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The importance of being other
“There’s no sense running for election unless first you suspend all sense of shame.” From that starting point, Eamonn McCann went on to exceed all expectations in the Northern Ireland election. Here, he recalls the highs and lows of the campaign.
Eamonn McCann, 04 Dec 2003
It was a statistic which made me run. The top quarter of earners in the North has 56 percent of disposable income, the bottom quarter six percent. But Northern politicians who drone on about equality – the equality agenda, equal citizenship, an Ireland of equals, etc. – don’t have this in mind.
In Sandino’s, Colm, Colette and the rest of the gang were heatedly agreeing that somebody should stand to make just this point, which I allowed was a splendid idea. Whence it was only a few pints and mumbled jeers – “Why don’t you put your money where your mouth is, then?” – before I was appointed poster-boy for the Socialist Environmental Alliance.
I hated it. I’ve never had a probem urging support for this or bawling through a megaphone about that. But hammering on doors on a dank night in the grey wilderness of the Galliagh estate, summoning warm people from watching the football to the shivering doorstep to hear why they should give me and not Willie Hay or Mary Nelis their number one, this is no way for a regular human being to behave.
It’s self-regarding arrogance, proclaiming your own unique suitability to represent the interests of others, scattering ideological IOUs in your wake, harrassing innocent fans arriving at the Millennium Forum for a Paul Brady concert with leaflets enquiring, ho-ho, whether they were “tired of dreaming someone’s else’s dream when you know they don’t include you any longer?” Matter of fact, that was one of our better pitches. On a par with the “Relegate right-wingers, not Derry City!” Brandywell flyer.
You get the point. There’s no sense running for election unless first you suspend all sense of shame.
We were postering the hoarding around the old City Hotel site when the thought occured that here I was in the centre of town in broad daylight nailing pictures of myself to a wall, and a packed Ballymagroarty bus trundling past. “Vote Narcissus Number One!” cried one of the legendary learned Ballymac wits.
“Just ignore them,” advised Dermie. “There’s no answer to that.”
We gathered 2,257 first preferences, which was 1,257 more than the even-money total other parties and local turf accountants had predicted. Well short of a quota, but still. Given that we opened our manifesto by declaring that, if elected, we’d register not as Nationalist or Unionist but as Other, and this in the most polarised election in the North’s history, we reckoned the performance a significant success. We knocked on every door in the Fountain and Newbuildings, as well as in the Bogside and Brandywell, offered the same arguments and distributed the same leaflets. We may not have pulled proportionate votes from each area, but we asked, and offered a political basis for a positive answer.
Mind you, I wasn’t disappointed when there was nobody in at the house in Newbuildings which had a glass-panelled door inscribed, “True Blue – Simply the Best – Glasgow Rangers FC.” Who has time for chat about the Champions’ League in the middle of an election?
Six days before the poll, the Real IRA burst into a house on the Lecky Road, dragged out a man and shot him twice in the leg. The popularity of the RIRA rose a notch as a result.
The shooting had come four days after an 84-year-old woman had been robbed and her Lecky Road home trashed. The target of the attack swears he’s innocent. And maybe so. But the robbery had provided a focus for fear and indignation, and there was no mood for fastidiousness about due process. So, we didn’t win many votes by arguing against the shooting. Few had patience on a cold night – the weather throughout was so fucking miserable I began to take it personally – to listen to a political pitch about poverty, educational reform, better youth facilities: “Shoot them, it’s the only language they understand....”
As a matter of fact, it’s not. Any time I talk to a youth worker I’m regaled with examples of hard cases who have come out shining from even underfunded and understaffed schemes based on the notion that people who feel valued will behave better towards others.
By the time they reach 23, people who grew up in poverty are much more likely than others to have been convicted of a crime. During their school years they will have been much more likely to be suspended or expelled or simply to drop out. They are three times less likely to have reached third level. The kneecapped Lecky Road man was 24, unemployed and with a record.
When I was galloping down dusty daydreams around the Lecky Road, poverty was more visible. It was also different. A family with a fridge was posh. Nowadays, a fridge is a necessity. If you’re from a family without one, or one that works, you’ll know you’re at the bottom of the pile. One of the things you do in an election campaign is spend a lot of time walking the streets and calling into homes. The most vivid impression I took away is that a child from a poor family today is more sharply aware of having been left behind than we were in my day, and is more deeply damaged as a result.
Whatever spasm of satisfaction there might understandably be in contemplating the punishment of a presumed perpetrator, if discussion of crime, in Derry, Limerick, anywhere, doesn’t start from here, it will go nowhere.
We may not have won a seat, but we had a victory. This was certified by the issuing of pink entry-cards to the count marked “Candidate’s Partner” in every constituency across the North. This was our doing. Or Goretti Horgan’s doing anyway.
The returning officer explained when we handed in nomination papers that each candidate could be accompanied to the count by six others – election agent, four tellers and the candidate’s “wife or husband.” “I’ll be with him,” Goretti piped up. “But we’re not married.” Ah, explained the returning officer, that will be a problem. The regulation is explicit. Perhaps I could nominate Goretti as one of the tellers...
“No, he won’t,” Ms. Horgan riposted.
We lodged a formal complaint with the Electoral Commission, alleging that the regulation “does not provide for equality of opportunity between people of different marital status, as required under Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act,” and pointing out that gay and lesbian couples as well as straight unmarrieds were being disadvantaged. If the Commission didn’t back off, we’d see them in the High Court.
Meanwhile, the spiky Cork blond let it be known that if it was proposed to prevent her attending the count, the Commission should perhaps be looking to beef up security arrangements for the day.
Four days before the poll, the Chief Electoral Officer wrote to me: “I am content that the term ‘wives and husbands’, as it appears in the legislation, should be interpreted more liberally nowadays and, in light of your representations, have given instructions to Deputy Returning Officers that candidates may be accompanied at the count by their common law wife or husband, or other significant partner, including same sex partners.”
Even before a vote was cast – Result!
The historic document is proudly reproduced here. Pity it wasn’t a bit better designed.