Thursday, March 26, 2020


Tomás MacCurtain lying in state 100 years ago

The necessary cancellation of Easter Rising Commemorations does not mean we should not celebrate these events. We can all wear an Easter Lily. Wherever possible wreaths can still be laid, Proclamations read, a moments silence observed. All this can be done by one or two people while keeping social distance. No need for big crowds. No need even to leave our homes. Find a quiet space. Remember fallen comrades. Read a Pearse or MacDonagh poem to yourself. Sing or play a patriotic song. Reflect on the lives, the work, the courage of the men and women of 1916 and those who followed their example since then. Reflect on the past. Plan for the future.

Back in the day Easter Commemorations were banned by the old order in Belfast and Dublin. But intrepid republicans usually found a way to break the ban. Some even went to gaol for doing so. Back in the day in punishment cells or lockup, as political prisoners, separated from other incarcerated comrades, we would pay our own individual homage to the past and the future. On our ownie-ohs in a bare prison cell. Alone. But together. Separated. But united.
In the last eight years of the ‘Decade of Centenaries’ there have been many innovative, emotional, often inspiring, frequently exuberant, and poignant commemorations across the island of Ireland and beyond. For me one of the most memorable and goosebump moments occurred on a crisp Easter Sunday morning in 2016. Thousands came to the Sinn Féin commemoration outside the GPO in Dublin. In one unforgettable moment they spontaneously raised their voices acappella. It started like a whisper and grew in defiant harmony as the echo of the song swelled up to fill O’Connell Street as proud rebels joyously sang ...
“A Nation once again, A Nation once again, And Ireland, long a province, be A Nation once again!”
A Nation once again, A Nation once again, And Ireland, long a province, be A Nation once again!”
All of these commemorations marked events that took place in the upheaval that shook Ireland a century ago. The signing of the Ulster Covenant; the Dublin Lock-out; the formation of the Irish Citizen’s Army, the Irish Volunteers and Cumann na mBán; gun-running by the UVF and Irish Volunteers; the 1916 Easter Rising, The Proclamation and the execution of the leaders; the 1918 election; the establishment of the First Dáil in January 1919 and more.
Many of these were organised by local communities proud of their history.
1920 - a century ago- was an especially important year. For many it was the tipping point for much that has occurred since. It was a year in which the IRA demonstrated to the British government that resistance to British rule was no short term aberration but a popular struggle for change that could not be militarily defeated. Most of Trim in County Meath was destroyed by the RIC and Black and Tans; so was Balbriggan and Cork city. Little wonder patriotic citizens were outraged by the Irish governments intention recently to honour these forces.
In December 1920 the British passed the Government of Ireland Act which imposed partition and established two states on our island.
Two of Corks Lord Mayors died in the cause. Last Friday - March 20 - was the anniversary of one of these - the murder of the Rebel City’s first Sinn Féin Lord Mayor Tomás MacCurtain. He had been elected to the position of Mayor after the local government elections on 15 January 1920. That election, following on from the 1918 election, saw significant gains for Sinn Féin. The January elections were for urban and district Councils. Sinn Féin and Labour candidates and other nationalists won 172 of the island’s 206 Councils. Later in June Sinn Féin won 338 out of 393 local government bodies, including 36 rural districts out of 55 in Ulster. One consequence of this was that unionists moved quickly to introduce a major gerrymandering of council boundaries in the six counties. They ended the PR system of election, and introduced property qualifications for the vote which left tens of thousands of nationalists with no franchise in local government elections.
At his election as Lord Mayor of Cork on January 31, Tomás MacCurtain pledged that he would stand by the principles of the Republic declared at Easter 1916 and to promote Irish freedom. He proposed that the Council give its allegiance to Dáil Éireann. He believed that local authorities were key to the success of the First Dáil. He said: “it was up to local bodies now to pledge their allegiance to the government set up by the representatives of the people – to pledge their allegiance to Dáil Éireann.” He then raised the tricolour over Cork City Hall. MacCurtain’s election was greeted with loud applause and a rendition of Amhrán na bhFiann – A Soldier’s Song - which at that time was generally referred to by the public as the Sinn Féin song.
As well as being Lord Mayor MacCurtain was also Commanding Officer of the Cork No 1 Brigade of the IRA. He was very popular, a teacher of Irish, an advocate of the Gaelic League, and a diligent public representative.
As a young man MacCurtain had travelled the roads and lanes of rural Munster promoting the Gaelic League and teaching classes in Irish. Later he travelled the same roads promoting and organising the Irish Volunteers in Cork. After the 1916 Rising he was interned. On his release and following the commencement of the Tan War MacCurtain emerged as a popular leader in the IRA.
In the early hours of March 20th 1920 – MacCurtain’s 36th birthday – armed RIC men with blackened faces led by Inspector Oswald Swanzy forced their way into his home. It had been raided over 20 times in previous months. His wife Eilís later said that “they seemed to know the house better than I did.” Two men ran upstairs to his bedroom. As Tomás MacCurtain opened the bedroom door he was shot twice in the chest. A third shot was also fired. He fell to the floor in front of his family. An hour later, as the family were kneeling by his bed, British soldiers arrived and searched the house, including the bed on which MacCurtain’s body lay.
His murder sparked outrage and was widely condemned. Tomás MacCurtain’s body, dressed in his Irish Volunteer uniform, was brought to Cork to lie in state in Cork Cathedral. The funeral cortege was said to have been the biggest ever seen in the city.
On 17 April 1920, a coroner’s inquest was held into the death of Mac Curtain. The jury returned a verdict of murder against RIC DI Oswald Swanzy, British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, The Lord Lieutenant of Ireland John French, Viscount French, and the Inspector General of The Royal Irish Constabulary T.J. Smith.
The British, in an effort to protect Swanzy from IRA reprisals, transferred Swanzy from Cork to Lisburn.
Volunteers of the First Battalion, Cork No. 1 Brigade went there to kill him. They did so on 22 August, as Swanzy was leaving Christ Church Cathedral, Market Square, Lisburn.
It is widely believed that Mac Curtain’s personal handgun was used to kill Swanzy.
Catholic residential areas of Lisburn were burned in revenge by loyalists. Several people were later prosecuted for the burnings. Loyalists attacked Catholic areas of Belfast. A total of 33 people died over the next ten days in sectarian rioting and shooting in the city.
Tomás MacCurtain was the first of two Cork Lord Mayor’s to die that year. Seven months later, in October 1920, MacCurtain’s friend and comrade Terence MacSwiney died in Brixton prison after 73 days on hunger strike. MacSwiney, who replaced Tomás MacCurtain as Lord Mayor after his murder, gave the oration at his funeral. He said that although MacCurtain’s life’s work had been interrupted the fight for freedom would carry on.

This year as part of a programme of events to mark the 1920 centenary in Cork the GAA produced special commemorative jerseys for its senior footballers and hurlers. This is an innovative way to honour our history. Fair play to those involved. The gansaí front has an image of Tomás MacCurtain on the left and Terence MacSwiney on the right, with Cork burning as the backdrop. The back of the jersey has an image of the commemorative stone at Kilmichael which marks the ambush in November 1920 of a force of British auxiliaries. It was the biggest engagement of the Tan War and saw 16 auxiliaries killed and three IRA volunteers die.
Thankfully those days of conflict, including in our own time, are over. But we should not be reticent about remembering them. We should do so respectfully and in a tolerant way. Revisionists should be challenged intelligently and robustly. There is now a peaceful way to win freedom. But it was not always the case. So whatever freedom we have or will have in the time ahead we should never forget the pivotal role of rebels in that cause.
Easter is now only two weeks away. The Coronavirus crisis means that this year there will be none of the big public displays of Republican solidarity with our fallen comrades and their families.
So lets find innovative and imaginative ways to remember them, even on our own. Let’s post our contributions on social media. Let’s celebrate the 1916 Rising and the struggle for freedom. Let’s honour our past and plan for the future. Alone if need be. But together. Separate. But United.

Thursday, March 19, 2020


There is only one issue to write about this week. The Coronavirus is dominating the news agenda and conversations in homes, among those at work, on social media and in every other way human beings communicate. It’s all about Covid-19 – Coronavirus. So what can I write about it that hasn’t already been written? Not a lot probably. But that never stopped me before.
To begin let me say that we need to follow the science. We need to take the advice of the experts and ignore all rumours and unverified information. We can stop the virus from spreading or minimise the spread by washing our hands properly and often and by minimising our close contact with other human beings. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get into the fresh air or take a good walk. It doesn’t mean we cut ourselves off completely from everyone else. Unless we have the virus of course or unless we have had contact with someone who has it.
We also need to stay calm. It’s easy to get stressed especially because of the wall to wall coverage. So try to avoid any news coverage or conversations which make us anxious. Don’t spread the anxiety. Try to help neighbours and friends. Show solidarity.
All this will pass. If we take proper and appropriate precautions we will minimise its effects. We as a species will survive it. Of that there is no doubt.
Decisive leadership will enhance and maximise our ability to do this.
How governments in Europe, in London, Dublin and the USA are responding to this health crisis has become a source of great controversy. In the North the decision of the First Minister and of the Ministers of Health and Education not to close schools, colleges, universities and public buildings in line with the South caused considerable outrage. Their stance mirrored that of the Johnson government in London. It’s so-called ‘herd immunity’ strategy has been widely criticised
The British approach is at odds with that taken by the Irish government, by Italy, France, Spain, Germany and others. They have taken initiatives to restrict movement, increase testing, while encouraging citizens to stay at home and adopt a more rigorous hygiene regime.
It makes sense for the two governments on the island of Ireland with responsibility for the health and welfare of citizens to co-operate in erecting barriers to the spread of the virus, including a lock-down of institutions and public places; facilitate testing; co-ordinate medical resources and so on. This is not, as some have spuriously claimed, about the promotion of a uniting Ireland agenda – it is about recognising the interconnected nature of our two jurisdictions, the overlap between communities and the fact that we live together on a small island.
All of this is very important and necessary. So is positivity. Social media images of citizens in Italy and Spain standing on their balconies singing and applauding each other is evidence that in the midst of a human crisis people have the courage and spirit to rise above the fear and uncertainty. We also should appreciate our health workers. They are the heroes and heroines of this time, of all time. Compassion, caring, a willingness to help others is a fundamental part of who we are as human beings. It takes real courage who risk contamination by working closely with those who are afflicted with this virus. We have a lot to be thankful for. If we learn anything at all it must be the need for a properly funded and fully resourced public health service.
We should also be grateful that we are not as badly off as others who are confronted by disease in other parts of the world.
Every year hundreds of thousands of men, women and children die from treatable and preventable diseases. In 2017 one and a half million people died from diarrheal diseases globally. One third – over half a million – were children. In our own place at this time a huge emphasis is being placed on the simple act of handwashing. The World Health Organisation says that handwashing with soap and decent water would have led to a significant risk reduction of 65%. Hundreds of thousands of lives could be saved by soap and clean water. But for these human beings there is no soap. There is no water of a decent quality. Why not?
Every day over twenty thousand people die from hunger and three thousand die from preventable malaria. Why?
Last week a shipwreck off the coast of Libya brought the known death toll among migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to twenty thousand since 2014. It is likely that many more have drowned without their deaths being known. According to the International Organisation on Migration, “two-thirds of the fatalities we have recorded are people lost at sea without a trace”.
These are just some of the human crises, along with climate change and war and natural disasters which continue to take the lives of people every day across the world. These global crises demand a global response. So, it is important as we meet the challenge of Covid-19 that we do not forget those others who are less fortunate that us.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Chieftain's Walk Postponed

Martin and Buttons on Derry's Walls

Chieftain’s Walk postponed 

I wrote this blog and it was published by the Andersonstown News on Wednesday. However, the crisis created by the Coronavirus led Martin’s family to postpone it.

This is their statement and below is my blog.
“The family of Martin Mc Guinness have taken the ‘difficult but necessary’ decision to postpone this year’s 2020 Chieftain’s Walk amid the concerns over Coronavirus, it has been confirmed.

Announcing the decision, Fiachra Mc Guinness said: “As a family we want to thank everyone who has already registered for this year’s Chieftains Walk which had been scheduled to take place on March 29th.

“As ever, we gratefully appreciate your support and it has been a difficult decision for us to take to postpone the event.

“However, in light of the ongoing situation regarding Coronavirus, we also feel it is a necessary decision in order to play our part in helping to prevent the spread of this virus.

“It is our firm intention to reorganise the Chieftains Walk as soon as practically possible, registration remains open, and further details will be announced when they are confirmed.

“For now though, we would reiterate our thanks to all those who have registered and supported the Chieftains Walk over the past two years. It remains a great source of comfort to us as a family.” 

The Chieftain’s Walk.
Martin McGuinness died on 21 March 2017 from amyloidosis – a genetic disease. The following year his family and friends came together and organised the first Chieftain’s Walk to raise money for the Cancer Centre at Altnagelvin Hospital. This year’s Chieftain’s Walk will be on March 29th.
I joined with thousands of others in that first walk. We started at Glenowen in Derry and walked the five and a half miles to the Stone Fort of Grianán of Aileach on the Inishowen peninsula. If you have never visited Grianán put it on your to-do list. It’s a five-metre-high, four-metre-thick circular wall which gives an amazing view of Lough Foyle, and especially of Inch Island and Lough Swilly.
It was one of Martin’s favourite places. He went there many times. He was especially fond of the skyscape when on a clear night billions of stars and galaxies shine down on Donegal. Many a time he and I walked out the Groarty Road to Grianán. Whatever the weather. It is a dramatic and spiritual space. A place of quiet beauty. So, for me Grianán is forever tied up with Martin McGuinness.
Martin’s family have their roots in Donegal. Na hUilli, anglicized to the Illies, north of Buncrana, on the Inis Eoghain peninsula. Inis Eoghain and Derry are on opposite flanks of that same broad finger of high ground between Lough Swilly and Lough Foyle. The British border winds its invasive unwelcome way through this beautiful landscape creating two separate jurisdictions and separating County Derry from County Donegal.
It was on Inis Eoghain that Martin spent his childhood summers. When Martin and Bernie got married it was in Cockhill chapel, outside Buncrana. It was there that Martin got Colette and I the use of a caravan for me to recuperate in after I was shot and wounded in 1984. So I also got to know the magic of the Inis Eoghain peninsula.
Martin was also very much a child of Derry. He loved the City, its places and people. He was born in 1950. As a young person growing up in Derry in the 1950s and 60s Martin was no more interested in politics that everyone else his age. He had the same interests as everyone else his age. But politics intruded on his life. He was part of a nationalist community that lived in a unionist dominated apartheid state. A state that did not want Martin or his family or his community. In a City that had become a byword for electoral gerrymandering and discrimination.  
The civil rights movement was born out of this injustice. Derry was in the vanguard of the campaign for justice. Like many other young people Martin took part in the civil rights marches. He witnessed at first hand the violent response of the unionist regime and its paramilitary forces. It was into this maelstrom that a young Martin McGuinness and many other Derry wans bravely stepped. It was this Martin McGuinness - young, idealistic, courageous, a leader – who I met for the first time behind the barricades in Derry. His politics were shaped by the Derry experience, by his love of Derry and by his mother Peggy’s homeplace in Inishowen.
There was a ready warmth in his smile. A genuine openness and a pleasant, unpretentious personality. In the years that followed Martin and I shared many adventures and memorable times. Some funny, some not.
During the battle of the funerals I remember him in Milltown Cemetery - when we were surrounded by lines of battle wielding, riot clad RUC men –telling everyone to turn round and face them. To look them in the eye. Not to be afraid. To remember that they were the oppressors and that it was we who desired freedom and justice.
When Michael Stone attacked the Gibraltar funerals 32 years ago this month Martin was there helping the wounded, bringing calm to a dangerous situation. He was fearless. He was a leader.
It was he who was our representative in the secret talks with the British government in the early 90’s. He led the first Sinn Féin delegation to the British at Parliament Buildings in December 1994. He was in the first republican delegation to hold talks in Downing Street in December 1997. He was our Chief negotiator – the man who sat across the table from British Prime Ministers and Ministers and Unionist representatives and argued for change.
On one occasion in 2002 during a meeting in Tony Blair’s inner office in Downing Street Martin forcefully told him not to invade Iraq. Martin told him that if he thought the war in Ireland was bad invading Iraq would be so much more. We both urged Blair to turn back from what would be a disastrous course for the people of that region and for Britain. Blair ignored us.
In March 2007, after several years of difficult negotiations, Ian Paisley joined Martin and I in a press conference at Parliament Buildings to announce we had a deal. Two months later Martin and Ian Paisley and became joint First Ministers. In the years that followed Martin made a remarkable personal and political journey, first with Paisley, then with Peter Robinson and then with Arlene Foster.
He remained a steadfast republican, unbowed and unbroken throughout his life of activism. He never deviated from his republican principles; his belief in the unity of the Irish people in a free, independent, united Ireland; or in his humanity. He always did his best – he gave it one hundred percent.
So join us and Bernie and the McGuinness clann on The Chieftain’s Walk on March 29th.
The funds raised will go to the Martin McGuinness Peace Foundation which was established in his memory. The Foundation will celebrate Martin’s life, work and achievements by promoting his aims of reconciliation; unity and peace; social and economic change; rights; equality; inclusivity and diversity and community empowerment through an inclusive program of education, sport, debate, art and culture which will be open to all.
This year’s Chieftain’s Walk will have a new route from previous years. Martin was very fond of walking along Derry’s Walls. It wouldn’t have been unusual to see him walking along the walls with his dog Buttons. The Chieftain’s Walk will begin at 1.30pm at Westland Street, walking along the Derry Walls and finishing at the Long Tower Centre.
Bígí linn.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Micheál Martin fails the Coca Cola test

There have been some surreal moments on the back of the recent election results as the political and media establishment in the South tries to come to terms with Sinn Fein emerging as the largest party. Acting Taoiseach Leo Varadkar tried to portray the series of Townhall meetings that the Sinn Fein leadership has been holding as the next stage of a “campaign of intimidation and bullying”. One after another acting Fine Gael Ministers took to Twitter to tell citizens that Sinn Féin shouldn’t be holding meetings. Whoever is advising Fine Gael is doing a great job for Sinn Féin.
The accompanying extensive media coverage following Varadkar's accusation and the criticism by his Acting Ministers did more to advertise our events than anything we could have possibly done. As a result all of the meetings were standing room only. The Liberty Hall meeting was especially memorable as Pearse Doherty – in fine voice and form – stood outside on a cold February evening and delivered a riveting speech to the overflow crowd.
Micheál Martin predictably lost the run of himself in the Dáil when it met to elect the Taoiseach. Having already lost the popular vote to Sinn Féin and been pushed into second place in the vote for Taoiseach by Mary Lou, Martin’s diatribe against Sinn Féin reflected his obsession with us. It was a regurgitation of all the bile he has spouted over recent years. Eoghan Harris, who could have written the speech, extolled Martin’s verbosity in his Sunday Independent column. Martin’s speech was he said; “a magisterial speech whose historic important was missed by most of our craven media.” I was definitely listening to a different speech! Harris and the Sunday Independent are renowned for their vitriolic attacks on John Hume during our efforts to construct a peace process in the 1990’s.
Last week Micheál Martin said: “If you listen to the dishonest narrative from Sinn Fein you would imagine we have had Ministerial positions for the last nine years. Between 2011 and 2016 we had 20 seats. Hardly the establishment party of that period ... In 2016 until now we weren’t in government. These are the facts.”
But everyone knew that in partnership with Fine Gael, Micheál Martin had agreed a Programme for Government; negotiated and agreed four budgets, which punished workers and their families; elected two Fine Gael Taoisigh (Enda Kenny and then Leo Varadkar); and despite public outrage over the crisis in homelessness, housing and health Martin ensured that no-confidence motions in the Dáil against the two responsible Minister’s failed. He also opposed discussions in the Dáil to plan for Irish Unity.  
In this election the electorate saw through all of this. Consequently, instead of the 50 plus seats he confidently expected Micheál Martin lost seats and returned 37 TDs.
In addition, during the course of the election Micheál Martin pledged that Fianna Fáil would not go into government with Sinn Féin or Fine Gael. He now claims he has a mandate from the electorate not to speak to Sinn Féin about government. However, last week he met Acting Taoiseach Varadkar and appears willing to ignore his equally strong mandate not to go into government with Fine Gael! Clearly, it’s not about change. It’s about holding on to power.
Micheál Martin’s attacks on Sinn Féin are not new. Since 2002 when Nicky Kehoe almost won a seat in Bertie Ahern’s - then Taoiseach – constituency in Dublin Central, Fianna Fáil leaders have been worried about the potential electoral threat posed by Sinn Fein. Their claim to be ‘The Republican Party’ doesn’t sit well because Mr. Martin fails the Coca Cola test. When faced with the choice between Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil citizens are increasingly going for the real thing.
For example, three years ago Micheál Martin announced that Fianna Fáil was going to produce a 12 point plan on Unity. Like the promise to contest seats in the North it has yet to happen. Their general election manifesto did not contain any meaningful unity proposals.
In the almost ten years I was in the Dáil Micheál Martin used every opportunity to attack Sinn Féin. Facts are irrelevant. The crisis in the North was shamefully exploited time and time again. At Arbour Hill in 2015 he claimed that Sinn Féin was not fit for government. In September of that year he called on the Irish and British governments to suspend the Good Friday institutions.
When the institutions did collapse in 2017, because of the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal and the actions of the DUP, he repeatedly claimed, despite knowing where the blame really lay, that he couldn’t “comprehend” why there was no Executive and Assembly. This from a political leader whose long tenure in various Ministerial roles saw Fianna Fáil Ministers accused and some convicted of corruption. He did nothing about this.
Instead of constructively engaging as the leader of Fianna Fáil to find solutions he has spent his time demonising Sinn Féin. His accusations around so-called ‘Shadowy Figures’, despite his relationship with some of these, is one example of this.
Nor can we separate this Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael demonization strategy against republicans from the recent threats against Mary Lou McDonald, Michelle O’Neill, and Gerry Kelly and the two attacks in Belfast.
The real reason for Micheál Martin’s hostility to Sinn Féin was given by him many years ago in an argument he had with Martin McGuinness during negotiations at Hillsborough Castle. An angry Micheál Martin said: “You won’t do to us what you did to the SDLP.”
The Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael objective is to persuade public opinion that Sinn Féin cannot be trusted in government. If they fail to agree on a coalition – a carve up of political power - and a second election is called their negative campaigning will intensify. In fact the establishment is fighting that election now.
Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar are not about change. They are not about tackling the needs of the growing numbers of homeless, or those on trollies or the increasing hospital waiting lists, or a United Ireland. They are about trying to sustain decades of power and influence. They are about defending a status quo that many want to change.
As Mary Lou expressed it in her speech in the Dáil which has now been viewed over two million times: “If you keep reaching desperately for the past, it means you are not up for the future.”
So Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are content to confront Sinn Féin about the past. Their refusal to talk about the future with us, or to acknowledge the right of our voters to be represented at such discussions, is shameful.
Now the Fianna Fáil leader is telling Unionists that it’s ok for them to be in government with Sinn Fein in the North but that Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael are too good to do that in the South.
You can fool some of the people some of the time but ...

Thursday, February 27, 2020


Bairbre de Brún, Mise, Lucilita Breathnach and Martin at the centenary celebrations in Dublin 2016

I like hats. And caps. I have quite a nice collection of headwear, worn and aged, like myself, dispersed between Dublin and Belfast, Donegal, the car boot and all the places in between. It used to be customary for men to wear headware. Look at any old photos. Dunchers and flatcaps galore. Peaky blinders in multitudes outside factories, mills, shipyards, farmyards, public houses, marts, markets, country fairs. Hats were also popular. Paddy hats, trilbys, bowlers. Though bowlers were more for Orangemen on parade or English civil servants on The Mall. Country men were hat and cap people. Christy Ring even played hurling in a cap. So my grá for head gear used to be widespread. And now its coming back into vogue. Especially the omnipresent baseball cap. It is the preferred head covering for rappers, golfers, other sports people, urban youth.

Mise agus Cleaky

I have a couple of baseball caps. And a few hand knitted wooly hats. Síle Darragh knitted me a dark blue Tea Cosy type one. Lucilita a white one. Both were too big. But very warm all the same. Wooly ear warmers. There are really fine knitted yokes for sale in expensive shops in the west of Ireland. But they are very dear. I covet one of those. Hint hint. Extra Large.

I also have a Stetson. It was presented to me in Texas. It has an enormous brim. I only wear it indoors, usually while watching Westerns on TV. I haven’t the nerve to wear it outdoors. Before the presentation our man in America, Larry Downes, was very concerned that the Stetson should not be a black one. Apparently the bad guys wore black ones. So he insisted that my Stetson would be white. So it is. I never told Larry but I preferred a black one. I favour Jesse James or Billy the Kid over Hopalong Cassidy or The Lone Ranger. But Larry had his way.

I have another hat which I’m also shy about wearing outdoors although I like it very much. It’s not unlike the one Martin McGuinness wore during the Easter Centenary events. I wore mine as well. I would like to have the nerve to wear it more often the way Martin started to do. Martins hat now features in many posters and pictures of him. I think the hat darkens his face too much and he looks too stern. He was stern sometimes but my best memories of Martin are when he was hatless and happy.

One day he and I were going to see Brit Secretary of State Peter Mandelson. On the coat stand outside his office a hat was perched. To Martin’s chagrin I put the hat on my head and we breezed in to talk to Peter.

“I have a hat like that” Peter told me cheerfully. “I wear it in the grounds of Hillsborough House”.

“If you want to get ahead get a hat” I replied, removing it and placing it on my knee. “You have very good taste in headware. That’s something we have in common.”

When we finished our meeting I put Peter’s hat back on my head and Martin and I left.

“You can’t take his hat” Martin hissed at me “That’s stealing”.

“Stealing! They stole our country” I said. “In the gospel according to Cleaky, I’m liberating it. This is appropriating the Imperialist Misappropriators”. Cleaky was a great liberator. An outstanding appropriator.

One time in Australia John Little gave RG and me some fine head covers. We picked up two Koalas as well. Ach is é sín sceal eile. But that’s another story. No Koalas were harmed in the telling of this tale.

I like tweed caps. I have one which belonged to my friend the late Kevin McKenna. We swapped caps one time. I wear Kevin’s cap regularly. I also have a cap belonging to another friend, the late Stan Corrigan. His lovely wife Kathleen gave me it. It is that cap which triggered this column. I lost it last week after the recent Ard Chomairle meeting in Dublin which mandated Mary Lou to explore the possibilty of agreeing a Programme for A Government For Change.

I was distraught about the loss of Stan’s cap. I realised very quickly after the meeting that it was missing. But where? I enlisted the help of Saint Anthony. Again.

Was it in Dawn Doyle’s car? No she told me when I phoned her. Or out the back of Ard Oifig where RG picked me up? No. There was no sight of it when Keith searched the back lane in the dark in the midst of Storm Ciara.

Next morning the search continued. I prowled the back lane of Ard Oifig before being summoned heartbroken into a meeting. While I was so engaged, that darling man Mick O Brien drove back to the CWU building where the Ard Chomairle met.

He returned triumphantly.
“I have your hat” he declared and handed me a Russian Cossack type piece of hairy millinery.

“That’s not my hat” I told him as I tried it on.

“It’s lovely on you” Mick told me. And so it was.

But I was still fretting for big Stan’s cap. Negotiations for Government? The Sinn Féin surge? The posturing by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael’s leaders? Shadowy friggers running Sinn Féin? I focussed with my comrades on all this but beneath my new, well nearly new, Cossack hat my wee mind refused to give up on big Stan’s missing cap. Apart from the sense of loss how could I face Kathleen? She’s a Tyrone woman. Hell hath no fury like a Tyrone woman chastising a man, particularly a Belfast man. My nerves were wrecked.

“An bhfuil cead agam dul amach?” I asked Mary Lou. “May I go out?”

“Tá” she said “Yes, but please take off that Russian hat.... and get your hair cut.”

I exited despondently stage left, as sheepishly as Micheál Martin after Mary Lou scalped his arse. Out the back of Ard Oifig the old Dominic Street flats, now demolished, are a building site. I made my way gingerly through the muck. A burly workman greeted me.

“A great election result” he said.

“Yup” I replied, “Did you find a cap?”

“Is it a Bugatti?” He asked.

I wondered if he had a selection of caps. A Malloy. A Hanna. A Magee. But no he only had one. Stan’s Bugatti. He pulled it out - a grey wet crumpled item - from beneath his yellow High Vis Vest.

“That’s it” I cried as I resisted the urge to hug him. Instead I told him about big Stan. His eyes welled up with tears.

“I’m glad I found it” he told me.

“You look very like a painting my Granny had of Saint Anthony” I told him.

He looked at me warily.

“Thank you” I gushed.

“No problem. Tell me one thing” he asked.

“Anything” I replied.

“When are you getting your hair cut?” He asked.

“Soon” I told him. After all he did find big Stan’s cap.

He smiled at me and as he turned away I really could see that he looked remarkably like my Granny’s picture of Saint Anthony. I felt an urge to fall on my knees in the muck to offer a prayer of thanks to him but I suppressed this. So instead I just thanked him again. He smiled beatifically.

Now I’ve Mick’s Russian hat as well as big Stan’s cap. It’s great. No need to worry about the wrath of Kathleen. Or Mary Lou. Unlike Micheál Martin. If I had two heads I’d be landed.

Friday, February 21, 2020

The Myth Of “Shadowy Figures”

Mise agus Martin and Ted in Stormont Castle 2018
The demonising of republicans has long been an integral part of politics on this island, and especially in the lead into and during electoral campaigns. Through the decades of conflict Unionist leaders and British governments regularly posed as democrats while supporting anti-democratic laws, censorship and the denial of the rights of citizens who voted for Sinn Féin. Sinn Féin Councillors, party activists and family members were killed by unionist death squads, often in collusion with British state forces.

Successive Irish governments embraced this demonization strategy through Section 31 and state censorship. Sinn Féin was portrayed as undemocratic and dangerous. We were denied municipal or other public buildings to hold events including Ard Fheiseanna. In the years since the Good Friday Agreement these same elements have sought to sustain this narrative. The leaderships of Fianna Fáil, the Irish Labour Party, the SDLP and unionists, have been at one on this. Self-interest has shaped their approach.

Fianna Fáil Leader Micheál Martin regularly uses the Dáil to attack Sinn Féin. At one point in September 2015 he called on the two governments to suspend the institutions in the North! When the institutions did collapse in 2017, over the Renewable Heating Incentive scheme and the denial of rights, he changed his tack to one of “not comprehending” why there is no Executive and Assembly in the North.
In January Micheál Martin kicked off the current negative campaigning with a claim that Sinn Féin is not a “normal” democratic party. Decisions he said were being made by “shadowy figures”, by an unaccountable Ard Comhairle and by people in the Felons Club and Connolly House in west Belfast. Stupid, yes, but recent loyalist threats and death threats against Michelle O’Neill and Gerry Kelly mean that vacuous claims of “shadowy figures” feeds into a context in which people can be targeted.
Previously in the Dáil Micheál Martin identified two of these as Ted Howell and Padraic Wilson. In more recent days Marty Lynch, Sean Murray, and Bobby Storey have all been named. Teachta Martin knows all this to be rubbish.

Some of the Sinn Féin negotiation team at Stormont: Michelle O'Neill, Seán MagYidhir, Mary Lou McDonald, Conor Murphy, Pádraic Wilson, Carál Ní Cuilín, Gerry Kelly, Declan Kearney, red Howell and Stephen McGlade
 The reality is that Ted, Padraic, Big Bob, Sean, and Marty have been part of the Sinn Fein negotiating team for a very long time. Mr. Martin knows some of them. Ted was part of the team which produced the two seminal documents Scenario for Peace in 1987 and Towards a Lasting Peace in Ireland in 1992. At different times he has been part of delegations which met with John Bruton, Dick Spring, Pronnsias de Rossa, Leo Varadkar, Charlie Flanagan, Simon Coveney, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Theresa May. He has also met Bertie Ahern, Brian Cowan and Micheál Martin and the DUP and UUP.
Ted worked closely with Tony Blair’s former Chief of Staff Jonathan Powell and attended meetings in Downing Street and Hillsborough Castle with Micheál Martin. Pádraic and Marty too were often part of these delegations and often held meetings outside of the negotiating events with senior Irish government officials.
Ted and Pádraic also have deserved reputations for the provision of first class meals and pastries during negotiations. We have shared these with some of those above, including with Simon Coveney.
Just before Christmas 2018 I published ‘The Negotiators Cookbook” co-authored with Ted and Pádraic and with recipes in the main from both. The Negotiators Cookbook was very well publicised. Ted and Pádraic were widely credited for their culinary skills. Hardly “shadowy figures”.
The single most important aspect of the Stormont House negotiation in 2014 was the effort to address the legacy issues. The Sinn Fein working group handling this important issue included Gerry Kelly MLA, Sean Murray, Caral ni Chuilin MLA and Bobby Storey. All former political prisoners. The then British PM David Cameron was present in Stormont House for some of the last hours of that negotiation. So too was Charlie Flanagan. When a roundtable meeting was held to conclude on this issue, Sean Murray represented Sinn Fein. He played a pivotal and constructive role in this as he has in resolving many of the contentious Orange marches which used to create serious difficulties in Belfast.

Gerry Kelly, Martin McGuinness and Ted Howell in Weston Park in 2001
Irish governments quite rightly celebrate advances in the North. They like to claim some of the credit for advances when they are made. In its Election 2020 manifesto Fine Gael has a whole section boasting of its intensive work in supporting the political parties in North in achieving the recent ‘New Decade, New Approach’ agreement. Apart from Bobby Storey who is unwell, all of those named as “shadowy figures” played key roles in that agreement.
All of these activists are well known. They have held senior public and elected positions in the party. Many have had long and fruitful relationships with senior Irish and British government Ministers and officials as we have charted a course from conflict, through a peace process, to an end to conflict and peace.
The role of sections of the media is also reprehensible.The Pat Kenny’s, Sean O Rourke’s and Miriam O Callaghan’s interrogate Sinn Fein spokespersons ad nuseaum about these claims. They dominate many interviews. Surely they could have checked the names out. All of the facts set out above about these decent highly respected and hard working republicans is readily available.  Some of the media heads involved are old enough to have known the goings on in the Fianna Fail leaderships or the terrible treatment of sections of Irish society, particularly women in the past. With some honourable exceptions the record of the Irish media, and particularly RTE is tawdry on these scandals. So too is their historical coverage of the north. The truth is sections of the Irish media are part of the Establishments cosy consensus. They are against challenging the status quo because they are part of the status quo.
Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have selective memories. Both parties emerged out of conflict and a close relationship to the IRA. Many of their leaders, including Michael Collins, De Valera, Sean Lemass and others, all served time in prison. Some were responsible for acts of violence that mirrored those of more recent decades. Fine Gael’s relationship with the pro-fascist blueshirts is well documented. In the 1990s Fine Gael was in coalition with Democratic Left shortly after that party was formed following a split in the Workers Party. The history of the Workers Party and the so-called Official IRA is well known.
During the conflict republicans were challenged and it was demanded of us that we embrace unarmed politics. Protestations by me and other Sinn Fein representatives that this was exactly what Sinn Fein was about were dismissed as was our growing electoral support. Now that some who were political prisoners or former combatants have fully embraced the new dispensation we are being told that this is not good enough.
Not only is this stupid, unfair and self serving it also ignores the positive influence that activists from this background have with other republicans. The reason the anti peace process armed groups have so little support in republican heartlands is because  men and women of integrity with long records of hard struggle have stood up against them. Incidentally, the two governments accept and work with Sinn Fein elected representative with exactly the same history as those named as “shadowy figures”. I am certain if Pádraic Wilson, Ted, Big Bob or Marty Lynch, Seán Murray or others like them stood for election in their communities they would be elected.   
As for the role of the Ard Comhairle and elected representatives ? Sinn Féin agrees policy at our Ard Fheis which is entirely open to the media and is widely covered by it. Our Ard Comhairle and party leader are elected at the Ard Fheis. Very democratic. Very public, very open.
 One Fianna Fáil TD John McGuinness rebutted his own leaders claims. He said that the decision making process in Fianna Fáil is similar to that of Sinn Féin and he said: “I find it strange that they would say that [Fianna Fáil] TDs are consulted – sometimes we are not consulted at all.”
That’s probably true of all these parties. But there is no media scrutiny of the small group of advisers who aid Micheál Martin. Who is Deirdre Gillane or Pat Mc Parland or Sean Dorgan?  I’m sure they are decent people doing their best by their own lights.  I might not agree with them but I have no reason or desire to cast aspersions upon them. Ditto with Leo Varadkar’s team.
So thank you Ted, Pádraic, Marty, Séan and Big Bob and all the other “shadowy friggers”. Onwards and upwards.