Belfast Telegraph

Time to get off the platform and agitate for real change

By Eamonn McCann

The individuals who signed the Platform for Change group's open letter, published in the Belfast Telegraph last week, seem decent and well-meaning people. But where did decency and meaning well ever get us?

Few who want to see the end of a political system constructed around the idea of communal identity would disagree with the objectives of Platform for Change.

The open letter introduced the group as "citizens of Northern Ireland from diverse backgrounds (who) believe that the only viable future for this region is as an integrated society in which individuals are free to define their unique identities in their interactions with others, in a culture of tolerance which can enrich the lives of all''. Splendid stuff.

The group's manifesto, published last March, had declared that, 'over time, the hope has to be to move towards a more conventional political argument, between those who seek to expand the public realm and those who favour the private sector'.

Why 'over time'? And why only a 'hope' that the axis of political argument can be shifted towards a public versus private alignment? Why not, in the Sixties words of Yippie legend Jerry Rubin (later appropriated by a Third-World-exploiting multinational manufacturer of mutton dummies), Just Do It?

How would Platform for Change characterise Nipsa ballots for strike action to prevent the sell-off of public services? Or Unison demonstrations outside hospitals or health boards in efforts to stop chunks of the Health Service being flogged off to for-profit organisations? Or Unite opposing Department of Education plans to flog off auxiliary services via a private finance initiative?

What was it that was expressed in loud and enthusiastic tones at the ICTU rally outside Belfast City Hall the Saturday before last if not an argument in action 'between those who seek to expand the public realm and those who favour the private sector'?

Similarly, at the heart of the campaign of recent years for non-payment of water charges has been a determination to choke off the revenue flow necessary for privatisation.

That campaign had this, too, in common with other battles to defend the public sector: that it required the mobilisation of masses of people on a basis which had nothing to do with the community they came from. The battle between public and private provision cannot be won in one community only. Public provision of domiciliary care, for example, cannot be preserved - or won back - in the Bogside if not also in Nelson Drive.

Why, then, the hesitancy of Platform for Change? Why not get stuck into the argument already under way rather than hope vaguely it will happen in the unspecified future?

History teaches that the only occasions when sizable numbers of Protestants and Catholics have detached themselves from communal allegiance to make common cause have been occasions when they came together to fight together - 1907, 1911, 1932 and onwards to 2010. There is no recorded case of any such thing happening as a result of people being preached at.

The struggle to realign politics along non-sectarian lines must have a material as well as a moral basis. It is precisely in defending the public sector against the ideological assaults of privateers, for whom the pursuit of profit is the only engine for driving society forward, that the material base can be found.

Every wave of cross-community action for the betterment of all has eventually receded, leaving the contours of the political terrain unchanged.

Cynicism re-emerges to ride high and proclaim that no new narratives are possible in Northern Ireland politics; that we are fated to live forever through nothing but the same old story.

One reason this happens is that that decent and well-meaning people who devoutly wish to be done with the ugliness of communal hostilities have no stomach for immersing themselves in the rowdy masses, either; wouldn't be seen dead on a picket line against privatisation, think slashing the wages of public servants a jolly good thing and not before time, reckon that it's a sign of Executive weakness that water charges weren't brought in long ago, advocate the demonstrably nonsensical notion that the private sector (banks were private sector, right?) will always serve society better than public provision.

When it comes to turning ideals into material reality, too many in Platform for Change are to be found on the wrong side of the barricades.

They are guilty of the age-old Irish sin - the expectation of salvation without adopting the necessary means to attain it.

It's a class thing.

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