The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
Canvassing For The Socialists
Anthony McIntyre • 4.12.03

Being a firm believer in the right not to vote, it is always worrisome to hear the argument that voting should be made compulsory. As if an expression of our contempt for the politicians by staying at home is insufficient for them to understand. Mandatory attendance at polling stations on election day would serve as a woefully innacurate barometer of what the electorate thinks. Our real preferences would not be established, while the politicians could pretend that support for them is much higher than it actually is. This, however, did not stop some suggesting that we be shunted off to the polls as a matter of legal obligation in the wake of last week's poor assembly election turn out.

Last Wednesday I did come out - of my own volition. Although there was little incentive to do so. Republicans were seeking election but the continuum they ranged along took them from Eoin O' Duffy to Sean MacBride style politics. None vaguely resembled anything James Connolly or Peadar O'Donnell stood for. In fact they didn't even resemble themselves from 10 years ago. But there is always the suspicion that, despite more stringent procedures, the vote may be stolen if you don't turn up. A friend used to wind me up that I have voted in every election in South Belfast since 1993. But I have no recollection of having ever been inside a polling booth in that constituency. At 6.55 in the morning I half regretted my decision as I trudged over Ballymurphy's cold dark pavements to the polling station. Quite often I am up at that time with my daughter, but not on the streets. Regrettably, time constraints permitted no other choice that morning. The 8 o'clock bus to Derry was my target if I was to arrive in time to hook up with Dolours Price and keep her company outside the city's polling stations as part of Socialist Environmentalist Alliance's effort to persuade people to vote for the only socialist on the ticket, Eamonn McCann.

Our local polling station in this part of West Belfast was at St Aidan's School. I arrived at the wrong side of it, turned back and was guided to the proper entrance by a Sinn Fein member who looked as cold as I did. He handed me the Sinn Fein order of preference slip and politely asked, 'do you know the voting order?' I smiled, but made no comment, before making my way into the school, glancing over his hand-out as soon as I reached a spot where light was more generous in its dispersal. There was no one listed getting this vote, I had never voted for any of them before, there was even less reason to do so now. Out of the five, I might have chosen two were circumstances different - Micky Ferguson and Fra McCann.

Quite often hanging around polling stations are the types who always managed to find a niche for themselves in the IRA's 'don't go to jail squads'; those who favoured the strategy of a ballot box in one hand and an armalite in somebody elses. So it was a pleasant surprise to glance to the back of the hall and see two real republicans in it, both of whom I had been through the jails with. That they still support Sinn Fein and work for the party is neither here nor there. Few can question their commitment or genuine belief in the strategy for which they put in the hours to secure support.

Having completed my task, I was off to Derry where on the bus up my mind melted into a book about ETA and GAL. I had started reading it in Cambridge in September with a view to getting it out of the way, needing to clear the decks for reading one by Sinn Fein councillor Eoin O Broin on roughly the same topic. Solitary confinement alone is the one place where time comes in outsize quantities and is as welcome as more water in a flood. The jail management deprives you of books to ensure that you are aware of the invasiveness of time; every minute elasticated by the very act of focussing on its passing; its life sustained by your every attempt to kill it. Sleep and daydreaming, the only fortification against the psychological attrition of time inflicted tedium.

If Belfast was freezing, Derry was worse. Just as it had been two nights earlier when along with Brendan Shannon and Sean Smyth from Belfast, in the company of a canvassing team from Derry, I tramped the streets of an estate in the Waterside. Up until then I thought Gobnascale alone constituted the Waterside. This estate was big enough. We were told it was mixed - with our luck that would mean a mix of loyalist men and loyalist women. It proved receptive enough, the only hostility being the weather. The last time a chill November Derry wind had cut into me was in the cages of Magilligan in the 1970s. Fortunately, it was not the only memory I was to have of Magilligan on polling day. As we stood outside Long Tower School, huddled beneath our umbrellas seeking shelter from the elements, a republican I hadn't seen in years, and who was in Magilligan with me, came up and spent twenty minutes chewing the fat with myself and Dolours.

So cold was it, at one point there was a stampede out of the Waterloo Street HQ of Eamonn McCann's election team to a thrift shop across the road to grab what remained of long johns and gloves. Along with Dolours, I spent longer there than I should have, browsing through books, rather than brave the chill. But they were useless for outdoors so I came away with gloves. Dolours, shrewd enough to have brought handwear, ended up buying one of Ernie O'Malley's classics. They haven't started burning the books yet, the sole warming thought to cross my mind.

But in many ways I always found Derry a different city from Belfast. In the mid-1990s when the republican thought police here were fulminating against anyone guilty of thinking differently, Derry semed to be a place where a vibrant exchange of ideas could occur. It certainly had its conservative republican politicians, but they felt confident enough in their conservatism to forego the more fascistic calling of some of their Belfast counterparts. When we publicly debated the shortcomings of the peace process in Derry in 1995, it was only when we returned to Belfast did the carpeting begin.

Some element of that Derry tolerance seemed to have survived the years of censorship and leadership rule. The members of Sinn Fein whom we shared our arctic stand with throughout the day were not in the slightest hostile. None of them displayed the 'they don't think what we are told to think' scowl. Dolours bantered them relentlessly about decommissioning and administering British rule, but they gave as good as they got and on occasion told us to keep our hands warm in our pockets rather than expend effort in handing out leaflets to approaching voters who they knew to be Sinn Fein supporters. At one point, one of them I had been on the Blanket with saved me from what seemed certain hypothermia by serving up piping hot sweet tea.

Dolours stayed overnight, she wanted to be there for the count the following day. For me, the work had been done and there were things I wanted to do in Belfast. Once the boxes closed there was no further influence that could be brought to bear on the electorate. On the return journey I considered the irony of it. Dolours and myself had spent many years in prison. We were canvassing support in Derry for the values we held throughout our imprisonment but not for the party we were aligned to while there. The Sinn Fein people beside us were soliciting support for everything we had opposed from prison and which constitutional nationalism had championed against us. Their party leadership had long since moved on from that era and was, outside Derry, now allowing the business class and careerists to stand as candidates, people who more resemble jail governors than they do republican prisoners. Sinn Fein in the city put up three Catholic nationalists, the SEA fielded the only socialist. During the course of the day Eamonn McCann said to us that watching Sinn Fein versus the SDLP was like a trip back in time to the 1930s when Fianna Fail battled it out with Fine Gael and ultimately triumphed. Were we to render our time in prison meaningless by supporting Fianna Fail lookalikes?

Eamonn McCann secured over 2000 first preference votes. A socialist voice had made itself heard above the cacophony of Derry conservatism. And some republicans can take solace from the fact that they helped to make it happen.



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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

4 December 2003


Other Articles From This Issue:


Act of Conscience to Spark an Act of Congress
Matthew Kavanah


No Surprise, No Change

Eamon Sweeney


The Global Justice Movement's Take on Sustainable Development
Dr Peter Doran


Canvassing for the Socialists
Anthony McIntyre


Address to PUP Conference
Davy Carlin


The Current Situation
Gerry Ruddy


30 November 2003


Anthony McIntyre


Special Election Coverage:


Ignore the Headlines

Tom Luby


Doing Well for Themselves Alone
Mick Hall


Our Day Has Come. . .
Liam O'Comain


Paying the Price
Anthony McIntyre


Sinn Féin Advances Enhances Process
Fr. Sean Mc Manus, INC


'RSF satisfied with outcome - time to consider alternatives'

Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, Republican Sinn Féin


Poll Result Highlights Flawed Agreement
Andy Martin, 32 CSM


Election Comment




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