NI election: ‘Eamonn McCann’s your daddy? God love you’

Kitty Holland goes canvassing with the People Before Profit candidate in Derry

Irish Times journalist Kitty Holland goes canvassing with her father Eamonn McCann as he contests the Northern Ireland Assembly elections for the second time in a year. Video: Enda O'Dowd

 

In the immediate afterglow of People Before Profit’s historic electoral breakthrough last year, one of their two new members of the Stormont Assembly, Eamonn McCann, was repeatedly congratulated in Derry’s streets.

“McCann, how’s about you? It’s just great so it is,” said several to him that first Saturday in May – the morning after he had been declared elected to the sixth and final seat, in the Foyle constituency, for Stormont.

“I’m delighted,” said others, embracing their new parliamentarian. Sitting, drinking tea with him in Sandino’s cafe-bar, this daughter couldn’t help feeling utter delight for him.

After a lifetime, my lifetime, listening to, watching, absorbing, his unwavering commitment to decency, honesty and fair-play for those treated most unfairly, this victory felt like very public, if long overdue, appreciation of principles which are the essence of the man.

This is what I love. If I could make a living organising, agitating, fighting back – the struggle – it’s all I’d do

I remembered sympathising with him about 20 years earlier as he told how he was tired and had to be up at five the following morning to join a dockworkers’ picket at Lisahally dock, a few miles outside Derry.

“No, no no,” he explained at the time . “This is what I love. If I could make a living organising, agitating, fighting back – the struggle – it’s all I’d do.”

He first stood for election in Derry almost 50 years ago, as the Northern Ireland Labour Party candidate for Stormont, in February 1969. (My mother, journalist Mary Holland who died in 2004, paid his election deposit of £150. They lost the deposit but had 15 years together.)

He stood again, for Westminster in June 1970 and then focused on activism and writing until having another go – in 2003 (Stormont), 2004 (European Parliament), and 2007 and 2011 (Stormont).

Won the seat

Asked if he was delighted to have won the seat last year, he said he was happy, yes. But election was not the primary objective, he said. It’s important, but it was only a component, along with protest, activism and writing, of a wider struggle, “against the injustices of capitalism”.

Among those congratulating him in Sandino’s that morning last May was a man in his 60s who was effusive in his regrets. “I wish I’d voted for you. I didn’t think you could do it. I’ll definitely vote for you next time.”

Nine months on, the 73 year-old grandfather is looking for votes again. Foyle is now a five-seater. In May the SDLP took two seats with 23.2 per cent of the first preferences; Sinn Féin took two with 20.8 per cent, the DUP took one with 11.9 and the PBP candidate took 10.5 per cent.

To be in with a shout of a seat, he has to increase this share. He needs to convince as many voters who wished they had voted McCann last time, but did not to do so on March 2nd.

“Yes, I am under pressure,” he says as we set out in the mainly Protestant, comfortably-off Kilfennan area of Derry’s Waterside. “But all we can do is try.”

A team of about 16 canvassers breaks off into two groups of eight, and then into groups of four fanning up each side of roads going through the estates of Rossmore, Abbeydale and Rossdowney.

People Before Profit candidatae Eamonn McCann hangs a poster on Shipquay Street in Derry. Photograph: Trevor McBride
People Before Profit candidatae Eamonn McCann hangs a poster on Shipquay Street in Derry. Photograph: Trevor McBride

Things start well. In Rossmore, three teenage girls seek selfies with the candidate, with one beaming, “This has made my day”. Their mother, standing behind them, asks what he plans to do about services for autistic children. At few doors along a man recognises him. They chat about people they know in common and then about the scourge of mental health problems in Derry.

At another house a bearded man in his 60s reminisces about election campaigns. telling how he used to be election agent for former lord mayor of Derry, Jim Guy of the Official Unionist Party.

‘Orange’ and ‘green’

“You know, the young people coming up now are great. They have no interest in religion. Nodding at the reminder that PBP is a non-sectarian party, he agrees politics based around “orange” and “green” needs to change, but stops short of pledging support.

At other doors, things don’t go so well. Almost before he’s opened the door a middle-aged man, in the middle of his lunch, says that I should be ashamed of myself.

“All these politicians are corrupt. They’re all in for what they can get.” He lists a number of controversies – Red Sky, Project Eagle, “cash-for-ash”. When I tell him People Before Profit MLAs take only the average industrial wage, he snorts: “Oh aye. Just like Sinn Féin-IRA?

“Eamonn McCann? His lot want to destroy my culture. I am a proud Londonderry man and a proud British man. Why would I vote for his lot?” When he asks what I’m doing “up here” anyway, I explain I’m supporting my father. He throws his head back laughing. “Eamonn McCann’s your daddy? God love you.

“Ach he’s a great Derry character. I love him to bits, but there’s no way I’m voting for him,” he adds, before suggesting I “sort out the corruption in your own country before coming to mine”.

A stout woman in her 60s opens her door on Kilburn Crescent, takes one look at the PBP flyer and says, “No thank you.” I suggest she might just have a read of it. “No way.” I ask whether she’ll be voting. “Oh I’ll be voting all right, but not for him.”

I say: “You know he’s is neither orange nor green.” She guffaws before closing the door.

Many don’t answer their door, despite clearly being in, while one woman answers the door only to say, “Go away. I’m not voting for any of you.”

Others are more receptive. A woman says she’ll read the PBP leaflet, “if he’s really up for everyone”. An elderly woman says the continuing sectarian nature of Northern Irish politics is “very sad . . . We’ll be much better off I think when my generation has died off”.

The reaction is mixed, my father agrees. “There is more scepticism, wariness perhaps in unionist areas. I suppose I would be associated with civil rights and Bloody Sunday. But the unionist people feel themselves to be more under siege than the nationalist people. Don’t forget, there is still a big mural in the [Protestant] Fountain area, saying ‘West Bank Loyalists, Still Under Siege’. There’s a tendency for unionists to feel a need to stick together. It makes it difficult for anyone to come into that, who doesn’t seem to represent their interests, as they would see them.”

I wonder about a possible “sympathy” vote for Sinn Féin in Derry, after the stepping away from politics of party leader and Derry man Martin McGuinness.

“It’s impossible to know. He is very ill. I have not seen him out canvassing, haven’t seen him out at all in fact, so it’s hard to know if it will be a factor.

“Sinn Féin will have its core vote, but there is no doubt that there is a great deal of anger against the Stormont establishment and Sinn Féin, like the DUP, has become a party of the establishment rather than a party of protest.”

The canvassers say there’s anger on the doorsteps towards Sinn Féin for implementing cuts. Offensive comments by Democratic Unionist Party leader, Arlene Foster, about the Irish language, are being described as deliberate – “to whip up sectarianism” – and divert attention from the ‘cash-for-ash’ scandal. It suits Sinn Féin too “to divert attention from the fact they have lost the radical edge they once had”.

 

Dissident republicans

Among those who would have been loyal Sinn Féin voters are dissident republicans – “much misunderstood” says McCann. “There are many dissidents, ex-prisoners, who are not interested in a return to violence, but who will tell you now the armed struggle was a mistake, was pointless – not from a moral point of view – but just that it was the wrong way to go. Some tell me they are voting People Before Profit because they know I, we, never believed in the armed struggle.”

PBP did well in last year’s election – getting two seats for the first time. Gerry Carroll (29) topped the poll in the Sinn Féin heartland of west Belfast. The breakthrough shows people are tired of sectarian politics, PBP believe. The party is running seven candidates, compared with three last year.

One fear is that disillusionment and anger, with the orange-green stalemate at Stormont, could translate into people simply not voting, says McCann.

“There are absolutely people who say they are not going to vote at all. I hope people don’t do that but come out and vote for a new type of politics in Stormont.

“If they don’t, if we don’t hold the Foyle seat? Well, the struggle continues.”

Whatever the outcome, this canvasser will be with the candidate for tea in Sandino’s on March 4th. See you there, but only if you voted for him.