Saturday, May 30, 2020

You only die once. You live everyday.

Mise agus Martin on a tiny plane
heading to another round of negotiations in 2003
I remember Martin McGuinness, in response to a question, telling a journalist that he expected to be dead before he was twenty five. I told the same journalist the same thing. That’s the way it was in the 1970s when Martin and I first met the British Government in an effort with others to negotiate a way to end the conflict. I was twenty three. Martin was about eighteen months younger than me. As it turned out we both lived well beyond the quarter of a century that both of us thought would be our life span.
I assume it might be difficult for anyone who didn’t experience conflict to understand why we thought the way we did. It seems very melodramatic when it’s written down like that. But that’s the way it was. Hunted in our own place. On the run. Living on the edge. If there was not quite a queue of would be assassins - in and out of British uniform - there was certainly enough to justify our concerns. It was open season on republican activists. Not just for me or Martin. But many, many others as well. And for our opponents and enemies. Contemporaries from all sides. Including some who were doing their best with deadly intent to fulfil our expectation. Not that we wanted to die. Far from it. That’s one fact to emerge from the pandemic crisis. Few of us want to die. Or to see others die.
The longer I live - the more I learn - the less I know. There are so many mysteries to and in our existence. That’s part of the joy of living. Martin would have been seventy on Saturday 23 of May. Last Saturday. He lived a very full life and he lived it well. There was a wonderful online celebration organised by The Martin McGuinness Peace Foundation (its available still at )
Well done to all involved. Commiserations again to Bernie and the entire McGuinness clann.
Martin’s death, his wake and funeral touched many people. I’m sure others who had loved ones killed by the IRA don’t see it like that. Fair enough. They too deserve respect. Their loved ones had lives worth living. Worth celebrating by their friends and families. We all have grieved after folks we love. Not only people killed in the conflict. Parents and grandparents. Other family members. Mates. Neighbours.
In Ireland we have a tradition, steeped in our values, of gathering around a bereaved family to give them comfort and support. Part Christian with elements of another older pagan world we celebrate the life which has ended. Unless of course the dearly departed is a young person of someone deemed to have died before their time or in tragic circumstances. We have all experienced the shock of that. Of death by violence. Death by suicide. Sudden death.
And yet we get comfort from the prayers and sympathy and solidarity of those who support us. And the wake and funeral and burial or cremation service are the occasion to give expression to all this. It’s telling the bereaved that they are not on their own. We’re sorry for their troubles. Even though we go back to and get on with our own lives that coming together is important. Taking that time to visit, to pay our respects, is part of what we are.
That’s one aspect of the terrible deaths from the Coronavirus that many find so distressful. People dying alone. Especially older people in care homes or other congregated settings. Restrictions on funerals. Yes it’s necessary and I support the restrictions but it’s heart rending. I have missed funerals myself since the lock down of people I know, friends, former prisoners. It must be much, much worse for family members.
All these thoughts come together in this column as I reflect on these matters of life and death. The pandemic will pass. We don’t know when but pass it will. It will affect some of us more than others. Just as the conflict did. Some who survive will never recover fully from the loss of a loved one. Or the circumstances of their death. Just like in the conflict.
So Martin and I were the lucky ones. It’s still a wonder to me that he is gone and I’m still here. But that’s life. Our life begins every morning we wake up to a new day. So try to take the benefits of that with joy. Make the most of it. It won’t always be possible to see it like that. Not every day. But that’s okay also. It’s okay not to be okay. But try to be positive. Be alert to the wee things. The birdsong. The light in the sky. The kindness of friends. And strangers. A nice meal. A dance. A good tune. A dog. Flowers. The wind. A laugh. Companionship. Love. Children. Trees. A good walk. Friendship. Nature. A good book. A wee drink if you can handle it.
Even if you don’t have any or all of these things you have yourself. That’s a big thing. Without yourself who or where would you be. So let’s try to be happy. Despite everything and because of everything. Remember we only die once. We live every day. Let’s do our best to be our best and to make this a better place for others less well off than we are.

Friday, May 22, 2020


 The British named it Operation Demetrius. For those of us who lived through the 9 August 1971 it was internment day. Like many others I was awakened early that morning by the sound of binlids rattling their alarm across the streets of Ballymurphy and Springhill. 342 men and boys from nationalist homes across the North were dragged from their beds in the early hours of the morning by thousands of British soldiers and RUC Many were beaten and 14 – the Hooded Men - were subjected to days of sustained torture. 

Thousands fled their homes. 25 people were killed in the following four days. In my home area 11 local citizens, including a priest and mother of eight, were killed by the Paras in the Ballymurphy Massacre.  Five months later the Paras attacked an anti-internment march in Derry and killed 14 people. Bloody Sunday was another of many dark days in the conflict. In July 1972 another five citizens, this time in Springhill, were killed by the British Army. They included another priest and a thirteen year old girl.

The Ulster Unionist Party, which for 50 years had ruled at Stormont, had  demanded that the British bring in internment.  It had been used in every decade since partition, including for a brief time in 1969. It was part of a repressive arsenal, including the Special Powers Act and institutionalised structured political and religious discrimination, which had sustained unionist domination in the North for 50 years. Internment of men and women was without charge or trail and for an indefinite undeclared period. Some of the older men had been interned many times. Liam Mulholland was first imprisoned in the 1920s and in every decade since including the 1970s. Throughout that time British governments supported the existence of this squalid little apartheid police  state.

Of course, Unionism wasn’t alone in employing internment. It was used by the British after the 1916 Rising and again during the Tan War. The Free State government used it in the 1920s and Fianna Fáil brought it in between 1939 and 1946. Fianna Fáil used it again during the 1950s and in December 1970 the then Fianna Fáil Taoiseach Jack Lynch announced the introduction of internment but political and public outrage forced him to backtrack.

Whenever the British government went for the military option it brought with it the techniques of counter-insurgency that it had employed in dozens of colonial conflicts in Africa, Europe, the Middle East and Asia in the decades after the Second World War. These included the use of internment, the torture of detainees, shoot-to-kill tactics, curfew, riot control tactics, the use of state collusion and counter-gangs, and much more. Instead of asserting the primacy of politics the Conservative government of Prime Minister Ted Heath handed power over to the generals. The tactics and strategies that resulted from this failed to contain the conflict but instead led quickly to even greater resistance.

I was first arrested and interned in March 1972. After several days in Holywood Barracks where I was badly beaten I was taken to the Maidstone prison ship in Belfast Lough. The conditions for the 150 internees on the boat were appalling. We were held below deck. The fold-up bunks were in tiers of three. Light struggled in through small port-holes. The food was awful and the boat sat in its own sewage. The toilets were constantly flooded. Following   protests by us the Maidstone was closed down by the British  after Stormont was prorogued. We were all taken to Long Kesh by helicopter.
In June 1972 I was released to take part in talks with the British government and then as part of a republican delegation to London. The truce that followed was short-lived.
Just over a year later I was arrested again in July 1973. I was beaten unconscious by British soldiers and interned again in Long Kesh, initially under an Interim Custody Order.  There are lots of photos of the Cages of Long Kesh available online if you want a sense of what it looked like. The camp was built on a former British RAF base. Every Cage was surrounded by a high wire fence topped with barbed wire. Each Cage had four Nissan huts made of two skins of corrugated tin. Cages held around 100 men and in the autumn and winter they were freezing cold, damp, and poorly lit. In the summer they could be stifling. Toilet and shower facilities were primitive. The food was normally cold and of a poor standard. Most internees relied on food parcels sent in by our families.

The British Army carried out periodic raids on the internee Cages. Scores of soldiers with batons and shields would smash their way into the huts during the night, drag men outside and force us to spread-eagle against the wire for hours. Many were beaten. Personal belongings were ripped apart, beds urinated on, and handicrafts – which some internees did to pass the time – were destroyed. Hugh Coney was shot dead in 1974.

Like prisoner-of-war camps throughout history there were also escapes – some successful – some less so. On Christmas Eve 1973 four of us in Cage 6 – Marshall Mooney, Tommy Toland, Marty O’Rawe and myself, all from Ballymurphy – tried to escape. We were caught.

Seven months later in July 1974 I was caught again. This time I managed to get a wee bit further. In March 1975 I was convicted on the first attempt and sentenced to 18 months imprisonment. I was subsequently convicted in April 1975 of the second attempt and was given a three year sentence to run consecutively.

Now that the British Supreme Court has ruled that my imprisonment was unlawful I would like to plead guilty to numerous other escape bids including some very scary claustrophobic efforts to dig tunnels.  I was eventually released in 1977.

Fast forward 32 years and a researcher working for the Pat Finucane Centre in October 2009 was going through documents released by the British government under the 30 years rule. The researcher found a memorandum, dated 8 July 1974, from the Director of Public Prosecutions to the British Attorney General.

The key paragraph says: “It seems to me that the Attorney General should be advised at this stage before the question of prosecutions is considered further that Adams, O’Rawe and Tolan and possibility many other detainees held under the Orders which have not been signed by the Secretary of State himself may be unlawfully detained.”

In the course of the ten years that it took from the researcher first uncovered this document to the British Supreme Court decision last week a further ‘Secret’ document was uncovered that revealed that the Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson and his Secretary of State for the North Merlyn Rees held a meeting on the 17 July 1974 to discuss “an urgent problem” which the Attorney General had raised with him. The AG Samuel Silkin told Wilson and Rees that an examination of the papers concerning our attempted escape had revealed that the Interim Custody Orders of three of us had not been “examined personally by the Secretary of State during the Conservative administration”. 

Silkin told the meeting that there “might be as many as 200 persons unlawfully detained” in the North. This “could only be put right by retrospective legislation in Parliament.”

So, the British government knew, before it chose to put me on trial, that I was unlawfully detained. It also knew that up to 200 other people might also be unlawfully interned. It did nothing. The onus is now on the British government to identify and inform other internees whose Internment may also have been unlawful. That’s unlikely so if you were arrested and interned between 7 November 1972 and early 1974 and you think that your internment order was unlawful don’t wait - contact your solicitor.

Friday, May 15, 2020

The Choctaws- A Debt Repaid.

The Irish proverb: “Is ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine.” translates as: “We all live in each other’s shadow.” In other words we are all interlinked.
In our own lifetime probably no greater example of this connectivity between people and communities – of us living in each other’s shadow - is to be found in the communal response to the Coronavirus pandemic. Frontline health workers, carers, shop workers, lorry drivers and so many others have minded us despite the risk to themselves. Community activists have again and again collected and delivered much needed food parcels and prepared hot food for those in need. While this is a universal response and not uniquely Irish it is also in keeping with one of our traditions. That is the meitheal, when neighbours come together to help with the harvest or turf but also following misfortune.
There are many examples of this in recent times and thankfully lots of evidence that the spirit of the meitheal – a sense of community, solidarity and volunteerism is alive and well among our people.
This empathy and compassion helps connect us. We are able to look beyond our own individual concerns, desires and fears and reach out to assist others in our family, our street, our community or our world.
One recent example of this was last Friday night’s The Late Late Show on RTE. At a time when so many are experiencing huge stress in their lives viewers of The Late Late Show raised over two million euro for Pieta House, the largely voluntary organisation which provides free therapy to those engaging in self-harm, with suicidal ideation, or bereaved by suicide. It was an amazing example of generosity.
Last September the GoFundMe organisation revealed that the Irish people are the most generous in the world. GoFundMe said that nearly one in ten Irish men and women have donated over 40 million euro to GoFundMe causes in the last ten years. There have been 860,000 individual donations. Organisations like St. Vincent de Paul, as well as Trocaire and Concern are among many that also raise millions each year to help those here and overseas who need support – health care, food, water, shelter.
Why are the Irish so generous? While we are no better than anyone else, essentially we are decent people. Loving. Compassionate. Caring. But we are also a people who have historically experienced conquest and occupation, colonisation and migration. It’s in our DNA.  Even if we are not fully aware of our own history it does give us an empathy with the difficulties faced by others. This includes developing nations still suffering from the impact of colonisation, migration, exploitation and conflict.
The most devastating upheaval in Irish history was An Gorta Mór - The Great Hunger. The census of 1841 estimated that the population of our island was just above eight million.  Over 6 million were tied in a desperate battle with the land to produce enough for their families to live on. Most had less than a half-acre plot of land. They were totally dependent on the potato. The British government understood the dangers of the overreliance on the potato. During the first four decades of the 19th century there were at least 150 committees and commissions of enquiry which reported on the danger of famine.  They were ignored.
The failure of the potato crop in 1845 led to even greater hardship.  One effect of this was to force people to flee overseas. They abandoned their mostly one roomed, mud or turf-walled cabins, with their sod roofs, and their small parcels of land. They left on ships (many of which had carried African slaves a few decades earlier) bound for North America. Coffin ships!
In the five years of The Great Hunger it is estimated that one million died and another million fled. By the end of the 19th century there were more Irish people living abroad than on the island of Ireland. The Great Hunger -An Gorta Mor- left an indelible mark on the Irish psyche. In my opinion it has shaped and made us more empathetic to the experience of other peoples
One account from An Gorta Mór which has been told and retold many times over the years is the help given to the starving Irish by the Choctaw native American people in Oklahoma.
The Choctaw nation was originally from the Mississippi region in the USA. In 1830 15,000 people were forced to walk 600 miles away to Oklahoma. In what subsequently came to be known as the ‘Trail of Tears’ a quarter of them died. Even when they reached their new place they were destitute and faced violence and intimidation. One Choctaw man described how their homes were “torn down and burned, our fences destroyed, cattle turned into our fields, and we ourselves have been scourged, manacled, fettered, and otherwise personally abused, until by such treatment some of our best men have died.”
Despite the many dangers and challenges they faced in their own lives the Choctaw people were moved by the accounts in local papers of the great hunger in Ireland. One historian, Anelise Hanson Shrout writing in the Journal of the Early Republic described the plight of the Choctaw people: “Most would have experienced enormous financial, emotional, and demographic damage as a result of removal. It is difficult to imagine a people less well-positioned to act philanthropically.”   But act they did. At a meeting they managed to raise $170 – about $5,000 today. That act of kindness and generosity has never been forgotten.
Consequently, several weeks ago when a GoFundMe page was opened to raise money for the Navajo and Hopi peoples trying to combat Covid-19 many Irish people donated to that effort and cited the help given by the Choctaw almost two hundred years ago as a reason for this.  It is an act of solidarity by people in Ireland to native peoples in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah who are reeling under the impact of Civid-19. Gary Batton, chief of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, said last week that the tribe was “gratified — and perhaps not at all surprised — to learn of the assistance our special friends, the Irish, are giving to the Navajo and Hopi Nations.”
So, one act of generosity, of solidarity 173 years ago is being reciprocated today by another act of solidarity. Is ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Remembering Bobby Sands.

In 1973 just before midnight on Christmas Eve, I was caught along with three other comrades attempting to escape from Long Kesh. We were among a large group of men and women interned without charge or trial. My first bout of internment was on the Maidstone Prison Ship in 1972. Internees-the British later called us detainees as part of their fiction that internment was ended – were held in Armagh Women’s Gaol, Belfast Prison, Magilligan, and Long Kesh.

In July 1974 I was caught again in another escape bid. Steve McQueen I was not. The following March 1975 I was taken out to court where I was convicted on the first escape attempt and received an 18 month sentence. A month later I was convicted of the second escape attempt and got another three years.
Then as the rest of the internees were being released a small group of us nearly got-aways were moved out of the internee end of Long Kesh to the top end of the camp where the sentenced POWs were held. We were incarcerated in Cage 11. None of us had the benefit of trial by a jury of our peers. The British judicial system had dispensed with that in favour of non jury courts with special rules. It was the same in the South.
I met Bobby Sands in Cage 11 of Long Kesh. I don’t remember exactly the first time we met but it was almost certainly at one of the discussion groups I set up for those who were interested. There were around eighty of us in Cage 11. For those of you who don’t know about the Cages that’s exactly what they were. We were caged into a compound surrounded by a high wire fence in which there were four Nissan huts, a study hut and a toilet shower hut. At one time there were twenty two cages. In Cage 11 one of the Nissan huts was also a Gaeltacht which was set up by some prisoners for those wanting to learn the Irish language. That’s where Bobby was.
He was keenly interested in our discussions. We went on to get books from old Joe Clarkes Book Bureau in Dublin and from The Connolly Association in London. As political books were banned our friends outside used to put other book covers on them. I still have Desmond Greaves brilliant book on Liam Mellows disguised as something less dangerous. Bobby was a voracious reader.
I remember him also as a keen sportsman who played soccer or Gaelic football whenever he got the chance. He had long hair, a good sense of humour and liked music. He was very good on the guitar. I remember the two of us sitting in the study hut – in reality a wooden shed. I would be writing while Bobby would be practicing on his guitar.
His party piece was the classic by Kris Kristofferson, ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ and later when he went to the H Blocks Bobby wrote songs including ‘McIlhatton’ and ‘Back home in Derry’. They were famously recorded by Christy Moore and are now part of the tradition. Bobby would be immensely proud of that.
On one memorable Christmas Eve we held a concert to mark the occasion. There was a bar, from which a group of comrades served beer, cider and poteen they had brewed up illicitly for the occasion. In the course of the concert Bobby and Martin McAllister played some lovely sets.
The finale and highlight of the night consisted of a bunch of prisoners including Bobby and Danny Lennon suitably bewigged and costumed miming Queen’s ‘A Night At the Opera’.
I got to know Bobby well during our political debates and lectures. Bobby was a very intelligent, committed republican. He enjoyed political discussions and he was very open to new ideas. He made up his own mind.  Many of our discussions focussed on the need to convert passive support for our struggle into active support and of the need for the primacy of politics and for clear strategies and democratic structures to implement these strategies. It was at this time that Bobby picked up on the concept of everyone having a role in the struggle, no matter how small.
He was also an internationalist. He read about other struggles, in particular the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and the efforts of the Palestinian peoples to achieve a homeland. Four decades later South Africa has been transformed, largely by a generation of activists who were in apartheid prisons at the same time that Bobby and we were in British prisons.
On my first visit to South Africa in 1995 we were hosted by the ANC Executive. Walter Sisulu, who had spent over 25 years on Robben island and had just turned 83, made a special point of coming to the lunch.  He spoke of his own time in prison and of his memories of the hunger strike in Ireland in 1981. He told us of the great solidarity that existed between ANC prisoners and the republican prisoners. It was an emotional speech in which he recalled hearing of the death of Bobby Sands and of the silent tribute ANC prisoners across South Africa paid to a fellow freedom fighter.
Nelson Mandela was on Robben Island when Bobby died. In his cell, in common with all political prisoners, he was allowed as a privilege a calendar on which he marked significant events. On the 5th May 1981 a simple single line is written: ‘IRA martyr Bobby Sands dies.’ A tribute, hand written, on a paper calendar on a cell wall in South Africa which recognises the bond of those who struggle for justice.
Of course none of us in Cage 11 forsaw any of this For a small group with release dates pending our concern was about how we could transfer some of our ideas to the outside. I remember in the weeks before his release Bobby seeking me out to walk around the yard –‘boowling’ in prison parlance as we swapped political ideas and concepts.
Bobby was released from Cage 11 in early 1976. He reported back to the IRA in Twinbrook. Here he set about promoting ideas for local activists acting in solidarity with their communities. He became very involved in local housing actions including the Twinbrook Tenants Association. In August that year the annual republican march, which had previously focussed on ending internment, was now about raising awareness of the British moves to end political status and to criminalise the POWs and through them the republican struggle. It was the first big march in support of political status and was addressed by Máire Drumm. Bobby was part of the Colour Party and the photographs which were found last year of him participating in the event reveal a very young man, with short hair. Just weeks later he was imprisoned again.
Like hundreds of men and women Bobby was denied political status and joined the prison protests which were now taking place in the H Blocks and in Armagh Women’s Prisons. Naked, but for a blanket, and living under the most brutal and violent of prison regimes, Bobby was driven to write about the conditions in the H-Blocks. They provide an insight into a spirit that refused to be broken.
Bobby’s smuggled comms- letters; poems; articles; creative pieces; and stories - written on scraps of torn bible pages or cigarette papers using the infill of a biro, and all wrapped in cling film and hidden in his naked body, tell you more about the brutal reality of life for political prisoners and the nature of British rule in the northern state than anything else I can think of. These are not the invented musings or a plot device of a clever writer. They are the daily experiences of hundreds of men and women over five terrible years.
When he died on 5 May 1981 Bobby had spent one third of his 27 years in prisons. He was never interviewed on television or radio, though while on hunger strike two journalists briefly saw him for half an hour. We only have a few photographs of him. And yet his name is known and honoured around the world. His writings tell us much about the man. I like in particular his poem the Rhythm of Time. But for this occasion I think it appropriate that we read his own account of one day in his life in the H-Blocks and imagine the courage and strength of character that allowed Bobby and Francie, Raymond, Patsy, Joe, Martin, Kevin, Kieran. Tom and Mickey to put their lives on the line for their comrades and for the Irish cause. In this anniversary week of his death here is Bobby Sands in his own words. I am blessed to have known him and his comrades.
One Day in My Life:
“I mumbled a “Hail Mary” to myself and a hurried “Act of Contrition” as I heard the approaching jingle of keys. Several gloved hands gripped and tightened around my arms and feet, raising my body off the ground and swinging me backwards in the one movement. The full weight of my body recoiled forwarded again, smashing me head against the corrugated iron covering around the gate. The sky seemed to fall upon me as they dropped me to the ground. …
Every part of me stung unmercifully as the heavily disinfected water attacked my naked, raw flesh. I made an immediate and brave attempt to rise out of the freezing, stinging water but the screws held me down while one of them began to scrub my already tattered back with a heavy scrubbing brush. I shrivelled with the pain and struggled for release but the more I fought the more they strengthened their iron grip …
They continued to scrub every part of my tortured body, pouring buckets of ice-cold water and soapy liquid over me. I vaguely remember being lifted out of the cold water – the sadistic screw had grabbed my testicles and scrubbed my private parts. That was the last thing I remembered. I collapsed…
It was cold, so very, very cold. I rolled on to my side and placed my little treasured piece of tobacco under the mattress and felt the dampness clinging to my feet.
That’s another day nearer to victory. I thought feeling very hungry. I was a skeleton compared to what I used to be but it didn’t matter. Nothing really mattered except remaining unbroken. I rolled over once against, the cold biting at me. They have nothing in their entire imperial arsenal to break the spirit of one single Republican political prisoner-of-war who refuses to be broken. I thought, and that was very true. They cannot or never will break our spirit. I rolled over again freezing and the snow came in thew window on top of my blankets. “Tiocfaidh ár lá,” I said to myself. “Tiocfaidh ar lá.”

Friday, May 1, 2020

Solidarity is saving lives.

There is a lot of speculation about when the lockdown caused by the pandemic will end. As a lay person my own best call is that it will be some time before we should do this. The main factor in any decision to relax confinement measures has to be the health needs of citizens. Without a vaccine the Coronavirus remains a terrible threat to our well being and to the most vulnerable amongst us.

The pandemic is far from over, and its significant economic consequences, allied to those of Brexit, are still to be felt.

Some commendable and welcome investigative reports by journalists and media platforms have begun to shine a light on the confusion, lack of planning, irresponsible decisions, public utterances, neglect, and disregard for the lives and welfare of their citizens that has marked the response of some governments and government agencies to this global threat.

The absence of political leadership in Britain in the early stages of the crisis, including the failure of its Prime Minister Boris Johnson to attend the critical February meetings of its Cobra co-ordinating committee, have all been highlighted. So too has the adherence by some unionist leaders to the British strategy, even when it was clear that that strategy was at odds with the recommendations of the World Health Organisation.

The failure by the British and Irish governments to respond speedily to protect our elderly and most vulnerable citizens, especially in nursing and care homes, and others potentially in other congregated settings is already attracting significant criticism. There was also the widespread lack of guidelines and Personal Protection Equipment for front line staff in hospitals, nursing and care homes and for those involved in keeping our food and essential services open.

Some commentators are trying to excuse governments for not being as prepared as they should have been. But the fact is that the threat of pandemics has been known for a very long time. In the last two decades there was SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) in 2002-4, then the H1N1 influenza in 2009, and in 2012-14 there was the worst outbreak to date of the Ebola virus which killed over two thousand people.

Last September, four months before the Wuhan outbreak, the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board published its report – A World at Risk – which examined the world’s preparedness for global health emergencies on the back of the outbreaks of the last 20 years.

In their foreword the organisation’s Co-Chairs H.E. Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, a former Director General of the World Health Organisation and Mr Elhadj As Sy, the Secretary General of the International Federation of Red Cross and red Crescent Federations, reviewed recommendations from previous high-level panels and commissions. They wrote: “.....there is a very real threat of a rapidly moving highly lethal pandemic of a respiratory pathogen killing 50 to 80 million people and wiping out nearly 5% of the world’s economy. A global pandemic on that scale would be catastrophic, creating widespread havoc, instability and insecurity. The world is not ready.”

On 30 January the World Health Organisation declared the Coronavirus outbreak a “a global emergency”. Yet on the same day the Irish Times reported that: “The risk of Coronavirus cases occurring here remains moderate and Ireland is well prepared for any outbreak, according to the Health Service Executive... “You are extremely unlikely to catch novel Coronavirus from someone in Ireland,” Joe Ryan, HSE national director of services, told a briefing on Thursday. While there have been 10 confirmed cases in the EU, the likelihood of further cases being brought into Europe is moderate, he said.”

Within weeks the South’s Health Service, undermined by successive Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael governments, including a recruitment embargo, and by the austerity policies of Fine Gael led governments from 2011, found itself confronted by a huge challenge. It was not properly prepared for or equipped to deal with the health crisis which emerged.

In Britain a Sunday Times report two weeks ago quoted an adviser to Downing Street saying that while Britain had at one time listed a possible pandemic as the No 1 threat; “pandemic planning became a casualty of the austerity years when there were more pressing needs.” The source said preparations for a no-deal Brexit “sucked all the blood out of pandemic planning” in the following years”.

There are already calls for a public enquiry into how the British government responded. There may be a need also on this island for similar investigations.

In the meantime our frontline workers continue to put themselves in danger as they care for those affected by Covid-19. Last Thursday I once again joined the public show of solidarity for NHS staff. The applause is heartfelt. Our admiration for our doctors and nurses and hospital ancillary staff is sincere.

Community solidarity has been one of the great positives to come out of this crisis. Shop staff, those who stack the shelves in food stores, care staff in nursing homes, lorry drivers, taxi drivers, postal workers, delivery drivers, those working in garages, pharmacies, and making and delivering food, and many others have made it possible for those of us who are in lock-down to put food on our tables, heat our homes, and receive essential services. Most of these workers are in precarious employment – among the lowest paid– but now they are the rock upon which our society functions.

At the same time community and voluntary groups and neighbours have ensured that food parcels and where practical hot food, is delivered to those in need. Across Ireland community and Church halls, GAA facilities, other sporting and social clubs and Orange halls, volunteer workers have come together to help. Theirs is the true spirit of community and volunteerism. Without their selfless efforts many of our most vulnerable citizens would fall through the cracks of a system which was already deeply flawed and which is stretched to breaking point.

Minister Deirdre Hargey MLA and Paul Maskey MP

That concern for others is at the core of a community solidarity and leadership which is saving lives.

So, let’s continue to be careful. No rushing to end the protections which have helped so far to protect citizens. Let us also give some thought to the future. Some commentators are talking about the need to get back to normal. Normal? What we had before the pandemic wasn’t normal. What we need is change. Big bold societal change. One lesson that is now patently obvious is that the initial failure to adopt an all-island strategy to confront Covid-19 was a mistake.

Under the current ‘Foot and Mouth Disease Control Strategy’ for the North which was revised in 2016 the six counties is “recognised as a separate epidemiological unit from the rest of the UK and would liaise with the Republic of Ireland during an outbreak of FMD in either or both jurisdictions. It is recognised by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) and the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine (DAFM) that sustained co-operation between both administrations would be essential to reduce the further spread of FMD”.

It appears we can have an all-island strategy for protecting animal health but not human health. This is a stupid and irresponsible position and underlines the desirability of creating an all-island health service. This must be one of our goals in the time ahead. It is needed even more now.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Martin and Varadkar toxic twins of austerity

I hope you are all staying safe and well. My thoughts are with those who are sick and with their relatives, and with those who have suffered bereavement. Welcome back to our leader Mary Lou who was down with Covid-19.
Notwithstanding the primacy and priority that the pandemic deserves, not least because of the deaths and distress it is causing I want to return to the need for a Government for Change in Dublin. In fact the pandemic and the recovery from it requires such a government.

In the days before the February General Election I described that election as part of the necessary process of the realignment of politics on the island of Ireland. I also remarked that this process has been slow and hesitant at times but that if republicans do our work well – think strategically, organise, be energetic and rooted, never give up and stay focused on the future, that a tipping point can emerge – a space in which significant and historic change is possible. I said: “This election looks like being such an event.”

It was. Although few - me included - foresaw the strength of the surge in the republican vote.

Sinn Féin won the popular vote and set about trying to put in place a government for change with those like-minded parties and individual TDs who had campaigned for change.  That work is ongoing. The options are limited but it’s a long game and it’s not over until it’s over.

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael insist that they will not talk to Sinn Féin about government formation. Just like the Unionist used to do. It is deeply insulting, and totally unacceptable for anyone to disrespect and refuse to accept  all  voters as legitimate citizens whose votes are equal to every other vote. The support for this anti-democratic posture by sections of the media is also reprehensible. Shame on them all.

The establishment were flummoxed when Sinn Fein won the popular vote and emerged, following the election of An Ceann Chomairle, with the same number of elected TDs as Fianna Fáil and more than Fine Gael. For the first time ever, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael took less than 50% of the vote.

Micheál Martin who was behaving like An Taoiseach-In-Waiting, was shell shocked. Large sections of the electorate were clearly opting for change. Mr Martin was not one of them. Like Mr Varadkar his vision is conservative and confined by and large to preserving the status quo in the southern state. A consequence in part, of a hundred years of partition allied to a desire to hold on to power.

Both he and Leo Varadkar repeatedly rubbished any suggestion that they might enter coalition together. Micheál Martin said in January that “any government involving Fine Gael is not change.”  He later said: “we will not be entering into a grand coalition … the people want change … they want Fine Gael out of office … they’ve been there too long … they haven’t delivered on the key issues of housing and health and the impact of the costs living.” He described any u-turn on a coalition with Fine Gael as “Jekyll and Hyde behaviour “.

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have been election rivals for almost 100 years. The two parties emerged out of the violence and chaos of the Civil War. Cumann na nGaedheal governed the Irish Free State – established under partition - until 1932. It lost the general election that year to Fianna Fáil which had split from Sinn Féin in 1926. In 1933, Cumann na nGaedheal merged with the right wing National Centre Party and the fascist Blueshirts to form Fine Gael. 

Fianna Fáil posed as the anti-Treaty Republican Party. Fine Gael was the pro-Treaty party. Each was and is conservative and their economic record and policies reflect this. Fianna Fáil had a more populist approach which attracted a greater number of working class votes.

From 1932 every government formed in the South had either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael at their heart, often attracting over 70% of the votes. During this time they did very little to tackle the festering sore of discrimination in the North or any of the other evils of partition. Or the inequalities in their own state.

However in the 2016 general election this cosy arrangement of alternating power between these two parties began to falter. Fianna Fáil was the party largely responsible for the economic crash in 2008 and the subsequent horrendous deal with the Troika which handcuffed citizens for decades to come to a €50 billion banking debt.  Hundreds of thousands lost their jobs and many families saw sons and daughters emigrating to find employment. When Fianna Fáil was kicked out of office in 2011 Fine Gael and Labour ruthlessly implemented austerity policies that imposed huge hardship on citizens and cut public services to the bone, especially in the provision of housing and in the health service.  

Little wonder the government had to scramble to shore up these depleted services in the face of the pandemic. As always the people, particularly health workers and other frontline workers, responded with great courage and willingness to help out those most at risk. Solidarity, community, fairness and decency were and remain the core values embraced by most citizens.

The logic of the two conservative parties merging has long been mooted as a logical outcome of the sameness of their policies and politics. Following the 2016 general election, there was intense speculation and debate once again around this possibility. Micheál Martin was explicit: “… the best interests of the Irish people are not served by a government made up of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. We made it very clear to the Irish people and those voting for us that we would not go into government with Fine Gael and we’re remaining consistent and true to that commitment.”

They came up with the next best option to serve their selfish self-interest – the confidence and supply agreement. For four years Fianna Fáil kept Fine Gael in power while pretending that they weren’t really in partnership and culpable for the crises in housing, homelessness and health. But this time the electorate were not fooled.

Then the awful pandemic kicked in and understandably the issue of government formation receded in public consciousness as we all came to terms with this dreadful plague.

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have now produced their Framework document. Its grandiose title is “A draft documents between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to facilitate negotiations with other parties on a plan to recover, rebuild and renew Ireland after the Covid-19 Emergency.”

As Pearse Doherty has pointed out if Sinn Féin had published this document we would have been ridiculed, quite rightly, by the establishment media. It is dishonest, full of vague generalizations and aspirations, with no specific plans, timetables, targets, costings or policy detail. It’s a wish list with no substance.

Its primary aim is to keep Sinn Fein out of government and put Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in government. It cannot deliver the kind of change that the majority of citizens in the South voted for in February. Why should citizens, or the smaller parties and independents being courted by them, trust Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael? These parties are responsible for the very crises they now claim they want to end.

Their only firm economic commitment is that a FFFG government will comply with the strict conservative European fiscal rules. That can only mean a further squeeze on public services. Surely one of the big lessons of the pandemic crisis is the need, and the entitlement of citizens, to health care, childcare and eldercare as a right. Surely that’s the least the State should do in the common good. That means challenging the EU rules, not blindly complying with them.

The looming economic crisis resulting from Covid-19 also highlights the common sense need for the island of Ireland to confront these significant economic challenges on an all-Ireland basis. Our ability to co-ordinate and maximise our economic response, transform our healthcare services, protect our agricultural and agri-food sector and produce an effective climate change policy to meet the climate emergency, would all be more effective in an all-island context.

The approach of the British government has been disastrous. Boris Johnson is a disgrace. It makes no sense for anyone in Ireland to follow his policies, such as they are. It makes sense to have an all-Ireland approach to Covid 19 – that is what Mary Lou and Michelle O Neill and Sinn Féin’s Ministerial team have been pushing.  We have had an all island approach for animal health. We need an all island approach for human health. We have a huge advantage as an island nation and as we exit this pandemic this is critical.

In the section of their Agreement entitled ‘Mission: A Shared Island’, Fianna Fáil the so-called ‘Republican Party’ and Fine Gael the so-called ‘United Ireland’ party, couldn’t bring themselves to even use the term ‘United Ireland’. Their ‘Shared Ireland’ section contains nothing new.  The commitment to establish a “Unit within the Department of An Taoiseach to work towards a consensus on a united island” is a lift from Fianna Fáil’s 2020 Election Manifesto in January. It falls short of what is required to plan for the future. What now of Simon Coveney’s assertion: "I would like to see a united Ireland in my lifetime – if possible, in my political lifetime.”

I wonder did he bother putting this forward? Or did Michéal Martin knock him back? Leo Varadkar has similar lines on unity. Did he put forward any of these? 0r the proposals coming from civic society North and South which he received in a letter last November calling for the setting up of a “Citizens Assembly reflecting the views of citizens North and South, or a Forum to discuss the future and achieve maximum consensus on a way forward.” If he didn’t, why not?

And what of Micheál Martin’s promise that FF would ‘soon’ produce a white paper on Unity. That was nine years ago. Three years ago he promised a 12 point plan of ‘concrete proposals’ on unity. No sign of that in the new Agreement. Or anywhere else.

The truth is while acknowledging the importance of the Good Friday Agreement - what other choice have they? - the FFFG Framework document runs away from the need to plan for and win the referendum on unity which is a core commitment of the Agreement.

Its attitude on this important issue reflects its position on all the other primary issues. Rural Ireland barely gets a mention. There is no coherent plan to tackle homelessness. Or Childcare. The cost of living crisis. Eldercare. Climate Justice.

The National Women’s Council says the FFFG document will not provide a recovery for women. “Equality is not included in its values, showing a failure to understand the breadth and depth of inequality that exists in society.”

Inequalities in society are not inherent. They are caused by inequalities of power. It takes political vision and political will to change this. It can be done. But not by a FFFG government.

Building an Ireland of Equals is one of Sinn Féin’s core objectives. In the General Election Sinn Féin set out practical costed measures to tackle inequalities. Our main spokespersons, led by Mary Lou McDonald, were, and are, head and shoulders above their counterparts in the other parties. They were coherent, committed and passionate about can-do measures to resolve the housing and health crisis as well as Irish unity, childcare and the other challenges faced by working families and senior citizens at the hands of bankers, insurance companies, vulture funds and landlords.

Look at the much vaunted ‘takeover’ of private hospitals. I said at that time that it would be good to see the small print of that deal. However, the contractual arrangement that has emerged - insofar as the Minister for Health will reveal - illustrate that this is a very good deal for private hospitals, but potentially a very bad deal for the taxpayer.

As Louise O’Reilly has pointed out: “A minimum cost of at least €345 million has been agreed, but no maximum price has been set. The reality is that we don't know what the final cost of this deal will be, but it will be much higher than the Minister and the HSE have acknowledged publicly at this point. On top of all this, it is not certain what level of capacity is being utilised in these hospitals to the benefit of public patients as no figures have been provided.”

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael rubbished Sinn Féin’s manifesto while failing to put forward proposals to rectify these inequalities. Now without a hint of embarrassment they proclaim ‘we know there is no going back to the old way of doing things’.  Whatever could this mean?

And why this apparent change of heart? It’s the voters stoopid!

In the time honoured tradition of self serving and opportunistic politicians the FF and FG leaders have figured out where the voters want to go and they are trying to get to the front so that they can pretend to be leading popular opinion. If it wasn’t so serious it would be funny.

Micheál Martin is certainly not funny. His objective is simple. He just wants to be Taoiseach. Nothing else is important. He cannot be trusted in that office. Neither can Leo Varadkar. They are the toxic twins of austerity. Their record speaks for itself. So it is good for the process of political realignment in Ireland that the sham fight between them is over and that they now have a political agreement. But it is not in the short and longer term best interests of citizens for them to cobble together a government.

So the objective of Sinn Féin and other progressives is clear. Don’t support a FFFG political carve up. Work together for a Government for Change.