The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
Interview with Eamonn McCann
Anthony McIntyre • 18.11.03

It is hardly the eighth wonder of the world to find Eamonn McCann in Sandino's Bar in Derry when it is playing host to a radical event as it frequently does. And on Monday last, the energetic Derry man was there to express concern and solidarity for trade unionists being murdered by Coca Cola in Colombia. Having watched the two suits that lead the North's nationalist parties on the Politics Show on Sunday, it is invigorating to engage with McCann's politics and forget what looked like a verbal joust between two boring Belgian businessmen - easily enough forgotten. Catholic nationalism no more appeals to me today than it did while I was in the H-Blocks and then we denounced it. Redmondite traitors I think is the term we used. And today it mouths the same bland nothingness now as it did then even if the faces have changed a lot - different singer same song.

In Sunday’s Observer Darragh MacIntyre made the point that 'while many of his erstwhile comrades from the civil rights days have swapped their jeans for tailored suits, their scarves for silk ties, McCann is attired in black wrangler jacket and matching jeans.' Pretty much as he was when I met up with him in Derry, where he is contesting one of the six seats in the Foyle Constituency. After we both had listened to Luiz Eduardo Garcia outline the horrors of life under the regime of Coca Cola, we shared a table in a thankfully vacated room. I was fortunate to catch him. He had set aside a slot for me in between the talk by Luiz and the door rapping which would conclude his day as he set out in search of those who would be willing to make something of their vote and cast it for a candidate who stood for issues that were really different; a political activist rather than a career politician who is 'out to disturb the unionist-nationalist consensus which sees the interests of society and of big business as the same.' At a time when there is a discursive sameness about the establishment parties on economic matters, McCann makes you sit up and listen. Here seems someone who has not been charmed by what Fred Cobain called a middle class government for the middle classes. A minimum wage of £7 an hour - how would that go down in some businesses that prey on our community where the maximum wage may be £2 hourly?

Most eyes on the tussle in the Foyle constituency will lock on the battle between the two strands of Catholic nationalism. The SDLP hold three seats and Sinn Fein two. If electoral newcomer, Sinn Fein's Raymond McCartney were to have been the first man alive in place of Adam the world would not know original sin because Raymond is wholly innocent of an original idea. But with the party ticket clasped firmly in his hand he is, in the view of many observers, well placed to take a third seat for Sinn Fein, ostensibly at the expense of the SDLP, but in real terms at the expense of a radical project.

Building such a project is the business of Eamonn McCann. In 1970 he stood as a Derry Labour Party candidate in the June Westminster election which produced the disastrous Heath government and the following month the Falls Curfew. By the time the miners dispatched Heath, Maudling, Whitelaw and Pym four years later the damage had been done. The Wilson government proved no better. 33 years on McCann now sports the unmistakably red colours of the Socialist Environmental Alliance. Unlike those whom it is pitted against SEA 'have no premises and haven't a penny.' Although they have since managed to get 'an office' for a three week stay. And penury has forced it to scale down its printing plans, leaving it at a disadvantage to other parties. 'We're skint - can't print' may be a catchy election slogan but it disables a useful medium for conveying an important message. Although regarded as a man carved from flinty ideological rock, Eamonn McCann is quite capable of making his pitch in 'common sense' terms. In this election the communal issues are there but:

you cannot solve the communal problems if you set out in the first instance to solve the communal problems only. If your sole focus is on the line of communal conflict, you cannot eradicate that line as the main basis for politics. This isn' t a matter of ideology, but of common sense.

Refreshingly, he has a sense of the wider world not shared by his fellow candidates. Most of them seem to think that George Bush was elected with a mandate solely to listen to them talk about the North. So wrapped up in the place are they that they deluded themselves into thinking Bush came to Hillsborough this year to hear what they had to say rather than to use their subservience to legitimise his war on Iraq. McCann was under no such illusion - for this reason he was outside Hillsborough lambasting those inside and those who the following day would come to worship at the altar of US militarism. 'We wouldn't have taken George Bush's hand at Hillsborough except to twist it up his back and run him out the door.' He points out that Sinn Fein, the SDLP and Women's Coalition abused their electoral mandate to go to Hillsborough to give cover to Bush and Blair.

Each of them claimed they would go in and use it to express their opposition to the war. But Sir Peter Stothard the former editor of the Times who accompanied Blair for a thirty-day stint including Hillsborough wrote a book about that period. In it he said that Bush lined all these parties up in a horseshoe formation and proceeded to lecture them on the need for the war. Stothard made no mention of as much as a mute being raised in opposition.

The SEA is without equivocation a class party. It stands opposed to the Programme for Government agreed by the centre right administration at Stormont which was 'centred on a curb on public spending, private finance in schools and hospitals, and lower taxes on business.' Nor has SEA any qualms about urging 'tax the rich to pay for public services.'

We will campaign for the rights of women, including the Right to Choose. We want to galvanise opposition to sexism, sectarianism, racism, homophobia, and discrimination against people with disabilities or on grounds of age. When we use the word ' equality' we don' t just mean Catholics and Protestants having equal shares of scarce resources. If elected, we will accept only the average industrial wage. Our aim is a socially just and ecologically sustainable world from which exploitation and oppression have been cleansed, in which there is peace, and where the common people are defended from hatred, want and the abuse of power.

But why stand now after a 33 year unbroken run unsullied by the electoral fray?

It was because I wanted a socialist candidate to enter the field. Over the past five years it has weighed on me more and more that to be anti-imperialist you need to be anti-capitalist and anti-war. All my political life I have wanted to see the Brits out as part of anti-imperialism. We no longer have a Brits Out party - it is now all down to an equality agenda and maximising representation within the existing constitutional arrangement.

And while republicans in the North have settled up for an internal solution, there is little point in looking South for a shoulder to the wheel. For McCann the Southern state rightly sees itself as fully integrated into the world capitalist system - the terms of debate seem to evolve around whether Dublin is closer ideologically to Berlin or Boston. 'No one in the ruling class is asking for a united Ireland to complete their bourgeois revolution.'

So we have failed miserably to get the Brits out and are enthusiastically doing the bidding of the British chancellor by spending what he permits us; a united Ireland is as far off as ever - but is the critique waged by the SEA not phrased in the old language of a redundant class politics paradigm? Not so seemingly. McCann speaks passionately about the haves and have-nots in a society where inequality and poverty is increasing. The most casual glance at the produce of CORI, St Vincent de Paul or Combat Poverty - hardly Bolshevik bodies - is enough to suggest that wealth production works for the betterment of the wealthy. And we need only look around our own streets to see the 'great' difference that the political class tells us the Good Friday Agreement has ushered in - it is great for themselves and for those who benefit from the patronage industry they have constructed. For the majority of people, the absence of a visible presence of RUC on the rubbish strewn streets is the main difference.

If SEA is motivated by class, how does it stand in relation to the Protestant working class? McCann rejects the old timeless notion so beloved by many wooden Marxists that Protestant workers continue to be bought off by imperialism. 'We have a convergence of disadvantage.' Why then are Protestant workers still loyal to Britain?

'No one is arguing within the unionist community for anything different.'

What about the PUP - their party political broadcast seemed to be the only one that appeared to be immersed in issues of class?

When Eddie Kinner sprang up in the 1990s and gave a radio interview in which he put forward a left perspective he generated a lot of interest. Kinner gave out yards on the deprivation that existed on the Shankill and he spoke of the betrayal of the Protestant working class. Now we have the ideological collapse of the PUP with Ervine saying defend the union before everything else. Take the PUP in Derry who are shouting that all Protestants should unite against the name of the city being changed. If you defend the Protestant working class solely then you have to support them against the Catholic working class and widen the fissure between them. Now the PUP possibly stand to lose both seats.

He concedes that there is one similarity between SEA and the PUP. 'Our demand for the extension of the 1967 Abortion Act to the North is supported by the PUP. Apart from ourselves they are the only other party who support such a position.'

So if elected what would he register as? McCann is as rapid in his response as he is unequivocal. 'Other.' But is being neither Unionist nor nationalist not going to convey that SEA is neutral in the sense that Alliance purports to be?

No. I do not hesitate to speak about the Brits on Bloody Sunday. You do not tone this down in order to be socialist. You need to stand up to the state - that is what socialists do. There is no solution to poverty and oppression in the Catholic working class that at the same time would not be a solution to poverty and oppression in Protestant areas.

Running an eye of SEA's election manifesto, which is unmistakably and unapologetically situated in a robust leftist genre, I suggested that the legalisation of cannabis demand would curb his ability to secure a higher vote. Again the logic was clear and delivered unhesitatingly. 'It is the only way to take it out of the hands of paramilitary gangsters.' Can the police not do this without legalising Cannabis? - I tossed in just to stoke the embers. Here McCann reached his most animated point of the evening and in the course of doing so did not bother taking up my point about Cannabis.

The police are the police of the ruling class and we will not be supporting it. The real problem is that other parties are calling for people to join the police. Socialists, whether they are in Spain, France, Germany, UK or the US should not be telling people to join the police. We must police the police.

The irony of the stated intention of one time radical political activists, now turned politicians, to have young people from the Bog and Creggan working as cops is that working class communities throughout the world rarely serve as an employment pool for the cops. How the mouths of counter insurgency strategists must water when they cast their gaze over this conflict, so rich in lessons for those seeking to suffocate insurrection. Being defeated is one thing but seeking to join those who inflicted the defeat is something else; a real gem to be contemplated for decades to come by those intent on quelling protest and resistance worldwide.

Up against Sinn Fein in a city which the party must think is theirs for the taking now that John Hume has departed the scene, what chance does a socialist have offering an alternative that is so far removed from the daily intake of nonsense that it is almost certain to be rejected? Again the response is more nuanced than that often put forward by the Left. Eamonn McCann accepts that Sinn Fein is a constitutional nationalist party 'but there are lots in it - and I see them every day - who are instinctively left wing. But the path the party has chosen can only lead them to the right.' The logic of SEA's position would seem to be that not all in Sinn Fein are totally divorced from the idea of a socialist project and that by keeping socialist ideas in the ring no matter how battered they become as a result of an ideological onslaught from capital, the socialist project cannot be put to rest by those who worship the free market. Seemingly, the logic of socialist ideas will put itself up to those socialists still left in Sinn Fein: continue in a party that is as socialist as Blair's Labour or look elsewhere.

What would be his first act as a Stomont MLA - presumably not follow the rest and award himself a wage rise? 'Ban Coca Cola.' But does he see himself getting there? McCann is nobody's fool and does not delude himself or his supporters that it is just a matter of turning up to the election count to hear victory pronounced. Nor is he into giving his listeners the standard guff that seems obligatory for election candidates.

I don't expect to take a seat. But this campaign helps raise the profile of the left. I would like to see it moving us in the direction of producing a single left candidate for the European election which takes place next June. If we can manage that we could perhaps pull 40,000 votes. That would not be enough to take a seat in Europe but it would announce that a new kid had arrived on the block.

And then, he was off on the election trail. Speaking with a Belfast republican tonight who spoils his vote - as I shall my own - he lamented the fact that McCann's constituency is restricted to the North West otherwise he would give him his vote. It was a sentiment I shared. Surveying what is on offer to us in West Belfast, my ballot paper will be marked with a £ sign inside a circle. A simple way of registering opposition to the fact that radicalism has degenerated into the politics of the pound. They all have their price. Eamonn McCann hasn't.




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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

18 November 2003


Other Articles From This Issue:


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


14 November 2003


Belfast Agreement Postpones Cure for British Problem
Liam O Comain


Further Problems at Maghaberry Gaol
Martin Mulholland


Luis Eduardo Garcia Interviewed

Anthony McIntyre


Choosing Sides in Iraq
Mick Hall


The Taboo of Racism So Subtle
Davy Carlin


Left Unity Meeting


Thessaloniki Prisoners On Hunger Strike
Anarchist Prisoner Support


Death Fast in 4th Year
DHKP-C Prisoners’ Organisation




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