The Blanket

The Power to Force Respect

Anthony McIntyre

After many years of intra-community conflict in Ballymurphy, the McMahon family - perceived to be a ‘problem’ by its neighbours - has finally been compelled to pack its bags and move elsewhere. While there are young children in the family who bear no culpability for the behaviour of older family members their rights went by the wayside in all of this. Against this there was a genuine feeling in the estate that the children were used as a shield by their older brothers and that ultimately there was no alternative but to force the family out. Many would feel that as the family are to be quickly re-housed and were not unceremoniously dumped on the street no rights were in fact violated.

There is little doubt that had the family pulled its horns in it would still be living in Ballymurphy. As one of those behind the move to evict the family said, many attempts had been made in the past to avoid this point ever being reached. The "long and sustained pressure" to induce it into leaving, which Ballymurphy residents spokesperson Rosemary Lawlor referred to, would have dissipated and fizzled out. The family itself ensured that it remained in the public gaze.

Communities must have some means of dealing with "neighbours from hell" otherwise daily life can take on a hellish character for those living alongside them. The mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, has said as much himself. And it can hardly be claimed that he wants to violate the rights of his neighbours. But already in the discourse employed by the forces behind the campaign to expel the McMahon family can be found an ominous inflection.

Liam Stone, usually not over the top in his response to community problems, has spoken of "the start of a peaceful, non-violent approach to dealing with families which the community does not want living among them". Micky McMahon of Whiterock Westrock Residents’ Association has claimed that "this is a sign that families will only be able to live in the community when they claim the respect of their neighbours". Language of this sort raises the question of what type of rights do families have against the community?

A loose perusal of Liam Stone and Micky McMahon’s views might conclude that both men are speaking strictly against the backdrop of the McMahon family and that nothing further can be inferred from their comments which might be seen to impinge on the situation of other families. A tighter reading however might conclude that a new discourse is being created through which people are being positioned into groups - those who have the power to demand respect and those too powerless to resist and who must therefore acquiesce to the community regime which in turn is invariably shaped by those most powerful within the community and whose power is not always derived from the community.

In the case of the McMahon family there are already rumblings that despite the widespread dismay at its behaviour only a minority of neighbours signed a petition calling on the Housing Executive to have them evicted. Furthermore, whispers are alleging that a Sinn Fein member has been lined up to secure the house. None of this has been substantiated and may of course merely be the inevitable envy and resentment accompanied by back-biting that goes on when frustrated people think their allocated place in the waiting list should be higher than it is. Sinn Fein members like everyone else need houses to live in and some have been on the list for years. But house allocation should be above any suspicion of political vetting or favouritism. And given that the local Sinn Fein councillor has been to the fore in pressing the Housing Executive to move the family, no matter how justified her motives in this particular case may have been, the need for total transparency and public accountability at every step of these processes is considerably amplified. Without such openness and susceptibility to public scrutiny the rumblings that already exist may continue to grow and call into question the legitimacy of a strategy which if managed properly and impartially at least has the potential to alleviate community suffering.

Moreover, relating back to the comments of Liam Stone and Micky McMahon, what is it that people have to respect - their neighbour’s political opinions among other things? People can treat the political perspective of their neighbours with absolute contempt if they so choose without fear of being harassed on the grounds of ‘no respect’. The pseudo charter that was once put through the doors in these estates more or less felt obliged to concede that principle if only on paper.

If justice is to prevail in the communities in which we live then in order to reside in them people need only abide by the agreed and established, non-hierarchical and transparent customs that regulate day to day behaviour. Outside of that, what their neighbours think of them or whether they respect them or not is irrelevant.



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‘Be nice to your neighbour.
Be hell to his ideas’
- James Versluys

Index: Current Articles

20 June 2002


Other Articles From This Issue:


Against Suicide Bombings

Carrie Twomey

The Power to Force Respect
Anthony McIntyre


Ciarán Irvine, decentralisation, and "Eire Nua"
Seaghan O Murchu

Why the Earth Moved

Ciarán Irvine


16 June 2002


Zionism, Palestine & The Spirit of the Warsaw Ghetto

Brian Kelly

Avoiding Park Benches
Anthony McIntyre


A Case For Change
Ciarán Irvine


The Terrifying Power of Life and Death
Brendan Hughes



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