Friday, July 13, 2018


Fr. Des Wilson is a living legend. He has been an integral part of the west Belfast community for six decades. He is hugely respected and loved as a priest, a community activist, an educator, a defender of people’s rights, an author, dramatist and writer. A fear naofa. He is a man of great courage and vision, a good neighbour, and a decent human being. On Sunday he celebrated his 93rd birthday with a small group of family and friends. In recent times he has been in and out of hospital. When he arrived at the Glór na Mona Centre –  Gael Ionad Mhic Goill - on the Whiterock Road he looked frail as he gently pushed his three-wheel walker ahead of him.

But he was in great form. Smiling, laughing, joking and shaking hands and giving out hugs to everyone there. He toasted his birthday with a glass of white wine and he took great delight in blowing out the single candle on his cake. He also joined in the craic and the slagging as Ciaran Cahill played a nine-minute video showing some of Des’s life. I was intrigued by the grainy black and white film footage of a teenage Des with his family working on a farm, and film and photo images of his time as a young seminarian at Maynooth. There were scores of photos of Fr. Des from a young man in his twenties to his life in Ballymurphy and Springhill. Some of these included images of the old Springhill – which was eventually demolished following a campaign by the community, including Fr. Des.  There were photos of him with the many local people he worked closely with over many years to improve the living conditions of his neighbours.

Fr. Des and Elsie Best

I have been very fortunate to know Fr. Des Wilson and to call him friend.  The first time we met was when I called to the priest’s house beside St Johns chapel looking for advice on a community issue. Probably at the suggestion of Frank Cahill of the Ballymurphy Tenants Association. The second time was at the top of Springhill Avenue on the night of August 14 1969. That’s a long time ago. In all those years Des’ life has been dedicated to helping people. During the terrible years of conflict, he stood with the Upper Springfield Road community against the aggression and violence of the British state forces.  I formed a view during those dark days that Des used to go out of his way to cheer us up or to raise our morale during hard times. He did this at meetings, demonstrations and in his very uplifting sermons.

He gave comfort and solidarity to those in need. Along with Frank Cahill and others he also engaged in local projects to bring jobs to west Belfast through the Whiterock Industrial Estate, the Rock Knitwear Group and later the Conway Mill project. For him education was always a priority and he was appalled at the numbers of children and young people who for a variety of reasons were dropping out of school and who needed help and support.

Fr. Des moved to St. John’s parish in 1966 after 16 years as the spiritual director at St. Malachy’s College. Ballymurphy was one of those estates constructed after World War Two to which the planners gave little thought for the families, and especially the children, who would live there. Like so many other similar developments there were initially no schools, shops, play facilities, and employment.

The new Corpus Christi church had no living accommodation for a priest. Its space was not available for community use outside of religious services. It sat like a large carbuncle, detached and aloof from the people who had paid for it to be built. Incidentally me and Paddy Root and Mickey Maguire erected the railings around the church. I never got paid but that’s another story.  Joe Cahill was the site foreman.

Allocated to Ballymurphy but living outside the neighbourhood, Fr. Des and Fr Hugh Mullan decided to move into a council house The Church authorities were not impressed and Fr Mullan ended up living in a semi-detached house in Springfield Park. In August 1971, in the 36 hours after the introduction of internment, Fr. Mullan was one of 11 people killed by the British Parachute Regiment in what has become known as the Ballymurphy Massacre. 10 months later in July 1972 the same regiment was back in Ballymurphy. This week 46 years ago they shot and killed five local people in the Springhill Massacre; three children, Margaret Gargan aged 13, David McCafferty aged 15, John Dougal aged 16, Patrick Butler aged 39 and Fr. Noel Fitzpatrick.

Fr. Des found himself increasingly in dispute with the Catholic Church authorities. He resigned from his clerical positions and moved into a council house - 123 Springhill Avenue –in January 1972. The Springhill Community Education and Development Project was born. It quickly became a refuge for the old and young, for those who needed education and counselling, and for a community under constant attack by the British Army, RUC and unionist death squads. Fr. Des, along with Noelle Ryan and others went on from there to become involved in a range of progressive community, educational, economic and anti-sectarian projects.

On a personal note in 1971, after internment, Fr. Des married Colette and me. I was on the run, and the times were very dangerous. Only a small number of friends and comrades knew, and we moved the date and location the night before to avoid any unexpected and unwanted interruptions by the Brits. Fr. Des married us in a room behind the altar in St. John’s Chapel on the Falls. He refused to take any money from our best man Paddy McArdle. A wise man Paddy took the money and the bridesmaid to the nearby Rock Bar.

In 1977 a feud broke out among republicans. I went to a number of priests to help to get this stopped and Fr. Des and Fr. Alex Reid quickly agreed to help. Together they established an arbitration and mediation process between the different republican organisations which undoubtedly saved lives. The two priests also embarked on an outreach programme. They spoke to unionist paramilitaries and facilitated meetings between republicans and loyalists. They also met officials from the British and Irish governments, and indeed anyone who would listen to them in the hope that through dialogue they could assist the work of peace building. They pioneered this work.  

They never gave up despite setbacks and serial refusals to talk by the Great and the Good. Without Fr Des and Fr Alex there would be no peace process. Of that there is no doubt.

Fr. Des never lost his desire to help the people of west Belfast. Springhill House helped to raise awareness about the extent of poverty and deprivation in west Belfast. It produced some of the first surveys into living conditions and discrimination in employment. He championed the MacBride Principles campaign, and produced a submission to the Patten Commission on Policing in 1998. Later, along with Fr. Joe McVeigh, Fr. Des established the Community for Social Justice. One of their early campaigns was against the strip searching of republican women prisoners in Armagh Women’s Prison.

In his very popular weekly column in the Andersonstown News, which he wrote for decades, Fr. Des challenged the political and religious establishments. He has also written several books and pamphlets. And plays.  
In a talk to 4th year student at St. Malachy’s College in 1963 he said: “Our view is that the world must be better when we leave it than when we entered it; that for every day of our life there should be someone who has more to eat, to wear or to live for”.

Thank you for that Des. You have lived your life according to the teachings of Jesus. Because of that we are better people. Lá breithe shona duit.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Extending the hand of friendship - Remembering Martin McGuinness

The soulful keen of the úilleann pipes echoed across the fields and hills of south Armagh. The tricolour and provincial flags fluttered in the breeze against the backdrop of a clear blue sky and Slieve Gullion in the distance. The large crowd was silent as the piper played a beautiful rendition of the last post in remembrance of the twenty-four local IRA volunteers whose names adorn the wall of the Memorial Garden at Tí Chulainn, in Mullaghbawn.
Sunday was the annual Volunteers Day when those Óglaigh who gave their lives in south Armagh are remembered by family, friends, and comrades. This year the local republicans decided to erect a memorial stone for Martin McGuinness who opened the garden in October 2010. Martin’s wife Bernie, Emmett, Fiachra, Grainne and Fionnuala, and their grandchildren were in attendance.
Martin loved south Armagh. He knew many of those on the Roll of Honour, including Mickey McVerry, the first Volunteer to be killed from the area and the two Brendan’s. He was especially proud to have been asked to open the memorial Garden. He told me about it afterward, and over the years he and I have been there many times. It is a credit to those who erected it and the laochra it commemorates in this quiet most beautiful of places. It is set in one of the most beautiful spots on the island.
The new stone dedicated to Martin is of local granite, from a farm at Camlough. It is inscribed, “A true friend and comrade of the Republican Movement in South Armagh.”
The inscription also includes words from the poem Úrchill an Chreagáin, by the 18th century local poet Art MacCumhaigh. Art spent most of his life as a labourer and a gardener around Crossmaglen. He was known as Art na gCeoltai – Art of the songs. Of the 25 or so of his poems that still survive the most famous is Úrchill an Chreagáin. It is an aisling poem. He was a poet of the dispossessed and Úrchill an Chreagáin is often described as an anthem for south east Ulster and a lamentation for the fall of the O’Neill’s of the Fews. He was one of the last of the Ulster poets in the Irish language tradition.
The inscription reads: A fhialfhir charthannaigh, Ná caitear thusa I néaltaí bróin. Ach éirigh Go tapaidh Is aistrigh liom siar sa ród”.
My kind young man do not sleep in sorrow.  But rise swiftly and come along the road with me.”
Martin McGuinness, was also a poet. He would love the words of Art MacCumhaigh. I always associate Úrchill an Chreagáin with Raymond McCreesh. I can still hear Donal Duffy piping Raymond home to his Armagh Hills from the H-Blocks of Long Kesh in 1981 after 61 days on hunger strike. Raymond and his 23 comrades on the memorial wall were freedom fighters who gave their lives for the cause of Ireland. Their courage is proof of the indomitable spirit of the republicans of south Armagh.
And the words of Art MacCumhaigh are proof, if it was ever needed why they and everyone else who played any part in the struggle were not defeated.
It also highlights the arrogance of the British and their propagandists who during the years of conflict labelled this proud community as a “terrorist community” – this beautiful area as “bandit country” - and the freedom struggle as a criminal enterprise.
This is the land where Cú Chulainn played hurling, where Na Fianna and the Red Branch Knights sported and played. It is the place the Vikings failed to conquer, where the Gaelic clanns of the Oriel resisted the Norman invaders, where the Mac Murphy’s fought against King William, where the United Irish Society, the Ribbon Societies and the Fenians flourished.
The British Army didn’t stand a chance of defeating the spirit – centuries old – of a people with the character, culture, history and sense of freedom, that is as old as the hills of south Armagh. No more than the British government could hope to defeat the hunger strikers and criminalise the freedom struggle in 1981.
It is worth recalling that the first republicans of our generation to be elected were all prisoners - Bobby Sands MP, Ciaran Doherty TD and Paddy Agnew TD. Paddy topped the poll in Louth in the general election of June 1981. In the intervening 37 years he never visited the place he was elected to – until last week. We hosted Paddy and his wife Catherine. He was warmly received and acknowledged by the Ceann Comhairle, the Clerk of the Dáil, and the rest of us.
Paddy, who was arrested on a boat in Carlingford Lough, was welcomed to Leinster House by a former Admiral of the Irish Republican navy Martin Ferris, who was also arrested on a boat.
Paddy’s visit was a timely reminder of how far we have all come. But we have more to do. The DUP have tied themselves to the English Tories and Brexit. They continue to deny citizens rights enjoyed elsewhere on these islands. We can be confident that that will all be sorted. It is a question of when not if. The DUP position is not sustainable. However, it is for them to come to terms with that.
In the meantime, we will continue to demand that the rights of the people living in this part of the island are protected and upheld now and in any post-Brexit arrangement, and to push for a referendum on Irish unity. The Taoiseach’s recent claim that such a referendum is not desirable at this time is not acceptable. Almost 100 years after partition when does he think it would be acceptable? Leo Varadkar has a duty to uphold the Good Friday Agreement. He cannot cherry-pick it.
Sunday’s event was good for everyone in attendance, especially the families of our patriot dead and their families and former comrades. It is only right that we commemorate and celebrate their sacrifice.
It is important also to uphold and acknowledge the right of those who the IRA fought against to be commemorated and celebrated by their families and friends and former comrades. They were doing their duty as they saw it.
Thankfully, it is all history now. It’s time to heal old wound, to reach out to the other, to extend the hand of friendship to opponents and old enemies.
That presents many challenges. Of course it does. Art MacCumhaigh two hundred years ago pointed the way forward, “do not sleep in sorrow. But rise swiftly and come along the road with me to the land of honey where the foreigner has no hold.”

Friday, June 29, 2018

I love Books

Last Saturday I was in Kells, in County Meath for the Hinterland Festival of Literature and Arts. I was invited to speak about my latest book – Never Give up –  to read extracts from it, and answer questions from an audience. It was a beautiful day and the Kells Theatre was full. I rarely do events like this, though God willing, another one is scheduled for 6 August during Féile An Phobail. I will be in conversation with Jude Collins at 7 pm  in St Marys. Drop in to talk about books, writing and literary matters. 

I love books. I love book shops. I love people who love books. The Hinterland Festival was teeming with people like that. My thanks to the organisers, to Antonia’s Bookshop in Trim for the help and support and to Bookmarket Café on Market Street for the food. And a special thank you to the audience in Kells Theatre for an enjoyable discussion.
It was especially good to see Dessie and Maire Ferguson with some of their clann there. Desi – Snitchie - Ferguson was one of Dublin’s great footballers. A fine hurler also. He has two All Ireland Football medals won in the era of Heffo, Jimmy Keaveney and other great athletes in the 50s and 60s. But he still rues missing a hurling one. Desi and Máire are now in their eighties but thankfully in good form. That’s despite Snitchie’s time in Portlaoise Prison and Máire’s time rearing their large clann in his absence. Great people.
One of the short pieces I read in Kells recounted my mother’s experience of the family home being raided by the British Army the day after internment was introduced on August 9th 1971. I came across her handwritten complaint form by chance as I was looking at an exhibition of memorabilia connected with the Ballymurphy Massacre in which 11 local people were killed by the British Parachute Regiment in the 36 hours after internment. I never knew the complaint was made or that the form existed. In it she wrote:
“Damage to property, theft. Damages to house: Slashed head board of divan – ‘Britain for ever’ written on it. Slashed 2 mattresses, destroyed clock, T.V. and radiogram. Smashed pictures on the wall and removed 2 pictures (Barnes & McCormack & 1916 Proclamation.) Robbed gas meter. Stole bracelet (£8) and transistor radio. A clock also taken. Destroyed food stuffs and clothing. Pulled cupboards off the sink units. Took the Alsatian with them (supposed to be at Paisley Pk on West Circular). The military took over the house and gave me 10 minutes to get out of it. As we were leaving soldiers in a Saracen fired shots in the air to frighten us and laughed”.
The house had to be subsequently demolished because of the damage done by the raid and by Brit armoured vehicles smashing against the outside wall repeatedly in the weeks before internment. That and the jerry build structure mean that II Divismore Park no longer exists. McKees, good neighbours, have a shop there now. My mother always said 11 Divismore Park was the place in which she was happiest.
I thought of this as I read from Never Give Up.
I thought of Mrs McCullough from Ballymurphy Drive who challenged a young British soldier who was part of a raiding party which wrecked her house.
‘Does your mammy know what you are doing to my home? She scolded him.
He looked at her as she repeated her question. This tiny little Ballymurphy woman, Kathleen McCullough, barely raised her voice.
‘Well does she?’
The young British soldier started to cry.
Books have the power to tell stories like this.  Or to remind you of them. They can make you think. Or laugh. Or cry. A good book can be inspiring. Of course this passage about my mother’s complaint would make me think anyway. It’s about my mother after all and our home and I hadn’t read it in some time. But what strikes me is that her matter of fact way of writing her complaint told this story better than I ever could.
That’s why everyone who can write should write. Or learn to write if you need to. Or at least find some way of telling your story. Thankfully the oral tradition in Ireland in both Gaeilge and Bearla remain strong. That’s why Arts Festivals like Féile and Hinterlands are so important and so popular. And why books are so essential.
So if you still don’t fancy writing a book? Well then read one. Join your local library. My Granny brought me to The Falls Library when I was about six or seven. She was a millworker and widow woman. When she was a child she was a half timer. Part of her time in school. Part of her time in the Mill. But she knew the power of books. The importance of imagination. Even in times of poverty. Especially in times of poverty.
She taught me to love books. And I’m glad she did.

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.