Monday 6 March 2017

Deeds not words by Sheena Wilkinson

Not everything I saw on TV was so benign
It is 1974. Or 1975. Or 1973. The television news is on. Belfast.  I’m standing in my school uniform. Mummy brushes my hair and says, Don’t look. Somewhere has been blown up. Rubble fills the screen. She plaits my hair too tight. Later I hear someone say that an old lady’s legs have been blown off. I live in Belfast. I am living through history. I am aware of this, though I never speak about it. The blown-off legs follow me through dreams until I wonder if I imagined the whole thing.

It is 2017. We are living in interesting times. We wonder how history will judge us. The whole world is crazy, and here in Northern Ireland, where we are good at crazy, where our very existence, clinging to the edge of the UK, the edge of Ireland, the edge of Europe, is somehow preposterous, political scandal and the breakdown of power-sharing lead to a snap election.

I am enraged. I am bruised by years of voting and never getting what I voted for. I am saddened that every election in Northern Ireland seems to polarise us more. I want to hide until it’s over and then hide some more. I want to tell myself not to look at the screen.
SF using 1918 posters 

But funnily enough I am writing a novel about the election of December 1918. When women in Britain voted for the first time in parliamentary elections, and, in Ireland, when Sinn Fein won the landslide that led – after another bloody war – to an independent Ireland and eventual partition. The novel is for teens, and it’s been hard to make the election exciting. Suffragettes are exciting, but that was an earlier story. My heroine lives in rural Ireland, and her desire to change the world is hampered by that, as well as by the fact that everyone tells her the battle has been won. I love my heroine, Stella, who is braver than I. I love her determination and fighting spirit and how she grows to understand that yes, she can change the world, but not alone, and not overnight.

It’s strange, perhaps, to be influenced by a fictional character of one’s own invention, but that’s what happened to me when it was announced that there would be NI Assembly elections on 2 March, only ten months after we had last gone to the polls. I’d recently joined the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, the progressive, non-sectarian party I’d always voted for, and had met the local association, a diverse lot of people who embodied the desire for a new, modern Northern Ireland. But was I prepared to get properly involved? To tramp the streets, knock on doors, give out leaflets, ask for their votes for our candidate? To risk doors slammed in my face? I would speak on a stage in front of a thousand people more happily than I would knock a stranger’s door.

Winifred Carney, my heroine's heroine
Stella would do it, I thought, and I signed up. As I canvassed in the February frosts and rainstorms, I thought of the women who had fought for my right to do this. I remembered Stella’s heroine, the republic socialist and suffragist Winfred Carney, who stood in 1918, in an east Belfast ward she had no hope of winning.

Our candidate did brilliantly. There were five seats available and it was a close fight between him and a bigger party for that last seat. Turnout in our constituency was up by more points than in any other. For a few hours, there was the cruelty of hope, and even when it was dashed, we can say that we moved things forward.

Now the election is over and the result is, depending on how you look at it, a depressing reaffirmation of the status quo of division and suspicion; or the opportunity for real progress. Only time will tell. The election of 2017 might turn out to be as significant as that of 1918, or it might not.

Once again I have been aware of living through history. But this time I learned that being engaged feels much better than being merely enraged. Deeds, not words, as the suffragettes would have reminded me. 


Becca McCallum said...

Deeds not words, as you quote. Yes, it feels good to be doing something, however small, that might help the situation. And your actions might inspire others and so that small thing grows.

Susan Price said...

"I am bruised by years of voting and never getting what I voted for. I am saddened that every election... seems to polarise us more."

I'm not in Northern Ireland, where problems are magnified, but lord, I am with you when you write those words.

Good for you for getting involved. I've been thinking it might be worth getting out there with the leaflets again - but I don't even know which party to work for anymore.

Katherine said...

Well done for getting involved! It would be so easy to throw one's hands up in despair and retreat from it all, in these strange, destructive days.

Ruan Peat said...

Not alone and not overnight, best words ever, we can change the world! Well done for voting, for trying, for putting yourself out to do!
How true is that adage if your not part of the solution your part of the problem.

Sue Purkiss said...

Well done for getting involved! I've recently joined a party for the first time, but not sure about knocking on doors...

Unknown said...

what a great post..and as someone that didnt grow up there but lived there from 1994 to 2010 and was matried to someone who had grown up there as like you in some ways heartened...never give up...such a beautiful country with wonderful people...hoping that brexit does not bring back the borders x

madwippitt said...

Great post .. I lived there from 1966 - 1972 ... it was both terrifying - especially at night when you could hear bombs going off across town, or when windows in one of the blocks at Methody got damaged - but at the same time normal, a part of everyday life. It was only when we left that we realised how much on edge we had constantly been. Living through history indeed: better experienced in books than real life - but needing to be told.