The Fire Brigades Union has made two new solidarity awards at its annual conference, to operational firefighter and FBU member Brendan Woodhouse, who volunteers in saving refugees at sea, and to Member of Parliament and former shadow chancellor John McDonnell.
The awards, named the ‘Solidarity Medal’, are awarded by the union to recognise or dispense solidarity, or specific acts of solidarity, of exceptional merit.
The medal for Brendan Woodhouse is awarded for his lifesaving actions in the Mediterranean and his campaigning to raise awareness of the migrant crisis, and the medal for John McDonnell is to recognise his lifelong solidarity to the members and organisation of the FBU.
Brendan Woodhouse, upon receiving the medal, said [abridged]: ‘I’ve done 10 missions, and have been part of the rescue of over 8,000 people. I’ve also seen hundreds die – it’s been brutal. The FBU has always backed me though. I attended a shipwreck a few weeks ago, and there was a boy there called Samuel. He’s one of the ones who died, his name added to the growing number of people who have been killed on that boat. 24,000 people have died out there.
‘But it’s not by accident, it’s orchestrated by governments including this one. When I first started doing this in 2016 we had rescue boats out there. In 2017 they changed the policy and took those boats away. Our border is the deadliest border in the world and we have made it happen.’
John McDonnell, in comments to the conference hall upon receiving his medal, said [abridged]: ‘It’s a privilege to be mentioned in the same breath as Brendan… I can’t tell you how honoured and how grateful I am to receive this medal. I’ll cherish this medal and cherish this moment for the rest of my life. I’ve been proud to serve this union and its members for the past 25 years.’
Brendan Woodhouse volunteered on-board a humanitarian vessel in the Mediterranean, the Sea-Watch 3, having previously brought supplies to refuges in Calais and using skills he’d learnt as a firefighter and army medical reservist. The ship he volunteered on was blocked from landing by Italian and Maltese authorities, and there were attempts to make the rescuers on board criminally liable for encouraging illegal immigration.
In one rescue he swam towards a baby floating face down in the water, and then retrieved and resuscitated her, bringing her back towards land on his chest.
Tam McFarlane, Fire Brigades Union national officer, commented: ‘Solidarity is at the heart of our union and the union movement, and Brendan Woodhouse and John McDonnell personify solidarity. Inside and outside our union respectively they have worked tirelessly to help build a better world. They are thoroughly deserving recipients of these medals.’
The medals were awarded at the first in-person FBU conference since the beginning of the pandemic, and the presentation took place in the conference hall before conference delegates on Thursday, 3 May.