At work in a new job in Northern Ireland

May 16, 2016

Two socialists from the People Before Profit Alliance were elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly on May 5, a breakthrough victory for the left-wing alliance that has run in elections in both the North and South since it was founded a decade ago.

One of the victors for People Before Profit, along with Gerry Carroll, is Eamonn McCann, a veteran of the civil rights struggle in Northern Ireland and well-known journalist since then. Here, we republish two columns he wrote after the election--the first a farewell column for the Irish Times, and the second for the Belfast Telegraph.

Neither green nor orange, but up for the fight

MY CLEAREST memory of my first tilt at Stormont is of loping along Creggan Heights accompanied by Derry Labour Party canvassing chief, Big James Doherty.

"I want you to vote for this man," James would begin his spiel to every voter who foolishly opened their door, abandoning the latest Coronation Street dust-up between Len Fairclough and Elsie Tanner. Or whatever they were watching.

It struck me as we fine tooth-combed the heights again that if the doorstep positions had been reversed, I probably wouldn't have stirred to engage in conversation either.

(Nowadays, of course, it's possible to pause the program, so as not to miss Norris describing his council election rival, Sally from the lingerie factory, as "a no-nothing knicker-stitcher.")

"The thing is," James would continue, "he needs the votes more than anybody else." The truth of this was to become clearer once the count was done.

Much has changed over the intervening 47 years. Or, again, not a lot.

Eamonn McCann speaks to a People Before Profit campaign gathering
Eamonn McCann speaks to a People Before Profit campaign gathering (People Before Profit Derry)

"I wonder if you have considered giving us your number one...?" Somebody who may have been the daughter of a woman we'd lured away from the Street all those years ago, butted in: "I know what you're at, walking around Creggan handing out pictures of yourself whether people want them or not." Which, a glance at the cards we were distributing confirmed, was, indeed, what we were at.

There's something arrogant about urging both neighbors and total strangers to anoint you to speak on their behalf. You probably shouldn't vote for anybody who doesn't seem a bit uneasy about asking you to vote for them.

Still, despite all, you are entitled to affect a swagger if the voting goes your way. Matter of fact, our swagger wasn't entirely affected as we erupted from the counting center in the small hours of Saturday morning, emitting occasional yelps and telling one another that what we'd achieved was historic. A big word and I wouldn't press it. But the outcome had a significance sufficient unto the dawning day.

When competent teams canvass intensively for nine weeks, you get a feeling for the thinking in this or that area. In the end, we knew a solid proportion of our first preferences had come from Protestants, ranging from evangelical Christians to first-time voters in ripped jeans. Our stance on welcoming Syrian refugees attracted some who, motivated by religion, had founded transit camps along the Via Dolorosa across Greece and Macedonia.

Others were impressed by young musicians shouting out support from the stage.

Here's another thing we discovered: the right to choose can be a vote-winner in the North. And so can an assertion that--this was our mantra--"We are neither green nor orange but up for the fight."

One television commentator spluttered these things couldn't be true, that it was fantasy to suggest that our approach could draw support from, as we say, "both sides." Eschewing both nationalism and unionism has always implied the mushy politics of the decent middle classes.

As far into the future as it's possible to see, Northerners will know what community they came from. But this doesn't have to be the sole or main determinant of political allegiance.

The consociational structure of the Belfast Agreement, disadvantaging members of the Assembly who designate themselves neither orange nor green, arises from this perspective. When it comes to the inbuilt blocking mechanism, the Petition of Concern--laying down that, essentially, a majority of each of the nationalist and unionist blocs is required to pass any measure regarded as vital by more than 30 members--simply disregards the presence of "Others."

"Back in your boxes" is the message.

There's a song about this which I have not tired of quoting, Harry Chapin's "Flowers Are Red," about a teacher's critique of a pupil's painting:

She said, "Flowers are red young man
And green leaves are green
There's no need to see flowers any other way
Than the way they always have been seen."

But the little boy said
"There are so many colors in the rainbow
So many colors in the morning sun
So many colors in the flowers, and I see every one.

It is not true that the people of the North are indelibly color-coded orange and green. In this as in all, there's never a wrong time to argue for a different way of seeing the world, beginning with our own little patch of the world.

And that's that. This new job is full time. I am deeply grateful to those at the newspaper with whom I have worked and who remonstrated only with a sigh when I'd phone 10 minutes after delivering copy asking for a word to be changed. Patience of saints.

First published at the Irish Times.


First job is to halt the public housing sell-off

"MAD, ISN'T IT?" I remarked to Gerry Carroll on Monday as we strolled toward the Stormont building, blinding white in the dazzle of a gorgeous day. We scurried inside for shelter from the sun and sailed serenely through security--"No, you don't need a badge"--which is the sort of thing that could unsettle me.

The marbled elegance of the entrance hall stands in contrast to the workplaces, colleges and the dusty streets where I plied my trade for years--decades even--and still do when needs must.

But I find it odd to be asked at hourly intervals whether taking a seat at Stormont means a definitive break with past politics.

This is a lurch into a different political arena, not a change in direction or perspective, I reassured myself as we chanced into the company of the genial guru of UTV, Ken Reid. "Mad, isn't it?" he remarked.

But not really as mad as all that. The same ideas can be promoted on the rowdy streets as in the buttoned-up ambience of the Assembly.

There are circumstances, indeed, in which the street can still be the better avenue for advance, even here where streets are so often strewn with debris.

There wouldn't have been votes for women at all last week if their sisters of an earlier generation hadn't smashed every shop window in Regent Street.

The creation of the Housing Executive in 1970 was one of the great achievements of the civil rights movement. The building of public sector housing had come to a virtual standstill. In many council areas there was unfair allocation of the homes which were being built. Complaints fell on stone-deaf ears.

The grievance simmered and eventually boiled over and splurged onto the streets.

It was this which delivered the Housing Executive, taking control away from local councils and an ineffectual Housing Trust and bringing forward a points system for allocation.

Nobody at all suggests now that we should go back to the old ways of doing things.

So it wasn't debate at Stormont, nor recourse to the gun, which resulted in the old order rapidly changing.

What ushered the new era in was the sound of marching feet.

Now, the structures built back then are being dismantled and discarded with as little sentimentality as election posters en route for recycling.

The Executive, through the Strategic Investment Board, is in the process of selling off the Housing Executive's tens of thousands of properties.

The notion behind the creation of the Housing Executive--that the state has a duty to strive to ensure that citizens have decent living conditions--cannot survive immersion in the neoliberal ideology now holding sway.

When was it decided that the Housing Executive should be written off? And by whom? Which elected representatives were involved? What was their parties' reasoning? How did they check that they had public approval? What element of democracy can be pointed to as part of this process?

Which was the more democratic development--the creation or the destruction of the Housing Executive? The marching on the street or the maneuvering behind closed doors?

The Assembly had no direct involvement in the decision to get rid of the Housing Executive.

In my own estimation (an estimate is all it can be) as few as 20 people--all, or almost all, of them unelected--played a part in the decision to bring in the wrecking ball.

Standing contemplatively at the top of the steps, pondering how to halt the dismantling of the Housing Executive, it struck me it would be pointless to begin in the building behind me.

Democratic street politics have been trumped by discussions in the dark among unaccountable individuals whose names would have zero recognition among the people in whose name they presumably think they are acting.

It should be the duty, then, of Members of the Assembly to assert the Assembly's right to give or withhold assent to proposals relating to matters devolved to the Assembly.

MLAs who have been at Stormont somewhat longer than myself and Gerry Carroll may be able to explain how the selloff of public-sector housing might be halted by parliamentary--Assembly--means alone.

In the meantime, what's mad is not being involved in the Stormont institutions, but in imagining that such involvement alone can deliver real change.

We mustn't allow ourselves to be bedazzled.

First published at the Belfast Telegraph.

E-mail alerts

Further Reading

Latest Stories

From the archives