The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
Raymond Blaney Interviewed
Anthony McIntyre • 19.11.03

According to its party manifesto the Greens are the fastest growing political movement in the world. Although Sinn Fein claim to be the only all-Ireland party, the Greens are determined to usurp this. The party has 6 TDs and 2 MEPs supplemented by 'numerous' councillors. Raymond Blaney, initially an independent hospital councillor, who has since joined the Greens, is the party’s only elected representative in the North. It remains a long way off, therefore, from coming close to approaching Sinn Fein’s prominence on an island-wide basis. In next week’s assembly election the party is fielding six candidates and hopes to claim two seats. In South Down where Raymond Blaney is the contender, the Greens are campaigning against the threat from Sellafield; the failure of the state to protect the elderly in their homes; the rural depopulation of South Down; state and paramilitary violence; imposition of water rates; sectarianism and racism. Amongst its goals the party aims to end land and property speculation and to ensure a basic income for all citizens - although it does not say what this income should be. The Greens promise that if elected Raymond Blaney will seek to represent his constituents in coping with the day to day problems of society in which fairness, social justice and decent standards go to the wall when assaulted by crime, greed, sectarianism, and a society driven by image and celebrity. The catchy election slogan is 'Green is not a colour it’s a vision.'

The first question that picks at the mind upon encountering Raymond Blaney is ‘what is such a pleasant man doing in politics, often viewed as a blood sport?’ But any notion that being personally pleasant translates into political softness is quickly dispelled. The answer to my original query unfolded as the two hours I spent in his company passed. Raymond Blaney is in politics because of commitment. He is committed to social justice and his passionate abhorrence of inequality electrifies his demeanour with calculated serious intent rather than aimless excitable enthusiasm. Perhaps, he has seen it all before and knows from experience the dangers of expending all political energy in a first charge at the opposition trenches, only to watch it dissipate like snow on a ditch while opponents remain unperturbed.

Along with his election agent Aiden Carlin, he picked me up in a graveyard in Downpatrick. Not because republicans think graveyards make good meeting places due to their sombre character in which we can touch base with our deeper selves or because it gives an aura of seriousness to our otherwise innocuous ramblings – it was simply that I had attended the same funeral as themselves and convenience dictated the venue.

We made the short journey by car out to Raymond’s house, where he made tea for the three of us. I felt pleased that the people who will take on the Green Party’s portfolios of Health and Quality of Life and Welfare Rights respectively had agreed to be interviewed by the Blanket. They told me they were regular readers who admired the Blanket less for what it had to say but for the fact that it was prepared to let it be said. If only everybody was as tolerant and open to alternative ideas. The Blaney abode was a home not a political palace. Sometimes we suspect that those involved in conventional politics are all on the make and either have summer villas and second homes elsewhere or convert their normal homes into ritzy-glitzy high class accommodation. Sitting in his living room was just like being in most other working class homes.

At 60 years of age, Raymond Blaney has hewn the same time out of this earth as Eamon McCann, whom I had interviewed two nights previously in Derry. While Blaney supports the Good Friday Agreement McCann is an opponent of it, yet both talk the language of the poor and deprived. And it is like a breath of fresh air to listen to men not afraid to trumpet their socialism and stand up to Bush and Blair at a time when the latter two give off the appearance of having just reached the final of the world liar championship.

Raymond Blaney's political background germinated in the Republican Clubs:

At the outset my interest was in republicanism rather than socialism. I became a socialist through the education I received in the Republican Clubs and also through my experience. My own father had been exploited throughout his entire working life trying to carve out a living as a lorry driver.

For 37 years of his life Blaney worked as a psychiatric nurse and most of his working life has been devoted to caring for the mentally ill. Although prematurely retired as a result of serious illness he came back fighting, determined that the people of South Down would have the health service they needed. He was also steeped in trade union activity through involvement with COHSE. With today’s news reporting that one in four in the population can expect to experience mental illness during our lifetime, it would be reassuring to know that the carers would have the sense of understanding and empathy that Raymond Blaney would seem to bring to the vocation.

No virgin in the land of electoral politics, he has been fighting at the polling booth since 1973, at one point in the 1970s being pipped at the finishing line in council elections by Alliance – only four votes separated the contenders. He became a Workers Party councillor in 1981 during the H-Block hunger strike and held onto the seat for eight years, when he stepped down because of the demands being made on his time by his trade union activity.

From around 1975 he was involved in a campaign to save hospital services in Downpatrick. That campaign moved up gear in the mid-1980s and was primarily responsible for retaining acute services with life-saving capabilities. He was also involved in the last major industrial struggle in the North in the mid-1990s against privatisation in the health service - taking on the Compass Company. Compass was a major industrial concern which was making the running for those private financiers attempting to invade and exploit the National Health Service. Compass served him a high court injunction restraining him from joining the picket line and excluding him from his place of work. But he ignored the injunction and continued to organise and lead the fight against Compass. 'While we lost the strike in terms of the immediate battle we made it so difficult for Compass that they moved away from Down and Lisburn and the local workforce reverted back to the health service.' A union man to the last, a smile of pride flickers across his face as he recounts his experiences standing on the picket line alongside Ayrshire miners during their strike against the Thatcher-McGregor assault on both the mines and mining communities. He brought them over food and money raised in Ireland to alleviate their plight.

Why, after having pulled away from serving as an elected representative, did he return to the fray in 2001 fighting his campaign on the issue of hospital closures?

Towards the end of the 1990s John McFall, the then health minister, offered Downpatrick a £15 million hospital but the snag was that it came without life saving capabilities. I opposed this. Aiden Carlin, then a councillor led Sinn Fein opposition to this. Once Aiden’s tenure in the council came to a close there was a void and we began to look around for someone who would stand as a hospital candidate.

Raymond Blaney allowed his name to go forward. He was successfully returned as a councillor. 'With little organisation and in the face of strong opposition I was elected. People came out on the day because they valued their health service and had a belief that I would represent them properly on the issue.'

Obviously much of this activity must have coincided with the Hayes Report of 2001 which shook up the health service. His response was nuanced. 'Hayes did Downpatrick good but he did not do the West of the country much good. He could have given enhanced hospital status to both Omagh and Enniskillen just like was done for Downpatrick and Whiteabbey.'

According to the Greens the campaigning of Raymond Blaney ‘came to fruition with the decision of Health Minister Des Browne in February 2003 to grant a new £35m hospital to include 24 hour A&E and Coronary Care.’

His concern with health prompted the obviously question: how did he rate the performance of Bairbre de Brun as Health Minister - she was cutting back on the acute health services that he was so eager to retain? And Sinn Fein failed to mobilise grassroots activism against her, exposing its own centre-right underbelly in the process.

De Brun did make a genuine effort but it was outside the control of anybody in the Assembly. For Alasdair McDonnell to say that health was not a high priority issue when his party declined to take up the ministry is one of the most disgraceful statements I have ever heard issued by a doctor. Health was a poison chalice and that is why the SDLP never took it up.

Yet the Socialist Party, during the Sinn Fein woman's term of office as Health Minister, alleged that 'the Thatcherite policy of privatisation is being continued by Bairbre de Brun through the extensive use of the Private Finance Initiative (PFI).' Blaney dismissed any suggestion that he might be sympathetic to PFI. 'The idea of introducing the rules of the market place is a complete disaster and will lead to a two tier health system.'

But do people not start out opposing such measures and then once in office become bewitched by the logic of the free market?

That often is the case. But I am not running in this election so that I can sit in government. I want to build a party from South Down out that will have a strong social dimension. Laziness has characterised all the parties in the Assembly. They don't brief themselves on the issues and allow the civil servants to make the running.

Does this also include parties that would claim to be offering a radical alternative such as the PUP? 'They are killing people. What credibility can you have when you are doing that?' It crossed my mind to suggest that the same could be said of Sinn Fein I but opted to pursue the party’s stance on the health question. While, being sympathetic to Sinn Fein’s performance in the health ministry given the constraints that he felt it faced, it cannot have escaped his notice as a political activist primarily interested in health matters, that Bairbre de Brun is most likely the only Health Minister in the world that belongs to a party that sells smuggled contraband cigarettes. Surely, this must pose a serious ethical issue that can't be pretended away? Blaney was as good as his word and did not flinch from answering the question.

I was driving by the Sinn Fein advice centre one day and saw this lengthy queue outside it. Thinking that they must have brought in a sorely needed advice worker who was efficient in filling in DLA forms, I welcomed the sight. Later I asked a local republican if in fact this is what happened. Much to my disappointment he put me right, explaining that the Sinn Fein centre was where people bought their cheap cigarettes. Setting aside the effects on an individual’s health selling cheap cigarettes hardly advances a community's interests.

He went on to point out the missed opportunities.

Sinn Fein and the SDLP draw about £300,000 for each assembly member. ‘Assembly money should be put back into the community rather than creating an industry for politicians and their aides. Whereas the SDLP would make some effort in areas like housing development Sinn Fein do little.’ Simon Hoggart’s comments in today’s Guardian underscores the point made about the Stormont industry that has burgeoned.

How does he bridge the Green Party with his health focus? Is there not a gap here that is not easily plugged - the Greens are concerned with the health of the environment whereas he has long campaigned on the health of people? Are pathology and pollution not separate issues? He responds easily. As a Workers Party councillor he raised the Sellafield issue, which later became the major environmental issue confronting the two islands. His move to green politics was a natural step against such a backdrop. For Blaney, people cannot attain a high level of health if they inhabit an environment that works against health care. In his mind the link between the hospital campaigning and the Green Party is the quality of life.

I accept that there is a belief that we are the recycling party. Of course we advocate recycling but there is one thing we will not recycle and that is the lies and false promises made by other politicians each time they are faced with an election.

Not persuaded that the electorate would join the dots as easily as the Green Party might wish I pressed him on the likely electoral impact of promises to improve the quality of life.

Last night I attended a packed meeting in Rostrevor. It was organised to tackle the issue of the Multinational companies ignoring the concerns that people have regarding the erection of phone masts in residential areas. Human rights are being trodden on here. People see it. They turn up at meetings in such numbers because they know the threat posed to their quality of life.

Yet how does our inward looking political obsession address an adversary that is not in the least constrained by localisms, being transnational or global in character? Should we not be looking outward and taking up the concerns of the Global Justice Movement - local meetings in Rostrevor are all very well, but these matters are much broader than any one town be it in South Down or Southern Brazil? I met no opposition here.

Ultimately, we cannot solve the problems caused by the multinational corporations unless they are challenged on a global scale. At the same time that does not relieve us of our responsibility to fight on a local front as well. People's concerns are so real that we expect to take a seat from this. We go into every constituency and get a good reception.

A green party - how would it register in an assembly where green is usually associated with the nationalist camp? Like the Socialist Environmental Alliance the Greens would go as 'other'. But 'other' can not be neutral so how does 'other' address contentious issues such as policing?

We see the Good Friday Agreement as the basis for going forward. And of course policing is not separate from this. The question of policing is a big issue. You only have to look at the recent spate of attacks on old people in their own homes. Opposition to the Agreement and the police is doing nothing to halt this. We do need a policing service - is there a society in the world that doesn't? I see serious shortcomings in the PSNI and raise these matters publicly. But when forced to make a real world choice in these things we have to support the idea of some police force rather than none. One major concern at present is that the present DPPs do not reflect the communities they are supposed to represent sufficiently.

How can the Greens succeed where other parties who have tried to avoid the either/or tag have failed such as the Alliance and the Workers Party?

In the short term it is beyond any of us to succeed on this front. Deep-rooted differences do not just disappear easily. Over time it is the environment that shall obscure the difference between the two communities. Pollution has no boundaries just as poverty had no boundaries.

With his track record and that of his election agent, a former Sinn Fein councillor, there will certainly be hackles raised within the unionist community. They are almost certain to dismiss the Greens as a republican front with a nationalist sounding name to boot?

There are people like Jeffrey Donaldson who simply do not want to share power with anyone. But this does not reflect the view within the wider unionist community. It is not that the unionist community is opposed to change. It was a community faced with the fact that the Provos were not playing fair. There could have been a lot more transparency in the whole business.

But if he is to take a seat from where are the votes to come? Blaney thinks he will pick up a substantial portion of the votes that used to go to Eddie McGrady of the SDLP. An independent councillor from Hilltown, Ciaran Mussen has promised him his support, so a large portion of the high number of votes he secured in his council election could make their way to the Blaney ticket.

In a by-election 'Mussey' faced high-powered Sinn Fein and SDLP opposition yet took 1600 votes. Additionally, we are confident of getting transfers from every party. It is significant that in the local election I took more transfers than each of the other candidates in the field. We get republican support as well but we make our pitch across the whole community and particularly towards the most deprived within it. South Down has a very strong electoral team out on the ground doing the work. We have the core of a superb left wing party in this constituency and preparations are under way for the next council elections.

But how left wing? Already this year we have had examples of supposed left wing parties behaving badly. Would he have met Bush and Blair at their Hillsborough war summit? He seemed aghast that the question ever crossed my mind. But when the nonsense over here stupefies people to the point that they can no longer work up the energy to analyse what is reactionary and what is not, Hillsborough is the great litmus test. No radical would have lined up like a prize poodle before George Bush. Long ago Bernadette McAliskey charted the course for any radical finding themselves confronting such circumstances when she had a go at the despicable Reginald Maudling after British paratroopers had perpetrated the war crime of Bloody Sunday.

Raymond Blaney didn’t stutter or stammer out his response: ‘I am totally opposed to the war on Iraq. I would not have met Bush at Hillsborough. I would not have met him anywhere. I want a radical party that will be a positive force throughout the county.’

But what would entice people to join the party? Sinn Fein appears to be the party that is drawing the young people – what can the Greens do to entice the idealistic young into their party? ‘The appeal of the Greens is that it has internal democracy.’ That sounded good. I had never been a member of a party that ever practiced that. What was it like to be in a party that allowed the grassroots to have their say and where the leader was not a devoted totalitarian?

Raymond Blaney smiled at the loaded question but acknowledged the barbed humour. He explained that the Greens were not a leadership led movement nor a cult. It had no party whip.

Does the party experience any intimidation from rivals? I explained my reason for taking the line of questioning in this direction - I had Sinn Fein specifically in mind. South Down has been the site of a fairly sustained campaign of harassment against local republicans who dissent from the Good Friday Agreement. The party does not like opposition and is sensitive to any potential drop in the vote and is not beyond intimidating those who disagree with it. Just before we began the drive to his home from the cemetery I spoke with a former Sinn Fein election worker who disclosed to me that he had voted a dozen times in the last election and wondered where the party would make up the votes this time around given the large number of people knocked off the electoral register, which he felt were Sinn Fein voters - even if long since dead. Now that a former Sinn Fein councillor is Blaney’s election agent this compound must heighten Sinn Fein’s fears that it will have its work cut out to maintain its vote. But Raymond Blaney was adamant that there was no intimidation or attempts made to drive his party off the streets.

What about the story doing the rounds that Sinn Fein were already forging the new electoral identity cards? Blaney was having none of it. 'They could put less effort into getting the vote out than they would trying to personate - it is probably just allegations from resentful rivals.'

Finally we got round to the old chestnut – the constitutional question. I put it to him that, as Tommy McKearney often reminds me, no matter how hard you try to forget that question it will never forget you and will leap up to confront you at every opportunity. He told me plainly that ‘partition has not and shall not solve the problems of this country.’ But can a combination of environmental issues and more radical social policies prove any better? ‘Well, there is a need to adopt the approach of Martin Luther King and develop a respect for each other.’ But is this not the language of Sinn Fein – if we look at the role of Alex Maskey as Belfast Lord Mayor is this not what Sinn Fein are claiming to be doing?

At the end of the day I have listened to a lot of comparisons being made in relation to Gerry Adams. People try to put him in the same frame as De Valera. Others think Collins or Pearse are more suitable. The person I find he most resembles in Irish history is General Eoin O'Duffy. And what respect do people like O'Duffy show for others?

It was an interesting thought to part on. The combination of an authoritarian leader and a blindly devoted rank and file has divested republicanism of any serious radical content, leaving it a highly bureaucratised phenomenon following wherever a power-crazed leadership takes it. Can the Greens bring radicalism back into vogue? Will it not ultimately produce leaders who will smother it all in return for a taste of the good life and the titillating charms of that most potent seducer of all - power?

The answer to these questions will unfold some way down the road. But for now, its internal democracy, the fact that the leadership is not accompanied by an armed right wing presidential guard, that it welcomes ideas - all of this augers well for the future.

Raymond Blaney exudes a relaxed state of being. He talks of having a buzz about politics today whereas in the past he was always uncomfortable and ill at ease. He senses something developing at a time when other parties 'are running out of steam.' That may well be true but where they lack steam they make up for with plenty of hot air and it seems to satisfy people. Raymond Blaney knows this better than most and was undeterred. He offered to drive me back to Belfast. I declined - his constituents had more need of his services than me. The journey home was used for reflection. Twice in a week I felt had been in the company of electoral candidates who were more concerned with social justice than personal advancement. In Northern Irish politics that is something very different, an experience to be savoured. Just a pity we can’t give No 1 to both of them.





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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.
- George Bernard Shaw

Index: Current Articles

23 November 2003


Other Articles From This Issue:


Raymond Blaney Interviewed
Anthony McIntyre


Derry's Ultimate Protest Vote

Eamon Sweeney


Boycott Undemocratic Elections
Andy Martin


Is Northern Ireland A Dangerous Place
Liam O Ruairc


Liam O Comain


Stop Bush
Colin Gregory Palmer


The Learning Experience of Rakan
Mary La Rosa


18 November 2003


Interview with Eamonn McCann
Anthony McIntyre


SEA Foyle Election Manifesto


Towards True National Liberation

Liam O Comain


Belief in Santa Claus
Tommy Gorman


Getting It All Wrong
Liam O Ruairc


Castlewellan Arrests
Green Party


Inductive Writing Doesn't Make It So
Marty Egan


All Animals Are Equal, But Some Are More Equal Than Others
Sean Smyth


Authentic Americans - US Martyrs Pose Questions for John Negroponte
Toni Solo


Call for Boycott
Palestinian Academics




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