Thursday, June 21, 2018

Well done Mary Lou

I have been attending Sinn Féin Ard Fheiseanna for over 50 years. For thirty-five or so of these years I have delivered the Presidential address. For a decade or so before that Ard Fheiseanna were very busy events for me. This year it was different. For the first time ever I had nothing to do. So, last weekend’s Ard Fheis was a different kind of experience.
I have been travelling to Ard Fheiseanna since I joined Sinn Féin in the mid-1960’s. At that time Sinn Féin was a banned organisation and remained so until April 1974. Thirty-five years ago this month, on 9 June 1983, I was elected by the people of west Belfast as their MP. Later that year the Ard Fheis elected me as Uachtarán Shinn Féin. That was my first Presidential speech. Under Section 31 it was banned from the television and radio in the south. For years the Ard Fheis was itself banned from municipal buildings like the Mansion House. Now the Mansion House is too small for an Ard Fheis.
For many years the speech would take up to an hour. I don’t know about the audience but I was always exhausted by the end of it.

RG, mise agus Tom Hartley

One time when RG was printing up the final draft on an Amstrad printer and it broke down. So I started my speech with only the first half of the script, while RG laboured back stage to print up the second part. What he didn’t know was that I tipped off the assembled comrades that he would be arriving– I hoped – entering stage left - before I ran out of words. He did so to tumultuous applause.
In 1994 Section 31 was scrapped and RTE could broadcast the presidential speech. Some years later we decided to opt for the thirty-minute slot on RTE between 8.30 and 9 pm. That meant reducing the speech into an even tighter timeframe. And it was live. So, no room for mistakes.
On the Friday before the speech was to be given it was handed over to RTE, with a strict embargo, so that Diarmuid O’Grady, the autocue controller, could set it up. RG, Dawn Doyle, and others would then sit in their comfortable seats while I would address an empty hall – going through the speech, stopping and starting as we would decide that this or that word, or phrase, was more appropriate, or easier to say, or made a sharper political point.
Time was critical. One minute was allocated to whoever was doing the introduction. That meant they had 150 words – no more – no less. Of course, republicans being natural wafflers – I mean rebels - it didn’t always work out like that. And then there was the applause. The applause as you walked on and the applause points in the speech. All of that took time.
So, although the time slot was 30 minutes the actual speech would normally have to come in around 24-25 minutes. The sensible advice from RTE was always to finish at least a minute before they had to leave the Ard Fheis for the 9pm RTE main evening news. Of course if you didn’t finish on time you could get cut-off in mid-sentence – that would be embarrassing.  
The first time before we did a live broadcast the RTE man explained and demonstrated how he would signal to me to slow down or quicken up. The problem was once I started speaking I forgot which signal was which.
One year, I think it was in Killarney, we ran so far over time that I had to scrap the last couple of pages of the speech and adlib my way to the conclusion. It worked but I could see RG and Diarmuid desperately trying to find where I was on the script. Is it any wonder that every year, without fail, as soon as the speech was over I found a quiet corner, stripped off my shirt which would be soaked with sweat, quickly towelled off, and changed into a clean shirt.
I was mindful of some of this on Saturday night as I sat between Tom Hartley and Ruairí Ó Murchú and watched a very relaxed Mary Lou come on to the stage following her introduction by John Finucane. She casually followed him across the stage to give him a big hug and then walked back to stand at the podium as she received a huge bualla bós. Mary Lou looked like she had all the time in the world.
Her speech was measured, carefully crafted and dealt with all the big themes– the rights of citizens – of women in the north –the housing and health crisis –a united Ireland –engaging with unionist leaders –restoring the political institutions - Sinn Féin in government north and south – the British and Irish governments convening the Intergovernmental Conference – Brexit – and much more.
It was an excellent speech, passionately delivered.
As it came close to five minutes to nine I could see an agitated Ken O’Connell and Darren O’Keefe, beside Diarmuid on the autocue, urgently thumbing through hard copies of Mary Lou’s remarks. A good speech means more applause – and there had been lots of applause. The clock was ticking down. They had to lose words – but which words? To those in the hall and watching at home, or on the internet, it all looked seamless. Mary Lou never missed a beat. The standing ovation was richly deserved. The Ard Fheis was over. And I could go home without having to change my shirt. Well done Mary Lou.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Lá breithe Féile an Phobail

I was very disappointed to miss the launch of Féile an Phobail’s thirtieth birthday celebrations last week. I had to travel to the USA for the funeral of Bill Flynn, who died on June 2nd and separately the funeral of Benny and Bonnie Krupinski who their grandson William Maerov and pilot Jon Dollard were killed in a plane crash on the same day.
Bill was 91 and was, along with Niall O’Dowd, Bruce Morrison and Chuck Feeney, one of the influential Irish American leaders who helped create the conditions for the IRA cessation in 1994. He was a good and treasured friend whose insights into the actions and decisions of others I greatly valued.
I have also known Benny and Bonnie for many years now. They were long-time supporters of Sinn Féin and of the Irish peace process and were very proud of their Irish roots. Benny and Bonnie regularly attended Friends of Sinn Féin fundraisers and were a lovely couple. Rita O’Hare, Joseph and Maria Smith and I attended the funerals representing Sinn Féin and FoSF.
By all accounts the birthday celebration for Féile in St. Mary’s College was an excellent event – inclusive, uplifting, optimistic, and with An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in attendance as the main speaker, along with Sinn Féin’s Leas Uachtarán Michelle O’Neill. The Taoiseach also met the new Mayor of Belfast Councillor Deirdre Hargey.
There were some who tried to introduce a nasty tone into the celebration. Sadly, even after 25 years of an internationally respected and successful peace process, and with all of the positive progress that has taken place in that time, there are still those who prefer negativity over positivity. They failed 30 years ago when the Féile was first launched. They failed again last week.
As we celebrate 30 years of Féile we should not forget what it was like in west Belfast in 1988. It was a very different place. Thankfully a huge proportion of our citizens, especially our young people, have no experience or memory of those times. West Belfast then was a community under military rule. The British state was at war with the nationalist people of the north. British soldiers constantly patrolled our streets, stopped citizens, and raided homes. Hundreds were imprisoned, many of them the victim of a corrupt legal and judicial process. There were British military forts and spy posts everywhere constantly monitoring the movement of people, recording, gathering data on everyone.
Under the Thatcher government shoot-to-kill was widely used and collusion between British state agencies and unionist paramilitary groups was systemic. Local community organisations were denied funding under strict rules of political vetting. And several months after the first Féile censorship laws introduced by Thatcher’s government meant that the views of most of the people in our community were ignored. Our representatives were gagged.
The IRA was at war too. Constantly challenging the British military occupation. Using the long established strategies and tactics of guerrilla warfare and applying new ones for the unique circumstances in the north. The killings in Gibraltar in March that year of three young west Belfast citizens, Volunteers Mairead Farrell, Seán Savage and Dan McCann; the subsequent attack on their funeral in Milltown Cemetery, where Caoimhin Mac Bradaigh, Thomas Mc Erlean and John Murray were shot dead; along with the deaths of IRA Volunteer Kevin McCracken, and two British soldiers, Derek Wood and David Howes, saw an intensification of the political establishment’s contemptible attacks on the west Belfast community. West Belfast was a “terrorist community” to some and for others like Seamus Mallon, the Deputy leader of the SDLP, the people of West Belfast ‘have turned into savages’. Others also died in those two weeks of March 1988; Charles McGrillen, Kevin Mulligan, and Gillian Johnston.
The events of March 1988 were the tipping point for many of us living and working in west Belfast. The deliberate effort to criminalise an entire community required a new and unique response. The people of west Belfast were and are good, decent people – no better than any other but certainly no worse. West Belfast was also a vibrant, energetic, courageous community. We needed some way to give expression to all of this and Féile an Phobail was our answer. Our alternative.
It became a platform for singers and writers and dramatists, and poets, and musicians and everyone who had a story to tell or a song to be song. It was and is a creative experience with a unique vision which seeks to bring people together in a positive space and to bring joy to their lives. Over the years almost every shade of political opinion on these islands has taken part in the Féile, and been welcomed by those they meet, including senior figures in the DUP like Arlene Foster.
Féile is very mindful of the differences within our wider society and has never shirked its responsibility to provide an opportunity for everyone, nationalist, republican, unionist, loyalist, or none of the above, to express their opinions. Having suffered censorship Féile abhors censorship. Having endured years of disrespect and discrimination it represents a community that offers only inclusivity and respect, reconciliation and equality. It threatens no one.
It is for all these reasons very popular. And each year the programme of events keeps getting better and better. And this year will be no different. Between August 2 and August 12 Féile an Phobail will present a wide range of events from music and comedy, to West Belfast Talks Back, to walking tours, and theatre, discussions on local, national and international issues. There are lots of wonderful events taking place, including a talk on Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave from America who came to Ireland in the 1840s to tell of his experience. A film on the suffragette movement will be screened in An Cultúrlann MacAdam Ó Fiaich on August 7, the annual Plastic Bullet vigil will take place on August 8. Olly Murs will play the Féile on August 11. And on Monday August 6th Jude Collins and I will spend an hour talking about my experience of writing and those who have influenced my work.
And there is much more – a lot more. So, if you haven’t got a programme – get it quickly. Here’s to an amazing ten days of Féile craic. Lá breithe shona daoibhse.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

It’s always tomorrow for me

“It’s always tomorrow for me” – Joe Reilly
Seven months ago my long-time friend and comrade Joe Reilly from Navan was given the awful news that he had terminal cancer. He had a rare form of the disease and was told that he only had months left. Never one to look on the negative Joe approached his remaining time with the same positivity that he brought to all aspects of his personal and political life. Don’t look back, he would say, keep looking forward.
Over recent months RG and I have made a point of visiting Joe almost every week, occasionally accompanied by Lucilita Breathnach. Six weeks ago he and I and Richard and Jim Monaghan and Lucilita were on the Hill of Tara. We had a song – ‘Cath chéim an Fhia’ from luci. We formed a ring for the group hug and enjoyed the walk.
On the way up the hill Joe asked me to give his oration. That was typical Joe. Always working, always thinking ahead, always planning. What should have been a wee walk on a fine day, was a chance for him to get another bit of work done. I know countless others who had the same experience of meeting with Joe for a coffee or a chat and coming away with something to do.
That’s how Joe built Sinn Féin in Meath, from a party with 88 votes and 29 punts in the kitty to 8 Councillors, Peadar Toibin as TD and a real chance of another TD in the time ahead.
Two weeks ago we spent a wonderful two hours sitting in the bright sunshine in his garden watching one of his chickens demolish an ice-cream cone that Joe had thrown into the garden. We talked about his strength, those projects that he was still working on, and the referendum to remove the eighth amendment to the constitution. 
Joe was a feminist. He believed that decisions about a woman’s health was a matter for her. 

Together we took a photo of him holding YES 
leaflets. Two days later Joe went to the polling station in his wheelchair to cast his vote for YES. He was delighted with the result in Meath and across the State.
Joe was a team player and a team builder. He was a leader. He loved Navan and Meath. He loved his family. He was also a brave soldier and volunteer in the Irish Republican Army. And he specifically wanted a Guard of Honour of former republican prisoners.
Joe spent ten years in Portlaoise Prison. He famously escaped from the Special Criminal Court at Green Street. He was politically active in hard times, difficult times, when there was the heavy gang, harassment, censorship and demonization of republicans, and lonely journeys to Portlaoise or other prisons.
After his release from Portlaoise in 1985 Joe became an organiser for Sinn Féin. At different times he was Cisteoir – Treasurer –of the party, as well as our Ard Runai (general secretary). He was a member of the Ard Chomhairle for many years and our National Child Protection Officer. He was also Councillor and Mayor in Meath and Navan.
Joe understood the connection between the local and the national, and the importance of principled community activism. His every endeavour was focussed on improving the conditions of working men and women. He believed passionately that there was a better way to organise society – based on fairness and equality.
For Joe, republicanism was that way. He practiced these core values in his private life and in his political activism. Joe fully supported the peace process – he is one of those about whom it can be said that there would be no peace process without his leadership – neither would there be a modern strong and growing Sinn Féin. 
A few weeks ago Mary Lou asked Joe what we would do without him?
“Don’t worry about that “Joe said, “I’ll be around – haunting you in the times ahead.”
He also sent me a text during the west Tyrone by-election. I spoke to our victorious candidate Orfhlaith Begley about it.
Joe text, “I think it’s time we spoke to unionism directly in west Tyrone. Seeking their vote. I know 
it’s a zero result” he wrote “but we have to stop just talking to our own. This is an opportunity given Brexit etc”.
Joe absolutely understood the nature of the 
current crisis in the north, the threat posed by Brexit and by the DUP/Tory pact. He believed fully in reconciliation based on equality between orange 
and green. He also knew that the mark of any society has to be about the quality of life of its lowest class, its most disadvantaged citizens.
Equality was Joe’s watchword. For the Traveller community, for rural folks, for people in the north, for Palestinians, for women.
Joe’s pride and joy was the Solstice Arts Centre. He was one of the many drivers of that wonderful facility. One of the times I was there with him he told me it was his favourite space. He also told me recently that he was working for private sponsorship.
Monday May 28th was Joe’s last public act. He had secured a two-year creative investment programme with a company run by Valerie and Noel Moran. The day they agreed the partnership Joe text me his joy. The Solstice Arts Centre is part of Joe’s gift to Navan.
Last week he was to attend the opening of new offices for Springboard which he helped to establish. Springboard provides support for families devastated by bereavement or abuse or the trials of modern life. He was determined to go. His sisters Marian and Claire spent two hours getting Joe ready but in the end he was forced to go back to bed. He also could not attend a celebration we had planned in Leinster House in his honour. Once that happened I knew it was the end. 
Joe had talked about that last final phase of his illness. He knew exactly what was coming. He faced his illness and the devastating news of his imminent death with great courage.
“I do 3 or 4 positive things everyday” he told me. And he did so to the end.
He shall not hear the bittern cry
In the wild sky, where he is lain,
Nor voices of the sweeter birds,
Above the wailing of the rain.

That’s what Francis Ledwidge wrote about Thomas McDonogh – the executed 1916 leader from the tranches of the first world war. He could have written this lamentation about Joe Reilly.
Joe was a small man but he had a huge heart – croi mór – and a big vision. The last time I saw Joe was the night before he died. As I was leaving I leaned forward to give him a little kiss on the forehead. He had been sleeping.

“Slán chara” I said. “Colette says Slán too”.

He reached up with one arm and gave me a wee hug and a wee smile. Agus sin é.
On Monday as his eco-friendly coffin – which Joe made sure he had – was lowered into the ground Pilgrim Street – a local group Joe especially liked – sang for the mourners. Joe left us with a smile on our faces as they broke into Monty Python’s “Always look on the bright side of life”.
Joe always looked on the bright side of life. For him there was never a time for looking backwards. He used to say; “It’s always tomorrow for me.” That’s Joe Reilly’s legacy.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Transforming Irish society

When the votes were counted on Saturday the result of the referendum on the eighth amendment was decisive. Two thirds of the electorate voted YES.  The onus is now on the Taoiseach and his government to produce the necessary legislation to give effect to the will of the people. It will also be for the legislators in the Dáil and Seanad, including Sinn Féin’s team of TDs and Seanadóirí, to ensure that the new legislation reflects the outcome of the referendum and that it passes speedily into law.
During the campaign I canvassed almost every day in my constituency of Louth and East Meath. By last week my sense from all the doors I had knocked and the people I had met was that the YES vote would succeed. However, the overwhelming nature of the final result was a pleasant surprise. Critical to its success, and to motivating people to vote and/or to change their minds, were the many personal stories that women courageously stepped forward to tell. Their deeply personal accounts of crisis pregnancies, of traumatic journeys to Britain, and of tough decisions they had to make when faced with the distressing news of a fatal foetal abnormality, undoubtedly helped to shape public opinion. We must not forget those stories in the months ahead.
Last Friday’s referendum result is also further evidence of a significant societal shift on this island. Three years ago 62% of voters in the south backed marriage equality for our LGBT citizens.
These two referendums were remarkable and genuinely transformative moments in recent Irish history. But they weren’t alone. Last week also marked 20 years from the historic referendum in May 1998 which saw the people of the island of Ireland convincingly vote in support of the Good Friday Agreement. That referendum gave democratic validation to the Agreement’s emphasis on equality, parity of esteem and human rights for every citizen living on this island. Since then there has been enormous progress. But there are important matters that still remain unresolved.
The marriage equality and repeal the eighth referendums have also brought into sharp focus those areas of civil rights and human rights where there has been insufficent progress in the north. In that part of the island the opposition of the unionist leadership and the refusal of the British government to honour its obligations means that there is no marriage equality; there is no Irish language act; there is no equality and parity of esteem for citizens, especially for women facing crisis pregnancies.
Changing this will be challenging given the approach of some Unionist political leaders. However, the reality is that the marriage equality, and repeal the eighth referendums reflect a genuine groundswell desire by most citizens for positive change within Irish society. That means, in the first instance, that those rights which have been won in recent years in one part of the island need to be extended into the other. In the absence of an Assembly these issues are the responsibility of the British government.
So too is the setting of a date for a referendum on Irish unity. The call for this has increased, especially in the last year. The population and political demographic changes that have taken place in the last two decades and which are reflected in the most recent Assembly and Westminster elections, make a referendum on Irish unity achievable in the next five years.
The priority for Irish republicans is to win that referendum. To achieve this, we need to win over some of those who currently oppose Irish unity. That means addressing those issues which are of specific concern to them. It isn’t enough to argue, however convincingly in the light of Brexit, that the island of Ireland will prosper best as a single economic unit; or that the standard of living will be better; or that the Good Friday Agreement, in the event of Irish reunification, specifically protects the right of northern citizens to be British citizens also. Republicans have to go beyond that.
Republicans have to articulate our vision of a new Ireland as a shared Ireland. An inclusive democracy. A place in which social, cultural and economic rights guarantee real equality for every citizen. A new Ireland which tackles poverty and homelessness, provides a decent health and education service for all, and respects and guarantees the full rights and entitlements of every citizen, whether they identify as Irish or as British.
In particular republicans need to avail of every opportunity to engage with unionists. To speak to unionists, but, most especially to listen to unionists. We must also accept that many unionists hold to their sense of unionism and of Britishness as strongly as republicans hold to our sense of who we are, and to our Irishness.
This shouldn’t be a zero sum game in which there are winners and losers. A new, shared Ireland has to be a win for everyone. So, republicans need to emphasize those aspects of our shared experience which are positive and which embrace those areas of agreement and of co-operation; of good neighbourliness and the common good. Key to this is a process of reconciliation.
So, let the conversation about a new, shared Ireland continue. And as we prepare for the referendum on Irish unity let us not forget that this time next year there will be a referendum on extending the vote in Presidential elections to citizens in the north and in the diaspora. That will be another stage in the process of transforming Irish society.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Vote YES and Remove the Eighth Amendment

Friday citizens in the south will have an opportunity to remove the eighth amendment. That is citizens will, if they wish to, remove this amendment from the Irish constitution or leave it in. This amendment was originally proposed by Fianna Fáil Taoiseach Charlie Haughey in 1982. The referendum on this was subsequently held under a Fine Gael/Labour coalition government in September 1983.  
The Sinn Féin Ard Fheis in 1982 took the decision to oppose this amendment. This was four years before Sinn Féin ended our abstentionist policy to the Oireachtas. So, the Ard Fheis decided not to campaign against the amendment, though individual party members, especially women activists, did. In the decades since then Sinn Féin has constantly revised party policy on the role and rights of women in Irish society.
35 years after the 1983 referendum the people of the south now have the opportunity to vote again on this issue and to right a wrong done at that time. The question we are being asked to decide on is whether a woman has the right to a public health service that allows her and her doctor to take decisions on her health if she has a crisis pregnancy. Or are women inferior, are they suspect, are they not to be trusted, are they to be criminalised, and should there be a constitutional bar that puts women’s lives at risk?
Like everyone else I have been on a learning curve on this issue. I grew up in the fifties and sixties and I am from a family of 13. I have 5 sisters. My mother had 13 pregnancies. 10 of us survived. Three little brothers died either directly after they were born or were still-born. It was a household of its time. I was reared in a largely Catholic culture with all the strengths and shortcomings of that experience. Taught by the Christian Brothers I spent a lot of time with my grandmother. So I have a good sense of the matriarchal nature of Irish society, as opposed to the patriarchal nature of the state. The two states on this island are very patriarchal and very conservative.
In those days – if he had a job - the man brought home the wages and the mother usually did all of the rest – managing the household finances, cooking, cleaning, running the household, looking after the children, everything you could conceivably think of. Women were the home managers. The pawn shop was an essential part of this. We were poor. But so was everyone we knew. We were also homeless, living with my father’s mother or in a slum tenement. For much of those years we relied in my Granny’s on an outside toilet. There was a single water tap in the yard. Because of our family’s politics we had a slightly different attitude to the Catholic Church, on account of the hierarchy’s shameful attitude to the national question, and the way uncles of mine had been excommunicated.
As I became an adult I was also influenced by people like Fr. Des Wilson, who was very radical and progressive. My views were also influenced by the discriminatory manner in which women were and still are treated by the state, by the Catholic Church, by sections of the media, in business, and so on. The older I get the more I resent the undemocratic nature of the Catholic Church and its deeply unacceptable attitude to women.
I have come round to a position that it doesn’t really matter what position I, as an individual may have on abortion. This referendum isn’t about whether you are pro-abortion or anti-abortion. What you must be is pro-woman. And you have to set aside whatever position you may have yourself because we need to trust women to make the best decisions for themselves and their families and we need to enable health professionals to do their jobs.
I have listened to the testimony of women who had fatal foetal abnormalities, to the stories of women and their partners who had to go to England for an abortion, and to our own Ard Fheis discussing this issue for almost 30 years.
I have many women in my life. Colette, our granddaughters. Their mother. My sisters, sisters-in-law, nieces, grand nieces, many women friends and comrades.
Any of them – though I hope it never happens –might find themselves in a crisis pregnancy. The only way to help women who are seeking a termination because they are pregnant as a result of rape, or who have received a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality, is to vote YES on Friday.
I also have this abiding notion that if men could get pregnant this would not be an issue.
When I learned about symphysiotomy - when I learned about the Magdalene’s – when I heard about the horror of the Mother-and-Baby-Homes, about the Tuam babies, and how women were shamefully and disgracefully treated, then I have become more and more convinced that this is an issue of equality and an issue of rights. Whatever decision a woman takes that it is for her to take and the doctor and medical staff must be protected.
This is an issue for everyone. It is unthinkable that if the No vote wins that women could be saddled with the status quo for the next 30 years or so.
And what is the status quo? It is legal for a woman to go and have an abortion elsewhere but it’s not legal to have one in the 26 counties. So we have opted out. We export this issue. An English solution for an Irish problem. It means if you have the money, or can find the money, to travel to what is a strange place, generally on your own, then you can have an abortion. That’s not right. If a woman has the right to travel to terminate a crisis pregnancy, she should have the same right in her own place

I know friends who have carried full term in the knowledge that the child would not live and that’s their right. And I know others who have had terminations because they couldn’t face the trauma. I think in both cases we have to respect the decision of those affected.
It’s also ridiculous and dangerous and illegal for a woman to take pills bought on the internet with no medical supervision. She is risking her health and a fourteen-year prison sentence. Society is forcing her into a very lonely, desperate place. This is not acceptable. I recently heard an interview given by a woman who was in a crisis pregnancy. She lived in a one-bedroom flat with her mother, and didn’t want her mother to know she was pregnant. She took a pill on her way home on the bus and became very ill. No one should be put in that position.
So, on Friday May 25th I am appealing for people to vote YES. I am especially asking men to trust women and to go out and vote YES for their wives, their partners, their sisters, their daughters, their nieces, their granddaughters, their friends.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

The state versus women

The last few weeks have seen the southern state rocked by the cervical smear scandal and a shameful lack of individual and institutional accountability for this. It’s a story that only emerged as a result of the determination of terminally ill Vicky Phelan to stand up for truth and transparency. In April Vicky refused to collude in the cover up by rejecting a demand that she sign a confidentiality agreement as part of the settlement between her and a US Laboratory, Clinical Pathology Laboratories Inc. The laboratory was responsible for giving her the all clear from a 2011 smear test.
Three years after her test and the all clear she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. It was another three years before Vicky Phelan learned that her original smear result had been wrong.
Her refusal to acquiesce to the demand that she remain silent was key to lifting the lid on this scandal. In the weeks since almost every day has brought new information and new victims to light.
Several hundred women were wrongly given the all clear. Despite an audit of cervical smear tests which brought this information to light most the women affected – 162 – were not told that their results were incorrect. 18 of these women are dead and 15 died without ever knowing that their original all-clear smear results were wrong.
Stephen Teap’s wife Irene was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2015, and died two years later. Last week Stephen was told by the Health Service Executive (HSE) that she had been given two inaccurate smear test results. The first in 2010. The second in 2013.
Emma Mhic Mhathúna’s desperately sad and emotional interview on RTE’s Morning Ireland programme last Thursday morning shocked everyone who heard it. A mother of five from Kerry Emma told how she had been given the all clear in 2013 after a smear test. Three years later she was diagnosed with cervical cancer and last week she was told that she is going to die. She said: “If my smear test was right in 2013 I wouldn’t be where I am today. That’s what makes it so heartbreaking. I’m dying while I don’t need to die. My children are going to be without me and I’m going to be without them… I don’t even know if my little baby is going to remember me.”
At the weekend Paul Reck revealed that his wife Catherine was one of the 209 women who had not been told that their all-clear results were wrong. Catherine had had a smear test done in November 2010 and was subsequently told that it showed low grade cell abnormalities. A year later she was diagnosed with cervical cancer and died in April 2012. Last Thursday Paul was told by Tallaght hospital that the smear test result was wrong.
On its own the cervical cancer smear test scandal is bad. It reveals much about the poor state of the health system in the south and the desire of those in senior positions to cover-up mistakes, incompetence and bad decisions. It reveals a government failing its citizens and especially our most vulnerable patients.
But it also says much about the very nature of the southern state. Over recent years and decades there have been a succession of scandals that have for a time captured the headlines and shocked society. The revelations about the ill-treatment of children in the industrial schools, the horrifying extent of clerical child abuse, the disgraceful mistreatment of women in the Magdalene Laundries, the butchery of symphysiotomy, the death of Savita Halappanavar, the mother and baby homes, the arrogance of a state that forced Louise O’Keefe to go through the trauma of an endless court battle and many more.
Cover-up, the deliberate use of misinformation and concealment, incompetence and lies have been the norm in the Irish state’s response to scandals that have emerged.
In the 1990’s over a thousand people, mainly women, were infected with contaminated blood products. The Blood Transfusion Service Board were told this but failed to tell those who had received the products. A report published three years ago revealed that at least 260 people who were infected with Hepatitis C from these blood products, had died in the 20 years since the facts first emerged.
One of those to die was Brigid McCole. As well as fighting for her life Brigid was forced to contest a long legal battle, which only ended several days before she died when the state finally agreed compensation. Over one billion euro has since been paid in compensation to the victims of Hepatitis C.
Another victim of the state’s strategy of forcing victims into lengthy legal ordeals is Louise O’Keefe. She was the victim of child abuse at a school in West Cork. In January 2014, after a fifteen year legal battle with the Department of Education the European Court of Justice ordered the Irish government to pay Louise compensation for the abuse she had endured as a pupil.
Shortly after I was elected as a TD for Louth and East Meath I met with several elderly women who came to see me to explain about symphysiotomy and about what had been done to them. I had never heard of symphysiotomy, but from them I learned that it involves severing the cartilage that connects the symphysis pubis with a scalpel under local anaesthesia, followed by unhinging of the pelvic bones to the extent needed for the delivery of a baby.
I was deeply moved by their stories of pain and abuse and overwhelmed by their courage and resilience. Many of them were never asked if they wanted the procedure and endured decades of distress afterward. Almost all are now in the eighties. Once again the government had to be dragged into agreeing a redress scheme which has so far paid out almost €34 million in compensation. Some women refused to participate in the government sponsored scheme and continue to seek redress through the courts.
In all of these and other instances there are two common threads. In almost every case the victims were women. And in almost every case the Irish state refused to treat the victims humanely and compassionately, forced them into court and spent millions fighting court cases despite knowing that they were in the wrong. One media report in recent days quotes Caoimhe Haughey, a solicitor who represents victims of medical negligence saying: “My experience of dealing with these cases is that is it a nightmare. Everything is fought tooth and nail”.
This has to change. So too must the denial of information to victims and families. As Health Minister, Leo Varadkar promised to introduce mandatory disclosure for health professionals but, following advice from the Chief Medical Officer, he decided not to proceed. Sinn Féin brought forward a Dáil motion this week calling on the government to legislate for mandatory disclosure before the summer recess. The onus is now very much on the government to right these past wrongs.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Let our revenge be the laughter of our children

RG and I arrived in Bilbao in the Basque Country, on the same flight as former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, last Thursday afternoon. While we were in the air a press conference in Geneva, Switzerland had heard a statement from ETA, the Basque resistance group, announcing that it was dissolving. From Bilbao RG and I were driven for more than two hours along fast motorways, and then through narrow country roads that twisted and turned along steep valleys, green and beautiful despite the overcast sky.

Despite the poor mobile signals, that was more often down than up, we did our best to keep abreast of developments in the west Tyrone by-election.

Towards 6pm arrived at our hotel in the picturesque village of Ainhoa, on the French side of the border between France and Spain. We joined several others, including Bertie, Jonathan Powell, and Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas of Mexico and some Basque colleagues who were due to take part the following day in an international conference to discuss the Basque peace process.

On Friday morning I awoke to the news that Orfhlaith Begley had comprehensively won the west Tyrone seat – taking almost half of the vote. A remarkable success. And I told her so when eventually, in between her interviews, I managed to speak to her.

The International Panel left the hotel shortly before 10.30am and in a convoy of five cars, we travelled the short distance to Kanbo, or in French Cambo les Bains. This is a small rural town in the foothills of the Pyrénées in the Basque province of Labourd in the French Basque country. One its more famous inhabitants was the French playwright and novelist Edmond Rostand. His most famous work is Cyrano de Bergerac. His home, the Villa Arnaga, is now a museum and heritage centre and on Friday hosted the conference.

A hundred or so guests, representative of Basque society and from both sides of the border, were there to listen to our contributions. Regrettably the Spanish government was not represented. There was a very large press corps to hear the outcome of our deliberations and our view on the decision by ETA.

Sinn Féin has had a long engagement with the Basque peace process. After the Good Friday Agreement was achieved in 1998 I travelled to the Basque Country and met political representatives from all sections of society there.

In the years since then Sinn Féin leaders, including Alex Maskey, Gerry Kelly and Martin McGuinness and others have travelled regularly to the region. Over the years the process that has emerged in the Basque country has drawn closely on the Irish peace process, including adopting the Mitchell Principles of ‘exclusively political and democratic means’to advance political objectives.

Almost eight years ago I attended a conference in Donostia-San Sebastian in Euskadi ‘to promote the resolution of the conflict in the Basque County’. Following our deliberations we called upon ETA to ‘make a public declaration of the definitive cessation of all armed action and to request talks with the governments of Spain and France to address exclusively the consequences of the conflict.’ Three days later ETA declared a “definitive cessation of its armed activity …”

In the years since then Sinn Féin has continued to engage in the Basque peace process. Last year ETA put its arms beyond use and two weeks ago it apologised for the hurt that it had caused. Last week it announced its decision to dissolve. It is a historic moment for the people of the Basque country everyone who has worked to create this opportunity for peace must be commended, especially the people of the Basque country.

When I addressed the conference last Friday I recalled the contribution of my friend Fr. Alec Reid who played a pivotal role in the Irish peace process and then spent many years travelling to the Basque country to help foster the conditions for the progress we were witnessing. I commended also the contribution of the Rev Harold Good, who was in Euskadi several weeks ago, and Martin McGuinness who had energetically supported this process over many years.

The Basque peace process, like the Irish peace process, is an example of what is possible when people of goodwill, determination and vision, refuse to lose hope and don’t give up.This is especially important as we look around the world today – at the desperate conditions of the Palestinian people – at events in Syria and Yemen, at the conflict in South Sudan and other wars in so many places.
In war you demonise, imprison, isolate, marginalise, criminalise and you kill your opponents. Making peace is much more challenging. It requires a different mindset and the starting point has to be dialogue. Making that happen requires positive leadership.

In my view there is a particular onus on governments, which are the powerful actors in any conflict, to proactively engage in efforts to create and sustain the conditions for a peace process. This isn’t easy for any state that has invested time, effort, money and lives in trying to win a conflict and defeat its enemy.
It is proving especially difficult for the Spanish government which has adopted a triumphalistic, entirely negative and unhelpful response to the ETA decision. A historic opportunity for peace and reconciliation has now opened up thanks to the efforts of the people of the Basque country and international community. The Spanish and French governments should embrace this new opportunity. The Spanish government could especially send a very positive signal of intent for a new future by agreeing to transfer Basque prisoners to prisons closer to their homes. That would not be a sign of weakness but a positive sign of compassion and compromise.

The issue of victims is also hugely important. Reconciliation and healing, and dealing thoughtfully and compassionately with the past, is an integral part of any conflict resolution process. The views of victims, all victims, must be heard. People on all sides to the conflict in that region have been hurt. But anger is not a policy. Revenge is not an option.

As I addressed the conference I told them that the following day, Saturday May 5th was the anniversary of the death on hunger strike of Bobby Sands. Bobby once wrote about revenge. He said; “Let our revenge be the laughter of our children.”

On that good day for the Basque people and the Spanish people I extended my best wishes to them all and my hope that all other concerns will be overcome by the laughter of their children.