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Bionic leader who refuses to go quietly

Ian Nash profiles the outgoing secretary of the lecturers' union

Paul Mackney wishes to announce that he has no intention of retiring for a quiet life in the West Country.

His decision not to stand as general secretary of the new 120,000-member joint further and higher education union - which he was the chief architect of - in 2007 disappointed but did not surprise family, friends and colleagues.

After a massive heart attack last summer, the Natfhe general secretary has decided to bow out.

"The irony is that I'm better now than before Christmas," he said. But better is not enough. His consultant at the Royal Free Hospital had pulled no punches. "He told me 'graveyards are full of people with illusions of indispensability'."

So the 55-year-old politics graduate and industrial relations expert, who has devoted his life to adult education teaching and trade union activism, decided: "The family must now come first."

He will finish his 10-year stewardship of Natfhe in June and share the running of the University and College Union until 2007. What then?

"A portfolio career. I can go in a number of directions - work for the new union, the education world or do a spot of journalism." He would be good at the latter. His witty prose is always a joy in his occasional columns, usually drawing heavily on Dylan (Bob, not Thomas).

He is diplomatic when asked if he thinks a new Natfhe contender will emerge to challenge the current Association of University Teachers' general secretary, Sally Hunt, who is running in a one-horse race.

Instead, he talks of what is keeping him going. "They've fitted me with a bionic shock box. If my pulse drops to zero, it will immediately defibrillate and shock me back to normal. I was hoping to pass on nasty little shocks to others but, apparently, I'm not able to." So it is safe for ministers to carry on shaking his hand.

When Paul took over running Natfhe, FE Focus said he was on a mission impossible, charged with galvanising a near-bankrupt, fragmented, dysfunctional union, after the struggles of three ousted leaders.

He departs as the bionic man - fitted out with gizmos that could help him outlive the rest of us. They include angioplasty balloons and stents - "bits of Biro, acting as tunnel bores in the arteries to keep things flowing".

From anyone else, such descriptions would seem morbid, but Paul doesn't do "dark". "After a heart attack, you have a 50 per cent chance of dying in the first couple of weeks and 15 per cent in the first year, which I'm not out of."

He has always been a workaholic. As a formidable West Midlands regional official 10 years ago, he tried to enter the Guinness Book of Records as the biggest user of spaghetti junction, as he darted from union branch to branch.

For the next 15 months, he will work on the union's staffing plans, and new banking and financial arrangements. There will be measures to prevent any one sector becoming dominant. It is not just about FE versus HE. "This is a multi-sector union: colleges, new and old universities and sectors within these groups."

But he vows not to take on too much. He needs to take time out for his guitar and Dylan collection.

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