Monday, December 4, 2023

Where to for Loyalism?: Peace requires respect for Palestinian rights: The Far Right must be challenged

Where to for Loyalism?

I have met many loyalists over a very long time. In prison. Out of prison. In secret or in private talks going back to the 1970s. And many times since then. I like to think that some of us became friends. Or at least we became friendly. Some loyalist leaders played a crucial role in the negotiations which led to the Good Friday Agreement. They deserve great credit for that. That was then.  Unfortunately some of those involved have died or are no longer active. In other instances more progressive elements have been replaced by a younger cohort, with little interest in politics or experience of prison or conflict. Twenty five years after the Good Friday Agreement the main loyalist organisations remain in existence. Why?

Maybe for some it is a way of life. For others it is a lucrative way of life especially for those who are involved in the illegal drugs trade. In many cases it is impossible to distinguish between the two. There is not even a pretense that they are interested in anything other than racketeering, extortion, drug pushing and money making. But not all loyalists are like that.

Incidentally, the scourge of illegal drugs is not confined to any one section here. It is a huge problem also in other communities across this island  with some of the gangs involved flying ‘republican’ flags of convenience and also cooperating with their ‘loyalist’ counterparts in criminal activities. In my view this is a policing issue which requires a more urgent and strategic focus by the PSNI and An Garda Síochána.

So what is loyalist paramilitarism about today?  In the past the main loyalist organisations were run as ‘counter gangs’ by British and RUC Special Branch. In fact some were established or resurrected by British Intelligence agencies. This is now a matter of public record. So is collusion. There was also a crossover between membership of the old B Specials and the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) and loyalist paramilitaries.  The main unionist political parties also maintained a close relationship with the main loyalist paramilitaries. In fact the DUP set up its own paramilitary groups including Ulster Resistance which went on to import arms from the Apartheid regime in South Africa in 1988. To my knowledge Ulster Resistance has never been properly investigated by our media nor did it engage with the Commission responsible for putting weapons beyond use.

So why are loyalist paramilitaries still in existence?  They obviously still recruit. So too, it seems, do  so called republican dissident groups. Those who genuinely disagree with Sinn Féin should do the decent thing and pursue their aims peacefully and politically. There is no reason for armed groups to exist.

For its part when the IRA formally ended its armed struggle in 2005 it stopped recruiting and left the stage. Sinn Féin has effectively filled that space and is the only republican movement nowadays. Sinn Féin is committed to purely political modes if struggle. It also has widespread popular support.

Loyalist working class people have no such organization, even in skeletal form to represent them.  Since the death of David Ervine, the loss of Billy Hutchinson’s seat in last year’s Council elections and the resignation of Dawn Purvis some years ago there seems little chance of loyalism organizing itself politically and separately from the main unionist parties. This is despite their intense hostility towards in particular the DUP.  They freely vent against the way they have been used and abused in the past. They give off about the failure – or refusal- of the main unionist parties to secure services for deprived areas. And then they go off and electioneer for the very same parties which exploit them in this way.

At the same time there are individuals including former loyalist prisoners, and some of the above, doing their best to improve conditions for their communities, which like their working class republican counterparts suffer greatly from disadvantage and poverty.  In my opinion these are decent people as much opposed to the drugs trade and wanting better opportunities for young people as the rest of us.

There are numerous other activists in the civic and community sector, across Belfast loyalist neighbourhoods, particularly the women’s sector, with no paramilitary connections whatsoever, doing great work to tackle sectarianism and inequality. There are also former loyalist prisoners, alongside republicans, doing important work in Belfast’s so-called interface areas to ease tensions especially at times of heightened difficulties.

Getting them to go beyond this is extremely difficult. Maybe they don’t have the influence or the inclination at this time to do more. Maybe others would make life too difficult for them.

For our part those of us who are committed to the aim of uniting Protestants, Catholics and Dissenters should not give up on our loyalist neighbours. We can agree to disagree on the constitutional future of this place while coo-operating on social and economic needs.  That means being avowedly anti-sectarian. At a personal level. At a community level. And eventually at governmental level.


Peace requires respect for Palestinian rights

The four day ceasefire in Gaza and the release of hostages, including Emily Hand the nine year old Irish/Israeli child, was a welcome development. Every effort must now be made to ensure the release of all hostages. But this must include those Palestinian hostages – now numbering in their thousands and including many children – some of whom have been interned by Israel for years.

The attacks by the Israeli army on the families of Palestinian hostages is reprehensible. The occupation of northern Gaza, the indiscriminate attacks on civilians, and the ongoing attacks against Palestinian families on the west Bank is evidence of the Israeli government’s determination to maintain its apartheid system. A Palestinian population almost equivalent to the entire population of the North has been forcibly displaced as refugees. Over 15,000 people are now believed to have been killed in Gaza and almost half of these have been children. The dreadful images of broken bodies, of shocked and wounded and orphaned children have moved millions around the world to cry STOP to Israel’s genocidal slaughter of innocents.

The public claim by Israel that its military objective in Gaza and the west Bank is to destroy Hamas and to provide security for its future is false. Neither of these will be achieved.  Israel’s current strategy has strengthened Hamas support among Palestinians. No one with any sense can believe that the last six weeks of industrial level destruction in Gaza will have improved Israel’s security.

On the contrary Israel is becoming increasingly isolated internationally. Around the world millions are on the streets week after week demanding a permanent ceasefire and justice for the Palestinian people. The EU political consensus is breaking down with some government’s criticising Israel and others now openly advocating for Palestinian statehood. Moreover, Israeli efforts to find allies among Arab states, has taken a significant battering.

Thirty years ago – after the Oslo Accords the Middle East peace process held out the real potential for a two state settlement. As Seamus Heaney so wisely explained it in our own place in 1994 after the IRA cessation – it was a space in which hope can grow. That’s what happened here. Against all the odds. Because there was leadership to nurture the hope. But in the Middle East it was not to be. Successive Israeli governments, and especially those led by Netanyahu, have deliberately undermined that latent possibility choosing instead to expand its theft of Palestinian land. They have institutionalised an apartheid system of control and domination as inhumane and pervasive as that of South Africa. The desire for an exclusively Zionist state from the Mediterranean to the Jordan has become for many – but not all Israelis – the dominant aim of Zionism.

Whatever process of negotiations and peace efforts emerge out of the current crisis it will only succeed if the Zionist dispossession, occupation and apartheid regime is ended.  National self-determination and equality of opportunity and respect for the rights of Palestinians - alongside the rights of their Israeli  neighbours, has to be the bedrock of any peace process.


The Far Right must be challenged

The horrifying stabbing in Dublin last week of three children and a woman from Gaelscoil Choláiste Mhuire and the subsequent street violence was shocking. And the bravery of those who tackled the attacker is to be commended.  The burning of Garda cars and buses  and  the looting of shops  must be condemned. But that is not enough.  There are real questions about how these events were handled  and about the lack of resources, policing capacity and intelligence.  

The people of Dublin’s inner city are decent people. The far right represents only a tiny fraction of the population. But as in Europe and elsewhere they are a violent fraction eager to foment division, promote disinformation, and encourage racism and hate. They must be opposed, challenged at every opportunity. So, well done to all of those who participated in the trade union sponsored rally at the GPO on Monday.

Those involved in the violence will undoubtedly, as the Government has promised, face the full rigours of the law. But a thorough investigation is also required of Garda handling of the events. And a multi agency led strategy of social inclusion is also urgently needed so that all of our young people have equality of opportunity. 

Sunday, December 3, 2023

Eileen Howell/St. Comgalls: Seán Harte - a fior Gael, republican and decent man: First Prize: Palestine


Going from strength to strength 

Regular readers will know that Ionad Eileen Howell/St. Comgall’s was formally opened in June by the US Economic Envoy Joe Kennedy. It came after many years of fundraising, planning and hard work by all involved – not least Eileen Howell who the centre is named after. The project is designed to promote economic, educational, social and cultural benefits for the people who live and work in the local area and to promote good relations between communities. Ionad Eileen Howell joins Conway Mill and other local projects in this important work. 

Last Friday the last unit in Saint Comgall’s was formally opened by the Pat Finucane Centre, the human rights NGO named after assassinated Human Rights Lawyer Pat Finucane. 

The same week it was joint winner of the Community Award at the Aisling Awards.

It has been a busy five months for Ionad Eileen Howell. The Director of the Project Gerry McConville told me of the many recent events that have been held there and of the plans up to Christmas. Last week the Falls Women’s Centre held their conference in the centre. In early October a range of international experts from Ireland; the United States; France; Switzerland and Canada attended the inaugural Acute Paediatrics International Conference (APIC).  In the same months Trade Unionists for a New Ireland (TUNUI) held a two day conference there.

Among the many organisations now using Ionad Eileen Howell is the Dept of Commerce; the Education Authority; local mental health charities; the Department of Finance and a wide range of community groups. The Fleming Fulton School use it each week for teenagers with special needs and the Shankill Women’s Centre held a conference there last week. 

Local businesses too are based in St. Comgall’s. Among them is Stephen Farnan’s ‘We have it wrapped up’ a unique and innovative blend of fresh designs in ceramics, wood, glass, aluminium and red earthenware clay. So successful is the business, which showcases his work and that of other great Irish makers/artists that Stephen recently opened a new shop on the Lisburn Road in South Belfast. These join his other two outlets in Castle Court and in Portstewart. His pottery is as busy as can be and his 

studio in Ionad Eileen Howell is open each day from 10am to 2.30pm. It’s well worth a visit. It you are interested in seeing what they produce they can be found on Facebook at #wehaveitwrappedup.

Another business doing very well is Elite Dance Design which currently sells uniquely designed Irish dance costumes around the world. There is also a Global Shipping Company; an IT software developing company and Féile an Phobail. 

On the 1st December Artists for Palestine will be holding an event organised by Féile. On 3 December there will be a Christmas Fair and two days later at 7pm on 5 December there will be a Christmas Concert with the Ulster Orchestra players, St. Joseph’s PS Choir and the Black Mountain Choir.

These are just a few of the events taking place in Ionad Eileen Howell /St. Comgall’s. The success of the centre is a tribute to Eileen - an outstanding leader -  and to all of those who have turned a derelict old school into a first class community and business centre. Amazing.


Seán Harte - a fior Gael, republican and decent man

Seán Harte was a proud County Tyrone man – a native of Loughmacrory - a GAA stalwart and long standing republican activist in Canada where he was a board member of Friends of Sinn Féin. His death is a huge loss to the Irish Republican and GAA communities in Canada but especially to his family. 

Like many others I was deeply shocked at the start of the month at the news of Sean’s death. I was unable to travel to his funeral in Toronto but I did send a message of solidarity and sympathy to Noelle, and Justin and Catherine. “Seán fought hard to stay with you and although it may not seem possible now I am sure your memories of him will sustain you in these difficult times. That’s what Sean would like. Tá ar croíthe briste libhse. No one knew Seán better than Noelle. No one had a better Daddy than Catherine and Justin.”

Seán was a Tyrone Minor Champion with Carrickmore in 1972 and a founder member the Loughmacrory St Teresa’s Club. He lined out with them in their first ever competitive match in 1973. Like many Irish people over the centuries he decided to emigrate in search of a better life. He travelled to Toronto but never forgot Tyrone and never stopped playing for and being part of the growing GAA family in that huge country. 

He was a founder member of Club Tyrone which invests in the GAA in his home country. Seán was the current secretary of the Canadian County Committee and a former chairperson of the organisation. Over many years he played a pivotal role in organising GAA tours of Canada.

Sean was a decent man. He was always positive, generous, good natured and deeply proud of his family. Their loss is all the greater because of this. Ní beidh a leitheid aris ann. Sean never forgot where he came from. He was Irish, Tyrone and Loughmacrory through and through. Fittingly he was named Irishman of the Year in Canada for 2023. Tyrone GAA in their statement on his death put it well: “Although Seán spent virtually all of a half-century in Canada, his was a stellar case of ‘the man maybe leaving Tyrone, but Tyrone never leaving the man’."

Seán was also a fior Gael. Steeped in Gaelic games from boyhood  and instrumental in expanding the Gaeldom in Canada. He fell ill at the Toronto GAA Convention in October. 

Seán was a sound Irish Republican. He never forgot his IRA brothers Gerard and Martin, executed along with Volunteer Brian Mullin in 1988 by the SAS and the British Army near Drumnakilly in their homeland. 

Sean was a stalwart supporter of Irish freedom and like his late brother Nishey and the Harte family he was a staunch supporter of the peace process.

I want to extend my deepest sympathies and condolences to Noelle, and Justin and Catherine and to all of his family circle, as well as to the GAA in Ireland and Canada and finally to Friends of Sinn Féin in Canada. We will all miss him. Thank you Sean for your dedication and commitment.  Mo comh bhrón le Noelle agus teaglach Sheáin. Ba laoch Seán Harte.

First Prize

I rediscovered this certificate last week. I was awarded it fifty years ago. It celebrates me winning the Leeper category in the annual Long Kesh Cage Feis organised by the local Sinn Féin Cumann. In our cage the Cumann was called after big Mundo or Eddie O’Rawe. Eddie was an IRA Volunteer executed by the British Army after they captured him down the Falls in Belfast, in April 1973. Eddie was a patriot and a gentleman.

The Mundo O’Rawe Sinn Féin Cumann organised lots of activity behind the wire. Debates and discussions. And all kinds of competitions. I was a very unlikely winner of the Leeper one. Incidentally, it should be Leaper not Leeper but who cares. It’s one of a kind. Some younger readers may wonder what a leeper is. In the Kesh the term was generally used to describe someone with dubious hygiene habits. It was also used to describe a place. For example his cell is leeping. It is probably derived from jumping. That toilet is jumping. Meaning it is smelly and unclean.

Bogging is another good word. It gave us the term bogger. I won that title one year also. Just saying. My comrades thought they were funny. I was neither leeping or bogging. I just didn’t conform to their Doc Martens, shin high Wrangler and denim clad attire. Or skin head hair styles.  My hair was long. So was my beard. How that amounts to me being a leeper is debateable. But I’m used to getting blamed in the wrong. And  I’m glad I rediscovered my certificate.


The awfulness of the Israeli State’s onslaught on Gaza continues to shock people in Ireland and throughout the world. The mobilisation of people everywhere is admirable. It is crucially important that we do not stop our demand for a Ceasefire. That means Hamas as well as Israeli forces. It means international law being applied. As this column goes to print it appears there may be some positive news on the release of hostages. If that happens it will be good. But much more is required. A negotiated peace process is urgently needed allied to emergency aid for the region. Ceasefire Now.


Monday, November 20, 2023

Fr. Alec Reid: Making Magic at the Ard Fheis


Fr. Alec Reid

Next Wednesday – 22 November – will mark the tenth anniversary of the death of Father Alec Reid. It is a matter of wonderment that a decade has passed since he left us. Students of the Irish peace process will know that Alec was a central figure in our search for peace. He and Fr. Des Wilson were key to the beginning of that process. I won’t deal in this column with all the twists and turns of those times or the stubborn refusal for decades of the establishments, British and Irish, to embrace dialogue. Fr Alec and Des helped to change that. And much more. This column reflects on some of Fr Alec’s qualities.

First of all Alec was an innovator and in many ways a free spirit. He was a priest so he believed in God but his God was not a distant supreme force.  His God was in everyone and Alec believed that everyone deserved to be treated properly. In his view the work of God – and therefore the work of the priest - was to be among people upholding their rights. Fr Alec’s work with the Traveller Community in Belfast was a great example of this. 

He was a friend to the people like the Traveller families who were victimised. He also believed that ‘ordinary’ people had a great wealth of goodness, wisdom and experience. Especially women. He developed this thinking and formed a view that the Church’s attitude to women was wrong.

He believed the Holy Spirit works in us all. “Do your best and don’t blame yourself. It will work out if you give it 100 percent. It’s over then to the Holy Spirit.” Having said that he was like a terrier, never giving up. He found ways to engage with people in powerful positions from Taoisigh, Ambassadors, senior Government and political leaders. His work with John Hume was central to all that followed. 

He was also personally brave. His presence on the streets in very dangerous times especially during the Battle of the Funerals in the mid and late 80s is proof of that. Photos of tough interactions between family, neighbours and comrades of Republican dead and the RUC and the British Army, when the Church Hierarchy sided with the oppressors, often feature Fr. Alec in the midst of the throng trying to calm things down.

His main peace-making principles are based on the dignity of the human being and the right of everyone to be treated properly and with respect – do onto others as you would do on to yourself. And the primacy of dialogue.  He was a good listener. And always willing to reach out for advice from whoever he thought might be of help.  He also understood his role, especially the role of a go between. Many others have made a mess of this by exaggerating their own role or the positions of those they engage with. Their intentions were usually good intentions but there are lots of do gooders who made matters worse and wasted peoples’ time. Fr Alec kept everything tight and straight in his role as go between even though his work was not confined to this.

He had a good sense of humour. He liked people. He enjoyed company, particularly the relationships he built with working people including working class loyalists and republicans. He loved Gaelic games, especially hurling. He liked being out and about. He and I used to walk together when his health allowed him.  His roots were in Tipperary – he played minor hurling there but he supported Dublin as well in the football. The Rice brothers of Éire Óg were often called upon to get him Croke Park tickets. He used to come to our house on Christmas Eve to enjoy the craic and banter with our other festive visitors. He and Colette were good friends. 

He was very respectful about his fellow priests although he skirted around them if they were slow or reluctant or disapproving of his work. “Fr ….. is too holy.” He remarked to me one day by way of explanation for the perceived shortcomings of a brother priest 

He could also be very impatient at the ‘great and the good’ and angry at their double standards. He was very influenced by Fr. Des Wilson. Alec probably would not have survived as a diocesan priest.  The Redemptorists gave him space and ‘protection’ to do his work. He tried to institutionalise this within the Order, particularly in Clonard. So he was aware of the need to structure his work and for the church leadership to face up to its responsibilities to fulfil its mission by dealing with issues of justice, equality and rights. He became very aware of the shortcomings of the Church and of its controlling nature and its leadership’s subservient relationship with and as part of the establishment.

He was proud to be a priest. The scandals of child abuse wounded him greatly. He told me he missed not being able to be in the company of children or to give a child a hug because of how that might be misconstrued. But he always wore his clerical collar publicly in defiance during those difficult times for good priests.

In our troubled world today his peace making principles remain totally relevant.  For sure we would not have developed our peace process when we did without Father Alec. Go ndeanfaidh Dia trocaire air.


The Palestinian Ambassador - Dr Jilan Wahba Abdalmajid

Making magic at the Ard Fheis

There have been Sinn Féin Ard Fheiseanna that have had their special, magical moment that remains in the memory years – even decades - later. Last weekend’s Ard Fheis in Athlone produced two such moments. The first came just before 1pm on Saturday. Matt Carthy TD - the party’s spokesperson on Foreign Affairs - introduced the Palestinian Ambassador Dr Jilan Wahba Abdalmajid.

At the end of his remarks in which he excoriated Israel for its countless breaches of international law, brutal acts of oppression, annexation, apartheid and ethnic cleansing Matt loudly chanted; “In our thousands and in our millions, we are all Palestinians”. As he repeated this a second time it was taken up by the hall. By the third time everyone was applauding and shouting; “In our thousands and in our millions, we are all Palestinians.”  For an amazing moment the Ard Fheis was the heart and soul of Ireland reaching into Gaza and the West Bank as we all welcomed the Ambassador. 

Later Mary Lou gave one of the best ever Presidential speeches. With four major elections likely this year she proclaimed, “We want to build a new Ireland. A nation home for all. A unified nation of confidence and compassion, talent and ingenuity, claiming our future, our rightful place among the nations of the world. The Orange and Green reconciled. No place for racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, or sectarianism. Where there is no them - only us. All of us who call Ireland home.”

Mary Lou also spoke about the Israeli state’s genocide of Palestinians.

“The Palestinian people have a right to their homeland,” she said… the Irish government should take the lead and refer Israel to the International Criminal Court. And send the Israeli Ambassador home… Israel must stop its slaughter in Gaza. Hamas must release all hostages. Ceasefires must be called”.

In a speech that was riveting, confident and empowering Mary Lou spoke of the need for change and of transforming Ireland to resolve the housing crisis, resourcing health, tackling the climate crisis, and much more. She called on the Irish government to establish a Citizens’ Assembly on Unity.

And at a time when some British and Unionist politicians are trying to rewrite the terms of the unity referendum in the Good Friday Agreement Mary Lou said: “The day is coming when everyone on this island will have their say in referendums. Each vote counting equally, no vetoes, no shifting of the goal posts. Irish Unity is the very best opportunity for the future. In the words of Rita O’Hare, “We must keep going. A United Ireland lies ahead”.

Another magical moment. 



Friday, November 17, 2023

The Unity Debate is growing: Ethnic Cleansing: Crann na Saoirse


The Unity Debate is growing

Seven key Irish-American organisations have announced an ‘Irish Unity Summit – For a New and United Ireland’ to be held in New York on 1st March next year. This major initiative – coming as it will just before St. Patrick’s Day and the visit to the USA of political leaders from Ireland – is being organised by the Ancient Order of Hibernians; the Brehon Law Societies of NYC and Nassau; the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick Long Island; Friends of Sinn Féin; Irish American Unity Conference; the James Connolly Irish American Labor Coalition, and the Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians. More details on the format and speakers will be announced by the organisers later. 

On June 15 next year Ireland’s Future will be holding a major conference – Pathway to Change - in the SSE Arena in Belfast. Professor Brendan O’Leary, Claire Mitchel, Jarlath Burns, Mary Lou McDonald and Claire Hanna are among speakers already confirmed.

Last week Queen’s Human Rights academic and Ireland’s Future member Professor Colin Harvey was the guest speaker at an event organised by the National Committee on American Foreign Policy at Fordham University in New York. Speaking on the theme, ‘A Pathway to a new Ireland’ Colin Harvey said: “In Ireland the evidence of an increased focus on preparations for change is everywhere. The constitutional conversation is moving into a much more detailed planning phase and it is therefore essential that local and global voices for a new and united Ireland are heard and listened to.” Professor Harvey told his audience that there is a particular onus on the Irish government to facilitate the preparations for unity. 

Later during his visit Professor Harvey met with the Brehon Law Society. He told them that he believes that by the end of this decade there will be a unity referendum. 

Last week also Ireland’s Future held a packed business lunch in the Europa Hotel in Belfast. Over 300 people heard former BBC journalist Gavin Esler speak of the potential for change. The former editor of the Irish News Noel Doran also addressed the gathering.

And finally, two weeks ago Trade Unionists for a New Ireland (TUNUI) held a two day conference in Belfast. It heard a range of speakers from Ireland and internationally talk about the importance of constitutional change and of social justice to any new Ireland.

The two-day event brought together people from across the island and beyond with the aim of advancing constitutional change. Among the speakers was SIPTU deputy general secretary Gerry McCormack and Frank Connolly, author of United Nation - The Case for Integrating Ireland.

The Chair of TUNUI Seán McElhinney said: " We believe that some of the worst aspects of social inequality and socio-economic disadvantage facing working people can only be addressed properly by changing how Ireland is governed - north and south … Constitutional change gives us a unique opportunity to start building something better than this, and we want to promote the importance of social justice in every conversation about our future."


Ethnic Cleansing

 By the time you read this column the numbers of people killed in Gaza will have exceeded 10,000. Almost half of these are children. Every minute, of every hour, of every day new and dreadful images emerge from Palestine that horrify and shock.

This is not the first time that the Palestinian people have faced ethnic cleansing.  In 1948 the Nakba or Catastrophe witnessed the ethnic cleansing of almost 80% of historic Palestine by the newly established Israeli state. In the decades since then an Israeli apartheid system has dehumanised and demonised the Palestinian people.

The Palestinian people of Gaza and the west Bank are facing a second Nakba. The settler and Israeli Army violence in the west Bank, the deliberate attacks in Gaza on hospitals, schools, the University, refugee camps, bakeries, ambulances and families and the cutting off of fuel and food and water, is about forcing Palestinians into abandoning Gaza. A recent Israeli report and public commentary by Israeli leaders have acknowledged that Israel seeks the expulsion of all Palestinians from Gaza. An Israeli Government  minister Amichai Eliyahu has said nuking Gaza ‘is one of the possibilities’ and in a remark reminiscent of ‘To Hell or Connacht’  that the Palestinians ‘can go to Ireland or deserts’. 

Last week 200 academics on the island of Ireland united in demanding that Irish universities cut ties with Israeli institutions “until the occupation of Palestinian territory is ended, the Palestinian rights to equality and self-determination are vindicated, and the right of Palestinian refugees to return is facilitated.” They are right.

Several days ago Mary Lou McDonald called on the Irish government and international community to take action to enforce international law. She also called for the Israeli Ambassador to lose her diplomatic status. Other states have already broken diplomatic ties with Israel.

An immediate ceasefire and the infusion of substantial international aid is now essential but we should be under no illusions. There can be no victors through war in the Middle East. If the international community fails to stand up for international standards and international law then what we have witnessed in the last month will only be repeated in the future. 


Crann Na Saoirse. 

This is tree planting time. Again. Any month with an ‘R’ will do but it’s usually best between October and March. But plant your wee baby trees well before or well after the frost kicks in. I always try to do my planting in the Autumn so the tree will have time to settle in before Spring. Container grown trees can be planted at any time, though they too need protected from frost  but I mostly use bare root or wee slips grown from seed.

I collect the seeds, mainly chestnuts and acorns from the Falls Park along with Rowan, Hazel, Hawthorn and Birch. 

Back in the day when our lives were consumed with endless talks  I gathered up seed from the great houses of England, like  Chequers, the  back garden of 10 Downing Street, Leeds Castle or back home at Hillsborough, Arbour Hill or the Áras.  

There are all kinds of little processes and different soil, gravel or sand mixes which you can use for bringing on your seeds but I’m a lazy gardener. I just put the seeds into a pot of whatever loam I have to hand and let nature do its work. 

When the seeds have sprouted the saplings can be kept in pots for years before planting out. Apart from chestnuts I plant only native species. They are good for keeping the air clean. Good for native insects. For native birds and other creatures.  Good for the climate and nature. Trees are also great presents. They can mark the birth of a new baby or immortalise the memory of a fallen friend. Trees are good for remembering the living and the dead. They are about the future. 

That is why Freedom Trees are important. Crann Na Saoirse can be planted now in the knowledge that they will grow tall in a free Ireland.   

So why not plant your own Crann Na Saoirse. Or if you have the space or access to public land or commonage, a hill or mountain side - with permission- why not plant A Freedom Forest?   Even ten or twenty trees planted two metres apart will look well once they get going. Is there space in your housing estate? Or your farm? Your garden?  Your sports ground. 

Native trees are are also good for biodiversity. No one could object to that. So get growing.



Monday, November 6, 2023

Ceasefire Now; Wolfe Tone's Cordial Union:Pulse and Mickey Coleman

 Ceasefire Now

News from the Middle East continues to numb and outrage and anger most people. But we cannot give up. We have a duty to the people of Palestine to stay focussed on the demands to Stop the War - Support Humanitarian Initiatives - Start Peace Talks. The people of Israel and Palestine need the support of the international community. We are part of that community. Let us find ways to get our leaders to uphold international law. End the siege of Gaza. Free Palestine. 


Wolfe Tone’s Cordial Union 

Last week I attended an event in Parliament Buildings at Stormont, hosted by US Special Economic Envoy Joe Kennedy. There was a panel discussion on the impact of the Good Friday Agreement which involved myself, former DUP leader Peter Robinson; former Alliance Assembly Speaker Eileen Bell; Lady Daphne Trimble, President of the Ulster Unionist Party; and former SDLP leader Mark Durkan. First Minister designate Michelle O’Neill, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson and UUP leader Doug Beattie were all present. 

While we each brought our own narrative of that time to the conversation it was nonetheless a positive and forward looking engagement. 

The day before Jeffrey Donaldson said there would be no united Ireland in his lifetime and that a United Ireland cannot accommodate his Britishness. I disagree. The fact is that political and demographic changes in recent decades; a growing disillusionment with the unionist parties; the Brexit debacle and the growth of Sinn Féin have contributed to increasing interest in Irish Unity. It is also important to recall that over 70% of people in the North and over 90% in the South voted in May 1998 for an Agreement that provides for a unity referendum and for a simple majority to determine the outcome. That provides the democratic basis for future constitutional change.

As for the British identity in a United Ireland? Those of us who favour Irish Unity have repeatedly emphasised our commitment to respect the British identity of our neighbours and to accommodate that identity and its traditions in a new and shared Ireland. We are also committed to the safeguards and guarantees, contained in the Good Friday Agreement, being carried through into that new Ireland. 

That is not just a rhetorical commitment aimed at winning unionist support for or acquiescence to Irish Unity. It is rooted in the principles and beliefs of those – mainly Presbyterians - who embraced Republicanism in the 18th century.

The United Irish Society was founded in Belfast in October 1791. It was the first democratic movement in Ireland and took its inspiration from the American and French Revolutions of that time. They sought solidarity between people of all religious denominations, and political equality and Irish independence.

Theobald Wolfe Tone – who belonged to the Church of Ireland - embodied the new alliance between Protestants and Catholics. His writings remain relevant to this generation and this time.

Tone, who served as secretary of the Catholic Committee, said his aim was: “To unite the whole people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of all past dissension and to substitute the common name of Irishman in place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter – these were my means.”

In facing up to a succession of economic and political crises then created by the English government Tone concluded that; “Ireland would never be either free, prosperous, or happy, until she was independent, and that independence was unattainable, whilst the connexion with England existed.”

To build a new society Tone argued for a new relationship between the people of Ireland. He wrote: “the weight of English influence in the Government of this country is so great as to require a cordial union among all the people of Ireland, to maintain that balance which is essential to the preservation of our liberties and the extension of our commerce.”

As the momentum toward a unity referendum grows and as more and more positive voices are being heard from the unionist/British section of our people the objective of building a cordial union among the people of this island takes on a greater significance. British governments are not to be trusted in protecting the rights of citizens or managing our economy. Agreements between Unionist leaders and British governments have been consistently dumped by British Prime Ministers who time and time again have placed British self-interest above commitments given to unionists.

The future provides an opportunity to build a new relationship between the people who share this island. A new cordial union – founded on inclusion and reconciliation – on democratic agreements and respect. We are an island people in transition. A fundamental part of this transition must be a sustained effort to genuinely address the fears and concerns of northern unionists. As good neighbours we must explore with them what they mean by their sense of Britishness and how that sense of Britishness will be reflected in a new cordial union between the people of this island. This is the future.



Mickey Coleman , his wife Erin and their sons Micheál and Riordan were in An Cultúrlann last week on Belfast’s Falls Road to launch Mickey’s new book PULSE. Peter Canavan was there also along with mé féin. I never thought I would be on a panel with Peter Canavan - one of my footballing heroes and all Ireland champion with Tyrone. Twice. But there we were telling yarns and sharing songs and funny stories. And a bunch of fine singers from Glassdrummond entertained us and moved everyone with their rendition of The Brantry Boy. 

PULSE is a special book, written with Damian Harvey, and it tells Mickey’s story. Its a story of his family in Ardboe a wee village in a beautiful part of rural Ireland beside Lough Neagh. It’s the story  of an Irish  family of eight children, nurtured by Teresa and her husband Sean. It is a story of Mickey kicking ball on the Green with his brothers and childhood mates and then with the local Gaelic Athletic Club - O Donavon Rossa. The  heart of Ardboe.

It’s about schooldays, meeting Peter Canavan when he came to teach in Holy Trinity College in Cookstown. It’s about fishing on Lough Neagh with his father. About British troops. Visits to his father in Belfast Prison. It’s a book about music, song writing, guitar picking. Doing local gigs. Visiting the USA. Getting on to the county football panel.  It’s about that brilliant first Tyrone team to win the Sam Maguire Cup. It’s about Mickey Harte, legendary manager. It’s about Cormac Mac Anallen, one of  Tyrone’s finest,  who died suddenly, aged just twenty four. The Brantry Boy. 

It’s about New York. About Mickey knuckling down and working hard supported by others including Fay Devlin. About meeting Erin Loughran as she played the fiddle at a session. About Erin and Mickey making music together. Then making babies. 

Mickey’s business was going well. He was blessed with a great family and friends. Immersed in the Gaeldom of New York.

Then on 29 March  2021, aged forty one, Mickey had a massive heart attack. That’s when his life ended. Thanks to Erin, his own resilience and self-awareness as he confronted his ‘widow maker’ and Orangetown police and other emergency workers, he survived. Montefiores Nyack Hospital did the rest and kept him alive. 

And then it was a long hard struggle for Mickey to get back to himself again. This book tells all this and much more. It is especially poignant as Mickey recounts how he relearned what is important in life. It’s all here with wonderful clear and hopeful faith in love, family, friendship, community, Ireland and humanity.  Mickey’s appeal to the reader is for us all to play our own music in appreciation of what we have - not just materially but more importantly - in our values. Because without those we have nothing. That is the essence of Pulse. Read it for yourself. I’m honoured that Mickey invited me to help launch his story. Thank you. 

PULSE lets us know that Mickey and Erin have never forgotten where they are from and who they are. I wish them both and their family the very best of good luck for the future.