to its party manifesto the Greens are the fastest
growing political movement in the world. Although
Sinn Fein claim to be the only all-Ireland party,
the Greens are determined to usurp this. The party
has 6 TDs and 2 MEPs supplemented by 'numerous' councillors.
Raymond Blaney, initially an independent hospital
councillor, who has since joined the Greens, is the
partys only elected representative in the North.
It remains a long way off, therefore, from coming
close to approaching Sinn Feins prominence on
an island-wide basis. In next weeks assembly
election the party is fielding six candidates and
hopes to claim two seats. In South Down where Raymond
Blaney is the contender, the Greens are campaigning
against the threat from Sellafield; the failure of
the state to protect the elderly in their homes; the
rural depopulation of South Down; state and paramilitary
violence; imposition of water rates; sectarianism
and racism. Amongst its goals the party aims to end
land and property speculation and to ensure a basic
income for all citizens - although it does not say
what this income should be. The Greens promise that
if elected Raymond Blaney will seek to represent his
constituents in coping with the day to day problems
of society in which fairness, social justice and decent
standards go to the wall when assaulted by crime,
greed, sectarianism, and a society driven by image
and celebrity. The catchy election slogan is 'Green
is not a colour its a vision.'
first question that picks at the mind upon encountering
Raymond Blaney is what is such a pleasant man
doing in politics, often viewed as a blood sport?
But any notion that being personally pleasant translates
into political softness is quickly dispelled. The
answer to my original query unfolded as the two hours
I spent in his company passed. Raymond Blaney is in
politics because of commitment. He is committed to
social justice and his passionate abhorrence of inequality
electrifies his demeanour with calculated serious
intent rather than aimless excitable enthusiasm. Perhaps,
he has seen it all before and knows from experience
the dangers of expending all political energy in a
first charge at the opposition trenches, only to watch
it dissipate like snow on a ditch while opponents
with his election agent Aiden Carlin, he picked me
up in a graveyard in Downpatrick. Not because republicans
think graveyards make good meeting places due to their
sombre character in which we can touch base with our
deeper selves or because it gives an aura of seriousness
to our otherwise innocuous ramblings it was
simply that I had attended the same funeral as themselves
and convenience dictated the venue.
made the short journey by car out to Raymonds
house, where he made tea for the three of us. I felt
pleased that the people who will take on the Green
Partys portfolios of Health and Quality of Life
and Welfare Rights respectively had agreed to be interviewed
by the Blanket. They told me they were regular
readers who admired the Blanket less for what
it had to say but for the fact that it was prepared
to let it be said. If only everybody was as tolerant
and open to alternative ideas. The Blaney abode was
a home not a political palace. Sometimes we suspect
that those involved in conventional politics are all
on the make and either have summer villas and second
homes elsewhere or convert their normal homes into
ritzy-glitzy high class accommodation. Sitting in
his living room was just like being in most other
working class homes.
60 years of age, Raymond Blaney has hewn the same
time out of this earth as Eamon McCann, whom I had
interviewed two nights previously in Derry. While
Blaney supports the Good Friday Agreement McCann is
an opponent of it, yet both talk the language of the
poor and deprived. And it is like a breath of fresh
air to listen to men not afraid to trumpet their socialism
and stand up to Bush and Blair at a time when the
latter two give off the appearance of having just
reached the final of the world liar championship.
Blaney's political background germinated in the Republican
the outset my interest was in republicanism rather
than socialism. I became a socialist through the
education I received in the Republican Clubs and
also through my experience. My own father had been
exploited throughout his entire working life trying
to carve out a living as a lorry driver.
37 years of his life Blaney worked as a psychiatric
nurse and most of his working life has been devoted
to caring for the mentally ill. Although prematurely
retired as a result of serious illness he came back
fighting, determined that the people of South Down
would have the health service they needed. He was
also steeped in trade union activity through involvement
with COHSE. With todays news reporting that
one in four in the population can expect to experience
mental illness during our lifetime, it would be reassuring
to know that the carers would have the sense of understanding
and empathy that Raymond Blaney would seem to bring
to the vocation.
virgin in the land of electoral politics, he has been
fighting at the polling booth since 1973, at one point
in the 1970s being pipped at the finishing line in
council elections by Alliance only four votes
separated the contenders. He became a Workers Party
councillor in 1981 during the H-Block hunger strike
and held onto the seat for eight years, when he stepped
down because of the demands being made on his time
by his trade union activity.
around 1975 he was involved in a campaign to save
hospital services in Downpatrick. That campaign moved
up gear in the mid-1980s and was primarily responsible
for retaining acute services with life-saving capabilities.
He was also involved in the last major industrial
struggle in the North in the mid-1990s against privatisation
in the health service - taking on the Compass Company.
Compass was a major industrial concern which was making
the running for those private financiers attempting
to invade and exploit the National Health Service.
Compass served him a high court injunction restraining
him from joining the picket line and excluding him
from his place of work. But he ignored the injunction
and continued to organise and lead the fight against
Compass. 'While we lost the strike in terms of the
immediate battle we made it so difficult for Compass
that they moved away from Down and Lisburn and the
local workforce reverted back to the health service.'
A union man to the last, a smile of pride flickers
across his face as he recounts his experiences standing
on the picket line alongside Ayrshire miners during
their strike against the Thatcher-McGregor assault
on both the mines and mining communities. He brought
them over food and money raised in Ireland to alleviate
after having pulled away from serving as an elected
representative, did he return to the fray in 2001
fighting his campaign on the issue of hospital closures?
the end of the 1990s John McFall, the then health
minister, offered Downpatrick a £15 million
hospital but the snag was that it came without life
saving capabilities. I opposed this. Aiden Carlin,
then a councillor led Sinn Fein opposition to this.
Once Aidens tenure in the council came to
a close there was a void and we began to look around
for someone who would stand as a hospital candidate.
Blaney allowed his name to go forward. He was successfully
returned as a councillor. 'With little organisation
and in the face of strong opposition I was elected.
People came out on the day because they valued their
health service and had a belief that I would represent
them properly on the issue.'
much of this activity must have coincided with the
Hayes Report of 2001 which shook up the health service.
His response was nuanced. 'Hayes did Downpatrick good
but he did not do the West of the country much good.
He could have given enhanced hospital status to both
Omagh and Enniskillen just like was done for Downpatrick
to the Greens the campaigning of Raymond Blaney came
to fruition with the decision of Health Minister Des
Browne in February 2003 to grant a new £35m
hospital to include 24 hour A&E and Coronary Care.
concern with health prompted the obviously question:
how did he rate the performance of Bairbre de Brun
as Health Minister - she was cutting back on the acute
health services that he was so eager to retain? And
Sinn Fein failed to mobilise grassroots activism against
her, exposing its own centre-right underbelly in the
Brun did make a genuine effort but it was outside
the control of anybody in the Assembly. For Alasdair
McDonnell to say that health was not a high priority
issue when his party declined to take up the ministry
is one of the most disgraceful statements I have
ever heard issued by a doctor. Health was a poison
chalice and that is why the SDLP never took it up.
the Socialist Party, during the Sinn Fein woman's
term of office as Health Minister, alleged that 'the
Thatcherite policy of privatisation is being continued
by Bairbre de Brun through the extensive use of the
Private Finance Initiative (PFI).' Blaney dismissed
any suggestion that he might be sympathetic to PFI.
'The idea of introducing the rules of the market place
is a complete disaster and will lead to a two tier
do people not start out opposing such measures and
then once in office become bewitched by the logic
of the free market?
often is the case. But I am not running in this
election so that I can sit in government. I want
to build a party from South Down out that will have
a strong social dimension. Laziness has characterised
all the parties in the Assembly. They don't brief
themselves on the issues and allow the civil servants
to make the running.
this also include parties that would claim to be offering
a radical alternative such as the PUP? 'They are killing
people. What credibility can you have when you are
doing that?' It crossed my mind to suggest that the
same could be said of Sinn Fein I but opted to pursue
the partys stance on the health question. While,
being sympathetic to Sinn Feins performance
in the health ministry given the constraints that
he felt it faced, it cannot have escaped his notice
as a political activist primarily interested in health
matters, that Bairbre de Brun is most likely the only
Health Minister in the world that belongs to a party
that sells smuggled contraband cigarettes. Surely,
this must pose a serious ethical issue that can't
be pretended away? Blaney was as good as his word
and did not flinch from answering the question.
was driving by the Sinn Fein advice centre one day
and saw this lengthy queue outside it. Thinking
that they must have brought in a sorely needed advice
worker who was efficient in filling in DLA forms,
I welcomed the sight. Later I asked a local republican
if in fact this is what happened. Much to my disappointment
he put me right, explaining that the Sinn Fein centre
was where people bought their cheap cigarettes.
Setting aside the effects on an individuals
health selling cheap cigarettes hardly advances
a community's interests.
went on to point out the missed opportunities.
Fein and the SDLP draw about £300,000 for each
assembly member. Assembly money should be put
back into the community rather than creating an industry
for politicians and their aides. Whereas the SDLP
would make some effort in areas like housing development
Sinn Fein do little. Simon Hoggarts comments
in todays Guardian underscores the point
made about the Stormont industry that has burgeoned.
does he bridge the Green Party with his health focus?
Is there not a gap here that is not easily plugged
- the Greens are concerned with the health of the
environment whereas he has long campaigned on the
health of people? Are pathology and pollution not
separate issues? He responds easily. As a Workers
Party councillor he raised the Sellafield issue, which
later became the major environmental issue confronting
the two islands. His move to green politics was a
natural step against such a backdrop. For Blaney,
people cannot attain a high level of health if they
inhabit an environment that works against health care.
In his mind the link between the hospital campaigning
and the Green Party is the quality of life.
accept that there is a belief that we are the recycling
party. Of course we advocate recycling but there
is one thing we will not recycle and that is the
lies and false promises made by other politicians
each time they are faced with an election.
persuaded that the electorate would join the dots
as easily as the Green Party might wish I pressed
him on the likely electoral impact of promises to
improve the quality of life.
night I attended a packed meeting in Rostrevor.
It was organised to tackle the issue of the Multinational
companies ignoring the concerns that people have
regarding the erection of phone masts in residential
areas. Human rights are being trodden on here. People
see it. They turn up at meetings in such numbers
because they know the threat posed to their quality
how does our inward looking political obsession address
an adversary that is not in the least constrained
by localisms, being transnational or global in character?
Should we not be looking outward and taking up the
concerns of the Global Justice Movement - local meetings
in Rostrevor are all very well, but these matters
are much broader than any one town be it in South
Down or Southern Brazil? I met no opposition here.
we cannot solve the problems caused by the multinational
corporations unless they are challenged on a global
scale. At the same time that does not relieve us
of our responsibility to fight on a local front
as well. People's concerns are so real that we expect
to take a seat from this. We go into every constituency
and get a good reception.
green party - how would it register in an assembly
where green is usually associated with the nationalist
camp? Like the Socialist Environmental Alliance the
Greens would go as 'other'. But 'other' can not be
neutral so how does 'other' address contentious issues
such as policing?
see the Good Friday Agreement as the basis for going
forward. And of course policing is not separate
from this. The question of policing is a big issue.
You only have to look at the recent spate of attacks
on old people in their own homes. Opposition to
the Agreement and the police is doing nothing to
halt this. We do need a policing service - is there
a society in the world that doesn't? I see serious
shortcomings in the PSNI and raise these matters
publicly. But when forced to make a real world choice
in these things we have to support the idea of some
police force rather than none. One major concern
at present is that the present DPPs do not reflect
the communities they are supposed to represent sufficiently.
can the Greens succeed where other parties who have
tried to avoid the either/or tag have failed such
as the Alliance and the Workers Party?
the short term it is beyond any of us to succeed
on this front. Deep-rooted differences do not just
disappear easily. Over time it is the environment
that shall obscure the difference between the two
communities. Pollution has no boundaries just as
poverty had no boundaries.
his track record and that of his election agent, a
former Sinn Fein councillor, there will certainly
be hackles raised within the unionist community. They
are almost certain to dismiss the Greens as a republican
front with a nationalist sounding name to boot?
are people like Jeffrey Donaldson who simply do
not want to share power with anyone. But this does
not reflect the view within the wider unionist community.
It is not that the unionist community is opposed
to change. It was a community faced with the fact
that the Provos were not playing fair. There could
have been a lot more transparency in the whole business.
if he is to take a seat from where are the votes to
come? Blaney thinks he will pick up a substantial
portion of the votes that used to go to Eddie McGrady
of the SDLP. An independent councillor from Hilltown,
Ciaran Mussen has promised him his support, so a large
portion of the high number of votes he secured in
his council election could make their way to the Blaney
a by-election 'Mussey' faced high-powered Sinn Fein
and SDLP opposition yet took 1600 votes. Additionally,
we are confident of getting transfers from every
party. It is significant that in the local election
I took more transfers than each of the other candidates
in the field. We get republican support as well
but we make our pitch across the whole community
and particularly towards the most deprived within
it. South Down has a very strong electoral team
out on the ground doing the work. We have the core
of a superb left wing party in this constituency
and preparations are under way for the next council
how left wing? Already this year we have had examples
of supposed left wing parties behaving badly. Would
he have met Bush and Blair at their Hillsborough war
summit? He seemed aghast that the question ever crossed
my mind. But when the nonsense over here stupefies
people to the point that they can no longer work up
the energy to analyse what is reactionary and what
is not, Hillsborough is the great litmus test. No
radical would have lined up like a prize poodle before
George Bush. Long ago Bernadette McAliskey charted
the course for any radical finding themselves confronting
such circumstances when she had a go at the despicable
Reginald Maudling after British paratroopers had perpetrated
the war crime of Bloody Sunday.
Blaney didnt stutter or stammer out his response:
I am totally opposed to the war on Iraq. I would
not have met Bush at Hillsborough. I would not have
met him anywhere. I want a radical party that will
be a positive force throughout the county.
what would entice people to join the party? Sinn Fein
appears to be the party that is drawing the young
people what can the Greens do to entice the
idealistic young into their party? The appeal
of the Greens is that it has internal democracy.
That sounded good. I had never been a member of a
party that ever practiced that. What was it like to
be in a party that allowed the grassroots to have
their say and where the leader was not a devoted totalitarian?
Blaney smiled at the loaded question but acknowledged
the barbed humour. He explained that the Greens were
not a leadership led movement nor a cult. It had no
the party experience any intimidation from rivals?
I explained my reason for taking the line of questioning
in this direction - I had Sinn Fein specifically in
mind. South Down has been the site of a fairly sustained
campaign of harassment against local republicans who
dissent from the Good Friday Agreement. The party
does not like opposition and is sensitive to any potential
drop in the vote and is not beyond intimidating those
who disagree with it. Just before we began the drive
to his home from the cemetery I spoke with a former
Sinn Fein election worker who disclosed to me that
he had voted a dozen times in the last election and
wondered where the party would make up the votes this
time around given the large number of people knocked
off the electoral register, which he felt were Sinn
Fein voters - even if long since dead. Now that a
former Sinn Fein councillor is Blaneys election
agent this compound must heighten Sinn Feins
fears that it will have its work cut out to maintain
its vote. But Raymond Blaney was adamant that there
was no intimidation or attempts made to drive his
party off the streets.
about the story doing the rounds that Sinn Fein were
already forging the new electoral identity cards?
Blaney was having none of it. 'They could put less
effort into getting the vote out than they would trying
to personate - it is probably just allegations from
we got round to the old chestnut the constitutional
question. I put it to him that, as Tommy McKearney
often reminds me, no matter how hard you try to forget
that question it will never forget you and will leap
up to confront you at every opportunity. He told me
plainly that partition has not and shall not
solve the problems of this country. But can
a combination of environmental issues and more radical
social policies prove any better? Well, there
is a need to adopt the approach of Martin Luther King
and develop a respect for each other. But is
this not the language of Sinn Fein if we look
at the role of Alex Maskey as Belfast Lord Mayor is
this not what Sinn Fein are claiming to be doing?
the end of the day I have listened to a lot of comparisons
being made in relation to Gerry Adams. People try
to put him in the same frame as De Valera. Others
think Collins or Pearse are more suitable. The person
I find he most resembles in Irish history is General
Eoin O'Duffy. And what respect do people like O'Duffy
show for others?
was an interesting thought to part on. The combination
of an authoritarian leader and a blindly devoted rank
and file has divested republicanism of any serious
radical content, leaving it a highly bureaucratised
phenomenon following wherever a power-crazed leadership
takes it. Can the Greens bring radicalism back into
vogue? Will it not ultimately produce leaders who
will smother it all in return for a taste of the good
life and the titillating charms of that most potent
seducer of all - power?
answer to these questions will unfold some way down
the road. But for now, its internal democracy, the
fact that the leadership is not accompanied by an
armed right wing presidential guard, that it welcomes
ideas - all of this augers well for the future.
Blaney exudes a relaxed state of being. He talks of
having a buzz about politics today whereas in the
past he was always uncomfortable and ill at ease.
He senses something developing at a time when other
parties 'are running out of steam.' That may well
be true but where they lack steam they make up for
with plenty of hot air and it seems to satisfy people.
Raymond Blaney knows this better than most and was
undeterred. He offered to drive me back to Belfast.
I declined - his constituents had more need of his
services than me. The journey home was used for reflection.
Twice in a week I felt had been in the company of
electoral candidates who were more concerned with
social justice than personal advancement. In Northern
Irish politics that is something very different, an
experience to be savoured. Just a pity we cant
give No 1 to both of them.
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