Eamonn McCann: Neither green, nor orange, but up for the fight
‘You probably shouldn’t vote for anybody who doesn’t seem a bit uneasy about asking you to vote for them’
Newly elected People Before Profit MLAs Gerry Carroll (left) and Eamonn McCann outside Stormont. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA
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 programme, 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.
‘Your number one’
“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 neighbours 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 centre 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 colours in the rainbow/So many colours in the morning sun/So many colours in the flowers, and I see every one’.”
It is not true that the people of the North are indelibly colour-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.
Eamonn McCann won a seat for People Before Profit in the Foyle constituency in the recent Northern Ireland Assembly elections