Whoever we vote in, they could be making legislation that impacts our lives from now until 2025, says Joyce Fegan. How will they behave? Have they a record in action and finding unity in diversity?
“You can’t eat a flag”.
This is the advice that John Hume’s father gave him as a child. John Hume’s father’s education stopped at primary school.
John Hume, himself the eldest of seven children, went on to become a school teacher, president of the Credit Union movement throughout the whole of Ireland (at the age of 27), vice president of the international Credit Union movement, founding member and leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and co- recipient of the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize.
Taking a look around Ireland and Europe this week, it’s easy to say they don’t make many politicians like John Hume anymore.
This week we had the privately educated pro-Brexit British politician Nigel Farage waving his miniature Union Jack flag during his farewell speech in the European Parliament as Britain officially left the EU.
In Ireland, we’ve had politicians making jibes at one another across the airwaves and on live TV debates, in the hope of winning your vote in the general election on February 8.
But what does it really take to win your vote? Conflict, combative verbal pyrotechnics and point-scoring?
Or would you prefer to hear and see politicians pitching and demonstrating solutions to our personal and collective challenges? Or tearing strips off each other so they can be crowned the winner of the debate by media pundits?
Which, do you the parent, the worker, the pensioner, the student, the voter actually want and need?
Another piece of sage advice that John Hume’s father gave him was: “Stick to the books, son, it’s the only way forward.”
This, again, advice from a man whose formal education stopped at 12, and who remained unemployed for much of his life after the shipyards in Derry closed following the end of the Second World War.
But back to the flags.
When John Hume was 10, he ended up at an election meeting at the top of his road. It was a Nationalist Party meeting.
“They were all waving flags and stirring up emotions for a united Ireland and the end of partition,” Hume wrote in his 1996 book, Personal Views.
His father saw he had been affected and this was the point where he lent in to tell his son “don’t get involved in that stuff”. To which a 10-year-old John asked: “Why not, Da?” “Because you can’t eat a flag,” came the famous answer.
And you can’t.
Flags will also not work as bricks and mortar, nor as school books or school places, nor can they be turned into hospital beds or home care hours.
In the same way, fighting and tearing strips off one another as debating politicians won’t solve those problems either.
Hume calls this moment his “first lesson in politics” and going by the work he went on to achieve, his guiding principle too.
“Politics is about the right to existence — the right to life — bread on your table and a roof over your head,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what flag you wrap around you when you stand in the dole queue or are forced to emigrate to another country to earn a living.”
With a proactive approach to politics that was centred in non-violence and all about finding unity in diversity, John Hume started to make change in his community.
The reason he went on to become the president of the Credit Union movement throughout Ireland by the ripe old age of 27, was because he went looking for a way to lift up his entire community, one that was poverty-stricken and suffering high unemployment.
He co-founded the Derry Credit Union on October 30, 1960, with four members and £7. By 1996, it had 14,000 members and £21m.
Housing came next, and Hume, still an active member of his community as opposed to an elected politician, helped to set up the Derry Housing Association.
In the first year, in the mid-Sixties, they managed to house 100 families. In the same year, Derry Corporation housed none.
Hume went on to successfully contest his first election in 1969, as an Independent for the Northern Ireland parliament, defeating the leader of the Nationalist Party, Eddie McAteer, in the process.
This week, speaking to someone involved in training people to run for politics and for the upcoming general election, I was told of a few encounters she had with John Hume.
The things he spoke about, were also the things he did.
When Hume encountered groups or people with genuine complaints, be that in housing, unemployment or discrimination, he would “encourage action”, he said.
The woman I spoke to this week testified to this.
“When I met him and spoke with him, he asked what action were we taking, but he asked that as an ally too,” she said.
Over the next seven days when would-be candidates, or incumbents, knock on your doors, or speak on your airwaves or drop fliers through your letterbox, what action is it you wish they’d take? How would you like your politicians to behave and conduct themselves?
Will they be guided by social conscience or by what’s popular? Will they say and do and vote and act in a way that keeps their “base” somewhat satisfied, but not the rest of the population?
When they make it to Dáil Éireann, how will they vote on divisive issues like reproductive rights or cutting carbon emissions?
Have they a track record in action and finding unity in diversity?
Whoever we vote in, remember they could be there making legislation that impacts our lives from now until 2025.
What kind of politician do you want and need?