Friday, January 24, 2020

Keep your eye on the prize

The national struggle for Irish freedom and independence is centuries old.  Our story is a history of revolts, resistance and uprisings. Ireland is often described as England’s first colony. It is that denial of Irish self-determination; of national sovereignty, that is at the heart of the long continuum of struggle for freedom.
Those readers old enough will remember when this part of the island was deeply militarised. When the British were in occupation of working class republican, urban and rural heartlands.
During that time there was an ongoing effort by our opponents to demonise and criminalise and to treat republicans as pariahs. It was classic counter-insurgency – to physically, politically and emotionally break the connection between the freedom fighters and their support base. Most infamously this was attempted with the denial of political status which resulted in the hunger strikes in the 1980s.
Sinn Féin put it up to Church hierarchies, political opponents and British and Irish politicians and governments, that there was no point in condemning and denouncing resistance. We challenged them to come up with an alternative.
As a result of our strategising the Sinn Féin leadership understood that we had to build the party, prepare coherent policies and figure out how, in the midst of a conflict that was centuries old, peace could be developed. We were talking to liberal unionists; to people from the business sector, from the Churches, and within our own base. Fr. Alex Reid and Fr. Des Wilson took seriously the idea of an alternative and they supported it in their discussions with others. We also realised that it was us who had to develop the alternative. The establishments did not want change.
In 1986 I met John Hume and two years later a leadership delegation met the SDLP. We exchanged papers and when the discussions ended in September 1988 we published them all. Self-determination was the big issue, among others, that we failed to agree on. In 1987 Sinn Féin produced Scenario for Peace. I was still privately talking John Hume and in 1990 a back channel was established to the British government. There followed three years of contact. We had also opened up, through Fr. Reid’s good offices, talks with Fianna Fáil.
In November 1990 the British Secretary of State Peter Brooke said that Britain had no “selfish strategic or economic interest” in the North. This led some to conclude that the British were neutral. They weren’t. Because Britain said it had no self-interest, did not mean that they had no interest or that it was true.
At our Ard Fheis in February 1992 we published a new policy paper, ‘Towards a Lasting Peace in Ireland’. At a time when others were focused on conflict and trying to defeat Irish Republicans, Sinn Féin’s ‘Towards a Lasting Peace’ proposed a strategy to establish a peace process. It placed sovereignty and independence at the heart of peace and identified the role of the Irish diaspora and the Irish government in making process work. This latter point was the big shift in republican thinking. We were not only arguing for self-determination but we were now saying that the Irish government had a central role to play in securing this. This focus on self-determination was a core part of Sinn Féin’s approach to negotiations which we by now had embraced as a means of struggle.
Through all the twists and turns of the process we kept our eyes on the prize.
In our internal discussion about creating a peace process Sinn Féin realised that most successful national liberation struggles had an international dimension. The natural dimension of international support that republicans could tap into was our diaspora and in particular the USA.
These elements about an alternative to conflict and the centrality of self-determination are in the Good Friday Agreement. In 1998 British constitutional authority rested in the Government of Ireland Act 1920. We tried to get the Irish government to urge the British to change this and they wouldn’t do it. I remember Martin and I going to Blair and insisting that he scrap the Government of Ireland Act. I went to him many times until he agreed that they would get rid of it. Its replacement is the Good Friday Agreement.
We had in fact established an alternative – a peaceful way to win freedom for the first time in our history. So there will be a united Ireland if that’s what the people decide or a continuation of the Union if that’s what people want. The Good Friday Agreement is also about parity of esteem, parity of opportunity, and rights.
The important element of the Good Friday Agreement around self-determination is that a successful referendum on the island of Ireland by people in both states will mean that the British government will legislate for an end to the Union.
So here we are 40 years on from when we were first arguing for the right to self-determination and it is at the top of the political agenda. The difference now is that more and more people are talking about Irish Unity. There is now a peaceful and democratic way to achieve it. The alternative which we started to try and develop in the 1980s and persuade others to bring forward – an alternative that we actually brought forward –is there to deployed.
Unity is no longer an aspiration – it is achievable. It is a doable project. It is the prize. There for everyone on this island. All of this is part of the continuum of struggle. 

Friday, January 17, 2020


Mise agus Liz and Mary Lou in Parliament Buildings

As I sat in the public gallery at Stormont  last Saturday afternoon, alongside Liz Maskey, Mary Lou McDonald and Bill Groves, I had a birds-eye view of the proceedings in the Assembly chamber below me.
The first business of the assembled Members of the Legislative Assembly was to elect a Ceann Chomhairle. I knew that Sinn Féin’s Alex Maskey would get that position, and I thought how fitting it was that his wife, Liz was there. She was the first woman interned in the 1970s. An activist in her own right Liz and Alex’s home was also the target of ongoing attacks by the RUC, British Army and Unionist paramilitaries. Alex was grievously wounded in one such attack and on another occasion, in May 1993, his friend Alan Lundy was a victim of state collusion when he was shot dead in Alex’s living room by a UDA gang.
When Alex was first elected in 1983 as a Belfast City Councillor the Unionists refused to talk to him and tried to deny him speaking rights. They tried to shout him down, sounded horns, blew rape whistles whenever he tried to speak. Unionist Councillors illegally created a series of sub-committee which they excluded Alex and other Sinn Féin Councillors from and refused to invite them to civic events. Sinn Féin had to go to court to end that practice. Later the Sinn Féin Office at City Hall was bombed. Alex went on to become Belfast’s first republican Lord Mayor.
So here he was now poised to take up the responsibility to run the Assembly and to do so with the support of unionist MLAs. It’s a long way from the internment cages of Long Kesh which he and I and many others endured for a while.
When Alex was duly elected and took the Chair, and the MLAs went through the protocol of selecting the First and Deputy First Minister I reflected back on  the first time Sinn Fein nominated Ministers. That was on 29 November 1999 when I nominated Bairbre de Brún as the Minister for Health and Social Services, and Martin McGuinness as the Minister for Education.  I remember clearly the loud gasp from the unionist benches when Martin’s nomination was made.
Now another generation of republican MLAs were going to be nominated for Ministerial position with little of the drama or rancour of that first election of the power sharing government. I remember well making my way to my office in Parliament Buildings after that occasion. I was hissed at by some senior unionists. “Scum” they hissed.
Now things are much more cordial and mannerly. That’s a good thing.
Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill were duly elected to the office of First and Deputy First Minister before Alex adjourned proceedings for a short period. Across from me in the public gallery opposite, among the Irish and British civil servants, was a delegation of  activists from An Dream Dearg. They were resplendent in their red t-shirts with its familiar white circle. They correctly welcomed the legislation on the Irish Language as historic and as a staging post in their campaign. Acht na Gaeilge is indeed historic but all of us have much more to do to win support for, and increase the use of Irish so that it becomes a normal part of all our lives, including those who currently oppose it, if thats what they want. All of us should try to normalise the use of Irish and demonstrate that it really is no threat to anyone. On the contrary it enriches all of our lives.
I left Stormont before it concluded its business  to do some food shopping after all the time spent in negotiations, but happy in the knowledge that Conor Murphy would soon be the Finance Minister, Deirdre Hargey the Minister for Communities and Declan Kearney a junior Minister in OFDM. A formidable Ministerial team who will be backed up by strong Sinn Féin committee chairs and John O’Dowd as Priomh Aoire an Phairtí – Party Chief Whip. All in all it was a good afternoon’s work. I wish the new Executive well.
Of course, there are aspects of the New Decade New Approach document which are not part of the agreement. Sinn Féin has  not  signed up to these. They  include the British Armed Services Covenant, additional days for the flying of the Union flag and other elements produced by London and acquiesced to by Dublin.
The first item on the agenda of the incoming Executive will be to introduce pay parity in the Health Service. There will be reform of the Petition of Concern, welfare mitigations are to be extended, the definition of citizenship which the Emma de Souza case has highlighted will be changed, and there will be strategies , based on objective need, to tackle poverty and sectarianism. The British government has now committed to bring forward within 100 days the legacy proposals that were agreed five years ago in the Stormont House Agreement but have been blocked ever since by that government.
The agreement itself does have the potential to deliver real change and I think the Sinn Féin negotiating team did a good job, in keeping with the standards set out by our leader Martin McGuinness in his resignation letter.
Of course there will be many, many challenges in the time ahead but I wholeheartedly welcome the re-establishment of the power sharing government as progress. I have long believed that there needs to be a space for the people of the North, through their political representatives, to moderate our differences. I believe that the responsibility of United Irelanders is to continue to make preparations for Irish Unity. This can be complemented if approached strategically by our involvement in the Assembly, and the all-Ireland institutions of the Good Friday Agreement.
Practical all-Ireland economic measures are required as well as ongoing opposition to Brexit. The development of a Bill of Rights and an all-Ireland Charter of Rights, Civic Forums north and south, and the securing of a referendum on Irish Unity, all need to be priorities in the time ahead.  So progress can be made in advancing the national struggle peacefully and democratically alongside the battle for economic rights, equality and an end to poverty.
So there you have it. By the time you get to reading this column the Taoiseach will probably have announced a date for the general election in the South. That means I will be out of a job. Any offers. Anyone?
It also means I can get my hair cut – if I so decide. I won my bet with Martin Ferris to let my hair grow until the general election is called.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Government U Turn a Victory for People Power

The leaders of the 1916 Rising were identified for Court Martial and Execution by the RIC
Last week the Irish government announced a programme of centenary commemorations for 1920, and the events that year which saw an escalation in the fighting between republican forces and the various British armed agencies – the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP), the Black and Tans, the Auxiliaries and the British Army. Much of the programme will be centred around Cork which witnessed many of the events of that year. 
1920 saw the killing of Tomás MacCurtáin and the death on hunger strike of Terence MacSwiney, both Lord Mayors of the City. Other centenary events to be commemorated include the execution of Kevin Barry, Bloody Sunday in Croke Park in November 1920, the Mutiny in India by the Connaught Rangers, and there will be some support for reconciliation projects in the North. 
However the decision by the government to hold a commemoration on January 17th for those who served in the Royal Irish Constabulary and the Dublin Metropolitan Police prior to Irish independence, caused a public outcry which has forced the government to announce a deferral of the commemoration. 
The attempt by the government to try and separate out the role of the RIC and DMP prior to 1919, and their actions during 1919-21 Tan War, was disingenuous and fooled no one. It ignored the role of both paramilitary forces in the nineteenth and early twentieth century in defending the British colonial system in Ireland and in the violent oppression of Irish citizens. 
No one should be surprised by the government’s attempt to hold this commemoration. It is symptomatic of an Irish establishment which is embarrassed by the revolutionary period in Irish history. Remember the disgraceful video used by the Government the launch the centenary of 1916 events. The 1916 leaders were not even mentioned. The Government clearly planned for an anemic dishonest version of the Rising. Popular opinion ensured that this did not happen. The majority of Irish people are proud of the revolutionary period. This showed in the multitude of spontaneous local and national events organised across Ireland and abroad.  And numerous publications. So the Government and Fianna Fáil leadership were forced to shift their position. Or at least their posture. 
This dishonest stance was repeated by the Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan who last September attended a commemoration for RIC members killed by the IRA during the Tan War. At that time Minister Flanagan described the RIC as “doing their job. They were murdered in the line of duty. They were doing what police officers do. As they saw it they were protecting communities from harm. They were maintaining the rule of law. These are fundamental to police services everywhere.”
The historical reality of course was very different. The RIC and DMP were not protecting communities from harm. They were inflicting harm. The rule of law these two paramilitary forces were maintaining and defending was one designed by a British colonial system seeking to defend British interests in Ireland, and in particular the interests of its landlord and business class. 
When families were being forcibly evicted from their homes during the Great Hunger, and millions more were forced to flee to the USA, Canada, Australia in the decades afterward, it was the RIC which was the paramilitary enforcer of these British policies. The many images of families being evicted from their homes, often with battering rams, show RIC members in attendance.
Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries British rule was only possible because of a succession of coercion laws which the RIC and DMP enforced. In Dublin thousands were evicted from overcrowded tenements because they couldn’t afford the inflated rents. 

When the Dublin Lock-out took place in 1913 it was the Dublin Metropolitan Police and RIC that enforced the will of the bosses. 
Early in the strike two workers, James Nolan and John Byrne were killed by the RIC. On 31 August 1913 Dublin Castle banned a mass meeting in O’Connell Street and the DMP and RIC savagely attacked the thousands who defied the ban on Ireland’s first Bloody Sunday. Between 400 and 600 people were injured in baton charges.One consequence of this was the formation of the Irish Citizen Army to defend workers against assaults from the Dublin Metropolitan Police. 

After the Easter Rising in 1916 the RIC and DMP were to the fore in defending Britain’s Irish policies, including the use of martial law and internment when it was introduced in May 1918. They were integral to imposing Britain’s paramilitary regime in Ireland.
While there may have been some among them who wished to be police officers neither organisation was a police service. No doubt there were decent officers in their ranks and their families have the right pay tribute to them. But for the state to commemorate these organisations is wrong. Along with the Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries, the Royal Irish Constabulary and Dublin Metropolitan Police were part and parcel of Britain’s counter insurgency strategy in Ireland and its campaign of terror against the Irish people. They killed citizens and tortured detainees. They imposed a brutal regime of violence. As a consequence the RIC and DMP were feared and distrusted and rejected by the communities they purported to serve. They were also rejected by those elected to the Dáil in 1918. 
In April 10,1919 Eamon De Valera, among other speakers in Dáil Éireann, declared that the RIC were “no ordinary civil force, as police are in other countries. The RIC, unlike any police force in the world, is a military body armed with rifle and bayonet and revolver as well as baton.... they are spies in our midst.”
Eoin O Neill said; “The police in Ireland are a force of traitors and the police in Ireland are a force of perjurers’
The Taoiseach and Minister Flanagan’s disrespectful revisionism of the Irish people’s history of struggle for freedom does a grave disservice to those who were part of that struggle. There will be commemorations to remember important events in 1920. That is appropriate. But the Government also wanted us to commemorate the RIC whose members participated in many of those same events. The RIC took part in the attack on innocent civilians on Bloody Sunday at Croke Park. It was an RIC squad which murdered Cork Lord Mayor Tomás MacCurtain. And it should not be forgotten that it was G Division of the RIC which was responsible for identifying the leaders of the 1916 who were to be court martialed and executed. Are we now expected to be neutral about this? Or like Minister Flanagan to assert that, “They were doing what police officers do’.
The Government must go beyond deferral and scrap any plan now or in the future to commemorate the role of the RIC and the DMP. The shallowness and opportunism of their position on these events has been exposed. So has the posturing of the Fianna Fáil Leader. 
The Government’s lack of respect for the courage and sacrifice of those who fought for Irish freedom has also been highlighted. Their U turn is a great victory for people power. The widespread popular outrage at their stupidity and shoneenism is uplifting and proof yet again that the spirit of genuine patriotism and national pride is alive and well. 

Thursday, January 2, 2020


Floorboards was my friend. Sorry.  Floorboards is my friend. As regular readers will know this column doesn’t believe that your friends cease to be your friends just because they die. No, they are still your friends. If a friend goes off to the USA or somewhere else that doesn’t mean they stop being a friend. No. You may not see them again but the friendship doesn’t cease. So with Floorboards. He died last month. All of a sudden. But he is still my friend.  
So my solidarity and condolences to Frances and their daughters Joanne and Sarah and their spouses and children, and Joe’s surviving siblings. Frances is a great woman. Joe’s one and only love. Quiet. Warm. Calm. The centre of gravity in Floorboard’s life and the epicentre of the life of their family.
I first met Floorboards in Long Kesh. His proper name is Joe Rafter. He is seven or eight years older than me. We invited him into Cage Eleven. He was in solitary in the Punishment Cells. Apparently following a disagreement with the republican regime he left the cages. But understandably he refused to relinquish his political status. So he was on protest in the Punishment Cells. Gaol is like that. So I asked if we could take him in. We could I was advised. So we did. 
Jim McCann, PaddyA, Floorboards and Liam Stone
Unlike a lot of the other cages, Cage Eleven was a more relaxed, less militarised regime. That suited Joe. He was a free spirit. Prepared, at a stretch, to tolerate the penal regime but not really capable of letting tedious prisoner made rules govern every element of his life and every minute of his time. Joe got bored easily. He needed to be doing things. He had great energy. He had great hands for making handicrafts. He enjoyed storytelling, craic.  Cleaky and he were great buddies.
They were both from North Belfast though Joe was always more of a country man than the urban centric Cleaky. That’s probably the Ligoniel and Silverstream in him. That’s where the Rafter family moved to from Ardilea Street in the Bone and where Joe spent his formative years. He had great yarns of wild times with friends from the Traveller community. Tales of dogs and donkies. Of painting barns and taramacing drive ways and laneways. Of scrapes and escapes. Of working moves. Of nature and the outdoors. Little wonder prison life didn’t suit him.
He used to make very fine covered wagons as ornaments in tribute to the travellers he worked with back in the day.  That’s how he survived Long Kesh. By futtering at this and that, like most of us. And he did his time and went back to Frances and painting barns to support his clánn. As strong as an ox, he took any work he could get as long as it was outside. He remained loyal to the republican cause through all the twists and turns of recent times. He didn’t have much time for bar room revolutionaries or splitters. Joe’s politics were solid. He drove as far as Cork to erect posters in recent elections and he was there at the convention in which selected Declan Kearney as the local Sinn Féin candidate.
Joe didn’t have much time for the organised religions but his core values were about decency, compassion and fairness. He didn’t have a sectarian bone in his body and he retained his relationships with people from the Protestant tradition particularly with cronies he had from before the conflict. He had a great affection for the United Irish Society.  For Tone and Jemmy Hope. He loved to recite ‘The Man from God Knows Where’.
RG, PaddyA, Wee Harry, mise, Floorboards agus Tangus
Recitations or ‘rec-imitations’ were Joe’s thing. ‘I’m livin’ in Drumlister’ was one of his party pieces. That and jiving. He also wrote his own verses. Some are very funny. Others are very patriotic. He also loved folklore, country ways, old stories. Black thorn sticks. Dogs. He didn’t have much Irish. I can picture him contesting that with me. His eyes full of mischief and devilment. But, ‘Is Mise Raifteirí An File’ was one of his favourite Irish poems. And he loved the poetry of the Australian writer and poet Henry Lawson. Lawson was a Bush poet renowned for his tales of down and outs and ordinary folk in the style of Robert Service. And Floorboards.
Joe was a dapper dresser. Horseymen’s yellah boots. Chinos. A decent tweed cap or hat. A waist coat. He and I were to get together recently. We had talked on the phone to arrange it. I was really looking forward to a good evening’s soiree. A wee drink maybe? Lots of tall tales and good craic.  The first get together in a long time. But elections after elections, my work as a TD in Louth and other busyness, which keeps me out of Belfast most of the time, meant we put it off until after December 12 and the Westminster contest. 
Then I got the word. Joe had died suddenly. And so I spent more time at his wake and getting there and back, than we probably would have got if we had met up. And I regret that. The only consolation was that I and lots of Joe’s comrades got to be with Frances when she needed us and we got to meet again with her enlarged family including their wonderful grandchildren.
Sarah summed up what they owed Joe and the men and women of his generation when she spoke movingly of her father, their grandfather. And Joanne recited Mo Chraoibhín Cno. Floorboards would have approved. He would also approve of Liam Stone’s words of farewell and the eloquent words of his grandson Niall and brother Terry, as well as his youngest granddaughter Jessica’s recital of ‘Is Mise Raifteirí An File’ and another of his Granddaughter’s, Edel who recited Joe’s own poem.   I will leave the last word with Floorboards himself. He would like that. Slán Joseph. See you along the road.

Passing Through
To friends I love and friends I knew,
I write these lines and think of you.
And of a time long years ago,
When in the bog, trees did not grow.
As we were passing through.

Yet seeds were gathered for the sowing,
At a time of Roisin’s choosing.
Stratified and Sanctified,
Blessed by the blood of sacrifice.
As we were passing through.
Still some blind others will not know,
From these seeds strong trees will grow.
And weep for those spoke Judas prose.
As we were passing through.

For absent friends in memory.
To our children leave a legacy,
In peace and love united be.
Free from the centre to the sea,
With life as long as Joshua tree,
When we have passed on through.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

2020 – the year ahead

When An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar finally decides in 2020, with his Fianna Fáil partner in government Micheál Martin, to call the general election my tenure as the TD for Louth will come to an end. Sin é. It will also mean for me that after 38 years I will no longer be an elected representative of the people. Sin é fosta.
I was first elected by the people of west Belfast to the short lived Assembly in 1982. The following year I was elected as MP for west Belfast. With a brief break I was an MP, and an MLA in the Assembly until 2010 when I announced my intention to run for the Dáil for the constituency of Louth. It was a significant initiative by Sinn Féin. Some in the media described it as a “gamble.” Some predicted- hoped - I would fail to be elected. But with a great team of activists and the goodwill of the people of Louth I topped the poll.
Just over ten years later the general election will be called and I will leave the Dáil. I will continue to be a political activist but with no responsibilities as an elected representative.
So 2020 will bring big changes for me personally. 2020 should also see the publication of the Inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI). The delay in publishing this report – long overdue – is clearly political although all involved will deny this is so. Its consequences for those under scrutiny will reinforce the lack of confidence in the political system or start the slow process of building that confidence.
Consequently, as we enter the third decade of the 21st century there are many challenges and also many opportunities ahead. In the short term Sinn Féin is engaged in negotiations with the other parties and the Irish and British governments to secure an agreement to restore the power sharing institutions. The recent general election results and the demographic population changes have created a new dynamic.
However sections of the media and the two governments are over stating the claim that the ‘electorate is sending the political parties back to work’ narrative. This is definitely not the case as far as Sinn Féin voters are concerned. I want the power sharing government restored and on a rights based format and I believe that this is doable. I also believe that the power sharing arrangements working properly are entirely compatible and indeed complementary to the process towards Irish re-unification. But I found during the Westminster election campaign strong resistance within very representative sections of the Sinn Féin electorate to a return to the Assembly. Yes there is also a desire to see the Assembly restored but to succeed this clearly has to be to different and reformed arrangements. The danger, as always, is that the two governments will take a minimalist approach, acquiesce to the DUP and try to pressurize Sinn Féin. That would be a mistake.
The political landscape is transforming as we watch. 100 years ago in 1920 the Government of Ireland Act imposed partition. In the general election that followed in November 1922 only 2 out of 13 MPs were nationalist. Two years later in 1924 there were no nationalist MPs elected. Sixty years later the situation hadn’t improved much. In 1983 Unionism took 15 out of 17 seats. That was the consistent pattern in the gerrymandered northern state.
Two weeks ago, after years of incremental change, there was a seismic shift. Parties from the broadly nationalist/republican perspective won 9 seats out of 18. The DUP - the only unionist party to win seats – took 8. The Alliance party won one seat. Unionism’s majority at Westminster is gone. In Belfast Unionism now holds – and only just holds - one of the four Belfast seats. The defeat of Nigel Dodds in North Belfast is indicative of a citizenry that wants real change and is prepared to back parties that are positive and looking to the future.
More fundamentally, for the longer term constitutional arrangements on this island and within these islands, the so-called United Kingdom is increasingly confirming its status as the ‘disunited Kingdom’. The election results have confirmed that that is the political direction of travel. This is underlined by the overwhelming dominance of the English Tories in the British Parliament. In poll after poll in the last year these same English Tories put Brexit self-interest above the Union. They were prepared to abandon the North – to abandon unionists - as long as they got Brexit done. What value English loyalty to unionists?
At the same time the increased vote for the SNP (Scottish National Party), as well as the loss of the DUP’s majority in the North, are evidence that Boris Johnson’s claim that he would ‘unite the country’ is so much hot air. More telling for 2020 is Nicola Sturgeon’s assertion that the SNP now has a “renewed, refreshed and strengthen” mandate for a second referendum on Scottish independence. Scottish independence will be a significant political battleground in the year ahead.
Of course, Brexit hasn’t gone away. On the contrary it will continue to dominate politics and the economies of these islands in 2020. Johnson, with his 80 strong Parliamentary majority will now be able to push through his Withdrawal Agreement by January 31st. And he will lie and bluster and spoof to get his way. Remember his commitment to the DUP that there would be no border in the Irish Sea? That didn’t last long. Add to that the lies he brazenly told during the election campaign - about no checks on goods between the North and Britain.
The SDLP claim that it would ‘Stop Boris and Stop Brexit’ was a good sound bite for the election but it was never real. This is the party which never turned up for work in the Executive, which failed to take responsibility for the health or education portolio. The UUP appears to be going nowhere. The much vaunted influence of the DUP is gone. The confidence and supply arrangement with the Conservative Party ended, as I predicted in tears.
Sinn Fein failed to hold the Foyle seat, despite the best efforts of Elisha and her team, and our vote slipped overall but in the current political climate it was a credible performance. Sinn Féin hold seven seats and the election of John Finucane in North Belfast was for me the highlight of the election.
In 2020 Brexit will continue to drive the momentum for greater change. As its adverse impact on the island of Ireland emerges ever more clearly it will be the driver for the growing debate around Irish Unity. Increasingly, people from all walks of life and all political hues in the North are accepting that a United Ireland provides the best means of keeping the island of Ireland within the EU. So 2020 will see the debate around Irish Unity intensify. The challenge will be to make it even more mainstream. To take it into communities. To engage with that section of unionism which has disconnected from political unionism. To increase pressure on the Irish government to make preparations for Unity. To examine how we can break through the sectarian wall that keeps people and communities divided.
Irish unity is no longer an aspiration. It is a doable project. The re-unification of our people and our country needs to be planned. That is crucial. I believe all of this can be done. I believe 2020 will see us take more positive steps along the road to Unity.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

A new shop front for the Falls: An Fhuiseog – The Lark

 If you are looking for a gift for Christmas, a decent book of Irish interest or republican memorabilia, political posters, craft work, Irish language cards, prints, recordings of rebel songs or decent T-shorts then the new An Fhuiseog is the place for you. Siopa an Ealine, the republican book shop has been a local feature of the Falls Road for over 40 years. Now located at 55 Falls Road it was first opened at 85 Falls Road in 1975 by Proinsias MacAirt. I knew MacAirt. He was imprisoned in the 1940’s and 50’s and later in the 1970s. In fact he was one of those republicans who were interned for a short period in August 1969. MacAirt was also editor on Republican News for two years between 1970 and 72 until his arrest and imprisonment again.
Outside of his more serious activist role MacAirt also loved to sing. He was a fine seán nós singer. In 1975 republicans took over an old derelict building at the corner of Linden Street on the Falls Road. It became the centre for providing transport for republican prisoner’s families to the various prisons. MacAirt opened the Art Shop - Siopa an Ealine – as part of the project. It got its name from the craft work it sold, in particular the republican handicrafts – leather work, carved Harps and Celtic Crosses which were made by the internees, and by the sentenced prisoners in the Cages of Long Kesh, in Armagh Women’s Prison and in Portlaoise. The profits went to the prisoners support organisation Green Cross.
When MacAirt stepped down he was replaced by Billy Parker and then by the redoubtable Gonne Carmichael (Roe) and Roseleen Ferris.
In 1980 Tom Cahill managed to raise the money to buy 51/53 Falls Road which had been a doctor’s surgery but which was then derelict, a dundering in. After a couple of weeks of making the building weather proof Gonne and Roseleen moved down from and opened the shop in what was then  53 Falls Road. Conditions were primitive. The building was damp, freezing in the winter and was once described by a bad tempered RUC man - who had got lost while raiding it - as a rabbit warren.
Gonne had always wanted to sell political books and she grasped this new opportunity. While the shop continued to sell handicrafts Gonne began to sell an increasing number of political and history books and pamphlets. Later after Gonne got married and went to live in France for a time Marguerite Gallagher and Pat McGivern took over.
For much of the 70s, 80’s and 90’s Sinn Féin offices, party members and family members were targeted by unionist death squads. Working in the shop was very dangerous. Late one Wednesday evening loyalists hung a bomb on the shop’s grill and drove off. Some children who saw them alerted families living in Sevastopol Street. The bomb exploded and destroyed the inside of the shop. Fortunately it didn’t catch fire. The rest of the building housed the POW department, Republican Transport - which brought scores of families each day to the various prisons -, the party’s international department, and the Republican Press Centre. Windows were blown out and ceilings fell but the offices were open for business immediately and within two days the shop was open also.
On another occasion a UDA gang stopped across the road at the top of Leeson Street and fired a rocket at the building. It smashed into the room above the shop.
For years the women who worked in the shop and those who managed Green Cross from the back room, were a regular target of harassment by the RUC and British Army. Every day they were stopped going into and out of the shop. Often British foot patrols would stop outside the building and stop and harass everyone walking by or going in or out.
By 1992 Sinn Féin had bought 55 Falls Road and the shop was now in the middle of the building. Marguerite and Pat were there in February 1992 when RUC officer Allan Moore, pretending to be a journalist, went into the advice centre next door and opened fire killing Paddy Loughran, Pat McBride, and Michael O'Dwyer and wounding several others. When Moore left the building he was grabbed by the arm by Marguerite. She was dragged by him to his car which was parked in Sevastopol Street. He pushed her away and drove off. Later he killed himself.
Despite the obvious danger Pat and Marguerite and the other women who were often with them, were never deterred. They refused to be intimidated by the RUC and British Army or by the threats and attacks of the unionist death squads.
The Art Shop was largely frequented by local people who came to buy books and handicrafts. In the summer time the delegations of Troops Out activists from Britain and Noraid visitors from the USA would buy souvenirs for family and friends back home. But after the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement the numbers of tourists increased dramatically. When the old building was demolished and the new office constructed the Art Shop moved into 55 Falls Road.
Today the frequent tour buses slowly travel pass Sevastopol Street to allow tourists to photograph the Bobby Sands mural – which is now one of the most recognisable and iconic images in the world. Buses will stop. Black Taxi tours will drop their passengers. Groups of people will stand in front of the mural to get their photo taken. Many will go into the shop.
With so many visitors now coming every week it was decided that the shop needed to be redesigned, modernised and opened up – made more attractive. There was a need for more space and a coffee/tea dock. It is a brilliant new facility, beautifully designed, and very welcoming.
The new shop – An Fhuiseog (the Lark) – taken from Bobby Sands poem The Lark and the Freedom Fighter, accomplishes all of those things. Tony Bell, the local artist, has redesigned the name and the logo: “Like the Lark I too have fought for my freedom.”  Well done to everyone involved.
So, if you live in Belfast or are just visiting, take a few minutes and drop by An Fhuiseog. You will be warmly welcomed by Anne Marie, Joanne and Deborah. Nollaig Shona daoibhse go leir.