Who is really progressive in Northern Ireland? (2/3)

I recently went to Northern Ireland, to the city of Belfast. The Left has generally supported those pro-Catholics, who are working for a united Ireland as a part of a national liberation struggle from London rule. I decided to interview representatives of progressive parties on either side on the issues that socialists should really care about — social issues — to see how different they really are in their day-to-day politics in these current times of peace. This is the second of three parts, me interviewing Paul Maskey, member of the Northern Irish Assembly for Sinn Fein, in his office in Western Belfast. Part three with the conclusion will follow tomorrow.

Paul Maskey (Sinn Fein) claims to represent progressive republicanism.
Paul Maskey (Sinn Fein) claims to represent progressive republicanism.

JW: The first thing is I noticed when walking around there was quite a bit of graffiti against gentrification. There are apparently apartment buildings that eh… are
for the let’s say those who have more money. Whereas others complain about lack of public housing. What’s your policy on that?

PM: Our policy on that is that there needs to be more social housing. There is clearly not enough. In West Belfast there is an area which I represent, there’s almost 3000 people on the waiting list. And it’s gone up year on year. Those figures keep on increasing, so we’re arguing and lobbying. The government department follow it, to create more social housing, and to reduce the waiting lists, and they need to do it in a number of manors and a number of ways, and it-it it’s not, I mean you will see private apartments, private houses going up, and that’s OK. We’re not arguing against that, well, we argue because a lot of the stuff that’s happening now is a lot of space being taken away from our community.

Houses are being demolished, to put up where you maybe had 1 or 2 houses maybe 30 or 34 or 36-40 apartments, which is a clear case of over-development, because it’s not about building houses, it’s about building communities, that’s where we want to be.

Because if there are homes, there need to be schools, there need to be shops, there need to be employment opportunities, there need to be doctor surgeries, there need to be dentists. You need to build communities, so there has to be more thought put into areas and communities.

We have areas in West Belfast under British direct rule, we have areas like Trimble and Pulgas, that’re just thousands of
houses put up, no amenities, no facilities, not one child park within the areas for kids to play in. And it’s a disgrace. So
we should not allow that to happen and we are trying now to say if you’re going to develop in our areas and in our communities, then you have to show us the plan. But not a plan for just the homes, for the other amenities… that’s obvious we’re very strong advocates for that.

JW: How about public funding for infrastructure like roads and public parks and so on.

PM: Yeah, I mean that quite important. There’s many different government departments. The problem is, they all work in isolation. One department will do this and another department will do that. There’s not enough crossover between different government departments. What I’m trying to urge all government departments, is that they need to work collectively. If I’m one government department providing houses, there’s no point in me working in isolation from health or social development or-or whether it’s interesting for trade and stuff. You have to work together and show each other plans so you know the communities of, to make sure that the roads for example are not… because if want to build a thousand homes, then there need to be that proper road infrastructure, and there needs to be the proper bus links, rail links.

A rapid transit system needs to be put in to reduce the cars going on our roads every day.

So all that has to be worked together. So yes, we are very much urged all government departments to interlink to ensure that all them problems are addressed from a very early stage. We cannot build a housing estate with a thousand homes in it and then think about everything else. That has to be incorporated in it.

JW: In industry over the last twenty years, you have had a rapid decline. Think of Harland & Wolfe, Shorts, Mackies… Is there anything the government should do about that?

PM: Yes, the area which I represent in west Belfast, including the Shankill, where there is a lot of areas that are in social need. If
you live in West Belfast, you’re more likely to be unemployed than you do in other areas. If you live in West Belfast you’re more
likely to die earlier than you do in other areas. So all that factor has to be factored in so, and employment is a great
opportunity, so yes, I do believe that the government needs to be looking at creating industry.

Industry has many different facets, where we can look at for example in areas of West Belfast, if it’s foreign direct investment, they need to be steered toward areas of social need, because that’s where it’s gonna have the best effect; that’s where it’s gonna lift communities to the level of everywhere else and that creates employment opportunity. There’s different levels of… and I say, and I look at West Belfast, for example in the Shankill industry, I count tourism as an industry. Tourism is a massive industry, if we get our act together. People need places in West Belfast cause there’s thousands and thousands of people every year coming to see West Belfast, because they’ve seen it on TV; they’ve all seen the Falls road; they’ve all seen — maybe for the wrong reasons or the real one[?], whatever the reason is, but they’ve seen it anyway, so there’s a curiosity factor between the Shankill and the Falls Road area. And many thousands of people will come to see those two roads. But there’s not one hotel int he two areas. So the tourists will come in, but they can’t stay, so they can’t spend more money in that community, so the local shop can’t benefit from it, the local restaurant can’t benefit from it, the local bars can’t benefit from it, because people come in and they got a bowl… or what you call a face bowl scenario, where you buses driving in thousands of people, people looking at the windows and then driving back out again. The local community can’t benefit from that. So government need to get real, when it’s coming to tourism. They need to start looking at locating hotels within our areas where people can stay. That’s one part, and then we’re gonna see what’s gonna happen. Because in Belfast alone, tourism sustains 16000 jobs. Now we want some of them jobs to be sustained in West Belfast.

Deprivation is deprivation, no matter whether republican or loyalist.
Deprivation is deprivation, no matter whether republican or loyalist.

JW: Another issue: the National Health Service. Do you feel that it’s good enough as it is?

PM: No, it’s not good. Some areas of it are very good and some areas are very poor. My own father was in the hospital, just over a year ago with a chest infection, and get taken out two weeks later dead because of all the infections that they get in hospital. Now that’s very very poor. It’s very poor where people who can go in the hospital and come out either sicker than what they went in or in fact dead in many cases. Now that’s very poor, and that’s basic medication stuff. Some of our medical services are second to none. In fact some of them are world class. But you can have all your world class facilities, but your people can die due to uncleanliness and bugs what they’re catching when they go in to the hospital. So that has that effect on it. So, the waiting lists are coming down, some of them are gone with, but there is a fact where you can wait for maybe a year for minor surgery, but it’s a service which there is an acute need to be overhauled. It needs to be improved. And I do believe that under the government, which we have now, we’ll actually make that happen. Cause the local minister, the minister for health, is somebody from Belfast. We can argue with him, we can have a word on a daily basis and tell him: ‘you must improve this’. So I think it will get better. It need to improve. But it’s a sad indictment on the health service, when people can die, coming to the hospital.

JW: And in education, currently there has been a debate about the 11+ exam. Where you in Northern Ireland have had a somewhat different system than what one has had in most of England. What’s you position on that?

PM: Well, my position is that the 11+ doesn’t work. It hasn’t worked; it’s failed. It works in some areas. But again I have to go
back to areas, including the Shankill, in the year 2001, 1 child — and now it is an area of social deprivation. It’s an area of need.
One child in the Shankill in the year 2001 passed the 11+. So I have to say: why does on one one child pass that? Because it tells
you that there’s needs going in there, it also tells you that that’s… it failed, it might work in some areas, but it fails many
people from the areas like what I represent in West Belfast, including the Shankill. And other areas also. Because people cannot
afford extra tuition for their kids. But if you come from an area where there’s social need and you can’t afford to do that and then your child goes automatically. So that tells you that if you come from a rich background, the 11+ is good, because you can get your child higher. But if you come from a poorer background, you can’t give your child the best bargain. So what I want to do is to ensure that everybody at that age has equal… because equality is central to having sustainable futures and sustainable development for us all. And equality in that is that every child at eleven… because remember it’s called the 11+, I have two… I’ve had two kids who would do, who have done the 11+. But they’ve done it at the age of ten, so the fact that it’s called the 11+… All kids who do it are ten, there’s very few of them who’ll actually be eleven ears of age. They’re eleven when they leave primary school to go secondary school. But they’ve done their test many, many months prior to it. So most of them are ten, so I can’t see how you can decide the child’s future at the age of ten, to say that’s the school you’re gonna go to, you’ll work at that school and that’s the best school for you. It’s very hard, and I think it’s unfair on many of our children and it’s indictment. I think the change.. there is a radical change, needs to be happening within our education, because too many kids are coming out of school, even secondary school, worse than what they’ve been before in primary school. So there is a lack of basic skills, and I think that the current minister, Caitríona Ruane, will go along the
way to change it.

The most important thing about the 11+ is, every parent who’s child is coming up will get a chance to feed in to the constipation process.

So every parent will have a say. Every child will have a say. And every school will have a say, cause all the areas are different and all the areas will demand difference in education, and that’s the way it should work, because area based education system will probably work out better than one size, that’s all.

JW: But doesn’t that mean importing the English version of it?

PM: All I’m saying is there can be many versions of it. Also, what I’m also saying, there’s different parts of West Belfast might need a different education system from other parts of West Belfast, so we shouldn’t have necessarily the bigger picture anywhere up. We know what we need. Most of the schools will exactly know what demands are of the communities, and they should be able to put in area based plans to actually move into the future, because we need our kids… And I think this will be a radical overhaul. I think, if done right, other countries can actually learn from this model.

Focusing on social issues (here: hunger) has a longer tradition among republicans. Comparatively, today's living standards are great (man in car).
Focusing on social issues (here: hunger) has a longer tradition among republicans. Comparatively, today’s living standards are great (man in car).

JW: Staying in the area of kids. Your local paper here, the Anderson Town News, writes about that there is an excessive amount of anti-social behavior and drug abuse.

PM: Yeah, I mean that’s local papers writing. I’ll have to say that Belfast is no worse off than any other city in the world. In fact, you can go back three or four years ago, Belfast was thought the third safest city in the world, even for visitors to come to see, so it’s no worse than anywhere. So in fact it’s a lot safer than most of the other cities throughout the world. Which is very important because of where we come from. We came from a war-torn society, and we’re only recently over that.

We can’t deny there’s drug dealing, and there is car crime. There is. People die through the car crime. But I have to say this: The
British government has allowed it to go on for too long, under direct rule.

And I know what they’ve done. For instance, the police have pushed drinkers out of the city center and other parts of the city into West Belfast. They didn’t try to stop them from drinking and said : Well, that’s good enough for them. That was the mentality behind our police service here for many years.

But now people are saying: no, we’ve had enough. We’re not gonna allow it to happen. We’re not gonna allow West Belfast to be treated different from any other part of the city.

And if you come from an area of social need and you come from an area, you will find that there’s always more crime and more anti-social behavior. There are more drug problems, there are more socializers providing more alcoholics. But we have to remember we have come from a war, many people from this community, that I represent, fought in that war for many years. Many of our young people’s fathers and mothers fought against Britain.

So some of the young people are saying, well my parents may have done that, what am I to do? You know. And so there’s attitudes where other people are coming through, in the
other end of a war saying: we need to walk… move into the future. But I think it’s very, very important to always remember that under direct rule, no-one invested. There was no massive employers in West Belfast like you had in East Belfast. You had Harland & Wolf, and you mentioned earlier on, in it’s heyday they had between 40-50,000 working that place. Most of them were from protestant communities.

Mackies, as well, was another protestant site. Shorts, the majority of people worked there, were protestants. People from this area,
would never have had a chance to get a job in some of them places.

And yet, government didn’t even try to promote any other investments in these areas; neglected them, so we’re still trying to come out of the other end of that. And we will do, but it will take a while for that to happen.

JW: Somewhat related, the BBC recently reported on a dramatic increase in teenage suicides in Northern Ireland. What’s your response to that?

PM: Gerry Adams in an MP for West Belfast who has worked perilously regarding a strategy. And even to try to get a strategy built up, that came against opposition from British direct rule ministers. They didn’t want to put investment into it. They didn’t want to look at it.

So Gerry Adams has lobbied very very strong on behalf of that. We now have a couple of places in West Belfast. But there’s one in the Falls Road called Suicidal Worlds,
it’s open 24 hours. People who are feeling suicidal can now call a drop-in center.

But it’s not enough. Ireland is a fairly small country, and we’re going to have a policy which may work between the Republic of Ireland and policies here. We need an all-Ireland approach to it. We need to be serious about that issue because the same issues are affecting people who are living in Dublin as well. The suicide rate has gone up. We need funding on an all-Ireland basis. We need to insure that all the mechanisms are being put into place. And again, employment opportunities as well. Because young people who don’t seem to have a future, in their own mind don’t have a future. It’s about giving them equal opportunities, giving them employment opportunities, education opportunities a whole lot and I think hopefully you can help address that issue.

JW: Another thing that young people do is joy-riding, which is that you make stunts in your car and then you film it and put it on the internet. This is apparently a trend here?

PM: Yeah, it’s trend… It was wore going back many years ago. So it’s actually started to reduce. But there’s been a number of people killed through it, and I wouldn’t call it joy-riding. The term I in all honesty would put on it is death riding. Because death riders have actually killed a number of people, including children within our communities. I think it’s a scourge; I have no time or sympathy sometimes with regards to it.
The unfortunate thing with modern technology is it can bring many odd things to haunt us, because kids can now use them as a tool — their phones. They get a kick out of this. I mean some times modern technology is great in many aspects, and… unfortunately, most of us can’t live without our blackberries or mobile phones or computers and even your tape recorder – mp3-player and stuff, we can’t really live without them now. But it’s sometimes a bad, because it gives people easier opportunities, whether they’re trying to get young people to do internet sex, or whether whether they’re taking video recordings of bad things happening to get a kick out of it.

Parts of the Falls Road could be anywhere in Europe -- only the store names give its location away.
Parts of the Falls Road could be anywhere in Europe — only the store names give its location away.

JW: Yet, local media report that in the draft budget of the department of education, the budget for the Youth Service will be reduced by 4.8%?

PM: Well, it was. And the minister actually fought very hard in the program for government. And that was a draft, on the real one, that’s been brought back. It’s got 4.8 million pound in that budget, which is exactly the amount that that equates to. So that’s now back, as long, cause minister Caitríona Ruane fought very hard with it with her colleges on the executive to ensure that that… because youth is very , very important to us. So, that is now back. But, we need a long-term strategy, and again, go back to the point we were talking on earlier on, cause education is only one point of youth services. It can help address, the issues of avoiding suicide. It can help many, many issues, but so other government departments have to buy in, because government departments only have so much money as well, but if they would buy in collectively from other agencies within government, and the will have to address that.

JW: We touched on it earlier, but what’s your general idea about the police? As they are now, do you have confidence and trust in that they’re concerned about your areas and your issues?

PM: Well, I have to say they’re not fully concerned about [our issues], but
we’re going to make them concerned about [them]. Because we’ve taken on a job now within this last year where we’re going to go on to the policing boards, we’re goint to go on to the district policing partnerships. We’re not going to be spectators. We’re going on to give a lot of finger pointing to people and say: ‘You have a job to do, and you better start doing it! Because if you’re not gonna start doing it, then there will be a prize to pay!’

And the thing to say in the communities I represent: very few people trust the police; even just the… And we’re now saying: ‘Right, we’re bringing the police services, and I meet them as well on regular basis to tell them the issues and that they don’t meet them issues, and they don’t meet their targets, and then the question is put to them: ‘Why have you not met that target before?’ So we’re there to tell them to. We’re not there to be spectators; we’re not there watching them and saying ‘yes, you’ve done a great job’. We’re there to tell them [what to do] and will continue until they start to get it in their own head. Policing is best suited at community level. The community must be involved at all levels of policing. It goes back to the education issue — there’s nobody who knows this community like the people who live in this community. They know what the issues are. So the police now needs to listen to the community to actually move forward. That’s what we’ve embarked on, and that’s what we’re going continue to do, until we get it right.

Policing will never be right; policing is always wrong, and there’ll always be crime. You can’t stop crime by 100%, but we will make sure, that they help address the issues in our communities.

JW: Do you feel that the working class is sufficiently politically represented as it is today?

PM: Well, yes. I mean I come from a working class background. I’m a socialist; I represent the socialist party. I… In West Belfast for example, there’s 6 MLAs, 5 are from Sinn Fein. The MP for the area is a socialist. I talked to you earlier about areas of social need, right? I raise areas of social need at every single level, I can do so at the assembly. [In] any committee I will run, I will speak of areas of social need, as well as other areas as well.

Before, that was never challenged and never pushed. So what we’re doing now as a party is actually represent the area. For me as a socialist for example, I have to
represent the area, but I have to live by my socialist values. When I look at the assembly for example, there’s a wage of 30-40,000 pounds at times leading up to 50,000 pounds. I don’t take that; the party gets my wage. So the party simply take my wage, and they give me a living wage, just as a small wage. So I’m not a big career politician, I’m here because I want to represent the people in the area where I live and the people who I know and love so much.

I give my money away, and I take a living wage. The party take that and give me a living wage. Other people: I get the same amount of money that Gerry Adams gets, as
the party president. As a minister, there’s ministers, we have a number of ministers in the assembly. They get the same wage as me. Somebody working in this office, they’ll get the same wage as me, and the same wage as .. there’s no difference. So we have to look… That’s all equal. So we will insure, that any issues what we’re drawn out of that, that’s socialists. And we will have to insure that them policies are brought into the assembly as well.

And I love that, and I want that, any stuff I wanna argue for is on them same principles. I do admit the fact that we have to be economic, the economic development of the North is very crucial point. Even private investment is very important for the long term sustainability of Ireland. So I do recognize that fact as well. And we have t work on them sectors as well. It’s very, very important whether that incorporates, but I represent a working class community will do so and we do represent cases on behalf of my constituency on a daily basis.

JW: Ok, Thank you very much

I go outside with Maskey to take his picture on the stairs outside his office. Finally I ask him: “So — if you’re socialist, and you happen to be protestant: What party do you vote for?” Two seconds of silence, then Maskey says “Well then there is the PUP, right?” He goes on to tell me how various protestants have come to his office to ask for help with various bureaucratic things, but still he concludes that they would not likely vote for Sinn Fein anytime soon. And, as he concludes before we part, what he really wants to see is “a united Ireland”. And after all, the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) that is connected to them, who for several decades fought an armed struggle, involving many civilian casualties.

I walk on, and back to the university area where I’m currently staying at. Tomorrow, I’ll publish my conclusion.

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