Friday, August 17, 2018

Sisters taking a stand.

Mise agus Rosa Parks
This Saturday there will a march from Coalisland to Dungannon to mark the 50th anniversary of the first ever civil rights march in the north. It was a pivotal moment in the struggle against the injustice, bigotry and discrimination of the Unionist regime at Stormont.
For the Unionist regime its gerrymandered electoral system involved building very few houses for Catholic families, even if their need was greater; even if their home was designated as unfit for human habitation.  As a result tens of thousands of citizens were denied the right to vote for local councillors.
In a report published in 1936 the National Council of Civil Liberties condemned the use by the Stormont Regime of the Special Powers Act. In its report it tersely and effectively described the northern state. Unionists it said had created ‘under the shadow of the British constitution a permanent machine of dictatorship.’
In protest at this system, and against the discrimination in housing the Gildernew family took a stand. In October 1967, led by Fermanagh/S Tyrone MP Michelle Gildernew’s granny, Nana, they squatted in a house in Kinnard Park in Caledon in south Tyrone. The local Council in Dungannon had a deserved reputation for discrimination against Catholics in housing and had allocated the house – over 269 other applicants on the waiting list - to a single 19-year-old woman who was employed by a prospective unionist candidate. Local republicans, including Francie Molly and Stan Corrigan, and Stormont Nationalist MP Austin Currie backed the Gildernews.
Image result for Caledon squat 1968
The Gildernew family after their eviction from the house in Caledon
On June 18th 1968 bailiffs, and RUC men, forced their way into the home and the family were evicted. There was widespread anger at this. The Civil Rights Association, which had been founded the previous year, had as one of its demands an end to discrimination in housing. Looking to the example of the Civil Rights campaign in the USA it decided to organise a peaceful march to highlight the issue. The Coalisland to Dungannon march was the result.
Nana Gildernew wasn’t the first woman to take a stand against injustice.  There have been countless others in Ireland and many more in similar struggles for freedom across the world. I have a particular affection and admiration for Mary Ann McCracken. And Alice Milligan, Elizabeth O Farrell and Winfred Carney from our own place and others from across the world like Harriet Tubman. 
In 1994 on one of my first visits to the USA I had the honour to meet one of my heroes – Rosa Parks. In December 1955 Rosa Parks, who was a seamstress, boarded a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. The bus driver ordered her to leave her seat in the ‘coloured section’ of the bus for boarding white passengers. Rosa Parks refused. She refused to go to the back of the bus. As a result she was arrested for violating the segregation laws in Alabama.
There were subsequent claims that she had been ‘planted’ by the civil rights movement to create a controversy. Martin Luther King, in his book ‘Stride Toward Freedom’ described it well. He wrote: “No one can understand the action of Mrs. Parks unless he realises that eventually the cup of endurance runs over, and the human personality cries out, ‘I can take it no longer.’ Mrs. Parks’ refusal to move back was her intrepid affirmation that she had had enough. It was an individual expression of a timeless longing for human dignity and self-respect.”
At the end of July another woman who had had enough, seventeen year old Palestinian teenager Ahed Tamimi, was released after spending eight months in an Israeli prison for slapping two Israeli soldiers. Her courage and fearlessness in the face of armed aggression by Israeli soldiers caught the imagination of many people internationally. Her release was widely reported as was her call for greater support for the people of Palestine in their struggle for self-determination. Ahed is only one of a new generation of Palestinians standing up for their right to be free from oppression.
Image result for Maire Drumm
Marie Moore and Maire Drumm leading by example
And so it was with in Ireland in the 60’s and since. Women like Nana Gildernew and Betty Sinclair, Patricia McCluskey, Brigid Bond, Madge Davison, Bernadette McAliskey and others from that time and later. Women like Maire Drumm and Marie Moore, who helped break the British Army curfew of the Lower Falls in 1970. Women like Sheena Campbell and Mairead Farrell and many more who had had enough and dared to challenge the political sectarianism and the armed forces of the British state.
Image result for Mairead Farrell
Mairead Farrell on protest in Armagh Women's Prison
In the struggle for freedom and justice, wherever that struggle has occurred, whether in Ireland or South Africa or the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, or in countless other places around the world, women have always played a substantial and leadership role. It has not always been recognised and acknowledged. These unmanageable revolutionaries have risked life, and injury and imprisonment in their determination to take a stand and to improve the quality of life of their families and neighbours and communities.
Details: The march from Coalisland to Dungannon, will begin at 3pm on Saturday 18th August, in the square in Coalisland.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Go raibh maith agat Mr. Ballagh

Bobby Ballagh agus mise
Féile on Phobail is celebrating its 30th birthday this year. In the three decades since its establishment a lot has changed, not least the growth of the Féile. It’s now the biggest community festival on these islands. One example of that growth is the amazing number of visual art exhibitions.  This year there are almost 50 exhibitions with hundreds of images.
Last Thursday evening renowned Irish artist Robert Ballagh, who has been a regular contributor to Féile, came to St. Mary’s University College on the Falls Road to formally open the exhibition. It was a marvellous evening.
I was asked to say a few words of thanks to mark Bobby’s long association with Féile. I was very happy to do so. It’s really important in the busyness of all of our lives that we take time to thank people. And I’m especially talking about people, who take a stand when they don’t necessarily need to. People who continue to make a stand. People who have remained faithful.
Robert Ballagh is one of the great stalwarts of progressive politics and the struggle for peace in Ireland and internationally. When we founded Féile it was to celebrate and to showcase the creativity of this community, of the people of west Belfast.
It was also to provide a platform for others from outside of west Belfast to join us, to use their creative genius in solidarity with us, to uplift us and to encourage us. And they came. Musicians, writers, poets, actors, actresses, playwrights, film makers, camogs, hurlers, dancers, chancers, fly men and wise women.
They all came and Robert Ballagh was there also. He is one of our island’s greatest visual artists. He’s passionate about his work but he’s also very passionate in the help and support he gives to others. He was there with the Birmingham 6 and the Guildford 4, with the families of Bloody Sunday, with the victims of the Dublin Monaghan bombings, with Pat Finucane’s family, with the people of Palestine, with the anti-apartheid movement. He is there with all of the other little causes when somebody says ‘will you go and get Bobby to do a print, will you get Bobby to do a painting, will you get Bobby to do something’ and Bobby Ballagh has always delivered.
He established with others the Ireland Institute for Historical and Cultural Studies on Pearse Street in Dublin. It is the birthplace of Padraig MacPiaris. The historical significance of the building was being ignored by Irish governments and it needed citizens to develop it. There would be nothing to mark where Pearse was born but for their efforts. The same thing happened with Kilmainham Prison which successive governments failed to protect properly or to develop its potential.
Robert was the chair of the Irish National Congress which campaigned for unity and for justice. He has designed over 70 stamps for An Post. So most of us will have had some of his work in our hands at some time in our lives. He designed the last batch of punt bank notes which featured James Joyce, Daniel O’Connell, Douglas Hyde and Charles Stewart Parnell. And he also created and designed the set for Riverdance. Robert has also been responsible for the sets of many Sinn Féin Ard Fheiseanna.
Apart from exhibiting his own work at Féile he helped some of our fledgling school of mural painters back in the day. In 1988 Bobby came to west Belfast to judge our murals. It was our first Féile and there was a group of young mural artists, who were being helped by Danny Devenny, Marty and Mo Chara.  We asked them what they wanted to paint for Bobby to judge and they chose to paint a mural of Nelson Mandela. It was Madiba’s 70th birthday and 25th year in prison. Under the banner ‘Father of Freedom; the future belongs to you,they painted ‘Happy Birthday Comrade’ on a gable house at the corner of Leeson Street and the Falls Road.
Bobby has been back here year after year after year.
Two years ago we had a very big celebration to mark the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising. But it isn’t that long since Irish governments didn’t commemorate 1916. In fact, not only did they not celebrate 1916 but they banned others from commemorating it.
In one famous instance in 1976 Nora Connolly O’Brien, the daughter of James Connolly, was arrested for taking part in a commemoration outside the GPO.
In 1991 Bobby and a group of concerned citizens - aware that the Irish government was determined to ignore the 75 anniversary of the Easter Rising - organised a ‘Reclaim the Spirit of Easter’ commemoration. It was a brave step to take.
That was a great initiative and it wouldn’t have happened without Robert Ballagh and without the creative and colourful way in which those men and women were celebrated. I was there. It was a great day of music and craic and drama.
Two years ago Sinn Féin organised our own programme of events as part of the ‘Reclaim the Vision of Easter 1916’. We worked closely with Bobby as he, and his broad alliance of activists, organised a series of events, including a national march which took place on the date of the Rising, April 24th 1916.
So, on this the 30th anniversary of the Féile an Phobail I am delighted to say thank you to my friend Mr. Ballagh for all of that activism. Thank you especially for your art. Art, culture, the work of the imagination, should be applauded for its own sake. Because it moves us. It makes us think. It makes us marvel. It gives us pleasure. It can empower us. It takes us out of our of ourselves. That’s whether we are the artist or we are the person enjoying the piece of art.
And all of that is very, very important. It seems to me that the imagination is probably what the soul is – it is the essence of our spirit. To live in our imagination and to move people by the use of our imagination, by artistic expression is a very fine and joyous experience.
But art that stands up for itself, that highlights injustice, as well as being art of the highest quality, it what Robert Ballagh does and by so doing he leads the way for others who don’t.
And Bobby Sands had a word for them.
‘The men of art have sold their heart
They dream within their dream
Their magic soul for price of gold
Amidst a peoples screams’
Robert Ballagh never sold his magic for the price of gold. He used it to empower and enrich us all. Long may you keep doing so. Míle buiochas Bobby.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Plan now for referendum on Presidential vote

Martin McGuinness stood in Presidential election in 2011 - he could not vote
In recent years two referendums in the south have attracted huge public interest and international attention. In May 2015 there was the successful referendum on marriage equality. In May of this year there was the equally successful Yes vote on repealing the eighth amendment of the Constitution.  Both achieved massive public support and reflected an overwhelming desire for real and positive change.
Next May there will be another equally crucial referendum vote with profound implications for the future political, democratic and social evolution of the island of Ireland. The Taoiseach has announced that there will be a referendum on the right of Irish citizens living in the north and in the diaspora to vote in Presidential elections on May 24th.
Leo Varadkar announced this in the Dáil two months ago. He said: Following through on a Citizens’ Assembly proposal, we will have a referendum next year on extending the right to vote in presidential elections to all Irish citizens, including those living in the North and across the world …We want to have a referendum on that at probably the same time as next year’s local and European elections.” Those elections are scheduled for May 24th 2018.
Mr Varadkar’s announcement was the culmination of many years of hard work and lobbying by Sinn Féin and others, including civic society activists in the north. We have all consistently argued that citizens living in this part of the island and in the diaspora should have the right to vote for the President of Ireland.

The Constitutional Convention or Citizens Assembly spent two days hearing evidence on this issue in September 2013 from a range of academic and legal experts. It also heard from representatives of Irish communities living in the USA, Britain, Canada, Australia and elsewhere around the world, via a live video link-up. Martin McGuinness, Mary Lou McDonald and I participated in that discussion as Sinn Féin’s three representatives to the convention.
It was a good debate. Comprehensive, detailed and thorough. The fact that Irish citizens living across the border cannot vote for the President of Ireland is an anomaly of partition. The members of the Convention were asked to vote on several propositions: ‘Should citizens resident outside the State have the right to vote in Presidential elections?’ Seventy-eight percent of the 100 members of the Convention voted yes.
Delegates were then asked: ‘Should citizens resident in Northern Ireland have the right to vote in Presidential election?’ Seventy-three percent voted yes.
These overwhelmingly positive votes were a significant step forward in recognising the equal rights of all Irish citizens. President Michael D Higgins, and before him, Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese, have always acted as the President of all of the people of the island of Ireland. They come to the north regularly and receive a warm welcome from both unionists and nationalists alike.
Regrettably the government choose not to act on the recommendation of the Convention. Instead it stalled, delayed and prevaricated. In January 2015 the government announced that it would not hold a referendum on Presidential voting rights. This was a deeply disappointing decision. It was also at odds with the international norm. More than 120 states provide for their citizens living abroad to cast their vote.
However, following Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s recent announcement we now know that a referendum will be held on this vitally important issue next May. This takes on ever greater importance in the context of Brexit. By then, if the timetable for the Brexit negotiations is held to, Britain will have left the EU and the north may well have been dragged out also. What form Brexit will take is impossible to say at this time given the civil war taking place within the British Tory party and the confusion surrounding the negotiations.
It is therefore important that all of us who are for greater democracy, accountability, equality and inclusiveness on the island of Ireland, actively campaign in support of Irish citizens in the north having the right to vote in future elections for the President of Ireland.
The history of democracy and positive democratic change is characterised by the gradual inclusion of increasingly greater segments of the population. Restrictions based on religion, gender, race and property have all been abolished. The Irish Presidency is an ideal institution for an extended franchise given its non-partisan nature, its role in promoting Ireland abroad, its promotion of equality and an inclusive, shared civic sense, and its recent history of reaching out to and embracing all sections of society in the north.
All of us who favour such a positive and historically important step forward have to plan now for the referendum. We have to plan to win. Like the marriage equality and repeal the eighth amendment referendums a successful campaign cannot be limited to political parties.
To succeed it will necessitate the widest possible public support and activism. It will require the creation of a broad based campaign, representative of society, and rooted in every community within the 26 counties. Every organisation with any semblance of national identity from the GAA and other sports bodies, to cultural, language, music, trade unions, farming, and community based organisations must be encouraged to campaign for the extension of the franchise in Presidential elections. It will also need the positive participation of civic society and political and community activists from the north and from within the diaspora. 
The political debate that will be generated by this referendum will also provide an opportunity to engage with our unionist neighbours about the future. We need to advocate the merits of a new dispensation in which they can vote for the President of Ireland and eventually for a successful referendum on Irish unity. 

As the island of Ireland looks beyond the centenary of partition and seeks to face the political, economic and environmental challenges of the 21st century, the referendum in May 2019 is an opportunity embrace a new future. To discuss what a shared Ireland might look like. And to claim our vote in the Presidential elections. That is a goal worth working for.

Friday, July 27, 2018

An apartheid Israel

Mise agus Seanadoir Frances Black

Two weeks ago I attended the launch in Kilmainham Prison of the Centenary Exhibition of the life of Nelson Mandela. The exhibition was a testimony to the extraordinary courage of Mandela and to those in South Africa, and in the African National Congress, who struggled for freedom and equality inside and outside of south Africa. It was also a reminder of theobscenity of the National Party’s system of apartheid or so-called ‘separate development.’
The Apartheid policy was one of the great evils of the 20th century. It allowed the white National Party government to exercise control over the people of south Africa. Its roots were in the colonisation of south Africa by European powers, including the British. The policy began to take formal shape in the years after south African independence in 1910. The 1913 Land Act, gave legal status to territorial segregation. Native Africans were forced to live in designated areas. Thirty-five years later when the National Party took power it began enforcing existing racial policies under a new system of laws it called apartheid or separateness. 
Divide and conquer is a tactic as old as war. Under apartheid non-white south Africans were forced into separate areas with separate facilities. All south Africans were classified by race – Bantu (black Africans), Coloured or mixed race, Asian and White. The regime’s objective was to maximise white control and minimise non-white political power. In a later modification of this policy the Apartheid government established 10 Bantu homelands. All black south Africans were citizens of one of these Bantustans. In this way the south African regime could claim that there was no black majority in south Africa. It was a huge gerrymander.
Between 1961 and 1994 three and a half million black south Africans were forced to move into one of the Bantu homelands. Their land and water rights were then sold cheap to white south Africans. Eighty per cent of south African land was designated solely for white use and under the ‘pass laws’ non-white south Africans had to carry documentation proving that they had a right to be in a white only area. It took 50 years of struggle to end the obscenity of apartheid in south Africa.
Today, while South Africa has other challenges, apartheid is a legacy of the past. In the Middle East it is part and parcel of the present; of the daily life of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. Last week a deeply divisive law was passed by the Israeli Parliament which declares that only Jews have the right to self-determination. Under this legislation Israel will expressly promote a Jewish character and for the first time Palestinians living within Israel will officially be reduced to the status of second class citizens. The law “viewsthe development of Jewish settlement as a national value, and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation”.
Israel’s apartheid policy is most visible in the occupied territories. One of my abiding memories from my visits to the Middle East in recent years and especially to the west Bank, wasthe enormous scale of the Israeli settlements. Almost all occupy the high ground like Crusader forts of an earlier conflict.
There are over 200 settlements with an estimated 600,000 Israeli citizens. These are all built illegally, in contravention of international law and United Nations resolutions, on occupied Palestinian land from which Palestinians have been forcibly removed. These settlements are serviced by roads which are for the exclusive use of Israeli citizens. Large swathes of the countryside are off limits to the Palestinian people who own the land.
The wire fences of the Israeli Army stretch for kilometres across the landscape. Water rights have been stolen by the Israeli authorities. The separation wall – a monstrous construction of hundreds of kilometres of concrete and wire, snakes through the region stealing Palestinian land and surrounding and cutting off Palestinian towns. In addition, permanent Israeli military road blocks, similar to those which used to blight the border counties from Dundalk to Derry, prevent Palestinian citizens and their elected representatives from travelling freely between Palestinian towns and villages. Palestinian owned lands are deliberately separated from each other.
The result is that an estimated sixty per cent of the west Bank, which should be the core of a Palestinian state, is off limits to Palestinians. The similarities between apartheid south Africa and apartheid Israel are plain for anyone to see.
Apartheid as a policy by Israel was further reinforced last week when the Israeli Parliament also passed the second and third reading of the so-called Breaking the Silence Bill. Thepurpose of this legislation is to provide the Israeli Minister of Education with the absolute authority to ban any organisation or individual he believes is acting against the state of Israel from entering an educational institution. The law is specifically aimed at the group Breaking the Silence which is made up of former Israeli soldiers. It publishes testimonies from soldiers who served in the occupied territories. It aims to encourage debate and discussion about “the daily reality of the occupation and Israeli military rule over thePalestinian civilian population in the territories … we aim to generate opposition to the occupation through meaningful public debate on the significant moral price paid by Israeli society for entrenching the ongoing regime of occupation”.
According to Breaking the Silence ( “The law, in its current form, will stifle human rights organizations' educational activities within educational institutions in Israel, and it imposes sanctions on anyone who does not present the official position of the Israeli government in foreign frameworks."
Regrettably, the reaction of the international community to this current apartheid system has been largely muted and ineffective. One positive response has been the recent decision by the Seanad in the Irish Parliament to pass a Bill, introduced by Seanadóir Frances Black and supported by Sinn Féin, including Seanadóir Niall  O Donnaghaile and others, to ban the import of farm produce and other material produced by Israel’s illegal settlements on Palestinian land. Trading in goods that are the product of stolen property is wrong.The Bill now moves to the committee stage. It is opposed by Fine Gael but if successful it will act as an example to other states to take firmer action against illegal settlements.
The lighter areas are Palestinian areas cut off from each other.

Friday, July 20, 2018

They should stop their stupid actions

Last Friday night’s explosion at my home in west Belfast is not the first time my family have been targeted in this way. It was a carbon copy of an attack late one night in June 1993. On that occasion a hand grenade was thrown at the front bedroom window where Colette was awake watching a late night film. Gearoid was doing some late night studying for exams.

The grenade bounced off the reinforced glass, landed on the porch and exploded seconds later in the front garden. The blast smashed windows in the porch and left pockmarks from shrapnel across the wall. I wasn’t there but I heard the blast and was quickly told what had happened. When I arrived at the scene local republicans and neighbours were offering their help and solidarity to Colette.
The British Army and RUC were also there in strength. The next morning after they had left and I was clearing up I found the lever of the grenade still lying in full view in the garden. The forensic examination of the scene had not been very forensic! There were other attacks. Some involving what were described as ball bearings being fired at windows.
Those were dangerous times to be a republican. The previous month Alan Lundy was shot dead in an attack by loyalists on Alex Maskey’s home. In the previous five years 12 members of Sinn Féin had been killed by unionist death squads using weapons brought into the north from South Africa. Members of our families had been killed also. The weapons shipment, which was divided between the Ulster Defence Association, the Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Resistance, included hands guns, rifles, rocket launchers and grenades, including the one used on my home.
Brian Nelson, a British Army agent within the UDA was involved in securing the shipment and British intelligence facilitated its smuggling into the north. In the three years prior to receiving the south African weapons the loyalist death squads had killed 34 people. In the three years after the shipment arrived in late 1987 they killed 224 and wounded countless scores more. The dramatic rise in the number of Sinn Féin activists and family members being killed, attacks on family homes and Sinn Féin offices can be traced directly to this. Thankfully those days are over.
In the last two decades, since the Good Friday Agreement was achieved, most of the attacks on Sinn Féin members, families and offices have come from those generally described in the media as ‘dissident republicans.’ These actions have taken many forms. Paint bomb attacks on offices and homes, including that of Martin McGuinness. The family cars of Sinn Féin Councillors in Derry have been fire bombed and destroyed. Death threats have been issued and bomb threats against offices and homes have been made.
The attacks last Friday evening was the latest of these. The video footage, captured on security cameras show a car speeding up the street. It turned at the top and then came back down the street. You can see something land on the bonnet of the car in the driveway. There is an explosion which punches a hole in the windscreen and smoke can be seen rising up and covering the camera. The explosive device had got trapped between the car bonnet and the front windscreen. Those who carried out their attack could not have seen whether anyone, especially children, were in the driveway.
I don’t know who was responsible for Friday night’s attack. In East Belfast the UVF, according to the PSNI, has been poisoning the atmosphere and has involved in orchestrating street disorder, including one blast bomb attack on the Short Strand. In Derry there were days of street violence as young people, many of them no more than children, engaged in sectarian attacks against the unionist people in the Fountain estate and the PSNI.
Mary Lou McDonald, Michelle O’Neill and the Derry Sinn Féin leadership joined the leaders of other parties in the city and voiced their forthright condemnation of those responsible for the violence. They participated in public demonstrations of opposition to the orchestrated sectarian violence. Mary Lou was especially and correctly vocal. Derry she said is the city of Martin McGuinness and John Hume; it is the city of civil rights; pensioners should not be terrified in their homes. Mothers should not be afraid to allow their children out of their front doors. And young people should not be exploited as cannon fodder to do the bidding of those with failed political and personal agendas”.
Many people I have spoken to are making the connection between Sinn Féin’s emphatic condemnation of the actions of so-called dissident groups in Derry and the attacks on my home and that of Bobby Storey. They are also angry. I have appealed for people to remain calm. I am also very thankful for the support our family and Bobby’s family have received from neighbours and everyone.
I have asked that those who were responsible for the devices thrown on Friday night, or their representatives, to come forward and to speak to me. So far they have failed to do this. Why?
Those who have bombed our homes have no popular community support. They have a responsibility to explain to me and to those like me whose families have been the target of their actions, how these actions advance Irish republicanism, if that is their contention.
The Good Friday Agreement provides a peaceful and democratic opportunity to end partition. In recent years, and especially in recent months, there has been an increasing public conversation about Irish unity. Opinion polls indicate a significant and positive shift in the public attitude toward unity. There is now a coherent political strategy; a democratic and peaceful strategy that can achieve Irish unity. That’s where the focus needs to be. The best contribution the so-called dissidents can make is to stop their stupid actions. Before someone gets killed.

Friday, July 13, 2018


Fr. Des Wilson is a living legend. He has been an integral part of the west Belfast community for six decades. He is hugely respected and loved as a priest, a community activist, an educator, a defender of people’s rights, an author, dramatist and writer. A fear naofa. He is a man of great courage and vision, a good neighbour, and a decent human being. On Sunday he celebrated his 93rd birthday with a small group of family and friends. In recent times he has been in and out of hospital. When he arrived at the Glór na Mona Centre –  Gael Ionad Mhic Goill - on the Whiterock Road he looked frail as he gently pushed his three-wheel walker ahead of him.

But he was in great form. Smiling, laughing, joking and shaking hands and giving out hugs to everyone there. He toasted his birthday with a glass of white wine and he took great delight in blowing out the single candle on his cake. He also joined in the craic and the slagging as Ciaran Cahill played a nine-minute video showing some of Des’s life. I was intrigued by the grainy black and white film footage of a teenage Des with his family working on a farm, and film and photo images of his time as a young seminarian at Maynooth. There were scores of photos of Fr. Des from a young man in his twenties to his life in Ballymurphy and Springhill. Some of these included images of the old Springhill – which was eventually demolished following a campaign by the community, including Fr. Des.  There were photos of him with the many local people he worked closely with over many years to improve the living conditions of his neighbours.

Fr. Des and Elsie Best

I have been very fortunate to know Fr. Des Wilson and to call him friend.  The first time we met was when I called to the priest’s house beside St Johns chapel looking for advice on a community issue. Probably at the suggestion of Frank Cahill of the Ballymurphy Tenants Association. The second time was at the top of Springhill Avenue on the night of August 14 1969. That’s a long time ago. In all those years Des’ life has been dedicated to helping people. During the terrible years of conflict, he stood with the Upper Springfield Road community against the aggression and violence of the British state forces.  I formed a view during those dark days that Des used to go out of his way to cheer us up or to raise our morale during hard times. He did this at meetings, demonstrations and in his very uplifting sermons.

He gave comfort and solidarity to those in need. Along with Frank Cahill and others he also engaged in local projects to bring jobs to west Belfast through the Whiterock Industrial Estate, the Rock Knitwear Group and later the Conway Mill project. For him education was always a priority and he was appalled at the numbers of children and young people who for a variety of reasons were dropping out of school and who needed help and support.

Fr. Des moved to St. John’s parish in 1966 after 16 years as the spiritual director at St. Malachy’s College. Ballymurphy was one of those estates constructed after World War Two to which the planners gave little thought for the families, and especially the children, who would live there. Like so many other similar developments there were initially no schools, shops, play facilities, and employment.

The new Corpus Christi church had no living accommodation for a priest. Its space was not available for community use outside of religious services. It sat like a large carbuncle, detached and aloof from the people who had paid for it to be built. Incidentally me and Paddy Root and Mickey Maguire erected the railings around the church. I never got paid but that’s another story.  Joe Cahill was the site foreman.

Allocated to Ballymurphy but living outside the neighbourhood, Fr. Des and Fr Hugh Mullan decided to move into a council house The Church authorities were not impressed and Fr Mullan ended up living in a semi-detached house in Springfield Park. In August 1971, in the 36 hours after the introduction of internment, Fr. Mullan was one of 11 people killed by the British Parachute Regiment in what has become known as the Ballymurphy Massacre. 10 months later in July 1972 the same regiment was back in Ballymurphy. This week 46 years ago they shot and killed five local people in the Springhill Massacre; three children, Margaret Gargan aged 13, David McCafferty aged 15, John Dougal aged 16, Patrick Butler aged 39 and Fr. Noel Fitzpatrick.

Fr. Des found himself increasingly in dispute with the Catholic Church authorities. He resigned from his clerical positions and moved into a council house - 123 Springhill Avenue –in January 1972. The Springhill Community Education and Development Project was born. It quickly became a refuge for the old and young, for those who needed education and counselling, and for a community under constant attack by the British Army, RUC and unionist death squads. Fr. Des, along with Noelle Ryan and others went on from there to become involved in a range of progressive community, educational, economic and anti-sectarian projects.

On a personal note in 1971, after internment, Fr. Des married Colette and me. I was on the run, and the times were very dangerous. Only a small number of friends and comrades knew, and we moved the date and location the night before to avoid any unexpected and unwanted interruptions by the Brits. Fr. Des married us in a room behind the altar in St. John’s Chapel on the Falls. He refused to take any money from our best man Paddy McArdle. A wise man Paddy took the money and the bridesmaid to the nearby Rock Bar.

In 1977 a feud broke out among republicans. I went to a number of priests to help to get this stopped and Fr. Des and Fr. Alex Reid quickly agreed to help. Together they established an arbitration and mediation process between the different republican organisations which undoubtedly saved lives. The two priests also embarked on an outreach programme. They spoke to unionist paramilitaries and facilitated meetings between republicans and loyalists. They also met officials from the British and Irish governments, and indeed anyone who would listen to them in the hope that through dialogue they could assist the work of peace building. They pioneered this work.  

They never gave up despite setbacks and serial refusals to talk by the Great and the Good. Without Fr Des and Fr Alex there would be no peace process. Of that there is no doubt.

Fr. Des never lost his desire to help the people of west Belfast. Springhill House helped to raise awareness about the extent of poverty and deprivation in west Belfast. It produced some of the first surveys into living conditions and discrimination in employment. He championed the MacBride Principles campaign, and produced a submission to the Patten Commission on Policing in 1998. Later, along with Fr. Joe McVeigh, Fr. Des established the Community for Social Justice. One of their early campaigns was against the strip searching of republican women prisoners in Armagh Women’s Prison.

In his very popular weekly column in the Andersonstown News, which he wrote for decades, Fr. Des challenged the political and religious establishments. He has also written several books and pamphlets. And plays.  
In a talk to 4th year student at St. Malachy’s College in 1963 he said: “Our view is that the world must be better when we leave it than when we entered it; that for every day of our life there should be someone who has more to eat, to wear or to live for”.

Thank you for that Des. You have lived your life according to the teachings of Jesus. Because of that we are better people. Lá breithe shona duit.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Extending the hand of friendship - Remembering Martin McGuinness

The soulful keen of the úilleann pipes echoed across the fields and hills of south Armagh. The tricolour and provincial flags fluttered in the breeze against the backdrop of a clear blue sky and Slieve Gullion in the distance. The large crowd was silent as the piper played a beautiful rendition of the last post in remembrance of the twenty-four local IRA volunteers whose names adorn the wall of the Memorial Garden at Tí Chulainn, in Mullaghbawn.
Sunday was the annual Volunteers Day when those Óglaigh who gave their lives in south Armagh are remembered by family, friends, and comrades. This year the local republicans decided to erect a memorial stone for Martin McGuinness who opened the garden in October 2010. Martin’s wife Bernie, Emmett, Fiachra, Grainne and Fionnuala, and their grandchildren were in attendance.
Martin loved south Armagh. He knew many of those on the Roll of Honour, including Mickey McVerry, the first Volunteer to be killed from the area and the two Brendan’s. He was especially proud to have been asked to open the memorial Garden. He told me about it afterward, and over the years he and I have been there many times. It is a credit to those who erected it and the laochra it commemorates in this quiet most beautiful of places. It is set in one of the most beautiful spots on the island.
The new stone dedicated to Martin is of local granite, from a farm at Camlough. It is inscribed, “A true friend and comrade of the Republican Movement in South Armagh.”
The inscription also includes words from the poem Úrchill an Chreagáin, by the 18th century local poet Art MacCumhaigh. Art spent most of his life as a labourer and a gardener around Crossmaglen. He was known as Art na gCeoltai – Art of the songs. Of the 25 or so of his poems that still survive the most famous is Úrchill an Chreagáin. It is an aisling poem. He was a poet of the dispossessed and Úrchill an Chreagáin is often described as an anthem for south east Ulster and a lamentation for the fall of the O’Neill’s of the Fews. He was one of the last of the Ulster poets in the Irish language tradition.
The inscription reads: A fhialfhir charthannaigh, Ná caitear thusa I néaltaí bróin. Ach éirigh Go tapaidh Is aistrigh liom siar sa ród”.
My kind young man do not sleep in sorrow.  But rise swiftly and come along the road with me.”
Martin McGuinness, was also a poet. He would love the words of Art MacCumhaigh. I always associate Úrchill an Chreagáin with Raymond McCreesh. I can still hear Donal Duffy piping Raymond home to his Armagh Hills from the H-Blocks of Long Kesh in 1981 after 61 days on hunger strike. Raymond and his 23 comrades on the memorial wall were freedom fighters who gave their lives for the cause of Ireland. Their courage is proof of the indomitable spirit of the republicans of south Armagh.
And the words of Art MacCumhaigh are proof, if it was ever needed why they and everyone else who played any part in the struggle were not defeated.
It also highlights the arrogance of the British and their propagandists who during the years of conflict labelled this proud community as a “terrorist community” – this beautiful area as “bandit country” - and the freedom struggle as a criminal enterprise.
This is the land where Cú Chulainn played hurling, where Na Fianna and the Red Branch Knights sported and played. It is the place the Vikings failed to conquer, where the Gaelic clanns of the Oriel resisted the Norman invaders, where the Mac Murphy’s fought against King William, where the United Irish Society, the Ribbon Societies and the Fenians flourished.
The British Army didn’t stand a chance of defeating the spirit – centuries old – of a people with the character, culture, history and sense of freedom, that is as old as the hills of south Armagh. No more than the British government could hope to defeat the hunger strikers and criminalise the freedom struggle in 1981.
It is worth recalling that the first republicans of our generation to be elected were all prisoners - Bobby Sands MP, Ciaran Doherty TD and Paddy Agnew TD. Paddy topped the poll in Louth in the general election of June 1981. In the intervening 37 years he never visited the place he was elected to – until last week. We hosted Paddy and his wife Catherine. He was warmly received and acknowledged by the Ceann Comhairle, the Clerk of the Dáil, and the rest of us.
Paddy, who was arrested on a boat in Carlingford Lough, was welcomed to Leinster House by a former Admiral of the Irish Republican navy Martin Ferris, who was also arrested on a boat.
Paddy’s visit was a timely reminder of how far we have all come. But we have more to do. The DUP have tied themselves to the English Tories and Brexit. They continue to deny citizens rights enjoyed elsewhere on these islands. We can be confident that that will all be sorted. It is a question of when not if. The DUP position is not sustainable. However, it is for them to come to terms with that.
In the meantime, we will continue to demand that the rights of the people living in this part of the island are protected and upheld now and in any post-Brexit arrangement, and to push for a referendum on Irish unity. The Taoiseach’s recent claim that such a referendum is not desirable at this time is not acceptable. Almost 100 years after partition when does he think it would be acceptable? Leo Varadkar has a duty to uphold the Good Friday Agreement. He cannot cherry-pick it.
Sunday’s event was good for everyone in attendance, especially the families of our patriot dead and their families and former comrades. It is only right that we commemorate and celebrate their sacrifice.
It is important also to uphold and acknowledge the right of those who the IRA fought against to be commemorated and celebrated by their families and friends and former comrades. They were doing their duty as they saw it.
Thankfully, it is all history now. It’s time to heal old wound, to reach out to the other, to extend the hand of friendship to opponents and old enemies.
That presents many challenges. Of course it does. Art MacCumhaigh two hundred years ago pointed the way forward, “do not sleep in sorrow. But rise swiftly and come along the road with me to the land of honey where the foreigner has no hold.”