This blog first appeared as a column in The Andersonstown News
In 2019, after years of slicing the unionist majority thinner and thinner, Sinn Féin finally took the Westminster seat of North Belfast. John Finucane is the first nationalist ever to hold the seat but he is emphatic that he represents all of the people in his constituency, including those who voted against him.
Yes, Virginia, you’re ahead of me – I’m just getting to that unpleasant matter recently in the Woodvale area. The illegal dumping of waste material had led to a situation there where flies and rats were thriving, forcing some residents to leave their homes. As MP for the area, John Finucane joined a protest against this dangerous fly-tipping, to talk to residents and see what help he could offer.
And yes again, Virginia – it’s at this point that things get a bit surreal. When he arrived, the MP was approached by loyalist spokesman Winston Irvine, who told him he wasn’t welcome in that area.
Now there are people who will no doubt compare this encounter to Orange marches, which in the past have insisted on marching where they chose but were opposed by residents who made it clear the Orange Order marchers weren’t welcome in their area. At first glance, the situations do have a two-sides-of-the-same-coin look to them.
Except for two vital differences.
Firstly, when John Finucane visited the area on the Crumlin Road, he wasn’t accompanied by marching bands or men carrying tricolours- he was wearing casual clothes and was accompanied, I believe, by one other person. And secondly, Finucane was there to see if he could help the people with this appalling situation, not to make their lives more difficult or to incite conflict.
There was a discussion on radio after the event, in which the name of Sean Kelly came up. Sean Kelly, of course, is a hate figure for loyalism, having been one of two men carrying a bomb twenty-seven years ago which went off prematurely and killed ten people, including Kelly’s comrade Thomas Begley. One of the radio contributors declared that Sean Kelly had canvassed for John Finucane last year and so Finucane was not welcome on the Crumlin Road.
If this were valid ground on which to stand, it would mean that all those who worked to elect Nigel Dodds over the years would have had no active part in the years of conflict we call the Troubles. Would that have been the case? Um, hardly.
But back to the central point. What line should be taken about this situation where a public representative, in this case an MP, cannot visit a part of his constituency? The answer is fairly obvious, if you believe in democracy: it simply should not be tolerated. Those who would in any way act in a threatening manner against their public representative should feel the full weight of the law.
But that’s not how everyone sees it. More cautious nationalist voices say the reality is that parts of Mr Finucane’s constituency are out of bounds to him and we have to accept it. Uncomfortable, yes, undesirable, yes, but life itself is imperfect.
So who’s right? Well, let’s go back to Orange marches. At one point in the Drumcree dispute both Johnny Adair and Billy Wright, prominent loyalists at the time, appeared on the scene to support the Orange Order’s claim that it be allowed to march down the Garvaghy Road. An innocent Catholic taxi-driver was killed in the course of that protest. But the efforts to intimidate the people of the Garvaghy Road into compliance with Orange/loyalist demands were faced down.
If there are people out to intimidate a democratically-elected MP who has been invited to meet with constituents, it should be considered unlawful to try to prevent that happening.
We pay our police service to enforce the law. In the Woodvale case, it seems the PSNI were conspicuous by their absence. If that is so, it sends a foul-smelling message to those who believe in upholding the law and who place their faith in democracy.