22 May 1997 Edition

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Looking at the small pictures

By Laurence McKeown

She lit one cigarette from the butt of another which she had smoked in the space of a few minutes. No doubt this was a procedure that had been repeated several times already. She offered me one but I declined saying I had given them up some years ago. ``I still like a cigar though,'' I added, ``but I don't inhale them, something Bill Clinton and I have in common.'' She stared at me for a moment obviously unaware of the story that lay behind my comment. I felt foolish for having said it.

As she inhaled deeply on the cigarette I noticed her hand was shaking and I asked if she would like to sit down. She declined, preferring to move from foot to foot pacing a small area of the hallway. She introduced herself then told me how she was afraid to go home that night. Her children were in the front room of the house she was visiting and she was afraid to take them home too. He might return. Her partner, or more correctly, ex-partner. He had come to her home that morning demanding sexual favours, apparently on the basis that they had once been lovers and anyway, he was the children's father. The fact that he had left the home some years previous and was now living with another woman apparently had no relevance. She refused him so he beat her up.

He had beaten her up often before, she said. He had also beaten the children. Apparently, he kicked his way into the house whenever the notion took him. ``But he's not really a bad man,'' she said, ``it's these aul drugs that has his head done in.''

I listened to her story with empathy, with anger, but mainly with a feeling of total powerlessness. I had just happened to be passing the house and as I had been in the street several times that day and previous week canvassing for the election the householder had thought possibly I could help in some way, so I was asked to speak to her. I couldn't, except to encourage her to contact one of Sinn Féin's advice centres where someone could advise her on how best to get a stop put to the intrusions and beatings.

I felt stupid even saying that. Where would you get an advice centre open at 10.00pm? Worse than that, I felt as if I had somehow duped people in the area, going around that week asking them to come out and vote for us and how that would help the overall position of the people who live in these areas, yet now I had absolutely nothing to offer them in return. This was the day of our victories. The cavalcades could still be heard in the distance. Yet for this woman there was no reason for rejoicing. I tried to rationalise to myself that someone from the SDLP or any of the other parties would have been in exactly the same position as myself at that moment but that didn't really make me feel much better. I left the house feeling very small. Her parting words to me were, ``Thanks for listening''.

As the time of writing we are on the eve of another poll, the local elections. In Belfast it is hoped that the unionist majority on the council will be reduced, if not eliminated. Failing that, I would even be glad if those elected from the loyalist community were ones who had the needs and wishes of all of the working class people of this city at heart. For those engaged in the republican struggle it no doubt is the bigger picture we must always focus on yet we must do so without losing sight of the small pictures all around us. People have the right to live their lives with dignity, free from abuse in whatever form it manifests itself. That means removing all the barriers that currently exist to deny them that dignity, be they economic, physical, political, cultural, emotional or psychological and it doesn't always take a vote in the council chambers or Westminster to achieve that.

Let's hope that with elections in the north behind us for some years we can all start - even in small ways - to build that society which republicans have a vision of; where ``all the children of the nation are cherished equally'', with respect and with dignity. Maybe then all can join in our celebrations.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

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