Friday, March 27, 2015

St. Paddy’s Day in Washington

John Fitzpatrick; Hillary Clinton; mise and Niall O Dowd

It’s hard to imagine but my first St. Patrick’s Day Speakers lunch in Washington DC was exactly 20 years ago. It was also my first meeting with President Bill Clinton.  The St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in March 1995 also unexpectedly reinforced the sense of power and influence of Irish America. Having failed to stop me getting a visa to visit the USA the British Embassy in Washington in early 1995 went into overdrive to try to blunt Sinn Féin’s engagement with Irish America and with the Clinton Administration.

The Embassy lobbied to prevent me getting another visa; they lobbied to stop me getting an invitation to the Speaker’s Lunch. They lobbied to prevent the White House inviting me to the President’s St. Patrick’s Day event. They lobbied against Sinn Fein getting the right to fund raise. They lobbied Congressional and Senate members not to meet me.
The British Secretary of State Patrick Mayhew left Washington convinced that the British would have their way. But he had failed to take proper account of the many political and business leaders who were now solidly behind the peace process. Congressman Ben Gilman and three other co-chairs of the Ad Hoc Committee on Irish Affairs, Peter King, Tom Manton and Richard Neal – Republicans and Democrats – sent a letter to President Clinton supporting my visa. Ted Kennedy phoned President Clinton and other Irish Americans rowed in behind.
The President agreed to Americans having the right to fundraise for Sinn Fein and I was invited to the Speakers lunch and the White House St. Patrick’s Day event. The British were furious. Clinton sent a letter to John Major explaining why he had done what he had done. But from March 11th and for five days the British Prime Minister refused to take a telephone call from the President of the United States.
The Speaker’s lunch is normally a very formal though relaxed affair. The Speaker of the Congress in 1995 was Newt Gingrich. He welcomed the President and the Taoiseach. Lunch was served and then the President and Taoiseach said a few words. There was a harpist in the corner playing music.
This Speakers lunch was for some of those present a more exciting event than normal. It was obvious that everyone in the room was waiting to see how the President, who I had not met before, would respond. I had expected to meet the President once the media were ushered out. But there appeared to be some problems.
So after a while I asked Peter King to tell someone in authority that I was going home. There was a flurry of activity and I was introduced to the President. Many of those present applauded. Clinton told me the British government was beating up on him and I remarked; ‘Now you know Mr. President what we have to put up with!’
Irish America had succeeded once again in using its influence effectively and positively. Under President Clinton U.S. policy toward Ireland changed to become inclusive, and based on dialogue. In the years that followed Republican Presidents followed this approach.
Last week, two decades later that approach hit a glitch. The State Department decided to ‘postpone’ a meeting it said it was due to have with me. It was all a bit odd. No meeting had been agreed. Rita O Hare was still talking to State department officials to see if and when it might happen.
It began late on the Sunday evening, a few hours after landing in New York. Richard was contacted by the BBC in Belfast to tell him that they had been informed that the meeting was cancelled. I usually do meetings with the State Department when I am in DC and they attract no media interest at all. But now the media spin was that this was a deliberate snub and was the State Department expressing its displeasure at Sinn Féin’s refusal to vote through the welfare Bill in the Assembly.
The handling of this whole affair by the State Department was bizarre. It served no purpose other than to distract attention from the main issue; the full implementation of the Stormont House Agreement. Publicly I said so and I added that it was no skin off my nose not to meet the State Department.
Irish American politicians and leaders I met subsequently could not understand the logic of the position and were angered by the State Department decision.
Within 24 hours the State Department reversed its briefing to the media. A meeting was arranged. It was a courteous affair. I told the State Department officials that their decision and the manner in which it was made known to Sinn Féin, and to the media, was not the way business should be done and was not helpful.
Despite this we had a useful meeting. I briefed them on the current negotiations to resolve the issues around the Stormont House Agreement and told them I remain hopeful that that can be achieved.
If there is a lesson out of this it is the continuing importance and influence of Irish America. Without that there may well have been no peace process at that time.

Meeting Congressional leaders on the Hill

And as if to bookend this account of our visit to the USA on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day I attended an event in New York which saw Hillary Clinton inducted into the Irish America Hall of Fame.  Her speech focused on the Irish peace process and she identified a key component of any such process, ‘everyone needs to feel the benefits of peace.’

Finally, at our meetings with congressional leaders and the state department I also reminded them of the outstanding issues arising from other agreements, including the British government’s failure to honour its commitment to hold an inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane and the need for a Bill of Rights. The plight of the 50,000 undocumented Irish was also high on our agenda and I expressed our support for “a waiver policy, removing the current obstacle of the three and ten-year bar for undocumented Irish citizens in the USA”.

Having lunch with Bill Flynn and Mary Lou McDonald

Book signing in New York with Elizabeth Billups

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Ard Fheis and Derry; and opposing welfare cuts

Preparing to give Ard Fheis Speech
The streets of Derry were alive with different accents from all parts of the island of Ireland last weekend. There were the Derry wans, the Belfast ones, Kerry, Cork, Belfast and a myriad of other drawls, twangs and brogues. There were even voices from Canada, the USA, Palestine, South Africa, Cuba, and Greece and a few I didn’t recognise. Probably Inisnagaire.

The Ard Fheis was in town, and the people of Derry were delighted to have us. And we were delighted to be there.

All agreed that it was one of the best Ard Fheiseanna ever. The Millennium Forum was packed from early on Friday evening before the Ard Fheis formally opened. There was a buzz about the place which got louder and more enthusiastic as the weekend proceeded.

There was an energy, an excitement and passion around the debates and contributions from young and old alike. The breadth of issues covered was evidence of a political party that was ebullient and confident and determined.

In the midst of it all Martin McGuinness quietly travelled back and forth between Derry and Belfast trying to engage with the DUP around a worsening crisis on welfare protections that had been agreed at Stormont House at Christmas.

By chance Sinn Féin had discovered that the DUP were intent on reneging on a key element of the Stormont House Agreement that specific categories of citizens on welfare now and in the future would be protected.

As we continued with our behind the scenes efforts to talk to the DUP Martin and I made it clear in our respective speeches to the Ard Fheis that the system of welfare protections were a red line issue. That we intended to keep to our commitments and to keep other parties to theirs also.

On Monday the final stage of the Welfare Bill was due to be taken in the Assembly. In the absence of any engagement with the DUP – who were refusing to meet Martin – our new Ard Chomhairle, which had only been elected the previous day, was brought together early on Sunday morning.

We discussed the developing situation. We set it against our strategic goals entering the Stormont House negotiations; one of which was to protect the most vulnerable in our society; the disabled, the sick, the elderly and the young. We knew at the time that this was going to be very difficult given the one and a half billion that the British Tory government had already stripped from the block grant. But we were determined to try.

In the course of 11 days of lengthy negotiations much of the focus was on welfare protections. Financial projections were provided by the DUP controlled Finance Department and Department of Social Development. Eventually an agreement was reached which guaranteed benefit protections for current and future applicants in respect of benefits under the control of the Executive.

Famously George Mitchell, who chaired the Good Friday negotiations, had told us at the end of that process that that was the easy bit over. The hardest bit would be ensuring its implementation.

He was right. That has been our experience with the Good Friday Agreement and subsequent agreements. There are key elements of the GFA that have still not been implemented, including a Bill of Rights and the establishment of a Civic Forum. The British and Irish governments have reneged on these.

At Weston Park the British government agreed to establish a full inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane. The British government has reneged on this also. And at St. Andrew’s in 2006 there was a commitment by the British to legislate for the Irish language through an Acht na Gaeilge. This has been reneged on also.

Mindful of all of this Martin McGuinness and others in our negotiating team have engaged positively with the Party Leaders’ group to ensure the full implementation of the Stormont House Agreement. We had no reason to believe that there was any problem.

On the contrary in a speech on January 12th to the Assembly the DUPs Minister for Social Protection Mervyn Storey said; “I think we need to build on the achievements of the Stormont House Agreement… I have given an undertaking to the Assembly in relation to the information that we will bring to the Assembly in terms of the guidance notes and how the Bill (Welfare Rights) will be subject to a paper that, I trust, I will be able to bring to the Executive shortly, so that we can progress the issue in a way that is efficient and effective, and so no one in Northern Ireland is adversely affected as a result …”

So when the incoming Ard Chomhairle met on Sunday morning they were faced with a difficult unfolding scenario. It was clear that the DUP was intent on reneging on the commitments to protect the most vulnerable. They wanted the Welfare Bill to go through the Assembly on Monday afternoon. Subsequently, it appears that it was their intention to provide only partial protection to current recipients of benefit and no protection whatsoever for future claimants.

This is not what was agreed in the Stormont House negotiations and is totally unacceptable.

If the DUP want to strip benefits from children with disabilities, from adults with severe disabilities, the long-term sick; or push children further into poverty, then it is for them to explain and justify that.

Until the DUP Minister for DSD produces a scheme which reflects what was agreed at Christmas Sinn Féin will not support the Welfare Bill.

Neither is the effort of the DUP to con the other parties, but especially Sinn Féin, on Welfare protections helpful to the overall project. If you seek in a peace process to fool and dupe your political partners then you subvert the entire basis on which such a process must exist.

Sinn Féin wants to resolve this crisis. But it must be done in terms that are acceptable and which protect the most vulnerable and is in keeping with what was agreed at Christmas. We are very mindful that our opposition to the Welfare Bill could have wider implications for the political institutions and the Stormont House Agreement but there can be no resiling on this issue.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Irish government fails to break the connection between sport and alcohol sponsorship

Two weeks ago the Fine Gael and Labour government published a new bill to regulate the marketing and advertising of alcohol. The Public Health (Alcohol) Bill was also supposed to tackle the important issue of alcohol sponsorship of sporting events.

While many of the elements contained in the Bill are important and welcome the government was rightly criticized for failing to tackle the key issue of drinks sponsorship of sporting events. Instead of clear legislation to end drink sponsorship of sport we got waffle.

The Dáil was told that the question of sports sponsorship and the associated marketing and advertising of alcohol will be dealt with in a way that does not allow for the deliberate targeting of children.

While the problem of drink linked to children is a matter of concern it is a fact that the greatest number of citizens affected by drink sponsorship of sports are adolescents, young men and women, and older citizens.

A report three weeks from University College Cork on hazardous alcohol consumption involving students – not children - concluded that we need a ban on alcohol sponsorship of sports events. The lead researcher of the study warned that ‘without support at the highest levels for evidence based policy attempts to tackle Ireland’s hazardous relationship with alcohol may prove futile.’

The human and financial cost of alcohol abuse within society is also well established. It has long been recognised that sponsorship of sport by alcohol companies encourages a culture of alcohol misuse. Consequently, there is widespread public support for the proposition that the government should break the connection between alcohol and sport sponsorship.

Professor Joe Barry of Alcohol Action Ireland has said that: “Comprehensive studies have shown that children and young people are not only exposed to a large amount of alcohol advertising through sports sponsorship, but that their behaviour and beliefs are influenced by these positive messages about alcohol and its use, increasing the likelihood that they will start to drink and drink more if already using alcohol.

Simply put, alcohol sponsorship of sport works in terms of increasing sales and, as a result, alcohol consumption. If it didn’t, the alcohol industry simply would not be spending so much money on it.”

The reality is that the linking of a healthy activity, such as a sport, with an unhealthy product, such as alcohol, diminishes the concern that some may have that alcohol is unhealthy and unacceptable.

Some 60,000 teenagers start drinking every year. These young people are most at risk. They are susceptible to the belief – encouraged by alcohol advertising – that drinking alcohol is sophisticated and acceptable.

Sport is hugely important in the lives of citizens. Many take part but most participate through attending GAA matches; or soccer; or rugby; or the many other sports activities that take place every week. Sport is hugely important in providing for a healthy lifestyle but it also plays a significant role in encouraging values like fairness and teamwork. This is undermined and devalued through sports connections with alcohol – just as it was when tobacco companies used to sponsor sporting events.

The misuse of alcohol leads to domestic violence, abuse, premature deaths, road crashes and deaths and injuries, rapes and suicides. A recent report from the Health Research Board   said that the role of alcohol in accidental deaths is not fully appreciated. It found that for the years 2008-2009 there were 388 deaths, not including suicide, due to alcohol poisoning and deaths due to trauma, eg drowning, falls, road accidents.

The connection between alcohol use and suicide has been highlighted in numerous reports, both Irish and international. One study of people from three counties who died as a result of suicide found that more than half had alcohol in their blood; those aged less than 30 were more likely to have had alcohol in their blood at the time of death.

All of us know individuals or families blighted by the effect of alcoholism. The human cost to each is huge – the financial cost to the state in terms of our health service - is enormous.

Two weeks ago Leo Varadkar the Minister for Health published his 25 'health priorities'.One of these is to reduce alcohol consumption. However the failure of the government to ban the sponsorship of sporting events by alcohol companies, undermines much of the good that may come out of the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill or the related Sale of Alcohol Bill.

The government’s failure to step up to the mark and ban alcohol sponsorship of sporting events is a disgraceful response to a very serious issue. It is a decision that flies in the face of all of the available medical evidence and smacks of a government acquiescing to pressure from the drinks industry. It also ignores clear evidence that the drinks industry deliberately exploits sport to promote alcohol.

A study of 6,600 adolescents in four European countries, published in December 2012 by Amphora, an initiative of the European Commission, found that ‘Alcohol-branded sport sponsorship influences alcohol consumption among adolescents. Exposure to sport sponsoring can predict future drinking’.

Recently, Mick Loftus a former GAA President pointed out that; “Sponsorship of sport creates this culture that you cannot enjoy life without a drink, which is wrong and leads to problems like binge drinking. As a doctor and a former coroner, I know first-hand the damage alcohol does. Eighty-eight people a month die in this country due to alcohol related reasons. If that number of people were dying any other way they would be taking all sorts of action to try and stop it, but instead they are promoting it. If money comes before people, then it’s a sad day.”

The government has abdicated its responsibility to protect our young people and to tackle the serious problem of alcohol misuse.

Moreover it appears to have done it because, as the Minister for Health said last week, the sports organisations need the €30 million that such deals bring in.

It would appear that the Cabinet chose to ignore all of the available medical advice, scrapped the proposal to break the connection between sport and alcohol, and all to save money.

The government’s lack of action on this also raises the spectre for many citizens that the alcohol companies lobby of government was successful and that the drinks industry is exercising an undue and disproportionate influence on government to prevent any ban from going ahead.

Of course, this isn’t the end of the matter. It is possible to amend the Bill in the Dáil. But given its overwhelming majority and its obvious refusal to deal with the issue of drinks sponsorship and alcohol in writing the Bill it is unlikely that the government will agree to any substantial amendment on this issue.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Reclaiming the Vision of 1916: Sinn Féin's Programme for 2016


Bobby Ballagh and mise

Wynn’s Hotel in Lower Abbey Street in the centre of Dublin played a pivotal role in the formation of two of the key groups that shaped the 1916 Easter Rising; Oglaigh na hÉireann – the Irish Volunteers, and the Cumann na mBán.

On November 11th 1913 a small group of republican activists met at Wynn’s Hotel. Present were Bulmer Hobson, Eoin Mac Neill, Padraig Mac Piarais, Sean Mac Diarmada, W.J. Ryan, Eamonn Ceannt, The O'Rahilly, and several more. It was agreed to hold a public recruiting meeting for a body called the Irish Volunteers whose aim was ‘to secure and maintain the common rights and liberties of Irish men’.

Three of those in attendance; Pádraig Mac Piarais, Sean Mac Diarmada, and Eamonn Ceannt were among the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation. They were subsequently executed by the British.

Two weeks after that first inaugural meeting - on November 25th- over seven thousand joined the Volunteers at a meeting in the Rotunda Rink in the grounds of the Rotunda Hospital. On the same night a special section set aside for women was also full.

On April 2nd 1914 the first official meeting of the Cumann na mBán took place in Wynn’s Hotel.

Relatives of 1916 leaders

Last Friday morning Wynn’s Hotel was crowded for the launch of Sinn Féin National Launch 1916 Commemorative Events. Mary Lou MacDonald chaired the event; Martin McGuinness spoke about the importance of 1916, and in particular about the National Monument in Moore Street where the 1916 Leaders met for the last time and which the government has failed to protect or develop properly. James Connolly Heron, the great grandson of James Connolly also spoke. So did I.

The centenary programme is first class. It is our intention to launch it in Belfast in the near future.

The programme includes a re-enactment of the funeral of veteran Fenian Jeremiah O Donovan Rossa on August 1st this year.

Under the title ‘Revolution 1916’ a visitor exhibition will run for 33 weeks in the Ambassador Theatre (part of the Rotunda complex) in O Connell Street commencing on February 27th 2016. This will feature a day-by-day account and legacy of the 1916 Rising through different mediums and artefacts.

Outside the GPO on March 8th 2016 a rally will be held to celebrate the role of women in the Revolutionary period.

A parade of the Irish Citizen Army will take place from Liberty Hall to St. Stephen’s Green with a special emphasis on the Diaspora.

Nationwide Easter Commemoration Parades will take place. Dawn Vigils
will be held outside Kilmainham Gaol on the dates our leaders were executed and in Cork on 9th May and Pentonville on August 3rd 2016.

Over April 24th – 29th 2016 (the actual dates of the Rising) a light show will use the portico of the GPO to depict the story of the Rising.

On Sunday 24th 2016 the Citizens’ Initiative will be holding a national march and rally to ‘Reclaim the Vision of 2016’.

In Belfast there will be events to mark the life of James Connolly and on May 15th 2016 at Arbour Hill there will be an oration and ceremony.

I have no doubt other events local and national will be organised between now and next year.

Tim Pat Coogan and Martin McGuinness

This programme is Sinn Féin’s contribution to the centenary celebration of the 1916 Rising – a seminal event which shaped the history of this island for the following 100 years. Other organisations and individuals will also organise and hold their own events.

There has been widespread criticism of the government’s failure to produce a programme of any substance and public reaction to its promotional video – Ireland Inspires 2016 – was so angry that it had to be withdrawn. The 80 second promotional video failed to mention the Rising or the Proclamation or the executed leaders. It did however include images of David Cameron, Queen Elizabeth, Bono, and Bob Geldof.

In stark contrast the video presented at Friday mornings launch of our centenary programme of events is an excellent production which captures the essence of the period and its impact.

This shambolic approach by the Irish government is an accurate reflection of the Fine Gael and Labours leadership’s attitude to 1916, and in particular the Proclamation. Little wonder they don’t want to celebrate the Proclamation.

They don’t believe in it. They are embarrassed by its content.

The government’s failure to protect and properly develop the National Monument in Moore Street, as well as the laneways of history – those adjacent streets and lanes where the men and women of 1916 valiantly fought the British Army – has been shameful.

The Easter Rising saw an alliance of organisations come together, including the Irish Volunteers, the Irish Citizen Army, Sinn Féin, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the woman's movement, and Irish language activists.

They rose up against British rule in Ireland and declared a Republic. For Ireland and for the British Empire this was a point from which all changed utterly. It was a hugely courageous act. A few hundreds of Irish men and women taking on the might of what was then the largest empire in history, and the foremost global power.

For the British the Easter Rising, and struggle for self-determination and sovereignty, set an example that was to be imitated successfully in the following decades in its countless colonies around the globe.

The British hoped by the speed and scale of the executions that followed that they could extinguish the flame of freedom. They were wrong. At his court martial Pádraig Pearse got it exactly right:

'Believe that we, too, love freedom and desire it. To us it is more desirable than anything in the world. If you strike us down now, we shall rise again to renew the fight. You cannot conquer Ireland. You cannot extinguish the Irish passion for freedom.'

That is absolutely true.

The revolutionary period was followed by a counter revolution. The counter revolutionaries won. Partition and small minded narrow, mean and conservative states were forced upon us. But though the counter revolutionaries won they did not defeat us.

So the centenary celebration of the Easter Rising is a time to build. It is a time to rededicate ourselves to the achievement of the politics of Wolfe Tone, of Padraig Pearse and James Connolly, of Maire Drumm and Mairead Farrell, and of Bobby Sands.

The Proclamation summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom. We are those children. I invite you to join in that great historic enterprise.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Asylum seekers treated shamefully

The United Nations estimates that there are currently over 50 million people around the world who are displaced persons. In 2013 there were 16.7 million refugees worldwide. 50% of refugees are under 18 years old.

The escalating conflict in Syria has displaced an estimated five million persons. Like the Irish who fled the great hunger in the 1840s and died in their thousands in the coffin ships crossing the Atlantic, thousands of Syrian and north African people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea for Europe.

Some refugees have made it as far as the south of Ireland. In November 1999, a decision by the Fianna Fáil government established a system “to deal with matters relating to the dispersal of asylum seekers throughout the country and preparation of plans for a system of direct provision of housing, health needs etc.“

Direct provision centres have been described as “a holding pen where people are kept for efficient deportation” and conditions have been consistently criticised by human rights and civil society agencies and some politicians.

When I raised this issue with the Taoiseach in the Dáil last week he confirmed that a working group is looking at all of the issues and will report in March. It couldn’t come soon enough for those trapped in this horrendous process. But of course the key to progress is what the government does with the report. It needs to move beyond the rhetoric of concern. It needs to introduce legislation that urgently addresses the many concerns about direct provision centres that have been consistently raised, including ending the secrecy that often surrounds them.

A first step would be to extend the Ombudsman’s remit to the Direct Provision Centres and include the administration of the centres within the Freedom of Information rules.

The Direct Provision system was originally intended to accommodate asylum seekers for six months. Today almost half of the 4,324 people living in the system have been there for five years. Twenty five per cent have been there for more than six years and at least one person has been there for 14 years. 61 asylum seekers have died in direct provision since 2002. This is unacceptable.

Residents in these centres are not allowed to work. They get 19 euro per week from the state. Conditions in the centres are also unacceptable. They are overcrowded with families often sharing one room. Basic essentials like soap, toilet rolls and other items are rationed. There are limited recreational or living areas and the stress on those in the centres, especially from the fear of deportation is a constant worry.

To the government’s shame around one third (1529) of those in the 34 DP centres are children. This creates its own difficulties. In the last five years the social services have been alerted to over 1500 child protection or welfare concerns. Sixteen children under five have died in Direct Provision Centres. This is a disgrace.

Asylum seekers come from all across the world. They come from war torn societies or states where their lives are at risk. They come in search of a new life in the same way that Irish people have travelled over the centuries throughout the world. They arrived in this state only to be treated in a most deplorable way.

Sinn Féin has long campaigned in support for those thousands of Irish citizens who are living and working in the USA and who have no legal status. This campaign has also been supported by the Taoiseach and all of the parties in the Dáil.

It’s only fair that we treat people who come to our country the way we want our people to be treated when they travel to other states.

The direct provision centres and system is a blight on the reputation of the Irish state. It reflects an attitude which in previous years created the dreadful Magdalen laundries and the industrial schools. It should be dismantled and a new, more humane and transparent and accountable system, based on internationally accepted protocols, should be put in place which provides dignity for those who are fleeing torture and hardship and want to build a new life in a new place.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Taoiseach sees north as foreign country

The Stormont House Agreement was for Sinn Féin a defensive negotiation. It was about defending what had been gained previously and was being diluted as a result of the ongoing process. In large measure the outcome, while not comprehensive was positive.

However, following on from that agreement, one aspect of the negotiation that bears closer scrutiny is the role of the Fine Gael/Labour coalition government.

It is important to recall that for much of the twentieth century successive Irish government’s, mainly led by Fianna Fáil, ignored what as happening in the north. So too did successive British governments. The result was the civil rights movement of the 1960s, a violent response by the Unionst government and loyalist mobs, and the militarisation by the British of the north.

Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former Chief of Staff for much of the peace process, recently acknowledged the contribution British government inattention made to the failure of politics and the emergence of conflict in the north in an interview with the magazine Civil Service World.

Powell says; In the 1960s and for decades before, the British government paid absolutely no attention to what was happening in Northern Ireland,” he says: Catholic complainants were referred back to the Protestant authorities in Stormont. “We just pushed it to one side. If we’d been sensible, we would have insisted on fair [access to] housing – which was what caused the civil rights movement – and on fair employment laws, and we would have insisted on power sharing rather than allowing unionist gerrymandering to squeeze the Catholics out altogether.”

Since both coalition governments in London and Dublin came to power they have repeated this mistake. They ignored a deteriorating situation which had reached the point of crisis.

In addition, as so often in the past, the Fine Gael/Labour government was acting as a junior partner to the British.

20 years ago another coalition government led by Fine Gael had just recently come into power in Dublin. It was led by John Bruton. The period that followed was particularly difficult. In the view of many republicans Bruton fractured the effort to build a consensus approach to the peace process. He often took up positions identical to the British and occasionally, he was even more British than the British! At one point he refused to meet Sinn Féin and urged the electorate, north and south, not to vote for us. Little wonder the late Albert Reynolds referred to him as ‘johnny unionist’.

Evidence for this is clear in any comparison of the first paper the Irish and British governments presented to the Executive parties on December 11 and the final paper agreed on December 23rd.

The first paper sought to nationalise austerity, with the Irish Government supporting British Tory efforts to hurt the most vulnerable citizens in the North. The Irish Government also acquiesced to the British Government's use of "national security" to deny information to victims and to the British demand to end the rights of families of victims to an inquest in the Coroner's Court. If this proposal had been accepted - it was rejected forthrightly by Sinn Féin - this would have left victim's families, including the Ballymurphy families - whom the Taoiseach has met and who have campaigned for decades for the right to Article 2-compliant inquests - with no access to the crucial inquest system.

It was only after Enda Kenny and Joan Burton had left and Martin McGuinness I had warned the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Charlie Flanagan, and Minister of State, Sean Sherlock that the government’s proposals were not sustainable, that progress was made.

In a deliberate effort to try and damage Sinn Féin in the south the Taoiseach has since then sought to create the illusion that there was a difference in approach and substance between myself and Martin McGuinness. He described my approach to the negotiations as ‘outrageous’ and claimed that Martin McGuinness was prepared to accept a lesser deal than I was.

While I could take that assertion as a back-handed compliment, I do not do so because it is totally untruthful. Martin McGuinness, who is as committed to all these issues as I am, described the Taoiseach's remark as "stupid".

Why therefore would a Taoiseach say such a thing? If he put any thought into his remark, it was obviously to distract attention from the Government's refusal to develop any strategy for engagement with the British as a co-equal guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement and other agreements.

But perhaps the greatest problem is that the Taoiseach, and others in his Cabinet, view the North as a foreign country. Rather than facing across the Border and extending a hand of friendship to all the people of the North, he faces away and turns his back on people here.

Instead of developing a coherent strategy to fully implement the Good Friday Agreement and other agreements, as it is obliged to do, the Irish government submissively follows the lead of the British. If it has a strategy it is to use the north in a futile attempt to attack Sinn Féin. This is evident most clearly in the Dáil where the north is generally only raised by other parties to score political points against Sinn Féin.

Consequently, the most outrageous claims are often made and repeated as if true. This is particularly the case with the Labour Party which is under serious electoral pressure at this time. For example, it has been claimed that the agreement will result in mass redundancies in the public sector. While this may have been the intention of the initial proposals put forward by the Governments, there will be no compulsory redundancies.

Sinn Féin wants to reconfigure the economy in the north so that it serves all of the people. This also requires co-operation across the border. A single island economy makes economic sense. Sinn Féin is pro-enterprise but we are also pro-worker and pro-trade union.

The Stormont House Agreement provides for a voluntary redundancy scheme for public sector workers who wish to avail of it. The scale of the take-up will be driven by public sector workers and balanced with the need to maintain public services. Sinn Féin will not repeat the mistakes of the Fine Gael and Labour Government by allowing a scheme to undermine public services in pursuit of savings. Any scheme will be agreed in consultation with the trade unions and Executive Ministers.

The peace process is the most important political project on this island at this time. It needs to be nurtured, protected and enhanced. It should be at the top of the Government's agenda alongside other priorities. It isn’t. For my part I will continue to urge the Labour and Fine Gael Government to accept that the success and stability of the peace and political process in the north and the all-Ireland institutions are bigger and more important than any shortsighted, selfish electoral political agenda.


Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Irish government acted as junior partner in negotiation

Sinn Féin’s objectives throughout the recent negotiations, which led to the Stormont House Agreement were very clear. These were to agree a comprehensive deal to protect the most vulnerable in society, to safeguard the rights and entitlements of citizens, to deliver on outstanding agreements, to grow the economy and to enhance the working of the institutions.
It wasn’t an easy negotiation. The ability of the five Executive parties to defend front-line public services, including health and education, to defend the poor, people with disabilities, the elderly and disadvantaged, and to create jobs, was being significantly undermined by British Tory demands for welfare cuts, as well as by the £1.5 billion cut to the block grant since 2011.This Austerity policy is similar to Dublin’s and was actively endorsed by the Taoiseach and the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Sinn Féin was steadfast in our opposition to this agenda.

The British government’s failure to honour its commitments made in the Good Friday and other agreements, such as an inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane was another important factor in why the political process was in such a mess.
There is little incentive for political unionism to move forward in a consistent and progressive way if a British government is not giving clear and unambiguous leadership and implementing commitments.

The British government’s refusal to back the Haass proposals to deal with the vexed issues of identity, parading and the legacy of past had succeeded only in emboldening unionist hostility to the power sharing institutions.

The position of the Irish government on all of this was especially frustrating; driven I believe by a short-sighted selfish electoral political agenda. They took on the role of junior partner and allowed the British government to set the agenda and the pace of negotiations and sat passively as the British tried to dictate the outcome.
By the time the Taoiseach and British Prime Minister arrived in Belfast on December 11th there was no great optimism that progress could be achieved. Their departure 24 hours later led many to believe that the negotiations were over and that the political institutions were at real risk of collapsing. This intervention amounted to little more than a charade.

It was not a serious endeavour. The presentation of a deeply flawed joint paper by the Irish and British governments and the approach of both during those talks was amateurish and ham fisted. It effectively sought to nationalise austerity with Irish government support for the British Tory efforts to hurt the most vulnerable in the north.
The Irish government’s preparedness to sign up for a joint government paper that failed to mention Acht na Gaeilge and talked only of ‘language strategies’ was equally disgraceful.

It also acquiesced to the British government’s use of ‘national security’ to deny information to victims and to the British demand to end the right of families of victims to an inquest in the coroners’ courts.
Nor was there any guarantee that the Dublin and Monaghan bombings would be considered under the proposed new ‘civil Inquisitorial’ process under the new Historical Investigations Unit.

So, on December 12th David Cameron returned to London and the Taoiseach to Dublin leaving the process in a worse state than when they came.
Despite the negative approach of the two governments the Sinn Féin leadership remained determined to find solutions. A consensus was reached, at the initiative of Martin McGuinness and under the leadership of Martin and Peter Robinson, among the Executive parties to push for a real and meaningful negotiation.

Six days later and following lengthy discussions, many of them into the wee hours of the morning, and at least one all-night session, an Agreement was achieved.
The total value of the British government’s revised financial proposals amount to almost £2 billion –double what was originally offered.

This includes £650 million of new and additional funding, including up to £500 million over 10 years of new capital to support shared and integrated education.

Crucially, there will be no reductions in welfare payments under the control of the Executive. The new welfare protections are unique to the north and are in sharp contrast to the austerity-driven welfare system being rolled out in Britain. Anti-poverty measures will be retained.
The Irish government also made financial commitments, including €25 million annually for the A5 project; as well as some additional funding for reconciliation and for EU Peace and Interreg programmes.

I welcome these and the renewed commitment by the government to the Narrow Water and the Ulster Canal projects.
On the wider political issues significant progress was achieved:

The effort to close off access to inquests to the families of victims of the conflict failed.
The two governments will endorse the respect for and recognition of the Irish language consistent with the Council of Europe Charter on Regional or Minority Languages.

Work will commence on considering whether the devolution additional fiscal powers needed to grow the economy can be progressed.
A detailed proposal on a Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition was agreed, including its make-up and remit.

Legislation on parades will be prepared with proper regard for fundamental rights protected by the European Convention on Human Rights.

The agreement, like all previous agreements, is only as good as the determination on the part of the participants to implement it.
I would urge the Irish government to accept that the success and stability of the peace and political process in the north and the all-island institutions are bigger and more important than any short-sighted selfish electoral political agenda.

The peace process is the most important political project on this island at this time. It needs to be nurtured and protected and enhanced. Notwithstanding the other political priorities of the moment it must remain at the top of the government’s agenda.
As we approach the centenary of the 1916 Rising and later of the Tan War there is an historic opportunity to resolve the real ‘national question’; end the partition of this island; end sectarianism, and create a new republic. These should be the goals of all progressive political forces on this island.