Saturday, September 21, 2019

Celebrating the Champions of US Labor

Presenting Bridget Hughes with her award

I want to thank the staff of Aer Lingus in Dublin and New York who pulled out all of the stops last week to ensure that RG and I succeeded in getting to and from New York. As regular readers will know navigating the rules and regulations that are often applied to Sinn Féin representatives travelling to America can be problematic.
Last Thursday morning, we presented our passports to the Aer Lingus desk in Dublin Airport just before 8am.  We eventually took to the air New York bound shortly after 3 pm. 
25 years ago when I first visited New York on President Clinton’s 48 hour visa one of those who met me at the airport was Brian McCabe – then a detective in the NYPD. Now retired from that force Brian was at Newark to pick us up. It’s always good to see a friendly face after a long day of travelling.
The visit itself to New York was very good. It was short – just two nights. It gave me an opportunity to meet with some of the senior trade union leaders who visited Belfast in April for the opening by President Michael D Higgins of Áras Uí Chonghaile – the James Connolly Visitor Centre. However, the main purpose for travelling to New York was to speak at the ninth annual Irish Echo Labor Awards. They are a celebration of the hard work of Trade Unions in North America and of Labor activists in improving the working and living conditions of their members.
All of the honourees are ordinary people who in the course of their work have provided leadership and inspiration to others. One honouree was so nervous that he had difficulty reading his note. He was given a rousing reception. Another, Bridget Hughes, a shift worker at McDonald’s in Kansas City gave a stirring speech about the challenges facing low paid – low wage workers. Hughes led the Stand Up Kansas City campaign which successfully secured a $15 minimum wage campaign. Hughes, 28, a mother of three, took part in civil disobedience protests in 2016 and was imprisoned for her efforts.
Bridget said: “If we raise wages, it puts more money in workers’ hands and that goes into the local economy. As the working class, we need to fight for vision for America. No matter if you’re white, black or brown, gay or straight, immigrant or native-born, we must come together so that we can go up together as workers. This is the new American working class identity our country so desperately needs.”
Bridget told her audience that she only read about James Connolly when she was researching for her remarks for the Echo awards. She was deeply impressed by his commitment to workers and referring to him throughout her remarks as ‘Mr. Connolly’ Bridget said: “So many of his words still ring true to me. We are trying to build a new 21st century Union movement and we have to follow Mr. Connolly’s example. It is up to ordinary people – the working class - to organise to solve working peoples’ problems.”
Speaking to Bridget afterward I told her that I hoped we could arrange for her to visit Áras Uí Chonghaile in the future.
I always come away from my visits to the USA uplifted. This visit was no exception.
Unfortunately our flight home coincided with the all-Ireland replay between Kerry and Dublin. So, myself, RG and Ciaran sat outside Terminal 5 at JFK huddled over our mobile phones and trying to listen to the online RTE radio coverage as planes roared overhead. It was an exciting game. The five in a row Dublin team are an exceptional group of athletes. Well deserved winners and although Kerry did their best it was not to be. The best team won. Fair play to both panels of players and management. 
This week sees the Houses of the Oireachtas reopening for business after the summer break. The two big issues which will dominate the political agenda over the next few weeks will be Brexit and the Budget. But those are matters for me to write about another time. In the meantime I am searching for my suitcase. As I file this column it is still missing. A victim of the dreaded SSSS my valise has gone AWOL. I’m sure it will turn up eventually. By then my laundry and especially my under garments will be rather stale. Minty!  Awh the struggle - My flight for Irish freedom - has its cost. Tiochfaidh mo mhála. 

Friday, September 13, 2019

New York – New York

By the time you are reading this column RG and I will be winging our way across the Atlantic to New York for a two night stopover. I am there to speak at the Irish Echo Labor awards. It’s an annual event at which the trade union movement in the USA, and the Irish Echo, celebrate the hard work and achievements of individual Labor activists and honourees.

It is also be an opportunity for me to personally thank many of the Trade Union leaders for their continued support for the peace process, and in particular for their backing of Áras Uí Chonghaile (The James Connolly Centre on the Falls Road) which was opened in April of this year by President Michael D Higgins. The US Labor Movement provided much needed funding, along with Belfast City Council and others, to turn the dream of Áras Uí Chonghaile into a reality.

It’s hard to believe but it is almost exactly 25 years since RG and I made the first of many such visits to the USA. At that time, and within days of the IRA cessation of August 1994, I had just met An Taoiseach Albert Reynolds and SDLP Leader John Hume at Government Buildings in Dublin. Border communities moved quickly to unblock scores of border crossings that the British military had bombed or concreted over the years. And RG and I were on our way to the USA for a four week trek – coast to coast – to meet Irish American leaders and communities. Subsequently, the British Prime Minister John Major was moved to lift the broadcast restrictions on Sinn Féin. It was a decision taken in no small part because of the influence of Irish America and the criticism of US journalists.
25 years later and Irish America continues to play apivotal role in the efforts to strength the peace process and to advance the Sinn Féin goal of Irish unity. The Labor Movement in the USA is a critical component of Irish America. That influence has been especially evident in recent months in the lobbying by Irish American groups and leaders around the Brexit issue and the need for a referendum on Irish Unity.
On Capitol Hill their efforts secured support for the so-called ‘Backstop.’ The opposition of key Congressional leaders to British and DUP efforts to undermine the Good Friday Agreement has been very public. One recent example of this was the intervention by Speaker Nancy Pelosi in which she again rejected suggestions of a speedy trade deal between the USA and British government following Brexit.
Speaker Pelosi said: The Good Friday Agreement serves as the bedrock of peace in Northern Ireland and as a beacon of hope for the entire world… Whatever form it takes, Brexit cannot be allowed to imperil the Good Friday Agreement, including the seamless border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland, … If Brexit undermines the Good Friday accord, there will be no chance of a U.S.-U.K. trade agreement passing the Congress.”

This has been reinforced by Congress members, including Richie Neal, who is the Chair of the powerful Congressional Ways and Means Committee.

25 years ago our journey brought us to Boston where we were greeted by Senator Ted Kennedy. On Thursday we arrive at JFK airport in New York. As we land the debacle over Brexit at Westminster gets worse. An unelected minority government, with an unelected Prime Minister at its head, is seeking to reshape the British political landscape in a way that will further its right wing, populist, agenda. Claims of shock and outrage that Johnson will ignore the law - just passed requiring him to seek an extension from the EU for negotiations - rings hollow to Irish citizens who can recall countless occasions when British governments – both Tory and Labour - ignored their own laws and international laws in their dealings with Ireland. 

The economic, political and social threats posed by British machinations to the island of Ireland are enormous. Another economic report last week predicted thousands of job losses in the North. Last Thursday An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told the British-Irish Chamber of Commerce that checks on goods entering the South would be required “near the Border” in the event of a no-deal Brexit. He also confirmed that the government is in discussions with the European Commission over what cross-border checks will be required. He should be making it clear that there will be no checks anywhere on the island of Ireland.

In addition, at this most critical time the reality is that despite the best efforts of Sinn Féin there are no meaningful discussions taking place at this time with the DUP to restore the political institutions in the North. The DUP is singularly focussed on its alliance with Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party.
So, and not for the first time, the peace process, and the island of Ireland is in dangerous waters. The chaos of Brexit has once again confirmed that Irish interests are not British interests.At the same time the political and economic uncertainty and the deeply corrupt nature of British politics, exposed by this crisis, has created, once again discussions on the merits of Irish Unity. It is an argument I take with me to our friends in the USA.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Hugs Galore.

Fr. Des
Dear reader, have you have noticed that republican men of a certain age are nowadays more inclined than their predecessors were to hug other men, including other republican men of a certain age? I want to take credit for this very welcome development. I have long been a champion of hugging. It is a warmer, more-friendly form of greeting than handshaking. Handshaking is formal. Hugging is more natural. Instinctive. Wee babies don’t shake hands with you when you greet them. No. If they like you they hug you.
People with Downs syndrome do the same. They are wonderfully welcoming and affectionate folks. They could teach us a lot. Latino people hug. Normally macho companeros do it all the time. Irish men? Nawh. So I’ve had my work cut out for me.

Ask RG? He will vouch for my credentials over decades of this pioneering work. He will also advise you if you press him that for a long time this was a lonely and challenging task for me. He may even admit that he frowned upon and resisted my efforts to hug other men. Especially him. Martin McGuinness was the same. They weren’t so bad when they realised that my efforts were completely platonic. So occasionally maybe they would indulge me. The odd time. But only if no one else was about. Hugging in public was a Never, Never, Never occurrence. But thankfully all that has changed.
Hugging Bernie 
I remember once, before he embraced hugging, Martin and I were meeting with David Trimble and Ken McGuinness. John Taylor may have been there also. Or maybe not? But there was a barge pole leaning against the meeting room wall. Anyway we were having a difficult conversation with a lot of grumpiness from our friends. Then one of them flung a document down on the table. We all rose to our feet glowering at each other for a few awkward red faced seconds.

“I think we need a group hug” I suggested opening my arms wide.

“No” said Martin and David in unison. And agreement. No hug here.

It’s funny how other male adversaries hug regularly. Especially sports men. Gaelic footballers or hurlers take big hits off one and other. Then when the final whistle blows what do they do? They hug each other. Boxers do the same. Rugby players too.

So, I never gave up on my hugging mission. I stuck with it. RG was my first convert. Although he is an awkward hugger. At least with me. He doesn’t do full frontal hugs. He is a hip hugger. No groin contact. He swivels his hip forward so that part of his anatomy meets you at a right angle. Although to be fair his upper body embrace is warm and welcoming.At least with me.

Martin McGuinness followed suit. Soon he was hugging everyone in arms length. Nothing too aggressive. More a very respectful and chuckleyarlácuddley bear hug. I think that’s one of the reasons why Martin was so popular. So hugging is good. It helps to break the ice. Unless your breath is bad. That can be offputting.
Mary Lou is a hugger
I think that’s why most unionists don’t hug me. I eat a lot of garlic. Garlic and hugging are not very compatible. But discerning readers will note that I say MOST unionists don’t hug me. That’s right. I didn’t say no unionists hug me. Because some do. Not a lot but fear not. Remember it isn’t that long ago that most republican men wouldn’t hug other men. Ted still resists my overtures. I blame the Catholic in him. Trees have more give in them. So my work continues. And no. I won’t name my unionist hugger mates. In time we will all take these little human embraces for granted. Until then let’s help them by making men hugging men popular. If you know Ted give him a wee squeeze. Ease him into a group hug.

Start now lads. Hug the men in your life. It will do you and them good.
Cyril Ramaphosa at funeral of President Mandela

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

The 94 Cessation – how it happened

The IRA cessation is 25 years old this week. August 1994 was an intense month. I was involved, along with Martin McGuinness, and others in the Sinn Féin leadership, in intense, mostly private, efforts to persuade the SDLP Leader John Hume, the Irish Government and allies in Irish America to establish an alternative unarmed strategy to pursue republican and democratic objectives. Fr Alec Reid was central to this. And Fr Des. 
The Sinn Féin aim was to open up the opportunity for a meaningful peace process that could bring about fundamental political and constitutional change. At the same time we were intent on advancing our republican objectives of ending partition and bringing about Irish Unity.
August 1994 was the month when it all began to come together. To be honest, neither Martin nor I really knew if we would succeed. We were attempting something unique and exceptional - to construct a series of agreements which together could persuade the IRA leadership that there existed an alternative to armed actions capable of achieving republican goals. The danger was that if we pulled everything together and the Army said NO then the process was over before it really started
Our discussions involved the Irish government; I was meeting John Hume; we were negotiating with the US administration through a variety of channels, and there was a delegation of Irish Americans – the Connolly House group – who were lobbying the Clinton administration to develop a new Irish agenda. We were also in contact with the British government though they were not part of the effort to develop an alternative.
At a briefing in early August with the IRA leadership Martin was able to tell it that the Irish government had provided written assurances that if there was a cessation there would be an immediate response on practical matters. Sinn Fein would be treated like any other political party. This would include a speedy meeting between the Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, myself and John Hume.
Incidentally, after the cessation was declared and before that meeting Albert contacted me to say that Seamus Mallon had asked him to put our meeting back until he met with John Hume and Seamus. I dismissed this. The Taoiseach did not press it. 
The Connolly House group had also passed back to us a document which set out a serious programme of work and commitment from them and Irish America. Entitled ‘Policy Statement by Irish American leaders’ it said that in the event of a ceasefire they would commit themselves to ‘the creation of a campaign in the United States dedicated to achieving’ a number of specified goals. Among these were an immediate end to all visa restrictions and the provision of unrestricted access for the Sinn Fein party leader.
The IRA leadership listened attentively to what we had to say. It agreed to meet again to receive an update from us. It was coming close to make your mind up time. Everyone at the meeting knew this. Some of the leadership were against a cessation. They had been very frank about that. It was going to be a close call.
I believed that we had to choreograph a series of statements, actually more public initiatives than statements, from John Hume, An Taoiseach Albert Reynolds, and the Connolly House group, which would signal the coming together of the different pieces of the jig-saw. We also needed a visa for Joe Cahill. It was one of the issues which the Army leadership had raised with us. Fundamentally it was a test to see if the Irish government was prepared to take on the British and if it could win such a political battle with the British within the US administration. It would also be an important indicator of how seriously the Clinton administration intended to take the issue of peace in Ireland.
The Connolly House Group returned to Ireland on August 25. The following Sunday John Hume and I met and issued another joint statement. Later that evening the Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds issued a statement in which he also expressed a belief that a historic opportunity was opening up.
Martin and I met the Army Council again. The meeting was inconclusive. People needed more time to consider all the issues. Joe’s visa became an even greater test. Then late on Monday night, August 29th, President Clinton cleared Joe’s visa.
Martin and I again travelled to meet the Army Council. A package had been agreed. It was now over to the IRA leadership. Everyone at the Army meeting was a little tense. Martin McGuinness spoke eloquently. So did others. For and against.
One of Martin’s great qualities was his sense of conviction and confidence. He could bring a strength to a debate which was very, very compelling. Even if you might not agree with him you knew he was going to deliver on any commitment he made or die trying. The struggle wasn’t ending we told them. They knew that of course.
In many ways, I said, the easy decision was for the IRA to continue to fight. That was the low risk option. The high-risk option was the one we were arguing for. It meant uncharted waters. It would involve compromises. It could mean risking – and losing – everything. But we could also be the generation who would win freedom. We could set in place a process which could create new conditions for a genuine and just peace and from there build a pathway and a strategy into a new all Ireland republic.
A formal proposal was then put to the meeting. The vote was for a cessation. It was not unanimous but those who voted against pledged their support to the new position. Unity, they said was essential.
On Wednesday August 31st at noon the IRA declared its “complete cessation of military operations… We believe that an opportunity to create a just and lasting settlement has been created”.
The peace process and the dramatic changes that have taken place in the last 25 years owe much to the courageous decision by the Army Council and those other Volunteers who followed the path chosen by the IRA leadership.
A quarter of a century later much has changed. Ongoing political and demographic changes have increased the demand for more change. Political Unionism has lost its majority in the Assembly. Nationalism has rejected Westminster. There is a greater confidence and optimism. The demand for equality, for rights for all citizens is now part of our DNA. Support for a referendum on Irish Unity is growing. Nationalists and republicans will never again tolerate a second class status. Many within unionism have also come to accept the need for power-sharing and reconciliation and inclusiveness. And some are publicly speaking for the first time about the possibility of a new Ireland, a shared space which embraces the unity of all our people.
There are of course still challenges to be overcome. Brexit looms. The power sharing government is not functioning. There are still those within political unionism who see everything as a zero sum game in which any change – however innocuous – is a defeat. The British government is allied to the DUP and refusing to honour commitments made when the Good Friday Agreement was achieved. The Irish government and the southern political establishment could do much more to fulfill their obligations as co-guarantor of the Agreement. So, there is still much work to be done.
Looking back twenty five years ago to that period of our history and experience it is clear that dialogue, inclusive and based on equality, is central to any conflict resolution process – to any process of change.  It is very telling that the then Leader of Unionism James Molyneaux described the cessation as ‘The most destabilising event since partition.’ 
Twenty five years later this assertion remains an insightful reminder of the worm at the heart of political unionism. That is the fear of positive political change. It is self-evident now that if it had been left to the Unionist leaders and the British Government there would have not been a cessation. 

Thankfully they did not have a vote at the IRA’s Army Council meeting which took that decision”.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Three Books and a Video about August 1969.


The second week of August 50 years ago witnessed the most intensive and violent period of conflict in the North since the 1920s. It also saw British soldiers arrive on the streets of Derry and Belfast, where they remained for another 30 years. The fighting in Derry, and the widespread destruction of homes in Belfast, revealed in all their stark brutality the deeply sectarian nature of the northern state and exposed the institutional links between the unionist political establishment, its armed state forces and loyalist paramilitary organisations.
Several recent publications have been produced about August 1969. They include ‘Burnt Out; How the Troubles began’ by Michael McCann, and two books of photographs, ‘Ardoyne - The Aftermath’ and ‘Bombay Street’.
The Clonard Residents Association has also produced an excellent video film; Eyewitness- The Burning of Bombay Street, which uses filmed reports of the time, including interviews with victims - to provide an excellent report of those even. In particular, the video also makes use of an audio homily given by Fr. Egan of Clonard Monastery, to the men’s confraternity, a few days after the attack on Clonard by loyalist mobs and B Specials. Fr. Egan also expresses his gratitude for the courage of the young men and women who defended the area. The video is available on youtube at:
‘Burnt Out’ is a detailed, hugely informative, and well researched book which reminds us of the context for August 1969. As a 14-year-old Michael McCann and his family were one of over three thousand families who were forced to flee when loyalist mobs, the B Specials and RUC attacked Catholic streets in west and North Belfast.
He reminds us that over the two days of the 14th and 15th August eight civilians were killed. Seven – including two children - died in Belfast and one person was shot dead by the B Specials in Armagh. The first British soldier to be killed was Hugh McCabe, a 20-year-old home on leave who was shot dead by RUC snipers from the roof of Hasting Street Barracks.
In his meticulously researched account of August 1969 McCann provides the most comprehensive explanation of that period. McCann is very blunt about his purpose in writing the book: “The main aim of my book is to highlight the relationship produced between reactionary loyalism, state forces and the unionist regime in the conflagration that erupted in the summer of 1969, which arguably generated three decades of subsequent violence”.
McCann also reminds us of one tactic frequently employed by the RUC, political unionism and the British state throughout the decades of conflict – blame the victim for their oppression. As Catholic homes burned in Belfast the Stormont regime and the RUC spuriously claimed that it was all part of a nationalist rebellion. Despite the clear evidence that the Belfast pogrom was the work of loyalist mobs assisted by the RUC and B Specials, the Special Powers Act was invoked, and 24 republicans were interned.
A few days after the destruction of Bombay Street, Percy Street, Conway Street, Hooker Street, Herbert Street and more, four Ulster Unionist Party Stormont Ministers held a press conference on Sunday 17th August to outline their view of the events of recent days. McCann records that the international and local media covering the press conference “listened in disbelief” as the Unionist Ministers tried to blame the Catholic victims of the pogrom. This included a claim that families had burned their own homes.
McCann writes: “When one reporter pointed out to the Education Minister, Captain Long, that ‘Protestants had gone into one area and burnt sixty-seven houses ‘and that his ‘own investigation’ suggested that 200 Catholic houses had been burned, Long breathtakingly replied that ‘a tremendous amount of those fires have been started within those areas which were sealed off by the Catholic population themselves… When asked by a journalist to whom information for a potential inquiry should be given, the Minister of Home Affairs, Robert Porter, replied: ‘to the police’, at which point ‘almost the entire hall burst into laughter.’”
But unionists were deadly serious in their desire to defend their aggressive actions by blaming Catholics. According to McCann the Rev. Martin Smyth, a leading Orangeman claimed that “most Roman Catholics left at their own wishes. Some fired their own homes.”
Between August and September it is estimated that 3,500 families fled from their homes in Belfast. 85% of them were Catholic.
On the same date – August 14th - that the British Army was deployed on the streets of the North the British Home Secretary Jim Callaghan sent Robert Mark, Deputy Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and Douglas Osmond, Chief Constable of Hampshire to Belfast to assess the policing situation. In a report to Callaghan they described the RUC as a “force apart. They also reported that at the first signs of trouble the RUC reverted to a paramilitary force where any opposition to the status quo was dealt with by force. Mark and Osmond concluded that the RUC was a sectarian agency whose role as an arm of the ruling Unionist party precluded it from performing the duties of an impartial police force.
The new edition of ‘Bombay Street: Taken from the Ashes’ by Gerry Collins and ‘Ardoyne – the aftermath’ by Hugh McKeown provide a different perspective on August 69. These are two unique photographic accounts of the devastation inflicted on Catholic areas. The books are the work of Frankie Quinn – a Belfast photographer – and the Belfast Archive Project. Frankie who is a well-known and celebrated photographer in his own right recognised the unique significance of the photographs taken in by Gerry and Hugh.
The morning after Bombay Street was destroyed on 15th August Gerry Collins walked to Bombay Street where his aunt lived. He brought his camera and three rolls of film. Later that week he went into other areas in the Falls and took more photographs of barricaded streets and burned out homes and buildings. It is a remarkable visual record of events of an extraordinary time in August 1969. They record the pain and the trauma for families suddenly left with nothing.
Hugh McKeown was an amateur photographer who was born in Ardoyne. He witnessed first-hand the horror of families being evicted from their homes and of streets destroyed in an orgy of violence by loyalists, the B Specials and the RUC. He helped evacuate his family from Brookfield Street. Hugh’s photos, like those of Gerry Collins, remind us of the personal, individual trauma that many families experienced that summer.
These three books and the Clonard Residents Association video are by people who were there. Go online for the Clonard video; ask for the books in your local library or bookshop. Or buy them online at Republican Merchandising LTD. 00 353 1 8726100: email address is

Friday, August 16, 2019

Féile An Phobail Abú.

Wasn’t Féile an Phobail 2019 great? 11 days, covering over 300 events, which attracted tens of thousands people. Amazing. Comhghairdeas to all of those who made it happen. To everyone involved in planning, organising, or participating in this year’s Féile. The best ever. Buiochas to Kevin and the entire Féile team. Well done. As Emma Goldman said “A revolution without dancing is not a revolution worth having.” She was right.

Dancing is an essential part of Féile an Phobail. And singing. There were sold out concerts in the Falls Park – Boyzone, Wolftones, and Dance night. Other seisúns everywhere. The Michael Conlan Fight Night was televised live to millions of people across the world on BT Sport and ESPN+. Phil Coulter packed out Clonard Monastery. Féile comedy night was hugely successful. There were dramas, art exhibitions,film, debates and discussions, lectures, the carnival parade, sporting events, and the visual arts. And the Cribby World Championship.

There were also an unequalled series of debates and discussions - over 75 in total - making Féile an event to rival any of the summer schools that take place across the island of Ireland. The main themes for the debates this year were Irish Unity, including a referendum on Unity, the imperative of engaging with unionism on this, building an all-Ireland health service, the made a keynote contribution on the issue of the so-called British subvention. Breaking it down and explaining that it is not as great as claimed and concluding that unity is affordable.

On the Monday night John McDonnell, the British Labour Shadow Chancellor, was warmly welcomed as he gave the James Connolly lecture to a capacity crowd in St. Mary’s University College. Brexit and a referendum on Irish Unity were the big issues. McDonnell said that the constitutional future of Ireland was a matter for the Irish people.

The following night the leader’s debate saw representatives from all of the main political parties participate, including An Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar TD, Mary Lou McDonald TD, Sinn Féin President, Naomi Long MEP, Alliance leader, Fianna Fáil TD Brendan Smith, SDLP MLA Daniel McCrossan, East Derry MP Gregory Campbell for the DUP, UUP MLA Doug Beattie.

This year the Féile organisers ensured that most of the debates and discussions were live streamed as they happened on the internet. Some were later put up on youtube. I have friends in the USA and Australia who watched the leader’s debate.

When we started we had a battle a day to get the tourism agencies interested in Féile and West Belfast. This year a major global Tourism Conference was held for the first time, hosted by Fáilte Feirste Thiar. It brought together tourism experts from New Orleans, Barcelona and many other places. World tourism expert Dr Terry Stephens was involved in organising the event.

The diversity of events was staggering. Discussions included – Stop Female Genital Mutilation: Belfast women and the vote, war and socialism (held in the Shankill Library): Who says that Protestants can’t be socialists (in Áras Uí Chonghaile): Collusion: The End Game with Professor Mark McGovern: The Conversation about Irish Unity with Professor Colin Harvey. Sean Murray’s expose of the Glenanne Gang – Unquiet Graves – was shown, as was the Ballymurphy Precedent. A play by Patricia Downey tells of the grief and trauma of Gina Murray, whose 13 year old daughter Leanna was killed in the Shankill Road bomb in 1993. The play received a standing ovation from the audience.

This is the other part of the Féile story. Féile an Phobail was born out of the devastation of war. West Belfast was a different place in 1988 when the first Féile took place. It was a community under military occupation. Thousands of heavily armed British troops patrolled our streets stopping and searching citizens. Those stopped were often abused. Homes were frequently raided and wrecked. There were menacing British military and RUC barracks scattered across west Belfast monitoring and controlling population movement. State collusion with unionist death squads, including their rearming with South African sourced weapons, saw hundreds killed across the North at that time and over the following years. Shoot-to-kill was government policy and part of the plethora of repressive laws used by the British state.

1988 saw the introduction by the Thatcher government of official political censorship and the extension of political vetting of community groups, including the denial of funding to crèches and other community groups. Discrimination in employment and housing, and unionist efforts to control local councils and exclude Sinn Féin representatives, were part of everyday life.

The catalyst for Féile was the killing in Gibraltar of three young people from this area in March 1988 – IRA Volunteers Mairead Farrell, Seán Savage and Dan McCann. In the two weeks following the Gibraltar killings a further nine people died - another four from this constituency. It was a tragic, depressingly sad time for the victims and their families but also for the citizens of west Belfast. They were demonised. Seamus Mallon, the then Deputy leader of the SDLP, said that the people of this area ‘have turned into savages’. Others said we were ‘animals’.

A lesser people could not have survived the years of insults, lies and invective. But we knew that wasn’t a true reflection of our people. We knew that the people of west Belfast were proud and courageous and resilient. We knew that despite almost 20 years of war the community of west Belfast was still standing strong against injustice and inequality.

A small group of us got together and out of our conversations grew a community festival – a peoples’ festival – Féile an Phobail. It was to be our alternative to the bonfires and the riots that usually marked the August internment anniversary. It was our way of demonstrating to the world that the people of west Belfast are a generous, humorous, talented, gifted and inclusive community. It was to be positive, upbeat reflection of everything that is positive, and loving and hopeful. That first festival was, by the scale of recent years, very modest but it was also a huge success. This 8 August, there were no bonfires in west Belfast. Apart from one anti-community bonfire in the New Lodge, almost 12,000 young people participated in a dance night in west Belfast.

Now the Féile is Ireland’s foremost community festival. Despite all the begrudgers and the naysayers Féile an Phobail has gone from strength to strength. Our culture of resistance built over many decades has transitioned into a culture of change. Of reconquest. Of dancing and singing.

So, well done to everyone who over the last 31 years has played any part in this inspirational story of resistance and change. Maya Angelou’s words speak to all of you.
“Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wonderously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

Friday, August 9, 2019

August 69 – it all changed forever.

August 69 was a turning point for the North and for many of us who lived here. The Civil Rights Association had been campaigning for an end to discrimination by the Unionist regime at Stormont. I was a member of NICRA and on the committee of its West Belfast branch. I was also very active in the West Belfast Housing Action Committee, campaigning against high rise flats at Divis, and squatting homeless families in the Falls area. 
At the start of the year Loyalists and B Specials had attacked a Peoples Democracy March at Burntollet, outside Derry. Sporadic rioting had occurred in the months since then and in Belfast Catholic homes were attacked and some families evicted.
In April Samuel Devenney had been batoned in his home by the RUC. He died three months later on July 16th. That same month an Orange parade had clashed with nationalists in Derry, and in three days of renewed attacks on the Bogside by the RUC, two civilians were shot and wounded. In the course of two days of riots in Dungiven, a Catholic pensioner Francis McCloskey was killed on July 14th in an RUC baton charge. He was first person killed as a result of violence in the most recent phase of conflict.
The British statelet would not concede ‘one man, one vote’, or any principle of equality; it could only be sustained on the basis of inequality. That was what kept Big House unionists in their positions as top dogs; they knew that if change came and inequality was ended they would no longer even have reason to be unionists. The slogans of the regime, ‘Not an inch’ and ‘No surrender’, must prevail at all costs.
On 2 August the Shankill Defence Association, aided and abetted by the RUC and B Specials, launched attacks on Unity Flats after an Orange march. Patrick Corry, a Catholic, was hit by an RUC baton near his home and died four months later. Catholic families were intimidated out of the Crumlin Road area by loyalist gangs.
On 12 August the Orange parade went ahead in Derry. At the edge of the Bogside, young nationalists clashed with loyalists, and the RUC launched baton charges. Fighting side by side with the loyalists, the RUC brought up armoured cars and, for the first time in Ireland, CS gas. For forty-eight hours the mainly teenage defenders of the Bogside used stones, bottles and petrol bombs against the constant baton charges of hundreds of RUC and loyalists. Free Derry was born.
At the height of the Battle of the Bogside I attended an emergency meeting of NICRA in the Wellington Park Hotel in Belfast. It was decided to organize demos throughout the North to stretch the RUC and relieve the pressure on the people of the Bogside. The Belfast demo was to be organized by the West Belfast Housing Action Committee.
In Dublin three cabinet ministers proposed that the Irish army cross the border and seize Derry, Newry and other areas of majority Catholic population. On August 13th An Taoiseach Jack Lynch went on television to announce that ‘the Irish government can no longer stand by and see innocent people injured and perhaps worse’. At around the time of his broadcast I was chairing the protest meeting at Divis Flats. When we marched later to Hasting Street and Springfield Road Barracks we were attacked by the RUC. Later again in the early hours of the morning the RUC opened fire on us from the roof of Springfield Road barracks. 
Only half slept I went into work that morning of the 14th, but at 11.30 a.m. someone came into the bar for me, saying, ‘You’re wanted. You should pack in work. The wee man’s looking for you.’ The ‘wee man’ was Billy McMillen.
I went straight from work to Leeson Street, where Billy McMillen and Jimmy Sullivan were in the process of mobilising republicans from all over Belfast and attempting to put in place some defensive arrangements for nationalist areas which were under attack. During the course of that day, there were reports of increasing tension in different parts of the city bordering on loyalist areas, in particular Ardoyne.
That evening a loyalist mob, including many members of the B Specials, armed with rifles, revolvers and sub-machine guns moved from the Shankill Road toward the Falls. They petrol bombed Catholic houses in the streets that lay on their route, beating up their occupants and shooting at fleeing residents. As the mob reached the Falls Road itself, it started to attack St Comgall’s school. A lone IRA volunteer opened fire and the crowd was repelled. The RUC, coming in behind the loyalist civilians and B Specials, opened up with heavy calibre Browning machine-guns from Shorland armoured cars. They directed their firing into the nationalist area, into narrow streets and into Divis Flats itself, where they killed a nine-year-old boy. An RUC sniper from Hasting Street Barracks shot dead a young local man home on leave from the British army.
Within a remarkably short space of time, the streets off the Falls Road, and the Falls itself, had been turned into a war zone. Throughout the night, the RUC roared up and down in their armoured vehicles. Dover Street was burned out, and Percy Street, and fighting continued all night in Conway Street. As dawn arose on the morning of 15 August, it did so over a scene of absolute devastation. Six people were dead, five Catholics and one Protestant; about 150 had been wounded by gunfire and 150 Catholic homes had been gutted. The streetscape that I grew up in was gone.
The attacks continued through the 15th. In the Clonard area Gerald McAuley, a fifteen-year-old member of Na Fianna, was shot dead defending Bombay Street, and the street itself was ablaze. Catholic families were fleeing from their homes across Belfast. From the Grosvenor Road, Donegal Road, Tiger’s Bay, York Street, Sandy Row, Highfield and Greencastle: Some fled south, but more moved into safer areas of West Belfast, particularly Andersonstown and Ballymurphy. Relief committees were established in most of these areas.
Local people opened up their homes to these refugees or just emptied their houses of blankets and clothes and gave up their beds to those who had been forced to flee. In the short few weeks of August 1969, all had changed. Forever.