21 years ago I trudged the mean streets of Glasgow’s East End proffering a message hardly anyone there wanted to hear. I wasn’t a Jehovah’s Witness nor was I selling insurance, although I might as well have been.
I knocked on every door in tenement buildings. I walked up flight after flight of rubbish-strewn stairs in high flats where the lifts could not be relied upon. The stairs had an ingrained smell of urine that was the perfume of poverty, of hopelessness.
It was, as now, one of the poorest parts of Western Europe.
To outsiders it would have been a daunting task to walk these streets by day, let alone night. It did not occur to me, as this was my patch, my hometown.
Familiarity breeds a sense of security in a situation that would terrify anyone who wasn’t local either spatially or socially.
The chances of bumping into a cousin on these streets, or an old school friend were quite high. Despite the fact that I was advocating for the enemy, in carrying SNP leaflets, I had a sort of tribal diplomatic immunity.
Middle class people from Glasgow (yes they do exist) wouldn’t have set foot in these areas unless they were required to do so by their profession.
I was far away in Donegal the ancestral homeland of most of the East End Irish when I watched the British labour party come tumbling down in my hometown. The Labour party had held the Westminster seat in the East end of Glasgow since 1922. In those days it was the ILP (Independent labour Party) when Glasgow Shettleston returned John Wheatley to Westminster.
John Wheatley was, like the famous soccer club that grew out of the area, Irish.
The catholic Irish of the East End flocked to Labour they way they flocked to Celtic park on a Saturday and to mass on a Sunday. If you do not understand the narrative of the Glasgow Irish diaspora on the Clyde you will not understand Celtic football and for sure you will not understand the Fort Knox quality of the Labour Party’s vote in the area over generations.
Although Labour left John Wheatley behind the people of the East End, his people, stayed with Labour.
It was, like the Catholic Church and Celtic FC a badge of identity. Any canvasser from another party knocking on any door in my parish would be told firmly “we’re labour in here!”
The concept that people made up their own minds on how to use their vote after sifting the various policy packages on offer from the competing candidates was, quite frankly, bizarre.
We were; indeed, labour in my household and in all the households of the neighbourhood.
Last week that inheritance of history was finally spent. Labour’s political cheque finally bounced. For generations labour votes were weighed in the East End of Glasgow not counted.
This time the party managers called for a re-count. It actually increased the SNP majority.
Over the last six months I have visited the constituency more than I had in the previous six years due to the illness of my mother who still lives in her native Baillieston.
Up until then she would visit her grandchildren here in Donegal.
The hometown looked much the same, but there were subtle changes.
People said they would opt for independence if they got an option.
I had been last in the area in the mid 1980s. I had arrived back in Baillieston because of the illness of my maternal grandfather. While I was there I looked around at the crushing effects of the Thatcher economic experiment and I was roused to become politically involved. Despite having a politics degree becoming a political activist was something I said to myself that I would never do. Politics fascinated me. My father’s family had been “out” in 1916, had run Sinn Fein in Mayo and were founder members of Fianna Fail. My mother’s father was a life-long trade unionists and a devotee of the secular faith of class-consciousness as well as a dutiful member of the Catholic Church.
He was fashioned in John Wheatley’s image. He had been born in 1904 a few miles to the east in another mining village. Both his parents were Irish from County Carlow.
Poor as church mice they had struggled through real poverty and institutional discrimination in Protestant Scotland to rear their relatively small family of five children.
All of his life he voted Labour and voting anything else would have been like him denying everything he was, everything he believed in.
People do not do that easily.
Maybe it was easier that he had passed away when I decided to become a member of the local branch of the Scottish National Party.
This was apostasy in my tribe.
I argued that it should not be viewed as such.
How could a community, which advocated Irish national self-determination, oppose national freedom for the country they lived in?
The local labour party startled by this development from within their bedrock constituency dubbed this new happening “The Provisional SNP.” This attracted the interest of the media and the Scotsman newspaper sent their seasoned political reporter Robbie Dinwoodie to cover the story. We’ve been friends ever since. Our little rebellion had an excellent front man.
John MacVicar, a rugby playing schoolteacher from the Scottish Borders saw the Labour hierarchy in Glasgow clearly through a nationalist prism. Moreover he accepted my analysis that the Catholic Irish bedrock of the Labour vote was their jugular. In a street fight that is a good place to start.
The SNP hierarchy were horrified.
We dubbed them (well I dubbed them) SNP = So Nice Party!
We saw ourselves in a street brawl with a bully who had never been challenged on their own turf before.
In the end the SNP Provos of the East End didn’t unseat labour (although we did get the best vote in Glasgow).
What we did do, I’m sure, is to plant a seed from within the East End Irish Catholic community that Scottish independence was good for them also.
Large cultural changes after often only visible a generation or so later. It is now culturally acceptable to be an East End “Tim” and vote for the SNP and advocate Scottish independence. It should always have been the case, but better late…
21 years on I’m proud of the place I come from.