfless focus on improving workers’ rights and their standard of living, as well as addressing the needs of the marginalised and the unemployed. Nevin’s career mirrored the rise of trade unionism in independent Ireland. He joined the ITUC when it had a staff of six and retired from the ICTU when it employed fifty people. He ensured the ICTU made a substantial contribution to wage-restraint in the late 1980s, and thus arguably to the impressive economic growth achieved in the next decade which underpinned major improvements in living standards.
Over four decades Nevin produced a notable body of research on Irish labour history, and from 1989 was an honorary president of the Irish Labour History Society. To mark the fiftieth anniversary of the 1913 lockout, he edited 1913: Jim Larkin and the Dublin lock-out (1964), published by the WUI. There followed a sequence of published RTÉ Thomas Davis radio lectures (1967–84) on various aspects of Irish labour history. He edited Trade unions and change in Irish society (1980) and Trade union priorities in Irish society (1981), and was consultant editor to the Thomas Davis ‘Trade union century’ lectures broadcast in early 1994, marking the centenary of the original establishment of the ICTU. Nevin edited the ensuing Trade union century (1994) and compiled the miscellany of documents collected there, including a detailed bibliography of trade unionism in Ireland drawn from Saothar. He also edited James Larkin: lion of the fold (1998) which collected a series of Thomas Davis lectures alongside ancillary material to mark the half-century of Larkin’s death. James Connolly (qv) also featured prominently in his researches. The massive James Connolly: ‘a full life’ (2005) drew extensively on earlier biographies and Connolly’s own correspondence and writings. It received some criticism for reproducing rather than analysing Connolly’s views, although it did include an extended discussion of his catholicism. Nevin then edited, with the assistance of others, Between comrades: James Connolly – letters and correspondence 1889–1916 (2007), and two further volumes: James Connolly: political writings 1893–1916 and Writings of James Connolly: collected works. For these achievements Francis Devine described him as the ‘father figure of Irish labour history’ (Saothar, 39, 121).
Nevin’s work was recognised with honorary doctorates from the NUI (1989) and the University of Limerick (2001), and an award from the National Council for Educational Awards (2000). He died on 16 December 2012 at St Vincent’s Hospital, Dublin. After a funeral mass at the church of the Holy Cross, Dundrum, Dublin, he was buried at Shanganagh cemetery, Shankhill, Co. Dublin. The Nevin Economic Research Institute, affiliated to the ICTU, was established in his memory. President Michael D. Higgins gave the inaugural Donal Nevin lecture in May 2013.