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1 October 1998 Edition

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Under the thatch

By Eoghan Mac Cormaic

I was searching though my vast collection of political memorabilia one night last week. After stubbing my toe on a biscuit tin while I walked across the chaos of the bedroom in the darkness between changing nappies and getting the baby's wind up (Rita O Hare warned me that fatherhood would change me; she was right), I was in for a restless night, and so I decided to open the box and spend an hour of sleepless nostalgia sorting through the contents to see what could be kept for the son and posterity and what could be dumped.

The box had accumulated a political tangle of the past thirty years in a tight ball of badges, ribbons, folded leaflets, visiting passes, a CS gas cartridge, pins, Easter Lilies, a match-covered Crumlin Road Jail tobacco tin, two dubious bits of stone which might have been remnants of Nelson's Column and Walker's Pillar, a scapular, the Prayer of St Joseph, window stickers, two election manifestoes from a thin John Hume and a hairy Eamonn McCann.

I tried to untangle some of the contents but the biscuit tin fairy had been too clever for me, knotting knots upon knots. At the bottom lay scattered some coins; old Free State pennies with the letters UVF hammered on them. There was a campaign that had never gone outside the imagination of a fitter in a shipyard with a letter-punch and block-hammer, a campaign that had never a hope of success. I wonder how long it took Sammy to realise that there were more than fifty million of them fenian coins in circulation and even with all the idle hours in a shipyard day he'd never manage to deface them all. New campaign please.

The box was full of history and full of campaigns; theirs, and ours.

I've always wanted to start a campaign. I think the thrill of it would be akin to a Chinese whisper returning to you, altered but recognisable, and with loads and loads of new participants. Of course, a campaign needs an emblem, like a ribbon, or a button or some other badge, just like the contents of the bundle I'd just put into the box. I decided to try again to defuse the bundle with the help of a Stanley knife. A piece of sponge expanded its way out, and fell at my feet. Orange sponge.

The first spontaneous symbol in my box was invented by Ian Paisley. Back in 1974, at the time of the UWC strike, Harold Wilson had gone on TV to accuse Unionists and Loyalists of being spongers on the British Taxpayer. The Supreme Sponge was, naturally enough, irate and duly appeared on TV the next day with a piece of sponge in his buttonhole. Many unionists followed his example and for weeks we had the unsightly spectacle of unionism parading about with its brains pinned to the lapels of its coat. It wasn't a great campaign: the design features didn't lend themselves well to the grey skies of the Six Counties. One good shower and the sponge-soaked lapel of Unionism was sagging to its waist. Another heroic failure in the badge department, and another addition to my biscuit tin. But it reminded me of 1974.

A Ban Plastic Bullets badge caught my eye. I thought of the image on TV of the RUC man shooting Sean Downes. Or maybe the badge was worn after Nora McCabe, or Julie Livingstone or Paul Whitters. Or some of the other victims of the RUC. Same old force, irreformable.

The baby was dropping off to sleep again and my interest in the box was waning. I decided to shut the lid on it, and hide it away for another generation. Filed under reminders. Reminders of Loyalism, unionism, the RUC, prisons, injustice, and our campaigns against all that. There are some things in struggle that are best kept, even if they're not in use. What the box held wasn't the sort of stuff to be dumped and destroyed for ever; at least, not yet. I'd put it up among the rafters, in under the thatch. For safekeeping. And maybe for the symbolism I'll take to wearing a bit of thatch on my lapel. I wonder could that take off as a campaign?

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

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