Friday, February 22, 2019

No return to the status quo

Two weeks ago the British Secretary of State Karen Bradley emerged from the NIO Office in the Stormont Estate to tell us that the conditions for a referendum on unity, as set out in the Good Friday Agreement, have not been met.
Three weeks earlier the same Secretary of State was reported in the London Times privately warning a British Cabinet meeting on 8 January that a no deal Brexit would make a referendum on Irish Unity “far more likely.”
Last week the BBC reported that several British Cabinet Ministers had told it that a no-deal Brexit could lead to a vote on Irish unification.
The BBC report said: One senior minister said the prospect is "very real" and very much on the prime minister's mind. A second cabinet minister warned the government risked "sleepwalking into a border poll". And a third cabinet minister said there was an understanding in government that a vote on unification would be a "realistic possibility" if the UK leaves the EU without a deal next month. "If we are party to creating an environment of chaos, disruption and uncertainty - that could move the dial", the source said. All three spoke to the BBC on condition of anonymity.”
What’s behind this sudden talking-up by British Ministers of the possibility of a referendum on Irish Unity? Do they believe it? Possibly. But more likely its part of a very blunt tactical approach by Downing Street to frighten and blackmail its own members to toe the leadership line on Brexit.
Talk of a referendum on Irish Unity is an attempt to scare Tory backbenchers in the British Parliament into agreeing to May’s Brexit plan. At the same time Theresa May has written to all of her 316 MPs. She has appealed to them to support her Brexit deal warning that “history will judge us all.”
With less just over 5 weeks to go before the March 29th deadline for Brexit the British Conservative government and Parliament continue to be as deeply divided as ever as a result of that government’s incompetence in managing the self-inflicted Brexit crisis.

Its ineptitude was also on display in Belfast last Friday when the British Secretary of State Karen Bradley, and Tánaiste Simon Coveney, met the five main parties at Stormont. According to Bradley it was about recommencing a talk’s process to restore the political institutions. It deservedly got short shrift from Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill. Simon Coveney did less than well when he acquiesced to that pretence.

It’s just over two years since Martin McGuinness resigned as Deputy First Minister. In his letter of resignation Martin set out clearly the crisis facing the institutions as a result of the DUP handling of the RHI scandal and its behaviour within the institutions. Martin wrote on January 10th 2017: The equality, mutual respect and all-Ireland approaches enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement have never been fully embraced by the DUP. Apart from the negative attitude to nationalism, and to the Irish identity and culture; there has been a shameful disrespect towards many other sections of our community. Women, the LGBT community and ethnic minorities have all felt this prejudice. And for those who wish to live their lives through the medium of Irish, elements in the DUP have exhibited the most crude and crass bigotry. this period successive British governments have undermined the process of change by refusing to honour agreements, refusing to resolve the issues of the past while imposing austerity and Brexit against the wishes and best interests of people here. Against this backdrop the current scandal over the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) has emerged.”

This is the yardstick against which Sinn Féin and all of those democrats and progressives who seek to rebuild confidence and restore the institutions, will judge any talks process.  The British and Irish governments need to be up to the task of substantially addressing the matters raised by Martin, especially the ongoing denial of rights enjoyed everywhere else on these islands. If they don’t, and if the DUP remains doggedly resistant to making progress on the issue of rights, then a talks process will fail before it begins.

Mary Lou and Michelle didn’t mince their words last Friday. They described Bradley’s intervention as cynical and lacking any credibility. They believe that the Conservative Party’s real agenda is about helping the DUP distract public attention away from DUP intransigence and the RHI scandal as the local government elections loom on the horizon.

The reality is that there is no tolerance – none – among nationalists and republicans for going back into political institutions which function as they did before. That is not acceptable. In the interviews he gave in his office after submitting his resignation letter Martin put it best when he said that there can be no going back to the status quo. He was right. He is right.

If the DUP or the Ulster Unionist Party want to be back in the Assembly exercising power and influence over government departments and policy then the price for that is the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, and in particular the creation of laws which embrace every citizen on the basis of equality and parity of esteem.

Sinn Féin wants a functioning Assembly. An accountable and transparent Executive. We want local Ministers, accountable to local citizens, taking the decisions that impact on the daily lives of everyone living in this part of Ireland. We want an Assembly which is progressive, respectful, and has integrity. We do not want a sham talk’s process which cannot, will not, and is not designed to deliver progress on the issue of rights and the Good Friday Agreement. There can be, there will be, no return to the status quo.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

The Chieftain’s Walk.

Back in the day I would be in Derry quite often for meetings, or unfortunately for funerals, and occasionally for social events. A wedding or a christening. Derry was a place apart. It generally didn’t have the omnipresent tension or threatening communal fragility of Belfast. If the British Army or the RUC weren’t on the streets of the West Bank there was a sense of tranquillity in that community. It was far from the beleaguered defensive streets of the Short Strand or the Ormeau Road. On the days like that Derry was not unlike Sligo or Drogheda. A picturesque Irish town nestled on the banks of the wonderful Foyle water.

Martin McGuinness was a child of that town. He was Derry to his core. Donegal was at his back above the heights of Creggan. That’s where his family came from. Na hUilli, anglicized to the Illies, north of Buncrana, on the Inis Eoghain peninsula. That’s where Martin spent his childhood summers. Bouncing high on turf stacked trailers along bog roads. Swatting midges and gathering hay or collecting hens eggs in his Granny’s place. Learning to fish. In the rain. Watching sunsets. And sunrises. Beach combing on wind lashed and wave battered deserted sea strands. Freedom!

When Martin and Bernie got married it was in Cockhill chapel, outside Buncrana that they made their wedding vows. It was there that Martin got Colette and I the use of a caravan for me to recuperate in after I was shot and wounded in 1984. So with the help and hospitality of the late Réamonn Mac Lochlainn - father of Pádraic, Jim Ferry and Eddie Fullerton I also got to know the magic of the Inis Eoghain peninsula. Eddie brought me to where he said Wolfe Tone landed on the Swilly and it wasn’t long before I was walking on the hills of that idyllic place.

Inis Eoghain and Derry are on opposite flanks of that same broad finger of high ground between the Swilly and the Foyle. The British border winds its invasive unwelcome way through this beautiful landscape creating two separate jurisdictions and separating County Derry from County Donegal. Martin used to joke that the only thing that kept Derry in the British state was the Craigavon Bridge. There is more than a grain of truth in that wry observation.

Occasionally Martin and I would walk out the Groarty Road to Grianán Ailigh. Or Grianán of Aileach - also known as Grianán Fort. This ancient stone built ring fort, founded in the sixth century or earlier, was one of his favourite places. It is one of the royal sites of Gaelic Ireland. Martin went there many times, including night times when the beautiful starlit Donegal skyscape is a wonder to behold. Or at sunset. So for me Grianán is forever tied up with Martin McGuinness.

After Martin’s death his family and friends organized a fundraiser for The North West Cancer Centre at Altnagelvin last March. It took the form of a sponsored walk to Grianán of Aileach from Derry. Siúlóid An Taoisigh -The Chieftains Walk.
Three thousand people took part. All Martins clann were there led by Bernie the power walker. Over £30,000 was raised. Everyone who registered and did the walk got a commemorative medal to mark the event. It was a great day out.

I did the walk that day. Me and our dog Fionn and one of the little people in my life, Anna Nic Adhaimh. She was only eight years old. According to my Fitbit we walked eight and a half miles. According to the organizers it is five and a half miles from Glenowen in Derry to Grianán. That’s probably true but we also had to walk back to the car. Anna is a champion. The last few miles to Grianán are uphill. It is so steep Ted needed climbing ropes. 

So this year the Chieftains Walk has been rerouted. This year its nearly all on the flat. Or so Andrew McCartney says. That’s Andrew who did last year’s Siúlóid in a minibus.

This year The Chieftains Walk will be on Sunday 24th March at 1.30 from Ebrington Square to the Ryan McBride Brandywell Stadium. All money raised will go to the Foyle Hospice and the ICU at Altnagelvin. It’s a three-mile route. It will leave Ebrington Square via the Peace Bridge and turn left along the Foyle Embankment and walk along Foyle Road. It will cross over the Foyle Road into the Brandywell and finish beside the Ryan Mc Bride Brandywell Stadium. As it enters into the Brandywell it will pass close to where Martin once lived in Southend Park.

Ebrington Square was formerly the parade ground of one of the largest British military installations in Derry. It was turned into a public space and tourist attraction as part of the peace process and is linked to the west bank of the city via the Peace Bridge. Martin was key to the development of both of these initiatives as well as the Brandywell stadium which was called after Ryan McBride, Derry City soccer star, who died the same week as Martin.

Ebrington Square was opened as a public space on Valentine’s Day 14 February 2012 and hosted a number of major events in 2013 as part of the year of City of Culture.

So, join us and Bernie and all the McGuinness clann in memory of Martin and in a good cause. You will enjoy the walk and the craic. Last year a woman beside me didn’t recognise me until she heard my voice. I was wearing sunglasses.

‘Jesus’ she exclaimed when she heard me talking ‘Its yourself. I thought you were a blind man with your Guide dog.’

Fionn was pleased. He’s a yellow Labrador. Anna thought it was funny. She’s going again this year. So is Fionn. 

Bígí linn ar Siúlóid an Taoisigh.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Then they came for …You

Gaza City

Two weeks ago a Bill banning the import of goods made on illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian land was overwhelming passed in its second reading by the Dáil – 78 votes to 45 votes. It was an important vote. The ‘Control of Economic Activity Occupied Territories Bill’, which was introduced by Seanadóir Frances Black, successfully passed all stages in the Seanad in December. To become law it must now go through a similar process of votes and scrutiny and possible amendment in the Dáil.

The Bill, which was debated on Wednesday, and passed its second stage on Thursday, does not specifically reference Israel and its occupation of Palestinian land. If it completes it passage through the Dáil it will be an offence to import or sell goods or services from occupied territories anywhere in the world. Inevitably however, much of the focus in the Seanad and in the Dáil has been on its impact on goods and services originating in illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
In its response the Israeli government called in the Irish Ambassador to protest at the passing by the Dáil of the Bill – even though Simon Coveney, the Fine Gael Minister for Foreign Affairs, clearly stated in his Dáil contribution his government’s intention of blocking the legislation from passing into law. Israel warned that banning imports from the west Bank would result in “severe ramifications.” Last year it threatened to close its Embassy in Dublin over the introduction of the Bill. The Israeli government also claimed that the Bill is “hypocritical and anti-Semitic”. On that basis those many Israeli citizens who oppose Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s settlement policies in the west Bank could be similarly accused of anti-Semitism.

The Occupied Territories Bill is about upholding and respecting international law. It’s about challenging those states which abuse and exploit their illegal occupation of territory that belong to others.

The debate in the Dáil also saw a renewed focus on efforts to get the Irish government to honour its Programme for Government commitment, and the democratic vote of both Houses of the Oireachtas in 2014, to recognise the state of Palestine. The government’s stance on this has been reprehensible and shameful.
As the government has stalled and prevaricated, the daily slaughter and oppression of Palestinians has continued. Two weeks ago the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem revealed that 290 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces in 2018. 55 of these were children. Ten years ago this month Israeli forces invaded the Gaza Strip. That one sided massacre resulted in 13 dead on the Israeli side, and one thousand four hundred and seventeen dead Palestinians. Among them three hundred and thirteen children.
I visited Israel and the Gaza strip not long after that first assault. I was horrified by the scale of the human tragedy. The UN report in to the 2009 invasion concluded that it was a deliberate disproportionate attack by Israel designed to punish, humiliate and terrorise a civilian population.

The Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands; the so-called separation wall; the theft of water rights and of land for illegal settlements, have all been well documented. There are approximately 650,000 Israeli settlers living in 143 locations in the West Bank (132) East Jerusalem (11). There are also 106 “outposts” which are not formally recognized by Israel as settlements but which are tolerated by the government. Illegal Israeli settlements are not restricted to residential buildings. Israel has also constructed industrial and agricultural settlements. These sustain the settlement programme and many of their products are for export.

As a result of this settlement/colonial expansion the Palestinian economy is undermined; Palestinians are unable to access their natural resources, farmers are barred from their fields; and Palestinian homes are demolished and their crops, especially their olive groves, destroyed.

Last week a confidential report by EU diplomats in the Middle East was published by EUObserver. The 20-page report, which was compiled last summer, is intended to “inform Middle East policy” among EU Governments. It describes Palestinians in the west Bank as facing “systematic legal discrimination”. Alon Liel, a former Israeli diplomat and Ambassador to South Africa between 19992-94 told EU Observer that what Israel is doing to Palestinians is what apartheid South Africa did to black citizens. Liel, who I met in Jerusalem in 2014, said: “The west Bank legal regime is a form of institutionalised racial segregation. A simpler description would be apartheid”.

Israel is a first world, nuclear armed, economic power. The west Bank and the Gaza Strip is a third world region, impoverished and oppressed, with a society and economy entirely dependent on the generosity of others.

The reality is that it is the Israeli government which snubs diplomacy; rejects international criticism, has no interest in peaceful alternatives; and does not see armed force as a measure of last resort. Brute military force is Israel’s measure of first resort.

The Irish government’s excuses for opposing the Occupied Territories Bill are threadbare. Minister Coveney expects the Irish people to shamefully accept that Irish recognition of a Palestinian state must wait until there is a negotiated solution in the region. This hands the Israeli government a permanent veto over the rights of the Palestinian people.

The Minister further claims that the Bill is illegal under EU law. Seanadóir Frances Black has produced clear legal evidence in support of the right of the Irish government to impose individual restrictions on settlement goods. But the government refuses to test or challenge its interpretation of EU regulations.

In his remarks to the Dáil Minister Coveney restated the government’s determination to block the Bill. He said that if the government “adopts this Bill, we would be choosing to be a principled voice in the wilderness, satisfied in the righteousness of our course, but largely unable to influence the real action”.
Better to be a principled voice in the wilderness speaking against injustice than to turn our backs on the multiple abuses being suffered by the Palestinian people. Pastor Martin Niemoller, a vocal critic of Nazism once warned against refusing to challenge injustice. 

He wrote:
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Two weeks ago the centenary of An Chéad Dáil was celebrated by a joint sitting of the Dáil and the Seanad in the Mansion House. The meeting of the First Dáil was an illegal act. If we follow the rationale of Simon Coveney, and this government, then those who assembled on that occasion would not have done anything. Women still would not have a vote. Slavery would still be legal. No one anywhere in the world would have won a single right if we followed Minister Coveney’s rationale. If we, as a former colony still partitioned, still occupied in part by a Government we do not want, with our proud history of freedom struggle and resistance and our peace process, do not support the people of Palestine, then who will? There is no wrong time to do the right thing. The Government should support the Occupied Territories Bill.
The Separation Wall

Friday, February 1, 2019

48 hours in New York

Today marks 25 years since I was first given a visa by President Clinton to visit the USA. The visa was for 48 hours and restricted to New York. The London Telegraph described the President’s decision as having created the “worst rift” in US-British relations since the Suez crisis in 1956. I was reminded of all of this when the British released classified government papers last December under the 20-30 year rule.
The papers confirmed that the British counter-strategy was largely unchanged from the 1970s. Supported by the Irish government,the  SDLP, Unionist Parties, the Catholic Hierarchy  and unionist paramilitaries, British strategy was about marginalising republicans, minimising political progress and resisting the fundamental change necessary to address the causes of the conflict. It was also about resisting any efforts by international players to get involved in investigating the conflict and its consequences. The British insisted that the war was an internal matter for the British government. The international community was told - Stay Out.
This was the challenge facing the Sinn Féin leadership as we sought to build alliances with others and advance our own peace strategy. It was our view that the Irish-American community presented us with our best chance of internationalising the issue of peace in Ireland. It had the most developed of our support groups, and within the Irish-American community there was a deep interest in Ireland and a genuine desire to see peace achieved. Irish America also had considerable influence, not just in politics but in the business world as well.
In April 1992 a well-known Irish American John Dearie organised a forum on Irish issues in Manhattan for the democratic Presidential hopefuls, Jerry Brown and Bill Clinton. Asked by one of the panelists if he would appoint a peace envoy for the north Clinton said he would. Asked if he would authorise a visa for me and other Sinn Féiners to visit the USA. Clinton replied; “I would support a visa for Gerry Adams”. Clinton then went further and endorsed the MacBride principles. That was the beginning of the engagement between Irish America and the Clinton Administration.
The British government opposed this new US political agenda. The day after Clinton was sworn in as President the British government told journalists in London that its priority was to have the envoy idea scrapped.
The declassified files reveal the extent to which the British fought to maintain the status quo. The British Ambassador to Washington, Sir Robin Renwick, said that the North “was part of the UK’ and “solutions to its problems could not be imposed from outside”.
Renwick raised the issue directly with Clinton’s National Security Adviser, Tony Lake. He urged the administration ‘not to pursue the idea of a peace envoy’. In a briefing for Patrick Mayhew, the then British Secretary of State, an NIO official said that the advice of the Foreign Office and the Washington Embassy was that the British government should ‘continue to oppose a peace envoy or a US Ambassador in Dublin with an NI role’.
An invitation from Bill Flynn’s National Committee on American Foreign Policy in January 1994 to the North’s political leaders to address a conference in New York created a new dynamic. Bill Flynn was part of ‘Americans for a New Irish Agenda’ and the Connolly House group of US politicians, business people and trade unionists who were advocating for a change of policy by President Clinton.
They had already had had some success with the appointment of Jean Kennedy Smith as US Ambassador to Dublin. Ambassador Smith was Ted Kennedy’s sister. She developed a close relationship with Fr. Alex Reid – the Sagart - and together they supported President Clinton giving me a visa to travel to the USA.
Jean Kennedy Smith, who Fr. Reid and I called An Speir Bhean – the spirit woman - asked the Taoiseach Albert Reynolds what he thought of the US giving me a visa. Reynolds said he had no objections. She also asked John Hume who also said he had no objections. She herself expressed her support to her brother Ted Kennedy and to the White House.
On January 14th 1994 I applied for a visa to attend the conference organised for February 1st. The British government began an intense private and public campaign to keep me out. The British Ambassador in Washington worked round the clock arguing that a visa for me would be a diplomatic catastrophe. They sought and received the support of the Congressional House Speaker Tom Foley, the Secretary of State Warren Christopher, the Attorney General Janet Reno and the Head of the FBI Louis Freeh. Tom Foley, later told me he made a mistake.
On the other side Ted Kennedy and three Democratic Senate colleagues, Chris Dodd, John Kerry and Daniel Moynihan wrote to President Clinton backing the visa. Others in Irish America rallied to the issue. In addition full-page advertisements appeared in the New York Times calling for US support for efforts to find peace. The advertisement was signed by the Chairs or CEOs of 85 leading American corporations and over 100 other prominent Irish Americans.
On January 30th President Clinton told his staff he was going to authorise the visa. It was to be a restricted visa for two days only and I had to remain within New York. The next morning, Monday I picked my visa up at the US Embassy in Dublin before just managing to get the midday Aer Lingus flight to New York.
The British media and political establishment went wild in their condemnations. UUP MP Ken Maginnis said, “In the future deaths in Northern Ireland will be Clinton deaths”. The Daily Star commented that it would love to see me in a coffin with a gap where my face used to be. The Sunday Times referred to ‘gullible Americans’. Renwick told CNN, “When I listen to Gerry Adams I think, as we all do, it’s reminiscent of Dr. Goebbels’ – Hitler’s propaganda chief”.
The 48 hour visit to New York was a blur of interviews, meetings with Irish America, speaking at the Bill Flynn organised conference, which the unionist refused to attend, and a huge public meeting in the Sheraton hotel with an exuberant crowd of Irish Americans. US journalists were genuinely astounded when they discovered that my voice could not be broadcast on the British media. 
The decision by President Clinton against the advice of some in his own administration and the strong objections of the British government, to grant the visa, was a huge step forward for the efforts to build peace.
In itself the New York visa was a symbolic initiative but it broke the wall that British governments had built around the North to keep everyone else out.
It was the beginning of a process that saw the negotiations process increasingly rely on international figures. People like George Mitchell, Harri Holkerri and John De Chastelain were just some of these.
The Irish in the USA still have a crucial role to play in support of peace and unity in Ireland. The McGuinness Principles campaign in support of a rights agenda in the North is one example of that. Twenty Five years on last weeks Beyond Brexit – The Future of Ireland conference in Belfast will have been noted by policy makers in Washington. The struggle continues. Here and in North America.

Friday, January 25, 2019

We don’t want no border at all

The chaos surrounding Brexit reached new depths of confusion this week. Theresa May’s Plan B announced on Monday turned out to be no plan at all. She ruled out an extension of Article 50 and a second referendum. There was a lot of spin about talking to business, the devolved administrations, opposition parties and trade unions – all of whose views she ignored for the last two and half years. With a straight face May told the British Parliament on Monday that she wants to find out what MPs are demanding on the backstop! And then she will take that demand back to the EU. The EU has already ruled out any renegotiation of the Withdrawal Agreement.
At the time of writing– there are 65 days left to Brexit. It seems to me that May’s real plan is to talk the process down to the point where some MPs – frightened of the consequences of a no deal scenario – will change their vote and back her Withdrawal Agreement. She is playing for time.
The consequences of this shambolic Tory government strategy for the two economies on this island, for social cohesion, and for the Good Friday Agreement are enormous. It demands the strongest, most robust, opposition. Sinn Féin, and especially our MEP team led by Martina Anderson, have led the defence of the Agreement. However, the greater onus to defend the rights of citizens in the North rests with the Irish government.
The government’s initial response to Brexit, under a different Taoiseach, was like that of the Fianna Fáil leader, pathetic. It improved when Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney as Taoiseach and Tánaiste. They presented a better all-island position but they avoided challenging the British Government or the EU to accept the democratic vote of the North to remain within the European Union. The Government has also acquiesced on the fundamental issue of the entitlement of Irish citizens in the North to European Union rights and the issue of rights generally.
In December 2017 in the joint report produced by the EU and British Government, paragraph 52 specifically stated that the people of the North, "who are Irish citizens will continue to enjoy rights as EU citizens, including where they reside in Northern Ireland." The Taoiseach stated everyone born in the North "will continue to have the right to Irish and therefore EU citizenship."
He also stated the joint report was rock solid, cast iron and politically bullet proof. In response to a letter signed by representatives of civic nationalism, the Taoiseach assured them the Government had protected their interests. He stated "Your birth right as Irish citizens, and therefore as EU citizens, will be protected". He added "You will never again be left behind by an Irish Government."
It was a very welcome and positive commitment. However, many now believe this promise has been broken. The specific commitment to citizens who reside in the North is missing from the withdrawal agreement.
I have raised this several times in the Dáil. The Government has yet to explain why the "rock-solid, cast iron" and "politically bullet proof" joint report commitment of December 2017 on the rights of Irish citizens in the North to enjoy rights as European Union citizens is missing from the withdrawal agreement.
The additional seats allocated by the EU to this State could have been allocated to the North but the Government said "No." Why?
In a letter to the Taoiseach last November, 1,000 civic nationalists from across the island of Ireland expressed their deep concerns at the Government’s commitment to uphold its promises and responsibilities under the Good Friday Agreement. They identified the denial of access to free healthcare in EU states and the prohibitive costs of students from the North studying at any university in the South. They said there is a real potential that partition could be reinforced and our country and our people further divided.
The Irish Government and its lobby of EU neighbours on Brexit rightly stressed the centrality of the Good Friday Agreement to the outcome of the Brexit negotiations. Yet we have the Tánaiste and the Taoiseach repeatedly dismissing a part of the agreement, which is a referendum on Irish unity. That too is a key provision and an integral part of the Good Friday Agreement.
At Queen's University two weeks ago the Tánaiste chose to claim that any debate on Irish unity would be like pouring petrol into a furnace that is already pretty hot. Once again, the Irish Government is limiting the rights of citizens to what is tolerable to a section of unionism. Has this led to unionist leaders being more friendly toward the Taoiseach and Tánaiste? No. The Tánaiste met the DUP recently. To the best of my recollection it is the first formal meeting the DUP leadership had with him since February last year despite numerous and appropriate efforts by the Government to meet them.
The Taoiseach and the Tánaiste cannot cherry-pick from the Good Friday Agreement. There is a responsibility and a constitutional obligation to promote the goal of Irish unity and to work to achieve it through democratic dialogue and negotiation. The Taoiseach and Tánaiste also persist in blaming the impasse in the North on what they refer to as the problem parties of Sinn Féin and the DUP.
While this may be popular with sections of Fine Gael support, it serves no purpose in the North, except to annoy nationalists and republicans. They will have been even more annoyed by the Tánaiste's ridiculous claim in the Dáil last Thursday that the British Government “has also recognised its own obligations under the Good Friday Agreement, to its credit”. This is stuff and nonsense and the Tánaiste knows that. The Tánaiste also knows that it is the DUP that has set its face against rights for citizens that exist in every other jurisdiction on these islands.
A few years ago, Fine Gael, under the leadership of Deputy Enda Kenny, got itself in a mess over the issue of customs posts on the Border. There were claims and counter claims of Revenue planning for and preparing sites for customs posts on the Border. Last week Minister Shane Ross, suggested Border checks are inevitable in the event of a no-deal Brexit. He is right! Unless the Government refuses to establish these checks. The Government has yet to state clearly and unequivocally that it will not erect customs posts on the Border. Watch this space. Hard border? Soft border? We don’t want no border at all.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Jer O’Leary – A Voice of the People

Jer as Big Jim Larkin
I have been at too many funerals since Christmas. Ted says it’s because we are people of a certain age. Former Dundalk Sinn Féin Councillor Harry Todd, Arthur Mullen, Armagh City Sinn Féin activist Dympna McCague (Corrigan) and actor and trade union activist Jer O’Leary all passed. I never got to the funeral of David Cullinane’s mother Bernadette. Or H Block escapee Seamus McElwaine’s mother. And my friend Jane Crane didn’t have a funeral. Instead her ashes were scattered on Errigal. Great human beings all of them. I am blessed to have known them. My condolences and sympathies to all of their families.
I was at Jer O’Leary’s funeral along with Mary Lou McDonald, Micheál Mac Donncha, Lucilita Breathnach and many others from Sinn Féin. There were other political activists, people from theatre and cinema, trade unionists, friends and neighbours. Jer’s coffin was draped in the Starry Plough and the procession included some of his finest trade union banners.
I have known Jeremiah ‘Jer’ O’Leary for decades. He was a big man. Big in body. Big in spirit. Big in voice. Most people have heard of Big Jim Larkin. His name is synonymous with that of James Connolly and the 1913 Dublin Lock-out. Jer’s performance as Larkin brought the character and strength and voice of Larkin alive to generations who never knew him. In countless pageants, Sinn Féin Ard Fheiseanna, community events and plays Jer revelled in the part of Larkin. With arms outstretched, head raised and voice booming he was the embodiment of Big Jim.
Tom Hartley receiving Trade Union Banner form Jer 1986
Jer was a proud north-side Dubliner. He grew up in Drumcondra. According to his sister Margaret; “It was a great neighbourhood to grow up in, with dozens of local kids around our own age, and after school and during the holidays with everybody playing together on the local roads and on the railway line when we could get away with it.  Football featured early in Jer’s life with daily battles on the road with teams from adjacent districts.” For years he supported Drumcondra FC but when that folded he began to support Bohemian FC which he continued to do until his death. Jer also supported Glasgow Celtic.
In Dublin, and Belfast the weekend was also cinema time. TVs were a rare item in working class homes. Jer loved westerns and comics. He left school at 14 and by 16 was working in Birmingham helping to build the Bull Ring project. In the 1967 he joined the IRA. The story is told that he was one of the sentries for the IRA Army Convention which was held in December 1969 and which saw the IRA split into the Official and Provisional groups. Jer was an Official and had the dubious distinction of being the first person convicted in the South for IRA activity after 1969. He was imprisoned in Mountjoy.  He later left the Officials and joined the Communist Party of Ireland but he remained friends with all of his former republican comrades from the 60’s.
Jer was a strong trade unionist. He was a member of the ITGWU and later Equity and SIPTU Health. He took a particular interest in international struggles and was a prominent supporter of the campaign to end apartheid in South Africa. As a trade unionist he put the artistic skills he honed in Mountjoy Prison to great use designing and making banners for trade unions. He was always proud when he saw his banners on protest marches and demonstrations.
It was in 1975 in the Non-Stop Connolly Show in Liberty Hall that Jer first played the role of Big Jim Larkin. Later he attracted wider public attention when he took part in Peter and Jim Sheridan’s production of James Plunkett’s The Risen People. His radical republican politics were always very close to his heart. So close that on one memorable occasion at the end of the performance of The Marat Sade – a Marxist view of the French Revolution – in an unrehearsed speech to the packed audience he proclaimed that the men imprisoned for the Sallins’ train robbery were innocent.
At Jer's funeral
Jer had parts in 42 films, including Braveheart, My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father, Michael Collins, and the Field. He also acted in Game of Thrones. But it as Big Jim Larkin that he will be most fondly remembered.
Jer O’Learly understood the power of language, of words. And he could deliver a speech like no other. At a Sinn Féin event in the Mansion House he was Big Jim Larkin. In Glasnevin Cemetery in 2017 he read the 1916 Proclamation. Over the years he has spoken at countless republican events often as Larkin, sometimes as himself and occasionally as James Connolly delivering his final statement to the Court Martial.
In 1998 the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis celebrated the 200th anniversary of the United Irish Society. Jer was Wolfe Tone. He was accompanied by a group of pike men and women, including his son Diarmuid. Later that year Diarmuid died in a fire in Glasgow. Jer and Diarmuid had separately travelled to Glasgow for a Celtic match and bumped into each other briefly afterward. Diarmuid died later that day in a fire. It was a terrible loss for Jer, and the rest of the family. Subsequently Jer’s partner Eithne died in December 2017. It was a loss he never properly recovered from.
Finally, in October 2017 he attended Spraoi ar an Sráid, the Moore Street Party that Micheál Mac Donncha organised as Ardmhéara of Dublin. The event was to support of the campaign to save the 1916 battlefield site. Once again he passionately proclaimed the words of the French revolutionary Camile Desmoulins, as quoted by Connolly and Larkin:
"The great are not great. The great only appear great because we are on our knees. Let us arise!" 
Ní bheidh a leithéid arís ann agus mar a dúirt Jer féin go  minic 'An Phoblacht abú.'"

Saturday, January 12, 2019

A challenging year ahead

2019 is already promising to be one of those year’s historians and pundits love to label ‘seminal’ or ‘watershed’. There are big issues and big challenges coming down the tracks which will potentially shape life on our island for years to come.
The most immediate and obvious is Brexit. England and Wales voted to leave the European Union in 2016. The North and Scotland voted to remain. Those democratic votes have been set aside as the Brexiteers rush lemming-like toward the cliff. British politics are in chaos. A deeply divided Conservative party is being propped up by the DUP. Theresa May says that she is trying to chart a course that will avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland and a calamitous economic melt-down of the British economy.
According to a poll of Conservative Party members published this week there is a large majority – 64% - in favour of a no-deal Brexit. Only 29% would support the withdrawal agreement Theresa May struck with the EU. According to the Economic and Social Research Council poll the “Tory rank and file, it seems, are convinced that no deal is better than May’s deal.” Many are also vehemently opposed to the backstop agreement.
No one on this island will be surprised by this or by Tory opposition to the backstop. In recent months English jingoism toward Ireland has been strident. Last month a British government report suggested that the South could face food shortages if there was a no-deal Brexit. Former British Conservative Minister, Priti Patel jumped on this claim and said that the British government should exploit potential food shortages in Ireland in its negotiations with the EU. There was widespread outrage with many people reminding her of the despicable role of Britain in the Great Hunger.
Comedian Patrick Kielty scathingly responded with;
Quick one for Priti Patel before she reruns the Irish Famine -
Ireland is a major importer of food from the UK.
The UK is a major importer of food from the EU.
Ireland is a member of, guess what? The EU.
If shit was wit she’d be constipated”.
Another senior Tory and former Minister commenting on Brexit told the BBC that “we simply cannot allow the Irish to treat us like this … This simply cannot stand. The Irish really should know their place”.
And this week Jacob Rees Mogg tried to shift responsibility for Brexit, and any damaging effects, away from the Conservatives and onto the Irish government. He tweeted last Thursday: “If we leave without a deal the main culprit will be the obdurate Irish government’s threats about the phantom border issue.”
Next week the British Parliament will vote on Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement. With up to 40 Conservative MPs and the DUP saying NO – and the British Labour Party seeking an election and opposing the withdrawal agreement – it seems very likely May will lose. She has thus far dismissed suggestions that she should extend Article 50 or withdraw it entirely and then apply again to buy more time.
Whatever decision the British government and Parliament take the shambles that is Brexit will stagger on into the months and probably years ahead. The multiple dangers it presents for citizens on this island - especially those living in the north – to the Good Friday Agreement, to human rights protections and to the two economies on the island, are enormous.
In this Brexit context – with the report into the RHI scandal to be published – and the DUP stubbornly refusing to properly address the key issues of rights which collapsed the institutions, the task of finding a resolution to the current impasse remains hugely problematic.
In addition, there are a range of other challenges in 2019. In May there will be a referendum in the South on the right of Irish citizens in the North and in the diaspora to vote in Presidential elections. This is an important opportunity that must be grasped. On the same day May 24th there will also be local government elections north and south. In the north we don’t know yet if the SDLP will stand candidates under its own party name or if Fianna Fáil will  have gobbled it up in the much speculated merger. The SDLP has been in decline for some years now. The loss of all its Westminster seats in 2017 was a huge blow. It has scrambled to make itself relevant. The way its leadership has handle all this merger issue must be deeply upsetting to SDLP members.
In the past the SDLP was always close to Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Irish Labour Party. These parties regularly campaigned in the North in support of SDLP candidates. However, the decisive shift by northern voters away from the SDLP and Westminster has clearly forced a rethink within the SDLP and a realisation that the future of politics for Irish political parties is on the island of Ireland. Hence the conversations with Fianna Fáil. That party, and most especially its leader Micheál Martin, is obsessed with Sinn Féin and its growth in the South. He has prevaricated for years now on organising Fianna Fáil in the North. The issue of successful SDLP/Fianna Fáil Westminster candidates swearing an oath to an English Monarch is one which we will all watch with interest given Fianna Fail’s claim to be The Republican Party.
There is also a question about whether Fianna Fáil, if it had a mandate in the North, would power share with Sinn Féin. Micheál Martin has ruled out going into government with Sinn Féin in the South because he claims the party is not fit for government. So what about the North?
Other substantial issues, including legacy, housing and homelessness, the state of the health services, will also top the political agendas north and south in 2019.
Internationally, climate change is the single biggest challenge facing humanity this century. I will write more on this soon. The crisis in the Middle East, and especially the appalling treatment of the Palestinian people, will sadly persist in casting a shadow over an international community that has shamefully failed to uphold international law and confront Israel’s apartheid policies. These matters and others will ensure that this will be a testing and busy political year.2019 here we come! Bliain Úr faoi mhaise daoibhse go leir.