Friday, October 20, 2017

Serpents Tales of Forked Tongued Politics

What have the DUP, the Fianna Fáil leadership and the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) got in common? At the start of this year the DUP described Sinn Féin, and those who vote for our party, as ‘alligators’. Last Friday evening one Fianna Fáil TD, who was arguing against any future coalition arrangement with Sinn Féin, tried to go one better by telling an enraptured FF audience ‘you don’t deal with the serpent by inviting it into your bed.’ 
He obviously doesn't believe that Saint Patrick got rid of snakes from our wee island. Or else he speaks with a forked tongue. At any rate the Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis almost unanimously backed this position.  And then to round matters off the leader of the TUV, Jim Allister, welcomed the Fianna Fáil vote and commended it to the DUP as the way forward. He said: ‘That’s sound advice for parties south of the border and all the more so for Unionist parties.’ In fairness to Wee Jim he did acknowledge 'there is hypocrisy in the Fianna Fáil stance’. Wee Jim is like that. Observant.  

So the Fianna Fáil Leader's stance fools no one. Micheál Martin, looking over his shoulder at the increasing electoral strength of Sinn Féin, north and south, is desperate to stymie the growth of Sinn Féin. We are an electoral threat to the status quo. That cannot be tolerated. In the search for wayward Fine Gael votes Teachta Martin cannot be seen to be soft on the Shinners. Heaven forbid. 

For that reason and no other, whether at his Ard Fheis or in the Dáil chamber or wherever he has an audience, Martin keeps beating the drum about the unfitness of Sinn Féin for government in Dublin. He does this while berating us for not going into government in Belfast on DUP terms. That's Fianna Fail for ya!  

So, let’s look briefly at their track record. Just before the general election last year Teachta Martin ruled out coalition with Fine Gael. After the election he negotiated a ‘supply and confidence agreement’ – not unlike the DUP and Tories in Westminster – which has Fianna Fáil keeping a minority Fine Gael government in power. That means that the appalling decisions of Fine Gael in last week’s budget on health and housing, on the provision of mental health services and respite care, on stamp duty and on women pensioners, are all supported by Fianna Fáil.

This Fine Gael government, which Martin condemns, wouldn't be in power if he didn't support it. He is trying to cover his options for the next general election. For that reason a few months ago he refused to rule out a so-called ‘grand coalition’ with Fine Gael in the future. When asked by The Examiner in the summer about this he said he ‘hasn’t ruled anything in or out.’  That's fair enough. But since then he has ruled out government with Fine Gael. He has ruled out government with Sinn Féin. He says he accepts that Fianna Fáil can't form a government on their own. Figure all that out? In the meantime Micheál presents himself as being against the Fine Gael minority government. 

That is nonsense. The two conservative parties are natural bed fellows with policies that are essentially the same. So the rí rá between them is a sham. It’s not about what might be good for society or for citizens, or the people of the island of Ireland. Nope. It's about what will best serve the narrow self-interests of the Fianna Fáil party leadership. Or the Fine Gael leadership for that matter. Recent history shows it has always placed themselves first and the people second.
But politics north and south is in flux. The civil war politics of the 1920’s, which determined the shape of southern Irish politics for decades is over – gone. The history remains and for some it may be personal but since last year’s general election Fianna Fáil has elected two Fine Gael Taoisigh. It has helped to pass two Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil budgets. In the Dáil chamber it regularly votes with the government or abstains to ensure that government motions pass or other motions are defeated. By the way that has been the case in local councils for decades.

All of this puts a spotlight on the issue of coalition as a means of advancing party political objectives and implementing policies. In the north Sinn Féin is currently engaged in intense negotiations with the DUP to try and restore an Executive which is essentially a ‘grand coalition’. The difficulties involved in putting together an Executive and a Programme for Government by parties which are so fundamentally different and have such opposite political philosophies, highlights the problems involved.
At the next general election in the south Sinn Féin will be seeking a mandate to go into government in that part of the island also. Fianna Fáil has said no. Fine Gael say the same. But neither party has a divine right to be in government. Or to decide who might be in that government. That's the people's prerogative. It will be the vote of the electorate that will determine the shape of the next government. Political parties can only decide who they might or might not go into government with. If they have a mandate. 
Many people within Sinn Féin and our electorate detest the tweedledee – tweedledum politics of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. Quite rightly. The very thought that our party might put either of them into government is abhorrent to many activists and republican voters. And that dislike is well founded. The Fianna Fáil leadership is linked to corruption and the wrecking of the economy. Fine Gael forced ordinary citizens to bail out the banks and imposed a debt that our grandchildren will still be paying off decades from now. None of these parties have a strategy to end partition or the Union. On the contrary their leaderships are about upholding the status quo. Both have depended on emigration as a policy option. That’s why generations of young Irish people are scattered across the world. So Sinn Féin is against these parties being in government. We want to replace them, not to endorse them. We need a mandate to do this. That is our focus. To change the system. Not to join it. 
Will Sinn Féin talk to these parties? Of course we will. And others as well. We are the party of and for dialogue. It is Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil who ruled out talking to us after the last election.  As well as their innate conservatism both of these parties agree on keeping Sinn Féin out. The reason for this is obvious. Between them they have governed and dominated southern politics since the state was established. They are fiercely opposed to the practical democratic core values of Sinn Féin. They are against a rights based citizens’ centred society. So there is no right to a public health system. No right to a home. Or to education. No real effort to unite the people of Ireland. No real republican vision for fairness and equality. 
So, what Sinn Féin has to do in the next election is to get the biggest mandate possible. Our aim has to be to lead the next government. The size of our vote will determine this. It also will determine the size of the other parties' mandates. But our only purpose in going into government will be to effect real change – on housing and health and public services and also on the issue of Irish unity.

If we get an appropriate mandate a decision to go into government will be determined by a special Ard Fheis of the party. It will be a collective decision taken by all. One thing you can be very sure of. Sinn Féin will not do what the Progressive Democrats or Labour or the Green Party did in their time. We are not about bolstering Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael. Serpents may have forked tongues. Sinn Féin don't. 

Friday, October 13, 2017

The Hills

In my years as a political activist I have had the unique opportunity to travel to many far flung places around the world.
I once flew in a tiny plane up the coast of Maine in the USA with its hundreds of off-shore islands. It was a bumpy, scary, white knuckle journey in a small two propeller machine. The scenery was reminiscent of the west of Ireland.
I have watched the colours change on the lakes of upper New York State, in the deserts and hills of Texas and Arizona, on the Rockies of Canada, the mountains of the Basque country, and the veldt of South Africa.
On one memorable visit to the outback of Australia I persuaded our hosts to let me walk alone some distance into the trees and scrub of the outback outside of Perth. The intensity of different smells from the flowers and trees and the sounds of birds and insects was truly amazing. And the snakes left me alone.  
But if truth be told I love West Donegal. That’s not to say that I don’t love west Belfast. Or Louth. The Belfast Hills are terrific. So is Sliabh Foy in the Cooley Mountains  
But there is nowhere quite like West Donegal. The hills and the mountains of that part of our island, from Muckish to Errigal, are among the most stunning in the world. The  glens and rivers and lakes, the seascapes of Bloody Foreland, the islands, the long walks along Donegal beaches, and the music, the Gaeilge and the people, all combine to make Donegal as close to perfect, as perfect can be, in this imperfect world.
As some of you may know last Friday was my birthday. Go raibh maith agaibh to all of you who sent best wishes. Or presents. Or if you didnt dont worry I wont refuse late offerings. Now that  I have reached the age of soixante-neuf- 69 - I intend to have a birth month so you still have time.
I remember Martin McGuinness saying once that he never thought he would live beyond his 25th year. I was the same. Most of our peer group were probably like that. Now I am in my 70th year. Poor Martin is gone. It’s a funny old world.
So at the weekend I escaped to Donegal for two days of gardening, singing, cooking, reading and walking. The autumn colours were everywhere. The heather clad highlands were resplendent with the textures of tweed. The big skyscape kept changing its shades from light to lighter and back to light again. OThere was a nip in the wind and the occasional rain – it is Donegal – but the weather for me was perfect.

The beauty and peace of Donegal is unrivalled. The history of Donegal can be found in every town and village, castle and big house, and in the ruins of homes long deserted, and thatched cottages from another time that have been preserved for this generation. 
My first recollection of Donegal is travelling there with my Saint Mary's class mates to stay for a month with the Boyle family in the Gaoth Dore Gaeltacht. We went there to practice our Gaeilge. I am still practicing over five decades later. And like so many others I keep returning to Donegal.
I wouldn’t care if I never saw another plane for the rest of my life. I have no wish to travel outside of our little island ever again. But travel I will. God spares me I know that. If you sign up you have to march.
But wherever my political wanderings take me the Hills are the place I want to be. I enjoyed my birthday. It was great craic. I am very lucky. For many reasons. But especially because I got to begin this week and my 69th year in the place I love. 
'I just dropped in to see you all.
I'll only stay awhile.
I want to see how you're getting on
I want to see you smile
I’m happy to be here again
I’ve missed you one and all
For there is no place else on earth

Just like the homes of Donegal'. 

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Votarem – We will vote

Today Thursday, October 5th, is the anniversary of the RUC attack on a Civil Rights March at Duke Street in Derry in 1968. The image of RUC officers batoning peaceful protestors, and of one senior officer using a blackthorn stick to viciously beat a protestor to the ground, are now part of the televisual history of that period. It was for many the moment in which the northern Unionist state decided that state violence was the appropriate response to the peaceful and non-violent protests for civil rights.
In the years that followed rubber bullets, plastic bullets, CS and CR gas, along with batons, and then lead bullets, became part of the armoury of the British Army and RUC. Baton wielding riot clad RUC men beating citizens to the ground was a familiar image. Protest marches and funerals were regularly the target for such state assaults. Rubber and plastic bullets were used extensively. Up to 1981 almost 100,000 such bullets were fired. 17 people, 8 of whom were children, and a mother of three young children, were killed and hundreds of people continue to bear the scars of those attacks.
The television news images last Sunday of Spanish Civil Guards firing plastic bullets at Catalan citizens trying to vote, and the violent scenes of heavily armoured police batoning defenceless and peaceful citizens – some of them lying on the ground, many of them women, some elderly – were a stark reminder of that northern experience. 
A Sinn Féin delegation of Senators, TDs and MEPs, including Martina Anderson, were in Catalonia acting as international observers to the referendum. They witnessed at first hand the beatings and assaults on ordinary citizens and the efforts of the Spanish government to prevent the referendum vote from taking place. Civil Guards were filmed smashing their way into polling stations, beating the young and the old, and violently seizing ballot boxes. Over 800 people were injured in what Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy described as an ‘appropriate response’.
The extraordinary courage of thousands of Catalans refusing to be intimidated from voting; many of them standing defiantly in front of Civil Guards singing and peacefully demanding their right to independence, was truly inspiring and moving. Families occupied polling stations to keep them open. Hundreds sat outside each of the two and a half thousand polling stations to peacefully prevent any attempt by the Spanish government to close the stations or steal ballot boxes. Catalan firefighters and police officers stood between the Civil Guard and the people. They acted as human shields to protect their Catalan neighbours. Older citizens, some of whom remembered the dark days of the Civil War and the decades of Franco, were applauded as they made their way to polling stations. In Sant Jiliá de Ramis, Girona, hundreds locked arms as the Spanish Police dragged voters away. The crowd chanted ‘Votarem’ which means ‘We will vote.’
The response of the people of Catalonia to the violence of the Spanish state was astonishing and I want to commend their bravery.
Sunday’s referendum was the culmination of almost two decades of Catalonian efforts to achieve greater autonomy within Spain. Catalan leaders have tried to engage successive Spanish governments in a dialogue on this but their efforts have been largely spurned. They have been frustrated at every turn by an intransigent central government and the courts.
Evidence of that can be found in the prosecution of the Speaker of the Catalan Parliament for allowing a debate and vote in the Catalan Parliament on holding the independence referendum. And a former President and two former Ministers are also being prosecuted for organising a non-binding referendum on independence in 2014.
Despite the intimidation and violence of the Civil Guard, which saw almost a thousand people injured, over 2.2 million people braved the batons and plastic bullets and voted out of an electorate of 5.3 million. More than three quarters of a million votes could not be counted because polling stations were forcibly closed and ballot boxes lifted by the Spanish police. At its conclusion 90% of those who voted had backed independence.
On Tuesday tens of thousands of workers brought Catalonia to a standstill in a general strike called to protest against the violence of the Spanish police, the intransigence of the Spanish government, and the demand for independence.
I raised the Catalan situation with the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in the Dáil on Tuesday. The Fine Gael party is a sister party of the Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy’s Peoples Party. On that basis I urged the Taoiseach to use his influence and connections with the Peoples Party to encourage dialogue as a way of finding a resolution to the current crisis. I also believe that the international community, especially the European Union, has an obligation to ensure that Catalonia can pursue the course of self-determination without fear of suppression.
Not surprisingly the Spanish government is hiding its inflexibility and refusal to talk behind the claim that Catalonia is an internal matter for Spain. This is exactly the same excuse which British governments employed to refuse international interest or involvement in resolving the conflict in the North. It was only when these matters were internationalised that remedies and solutions were found and progress was made.
The key to resolving this significant constitutional crisis is for the Spanish government to agree to sit down and talk with the leaders of Catalonia. President Puigdemont of Catalan has already stated his willingness to enter negotiations. Regrettably, thus far Prime Minister Rajoy appears determined to deepen the crisis by remaining stubbornly uncompromising. If he chooses to arrest senior Catalan politicians or to introduce direct rule by Madrid these moves will only deepen the crisis.
In the next few days the Catalan Parliament will meet to discuss the results of the referendum and its next steps.
Sinn Féin supports the right of the people of Catalonia to self-determination and we will continue to support them as they seek to advance their goal.
Visca Catalunya

Thursday, September 28, 2017

The Battle of Ideas

The battle of ideas
Thirty years ago last Saturday in an interview in Woman's Own, the late British Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher spelt out her own narrow view of society and the role of government. Thatcher said: “I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand “I have a problem, it is the Government's job to cope with it!” or “I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!” “I am homeless, the Government must house me!” and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing!”
The policies of Thatcher fractured British society. Her right wing model of government increased poverty and stripped families of the means of a decent quality of life. Thatcherism promoted the individual and minimised society's support for those less able to defend themselves. It was about less state involvement, so-called smaller government, less taxation on business and the elites. It was about reducing the ability of workers to defend themselves against exploitation. And if this meant using the law and the police to smash workers then so be it.
Last week, in a speech in Dublin to the business organisation Ibec, An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar set out his Fine Gael version of this same Tory vision. He said: “This government believes in hope and aspiration, a better life as something to aspire to … it is not something that can be handed down by someone else. The government can’t solve everyone’s problems for them …”
The language may be different but behind the rhetoric the underlying philosophy of conservatism, whether in Ireland or Britain, is essentially the same. Leo’s vision is Irish Thatcherism with a fresh coat of paint. In Taoiseach Varadkar’s state if you fall behind you are on your own. If your homeless don’t expect much help from the state. When he talks about a ‘culture of aspiration’ or a ‘better life’ he is speaking to those who are already well off. His focus is also on a section of voters who he hopes to persuade to come over to Fine Gael. That's legitimate enough. That's politics. 
But Taoiseach Varadkar's Republic of Opportunity is a narrow minded vision of a 26 County state rooted in a conservative Mé Féin philosophy. It is a million miles away from the vision and progressive principles set out in the 1916 Proclamation.
He ignores the reality that citizens caught at the sharp end of the crises in housing and health also have their aspirations, their hopes. They also have personal ambitions. However, the society shaped by the establishment parties in the southern state means that the odds are always tilted against them. These citizens are not only the homeless or the poor, or older citizens or folks denied proper health care. They include the majority of people whose lives are consumed with the effort to rear their families. People struggling to rear their families.
A genuine republic would not allow homelessness to reach emergency proportions. It would long ago have taken action to prevent 3000 of its children being homeless. It would not tolerate the scandal and indignities in our hospital A&E wards. It would support those citizens with intellectual difficulties denied respite care or other supports. It would not facilitate the huge levels of disadvantage and inequality which exist in society in the 26 counties.
What differentiates Sinn Féin from Fine Gael and Fianna Fail is not just our determination to achieve a united, independent Ireland. Sinn Féin also believes that citizens have rights and entitlements and that society must be shaped to help them to achieve their full potential. In the here and now we believe people have the right to a decent home, to a job and a decent wage, to the highest quality of public services, especially in health, housing and education, and a safer, cleaner environment. In 2016 Sinn Féin published a clear costed plan to deliver a public health service, free at the point of delivery, which provides for citizens from the cradle to the grave, funded by direct taxation.
In our alternative budget next month we will unveil costed proposals to build houses. 
These are all the responsibility of government and cannot be abdicated to the market as championed by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.
One key role of government is to help shape a society that is tolerant and that reflects and embraces the entirety of its people, not part of them. Why should gender be the basis for the exclusion of anyone? Or disability? Why should race or class or skin colour or creed give one group of human beings the ability to deny other human beings their full rights or entitlements as citizens? And if citizens have rights, why are they not all-encompassing rights, including economic rights? Genuine republicans in keeping with the vision of those who signed the Proclamation in 1916, believe that all human beings have the right, as a birthright, to be treated equally. 

Society needs shaped to  deliver this. A real Republic of Opportunity needs to be citizen centred and rights based. During the successful campaign for Marriage Equality I noted that some of those who were rightly in favour of equality on this issue might be not so fair minded on other equally important rights issues. They might be liberal on some matters but extremely conservative on others.  Leo Varadkar is one of those conservatives.  

Friday, September 22, 2017

What next for the Middle East?

24 years ago this month, on September 13th 1993, the Oslo Accord was signed on the lawn of the White House in the presence of Yasser Arafat for the PLO, Yitzhak Rabin for Israel and US President Bill Clinton. It was another stage in a process of secret and public negotiations that had begun under the aegis of the Norwegians. The accord provided for the creation of a limited form of self-government for the Palestinian people and the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank by April 1994 and a final agreement by February 1999.
President Clinton proclaimed: "The peace of the brave is within our reach. Throughout the Middle East there is a great yearning for the quiet miracle of a normal life.”
Almost a quarter of a century later and the hoped for miracle of a normal life seems as far away as ever, certainly for the Palestinian people. Thousands have died in the low intensity violence that has marked much of the intervening years, occasionally broken by deadly and intense Israeli assaults on the Gaza Strip.
At the same time the issue of illegal settlements has become a huge concern. In 1978 it was estimated that there were seven and a half thousand Israelis living in the west Bank. By 1997 that number had grown to 150,000. Today that figure is closer to half a million. An estimated 170,000 of them live outside of the settlements.
Last month, at an event to mark the 50th anniversary of Israel’s occupation of the west Bank Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that he would not evacuate Israeli settlements in the west Bank; “We are here to stay, forever … we will deepen our roots, build, strengthen and settle …” This week the Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman  described the occupied territories as “the State of Israel’s true defensive wall.”
I have visited the region three times in the last eleven years. During those visits I met Israeli and Palestinian representatives and witnessed for myself the tragedy and the trauma of the Palestinian people living under a permanent state of siege in the Gaza Strip. In the west Bank I spoke to Palestinian people of all ages who are desperately trying to survive in the hostile environment created by an oppressive military occupation. Their lands and water have been stolen and the monstrous separation wall cuts them off from friends and family.
In truth the peace process that was so full of hope 24 years ago seems like just a distant memory. There is no real engagement by the international community – so essential for breaking the deadlock. There is a longstanding unwillingness by the great and the good to take a stand against the countless Israeli breaches of International Law and of United Nations resolutions - even when Israeli forces deliberately destroy community, agricultural, educational or economic projects established as a result of funding from the EU and individual European states. It is estimated that over seventy million euro worth of such projects have been destroyed.
Last month Israeli forces sealed off the Jubbetal-Dib area and dismantled six prefabricated school buildings that had been largely funded by the European Union. The 80 children were due to start school the following day. Tear gas and stun grenades were used to keep residents away. This was not an isolated incident. In 2016, according to the United Nations, one thousand and sixty five Palestinian homes were demolished by Israel. So far this year 330 Palestinian structures have been destroyed. The response of the European Union and of the international community to this aggression has been muted. It is little wonder that among Palestinians there is little room for optimism.

This week the possibility of progress was given a boost with the news that Hamas has said that it is ready to open a dialogue with the Palestinian government of President Mahmoud Abbas without preconditions. Hamas also announced that it has dissolved the Gaza Administrative Committee, by which it has run the Gaza area and that it will agree to a general election. This is potentially a critical initiative by Hamas. Both it and Fatah have been at loggerheads for decades. At the weekend a senior Fatah official Mahmoud Aloul described this as a “positive sign” and acknowledged that Fatah “are ready to implement reconciliation.”

A few days later it was confirmed that a Fatah delegation, in Cairo for talks with the Egyptian government, met with Hamas. This initiative opens up new possibilities at a time when the economic, energy and environmental crisis for the two million residents of the Gaza Strip has significantly worsened. It needs to be grasped and encouraged, especially by the international community.

However, with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu pledging no withdrawal of Israeli settlements in contravention of international law, and the international community looking away and prioritising other concerns over the Palestinian/Israeli issue; it is little wonder that many are depressed about the prospects of meaningful progress toward the two state solution.

Friday, September 15, 2017

The Dreaded SSSS

Last Friday I arrived in New York for an overnight visit. I was there to speak at the Irish Echo’s Labor (it’s the US spelling) Awards. On Saturday I met up with my good friend Bill Flynn for lunch. Bill celebrated his 91st birthday on Labor Day last week. He was as sharp as ever in his observations about the political situation in the USA and in Ireland.
The Irish Echo Labor Awards event was a huge success. So too was our brief visit to the Labor March to meet old friends and to make new ones. My congratulations to all involved especially the honourees and their families. 
It was as a result of the hard work of Bill, Niall O’Dowd, Bruce Morrison, Chuck Feeney and others in Irish America that I first received a visa to allow me entry into the USA in January 1994. Since then I have regularly travelled to the USA – at least four times a year. I go there in response to invitations and am very grateful for the opportunity to present Sinn Féin’s analysis of developments in Ireland; to seek support for the peace process; to lobby for investment, to meet political leaders and administration officials; and to fundraise through Friends of Sinn Féin. Our travel itinerary is always given to the US Consul in Belfast well in advance and we have visas. 
In recent years the staff of Aer Lingus, Delta and other airlines have become very familiar with myself and RG. They have the task of navigating their way through the bureaucratic hurdles thrown up by an increasingly security conscious US system.
As a result RG insists that we now arrive at airports for USA trips at least four hours before departure time. We have both come to appreciate the looks of consternation on the airline officials faces when they first punch in our names into their computers. They then have to phone someone in the USA to get us our boarding passes. That can take up to two hours. In Dublin at least the airline people know the score. Stateside they haven't a clue what it's all about. 
Inevitably they are apologetic. ‘Sorry this is taking so long’. ‘I don’t understand why there is this delay’. ‘The supervisor is also on the phone trying to resolve this.’ ‘We’re very sorry.’
Eventually the word comes through. The machine punches out our boarding passes and labels for the bags, and the first hurdle has been overcome. The second hurdle awaits. It is printed on the boarding pass – the dreaded four SSSS’s – Secondary Security Screening Selection. To make sure no one misses the instruction the staff have to write SSSS in large lettering across the boarding pass also and circle it. Last Saturday one enthusiastic staff member at JFK airport got so carried away she used a puncher label to print SSSS in large red letters six times across each pass!
We are always told that this procedure is random. I’m sure that is true for most people. And I have no problem with that. But RG and I have received the 4 SSSS’s on every boarding pass for over ten years. As a result when we reach the security area – either at the preclearance in Dublin or any airport in the USA – we are taken out of the line. We and our bags are methodically searched.
Because last weekend was simply an overnight visit RG and I had brought small overnight carry-on bags. They received the same treatment. The officer involved in my search was abrupt and unpleasant. His mammy would have been embarrassed.
When we got to the Departure Gate there was a repeat performance but this time with much more relaxed and pleasant searchers. Then as RG wandered towards the plane I was relieved of my passport. I was standing in no man’s land between the gate and the plane for another ten minutes. Much to the amusement of many of the other passengers. Selfie Hell. I eventually got on board. My passport was only returned then by an embarrassed airline manager.
In the context of the 16th anniversary of the September 11 attacks I am very mindful of the need for airline security – for every effort to be made to protect passengers. But singling out Sinn Féin reps actually distracts security attention from those who do present a threat. I have raised this issue many times with US officials. Some are obviously embarrassed. It runs entirely against the commitment of President Bill Clinton 20 years ago to regularise relations between Sinn Féin and the US administration. 
Nowadays children or grand-children of Sinn Féin representatives are singled out for special treatment. They too go on whatever list is kept by Homeland Security. 
All of this can at times have a Monty Pythonesque feel to it. Leaving Havana two years ago Cuban diplomatic officials told us that the airline couldn’t issue our boarding passes because the plane would be flying over US airspace and we didn’t have clearance. We were told the flight had to log a new flightplan away from US airspace before we could get our boarding passes.
Last month we were delayed so long in Dublin that we missed our flight. We were told there was no way we would get away that day. Only for the professionalism of Aer Lingus staff our schedule would have been up ended. They got us a later flight on the same day. 
So why am I writing about this? It's because other protestations have failed. And this isn't just happening on President Trump's watch. The same things happened under President Obama and before him. In fact it happened as we were going to meet with Presidents at their invitation.  Home Land Security Rules. 
Sinn Féin doesn’t expect special treatment. We have no absolute right to visit anyones country but I have always travelled there only at the invite of American citizens. The dreaded SSSS is a nuisance. It’s also an example of how big systems – or even wee systems – can get bogged down in bureaucracy. Even when it’s patently no benefit to anyone. On the other hand the 4 SSSSs keep us grounded.

Below: At the Labor Day events in New York

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Sinn Féin is committed to restoring the institutions

In the cut and thrust of negotiations there is always the risk that someone will say something that makes the process of achieving agreement more difficult. Sometimes they do that deliberately. Sometimes they are just stupid. Or tongue in cheek. During the negotiations leading to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 the Ulster Unionist politician John Taylor famously dismissed proposals from Senator George Mitchel saying he wouldn’t touch them with a ’40 foot barge pole’. Taylor was renowned for such hyperbole.
Last week he was at it again claiming that nationalists in the North ‘are not equal’ to unionists. He wasn’t alone in making outrageous and stupid comments. The morning after the DUP leader Arlene Foster made, what some in the media described as a ‘new offer’ and a ‘compromise proposal’ to Sinn Féin, her Westminster colleague Sammy Wilson was in fine ‘Taylor mode’. He said: “They (Sinn Féin) are not a serious party… we now have the spectacle of a party with seven MPs who don’t go to their work and 27 MLAs who won’t go to their work – why on earth would anyone vote for such a bunch of malingerers.”
That’s Sammy doing what he does best. Messing. His problem of course is that more and more people in the North are voting for Sinn Féin, as evident in the Assembly and Westminster elections earlier this year.
More crucially, Arlene Foster’s ‘new offer’ – her ‘compromise’ proposal was nothing of the sort. It came during a period when Michelle O Neill was exploring the potential of the next phase of talks with other leaders, including Arlene and the two governments. The same proposal, that Ministers be put back in place while negotiations continue in parallel, was suggested by DUP negotiator Edwin Poots in June and raised some weeks ago by his party colleague Simon Hamilton. It was rejected then and Arlene Foster knew it would be rejected last week. It wasn’t a serious effort to resolve the crisis.
And when you think about it why would Sinn Féin agree to go back into power sharing with the DUP with no agreement in place? On the vague possibility of possible legislation that may or may be agreed by a DUP party which thus far has shown no real desire to agree. And if it doesn’t work we pull the whole edifice down again. That’s not a recipe for progress, but for disaster. 
In addition, as it has tried to put the blame on Sinn Féin for the current crisis the DUP, and elements of the media, have claimed that Sinn Féin doesn’t really want to be in the power sharing institutions. They accuse us of not wanting to have to manage the mess that Brexit is already creating for the economy of the North, and in particular for our rural and farming families, and for those living on both sides of the border corridor. They also say that being in government in the North undermines our political project in the South.
This is patent nonsense. From the time of the Good Friday Agreement Sinn Féin’s political strategy has been built on the need for an Executive and Assembly and all-Ireland institutions. For almost 20 years we have worked to ensure that these are viable and effective. For ten years – first with Ian Paisley, then with Peter Robinson and latterly with Arlene Foster, Martin McGuinness stretched himself and our party to keep the institutions in place through the most difficult of circumstances. Martin’s decision in January was reluctantly taken.
It is also a fact that Sinn Féin’s electoral fortunes in the South are assisted by an Executive and Assembly in place.
In the Oireachtas our political opponents, especially the Fianna Fáil leader Michéal Martin, cynically exploit the absence of the institutions to attack Sinn Féin. Martin doesn’t care that the status quo continues to discriminate against nationalists; or that Irish speakers are being treated as second class citizens; or that commitments in Agreements, which a Fianna Fail government of which he was part, have not been implemented; or that LGBT citizens in a part of this island do not have the right to marriage equality. Martin’s only interest in the current crisis is to exploit it in his electoral battle with Sinn Féin in the South.
So, let me be very clear. Sinn Féin is fully committed to the power sharing institutions agreed in the Good Friday Agreement. However, the institutions can only work if they are based on equality, respect and integrity.
Last week’s proposal by the DUP Leader Arlene Foster for a parallel process did contain a welcome acknowledgement that the Irish language threatens no one. The crocodiles will be delighted to hear that. And she did include a promise of legislation. This is welcome also. But more than soft words are required. So, to ensure there is no misunderstanding let me repeat what I said last week. There will be no return to the Assembly or Executive without a stand-alone Irish Language Act and the resolution of the other outstanding issues.