Square Pegs….Round Holes….Local Politics

I am going thru a lot of Nostalgia over the past few weeks. Lots of reasons. In three weeks, I will be sixty years old. And it should not actually be any more different than any previous birthday. It concentrates the mind. More so……..because I spent the first  thirty years with the family into which I was born………and the second thirty with the family I helped (with God) to create. Being born into a loving family is just about the greatest Blessing you can have. Or if you prefer …..Luck. Perhaps it allows us to believe that all families are the same. Growing up with no problems in the 1950s and 1960s makes us assume that everything was the same behind the door in the street.

Actually there WAS one problem. Poverty. My father had a near fatal heart attack in 1959 and was thereafter never able to work properly at his chosen trade. Instead he was in a series of extremely low paid jobs……actually exploited by a local Catholic business man. All this mans employees were in the same condition. Men and women with severe health problems and he paid them buttons.

In 1965 my father had another heart attack. The business man came to see him when he got out of hospital and went upstairs…….came down again after a few minutes, wished my mother all the best and we never saw him again. He had paid my father off…….but gave him £10………..my fathers weekly wage at that point was £9. Yet both my sister and I got thru Grammar School. The point is we were poor….but did not actually know it. My parents took a certain pride in owning their own house. Redemption for us all would come when the “Government” (my father believed) compensated us when our house would be knocked down to make way for “the new road” (the Westlink).

In fact our own house was a slum …..and was knocked down for slum clearance. We got no compensation at all but we were re-housed in a new-ish estate in the Greater Ballymurphy area (March 1970).

That period 1966-1969 was the first time that I discovered that my fathers old friend Paddy Wilson was actually a politician. He was always making representations for us. He was a Republican Labour member of the Belfast City Council and a member of the Norn Iron Senate. He was also a founding member of the SDLP.

In 1973, Paddy Wilson was murdered, stabbed to death on Cavehill. I had actually boycotted voting in the 1973 Council Elections. Father Dennis Faul, the Dungannon priest had called for a boycott to assist the internees. After the 1973 Council elections I joined the SDLP…in time for the 1973 Assembly Elections……about a month apart as I recall.

In 1979, our family left West Belfast to live in Dungannon in County Tyrone. I remained a member of SDLP until around 1981 but frankly Dungannon was different. In a way it was a bad time for politics. The H Blocks issue and Hunger Strike was coming to a head. There was no Stormont. There was a vacuum. And anyway I had met the woman (from West Belfast) who would become Mrs Fitzjames Horse.

A familiar enough story of Clonard Boy meets Clonard Girl….in Dungannon. As it happens we have never lived in Belfast. But both worked/work there. It is our spiritual home. We currently live about 25 miles from Belfast. A small village. While our children (both now married) are at ease with the local area….thru schools, friendships, marriage……..it is actually quite difficult for Mrs FJH and myself. We know nobody except our immediate neighbours.

In social terms, this suits us. We are not “outgoing”. But in terms of Politics, it makes life quite difficult. Thirty years ago, I was a West Belfast SDLP person exiled in Dungannon. I still feel the same thirty years later ….in a different place. “All Politics is local” (Tip O’Neill) and I don’t have the local knowledge or even “care enough” locally.

Which makes the SDLP Youth Conference in Beechmount, West Belfast, about 100 metres from the house where my granny lived from 1922 to her death in 1961……and where my auntie lived  from 1922 until about 1983 when she moved. In my mind, an Cultúrlann across the Falls Road is still a Presbyterian Church, I am still being told to stay clear of the Blackie River, I am still going to Fuscos chip shop and so on…….

I am tempted to say that I should never have left West Belfast. But that is just nostalgia. We never lived there. It was for our children that we live in this village.

Hearing Dr Joe Hendron speak last Saturday was a good reminder of the old days in West Belfast. Of course there is no point in me thinking that I still “belong” there. It has changed…….not much……..but it has changed. But the connexion to West Belfast is simply stronger than any connexion I feel to Dungannon or this village.

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