The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Liam Kennedy and West Belfast

Election Coverage

Anthony McIntyre • 2 May 2005

Liam Kennedy's decision to contest West Belfast in this week's general election seems bizarre. It was not as if his range of choices was constrained. He could have stood in South Belfast and posed his questions about punishments attacks to former city mayor Alex Maskey and been much more effective. Post-Northern Bank robbery and the Robert McCartney murder, Maskey has lost much of the goodwill he had accrued as mayor. Even the ultra-tolerant Ken Newell was frustrated to the point of despair by Maskey's evasions during a Hearts & Minds exchange. Maskey would find it difficult to both ignore and field the questions Kennedy would lob his way. As it is, the West Belfast MP Gerry Adams, so assured of walking the seat, never even bothered responding to Kennedy's request for a debate on punishment attacks.

Moreover, Liam Kennedy has the benefit of living in South Belfast where the McCartney murder issue would have touched many of the constituency's voters who knew the murder victim's family in a personal capacity. The people suspected of having killed Robert McCartney are known throughout nationalist South Belfast. Many of the voters have had them at their own doors in the past seeking a vote for Sinn Fein. Liam Kennedy could also have cashed in on the strong woman profile established by the McCartney women and taken a slice of the sizeable vote that previously went to the Women's Coalition. Moreover, he may have topped up his total with some unionist votes. In any event had he opted to contest South Belfast his electoral endorsement would not be as derisively low as the 102 he pulled the last time he faced the Sinn Fein boss in 1997 in the west of the city.

The weakness of the Kennedy stand is further underlined by the difficulty he experienced in getting people to nominate him. A false impression is created when Ruth Dudley Edwards explains this away as a lack of courage in West Belfast. Liam Kennedy is not sans moral fortitude but there are enough people living in this constituency cheek by jowl with totalitarian militarism and who have said their piece and would have no hesitation openly endorsing a candidate they identified with. It would be more accurate to point out that a central plank of the critique made by those within West Belfast opposed to the Adams regime is that grassroots democracy has been usurped by edict from on high. Yet here we have the Kennedy election machine coming into the constituency and, in so far as it is possible to tell, consulting with no one in it, haughtily expecting them to provide funding and nominations.

The Kennedy campaign if it is to have its very real concerns widely discussed within the constituency needs to appeal to a broader segment of West Belfast opinion than that represented by Margaret McKinney and Carmel Donnelly, despite both women having suffered immensely at the hands of the Provisional Movement. Nor will the campaign benefit from the endorsement afforded it by the Sunday Telegraph and the Sunday Independent.

Reading Ruth Dudley Edward's fellow columnist at the latter paper, Eoghan Harris, the only conclusion we are drawn to is that the electorate is to blame because it does not vote as instructed by the Sunday Independent. Why then not just do as Brecht suggested and change the electorate?

Moralising arguments, such as that articulated by Eoghan Harris and which sound remarkably like a religious rant, move very few in West Belfast. Constituencies which return Sinn Fein MPs are lambasted for the democratic choices that they make. They are dismissed as politically and morally delinquent Northern nationalists. Other constituencies which over the years returned representatives who defended repression, thwarted investigation into state murder, unequivocally backed a police force that tortured those in its custody and murdered children with plastic bullets, seem to have escaped the invective directed at West Belfast. It is no more delinquent for Northern nationalists to vote Sinn Fein than it is for Eoghan Harris to back the US invasion of Iraq. Both, in my view, could make better choices, but the right to make choices, including wrong ones, is what democracy is about. We don't need it to be managed, instructed or tutored.

Liam Kennedy is a staunch and tireless human rights advocate. A decade ago he wrote a very compelling book on crime and punishment in West Belfast. Far from being a rant it was laced with nuance and perceptiveness. He has always opposed the torture administered by the punishment squads from wherever they came:

One of the things I will be doing is going back to Gerry Adams and David Ervine, as the leaders of two paramilitary linked parties, to ask why despite giving assurances eight years ago that they were opposed to beatings and shootings they continued to take place.

He reinforces the human rights discourse when he defends all people - not just the ones he likes - against torture and maiming. But his ability to put force behind the questions that matter is seriously handicapped in this constituency in so far as his robustly admirable discourse gives him the appearance of being of the Families Against Intimidation and Terror school. FAIT's standing in West Belfast was never high; its motives, in my experience, rarely considered altruistic even by those who shared its objectives. Kennedy inhabits a vastly different moral universe to FAIT's Vincent McKenna when attitudes towards children are concerned. Yet it is all too easy in West Belfast for those who narrow their focus down to opposing punishment attacks to be cast in the garments of FAIT which double up as a loser's medal.

Things do not break down so simply in West Belfast that people are easily persuaded by the 'Adams bad - opponent good' argument. Yes, as is evidenced increasingly through public discourse, there is a growing body of opinion within the constituency which sees its MP as embodying fascistic traits. In that small community when the term 'corroded old fascist' was recently hurled the way of Adams, it raised few eyebrows. But therein lies the rub - it is a very small pool.

Jenny McCartney writing in the Sunday Telegraph claims she 'cannot comprehend how someone could vote for Sinn Fein - which blatantly practises the most extreme forms of coercion - and easily reconcile it with his or her conscience.' Such a perspective, laden as it is with blinkered vision, ignores the fact that the Provisional Movement functions like a para-state in West Belfast. It rules, like most states, through a mixture of coercion and consent. Certainly there is an ongoing debate within the critical republican community within West Belfast about the relationship between consent and coercion. In my view, there is a tendency by Sinn Fein apologists to grossly understate the case for intimidation. But this is equalled by the party's critics who vastly overstate it. Most people in West Belfast do not directly experience the coercive side of Sinn Fein. It is a minority who live in fear of the party's wrath. A small number do indeed need protection and Liam Kennedy provides a valuable service in highlighting the issues that he does. But to argue, as many in the British media have done recently - suppressing evidence to the contrary in the course of doing so - that Sinn Fein gets its vote mostly through fear is to present a wildly inaccurate account of life in West Belfast. If the Kennedy project is one of speaking truth to power then it cannot overlook the necessity of speaking truth about power.

Maybe one reason that people will not be dissuaded from voting Sinn Fein is that the main backers of Liam Kennedy - the Sunday Telegraph and Sunday Independent - never displayed much concern for the widespread state abuses perpetrated in West Belfast. It was not the constituency's penchant for violence but its reaction to state repression that led to it placing its trust in both Sinn Fein and the IRA. Consequently, voters intuitively sense the cynicism of Sinn Fein's long standing critics and in no way feel bad at dismissing the siren calls against the party.

Ultimately, Liam Kennedy may take consolation from the fact that his goal was to raise the issues rather than secure votes. Such issues are not, however, immune to the ravishing effects of electoral ridicule. Choosing West Belfast as the site for this type of campaign was both hasty and ill judged. An opportunity existed elsewhere but wasn't availed of. Consequently, the real loser in this electoral contest will not be those who still think torture plays a productive role within nationalist communities.




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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
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Index: Current Articles

2 May 2005

Other Articles From This Issue:

Daily Ireland: It's Not Over til It's Over
Mick Hall

Education Cuts
Sean Smyth

Rate My Teachers Blocked
Michael Hussey

* Election Coverage *

Greens Endorse McCann
John Barry and Kelly Andrews, Greens

Young People Are Not the Problem
Tish Murray Campaign Press Release

Liam Kennedy and West Belfast
Anthony McIntyre

Coulter's Choice
Dr John Coulter

Send Mitchel to London
Brian Mór

Flashback: A Coversation with Lindsay Whitcroft
Anthony McIntyre

29 April 2005

I Believe
Eamon Sweeney

Behaving Justly
Anthony McIntyre

Stop the Cover Up -- Give Us Peace
Kathleen Coyle

Justice Needs Done
Damien Okado-Gough

More Than Politics to NI Process
David Adams

Jude the Obscure Republican
Anthony McIntyre

Shared Ultra Conservatism
Dr John Coulter

* More Election Coverage *

Europe and the General Election
John O'Farrell




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