Where are the activists?

Recently I have been reading quite extensively about the period between 1960-69. In Derry the bubble of ‘bottled resentment’ was spilling over into near riot and civil breakdown well before the establishment of NICRA in 1967. Hume was very active in the street politics of this time, however he didn’t enter elected office until 1969 when he beat the long-standing figure of nationalism Eddie McAteer. On his defeat he conceded that the ‘old guard’ of nationalism had been replaced by what he regarded as the extreme tendencies of the left.

As I noted in my eulogy piece recently, Hume helped established the Derry credit union and was instrumental in the Irish credit union movement. He founded an independent housing association to build modern homes (with indoor plumbing!) for the residents of the city not fortunate enough to avial of public housing – either due to their creed or the bad luck of living in the wrong gerrymandered district no matter their religion. He also organised the less remembered “University for Derry committee” in 1965 which was the precursor campaign to the civil rights demonstrations two years later.

It was more common in this time for activists to use their energies to make real change within their communities. It cannot be discounted how Hume and McCann (among others) were highly educated for their time and perhaps had confidence not found amongst the swathes of the working class people they had grown up with. But that energy, wherever it came from, wasn’t automatically mopped up by party machines as it so often was in Britain or in the Republic at the same time.

These men only felt the draw of the ballot box when no other avenue was afforded them. Even Austin Currie had exhausted every legal channel afforded to him before his Caledon squat saga. He was already in elected office when he pulled off this effective media demonstration. But it was his, as well as Eddie McAteer’s, ability to see how such activism was able to translate into the wider political context of 1960s Northern Ireland. The official unionist establishment seemed completely blinded by Paisley’s booming from the back benches and Curries’ throwing of papers at John Taylor – which incidentally saw him suspended from the sitting of Stormont’s lower house.

Today political activists seem to enter elected office very young, there is a unspoken rule within our political parties of first taking on “casework” then becoming a council candidate. In my experience the idea of entering Stormont or even Parliament without ‘cutting teeth’ in council is seen as anathema to the political party machines. I think that this is a mistake, as is taking a good activist in their prime and running them based on the goodwill they might have generated on social media or elsewhere in their community.

Mick spoke to Richard Wilson who is passionate about the democratic renewal, he makes the bold claim that casework is actually not an effective use of time or resources for elected representatives. I have to agree with Wilson, Brexit was a prime example of how starved of strategy and idealism our political class has become. Activists can and should do more, they do require support and its inevitable that in a place such as NI with only one independent think tank and little funding for policy work generally that parties fill a void. But perhaps something better can be built, even within the party system?

Eamonn McCann أيمون ماكان” by Hossam el-Hamalawy حسام الحملاوي is licensed under CC BY