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I am very proud to be joining The Mirror.. it is like no other paper; EXCLUSIVE: PEOPLE'S CHAMPION TOMMY SIGNS UP WITH OUR TEAM.

Byline: RICHARD GRAY

HE is the action man of Scottish politics - championing the cause of the poorer members of our society.

Even Tommy Sheridan's answer phone message suggests he is fighting a one-man battle against the mainstream political parties.

It says he can't take the call as he is off confronting Tony Blair and his "new Tory government".

Famed for attending protests and practicing what he preaches, Sheridan ranks among the most hands-on politicians in Scotland.

The firebrand MSP even keeps a sleeping bag in his office in case he needs to attend a last-minute sit-in.

And now the charismatic leader of the Scottish Socialist Party is to join the Scottish Daily Mirror as a new hard-hitting columnist who'll pull no punches.

Delighted to be joining our winning team, he said: "The Mirror is like no other paper in that it's willing to reflect the overwhelming majority of public opinion.

"Its opposition to Bush's oil war in Iraq and courage in taking a stance sets it apart.

"I am proud to be associated with such a gutsy paper that is willing to put justice and truth before dishonesty and money.

"The support the Mirror has shown for the firefighters' pay claim is an excellent example of this."

Renowned for his strong debating skills and for verbally battering his opponents, Sheridan is a key figure in the Scottish Parliament.

Few can forget how the dedicated socialist clenched his fist in defiance as he was sworn in as an MSP three years ago.

But despite his fighting talk, the 38-year-old is far more concerned with averting war at the moment.

THE Glasgow MSP believes Tony Blair's support for the US's war with Iraq is stripping Britain's poor of much needed aid.

Already he feels taxes are far too high for the low paid while those at the other end contribute too little.

And he fears war in the Middle East will result in even more money being diverted away from those who need it most.

He said: "It is astonishing the government can afford to write a blank cheque for war and nuclear weapons yet refuse to give people like firefighters, who save lives, fair pay.

"We are ready to go to fight one country which claims to have no nuclear weapons and has allowed in UN inspectors while ignoring North Korea, which has admitted that it has them and has kicked out the weapons inspectors.

"The US is the biggest rogue state in the world and we need to stand up to their bullying rather than rolling over like an ever obedient poodle."

Sheridan has always been a controversial figure.

He first came to national attention in 1992 when he was elected to Glasgow City Council - from a jail cell.

He had been sentenced to six months for breaking a court order banning him from attending a poll tax warrant sale.

That situation will never crop up again however, because, after becoming an MSP in 1999, Tommy successfully pushed through a bill which abolished the degrading warrant sale system.

After entering parliament, Sheridan also decided to donate half his pounds 40,000 salary to his party in protest at the high salaries paid to politicians.

And he pledged the fee he receives from the Mirror for his column will be donated to a different cause each week - with readers encouraged to join in and donate too.

Tommy said: "A nurse earns three times less than an MSP in Scotland but does that mean they are doing three times less work - I doubt it.

"Politicians are too often more concerned about pounds and pennies and climbing the career ladder rather than being about honesty, integrity and principle.

"This is what leads to public disillusionment with politicians."

Sheridan himself was recently angered by his fellow MSPs when they failed to support his bill on providing free school meals. He said: "Free school meals would have made a fundamental difference to low-paid families and to children's diets."

The MSP hopes he can resurrect his bill next year if his party does well in the Scottish elections.

The SSP, which only formed three years ago with a membership of 400 people, has grown rapidly and will contest every seat in Scotland at May's elections.

Tommy said: "I expect the number of MSPs we have to double at the next elections and I am hoping we might even get eight candidates elected."

The main crux of the party's manifesto will be plans for local taxation reform that would make anyone with an income of less than pounds 10,000 a year exempt from paying.

Working with business experts at the University of Paisley, Sheridan hopes the Scottish Service Tax will replace council tax - leaving 80 per cent of families better off.

Tommy, a talented junior footballer, is happily married to high-school sweetheart Gail. The pair met at Lourdes School in Glasgow, dated a couple of times, then lost touch. They were reunited while Tommy was flying to London for an anti-poll tax rally and Gail was working as a stewardess.

Tommy said: "We arranged to meet up that night but there were riots at the rally and I got held up by three days and we lost touch again.

"When I was in jail in 1992 she sent me a postcard to congratulate me on my election and then continued to torment me with postcards from exotic locations around the world.

"Our relationship was very much a case of ships passing in the night for a long time but now we are together and very happy."

READ Tommy Sheridan's great new column from tomorrow, only in the Scottish Daily Mirror - the people's paper.

CAPTION(S):

PEACE PLEA: At an anti-war march; MY FIRST LADY:; Tommy with wife Gail, his high-school sweetheart; TALENT: With foot=-baller Pat Nevin
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jan 7, 2003
Words:971
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