Friday, August 15, 2014

No to Fracking

Last month I headed down to Carrick-on- Shannon in county Leitrim for a public meeting on the impact of the Irish government’s austerity policies on rural communities and families. It was a warm summer evening with a clear blue sky for most of the way there. Carrick-on-Shannon was quiet but the public meeting was packed to the doors.

Later we drove to Monaghan along dark windy roads crisscrossing the border. Leitrim is one of our most underrated counties. Fewer mobile phone calls than usual meant I had an opportunity to enjoy the beauty of the countryside.

Last week I was just across the border from Leitrim in Derrylin in county Fermanagh for the national hunger strike march and rally. Like its Leitrim neighbour Fermanagh is a wonderful county – stunning scenery, lots of small and large lakes and countless rivers all feeding into the Shannon river basin. Small towns and villages are connected by twisting narrow roads.

For several decades the road network was broken by British Army border crossings and roads that were blocked with concrete blocks. The adverse impact on the local economy was considerable.

Today Leitrim and Fermanagh like all of the border counties suffer from higher than average levels of unemployment and poverty, poor road systems, a lack of investment and inadequate public services. Both are very dependent on farming and tourism to provide jobs.

When the Derrylin event was over local MP Michelle Gildernew climbed into our car and directed us to an old quarry some miles away at Belcoo where Australian shale gas exploration company Tamboran is planning to drive a bore hole over 700 feet into the underground rock in search of gas.

The search for gas from shale is focused on the north-west carboniferous basin which covers Leitrim, Roscommon, Mayo, Sligo, Cavan, Donegal and Fermanagh. It covers an area of some 8,000 square kilometres and is the source of two of the islands largest water systems, the Shannon and the Erne.

When we arrived at the Belcoo site we were met by local activists who are camping outside the entrance to Tamboran’s camp protesting the use of fracking to extract shale gas. The gates to the quarry are covered in posters and slogans and one large sign proclaims it to be the ‘Gates of Hell’.

As well as the local activists there are also a large number of PSNI officers on duty, directing traffic and monitoring developments. Local MLA Phil Flanagan joined us as did Sandra McLellan TD and Michael Colreavy TDS. In a large tent across from the gates the anti-fracking activists make tea and coffee and there are sandwiches available for protestors and visitors. The atmosphere is relaxed, welcoming, but there is a clear determination among all of those in the Belcoo camp to oppose fracking.

What is fracking? It is a means of extracting natural gas trapped in layers of sedimentary rock between one and two kilometres beneath the surface. Horizontal wells are drilled into which a mixture of water and sand and chemicals are forced at high pressure. This fractures the rock and allows gas to seep into the wells where it makes its way to the surface for collection and distribution. An average well will use up to 20,000 cubic metres of water. Of these high volumes of millions of gallons of water about a third, containing treatments, sands and other chemicals, is returned to the surface where it has to be disposed of.

Fracking is a hugely controversial method of extracting gas. In 2011 at our Ard Fheis Sinn Féin discussed the use of fracking, listened to the arguments and passed a motion stating our opposition to it and our “full support to local communities who are opposed to this unsafe procedure.”

As a process it has been banned in several European countries, including France and Bulgaria, and there is credible evidence of damage to drinking water; to human health and to animal health. It can cause serious environmental pollution, is a significant and dangerous threat to our countryside and can damage fish stocks. There is evidence that fracking was responsible for several small earthquakes in the north of England several years ago.

Fracking poses a very real risk to the success of our farming industry, and to the health and safety of rural communities, across the island of Ireland, as well as undermining our tourism industry. In addition to the dangers posed by the drilling and extraction processes there is significant disruption to local communities by lorries full of materials regularly entering and leaving the fracking site.
In January 2011 the British based Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research published a report, Shale gas: a provisional assessment of climate change and environmental impacts. The report set out concerns about ground and surface water contamination, possibly even affecting quality of drinking water and wetland habitats, depending on factors such as the connection between ground and surface waters.

The report noted that: “The depth of shale gas extraction gives rise to major challenges in identifying categorically pathways of contamination of groundwater by chemicals used in the extraction process. An analysis of these substances suggests that many have toxic, carcinogenic or other hazardous properties. There is considerable anecdotal evidence from the US that contamination of both ground and surface water has occurred in a range of cases.”

Fracking is not the answer to the energy needs of the island of Ireland and the farmers of Fermanagh have given a lead by signing a pledge that they will not allow fracking on their land. 
Renewable sources of energy must remain the main focus for the future. Tidal, hydro, wind and biomass all have the potential to satisfy Ireland and Europe’s energy demands.

There was widespread public concern at Tamboran’s drilling. The announcement on Monday by the Minister for the Environment that Tamboran's proposal to drill a core of rock from Cleggan Quarry would require a full Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and planning permission, is a welcome decision. Public concern had been heightened by the north’s Department of Enterprise Trade and Investment’s, DUP Minister Arlene Foster’s decision to award the licence without any public debate. 

I want to commend the efforts of local communities and of my party colleagues who have consistently raised their concerns about fracking. The threat to the people and environment of Fermanagh and Leitrim and surrounding counties remains high and we must all remain vigilant.
The focus will now shift to the Irish government and to the decision by the previous Fianna Fáil government to permit fracking licence options to Tamboran Resources and The Lough Allen Natural Gas Company, and the failure of the Fine Gael and Labour to put a halt to proceedings.

Let me be clear; Sinn Féin is opposed to fracking north and south and we will use our political strength to resist it. If any application is made for fracking Sinn Féin will be bringing it to the Executive to oppose it.


Thursday, August 7, 2014

The rising of the moon



Last Friday morning, August 1st, former comrades of Bobby Sands - ex-POWs Sinead Moore and Jimmy Burns - unveiled a remarkable white marble bust of Bobby in the Felons Club on the Falls Road in west Belfast. Two days later thousands more travelled to Derrylin in County Fermanagh to celebrate the lives and heroism of the 10 hunger strikers who died in 1981 and also of Michael Gaughan and Frank Stagg.

The marble bust, which was commissioned by the Bobby Sands Trust and shaped from a block of marble by Paraic Casey, is a fine representation of Bobby and a tremendous piece of sculpture. I would urge any of you either visiting the Felons or just passing by to take a few moments and go into the foyer to admire the bust which has been set in a recess into the wall. Art is very important in whatever form it takes but to carve something out of stone or wood or marble into an image of a living person and to capture the essence of that person takes enormous talent.

Even now 33 years later it’s hard to take in that the events of that time – events which led to the deaths of Bobby and his nine comrades inside the prison, and of more than 60 others outside. We get a small sense of it when we realise that prior to August 1st 1981 Bobby, Francie Hughes, Raymond McCreesh, Patsy O Hara and Joe McDonnell had already died. Friday was Kevin Lynch’s anniversary. It was Big Doc’s – Kieran Doherty – the following day - Saturday. It will be Tom McElwee’s anniversary this Friday and on August 20th it will be Mickey Devine’s.

Some of them I knew before they went into prison. Others I met in prison. I’m very proud to say that Bobby Sands was my friend. I had been interned in Long Kesh and was then sentenced for trying to escape and found myself in Cage 11, in another part of the camp which held sentenced political prisoners. Bobby was one of those.

He was a wiry, long haired individual. I remember him as a keen sportsman who played soccer or gaelic football whenever he got the chance. He had a good sense of humour and liked music. He was very good on the guitar. He was also a gaelgoir. He famously went on into the H-Blocks where he taught the other prisoners Irish.

There was a study hut in the cage – which was in reality not much bigger than a garden shed. It had a few tables and chairs in it. At one time we kept pigeons in it. In another of the cages they lowered the ceiling and used the space to store the ingredients for poítín until it was found by the screws.

I had been asked by Danny Morrison, who was then the editor of Republican news to write for the paper. Consequently I would sit in the study hut trying to scribble down my thoughts. Bobby would have practiced there. I have an abiding memory of him sitting playing the classic Kris Kristofferson song, ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ over and over again. Later when he went to the H Blocks Bobby wrote songs including ‘McIlhatton’ and ‘Back home in Derry’.

There was once a great moment at Christmas when we put on a concert. Bobby and Dosser, Big Duice, and Big Igor decided to mime to the Queen song ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. But being the consummate professionals they were they decided to create the iced smoke effect from the music videos. Igor had the notion that if you ground down table tennis balls and light them that that would produce the smoke effect. He was right in one respect. It did create smoke. Lots of it and he almost choked most of us to death. We had to evacuate the big hut.

In Cage 11, as in other cages, we inculcated an education ethos. Sometimes Long Kesh is presented by those who don’t know better as a ‘university’ as if we were all stupid before we went into prison. Not true. People got involved because they were political activists and were against injustice and because we wanted change. In the prison we got the chance to read and debate and discuss.

Bobby was very much a part of this. He took part in all of the discussions. He read a lot. He was very intelligent, very committed, and all the time was asking questions. He was an internationalist. He read about other struggles. In those days the big international struggles were Cuba, south America, the struggle against apartheid in south Africa and Palestine.

I have no doubt that Bobby  would have been appalled, as we all are, by the shocking images from Gaza, and outraged at the failure of the international community to challenge the aggression of the Israeli government.

Martin, the Palestinian Ambassador Ahmed Abdelrazek agus mise
Twice in the last few days I have spoken to Saeb Erekat the Chief Negotiator of the Palestinians. He has told me of the terrible conditions of the people of Gaza and also of the Unity Government’s efforts to secure progress through negotiations. It’s very important that we raise our voices on this issue; that we continue to organise and lobby and challenge the propaganda of the Israeli government.

We also need to write and text and email the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin on its recent decision to abstain in the vote at the UN Human Rights Council. That decision was a disgrace and we need to be telling them that they didn’t do that in the name of the Irish people.

Bobby was also a leader. It was after the first hunger strike and the way that British reneged on the possibility of getting decent conditions around the five demands, that Bobby resolved to lead the second hunger strike. He knew that the stakes had been raised and he knew that it was almost certain that he would die.

Bobby was an ordinary working class lad from north Belfast. He was a poet, a gaelgoir, a writer, a political activist, a political prisoner, who ends up an MP, and who is seen everywhere by those who love freedom, as a freedom fighter.

And if you want to understand what motivated Bobby then I would urge you to read any of his books or poems or short stories. In recent days his Prison Diary has been republished. He kept it for the first 17 days of his hunger strike – before he was moved to the prison hospital.

On the last day he wrote; Tiocfaidh lá éigin nuair a bheidh an fonn saoirse seo le taispeáint ag daoine go léir na hEireann ansin tchífidh muid éirí na gealaí”. - The day will dawn when all the people of Ireland will have the desire for freedom to show. It is then we’ll see the rising of the moon”.

For me that’s the essence of how you win struggle because in that little phrase Bobby is recognising that the only people who can actually win freedom are the people themselves. You can create the conditions in which people can take freedom but ultimately it needs the people to win freedom.


Wednesday, July 30, 2014

End the slaughter in Gaza

It is unusual for this column to deal with the same issue three weeks in a row. But the Israeli assault on Gaza makes this a very special case. The scenes of desolation and destruction, of whole streets reduced to piles of broken rubble, and the images of torn bodies, especially of young children and babies, demand that the international community do all that we can to end this slaughter.

Just before noon on Tuesday morning I spoke to Saeb Erekat in Ramallah on the west Bank. The Palestinian Unity Government was holding an emergency meeting to discuss the deteriorating situation.

Saeb is an Executive Committee Member of the PLO and is the Chief Negotiator for the Palestinian government. He took a few minutes to brief me on the current situation in Gaza and the behind the scenes efforts to achieve a humanitarian ceasefire.

He explained that the Palestinian government, including Hamas, had accepted a United States proposal for a 24 hour humanitarian ceasefire. The Israeli government rejected this. The United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon then proposed a 72 hour humanitarian ceasefire. The Palestinian government accepted this but again the Israeli government said no.

Saeb thanked the people of Ireland for their support and asked that they and the international community endorse and support the United Nations call for a ceasefire. He told me that there is no oil, no water, and no electricity in Gaza. Saeb described this current Israeli assault as seeking the total destruction of Gaza.

The proof of this can be found in the statistics of death and destruction coming out of Gaza. In the 24 hours before I spoke to Saeb another 100 Palestinians – mostly civilians – had been killed in attacks by the Israel military.

Since July 8 when the current violence erupted around 1300 Palestinians – according to the UN 80% of them civilians – have been killed. Almost 7,000 have been injured. Israel has lost 53 soldiers and three civilians.

An explanation for the disproportionate number of civilian deaths between Palestinians and Israel can be found in the words of Major General Gadi Eizenkot, now a deputy chief of staff in the Israeli Army. Six years ago he admitted that any village or city from which rockets are fired would be regarded as a ‘missile base.’

The Israel Army and its defenders claim that it is the most moral army in the world. The evidence of the last three weeks disproves that claim. On the contrary the Israeli army, air force and navy have demonstrated again and again their capacity to deliberately and systematically and accurately target the civilian population.

They are engaging in collective punishment of a civilian population – a practice which is supposedly outlawed under international law. But the truth is that the end game is about the theft of Palestinian land and water and control of the occupied territories through terror.

When Israeli forces withdrew from Gaza in 2005 it wasn’t about peace or acknowledging the rights of the Palestinian people. Arial Sharon the former Prime Minister of Israel said that their disengagement ‘will strengthen its control over those same areas in the ‘Land of Israel’ which will constitute an inseparable part of the State of Israel.’

Israel’s assault on Gaza, including the blockade that was imposed in 2007, is about defending the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, denying the Palestinian people their national rights, undermining Palestinian political institutions and its economy and to weaken Palestinian resistance.

Israeli government aggression has to be challenged. The rights of the Palestinian people must be defended. The violence against the civilian population of Gaza must be ended. The Irish government can play an important role in this. Ireland is generally viewed as progressive on international matters around the world. The UN has called for a three day ceasefire. The Irish government and the Dáil should be united in supporting this.

Last week I wrote to An Taoiseach requesting that he recall the Dáil to discuss the situation in Gaza. The Taoiseach has not answered my letter but in briefings to the media he has indicated that he is not willing to accede to Sinn Féin's request for the Dáil to be reconvened.

Thus far Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil, 14 independent deputies, one Fine Gael TD and one Labour TD and six Seanadóirí have endorsed our request for the recall of the Dáil.

I believe the Taoiseach’s position is a mistake, particularly now that the Seanad will be reconvened to discuss this urgent issue, but also in light of the Palestinian support for the UN ceasefire call. The Irish government and the Dáil can provide leadership at this critical juncture as efforts are made to end the violence.

Given our own history as a people, our experience of conflict and our peace process, a recalled Dáil uniting in support of an end to violence and in support of the United Nations appeal for a 72 hour humanitarian ceasefire, would send a powerful message of solidarity to the people of that region and encourage an intensification of pressure on the Israeli government to accept the United Nations ceasefire proposal.

In the meantime I want to commend all of those who are organising and participating in public protests against Israeli actions and in support of the Palestinian people. Nelson Mandela once remarked that; ‘We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.’ He was right.




Thursday, July 24, 2014

Expel Israeli Ambassador

August 1969 was a tipping point in the history of the north. Sectarian pogroms, a feature of nineteenth century Belfast and partition, returned to the streets of Belfast with hundreds of families in Ardoyne, the lower Falls and the Clonard area being forcibly evicted from their homes. Loyalist mobs led by the RUC and B Specials attacked Catholic homes. Filmed sequences from the period show families scrambling desperately to save belongings as they abandoned their homes with flames billowing behind them and smoke rising into the air. Whole streets of terraced homes, local businesses and mills were destroyed.
The refugees carried their children, bundles of clothes and small pieces of furniture in their arms or on their backs while larger pieces were left abandoned in the street or piled onto to flat bed lorries to be carried off.

The streets of the Falls Road and Ardoyne were a war zone.  It was a terrifying time. In the three days between August 14 and 16 eight people were killed and scores more injured. The familiar streetscape in the Falls that I had grown up in was shattered. The close knit community was left battered and bleeding. The image of frightened families running for their lives and the sense of devastation, of gutted buildings and of makeshift defensive barricades are still fresh in my mind. As are the rolls of barbed wire strung arbitrarily across streets by British Army squaddies as the first of Belfast’s separation walls took shape.    
Many of the families ended up in schools in Andersonstown, including – St. Teresa’s, Holy Child and La Salle. They lived in overcrowded classrooms. Desks pushed up against side walls. They slept on mattresses among the bits and pieces of furniture they retained.

The August pogrom was the failure of politics and it set the scene for decades of conflict.
I was reminded of the overcrowded Belfast schools while watching a report on the 120,000 Palestinian citizens who have been forcibly evicted from their homes by the Israeli military. Thousands of homes have been flattened by no warning Israeli bombs from air, sea and tank. Most of the refugees have taken shelter in some 61 schools and other property run by the United Nations. Conditions are appalling. Too many people, not enough mattresses, blankets, food and water. And all living under the imminent threat of Israeli bombs.

The Director of Operations for UNWRA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) which provides aid to refugees said: “These men, women and children are relying on us to provide them with shelter and the reality is that UNWRA only had relief supplies in stock for 35,000 people.” The real figure at time of writing is four times that.
The scale of the nightmare in Gaza is so much bigger than our Belfast experience. In two weeks over 700 Palestinians have been killed – mainly civilians and children. Thousands more have been grievously injured and rushed into hospitals inadequately resourced after eight years of an Israeli siege and themselves the target for Israeli attack.

A report in the London Guardian at the weekend told of an Israeli assault on Shujai’iya district in at “least 100 Palestinians were killed – 67 on one area - … the corpses of women and children were strewn in streets of Shujai’iya as people fled on foot and packed into vehicles.”
Nowhere is safe. Four people were killed when Israeli tankls bombed the al-Aqsa hospitasl. In Khan Younis Israeli bombs destroyed a home killing 24 members of one family. Whether on the beach or at home children have been deliberately targeted as Israel engages in the collective punishment of the civilian population of Gaza.

Each news report brings another story of horror and destruction as the death toll rises.
The Palestinian people are the victims of one of the great injustices of the modern era. For over sixty years millions have lived in refugee camps. Most know no other life. Opportunities for political progress and peace have been squandered by successive ruthless Israeli governments hungry for Palestinian land and water and determined to ensure that Palestinians remain fractured, impoverished and too weak to challenge Israeli aggression.

In 2009 I saw for myself the disastrous impact that the Israeli siege was having on the lives of the people of Gaza. I was angry. I was only there two days and I was angry.
Imagine living in those conditions for generations. If you deny people the right to a job, to a home, to freedom and control of their own destiny then don’t be surprised if they too are angry.

If you force almost two million people to live in a huge open prison where there the future looks likely to be a replay of the past then don’t be surprised if they are angry.
The powerful governments of the world have stood back and time after time excused Israeli actions, proclaiming that Israel has the right to defend itself. What of the right of the Palestinian people to security and defence?

In a new low the Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu accused Hamas of using “telegenically dead Palestinians for their cause.” Israel kills 600 Palestinians and then blames the Palestinians for the media news reports.
As long as world leaders accept the single narrative of Israel then there will be no peace in that region. There is a Palestinian narrative that must be given equal validity and a Palestinian people who deserve hope and peace for the future.

Around the world countless demonstrations have been held in solidarity with the people of Gaza. Those efforts must be intensified in the time ahead. At the weekend I urged the Irish government to go beyond the politics of empty rhetoric and expel the Israeli Ambassador – to set an example for the rest of the EU. There is widespread support for this.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

End the War on Gaza



Protest against Israeli assault on Gaza: Belfast

The Israeli assault on Gaza has killed 200 people. Most of whom are civilians and children. Thousands more have been forced to flee their homes under threat from the Israeli government.

The short ceasefire announced for this morning is a welcome development.  

However it will only be another temporary lull in the cyclical violence in that region unless a real and inclusive dialogue takes place involving all of the combatant groups, including Hamas, and if the core issues of statehood for the Palestinian people, an end to the Israeli theft of Palestinian land and water rights, and the lifting of the siege of Gaza are not agreed.

Below are some thoughts on the situation:

Imagine that the population of the north was squeezed into an area half that of County Louth, the smallest county on the island of Ireland.

Imagine that 1.8 million people are locked into a piece of land that stretches roughly 40 kilometres from the border to Drogheda and is roughly 10 kilometres wide.

Imagine that 80% of the people who live there are dependent on some form of food and clothes aid.

Imagine that over 80% live below the poverty line.

Imagine that unemployment is 44%, and that 58% of young people between the ages of 15-29 have no work.

Imagine that 52% of women have no work.

Imagine that electricity is unpredictable and frequently fails.

Imagine that the health system is unable to cope and does not have access to modern equipment and the medical drugs and treatments others take for granted.

Imagine that 10% of children under five have had their growth stunted by malnutrition.

Imagine that anaemia is widespread, affecting over two-thirds of infants, 58.6 per cent of schoolchildren and over a third of pregnant mothers.

Imagine that most of the sewage sites are overflowing and the system is close to collapse, and that 3.5 million cubic feet of raw sewage is finding its way into the Irish Sea every day.

Imagine that there is little rainfall and that most drinking water comes from ground wells.

Imagine that you know that in six years time they will all run dry. There will be no drinking water.

If your imagination is up to the task you have just imagined the harsh reality of life for almost two million men, women and children living in the Gaza strip. But even that doesn’t tell the whole story.

Myself and several colleagues visited Gaza five years ago in 2009. It was just after the Israeli ground invasion. By the time the Israelis left the economy of Gaza was shattered. 3,500 homes had been destroyed; another 28,000 damaged; 800 industries were damaged or destroyed; 10 schools were destroyed and 204 damaged.

1440 people had been killed, including 114 women and 431 children.

A school destroyed by Israeli assault in 2009
In 2012 there were further Israeli attacks on Gaza. In November of that year 161 Palestinians, including 71 civilians were killed. The then Israeli defence minister, Ehud Barak, justified the assault claiming that: "All our objectives were reached, taking out the Fajr rockets, rocket launching pads and Hamas offices".

Less than two years later and the Israeli Defense Forces claim that Hamas now has 10,000 rockets! How? What happened to Barak’s claims?

For Palestinians the reality is that they are stateless. They are a nation without a settled piece of secure territory they can call their own. Millions live in refugee camps. Many have done so for over sixty years and many millions more are scattered around that region and the world.

The Separation Wall erected by the Israelis has seen huge chunks of Palestinian land and water rights stolen. Illegal Israeli settlements containing over 100,000 illegal settlers occupy Palestinian land on the west Bank.

Should we be surprised then when violence erupts? The last week the Israeli assault on Gaza has left almost 200 Palestinians dead. Once again it is the civilian population that is being collectively punished by the Israeli state. 75% of those killed have been civilians. Just over a quarter have been children. Some of the images that have appeared on the internet of children have been horrifying and deeply upsetting.

But the impact of the Israeli assault extends beyond the dead and injured. Gaza relies on wells for drinking water. At the weekend Palestinian officials were accusing the Israeli military of deliberately targeting wells in Gaza City, as well as water pipelines. Thousands of families have been left without access to clean drinking water. This is especially critical in a region where one Oxfam official said that 90 percent of the water in Gaza was already unsafe to drink.

Hospital bombed
In January 2013 the EU Heads of Mission Jerusalem Report 2012 was published. It was a scathing indictment of the Israeli government’s flouting of international law and it’s violation of the rights of Palestinian citizens living in East Jerusalem and the occupied territories.

The report found that the Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the west bank are ‘the biggest single threat to the two state solution.’

The EU report accused the Israeli government of implementing a settlement policy that is ‘systematic, deliberate and provocative’ and of pursuing a deliberate policy of seeking to drive Palestinians out of East Jerusalem.

The Jerusalem Report indicted Israel for violating ‘international humanitarian law’.

A United Nations report published two years ago  – ‘Gaza in 2020 – A liveable place?’ concluded that within a decade, ‘There will be virtually no reliable access to sources of safe drinking water, standards of healthcare and education will have continued to decline and the vision of affordable and reliable electricity for all will have become a distant memory for most.”

The report added that; ‘The already high number of poor, marginalised and food-insecure people depending on assistance will not have changed and in all likelihood will have increased.’

The Separation Wall
The Palestinian people have been robbed of their land, imprisoned by separation walls and borders into ghettoes, and have little power or influence.

Israel by comparison is a first world, highly developed, rich and heavily armed super-state with nuclear weapons.

At some point there will be a ceasefire. But everyone knows it will only be a lull before another round of violence. Without a comprehensive peace accord that deals with all of the key issues of Palestinian self-determination and independence and of two states, as well as of economic issues and prisoners and land and water rights, no ceasefire will last long.

Real progress toward a negotiated political settlement requires an end of armed actions by all of the combatant groups. That means an end to the rocket attacks from Gaza. It also means an end to Israeli aggression and its bombardment of the Gaza Strip which has caused enormous suffering. It also means lifting the blockade of Gaza.

But perhaps most important it needs the international community to stop standing by while Gaza and the Palestinian people are again pounded back to the stone age by the might of the Government of Israel.

Photos from Belfast protest: Go raibh maith agat Peadar



Thursday, July 3, 2014

Unionist walk out of talks – a step back


With the intensive all-party talks less than 48 hours old the Unionist parties all walked out. The reason? The Parades Commission has barred an Orange march from returning along part of the Crumlin Road through a nationalist area.

The DUP leader Peter Robinson and Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt were then joined by the leader of the TUV (Traditional Unionist Voice) Jim Allister and by the parties linked to the UVF and UDA in issuing a joint call to action for loyalists to oppose the Parades Commission’s determination and describing the all-party talks as ‘fruitless’.

The unionist leaderships urged loyalists to respond peacefully and lawfully but given that their decision is in direct opposition to a lawful decision by the Parades Commission, it is questionable how much weight will be given to this by those loyalist elements that have been periodically involved in serious street disturbances in the last two years.

Many will also question their sincerity in appealing for calm in light of the claim in their joint statement that ‘having seen republican threats of violence being rewarded the conclusion is swiftly drawn that violence pays.’

It is also important to note that there are more loyalist and orange parades taking place each year than ever before. In 2005 there were 2120 marches in the north. By last year that had more than  doubled to 4,637. Two thirds of these are loyalist parades. Claims that objections by a handful of nationalist areas to orange parades going through their communities is an attack on the Orange is clearly a nonsense.

The decision by the unionist leaderships today is evidence of their failure to stand firm against the demands of the Orange Order, the UVF and UDA in north Belfast. This is about these groups playing the Orange Card and using the threat of political instability to achieve their demands.

This is unacceptable. The status quo is not tenable. Sinn Féin will resist all efforts by unionist leaders to roll back the Good Friday Agreement.

This morning’s move by the unionist leaders was not entirely unexpected. We warned the British Prime Minister David Cameron and the Labour Leader ED Miliband that unionist intransigence was threatening the political process.

Why would unionists engage positively in dialogue when David Cameron has not been fully engaged with the peace process in the last four years. Yesterday’s meeting with David Cameron was our first such meeting since he came to power in 2010. This is deplorable and is clear evidence of the British government’s failure thus far to properly engage with the process of change in the north. David Cameron, like other Conservative leaders before him, has leaned heavily in the direction of political unionism and away from the inclusive approach of the Good Friday Agreement.

This has contributed to the political process facing a succession of crises. But the situation has deteriorated even further in recent months as a consequence of the DUP’s unwillingness to participate positively within the political institutions and the Good Friday and other Agreements. Like David Trimble before them the DUP engagement has been tactical and aimed at serving their own party political agenda rather than the needs of the Good Friday Agreement.

They have bought into the architecture of the Agreement because they have no choice. But they have not bought into the substance. As Martin McGuinness has noted ‘We are in government with unionists because we want to be. They are in government with us because they have to be.’

In other words they have bought into the political institutions in terms of elections, salaries, and status but not into the need for real partnership government, the effective development of north-south co-operation, equality, mutual respect and parity of esteem. The DUPs participation within the institutions has been marked by blocking and stalling important initiatives; including equality measures in the education sector and collapsing the Programme for Government commitment on the Maze Long Kesh site.

Instead of applying themselves to making the Agreement work the DUP leadership has formed a loose axis with the Ulster Unionist Party, the TUV, the UVF and elements of the UDA and the Orange Order to obstruct progress.

None of this is unusual. From the first day after the Good Friday Agreement was achieved the UUP – then the larger unionist party – behaved in much the same way. It took a significant effort on the part of the British Labour government in the days leading up to the Good Friday Agreement referendum in May 1998 to persuade David Trimble to adopt a positive attitude. At one point it looked like the referendum would be lost.

Ivan Lewis, Mary Lou McDonald, Ed Miliband, Gerry Adams and Michelle Gildernew
Tony Blair visited the north three times, gave numerous interviews and Labour party people from Britain worked behind the scenes to focus the UUP on winning the hearts and minds of unionist voters. Trimble sold the Agreement and the referendum was passed comfortably.

But every negotiation since then has taken the same path. While Sinn Féin and others have played our part in creating the conditions for agreement it is a fact that without a pro-active British government encouraging the UUP and then the DUP there would have been no progress.

Thus far the Cameron government has chosen to endorse DUP intransigence and support the unionist narrative of the conflict. London failed to back the Haass compromise proposals on parades, flags and symbols, and contending with the past; it unilaterally broke the Weston Park commitment on resolving the issue of OTRs, and has not implemented key elements of the Good Friday Agreement.

Recently, David Cameron has begun to indicate an awareness that the process is in difficulty. But this morning’s action by the unionist leaders has significantly ratcheted up the crisis in the political process.

The intense period of negotiations that the political leaders in the north had agreed to hold and which began only last night are now ended. The unionists have left the stage. That’s their decision.

Yesterday we told Mr. Cameron that making progress requires a positive engagement by the Irish and British governments on issues which are their direct responsibility. The governments cannot deplore the lack of progress in the process unless they act to fulfil their obligations. Without that unionism will do as little as possible.

Sinn Féin will resist all efforts by unionist leaders to roll back the Good Friday Agreement. The British and Irish governments must also stand resolute for the Good Friday Agreement. They need to be champions for progress, for positive change and for the Agreement.

As co-equal guarantors of the Agreement the two governments must ensure continuing progress and this has to include implementing agreements already made that are their sole responsibility.


Thursday, June 26, 2014

Spectacular intellectual gymnastics and the Guildford 4

Gerry Conlon died on Saturday. He was one of four people arrested, tortured and falsely imprisoned for carrying out bomb attacks in Guildford and Woolwich in England in 1974. His father Giuseppe was also arrested while visiting his son in prison and wrongly convicted of involvement in bomb making. He died in prison.

The Guildford 4, the Maguire 7, the Birmingham 6 and others were all victim of a series of grave miscarriages of justice which saw the British police service, judiciary and political establishment conniving in imprisoning citizens they knew to be innocent of any wrong doing.

Gerry Conlon, Paul Hill, Carole Richardson and Paddy Armstrong spent 15 years in English prisons under the most horrendous of prison conditions, often in solitary confinement.

A public campaign in support of their release eventually succeeded in achieving that in 1989. Following this Gerry became a strong advocate for and campaigner on justice issues. As a victim of injustice he was articulate and tireless in pursuit of justice. His death is a loss to his family and friends but also to all of those who were touched by his courage and who he endeavoured to help.

Within hours of his passing former SDLP deputy leader Seamus Mallon sought to score political points against Sinn Féin by accusing republicans of ‘almost conniving’ to keep innocent people behind bars.

The responsibility for the detention and incarceration of many innocent people in England and in Ireland rests absolutely with the various police forces and judicial and political system.

The British police knew that the Guildford 4 were innocent but they connived to keep them and other innocents in prison.

Seamus Mallon’s line of argument, though spurious and devoid of merit, was taken up by sections of the media. The Taoiseach repeated this line in the Dáil on Wednesday.

Some of this has by now become little more than a well-worn and tiresome routine that is rarely matched by the facts. A column in the Irish Independent: ‘Weasel words from Adams on Conlon case is used as a weapon in propaganda war ‘ is typical.

The Indo columnist wrongly claims that: “Gerry Conlon was in jail because the IRA bombed Guildford”. Like Seamus Mallon he ignores the facts. The British police arrested the Guildford 4; tortured false statements from them; and then railroaded them through a judicial process that was unjust and biased.  That was the responsibility of the British police. The IRA was responsible for the bombings. They made that clear at the time.

The same Indo columnist goes on to rewrite the history of the period. He claims that it was 1977 and as the IRA’s Balcombe Street unit was about to “receive huge sentences for other bombings they half-claimed that they were also responsible for the Guildford bombings. Could they be believed?”

It was 1975 and yes the IRA could be believed.

In December, 1975, the four IRA Volunteers who became known as the Balcombe Street unit were arrested. Within 24 hours of their arrests they told senior British police officers that they, and not the four people who had been recently convicted – later to become known as the Guildford 4 - were involved in the bombings.

The British police said they would look into these claims, but there is no evidence of any further investigation. At the subsequent trial of the Balcombe Street unit it emerged that the forensic evidence had been edited to remove all reference to Guildford and Woolwich.

On the strength of legal statements given by members of the Balcombe Street unit, the Guildford Four were eventually granted an appeal in October 1977.

At the appeal hearing, with the support they explained later of the IRA leadership, Eddie Butler, Harry Duggan, Joe O'Connell and Brendan Dowd testified that they were responsible for the Woolwich attack. Brendan Dowd also accepted responsibility for the Guildford bomb attack. All of the men said that the four persons convicted of the Guildford and Woolwich bombings had played no part.

According to the highly respected British Labour MP Chris Mullin, who campaigned for many years on behalf of the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six: “So detailed was the Balcombe Street unit's account that it was not possible to pretend that they had not been involved”.

Despite this, the British Appeal Court, headed by Lord Roskill, perversely professed themselves satisfied and upheld the convictions of the Guildford 4. They engaged in what Mullin described as “spectacular intellectual gymnastics” in order to accept confessions obtained under torture and to deny the appeal.

Why did they do this? Because if it was accepted that the British police had fabricated confessions and ignored the evidence of those IRA Volunteers really responsible then as Lord Bridge argued in the Birmingham six case you would have to accept that the all of this “shows the police not only to be masters of the vile techniques of cruelty and brutality to suspects. It shows them to have a very lively and inventive imagination.”

This was what another British judge, Lord Denning, speaking of the same case, called the “appalling vista” that would arise should it be proven that the British police had deliberately imprisoned innocent people.

Later in his evidence to Sir John May's Inquiry into the Guildford & Woolwich bombings in 1989, British Labour MP Chris Mullen MP stated:

“In the absence of an explanation a good deal more credible than any which has so far been advanced, I submit that from soon after the arrest of the Balcombe Street IRA unit it is inescapable that those in authority, up to the highest level, realised that innocent people may have been convicted of the Guildford and Woolwich bombings and were anxious to avoid facing up to that possibility.”

None of this is any consolation to the families or the victims of these miscarriages of justice like Gerry Conlon or his family. Neither is it any consolation to the families of the victims or the victims of the IRA bombing.

Our endeavour must be to ensure that these events never happen again. Efforts to score political points by distorting or ignoring the facts makes no worthwhile contribution to this.