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Eamonn McCann interview: 'The community you come from doesn't have to dictate your life or the way you approach politics'

Published 17/10/2016

Eamonn McCann
Eamonn McCann
Eamonn with People Before Profit’s Gerry Carroll outside Parliament Buildings
Eamonn McCann
Eamonn celebrates his election result at the Foyle count
Eamonn with partner Goretti Horgan

After a long, distinguished career in journalism, Derry man Eamonn McCann was elected as a Foyle MLA at the age of 73. It's been quite a culture shock, as he tells Donna Deeney.

Q.  You have just become the new face of politics for the Foyle constituency at Stormont. How are you finding it?

A. I find Stormont a bit frustrating, it's not like anything I have been involved in before.

For a start, it is very difficult to find your way around Stormont in terms of the physical structure, and also in terms of the operational Assembly and its various committees.

I find the procedures of Stormont difficult. I am used to operating in a free-wheeling way. For many years I was a freelance journalist so I could fit work in whatever way suited me best so long as I met deadlines.

It is a bit of a culture shock to be involved in a full-time job which is hedged around rules, regulations and protocols, many of which seem to be plain silly.

Q. You are not part of mainstream politics, so how were you received?

A. I went into Stormont in quite an unusual way in that having been working for many years as a journalist, writing and commenting on politics here in the North and across the island, a great number of the MLAs knew me.

The first person who approached me was Mike Nesbitt who said "great to see you, you are very welcome".

A lot of people who are around me in Derry might have been somewhat surprised that the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party gave me such a welcome but I knew Mike Nesbitt when I was a journalist.

I would have known about 50% or more of the MLAs there and they would have known me.

One of the DUP MLAs, I won't say his name, is someone I knew through the trade union movement years ago. I hadn't seen him in about 10 years, he greeted me in the Hall, he actually held his arms out to give me a hug.

I found myself looking around, startled, wondering, "has anybody seen this and is word going to get back to Derry that he is only up there a wet week and he is hugging DUPers".

Q. Despite being the new boy, you are 73, which is when others are thinking about an easier life. Was that a consideration when you stood for election?

A. As for being 73, I am not aware of it at all. I don't know what it is like to be 73 except what it is like for me to live right now.

Q. Being a politician is a new career for you but you have always been political. Where does your interest in politics stem from?

A. I have been interested in politics from as far back as I can remember. There are very few things that I am not interested in and I think about most of them in political terms.

That's got to do with my parents, my father and my mother back in the Bogside. I think we were fairly political.

When I look back on it I can see that my father was what used to be known as a "Labour Man".

As I recall it there would have been a readily identifiable scattering of people around our community who would have been known as the "Labour Men".

They weren't nationalists in the Bogside. When I was growing up and there were Labour candidates in the Foyle constituency they would poll 35 to 40% of the vote.

The notion that the people in the North have always been divided in all circumstances, in all parts, in terms of Orange and Green is historically simply not true.

Q. If you had the chance to introduce one law into Northern Ireland, what would it be?

A. One Private Members Bill which we have got under way is the Trade Union Freedom Bill.

We want to rescind all restrictions on unions in the North which sometimes are called Thatcher's anti-union laws.

They are not Thatcher's anti-union laws, they are the Stormont Executive's laws because this is a devolved matter.

It will take a couple of years to shepherd this through all the stages but we hope to have this Bill before the Assembly then.

Either that or a woman's right to choose.

Q. Do you see yourself standing for re-election in four or five years' time?

A. I would hope to stand again in the next election.

It will depend on people putting me forward and if the cranky folk in People Before Profit don't decide that they want somebody else.

Certainly, if I am still around in five years' time. In the meantime I could get so fed up.

I get so fed up at times up there in Stormont, really fed up that I have to go into my little office and stamp my little foot on my own.

I get little messages left saying "Mr McCann, that's not really the way we do things here".

Q. You have also had a long and successful career as a journalist, how do you find life on the other side now?

A. I find it difficult. I think I am regarded as gregarious up there.

I find it very difficult to answer questions in the form they are asked.

Quite frequently the questions are not framed in a way that fits into my thinking and therefore my first instinct is to try and twist what I have been asked into what I want to say.

I also find it difficult when I am asked questions by journalists, again it is because I would know more than 50% of the journalists who contact me, so it is a bit of an odd situation when I am asked questions and I think "how dare you ask me that question..."

I find it a bit confusing at times.

Q. Are there skills from your life as a journalist and published author that have served you well as a politician other than being able to write a decent press release?

A. I don't think journalistic skills are immediately transferable at all. I wish they were.

I really miss writing, and I miss having a couple of deadlines every week and having to shape an article into 900 words.

I have been writing now for 50 years in Hot Press and I have to write 900 words which I write, not 901 or 899.

I love that, I love that discipline.

I have stopped the columns for the Irish Times and the Belfast Telegraph but I still have the column in Hot Press because I do that unpaid.

Who else is going to let me write about rock 'n' roll at my age?

Q. Is there anyone that inspired your beliefs and passion for politics?

A. When I was a child growing up there were two great heroes in our house. Aneurin Bevan and Dr Noel Brown.

Aneurin Bevan was the man who introduced the National Health Service in 1947 against great Tory opposition. For a lot of people of my generation the introduction of the National Health Service was one of the most significant changes to the way people lived and it is still the single most admired and trusted institution in British society.

Around 1952/53 I remember Noel Brown resigning from the coalition government in Dublin.

I remember being intrigued by the phrase, Noel Brown had "crossed the floor" and I asked my father what that meant.

He was a very young doctor from the west of Ireland and he introduced the Mother and Child Bill, which simply laid down the rule that there should be provision for mothers and children.

The Catholic Church weighed in and said this was the State interfering in the family and it wasn't the state's job to interfere in the family, it was the Church's job to interfere in the family.

Noel Brown did that for health. At the time he was quite revolutionary.

There were others I looked up to of course, like Leon Trotsky. I read Trotsky at an early stage in my life, I was entranced by it.

Q. Aside from politics what else interests you?

A. Everything interests me - very, very few things don't interest me.

If I wanted to I could spend 24 hours every day, reading or listening to the radio.

Sport interests me a great deal. Like everybody else I have a team in England that I support and that's Burnley, largely because my boyhood hero was a footballer called Jimmy McIlroy who interestingly came from Lambeg.

Music is also a big interest of mine. I am the perfect age to appreciate and understand rock 'n' roll because I grew up with it.

Q. Your partner is Goretti Horgan, who is also a political activist. Do the pair of you ever take the time to sit and watch easy viewing television like the rest of society or go to the pub?

A. Not only do we have the time, we dedicate an awful lot of time to it.

I have missed very few episodes of Coronation Street in the last 50 years.

I listen to The Archers a lot.

I think there is superb writing and superb acting in Coronation Street which, if it was done in a one-off 90-minute play, would make a terrific theatre.

Q. You have had a rich, diverse life. Has there been a single most defining moment for you?

A. I am still defining myself as I go along, I am not the finished article yet.

If I was being very personal and nice I could say it was the time I met Goretti or the birth of all of my children.

As it turned out my early involvement in the civil rights movement was the most significant in that it determined what I became and that was something that happened almost by accident.

I had left Derry in 1968. I was living in England and had no intention of coming back. I only came back because my sister Bridie had come home from Canada and I came to see her.

While I was back I met Dermie McClenaghan and he asked me to help him with blocking Hamilton Street with a caravan because a family couldn't get a house and one of the reasons for it was because they were Catholics.

We kept it there for 24 hours and said if the family were not housed the road would be blocked for 48 hours.

We got arrested and charged and I then postponed going back to England a couple of times.

I suppose that moment when Dermie said: "Would you give us a hand?" was the moment my life changed.

Q. Finally, for what would you most like to be remembered?

A. I suppose if I was remembered for having made any contribution at all it would be for shifting the axis of politics in Northern Ireland away from the religious divide at all.

I realise that the people in the North will also know from what community they come from and to suggest that you forget that and become a class-based socialist is nonsense, but the community you come from doesn't have to dictate your life or the way you approach politics.

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