Friday, July 19, 2019

Voting for the next President of Ireland

The right of citizens living outside the southern State to vote for the President of Ireland is now a significant issue of debate, especially here in Dublin. Last week ‘Voices for Irish Citizens Abroad’ (VICA) visited the Oireachtas to engage with TDs and Seanadóirí on the referendum, which is to be held in October or November.

That evening they held a public meeting in the EPIC centre on the Quays. EPIC is the Irish Museum of Emigrants and tells the story of the millions of Irish who left our shores as a result of poverty, hunger, economic crisis or political repression. It was a very appropriate venue for a very informative and encouraging engagement..

Four years ago I asked the then Taoiseach Enda Kenny when the referendum on extending the franchise in Presidential elections, as supported by the Constitutional Convention in 2013, would take place. He refused to set a date. But Kenny’s reticence didn’t succeed in pushing the issue off the political agenda. On the contrary, Sinn Féin and others, especially from within the diaspora, continued to lobby for the right to vote for the President to be extended to citizens living in the North and within the diaspora.

In February speaking in the Dáil An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar explicitly set out his agenda for such a referendum. He said he wanted to hold the referendum in October. His proposal was that all citizens, wherever they live in the world, “will be entitled to register to vote for the next President.” It will be a postal ballot for those not living in the state and it would not be linked to a passport because there are citizens who do not have passports. He said: “As a result it will be linked to citizenship”.

Last month I asked Mr. Varadkar when he expected the legislation to facilitate the referendum to be published. He said he expected it to be published before the Dáil went into recess for the summer on July 11th. This was necessary in order to ensure that any legislation had time to pass through all stages in the Dáil and Seanad to ensure the referendum could be held on time.

When the Bill wasn’t published Mary Lou McDonald raised the issue with Mr. Varadkar last week. The Taoiseach told her that the plan is for the Bill to be published by the end of this month to allow for the establishment of a referendum commission. Subject to no hiccups he expects the referendum “in October or November of this year.”

So, if Mr. Varadkar is true to his word the legislation will be published within the next fortnight. However, given the delays that have occurred to date vigilance is required to ensure that these commitments are honoured.

But agreeing the date and passing the legislation is only one part of the battle ahead. Holding the referendum is important. Winning the referendum is essential. Already there are some voices being raised within the southern political and media establishment opposing the proposal.

The arguments against a referendum and for a NO vote include the claim that the current electorate would be swamped by the diaspora and voters from the North. The proponents of this view warn against a President being elected who is not supported by people who live within the 26 counties.

Of over 120 countries around the world who allow their overseas citizens to vote in elections none has ever raised a concern about this aspect of it. On the contrary the evidence suggests that the relatively small number of citizens abroad who do vote in elections generally follow the pattern of those living within the state.

Another argument heard is a variation on the slogan from the American Revolution’s ‘no taxation without representation’. In this instance it has become ‘no representation without taxation.’ In short if you don’t pay taxes you shouldn’t be allowed to vote. This is a deeply flawed position which if followed through logically would mean that pensioners, citizens on low incomes, parents who stay at home with their children, citizens with a disability, in fact anyone who doesn’t pay taxes for any reason should not have the right to vote.

The reality is that the right of a citizen to vote is not and cannot be dependent on whether they pay taxes. Implement the taxation clause and you are on the downward road to the sort of institutionalised structural discrimination that existed in the North for decades when citizens who were not rate payers had no vote in elections. Tens of thousands, mostly Catholics, were disenfranchised as unionist councils simply refused to build homes for them. No home - no payment of rates – and no vote.

Leo Varadkar in response to this same argument pointed out that it “the Dáil sets taxes and passes legislation which applies to people who are resident here. The Presidency is different. The President does not set taxes and does not make laws.”

The Office of the President and the role of the Presidency in the day to day life of the Irish nation is hugely symbolic and important. The President performs a largely ceremonial role and occasional constitutional duties when instructed by the government. She or he is above party politics. Even when the President has come from one particular party the role is accepted to be strictly non-partisan in its nature. It is about promoting Ireland abroad. The President is the guardian of the constitution and is about promoting a shared civic sense. The President, as we have seen in the past is also uniquely placed to engage with our unionist neighbours. To reach out and be a voice for the voiceless, and an advocate for the disadvantaged and dispossessed.

A successful referendum campaign which actively seeks to encourage those who are unionist to vote for the President would set a powerful example of the kind of shared, fair and equality based society we all want to build on our island. A new union of people. A Yes vote would be a demonstration of generosity and inclusiveness. It would be an invitation to contribute to and participate in the political life of the nation. It would be an important step forward in modernising Irish citizenship and the institution of the President itself.

Finally, in the past, especially around the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement, the role of the diaspora was very important. Permitting Irish citizens living overseas to vote in Presidential elections would send a powerful, positive signal to the diaspora that they are important to us now and in the future. That can only be good.

So this is a campaign for you dear reader. If you live in the North or if you are one of the global Irish you should find a way of asking the Southern electorate to give you your vote. Ask them to vote for the vote. Remember one hundred years ago women were denied the vote. Fifty years ago citizens in the North were denied a vote. We are still denied this vote. If former President Mary McAleese had stayed in Ardoyne she could not have voted for herself when she stood in the Presidential election. Martin McGuinness had no vote when he stood. We can now change this. Let’s do it.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Ireland and the tragedy of refugees

I have just finished reading The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri. Christy was a volunteer working with families fleeing war in Syria and trying to get into the EU. Her novel is a profoundly disturbing and timely reminder of what happens to human beings, just like you or me, when they are caught up in dreadful conflicts or disasters not of their making.

The plight of refugees and migrants is as old as human experience. The people of this small island, as a result of colonisation, have a long shared history of forced migration. As a consequence, most Irish people identify sympathetically with those who find themselves in similar situations. It’s in our DNA. The international refugee crisis of recent years, especially in the Mediterranean Sea, and the decades of displacement and disadvantage endured by the Palestinian people, have seen Irish citizens providing critical political, economic and financial support to those in need.

This experience of the Irish as refugees fleeing hunger, poverty and repression was underlined last month when the Canadian government confirmed that the remains of three children, washed up on a beach in Cap-des-Rosiers, in the Gaspe region of Quebec, Canada, were from Ireland. The bones of the three, aged between seven and 12, were found in 2011. A subsequent search of the beach by archaeologists uncovered the remains of another 18 people, mostly women and children.

Their investigation found that all of the victims were from the Carricks of Whitehaven, an Irish ship sailing from Sligo in 1847. It was carrying 180 passengers when it sank in a storm of the Gaspe coast as it made its way toward Quebec. One hundred and thirty two were drowned. Scientists from the Universite de Montreal concluded that the 21 victims were fleeing the Great Hunger. They had a diet typical of rural people In Ireland at that time and many suffered from diseases and malnutrition.

Last week the remains of the 21 were laid to rest at the Irish memorial on Cap-des-Rosiers beach. It is one of many such memorials that stretch from Canada down the east coast of the USA. These have been erected in memory of the tens of thousands of Irish who died on the coffin ships and in the fever camps trying to escape An Gorta Mór – the Great Hunger – of 1845-49. Not far from this spot is Grosse Ile – an island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. It was a quarantine station established to house immigrants arriving from Europe. It is believed that at least three thousand Irish died there between 1845 and 1849. Another six thousand Irish refugees died at nearby Windmill Point and thousands more perished on the coffin ships and were buried at Sea.

Viveka Melki, who made a documentary about the sinking of the Carricks of Whitehaven, reported that some of the skeletons that were unearthed were found to be holding children in their arms.

One hundred and seventy years ago there were no photographers or documentary makers, or broadcast news cameras to record the human tragedy that was wiping out families and villages across the island of Ireland. Or to record the horror of impoverished, starving men, women and children, dying in their thousands in coffin ships crossing the Atlantic, or on the shores of north America.

Today there are photographers and broadcasters on the Mexican-US border, in the Mediterranean Sea, in North Africa, in Central Africa and elsewhere recording the escalating humanitarian refugee crisis.

Two weeks ago, on Sunday 23 June, Óscar Alberto Martinínez Ramírez, aged 25 drowned trying to cross the Rio Grande from Mexico into the USA. In the photograph that was published several hours later he can be seen lying face down on the bank of the river with his 23 month old daughter Angie Valeria in his arm. It is a graphic, brutal, heart rending picture of a father and daughter fleeing poverty and violence, and dying. It is an image which captures the horror of those Irish migrants also holding their children as they drowned off the coast of Canada.

It was also a reminder of another equally harrowing and distressing photo from four years ago when  three year old Aylan Kurdi was pictured lying on a beach in Turkey. He had died with his five year old brother Galip and mother Rihan and seven other refugees trying to cross the five dangerous miles from Turkey – which is outside the EU –to the Greek island of Kos which is inside the EU.  Aylan and his family, and Óscar Alberto Martinínez Ramírez and his daughter Angie Valeria, are the victims of a refugee crisis that the world has failed to grasp and which is growing worse every year.

A report covering 2014 and 2018, by the UN’s International Organisation for Migration, and published last month, reported that 32,000 migrants had died or were reported missing. Of these nearly 1600 were children. The deadliest migration route is the Mediterranean where at least 18,000 died. It is also the most dangerous route for children with 678 having drowned. The remains of 12,000 who drowned in the Mediterranean have never been found.

Today, the United Nations estimates that there are 70 million people displaced from their homes. This is double the figure from 20 years ago. It is the worst refugee crisis since the second-world-war and governments are failing to take effective steps to reduce it. They must do more. Particularly, the governments of Europe. It was their imperial ambitions over recent centuries, and military adventures of the last two decades, which created many of the crises confronting the people of the Middle East and Africa.

In recent months, the EU’s Operation Sophia has stopped participating in missions to rescue those in trouble in the Mediterranean. Operation Sophia is credited with saving tens of thousands of lives in its four years of operation. Its objective had been to disrupt people traffickers and rescue migrants crossing from north Africa. However, at the end of March EU diplomats said Operation Sophia will no longer carry out maritime patrols after Italy refused to receive those rescued at sea.

As a result migrants rescued by the Libyan coastguard end up in migrant camps in Libya where they are often the victims of traffickers and slave traders. In recent days one such camp was bombed and over 50 migrants killed.  The Tánaiste Simon Coveney recently acknowledged that “there are concerns about physical and sexual abuse of both adults and children in many of those camps. It is appalling”.

The EU needs to do more. It cannot wash its hands of its responsibilities in this crisis. Operation Sophia should be recommenced urgently and more funding to the United Nations humanitarian agencies must be a priority.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Remembering Kevin McKenna – the real deal.

Family funerals are an occasion for relatives - aunts and uncles, nephews and nieces, cousins and distant relatives – who probably haven’t seen each other since the last funeral, to get together. We reminisce about the person who has passed. Remembering the good times, the bad times, the craic. We talk about when we were kids, our families, those others who died previously, where we all are now, our hopes for the future, and especially our optimism for the next generation behind us.

Republican funerals nowadays are like that. Last week the republican family came together in Smithborough, County Monaghan to say goodbye to Kevin McKenna and to wrap our arms in solidarity around his bean chéile Marcella, their children and grandchildren.

I saw the genuine delight of former prisoners, reunited for the first time in years, as they greeted one and other. Some were obviously surprised and happy that old comrades were still alive, though a lot of the talk was about hip operations, stents, and arthritis.

Thursday was a scorcher of a day. Blue skies and a hot, hot sun as we made our slow journey along a road packed with mourners, through the green fields of lush countryside from the family home to St. Mary’s in Magherarney.

Family and relatives and neighbours were there. So too were many who counted Kevin as a friend and comrade, including some who were imprisoned with him in Portlaoise in the 1970s. Bernie McGuinness -  Martin’s bean chéile – Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald, and Leas Uachtáran Michelle O’Neill, Danny Morrison, Martin Ferris, and many others from all parts of the island of Ireland were present.

Kevin was a quiet, thoughtful republican. A committed comrade who dedicated years of his life to the cause of Irish freedom and to the Irish people. He first became involved in the republican struggle in 1970. He had just returned home from the Yukon Territory in north-west Canada, near Alaska. It was a place he liked to talk about – “When I was in Canada” – was usually the start of reminiscence about his time there, the people he’d met – especially the native peoples – and the beauty of the place.

The memories of his time in the Yukon stayed with Kevin all his life. He was especially fond of the poetry of Robert Service. He loved ‘Dangerous Dan McGrew’ and ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee’. But his heart was in the hills of County Tyrone where he was born and grew to manhood. Consequently he was also very fond of the poems of WF Marshall, the Bard of Tyrone.

I’m livin in Drumlister 
An I’m getting very oul
I have to wear an Indian bag 
To save me from the coul. 
The deil a man in this townlan 
Wos claner raired nor me, 
But I’m livin in Drumlister 
In clabber to the knee. 

Me Da lived up in Carmin, 
An kep a sarvint boy. 
His second wife was very sharp, 
He birried her with joy. 
Now she wos thin, her name was Flynn 
She come from Cullentra, 
An if me shirts a clatty shirt 
The man to blames me Da. 

Kevin heard of the troubles at home. The campaign of the civil rights movement for reform, the marches in Coalisland and Dungannon, the Caledon Squat by the Gildernew’s and the violent response of the unionist regime at Stormont and of the British government. So he came back from the bitter cold of the Yukon to the hot house that was County Tyrone in early 1970 to join the ranks of the Irish Republican Army.

Among the rolling hills of Tyrone, its narrow laneways, villages and roads Kevin and his comrades relentlessly and defiantly fought the British Army.

He moved to County Monaghan in 1972 where in 1973 he met Marcella at the Ulster Football final in Clones. Tyrone won. So did Kevin. In 1974 he was arrested and charged with IRA membership. He was sentenced to Portlaoise prison where, along with others, he embarked on a hunger strike. After 39 days he was taken from the prison to the Curragh Military Hospital. Kevin took the prison authorities to court for continuing to hold him beyond his normal release date and he was freed in February 1975, after 48 days on hunger strike, without returning to Portlaoise.

In 1976 he was back in Portlaoise for a short time. He met Martin McGuinness in Portlaoise. He says he taught Martin to play chess. That was always an issue of good hearted banter between them.

Lots has changed in the time since then. Even as we gathered at Kevin’s graveside the so-called ‘United Kingdom’ is disuniting. Yes, we still have quarrels to settle with our unionist neighbours, and Yes, partition remains. But Republican Ireland remains also. Resolute, unbowed, undefeated and looking to the future.

Kevin was a decent man doing his best in very difficult times. War is a terrible calamity. The republican people of the north never went to war.  The war came to us. I am mindful of all those who have been hurt. And there has been hurt on all sides. But the war is over and the future is being written now.  As we help to write that future we will not let the past be written in a way which demonises patriots like Kevin McKenna any more than we would the generations before him. 

I think the men and women of 1916 were right. I also think the hunger strikers of 1981 were right. I think Kevin McKenna was right. I think the IRA was right. Not in everything it did. But it was right to fight when faced with the armed aggression of British rule. It was also right to make peace. 

Kevin McKenna’s leadership in that challenging period of change was essential. Kevin McKenna was a republican soldier who had the politics to know when to fight and the vision to know when to talk. He also actively supported the building of Sinn Féin. He had progressive social views and was a committed internationalist. 
This August marks 25 years from the first IRA cessation. It was an initiative created by republicans which opened up the potential of the peace process. Kevin had the courage to make the big decisions with others during the conflict. He was also one of those who had the courage to make the big and difficult decisions during the efforts to make peace. 

It is in the nature of these things that the part played by republicans like Kevin during the long years of war will never be known. The tales will never be told. Others may boast. Kevin would have none of that. He had no time for ego trippers, or vanity projects. He had no time for loose talkers, Walter Mitties or spoofs. He was the real deal.

An honest decent republican who saw off Thatcher and her ilk and brought the British government to the negotiating table. Republican Ireland is indebted to him and Marcella. In time thoughtful people of all political views, including some unionists, will acknowledge the important role played by Kevin and his comrades.
Tá sé at slí an fhirinne anios.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Planning For The Future.

It’s always good to spark a debate, and my recent column and blog ‘Planning for Irish Unity’ certainly did that. My core argument was the need to move those parties which aspire to Irish unity beyond their traditional republican rhetoric and to get them involved in the real work of planning for unity. In particular I argued that the Irish government has a duty, a constitutional imperative, to plan for unity now.  Why would a government, any government, not plan for the future?

The future is not about a single step-change in which we go to bed one night in a partitioned Ireland and the next morning wake up in a united Ireland. It’s all about process. A process of change. A Process of transition. A process of transformation. It’s about agreeing how we will organize our society. It’s about how we share our future. It’s about all of us having our say and playing our part in this.

Can Sinn Féin do this on our own? The answer is obvious – no. The Irish government has a duty and a constitutional obligation to make preparations for unity. To examine the economic arguments. The cultural and social dimensions. The political dynamics. To take account of the significant shifts in population and identity demographics in the North in recent decades. To open this process up and in consultation with, and through a process of inclusive dialogue, to persuade those – unionists, nationalists and others – who have reservations about unity - that Irish unity makes sense for them, for their families and for the future.

The Irish government is best placed to create the space in which all of this can take place. Mary Lou McDonald suggested some time ago that the Irish Government establish a Forum to which all are invited and non are excluded. This dialogue could discuss the political shape of a new Ireland; a new constitution; the protections needed to assuage unionist concerns; the economic positives that will benefit all; the timeframe for a transition period and how long it should last and so much more.

It could also engage with our friends and neighbours in Europe. Almost 30 years ago the EU financially and politically supported German reunification. The EU through its negotiations on Brexit has demonstrated concern about the peace process and the future of the Good Friday Agreement. It has already accepted that in the event of Unity the North would automatically become part of the EU. This European good will can be harnessed.

All of this needs to be planned for now. Not after a referendum on Unity. As I said in my previous column, that is the one big lesson of Brexit. A referendum without a plan is stupid. I wrote; “So a referendum on unity must be set in a thoughtful inclusive process which sets out a programme of sustainable options. Including, phases of transition”.

The response to my column was both funny and serious. Funny because the SDLP sought to claim that Sinn Fein was shifting our position by calling for a plan. Serious because others haven’t been listening to what republicans have been constantly saying. The usually well informed commentator, Alex Kane said that I was “long-fingering the unity project”. He asked “is Adams preparing the ground for a row-back? Has it finally dawned on the party that Sinn Féin’s ‘ourselves alone’ approach to unity isn’t working? Are they simply buying themselves more time?”

In part, republicans must accept some responsibility for this failure by others to grasp what our approach has consistently been. So I thought it would be useful to remind readers of a few examples of Sinn Féin’s approach to the issue of Irish unity. In my first meeting with John Hume in September 1986 I put it to John that we needed to cooperate to get the British Government to set aside the Government of Ireland Act. This was the Act by which Britain claimed sovereignty in Ireland. Two years later Sinn Fein presented proposals to the SDLP during our talks in 1988 calling for an alliance of Irish political parties and opinion to achieve “maximum political unity in Ireland” to secure Irish Unity.

 We called for the launch of a “concerted political campaign internationally, using Dublin government diplomatic resources, to win international support”; and we proposed a “debate, aimed at leading to dialogue” with unionists to assure them of “our full commitment to their civil and religious rights and be persuaded of the need for their participation in building an Irish society based on equality and national reconciliation.”

In 1987 Sinn Féin published Scenario for Peace. This was the public launch of our developing peace strategy. Among other initiatives it called for an all-Ireland Constitutional Conference that would seek agreement on a new constitution and system of government. We dealt with the future of unionism and once again argued for the British government to repeal The Government of Ireland Act.

In February 1992 Sinn Féin published ‘Towards a Lasting Peace in Ireland’. It was a time of secret talks with the Irish and British governments, with political opinion in the USA, and private conversations with John Hume. The Sinn Féin document called for a peace process and it spelled out a strategy to achieve it. In particular, the document placed the onus for progress very much of the two governments with sovereign power and authority. It was an explicit recognition that republicans did not have the political strength on our own to effect the scale of change that was required.

Six years later, on 9 March 1998, a few weeks before the Good Friday Agreement was achieved, I set out in a keynote speech the broad outline of the sort of all-Ireland bodies and constitutional change that Sinn Féin believed were necessary in any agreement. I also said that nationalists want an “effective, peaceful, political strategy” to achieve a United Ireland. This means an alliance of Irish political parties, with the “Irish government playing a leadership role” and with a “common position worked out between Dublin, the SDLP and Sinn Féin”.

During and in the run into the negotiations leading to the Good Friday Agreement Sinn Féin pressed both governments on the need to end the Government of Ireland Act. In our first meeting in Downing Street we made this point clearly and in detail with British PM Tony Blair. I told him that a new Act needed to allow for an end to British rule that was least disruptive and most beneficial to all the people who live on the island of Ireland. Our point that the British Government needed to start unravelling the Act of Union by ending the Government of Ireland Act and the Northern Ireland Constitution Act, was made repeatedly by us. Our hard work paid off when in the Good Friday Agreement negotiations the Government of Ireland Act was replaced by legislation which declared “that if there were majority consent for a united Ireland that wish should be given effect.”

Sinn Féin’s position was that the unionist veto had to end; consent had to apply both ways. It is not just unionist consent but nationalist and republican consent as well. This very significant break-through opened up the potential for the development of an entirely peaceful way to end the union with Britain. It is that which should be the focus of all our efforts. That has been Sinn Féin’s focus. 

In 2005 we published ‘A Green Paper on Irish Unity’ in the Dáil. In my introduction I wrote: “In this discussion documents we are calling on the Irish government to publish a Green Paper and to begin the practical planning for Irish unity now.”

In June 2009, speaking in New York at a one-day conference on Irish Unity I told our audience: “Irish unity is bigger than Sinn Féin. We have no monopoly on this primary national and international issue. It is the business of everyone who desire peace and justice and freedom and prosperity for the people of Ireland. This can and will be established if we come together and plan and organise.”

Finally, speaking in the Mansion House on 21 January 2017 I said: “There is an onus on the Irish government to prepare a real plan for unity. A First Step in this would be the development of an all-party group to bring forward a Green Paper for Unity. In addition, plans should be developed for an all-island National Health Service and for all island public services through a ‘United Ireland investment and Prosperity Plan.”

So, these are just a few examples. But to ensure that there is no misunderstanding let me repeat. There needs to be planning for Irish unity. Now. There needs to be planning for a referendum on Irish Unity. Now. The Irish government has a key leadership role in this. There is a need for the rest of us – whatever our electoral differences and competitiveness on other issues - to work together for unity. And there must be a dialogue with unionism. They need to plan the future also.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Traveller culture and rights need to be upheld

I have long had an interest in the Traveller community, in their culture, nomadic life-style and music. The decision to recognise Traveller ethnicity in 2017 finally brought the Irish State into line with recognition already in place in the North, as well as in England, Scotland and Wales. But more is needed. The distinct culture, traditions and ethnicity of the Traveller community need to be cherished and valued.

Two weeks ago the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) produced a comprehensive report on the treatment of Travellers, refugees, the Direct Provision system for asylum seekers, anti-racism laws and hate crime. The report is a scathing indictment of the failure of successive Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil led governments.

It identified major legislative and policy failings in relation to hate speech, hate crime, the response of An Garda Síochána to these and the use of ethnic profiling by the Garda.

It is especially critical of the disgraceful refusal by many local Councils to draw down funding that is available from the government to provide Traveller specific accommodation. In February my colleague Teachta Eoin O’Broin revealed that of the 31 Councils in the South ten did not draw down any money in 2018 for Traveller accommodation – not a penny. A further 14 Councils failed to draw down all of their allocated funding. Overall less than half of the twelve million euro available for Traveller accommodation was spent in 2018.

A recent report – the 2019 #TravellerHomesNow monitoring report - published for that region by the Galway Traveller Movement (GTM) revealed that Travellers continue to live in appalling conditions. A year after a similar report, the 2019 review concluded that little change had taken place. The report examined the situation on 18 sites and describes accommodation that is overcrowded, damp and mouldy, overflowing sewerage, rat and fly infestations and no facilities for children. Poverty and social exclusion are the norm for Travellers.

Another report last year, from the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, found that the Traveller community was the group most at risk of homelessness. It also experiences the highest level of discrimination when seeking rented housing.

The ECRI report underlines the significant difficulties faced by Travellers. It specifically calls for increased efforts to meet the accommodation needs of Travellers. It suggests that this can be done by improving existing halting sites to meet decent and safe living standards, and by providing adequate, accessible, suitable and culturally-appropriate accommodation.

Crucially, the Commission calls for the imposition of sanctions on local authorities for failure to spend allocated funding. Failing this it argues for removing the responsibility for Traveller accommodation entirely from local authorities and placing it under the authority of a central housing commission. This is a proposal that Traveller groups have supported for many years.

The ECRI is also highly critical of the Direct Provision system of holding asylum seekers in so-called accommodation centres that are run by private companies. Many have been in the system for years waiting on a decision on their application for asylum. The system has been frequently and justifiably criticised.

Last week we heard of the disturbing case of Sylva Tukula, who lived at the Great Western House Direct Provision Centre in Galway, and who died there last August. Sylva was buried in early May without any of her friends being informed.

This case has highlighted the fact that the Department of Justice no longer provides information about deaths in Direct Provision. It did until two years ago. Between 2007 and 2017 at least 44 people died in Direct Provision. 15 of these have no known cause. In a discussion about Direct Provision at the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice two weeks ago Mr. Lucky Khumbule of the Movement of Asylum Seekers revealed that in the last 18 months there have been at least five suicides that they know of.

The Reception and Integration Agency (RIA) which is responsible for the Direct Provision system and treatment of asylum seekers and refugees, and the Department of Justice now tell us that recording deaths is not their business.

When I raised this issue and the ECRI report in the Dáil last week the Minister said he would write to me. I await his response with interest.

The ECRI report is a very welcome wake-up call. It sets out a range of common sense measures that would significantly advance equality and fairness in society.

All of us have rights. These include the right to receive equal service in shops and pubs, the right to access education, health services and work, and the right to accommodation, on the basis of equality. Regrettably, this has not been the case for our Traveller brothers and sisters. Or the unfortunate people in Direct Provision. This needs changed.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Telling it as it was - ‘Ireland’s War of Independence 1919-21: The IRAs Guerrilla Campaign’


The revision of history, as new facts emerge and details or stories previously unknown are revealed, is a good and a necessary part of learning about the past. But ‘revisionism,’ which seeks to perpetuate a particular version of history by distorting, suppressing or ignoring elements of the story, usually only serves the establishment’s interests. So, it has been in Ireland for a very long time.
The history of struggle in Ireland, and in particular of the revolutionary period, has been dumbed down and distorted. This has included a significant effort to differentiate between the IRA of 1916-1923 and its actions, and the IRA after that. It also includes the notion that we have won our freedom and that the southern state is the nation and so on.
The availability of much new historical and military documents and manuscripts from the revolutionary period has broken down much of this. The digitalisation and wider availability of this new material, and the emergence of a younger cadre of historians, has opened up history and undermined the myths perpetuated by the ‘revisionist’ school. One of these historians is Lorcan Collins.
Mise agus Michael O'Brien and Lorcan Collins
A couple of weeks ago I was asked by Michael O’Brien of O’Brien Press to speak at the launch of Lorcan’s latest book - ‘Ireland’s War of Independence 1919-21: The IRAs Guerrilla Campaign’. Along with the late Shane Kenna, and the late Shane Mac Thomáis, and his father Eamonn, and the very alive Liz Gillis, Donal Fallon, Conor McNamara, Micheál MacDonnacha, Margaret Ward, Breandán Mac Suibhne, Mary McAuliffe, John O’Neill and Aengus O Snodaigh and many others, they are the alternative to the dumbing down of our history.
For over 20 years Lorcan has been running his Dublin Walking Tours, talking to visitors about the momentous events of Easter 1916, bringing them to the sites of battle, and telling them stories of the courageous men and women who took on the might of the British Empire. His knowledge of that period is amazing. Lorcan has also published a number of books, including The Easter Rising: A guide to Dublin in 1916; and 1916: The Rising Handbook. It was Lorcan who suggested to O’Brien Press that, as part of the centenary celebrations for 1916, that they publish the 16 Lives series which recounts the lives of each of the leaders executed by British after the Easter Rising. Lorcan wrote the book on James Connolly.
His latest work, ‘Ireland’s War of Independence 1919-21: The IRAs Guerrilla Campaign’ is a timely publication. It’s a nice book. It’s a handy size of a book. When you get a new book there is a feel to it, a smell to it. Lorcan’s book presents short, well researched, and insightful accounts about the major events and personalities of that period. Unlike most history books which require you start at the first page and work your way through to the end, this book is written in a style that allows the reader to dip in and out of it. To go back to it and pick it up if you have a specific interest in an aspect of the period.
Where other historians have often diminished or simply ignored the role of women in the struggle for Independence Lorcan writes about the “Radical Women” – Inghinidhe na hÉireann, Bean na hÉireann, Cumann na mBan, and also those sisters who fought with the Irish Citizen Army.
One of the great strengths of this book is Lorcan’s ability to merge history with storytelling. The characters involved in operations against the British forces become more than just names in a history book. They are real people living and dying in a very dangerous time in our history.
Lorcan recalls the story of British Army Captain Percival Lea-Wilson. He subjected the GPO Garrison, after they surrendered to savage abuse. Wilson is said to have been especially vicious toward Tom Clarke and Seán MacDiarmada. Lorcan tells how Liam Tobin who had witnessed Wilson’s savagery “registered a vow” to “deal with him at some time in the future.”
Four years later Wilson was a District Inspector for Gorey in Wexford. Liam Tobin was now Michael Collins’s Chief of Intelligence and in June 1920 he travelled to Wexford where he ambushed and killed Wilson. War can be a deeply personal business.
There are many stories of daring raids on RIC barracks; executions by the ‘Squad’ of British agents and spies; including the targeting of the Cairo Gang, and then the British retaliation later that day in Croke Park.
Reading the book I came across an aspect to these two incidents I wasn’t aware of before. In a little section under ‘House of Commons Reaction’ Lorcan tells us how the Secretary of State for Ireland Hamar Greenwood read through the list of the dead British agents to a packed British Commons.
Lorcan describes Greenwood; “pausing slowly for effect and whipping the House into a frenzy with the use of phrases such as ‘possible a hammer was used as well as shots to finish off this gallant officer.’ After much discussion and calls for further powers to be extended to the military and police, Joe Devlin, the Irish Party MP for the Falls Road area of Belfast, rose to ask Lloyd George and Greenwood why there had been no mention of the killings in Croke Park. There were shouts of ‘sit down’ from hundreds of MPs, and Greenwood whispered something to his fellow MP, Major John Molson, who lunged at Devlin, grabbing him by the neck and pulling him over the bench, egged on by shouts of ‘kill him, kill him’ from MPs.”
So, the madness of Brexit didn’t just appear out of thin air.
Another of the many stories Lorcan relates is that of Kevin Barry. Most of us know that Barry – a lad of eighteen summers – was hanged by the British. What is less well known are the two attempts by the IRA to rescue Barry. One of these involved a plan to blow a hole in the wall of Mountjoy Prison and rush the armed British guards. It was called off because too many people arrived outside the prison to pray for Kevin Barry as he awaited his fate.
The song of his death has been sung many times by many people including Leonard Cohen, Paul Robeson, the Clancy Brothers and most recently by Boy George. Pól Mac Adaim sang it as Lorcan’s book launch. Most of us will have sang it at some point in our own lives. It captures the heroism and tragedy of the struggle for Irish freedom.
So does ‘Ireland’s War of Independence 1919-21: The IRAs Guerrilla Campaign’. It tells it as it was.