Thankfully, Éamonn McCann is one of the few significant political figures from the late 1960s still active.
He fought his first election in February 1969, as Northern Ireland Labour Party candidate for the Stormont Parliament, and his most recent two years ago as the People Before Profit Alliance’s candidate in Foyle (Derry City) for the Northern Ireland Assembly. This was the fifth time he had stood for Foyle, and he came close to taking the last seat.
Over the years, he has lived, campaigned and worked as a journalist on both sides of the border and is reflective on both. In general, he is cheered by changed social attitudes, particularly in the Republic, but sees the left as having lost significant ground in politics. In the North, he sees a left-wing party as more needed than ever. However, he admits the task is difficult. Having worked as a journalist for over 40 years he bemoans media that question ever less.
He views the social changes in the Republic as particularly positive. “Women couldn’t work in the civil service if they were married”, he notes. “Or serve on juries until the early nineteen seventies”. What strikes him most is that “some of the things that were contentious in the past have just ceased to be issues”.
When he first became an activist: “even very prominent gay people in Ireland were afraid to declare themselves. In the nineteen-sixties, I’m not sure that there was anybody in the South who was openly gay, not anybody who was prominent or well-known. Look at now, where you have the captain of the Cork hurling team. Compare that to the soccer situation in Britain, or here indeed, where not a single gay soccer player has come out”. [Apart from Justin Fashanu.]
Politically, however, the 1960s were more optimistic. He became a member of the Northern Ireland Labour Party. “For a time, the Northern Ireland Labour Party was a viable political organisation”, McCann says. “It had a number of very able campaigners. Some of them would have appeared to me to be quite right-wing, but nevertheless there was Charlie [later Sir Charles] Brett on housing, and there was a good number of solid people there. It was a party taken seriously at that time”. While controlled by the right-wing, there was a sizeable socialist left.
The political landscape was different through to the early 1980s. “I can remember that there was a very lively rank and file life within the Labour Party in the sixties, and indeed in the seventies, where there was a lot of passionate and indeed robust discussion going on”, he recalls. “I remember being at a Labour Party conference in Cork, and it was at a time when there was an election for the Dáil imminent, and I can remember noting that this was clearly an anti-Coalition conference. The leadership was denounced by TDs and it wasn’t considered the most ridiculous thing in the world – people were allowed to have very different views”.
He has seen changes, too, in the media. “The decline in print media has gone parallel with a change in ideological surroundings”, he said. “The media, my experience of it, was much less predictable back say in the nineteen seventies. It could be much more awkward than it is today”. He could tell a news editor that a piece was far longer than requested, and it would be printed, in full. Now, pages are laid out in advance and journalists have to write to a template.
When he began, RTÉ was the only broadcasting institution in the Republic. “But it also meant that RTÉ could be rather expansive in the way it did things”. he says. “It could put on programmes on both radio and television that were not simply calculated to attract a large audience”. An example was Donncha Ó Dúlaing’s ‘Highways and Bye-Ways’. “He used to just go about talking to people around the country,” McCann says. “A quaint old programme in many, many ways, but very interesting”.
Newspapers are losing their appetite for investigative work. “Very rarely now do you have a situation where a couple of journalists on a newspaper will be put on to a story and allowed to dig away and then report back”, he said. “And sometimes a newspaper might have to invest that sort of resources in a story on the understanding that no story might ever appear”.
The nature of journalism has changed, being office-bound. “I used to be news editor of the Sunday World”, he tells me. “We used to come in on a Tuesday. We had eight or nine reporters, but you would never see all of them in the newsroom together, there was always somebody out and about, somebody down the country, maybe somebody across in London, digging up at something and so forth”.
Since those days, the national media pay less attention to the North. He remembers over a dozen journalists working in Belfast for Dublin-based media. The Irish Times reported on debates in the old Stormont parliament. “Difficulties in the peace process and violent incidents are looked on as news”, he said. “If it doesn’t have to do with Orange-Green relations, it’s not news at all. That’s a very limited and narrow view on what’s going on in the North. And it’s become the default view of the media in Dublin”.
“When it comes to both economic and social matters, I know that any Northern journalist who goes to the South is frequently struck by, well, the sheer ignorance of Dublin journalists about the North. During the last couple of years there’s been the big controversy on the law about abortion. It seemed to come as a surprise to not just one or two but most Dublin journalists that abortion was just as illegal in the North as it was in the South”.
McCann is still an active campaigner in Northern politics. He sees prospects for the left as simultaneously never better, and never worse. “You can see objectively, to use the old Marxist term, the need for working-class unity and working-class politics has never been more obvious, and never more urgent”, he said. “For example, we’ve got deepening poverty affecting all sections of the working class equally”. Until the 1970s, discrimination was a distorting factor. In some areas poor Catholic housing was caused by disproportionate numbers of council houses going to Protestants. “Nowadays, because of anti-discrimination legislation, because of changes in the economy, there are no problems in the Catholic working class that can’t be solved other than by measures that can solve problems within the Protestant working class”, he says.
The political process is an obstacle to left-wing politics. “The moment somebody is elected, before they go into the chamber, they have to describe themselves as Unionist, Nationalist, or Other”, he says. “Others become second-class citizens, because the veto system and the system for parallel consensus, weighted majority, and all these things depends on a majority of the Green MLAs and a majority of the Orange MLAs. And the people who are in the middle are simply left in the middle, isolated”.
At present he is uncertain whether communal politics or class politics will triumph. “People aren’t going to abandon Orange-Green politics, they aren’t going to abandon a communal identity as their main form of political allegiance, they’re not going to abandon that unless there’s a viable mass movement that they can look at”, he says. “It’s all to play for, and it’s up to those who claim to be on the left, up to those parties and organisations which see themselves as being on the left, it’s not something you can stand back from and say ‘Let’s say how it’s going to work out’”.
This complex situation leaves him feeling like Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, who said: “I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will”.
EAMONN McCANN – A BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE
Éamonn McCann was born in Derry in 1943, and educated at the renowned St Columb’s College grammar school. At Queen’s University Belfast, he was president of the Literary and Scientific Society, the university’s debating society. He remains one of the great orators in the English language, typically leather-jacketed and demonstrative.
His politics has always been based on class, not cultural identity. He was one of the organisers of the Derry Housing Action Committee, which promoted a radical agenda of access to social housing. With the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) it organised the second civil rights march in Northern Ireland in October 1968 – often seen as the spark for the civil rights movement in the north. McCann would go on to become one of the most prominent civil rights activists. He was election agent for (Maudling-slapping) Bernadette Devlin. He was present at the Battle of the Bogside in August 1969 and Bloody Sunday in January 1972 (he would later become chairman of the Bloody Sunday Trust) and campaigned against internment. He argued recently that Marian Price was effectively being interned by the Northern Ireland Office.
McCann worked as a journalist for the Sunday World newspaper, contributed to the original In Dublin magazine, and wrote the political miscellany column for the early Magill magazine. He currently writes for the Belfast Telegraph and the Derry Journal, and has a longstanding column in Hot Press magazine.
He has campaigned against militarism and war since the days of CND and the Vietnam protests, A Trotskyist, atheist, pro-choice activist and anti-Bono proselytiser, he is now a prominent member of the Socialist Workers Party in Ireland. In recent Northern Ireland elections he has stood as a candidate for the Socialist Environmental Alliance, though he stood (unsuccessfully) as a Labour Party candidate in the 1970s. McCann was tried in Belfast 2008 for his actions as one of the Raytheon 9, a group who attacked and damaged the Israeli-Defence-Forces-supplying Raytheon factory in Derry. The jury unanimously acquitted McCann, and all the other defendants, on grounds of justification. He is Chair of his local branch of the National Union of Journalists. He had a relationship with the late Mary Holland, one-time Northern correspondent of The Irish Times. Their daughter Kitty Holland is now a journalist for The Irish Times. For the last thirty years he has lived with fellow SWP member and academic, Goretti Horgan with whom he has a daughter.