Sunday, September 19, 2021

Tír Éoghán Abú: Antrim Camógs show the Way: An Appeal by the Moore Street Preservation Trust: Escape to Freedom

 Tír Éoghán Abú

Martin McGuinness had a great saying. Well he had lots of great sayings. This one has to do with hindsight. ‘Hindsight’ Martin would say ‘is a great man to have at a meeting.’ I thought of this as I was watching the All Ireland Football Final as Tyrone swept Mayo to one side to bring Sam Maguire back to the Lamh Dearg county. In the run into the game I thought there was little to choose between the teams. I might not have made Mayo favourites although like most Gaels I would not begrudge them a win given that they have been nearly there so often. But now with the benefit of hindsight it is clear to me that Tyrone should have been the favourites.

They are, after all the Ulster Champions. I am not being parochial here. Being the Provincial Champions in any of our provinces is no mean feat and a great achievement for the teams involved, but coming out of Ulster is a much tougher challenge than coming out of Connaught. So Mayo’s woes have little to do with a curse. It has all to do with meeting a team which was tried and tested in the playing fields of Ulster and well prepared to create and take every chance which came their way in Croke Park.

I have a great grá for Mayo. I have many friends there and in the USA where Mayo people are the back bone of Irish America. I have hiked, walked, camped, listened to music and made politics in Mayo for many years. And I have supported their footballers, especially when Ulster teams were uninvolved.

So too with Tyrone. It also is one of our historic, unbroken proud Irish counties. It too has kept the faith and I have many friends there also and in the USA where Tyrone exiles have played and continue to play a historic leadership role in the cause of Ireland. So I am delighted that they succeeded.

Mayo will be back. Both teams are to be commended for giving us such a supremely entertaining sporting spectacle. It is amazing. Just like the GAA.  It is a spectacular national and international phenomenon. I attended my first All Ireland in 1960 when the footballers of County Down brought Sam across the border after beating Kerry. I was eleven. My Uncle Paddy brought me.  With the benefit of hindsight it is obvious that that win didn’t just happen. It was organized.

So too with last Saturday’s Final. Fergal Logan, Brian Dooher and their back room teams built on Mickey Harte’s work and organised their players into a cohesive band of Gaelic brothers, athletic footballing wizards. Winners.  And they have these  in plenty including super subs. They may not have the national profile of other Gaelic giants, footballers, hurlers, camógs  but have no doubt these young Tyrone Gaels are as worthy of  national recognition as the greats of Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Kilkenny and Kerry. 

Every county loves to win an All Ireland but there is a special feeling for those of us who live in the disputed counties of the North. Wrenched out of a 32 County state. Partitioned against our will from our neighbours in other counties. But the GAA has never been partitioned. Sam Maguire coming home to Tyrone or other northern counties is a vindication of that and proof, if proof is needed, that we northern Gaels are an essential and welcome part of the Gaeldom. Without us the Gaeldom would be incomplete. Diminished. False. That is the greatness also of Tyrone’s win. 

Have no doubt that there are young boys and girls on playing fields across Ireland, including the playing fields of Antrim, with the potential to achieve that greatness also. They are out on pitches across Belfast city and up and across the county from Ballycastle to Glenavy. They are out every evening and  weekend mornings learning their skills and developing their team work.  Some are natural sports people. You can spot them. Even at the age of seven.

But the key is practice, practice, practice. The objective of mentors has to be to sustain their involvement into and through their teens and into senior level. That requires vision, resources, facilities, capacity, and joined up strategic development plans linking under age teams, schools and local clubs into the county set up. And coaches ,coaches, coaches.

 Our County Board is doing well in their efforts to provide this. As are all our local clubs. But they need all of us to get behind them.  So support your local  club. Be part of the Gaeldom. Play your part.

We have the players. Antrim Camógs are playing Kilkenny in Croke as I pen these words. They didn’t get there by accident.  They deserve to be there and win or lose they will do our county proud.  Like the Tyrone Gaels. And the Mayo warriors.  

Tyrone deserve to be All Ireland winners. Well done Tyrone Gaels. Thank you for bringing Sam home to Ulster and Tyrone.


Antrim Camógs show the Way. 

Antrim Camogs won the Intermediate Final. They outplayed, out ran, out blocked and out pucked Kilkenny’s finest. Well done to all the players- the full panel- and the management and back room team. It was an exciting game. The Antrim women were tenacious and determined. Lovely hurling. Na mná abú. Go raibh míle maith agaibh. 


 BBC are spoil sports

The failure of the BBC to give proper coverage to the All Ireland Finals is a disgrace. Barely a mention on news programmes and no dedicated sports coverage that I can see. It is not good enough. Public service broadcasting needs to provide fair play for Gaels. 


An Appeal by the Moore Street Preservation Trust

The Moore Street Preservation Trust is appealing for your help to protect and preserve “the most important historic site in modern Irish history.” (National Museum of Ireland). 

Regular readers will know that Moore Street is where the last meeting of the leaders of the 1916 Rising took place. The 1916 Rising Heritage of the area is under threat from a proposed development by a London based developer Hammerson. 

The Moore Street Preservation Trust is led by relatives of the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic. It has developed an alternative Masterplan from a team of leading architects, planners and consultants. Key elements of it have already been published and it has secured widespread praise and support. However to complete it the Moore Street Preservation Trust last week made an urgent appeal for financial support.

I have made my donation. I would urge all of those who believe that it is important that we preserve and protect the Moore Street site and its links to 1916 to join me. It’s very simple. Any size of a donation will be gratefully accepted. So if you want to #SaveMooreStreet the last meeting place of the leaders of the #1916Rising

All you need is your debit or credit card: Donate➡️


Escape to Freedom

According to media reports there was great elation among Palestinians when the news broke that six political prisoners had succeeded in tunnelling their way to freedom from the high security Gilboa prison in northern Israel.  The six were Zakaria Zubeidi, brothers Muhammad and Mahmoud al-Arida, Eham Kamamji, Yacoub Kadiri, and Munadil Nafayat. Photographs after the escape show a hole in the floor of their communal shower cubicle and an exit hole outside the wall of the prison in full view of an observation tower. 

Palestinian people demonstrated in solidarity with the escapees and with Palestinian prisoners. Currently, there are approximately 4,750 Palestinians being held in dozens of prison facilities across Israel. These include 42 females, 200 children, and 550 administrative detainees (internees). 

Al Jazeera quoted one activist Muhammad Khabeisa, who had land stolen by an Israeli the settlement at Evyatar said that his whole village backed the escaped prisoners. He said: “The prisoners in Palestinian jails are longing for freedom. They want to live their lives. They are not ordinary criminals, but patriots fighting for freedom…  The Israelis have put Palestinians in prison with the occupation of their land. When the Palestinians take up arms, the world calls us terrorists and when we lay down our arms and resist peacefully, the Israelis kill us.”

Evidence of this can be found in the statistics of deaths of children in the first nine months of this year. Twelve children have been killed in the Israeli occupied West Bank and another 67 were killed in Gaza in May. 

Every political prisoner dreams of escaping. Most never do. But with luck and careful planning there are occasional successes and these provide a morale boost for prisoners, their families and supporters. The fact that most escape attempts fail or that escaped prisoners are often recaptured doesn’t detract from the sense of confidence and self-esteem that the attempt can generate.  

That is why the Palestinian escape was applauded by so many in Ireland. 




Monday, September 13, 2021

Are you listening Jeffrey? Reclaiming the Enlightenment

Are you listening Jeffrey?

Unionism, especially its DUP component, has been talking up unionist and loyalist resistance to the Irish Protocol since before Boris Johnson dirty-joed them, broke his commitments to them, negotiated and then signed up to the Protocol.

There is some evidence of this in the loyalist street disturbances earlier this year and the sacking of Arlene Foster and of Edwin Poots. The dramatic decline in the polling fortunes of the DUP, as it flounders about trying to assert its former role as the undisputed leader of unionism, is also linked to its stance on Brexit and its transparent efforts to blame everyone else for a debacle they helped create.

Jeffrey Donaldson was in Dublin two weeks ago meeting An Taoiseach Micheál Martin. The Protocol was top of his agenda. The arrogance and rhetoric were loud - the politics insipid. He was at it again last week when he met the Tánaiste in Belfast. “The protocol, the Irish Sea border, has to go” he told Leo Varadkar.

Inevitably, his comments contained the not-so-subtle threat. If unionism doesn’t get its way then the Protocol, he said “has the capacity to so undermine the political progress here that it drags us backwards … the Irish Government needs to very quickly recognise the damage that this protocol is doing to political stability in Northern Ireland.”

The DUP leader speaks as if he represents the majority of citizens in the North. He doesn’t. The political instability he speaks of is rooted in the attitude and behaviour of the DUP he now leads. Donaldson refuses to accept the reality that he represents a minority. He seems to believe that if he says something often enough – however inaccurate or plain wrong - that people will believe it. Even Jeffrey himself doesn’t. So, the Protocol is all Dublin’s fault. The Protocol is damaging the northern economy. The business and farming sector are opposed to it. It is undermining the Good Friday Agreement. And so on. None of which is true.

Brexit is the responsibility of those who advocated for it, campaigned for it and voted for it, especially the DUP.

The fact is a majority of citizens in the North voted against Brexit. They wanted to remain within the EU. They were worried by the likely economic dislocation Brexit would bring. And they were right to be worried. Its impact on the British economy is clear for all to see. Ian King, who presents the daily business programme on Sky summarised the situation for many last week, when he said: “England has become a country where the pubs have no beer, farmers don’t have anyone to pick their fruit and even if they did there aren’t enough lorry drivers to get it to the shops.”

The medical supplier Seqirus has said it is postponing deliveries due to a Brexit-related shortage of lorry drivers. Logistics UK, which represents freight firms, and the British Retail Consortium (BRC) warned last month that the loss of 25,000 EU drivers is putting significant pressure on supply chains for retailers. The list of companies impacted is growing daily – Brewers, Coca Cola, Nando, McDonalds, BP, Iceland are just some. The Bank of England has also reported shortages of furniture, car parts and electoral goods, as well as cement and timber for the construction industry.

In stark contrast the most recent trade figures for the island of Ireland reveal that the business sector is taking advantage of the unique position of the North which is in both the EU single market and the customs territory with Britain. Last month the Central Statistics Office (CSO) in Dublin released trade figures showing what the London Guardian has described as evidence “deeper economic unity on the island of Ireland.”

The value of goods moving North to South in the first six months of 2021 dramatically increased by 77 per cent to €1.77 billion (£1.5 billion) – an increase on the same period last year when it was just under €1 billion. The value of good travelling South to North also jumped by 40 per cent to €1.57 billion. This is an increase of almost half a billion over the same period last year.

The Guardian newspaper concluded: “If it is sustained, Northern Ireland’s deepening economic ties with the republic – and weaker ones with mainland Britain – will raise questions over the region’s relationship with the rest of the UK.”

So, where now stands loyalist/unionist resistance to the Protocol? Two weeks ago Jamie Bryson and Jim Allister and an assortment of hangers-on travelled to Enniskillen to campaign against the Protocol. The reports on the numbers who attended vary. Most fall between one hundred and three hundred.

One seasoned journalist from Fermanagh, Denzil McDaniels writing about the Enniskillen protest said: “It’s clear that decisions to accommodate Brexit are taken at an international level and if there has been a betrayal of Unionism, loyalists should remember that it was their own basketcase of a British Government that let them down. That should be the real focus of their disillusion. Not the Irish Government and certainly not the people of Fermanagh who don’t want a return to the difficult times of Borders past…”

And that’s the prize we have to keep our eyes firmly fixed on. No going back. No returning  to the past. A future in which we can all live in harmony and equality with each other. I believe that can be best achieved in a United Ireland. Others have a different view. Ok. Let’s talk about it. Are you listening Jeffrey?


Reclaiming the Enlightenment

The best kind of history is that which successfully brings the stories of our past to life. Recently I had the good fortune to buy three little books that do exactly that from An Fhuiseog on the Falls Road, beside Sevastopol Street. The three are Mary Ann McCracken 1770-1866 – Feminist, Revolutionary and Reformer; The United Irishmen and the Men of no Property, The Sans Culottes of Belfast; and Cave Hill and the United Irishmen.

Together they give a wonderful insight into the lives and working experience of those in the Belfast region who helped shape the United Irish Society of the late 18th century. They are all written by John Gray who is the former Librarian of Belfast’s Linen Hall Library. John Gray has written and lectured on “many aspects of Ulster’s Labour and radical history.”  The pamphlets are written under the auspices of ‘Reclaim the Enlightenment’ which “is committed to recalling and celebrating that progressive era in Belfast’s past. We are convinced that doing so can lend inspiration in the present.”

Anyone born in Belfast or who has lived here even for a short time, is conscious of our Belfast Hills. These cradle the city and give it a spectacular backdrop. Foremost among these is Cave Hill, to the North of the city. It is a place long associated with the United Irish Society. Many of us are familiar with the account of the occasion in May 1795 when the leaders of the United Irishmen went to McArt’s Fort. Wolfe Tone recorded what happened there. “Russell, Neilson, Simms, McCracken and one or two more of us, on the summit of McArt’s Fort took a solemn obligation … never to desist until we had subverted the authority of England over our country and asserted her independence.”

Through John Gray’s three pamphlets the men and the women of 1798 become more than just names on the pages of a book. The connections between Belfast – a town of around 20,000 people – and its hinterland of Carnmoney, Templepatrick, Skegoneill, Hightown, and Roughfort rath, the first rebel assembly point in County Antrim that is only four miles from the Cave Hill – are described. So too is the plight of the tenant farmers and the growth of the first trade unions linked to the hand loom weavers, many of whom were from that locality.

In July 1792 Belfast celebrated the third anniversary of the French Revolution. There was a ‘Grand Procession’ with ‘citizens in pairs and people of the neighbourhood for several miles round, with green ribbons, and laurel leaves in their hats.’ 

Gray describes how one group was singled out. He writes, “namely, ‘one hundred and eighty of the most respectable inhabitants of Carnmoney and Templepatrick’. They bore a green flag, with the following mottos: -

Our Gallic brother was born July 14, 1789;

Alas we are still in embryo”

And on the reverse side:

“Superstitious galaxy.

The cause of the Irish Bastille; let us unite to destroy it.

Their banner was designed by James Hope, a weaver from Mallusk to the west of Cave Hill and later destined to become the most celebrated artisan United Irish leader …”

The central role played by Presbyterians and by women is also recorded in the pages of these pamphlets, one of which reflects at length on the life of Mary Ann McCracken. For a long time she was known mostly as the sister of Henry Joy McCracken but Gray reminds us of her contribution as “a revolutionary, yes, as a feminist before the term was invented and as a social reformer.”

He writes, Mary Ann “did not approve of separate women’s societies though for entirely liberated reasons arguing for the admission of women to the main societies, ‘as there can be no other reason for having them separate but keeping the women in the dark and certainly it is equally ungenerous and uncandid to make tools of them without confiding in them.’

Three relatively short pamphlets. Full of information and detail about a pivotal moment in our history. I am happy to recommend these for anyone interested in the people and places and events that have shaped Ireland.




Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Want a United Ireland? – Get on the register to vote!: The Lazy Gardener. : Frederick Douglass – I have a home in Belfast

Want a United Ireland? – Get on the register to vote! At the weekend the Belfast Telegraph published an opinion poll by the Belfast based polling and market research company LucidTalk. As a matter of long standing policy I usually don’t comment on opinion polls which deal with the electoral fortunes of our political parties. I see no reason to change this policy. So I will ignore the party political content and deal only with the Unity Referendum elements. Two thirds of those polled believe the unity referendum should be held, although about half of these would prefer it to take place after 2026. A minority of 29 per cent were against ever holding a unity referendum. 49 per cent of those polled want to retain the Union with Britain while 42 per cent want a United Ireland. Imagine – without a plan or a discussion or a campaign – and with an Irish government opposed to the unity referendum, 42 per cent are already for a United Ireland. Bill White, LucidTalk’s managing director says that the fact that the pro-Union vote has remained around 50% should not be a surprise as “a united Ireland is still the unknown option, and although many people support the concept of a united Ireland, they would like to know a bit more about it, and how it would work.” He’s right. So it’s up to us who want a United Ireland to let people know more about it and to explain how it will work. It’s time to plan for the unity referendum. The Irish government must take the lead. And if they won’t, then let’s change the government. More immediately, there is a need to ensure that everyone who can vote and who wants to vote has the opportunity to do that. Whether it is next year’s Assembly election or the unity referendum an effective election or referendum campaign depends on votes. Posters, social media, leaflets, canvassing and all the rest are hugely important in winning arguments and motivating voters but it all amounts to just so much hot air if voters are not on the electoral register. In July the Electoral Office in the North wiped the entire electoral register. Each and every citizen of voting age was taken off the register in one fell swoop. A couple of months on and the uptake of citizens actively working to get themselves back on the electoral register has been patchy. An ambitious and comprehensive registration campaign to try and get as many people on to the new register as quickly possible is needed. It can’t be left to the Electoral Office or the political parties. Citizens who never vote in elections will vote in the Unity Referendum. But they can only do that if they are on the electoral register. So get help and advice on how to register to vote or log in directly to Play your part in building the new Ireland. Register to vote - Now. The Lazy Gardener. For years I used to gather up acorns and chestnuts and hazel nuts and little sycamore seeds and all manner of other seeds. My growing methods are fairly basic. I collected as many as I could and then planted them out in pots or growbags and let nature do the rest. I worked on the general assumption that if I planted a lot there was a greater chance that I would harvest a lot. I’m not talking of hundreds of seeds by the way. Pocketfuls picked up on walks. The Falls Park has plenty of oak and chestnut trees. There are native trees also in The Water Works, Colin Glen and Woodvale. Acres of broadleafs. And in all of our forests. The British Prime Minister’s country residence at Chequers has great Rowan trees. I got heaps of Rowan berries there. They are always a wee bit trickier - like the tenant in Chequers. The seeds are contained in the little red berries but well worth the trouble. Unlike the tenant in Chequers. Rowans are favourite smaller trees. And Blackthorn. Chestnuts are straight forward. In fact chestnuts are probably the easiest to grow. Once they take, these trees will be very content in pots for as long as ten or even twenty years. They are unique presents and great living memorials for friends who have died. I have a wonderful tall oak, grown from a tiny acorn, in memory of the late Eileen Howell. Another for Siobhan O Hanlon. Others for Colette’s sisters Marie and Leah. A special chestnut for Joe Floorboards and a gingerish leaved Acer for Cleaky. And it’s not just for deaths. Babies too deserve their own trees. This last few years I haven’t been as diligent as I used to be with my seed gathering. It’s too easy to be too busy. I didn’t give it up completely but I’m glad to say I am now refocused again. Why am I telling you this? Because now is the season for seed gathering. Most of the tree seeds won’t be ready for a few months but now is the time to spot the parent tree or trees. Then it is a simple matter of gathering up your seeds when they fall to earth. Even a few chestnuts planted in wee pots and left to their own devices will make a difference. And give you great pleasure. But while you’re waiting on the trees to reward you there are lots of wild flowers coming into seed at this time. Basically anything with a seed pod. Or a flower head. Fox gloves, or Lus Mór, are an old favourite of mine. Just cut off the seed pods and let them air dry then store the seeds in envelopes until you are ready for planting. Some people grow them on in little trays before planting out but I’m a lazy gardener. I just sprinkle the seeds where I want them to grow and let nature do the rest. It’s always a good tip to wash your hands after handling seeds. Some can be picked directly from the flower heads. Flowers will drop seeds themselves when they are ready so it’s easy to know the best time to gather your share. Incidentally, there are social media sites to guide you. Just google seed gathering. And don’t confine yourself to wild flowers. Many garden blooms can also be procreated. From seed. Or cuttings. Apart from flowers themselves and your own enjoyment, the bees and butterflies will be grateful. Frederick Douglass – I have a home in Belfast Last week I was part of an online panel discussion on the life and times of escaped slave Frederick Douglass, his time in Ireland in the 1840s and the relevance of his message of hope and equality in today’s world. The conversation was part of an ambitious and successful one day conference organised by the Irish Echo in New York. The event – The Big Irish Campfire (the title alone attracted me) - showcases Irish American organisations across the USA. All of the discussions were short – 30 minutes – so there was no time to bore those contributing or watching. The Echo staff – comhgairdheas to all involved - ran a tight ship. My discussion, which was hosted by State Senator Tim Kennedy, included the acknowledged expert on Douglass, Prof Christine Kinealy who is Director of the Institute of Ireland’s Great Hunger at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut. Under the clever title, ‘A Camino for our Times: On the Trail of Frederick Douglass in Dublin, Belfast and New York’ Christine talked about the three different trails/walks she has developed in Belfast, Cork and Dublin where it’s possible to visit sites that are linked to Douglass’s time in Ireland. The Belfast trail commences at the grave of Mary Anne McCracken and includes the First Presbyterian Church in Rosemary St outside of which Belfast City Council has agreed to erect a statue of Douglass. Douglass visited Ireland and Britain following the publication in 1845 of his autobiography, ‘The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave’. He arrived here in September 1845, on the cusp of An Gorta Mór and travelled to Wexford, Waterford, Cork, Limerick and Belfast. His repeated visits to Belfast during the months he stayed in Ireland are an important part of our own history and a reminder that slavery was opposed by radical Presbyterians like United Irishman, Thomas McCabe in Belfast in the late 18th century. Ireland was in his own word “transformative” for Douglass. It was he said the first time he felt like a man and not a chattel. Douglass also witnessed the awful conditions endured by Irish peasants and this led him to see the issue of slavery not in isolation but as part of a wider campaign for equality and social justice. He wrote: “I see much here to remind me of my former condition, and I confess I should be ashamed to lift up my voice against American slavery, but that I know the cause of humanity is one the world over. He who really and truly feels for the American slave, cannot steel his heart to the woes of others …” Douglass’s story is also a reminder that the evil of slavery is still with us. It is estimated that between 20 and 40 million people, including ten million children, across the world today live in slavery. In January 1846 the ‘Belfast Anti-Slavery Society’ gave a breakfast in his honour. It was his last appearance in Ireland. One of the objectives of the event was to establish a ‘Ladies Ant-Slavery Association.’ Mary Ann McCracken was listed as a committee member. She was also active over fifty years earlier in Thomas McCabe’s time when they stopped a slaving company being set up in Belfast. The event was attended by 250 people. As Douglass left Belfast he said: “Wherever else I feel myself to be a stranger. I will remember I have a home in Belfast.”

Monday, August 23, 2021

An Féile Abú - Black Mountain - Afghanistan - The expulsion of Ken Loach

An Féile Abú

Well done Féile an Phobail and to all of the staff who plan and prepare Féile. Many thanks to all those volunteers who work around the clock every August to make it all come together. This was Féile’s 33rd year and despite the pandemic and all of the restrictions and understandable worries that people have at this time Féile an Phobail was another wonderful August extravaganza and community celebration.

The Fight Night was extraordinary and from earlier that day there was a buzz on the road. The 80s music night and the Wolfe Tone concert were amazing. Well done to the Wolfe Tones who gave a shout out to the efforts of the Moore Street Preservation Trust to preserve and protect the historic 1916 Battlefield site. This is a hugely important campaign that deserves the support of everyone. The free night for young people – The Féile Dance Night – was absolutely super. It is a successful alternative by Féile to the bonfires and riots of previous years.

Well done also to the all the smaller but no less important debates and discussions. The hybrid model of real gigs, limited quite rightly in size, being streamed or zoomed across social media is a mark of the ingenuity, creativity and sheer expertise of the Féile team. And of the living loving singing dancing acting the eejit generous outward looking artistic community which Féile represents.

Finally, as a lapsed Póc Fada champ, comhgairdheas to all of this year’s winners. Tá muid fior buioch daoibhse. An Féile Abú!


Black Mountain

Thanks also to Féile for hosting the launch of my latest book Black Mountain And Other Stories. Harry Connolly- Féile Chair- was very kind and Timothy O Grady travelled from Poland to be with us. He too was very kind. He also did the Foreword to Black Mountain. Thanks to them all, and to The Felons who hosted the event.

The following Saturday I was in Derry for another book launch in the Gas Yard Féile. Thanks for the invite and to all of those who came along to listen to me read extracts from my books and to answer some questions. Both launches were very enjoyable. So too was Scribes at the Rock where I joined Seamus Carabine and Tadhg Hickey. Their contributions were much funnier than mine. But I enjoyed reading again from my book. Thank you one and all.

Black Mountain is available from An Fhuiseog and Or from good book shops everywhere.


Almost exactly 20 years ago the USA and Britain invaded Afghanistan. On Monday the Taliban returned to Kabul amid scenes of the chaos as thousands tried to flee. The British pulled their Army out of Afghanistan in 2014 after losing 457 soldiers and spending some £37 billion there. This week, like the fall of Saigon in another era, they are pulling out their citizens and Embassy staff.

The future for the people of Afghanistan is less certain. But a look at the Iraqi situation gives a sense of the stupidity of these adventures.

Like the decision to go to war in Iraq the human consequences of the political/military strategy of western states in that region has proven to be catastrophic. Hundreds of thousands have died, millions have been displaced, and the political and economic instability created by the western wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been disastrous.

Under the grand title of ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ British and US forces invaded Afghanistan in October 2001. Sinn Féin spoke out against the decision. While we opposed the policies of the Taliban government we were convinced that a military invasion would only make a bad situation worse.

The following year, in the course of Sinn Féin’s negotiations with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, both Martin McGuinness and I repeatedly raised with him the intense speculation then circulating about a possible invasion of Iraq by British forces.  We reminded Mr. Blair that British military adventures overseas never end well, but especially for the people who have been the target of the invasion. Military occupation always leads to confrontation with local communities and the imposition of special powers to maintain control. We pointed to the decades of conflict in Ireland following British soldiers coming back onto our streets in 1969 as evidence of this.

During that first occasion in Blair’s office in Downing Street we very bluntly told Mr. Blair and Jonathon Powell, his Chief of Staff, that invading Iraq would be disastrous for Britain and especially for the people of Iraq. We put this to him again on a number of subsequent occasions. To be frank both Martin and I were convinced, even before a public decision to invade was announced, that Mr. Blair was already committed to invasion.

With military forces in both Afghanistan and Iraq the techniques of occupation, of interrogation and torture, of population control and manipulation of the media, which had been used extensively in the North of Ireland, all came to the fore. The handling of the media was particularly crucial in covering up or distracting from the killing of civilians and the many accusations of torture.

The publication by WikiLeaks of 90,000 US military files in July 2010 revealed the depth to which these techniques were used in Afghanistan between 2004 and 2009. The WikiLeaks documents provided evidence of previously unreported actions in which Afghan civilians were killed or wounded. In 144 incidents detailed almost 200 civilians were killed and hundreds more injured. This was almost certainly a serious underestimation of the true scale of civilian casualties.

Human Rights Watch, which reported on the war in the North of Ireland, said at that time: ‘These files bring to light what’s been a consistent trend by US and NATO forces: the concealment of civilian deaths.’  The files also revealed the existence of Taskforce 373 – a covert operations unit whose task is to ‘remove’ the enemy. All of this was evidence of another dirty war using old strategies and techniques, and once again failing.

When asked if the publication of the battlefield and intelligence documents by WikiLeaks would make a difference the British Foreign Secretary William Hague said; ‘None.’

Six years later in June 2016 the Chilcot Report into the Iraq War was published. Chilcot accused Tony Blair of invading Iraq before all ‘peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted. Military action at that time was not a last resort.’ What also emerged from Chilcot’s two and a half million words is evidence of a British government that had not prepared its military for the invasion. It had no long term political strategy. It didn’t even have the right military equipment essential to an invasion.

Afghanistan and Iraq are examples of western powers thinking they still have the right to do what they like, when they like and against whomever they like. Their national interests, however short term, are all that matters. The end result is chaos and calamity for the peoples they invade.

The stupidity and incompetence of the British political, military and bureaucratic establishment, which fought a war in this part of Ireland for almost 30 years, is underlined by the nonsense claim of Colonel Richard Kemp in 2010. Kemp worked to the British Cabinet between 2001 and 2006 during which time he was a senior strategist and Commander in Afghanistan. In the summer of 2010 he claimed that the British Army won the war in Ireland. Writing in the Guardian newspaper in August 2010 I said: If Kemp could get it so wrong in our country, why should anyone expect him to get it right in Afghanistan? And if he and William Hague are reflective of British thinking today, then the British are destined to make the same mistakes in that part of the world they made here.”

Almost exactly 20 years after the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 and my prediction in 2010, it would appear that successive British governments opted to make the same mistakes. The thing about the lessons of history is that imperial governments rarely learn the lessons of history instead they ignore them.


The expulsion of Ken Loach

Two weeks ago my column focussed on the British Labour Party, and the approach of its current leader Keir Starmer toward Ireland. The internal decision making processes of that party and the leadership style of Mr. Starmer are obviously a matter for it and for him. My concern is for its Irish policy and in particular the Labour leader’s stated willingness to stand on the side of Unionists in any debate on Irish Unity. His stance is in direct contradiction to the principles of the Good Friday Agreement which state that it is for the people the island of Ireland alone to determine our own future.

Regrettably, the news that Ken Loach, film producer, director and writer has been expelled from the Labour Party has reinforced my concerns.

Ken Loach has long been a friend of Ireland. The 85-year-old is widely respected, with an impressive international reputation as a film maker. His style of filming making is described as socially critical” and he makes no secret of his belief in socialism. His films have tackled issues of poverty, and homelessness (Kathy come home), of worker’s rights, the Spanish Civil War and the power of the state against the unemployed. The first episode of his powerful 1974 television series Days of Hope showed British soldiers in Ireland during the Tan War and in one memorable scene Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill sings The Bold Fenian Men to British soldiers who have taken over her family farm.

Loach’s 1990 film Hidden Agenda tackled the issue of shoot-to-kill and Britain’s dirty war in Ireland and The Wind that Shakes the Barley, about the Irish Civil War, and I, Daniel Blake both won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, making him one of only nine filmmakers to win the award twice.

And now he has been expelled from the Labour Party. Loach has reportedly said that his expulsion is because he would “not disown those already expelled.” The move follows closely on reports that Keir Starmer is preparing a purge of members supportive of Jeremy Corbyn.

Whatever the truth of this Ken Loach is someone who has stood up for the downtrodden all of his life. His expulsion is a significant loss to the British Labour movement.

Monday, August 16, 2021

Internment: Alex and Liz Maskey: and The last cock a doodle doo


Imagine lying in your bed as the sun begins to rise above the horizon. You are awakened by loud banging on your front door. The sound of breaking glass and the splitting of wood as the door finally surrenders to the sledge hammer. Sitting up half asleep as the noise of booted feet come charging up your stairs and your bedroom door is kicked in. The screams of your children, or wife or partner or your parents as uniformed soldiers in blackened faces grab and drag you from your bed, demand your name, and haul you out of the bedroom. Baton blows rain down on you.

Heaved down the stairs to the street outside where you are roughly thrown into the back of an armoured vehicle and forced to lie on the floor. Shouted abuse and threats in English accents ringing in your ears. Fists and boots hammering against your head and body. Rifle butts and batons thumping into you. The noise and clatter of metal doors being opened and closed. The smell of diesel. Of people screaming in the street. Of not knowing what is happening, where you are going or what has happened to the family you have just been yanked from.

Last Monday, exactly 50 years to the day – 9th August 1971 – hundreds of families in nationalist areas across the North suffered that terror. Thousands of British soldiers smashed their way into homes dragging men and boys, old and young, from their beds and their terrified families to holding centres where most were beaten. 14 men were hooded and subjected over a week to brutal in-depth interrogation techniques by the RUC and the British Ministry of Defence’s Joint Services Interrogation Wing (JSIW).

Internment or Operation Demetrius, as it was named by the Brits, was an act of mass political violence and intimidation directed by the Unionist regime and Downing Street, against its nationalist and civil rights activists. It led to fierce rioting with British forces and the erection of barricades around most nationalist areas of Belfast and Derry. 14 people were killed on that first day. Five of them were among the 10 who were to die over a 36 hour period when shot by the Paras during the Ballymurphy Massacre. It took 50 years for their families to break through the lies and propaganda and secure truth about the events of August 1971 through an inquest. 

Thousands of families became refugees in their own country fleeing their homes from violence and intimidation. Most of those from Belfast ended up in a refugee camp in Gormanstown, Co Meath, run by the Irish Army. Refugees from Derry and Tyrone made their way to Finner camp in Donegal. Some of these eventually ended up in camps in Coolmoney, County Wicklow, Kilworth in Cork, and in Galway. Within a week the Irish Times was quoting An Taoiseach Jack Lynch warning that their reception centres for refugees had “almost reached saturation point.”

More than 5,000 refugees, mostly women and children, had fled the North and were now in camps in the South. According to a report by Freya McClements in the Irish Times last weekend there were 601 refugees “in the Garda training college at Templemore, Co Tipperary, Dublin Corporation housed 1,250 in hospitals, schools and convents, and about 100 refugees from Derry were sent to the Ursuline Convent in Sligo.”

The people who were lifted came from several different generations. Liam Mulholland was seventy-eight, one of about fifty older men like who were lifted simply because they had been interned before. Then there were young student members of People’s Democracy and a few members of the Civil Rights Association. Some people were perhaps picked up because they were related to political activists; others, completely uninvolved people, were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. There were local community and tenants’ association activists, and there were republicans, but despite the fact that the first killings had been carried out by loyalists, that the first explosions were the responsibility of the UVF, and the first RUC man had been killed by unionists, no unionists were interned. 

Violence escalated. Scores more died. In December 1971 McGurks pub in North Belfast was bombed and 15 nationalists were killed. The RUC tried to blame the IRA but it was unionist paramilitaries acting in collusion with British forces. The Parachute Regiment, the shock troops of the British Army, who had killed so many in Ballymurphy were sent into Derry on 30 January 1972 and killed 14 civil rights marchers on Bloody Sunday. Weeks later the Stormont Parliament and Regime was gone – never to return. 

But the street protests and marches against internment continued and eventually morphed into protests in support of the political prisoners in the H-Blocks and Armagh Women’s prison. Decades more conflict followed. 

It is difficult for those who didn’t live through those times to appreciate at an emotional and human level the trauma that individual families and the nationalist community collectively experienced. But instead of coercing the nationalist republican people into acquiescing to Unionist/British rule internment galvanised resistance to the Unionist regime and the British state in Ireland. Internment cemented the nationalist community’s opposition to British rule.

One additional consequence out of the chaos and conflict in the aftermath of internment was the publication in November 1972 of an eight page local newspaper published by the Andersonstown Central Civil Resistance Committee. The new paper’s focus was on telling the truth and lifting the lid on the actions of the British state that were being largely ignored, censored or excused by most of the mainstream media. Andersontown News has played a central and continuing role ever since.

Thank you Alex and Liz.

Alex Maskey will not be running in the Assembly elections next May. It will be the first time since winning Sinn Féin’s first Belfast Council seat in 1983 that he will not be an elected representative. I have known Alex since the 1970s. He is first and foremost a Republican activist. He is committed to the goal of Irish Unity and of a Republic based on the 1916 Proclamation. I am confident that he will continue to be an activist and to work for the principles and objectives he has dedicated his life of activism to.

Of course, it is impossible to think of Alex and not think also of Liz. She has been by his side through all of these years. She is an activist in her own right. This week as we recall the introduction of internment 50 years ago it is important to remember that Liz was the first woman interned. Alex was also interned and they married after their release.

When Alex was first elected in June 1983 as a Belfast City Councillor the Unionists refused to talk to him. They tried to shout him down, sounded horns, blew rape whistles, and threatened him.

As an elected official Alex continued to be constantly stopped, delayed, detained, searched and verbally, and physically, abused. Sometimes the British Army was involved. Most times it was the old RUC. When the Stevens Inquiry into collusion concluded its findings, it found that Alex was targeted by the notorious Brian Nelson. 

During their decades of activism the Maskey home was frequently the target of attacks by the RUC, British Army and Unionist death squads. Alex was grievously wounded in one such attack in 1987 and on another occasion, in May 1993, his friend Alan Lundy was shot dead in Alex’s living room by a UDA gang.

Undaunted by all of this Alex went on to become the first ever Sinn Féin Mayor and only the second Catholic at that time to hold that post in the entire history of our fair city. Perhaps it was his love of boxing and the 71 out of 75 fights he won as a school boy boxer that gave him the courage and tenacity to face up to the challenges of being a republican leader during desperately hard times. Most likely it’s because he is a natural a leader, who is prepared to stand up to injustice and oppression, regardless of the efforts of others to terrorise or intimidate or beat him into submission.

Alex demonstrated his strength of character in more recent times as the Ceann Comhairle – Speaker – of the Assembly. He was fair even when dealing with those who wanted to play the old sectarian politics.

So, Alex is standing down from elected office but I am sure he will continue to inspire and lead us as we  continue to make progress toward achieving and winning the unity referendum. In the meantime we wish him and Liz good luck. And we thank them.

The last cock a doodle doo

Readers who have been following my struggle with Russell the renegade rooster will be pleased to know that that stressful period in my life has come to an end. Daddy Dognapper was no helpful whatsoever. After his initial burst of bravado he wilted in the face of Russell’s intimidating aggression. I can’t say I really blame him. Russell fowled him while he was using the outside toilet. I caught the end of that attack as Daddy Dognapper retreated backwards, hobbled by his trousers and under garments floundering around his ankles as he tried  to protect his Henry Halls while Russell lunged at him, and them. 

Russell fled when I arrived with my hurling stick. So did Daddy Dognapper. I haven’t seen him since. It was the day after that that I caught Russell. I am not going to give you all the details of that grisly last encounter. My Ballymurphy childhood and our big game hunting expeditions on the Black Mountain and Divis stood me in good stead along with my camouflaged poncho. His death was an accident but I won’t dwell on that. 

Suffice to say Russell’s goose is cooked. Vegans among you may object. Vegetarians also. Even Pescetarians, including Free Pescetarians like RG. Though they have little room for complaint, given that they kill fish. 

So Russell has cock a doodled for the last time. He was defiant to the end. How will I remember him?

He made the best Coq Au Vin I ever tasted. Slán Russell. Dont mess with the best because the best dont mess.