Friday, March 16, 2018

The Chieftain’s Walk

If you have never visited the Stone Fort of Grianán of Aileach on the Inishowen peninsula you are missing one of the most spectacular locations on the island of Ireland. I have been there many times. Standing on the five-metre-high, four-metre-thick walls you have an amazing panoramic view. On one side you can see Derry City in the distance. Grianán also overlooks Inishowen, Inch Island and there is a dramatic view of Lough Foyle and especially Lough Swilly.
It was one of Martin McGuinness’s favourite places in the world. He would walk there, no matter the weather, and whenever the opportunity presented itself. I walked there with him on many occasions. It is a place of quiet beauty.
On March 25th the ‘Chieftains Walk’ (Siúlóid an Taoisigh) in memory of Martin McGuinness will take place. Martin’s family are asking people to join them in this walk as a way of raising awareness about amyloidosis – the genetic disease from which he died. All proceeds will go to the Cancer Centre at Altnagelvin Hospital. I will be there and I hope to see many of you there also.
The walk will also be an opportunity to remember our friend Martin, whose first anniversary is on March 21st and to reflect on his life and contribution to the struggle for freedom and unity.
It is important to remember that Martin was a teenager back in the 1960s. Like hundreds – thousands – of others he was not a dedicated political activist. Just a young man living through what were unusual and turbulent times in the north.
Martin was born in 1950 into a Unionist controlled Orange State. A state that did not want him, his family, his community. Over five decades it had ruthlessly imposed a system of discrimination and inequality in employment and housing against the nationalist community. Derry suffered more than most during this time.
The civil rights movement was born out of this injustice and a demand for fairness and equality and human rights. Derry was in the vanguard of this campaign for justice. Partition, which had cut Derry off from its natural hinterland, made no sense.
The violent response of the Unionist regime and its paramilitary forces, and the militarization of the situation by the British government, set the scene for the decades of conflict which followed.
It was into this maelstrom that a young Martin McGuinness and many other Derry wans bravely stepped. It was this Martin McGuinness - young, idealistic, courageous, a leader – who I met for the first time behind the barricades in Derry. His politics were shaped by the Derry experience, by his love of Derry and by his mother Peggy’s homeplace in Inishowen.
There was a ready warmth in his smile. A genuine openness and a pleasant, unpretentious personality. In the years that followed Martin and I shared many adventures and memorable times. Some funny, some not.
It was a time of great hurt and loss. Many people, including children, died. Fine republican men and women were killed during the years of war and it fell to Martin and I on many occasions to speak at the gravesides of fallen comrades.
During the battle of the funerals I remember him in Milltown Cemetery - when we were surrounded by lines of battle wielding, riot clad RUC men –telling everyone to turn round and face them. To look them in the eye. Not to be afraid. To remember that they were the oppressors and that it was we who desired freedom and justice.
When Michael Stone attacked the Gibraltar funerals 30 years ago this month Martin was there helping the wounded, bringing calm to a dangerous situation. He was fearless.
Over more years of struggle than I care to remember Martin was there. It was he who was our representative in the secret talks with the British government in the early 90’s. When the first Sinn Féin delegation met the British at Parliament Buildings in December 1994 it was led by Martin. When the first republican delegation visited Downing Street in December 1997 there was Martin. He was our Chief negotiator – the man who sat across the table from British Prime Ministers and Ministers and Unionist representatives and argued for change.
He could also be funny and insightful. In December 1997 as we returned from our first meeting with the British in Downing Street we found ourselves waiting in the lounge at Heathrow Airport. A contingent of Unionist MPs, including the former leader of the UUP James Molyneaux, arrived into the departure lounge. The Unionists were still not talking to us. Hadn’t said a word to us in the negotiations. They were clearly displeased to see us and ignored our greetings. ‘Hello’ ‘How ya doing’– nothing. When they got on the plane they still refused to talk to anyone.
‘If they had any real principles’ Martin told me with a smile, ‘they would have got another plane. Isn’t it funny what people will do when they have to?’
Several years later in 2002 and sitting in Tony Blair’s inner office in Downing Street Martin forcefully told the British Prime Minister not to invade Iraq. Martin told him that if he thought the war in Ireland was bad invading Iraq would be so much more. We both urged Blair to turn back from what would be a disastrous course for the people of that region and for Britain. Blair ignored us.
Fast forward four years to July 12 2006. Speaking at an Orange march Ian Paisley declared that ‘No unionist who is a Unionist will go into partnership with IRA-Sinn Féin. They are not fit to be in partnership with decent people. They are not fit to be in the government of Northern Ireland. And it will be over our dead bodies that they will ever get there …”
Less than a year later in March 2007 the same Ian Paisley joined Martin and I in a press conference at Parliament Buildings to announce we had a deal. In May that unlikely partnership of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness was complete when they became joint First Ministers. Within days their willingness to meet as equals and in friendship and good humour was producing political results and building public confidence. None of it would have been possible without the patience and tenacity of Martin. He saw beyond the slagging words – the caustic comments – and stayed focused on making peace.
In the years that followed Martin made a remarkable personal and political journey, first with Paisley, then with Peter Robinson and then with Arlene Foster.
He remained a steadfast republican, unbowed and unbroken throughout his life of activism. He never deviated from his republican principles; his belief in the unity of the Irish people in a free, independent, united Ireland; or in his humanity. He always did his best – he gave it one hundred percent.
He was a decent man, a loving husband and father and grandfather, a family man who loved walking the hills, reading poetry and occasionally producing poems of quality and vitality and warmth. Martin was also a friend who stayed true during the good times and bad times. He died last March from amyloidosis. I miss him every day.
So join us and Bernie and the McGuinness clann on The Chieftain’s Walk on March 25th at Glenowen in Derry at 1.30.
By the way – and Martin would enjoy this – I contacted Andrew McCartney for advice on how to register for the walk. Given my aversion to computers I asked him where there any shortcuts in the registration process. “Yes’ he said. “There’ll be arrangements to walk part of the way and get on a bus or join it en route. We could also arrange for your car to pick you up. You could just jump into that when you want.” That’s Derry wans for you.
Every registered participant in The Chieftains Walk will receive a bespoke commemorative medal. Entry fee is £10 and you can register via the Chieftains Walk Facebook page or online at

Friday, March 9, 2018

A Fair Weather Friend?

A friend of mine was in prison in France one time. It was admittedly a rather long time. Years later when I bumped into him I asked what it was like. To be in prison? In France?

‘Was there’ I asked ‘any difference between being in prison in France and being in prison in Ireland?’

As you may deduce from the question he had a comprehensive and varied penal CV.

He paused for a long pregnant and silent period of cogitation before eventually replying.

‘Nobody talked about the weather’.

There you have it. In a sentence. The difference between the French and the Irish. Or indeed between the Irish and everyone else. We are obsessed by the weather. We are also weather pessimists. We anticipate the worst.

Many times on a fine sunny day I have remarked to whoever I was with ‘Isn’t it a great day’.

‘Aye’ would come the reply ‘but it’s not gonna last’.


‘There’s rain due later.’


‘The forecast is for bad weather’.

RG is the worst. Especially during last week’s snownami. We were in Dublin. But even before we got there he started. We were leaving Dundalk.

‘We should get home again for Thursday’. I said to him.

‘We’ll be back before that’ he replied, ‘The Beast from the East is due. Gonna be baddest snow storm since 1982’.

‘Beast from the East? I queried.

‘Yup’ he scowled ‘and Storm Emma is due as well so I’m not hanging about. First sign of a blizzard I’m heading North again. I got caught in a blizzard once. Once is once too many times.’

I said nothing. We drove on. I returned to reading my notes.

RG broke the silence.

‘The wind is picking up’ he said.

I ignored him.

‘Very dark clouds over the Airport’ he muttered.

Minutes later I looked up absentmindedly from my work and peered at the windscreen.

‘It’s very dark but at least its dry’ I observed positively.

‘That’s cos we’re in the bloody Port Tunnel’ he hissed.

‘Ha ha’ I chortled ‘so we are. I’m a Silly Billy’.

‘You’ll be laughing on the other side of your face if we get stranded on the side of the road’.

‘It’s Motorway the whole way up and down’ I responded. ‘Safe as can be’.

Truth to tell I was hurt by his aggressiveness, by his lack of comradeship. We exited the Tunnel and the skies opened.
‘Snowmagaddon’ RG swore under his breath! 

‘The sooner we head for home the better. I don’t want stranded in Dublin’.

‘But we are here for four days anyway’. I reminded him.

‘Not if it snows!’ RG countered. ‘I’m not chancing driving through a blizzard. I’ve already told you that’.

I felt like Scott of the Antarctic.

‘The Liffey is very high’ RG exclaimed.

So it was but I wasn’t going to admit that. Not with him in the mood he was in. By the time we got to Teach Laighean the media was one long weather forecast dominated by Government ministers led by An Taoiseach. When we got to the Dáil the carpark was shrouded in snow. The wind was bitter cold. It would cut you in two.

When we got into the office RG was relieved to hear the Dáil would probably be shut down. I tried to stop him building up his hopes.

‘Remember we had rumours every week in Long Kesh about the place closing down’.

‘This isn’t the Kesh’ he reminded me. ‘our aim has to be to get up the road ahead of the storm’.

‘We shouldn’t have swapped the blue skies of Ulster for the grey skies of .........’ I chided him.

The next day we were on our way back home. Unlike rumours in the Kesh the Leinster House ones came to be true. Mostly because the inmates voted for closure. At least till the storms passed.

As we sped North of Dundalk I remarked that I couldn’t see the Cooleys.

‘That’s cos it’s snowing.’ RG asserted.

‘But I can see Sliabh Gullion’ I mused.

‘That’s cos it’s gonna snow!’ He retorted.

And so it did. He dropped me home and sped off into the night. Without a word of farewell. Not a ‘slán’ or an ‘oiche mhaith’.

‘Mush’ I shouted after his tail lights.

Hopefully our next journey will be less eventful. The calm after the storm. If he is in better form 
I might have a wee word with RG about the way he treats me. Since I stood down as Uachtarán he is less tolerant of me. It’s like he is getting his own back. For the life of me I don’t know why. Yup I think I will have a wee yarn with him. For his own sake. At least it will give us something to talk about. When we’re not talking about the weather.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Micheál Martin’s obsession with Sinn Féin

It was the afternoon of St. Valentine’s Day when the DUP declared there was ‘no current prospect of a deal.’ In the two weeks since then the general shape of the draft agreement has become apparent. It is clear that significant work had been done to construct an agreement that would allow the institutions to be restored. A couple of hours later, despite the clear evidence that it was the DUP that had crashed the negotiations, the Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin tweeted: “The continued failure of the two dominant political parties in the North to agree restoration of government is bitterly disappointing… “

Neither he nor anyone in his party had bothered to talk to anyone in Sinn Féin about the talks and their outcome. I don’t know if he spoke to anyone in the Irish government. Given the tone of his criticism I suspect not. Micheál Martin did not know the detail. But then as has been evident in his public approach to the North since becoming leader of Fianna Fáil he doesn’t really care about the detail. The bipartisan approach in the Oireachtas between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael when it comes to the Good Friday Agreement was long ago abandoned by Teachta Martin.

His sole focus is, and has been since 2011, to get back into power. Everything else is secondary. Even the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process. The growing electoral strength of Sinn Féin in the South was long ago recognised by Teachta Martin as an obstacle to his ambition. His response has been to use every opportunity to attack Sinn Féin. Hence the constant refrain that Sinn Féin is one of “two problem parties” in the North. The Fianna Fáil leader knows this is untrue. He knows the obstacles to progress in the North arise from British government stupidity and indifference to Ireland allied to elements of unionism which are against positive change.

Micheál Martin’s other favourite line is that Sinn Féin conspired to bring down the Executive in January 2017. He deliberately ignores his own call for the suspension of the Executive in 2015 or the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal which emerged in November 2016 and which could cost the taxpayers of the North up to 700 million pounds. He is not interested in the serious allegations of corruption from within the DUP about others in the DUP. Or the crass bigotry and sectarianism that has been increasingly on display by some in that party. As for the rights of citizens – whether Irish language speakers or the families of victims who want truth and legacy inquests – or those who want to be able to marry their partner of choice – Martin isn’t interested in any of these, except in so far as they allow him to attack Sinn Féin.

Should citizens in the six counties, abandoned over many decades by successive Fianna Fáil governments, be expected to tolerate the denial of human rights available to Irish citizens living in the 26 counties – or indeed by citizens living in Britain? Micheál Martin thinks they should.

In the Dáil he can barely contain his anger and venom. At Bodenstown and Arbour Hill and at other set piece speeches a sizeable slice is always reserved for attacking Sinn Féin which is “not fit to govern”. He says this with a straight face despite his role for 14 years in a Fianna Fáil government, noted for the corruption of some of its senior figures. This same Fianna Fáil leadership wrecked the economy. It forced hundreds of thousands of citizens into exile in Australia, Canada and Britain and it brought in the Troika, acquiesced to their demands, and gave 64 billion euro of taxpayers money to the banks. A debt that our grandchildren will still be paying for. And yet he has the gall to claim that Sinn Féin is not fit for government!

Last year I wrote to the Fianna Fáil leader and asked for his support in establishing an Oireachtas Committee to prepare for Irish Unity. To me its common sense. If we want to persuade unionists, or at least a section of unionism to vote in a referendum for Irish unity then we need to engage in a dialogue with them; we have to ask them what they mean by their sense of Britishness, and convince them that a new Ireland will protect their rights, defend their Britishness, be flexible and imaginative in how we do that, and improve the lives of their children. An Oireachtas Committee could also look at the economic arguments, as well as the cultural and societal elements of such a process to create an agreed Ireland.

Micheál Martin said no. Talk of unity, he claimed, will frighten unionists. If for a second – and it should only be a second –we assume he believes what he says – that he doesn’t want to scare the unionists, but is serious about wanting a united Ireland – is he seriously suggesting that we should sneak up on them? Don’t tell them until it’s too late for them to object? Try and hood-wink them? Does he think unionists are so naive?

It’s that sort of banal thinking which limits the potential for progress. It’s about conceding a veto to unionism. One of the great ironies of this period is that Fine Gael has a sounder position on the North than Fianna Fáil. True it is all words but I’m sure it drives some sound Fianna Fáil folk mad. And the Fianna Fáil leader dares to complain that Sinn Féin is the problem party?

Finally, there is the absurdity of a party which lauds Countess Markievicz as a true republican leader, but ignores her abstentionist attitude to Westminster because it sits uncomfortably with its demand that Sinn Féin MPs swear an oath of allegiance to the English Queen. Would Micheál Martin?

Finally, finally. Micheál Martin gets up at leaders questions in the Dáil twice a week and lambasts the Fine Gael government for its policies on the mutiple crises in the Health system, in homelessness and housing, on households in mortgage distress and much more. And then he ensures that Fianna Fáil deputies vote to keep that same government in power.

It is a mark of Fianna Fáil’s resilience that it can pretend to be in opposition, while actually in government at the same time. Because with Fianna Fáil support this Fine Gael led government would not exist.

The truth is that its really about sustaining the status quo. That‘s why Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael spokespersons talk about protecting the middle ground of politics – they are about protecting themselves.

Liam Mellows, who participated in the 1916 Rising and was summarily executed by the Free State forces during the Civil War, put it well during the Treaty debate in 1922, when he spelled out the consequences of partition. He said: ‘men will get into positions, men will hold power and men who get into positions and hold power will desire to remain undisturbed …’ He could have been writing about Micheál Martin.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

The road we are on

Some of the negotiating team hard at work

I was at most of the engagements with the DUP leadership for over a fortnight before the Special Ard Fheis on February 10. As is now widely accepted Mary Lou, Michelle and the rest of our team reached a draft agreement with them to restore the political institutions. There were still some matters to be signed off on but essentially we had reached that point in a negotiation where it was make your mind up time. That was before the Ard Fheis. The DUP Leader went off to consult with her party. A few days later she pulled the plug. 
Gregory Campbell, the sole DUP representative sent out to defend his party, made a big deal of the Ard Fheis and my stepping down as Uachtarán. We were looking for a wee going away present for me he told BBC's The View. Not so. I had signalled up the Ard Fheis to Arlene Foster as a big event over a week before. Given the progress we were making I didn't want her blindsided.  Both Mary Lou and I told her we didn’t need a deal to make it a positive gig for republicans. It was going to be a great event in any case. And it was. 
He won’t thank me for saying so but I felt sorry for Gregory on The View. Mark Carruthers filleted him. I thought Gregory was very loyal to his leader. The problem was he wasn't at any of the negotiations with the rest of us. He was out sick. So he didn't know what he was talking about. But unlike the rest of the DUP MPs at least Gregory made himself available for interview. 
In many ways that interview was a disturbing insight in the state of unionism. It was a disappointing conclusion to a long and protracted negotiation. Of course, it is not the end. The shutter has been pulled down on this phase of talks but ultimately all of the parties, Sinn Féin, Alliance, SDLP and the UUP and DUP, along with the two governments, will at some point in the time ahead be back around the same table, negotiating. This is the road the DUP is on. No matter about its starting point this is where it ends up.
100 years ago it was all very different. The Ulster Unionist Party was top dog. Its alliance with the British Tory party had succeeded in imposing partition. During the following 50 years the UUP shaped and moulded the northern state into a sectarian, corrupt apartheid system in which Catholics were denied jobs, homes, and the vote, and repression was widespread.
Whether in local government or in the Stormont Parliament the voice of northern nationalists was largely silenced. We were less than second class. Our values and traditions were denigrated. From the sixties on every so often a Unionist leader would make some faltering effort to bring in limited reforms. More extreme elements saw them off. First it was Terence O Neill. Ian Paisley was the emerging leader of Unionist reaction. 'O Neill must go' he declared. So he did. Chichester Clarke followed. The next to go was Brian Faulkner. He did a deal. Paisley joined forces with the unionist paramilitaries and brought it down. 
When Sinn Féin first entered local councils UUP and DUP Councillors combined to prevent our Councillors from exercising any influence. Special committees were established to keep us out of the decision making process. Sinn Féin Councillors were shouted down. Bugles, whistles and fog horns were used to drown out their voices. Unionists sprayed Alex Maskey with perfume to get rid of his smell. Other Councillors, like John Davey, Bernard O’Hagan and Eddie Fullerton were killed, as were almost 20 party activists and family members.
There were many ups and downs. Unionism was 'led' by James Molyneaux. He was a do nothing man. James and Ian Paisley became partners of sorts. They were against everything that seemed like reform. But James' successors were having to respond to a series of republican initiatives. One day David Trimble and Ian Paisley were dancing a merry little triumphalistic jig on Garvaghy Road. Not long afterwards David was signing up to the Good Friday Agreement. That was the road he was on this time.
Efforts to build peace were on-going. The Good Friday Agreement was the high point of this. That agreement was built on an ethos of equality, parity of esteem and the sharing of power and responsibility within all-Ireland based institutions. David Trimble, as Leader of the UUP and most of his team did not willingly embrace these concepts. They resisted signing up to the agreement right up until just hours before it went public. But they knew if they wanted power then they had to sign on. That was road they were on. 
I have always believed that Mr Trimble was intellectually in favour of the agreement. But he was never emotionally comfortable with it and all the other reaching out efforts it demanded of him. And Ian Paisley never gave him a minute’s respite.
For nationalists and republicans, the focus since then has been on implementing agreements. For the leaderships of the UUP and later the DUP the objective has been to minimise change, to delay and dilute the potential for progress. Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness partnership was undoubtedly the high point of the Northern Assembly. How Ian ended up in that position is a story for another day. But that too was the road he was on. Then he too was removed.
As the years have passed the hostility of political unionism toward change has sharpened. It feels threatened by the significant democratic and demographic changes that have been taking place. This has been most evident in the declining numbers of those in the 2011 census who identified as British, as against those who identified as Irish.

In last year’s Assembly election, for the first time since partition, the UUP and DUP won less than half of the Assembly seats. But change is also obvious in the Catholic experience of religious discrimination in employment. Catholics were once two and a half times more likely to be unemployed than their Protestant neighbours, and more likely to be found in the unskilled and labour market. Today that is almost gone.
However, the prejudices and the mindsets that gave rise to the sectarian pogroms of the nineteenth century, to partition in 1920, and which constructed the North’s apartheid state, still shape the words and the actions of some in political unionism in 2018. The antipathy toward the Irish Language and the insulting language used about it is a case in point.
The reality is that the vast majority of nationalists in the North do not speak Irish. But in the face of unionist intransigence and discourteous and abusive remarks by some unionist leaders, the Irish Language has become the touchstone for change – the acid test for equality.
The accommodation reached by the DUP and Sinn Fein would have sorted most of this out. But the DUP Leader did not get the support of her party. 
Embracing Brexit is also part of this negative approach by the DUP. They believe that membership of the EU has facilitated the process of change – especially in respect of the all-island economy. They hope that Brexit will halt this. They are prepared to tolerate the damaging consequences for border communities, for our agri-food sector and agriculture, for our small businesses and our ability to attract overseas investment, if it means they can halt the momentum toward building a shared inclusive society.
But this is all short-termism. Like its dalliance with the Tories in London this is not a tenable long term strategy for the DUP. Their more long-sighted members know this.  They know the road they need to be on. The problem is they may be incapable of finding their way on to that road. At least for now.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Seomra 316

Many years ago when I was an Assembly representative for West Belfast RG and I were the tenants of room 316 in Parliament Buildings up at Stormont. If you’re looking up the steps at the front of the building it’s the room with two windows between the pillars on the right side. It’s a large office – bigger even that the one I ended up with in Leinster House.

It has a magnificent panoramic view of the Stormont estate and across the Belfast landscape to the Black Mountain, the ‘Murph and West Belfast.  
In November 2010 I announced my intention to stand down from the Assembly and Westminster and to seek the Sinn Féin nomination to stand for the constituency of Louth in the upcoming February general election. It was a big step for me and for the party but it was a necessary part of our long term strategy to build Sinn Féin north and south. A few months later the good people of Louth elected me with a resounding mandate. And two years ago myself and Imelda Munster, were elected to the Dáil.

So I bade a fond fair well to Room 316 which then became a meeting room for the party leadership in the Assembly. Last summer, after two unsuccessful rounds of negotiations, the parties and governments moved out of Stormont Castle and up to Parliament Buildings. Room 316 came into its own again as Michelle, Declan, Carál, Conor et al moved back in, and it became the hub for our extended negotiating team. And not a shadowy figure amongst us.

In between the preparation for last weekend’s special Ard Fheis – comhghairdeas to everyone who made it an exhilarating event - Mary Lou and I have spent much of the last fortnight closeted with them. There have been countless meetings with the DUP leadership and also with the Irish and British governments. And the other parties. As with every negotiation every word is scrutinised, every commitment examined, legal advice is sought where necessary, especially around the production of legislation, and the implications of what is proposed or agreed is teased out. It’s a laborious process, which hasn’t changed much in the 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement negotiations.

The Sinn Féin team is there seeking the restoration of the institutions. Ignore the usual begrudgery from the usual suspects who claim we are not serious. Most of the time I think the DUP are serious also. And then they step back and doubts return. Despite these obstacles the DUP and Sinn Féin have made progress. The focus now is on getting the final bits and pieces tied down and producing an agreement that is fair and balanced, based on equality and the rights of citizens, and which creates the opportunity for more progress in the time ahead.  In a very real sense this is the last chance agreement.
So today, and yesterday and the day before and last week and the week before we have been closeted back in Room 316 with occasional visits for meetings in other rooms.

On Monday the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar arrived at Stormont House along with British Prime Minister Theresa May. The DUP didn’t meet the Taoiseach. Mary Lou, Conor, Declan and Michelle met both separately. It was an opportunity to remind them that both governments separately or together have the responsibility for resolving some of the outstanding issues.

Monday was the 29th anniversary of the murder by British government agents of human rights lawyer Pat Finucane. The failure of the British to establish the international public inquiry promised at Weston Park was raised by Mary Lou. Next week will see the 30th anniversary of the killing by a British soldier of Aidan McAnespie at Aughnacloy. The Irish government appointed Garda deputy commissioner Eugene Crowley to investigate the killing. His report was handed over in April 1988 but the content has never been made public. The family are asking for it to be released now. Michelle told the Taoiseach this.
They also raised other legacy issues, Brexit, the recent proposals from the Boundary Commission and the terms for a referendum on Irish unity.
The British PMs visit was a clumsy intervention. A visit to Bombardier because there was a convenient recess at Westminster. A visit to the talks was an add-on. A distraction. Michelle insisted the Taoiseach needed to be there also. So he was.
This morning as I write these few words the sun is shining on the snow on the Belfast Hills. It makes for a grand sight. It’s not all serious. There are moments of levity and of black Belfast humour. Even the DUP like a laugh. Sometimes. Especially you know who.

Ted has as ever provided some of the best food you could hope to eat anywhere. One of these days he should publish a cook book of his favourite dishes – The Negotiators Cookbook - it would be a best seller.

In the meantime, we work to get this negotiation over the line. This is part of the process of change that commenced with the talks between myself and John Hume in 1986 and which led two decades ago to the Good Friday Agreement. If the principles and objectives of that Agreement and subsequent agreements are to be achieved then we have to work together, in partnership, to create the space in which all sections of our people can meet and moderate our differences. Ted reminded me that my first negotiation with the British Government was in 1972. Dáithí Ó Conaill and I negotiated a bi-lateral truce at that time. That’s forty-six years ago. Peace surely does come dropping slow. Then our focus was on the future. Same as now.

Is the DUP up for this? Time will tell. An agreement could be made this week. But, given DUP hesitancy, that is unlikely.

In the meantime, its back to Room 316 to read the latest draft of words on the issues still in contention.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

It’s been a funny old week

This has been a funny old week – at least for me. It is a week of ‘lasts’. After 35 years it is my last week as Uachtarán Shinn Féin. Wednesday was supposed to be my last occasion for ‘Leaders’ in the Dáil but I was at Stormont and so missed that. I attended my last meeting of the party’s National Officer Board and last week I chaired my last group meeting in Leinster House of TDs, Seanadóirí and party staffers. After 40 years last Saturday should have been my last attendance at an Ard Chomhairle (National Executive) meeting but I missed it because I was in the talks at Stormont. I was there at the end of a phone but conference calls aren’t the same.
On Saturday, at the RDS in Dublin, where I announced my decision last November to step down as President, a Sinn Féin special Ard Fheis will begin at 1pm. When it opens I will be Uachtarán Shinn Féin. When it concludes I will be one of thirteen thousand party members and Mary Lou McDonald will be the new Uachtarán Shinn Féin.
A new chapter in the story of our party and of our efforts to achieve independence and unity for the island of Ireland will have begun. Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill will be taking over a very different Sinn Féin from that which I and Martin McGuinness and others inherited in November 1983. The context is also very different. The peace process, which Sinn Féin played a pivotal role in fashioning, has created new political opportunities and transformed the political landscape on the island of Ireland. There is now a peaceful and democratic opportunity to achieve an end to the union with Britain. One challenge facing Mary Lou and Michelle is to grasp these opportunities and create new ones to advance our political goals.
Mary Lou and Michelle will also bring their own unique and individual style to the task of leading Sinn Féin. Both are formidable leaders. They are articulate, eloquent, passionate comrades who are committed to achieving a new Ireland, a united Ireland, a socially just Ireland based on equality for every citizen. And they have around them an amazing group of dedicated and experienced activists.
In the four months since I announced my decision to step down as Uachtarán Shinn Féin I have had the opportunity to travel widely and to meet party members and supporters across the island. From Derry to Belfast, Armagh City to Fermanagh, from Sligo to Cork, from Meath to Dundalk, Dublin and Kilkenny. Packed meetings. Filled with enthusiastic, eager, activists all looking forward. All looking to the future. All embracing the opportunity for change. And all up for the challenges ahead.
And the challenges are many. The talks in the North are still going on. I have been at Stormont almost every day in the last week. Under Michelle O’Neill’s leadership our efforts to restore the political institutions are continuing. Whether the two governments and the parties can succeed or will fail remains to be seen. Putting in place a rights-based society and implementing the Good Friday Agreement isn't easy.
Given the stark differences in attitude between those for and against Brexit, the outworking of the current negotiations between the British government and the European Commission also presents a significant challenge. So too do the austerity policies of the British government which continues to reduce the budget available to run government departments in the North, as well as inflicting major cuts to housing benefit and welfare payments to families and households.
There are also many challenges facing republicans in the South. The Irish state is not the republic envisaged by the 1916 leaders. The crises in housing, homelessness and in the health service are evidence of this. Nor is there an iota of difference between the conservative policies of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. Both parties are champions of economic and social conservatism, austerity and cuts to the living standards of working people.
But none of this is insurmountable. Sinn Féin activists know what we need to do. We want to be in government North and South. A government in Dublin with Sinn Féin as part of it will place Irish unity at the top of its political agenda and face a British government with this clear demand.
No one knows when the next general election will be held in the 26 counties. But Sinn Féin is preparing for that now. And part of this means ensuring that Mary Lou has time to make her mark, demonstrate her undoubted abilities as leader, and plan for a bigger party with more candidateswinning more seats, and with more women and young people than ever before.
In the meantime the consequences of Brexit will become clearer and the efforts to deliver the promise of equality in the Good Friday Agreement will have advanced. 
So I’m looking forward to Saturday’s special Ard Fheis. I’m looking forward to the challenges and opportunities that are before us. I think our best years are yet to come.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Support Ahed Tamimi

Stephen McConomy

There are lots of connections between the struggles in Ireland and Palestine. We share an affinity for freedom and sovereignty. And in both places the British Government has played a divisive and repressive role. The shaping of the law to allow states to kill, imprison, torture, demonise, marginalise and oppress a community have been part and parcel of our joint experiences over many decades.
Senior British military figures and at least one former RUC Chief Constable, Ken Newman, learned their trade in part in the Middle East region.
The north was also a laboratory for the British state. New and ever more sophisticated surveillance technology, the gathering and holding of intelligence on citizens, the recruitment of agents and informers, the use of collusion and the running by British agencies of counter gangs were all a part of this. The case this week of UVF agent Gary Haggarty is a case in point.
The deployment of rubber and plastic bullets were a part of this also, along with CS and CR gas. In the five years after their introduction in 1970 fifty six thousand rubber bullets were fired in the north. They were then replaced by plastic bullets. In the five years after that thirteen thousand of these were fired. In 1981, the year of the hunger strike, almost thirty thousand plastic bullets were fired. 17 people, including 8 children were killed. Hundreds more were maimed for life.
One of those killed was 11 year old Stephen McConomy from Derry. Stephen died on April 19th 1982 three days after he was shot in the head by a plastic bullet fired by a member of the British Army’s Royal Anglian Regiment. He was out playing with friends. There was no trouble, no riots, no confrontation between local people and the Brits. Residents who tried to go to Stephen’s aid were prevented from doing so by the soldiers. He was eventually taken to Altnagelvin hospital in Derry and then to the RVH in Belfast where he died.
One of the iconic images of the years of conflict, taken by Chris McAuley then a journalist from An Phoblacht, was of Stephen lying in the intensive care unit in the RVH. Efforts by the British Army to prevent and arrest her were only stopped by the intervention of Stephen’s father.
All of this came to mind when I saw a photograph of 15 year old Mohammed Tamimi, a Palestinian youth, who just before Christmas was shot at close range with a plastic bullet fired by an Israeli soldier. The bullet that struck Mohammed entered his face under his nose, broke his jaw and lodged in his skull. He was placed in an induced coma and underwent a seven hour operation. In the Israeli version of the plastic bullet the round is about the same size as a real bullet. It is metal and coated with plastic. The damage it can do is characteristic of that used in the north.
The similarity in the photographs of two children lying in hospital beds hooked up to machines fighting for their lives after being struck by these lethal weapons is a potent reminder of the impact of state violence.
An hour after Mohammed was shot, and only metres from that incident, his 16 year old cousin Ahed Tamimi challenged Israeli forces who were on the family’s land. She slapped two of the heavily armed soldiers. Ahed was subsequently arrested and is now in Israeli custody awaiting a military trial. She has been refused bail and if convicted faces between 10 and 14 years in an Israeli prison.
Ahed’s treatment has made her an international figure of Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation and aggression. Demonstrations in support of her have been held around the world, including here in Ireland. Amnesty International has called for her release and the UN Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights has criticised Israel.
I and others have raised her situation in the Dáil with the Taoiseach. Ahed’s seventeenth birthday was on Wednesday and there were many demonstrations held around the world to coincide with this and demanding her release. Her military trial was also due to begin the same day.
She is part of another generation of Palestinian children who have grown up under occupation knowing nothing else but military raids, house demolitions, the theft of land and water rights, arrests, and aggression and hostility from an Israeli state that treats them as less than second class. Israel’s apartheid system continues to cause great hardship and poverty for the people of Palestine. The fabric of life for most Palestinians is rooted in fear; it is arbitrary and constantly changing at the whim of the Israeli authorities.
Since President Trump’s announcement on December 6th that he recognises Jerusalem the United Nations has reported that at least 345 Palestinian children have been injured in clashes with Israeli forces. At least 17 Palestinians have been killed.
I would urge anyone concerned with the situation in the Middle East to join the protests in support of Ahed. Ultimately however, if the Israeli government is to be moved, and if a meaningful peace process is to begin, it will require the efforts of governments and the international community. Very specifically, the Irish government should implement the Oireachtas decision from 2014 to recognise the state of Palestine and to upgrade the Palestinian Mission in Dublin to that of a full Embassy.

For our part we who live in Ireland are thankful that our children no longer die in conflict.  No matter who the perpetrator was the violent death of a child is a dreadful event for parents. For families and communities. They will never forget what happened. They should not be expected to. But In Ireland those days are now history. That is not the case for Palestinian children. Let’s try to make it so.
Mohammed Tamimi