As Time Goes By - July 1983
There I was, February 1973. A young man in a world of infinite promise. A bit worried about some of the things in that world, but confident enough that it would all come right in the final reel. And we all had a chance to make sure it did. Here came an election. My first general election. The first election in which the kids of the Sixties could vote (they wouldn't let us vote in '69, you had to be 21).
The first generation of Irish TV kids. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I wanna hold your Mursheen, Durcan. Old enough to remember where we were when Kennedy was topped - the President has been rushed to Parkland Memorial Hospital and it's not yet known if - old enough to remember when John F and Nikita went to Red Alert over Cuba and a hard rain was gonna fall and hey, sir, if there's an atomic war, sir, do we get the day off skoowell, sir? And marching down O'Connell Street chanting free Dennis Dennehy! because they - would you believe this - had put a homeless man in jail for squatting. 'Sixty-eight; Tet, Paris, Grosvenor Square, Czechoslovakia and Derry. Background music.
This was the most worldly-wise Irish electorate ever to cast a vote. We knew that "Off the pigs" didn't mean a quarter pound of rashers. The older crowd might moan about "Ms", but for us it wasn't an awkward term to learn (what does the Irish centre forward do when he's got the ball and there's an open goal in front of him? Mrs). Okay, when we started off in school we'd been putting pennies in the box for the Black Babies, but by now we knew the score in Watts and Harlem and the black babies had grown up to be Malcolm X and George Jackson. (Older people thought it was bad manners when Bernie Devlin went to New York, was presented with the key of the city - and promptly gave it to the Black Panthers. We didn't expect anything less.)
Okay, so there was a tradition about voting. You took account of how your family voted, you listened to what the nice man on the doorstep promised you, you half-believed that when a politician said something he (those days it was always he) meant it. But there was another tradition being born - of putting what was happening here in the context of everything else you knew about the world; and we knew an awful lot more than any other generation had known. In the late Sixties I'd leave work near eleven at night and go around into O'Connell Street and most nights the remnants of the 8pm political meeting were clustered in groups in front of the GPO or, more likely, down at Abbey Street corner, and you could get an argument on anything from Vietnam to folk music, from the Irish language to black separatism (connections, connections). I broke down laughing one night when a guy began arguing fiercely that the Keep Dublin Tidy campaign was a capitalist plot to do the roadsweepers out of jobs. I still run into the guy around the pubs every now and then. He selling civil rights bulletins, me drinking. He had more stamina. (I still think he was a bit over the top about the roadsweepers, though.)
Bows and flows of angel hair, you gotta friend and the seventies will be socialist. Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground. Fianna Fail or Coalition? That was the choice, and when the
votes were counted we'd chosen the road least travelled by. There wasn't much of a choice, truth to tell. The Labour Party candidate in my area was my trade union official. I'd known the guy for nearly ten years and had long got over the illusion that trade union leaders are working class heroes. This guy's members got sold out quicker than ice cream in a heat wave. However, it was my first vote, I'd been saving it up for so long and I was damned if I was going to wait another five years to see what the inside of a polling station looked like. And on the ballot paper Labour was the nearest thing to what I felt at the time. So ....
So, I helped elect the government that put Nicky Kelly away. After all the stuff that had gone down, with all the things we thought we knew - to hand a vote over, just like that, to give someone unaccountable power. Stupid. I remember one night in 1976, I went to see a friend. She was upset, angry. She'd just been to see someone she knew, a guy I'd never heard of. There had been a crime, he knew one of the people involved, had been pulled in, now he was out. No charge, no nothing, he hadn't done anything, it never made the papers. He was, she said, unrecognisable. That's how you knew there was a Heavy Gang at work, things like that.It was around that time that someone, probably the Provos, robbed a train at Sallins. Forty members of the IRSP were pulled in. Those days, if a leaf went missing from a tree the IRSP was pulled in.
Speak up, (wallop) the sergeant' can't hear you. The thing about Heavy Gangs, from a taxpayer's point of view - and I've been paying taxes for nearly twenty years - is that they're not very efficient. They get confessions, but they don't get the people who pull the jobs. The Sallins money was never recovered, the train robbers were never caught. Thirty-nine of the IRSP people walked free, eventually, proven innocent at enormous cost. They're still holding Nicky Kelly. He's the prize, the proof that emergency legislation, Heavy Gangs, juryless courts, get the job done. Me, I don't believe it. And I wish to Christ I hadn't helped elect the government that extracted a confession. from him. My only excuse is that I didn't know it would work out that way. In February 1973, they didn't ask for a mandate for the Heavy Gang.