Sunday, July 24, 2016

Building for Success and a United Ireland

In 1992 Sinn Féin held our Ard Fheis in the Ballyfermot Community Centre. The previous year Dublin City Council had barred us from the Mansion House and the political establishment was united in blocking us from all municipal buildings.
It was a historic Ard Fheis. We launched our Towards a Lasting Peace in Ireland policy document which was the cornerstone of our peace strategy and which within three years saw the successful opening up of the peace process.
At that time the community centre was a ramshackle and deprived public utility. It was so small that we had to erect and attach a marquee. The community association, led by Vincent Jackson, were told their funding would be cut if they let us across the door. The government and Dublin City Council were told where to go.
Last weekend Sinn Féin was back in Ballyfermot in the Civic and Community Centre. It is a modern, open and airy, three story building and a fitting testimony to the hard work of the local community.
Sinn Féin activists from across the island of Ireland were there to map out our ambitions for Ireland over the next decade, as we continue to work towards Irish unity and the transformation of Irish society.
Ten years ago we engaged in a National consultation process – “Regaining the Momentum”. We set ourselves clear goals, and agreed local programmes of work. We set ourselves two election cycles as a timeframe.
10 years on and we are planning for the next decade. Last weekend’s Ballyfermot meeting was about democratising that process.
Our starting point is as a United Ireland party. Our objectives are Irish reunification; to build an Ireland of equals; and to secure national self-determination and political independence and sovereignty. There will not be a real republic without a United Ireland. To achieve this we need to build our political strength and build alliances with others. We are also for fundamental political and societal change.
The political establishments north and south are opposed to our objectives. The British establishment is also opposed to the emergence of the type of Ireland we envisage. All those interests act to thwart us.
When you add to this the task of government in the north and the political objective of getting into government in the south, then the challenges are significant, but not insurmountable.
Republicans have to turn the majority nationalist emotional commitment to reunification into an active political commitment.  We have to persuade an undefined small percentage of unionists to that position.
One of the game changers for Sinn Féin in pursuit of ending partition will be our influence over or leadership of an Irish Government.  By definition that means that Sinn Féin in government in Dublin or Sinn Féin as the main opposition party. This is a huge challenge. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael will not easily surrender that ground to us.
People in the 26 Counties also need to be convinced that a United Ireland is affordable. 
People in the six counties need to be convinced that unity will work and that the loss of the subvention will not impoverish them. 
On June 23rd the overwhelming majority of citizens in the north voted to remain within the EU. In the aftermath of that vote I and others in Sinn Féin said that an opportunity existed to hold and win the referendum on Irish unity contained in the Good Friday Agreement. A series of well attended public meetings is evidence of the popularity of this view.

Initially our position was criticised by some of our political opponents. But in recent days that early response has dramatically changed. At the weekend the Fianna Fail leader and then the Taoiseach Enda Kenny came around to this position also. The SDLP has also supported a referendum.

Last Monday I was in Stormont. It is clear that there is widespread concern within the business community, the voluntary and community sector, within the agriculture and tourism sectors that Brexit will adversely impact on the North’s economy.

The Good Friday Agreement allows for national reunification if a majority in the North consent to that. In the context of the North being dragged out of the EU by England there is now a greater opportunity to achieve this. The Agreement also makes very clear that in the event of a majority of citizens opting for reunification that the sovereign government would be obliged in this international treaty to exercise its responsibilities and powers with rigorous impartiality and would fully respect the “civil, political, social and cultural rights, of freedom from discrimination for all citizens, and of parity of esteem and of just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos, and aspirations of both communities.”
In the time ahead more and more people, who would have either opposed Irish unity or would have been dubious of it, will be open to the idea of exploring new relationships on this island. To make best use of this opportunity all of those parties on the island which support reunification need to discuss how best this can be achieved.

There is a need to be open and imaginative about the possible new constitutional arrangements and political structures that might be needed. At a meeting of party leaders with the Taoiseach I urged the Taoiseach to push ahead with an island-wide dialogue to discuss how the remain vote in the North can be respected and what agreed strategy can be put in place to minimise the impact of Brexit.

He agreed that an island wide dialogue is needed. He also agreed to bring forward propositions to achieve this.

That project needs to move ahead speedily so that in any negotiations involving the EU and Britain and the Irish government that the proposal for a referendum on Irish unity is on the agenda.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Brexit, Iraq and the Somme

It has not been a good couple of weeks for British politics. The Chilcot report into the War in Iraq and the Brexit referendum result, which will see the British state exit from the EU over the next few years, coupled with the internal divisions in both of the main political parties, has created a significant political crisis.
All of this, but especially Brexit, will have a considerable impact on the island of Ireland, and especially the north. The loss of funding from the various EU sources, including the Peace Programmes and the Interreg Cross border programmes, as well as for farming families and the community sector, is expected to be considerable.
Last week I met delegates from the East Border Region programme which covers six local councils – three on each side of the border. Our focus was on how funding from the EU can be protected following the Brexit vote. The delegates are worried that Brexit puts at risk 19 projects it is currently developing worth 132 million euro. They are not alone in this concern.
Theresa May is now the British Prime Minister. She has the responsibility for managing the British disengagement from the EU but she also has responsibility for implementing the Good Friday Agreement. In April she publicly announced her commitment to ending the British government’s involvement with the European Convention on Human Rights.
The Tories have also stated their desire to scrap the Human Rights Act which according to the Human Rights group Liberty ‘would amount to a serious breach of the GFA’.
These are the essential rights framework within the Good Friday Agreement that are needed to ensure no repeat of the past policies of discrimination and repression that were a part of the northern state from partition.
As co-equal guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement the Irish government has an onerous responsibility to defend this international treaty and the human rights elements of it. The Taoiseach must make very clear to Ms May that the Irish government will not countenance any action by the British government that will undermine the integrity of the 1998 Agreement and subsequent agreements.
A week later however the fallout from the Chilcot report continues to reverberate. Chilcot accused Tony Blair of invading Iraq before all ‘peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted. Military action at that time was not a last resort.’ Much attention has also focussed on the former British Prime Minister’s words to George W Bush eight months before the invasion in which he said: “I will be with you, whatever.”
What emerges from Chilcot’s two and a half million words is a British government that had not prepared its military for the invasion. It had neither the right military equipment nor the necessary strategies essential to an invasion. Nor did it adequately plan for any political vacuum arising from the defeat of Saddam Hussein. Like David Cameron who had no plan for a successful ‘leave’ Brexit vote, Tony Blair had no post-invasion strategy.
In the course of Sinn Féin’s negotiations in 2002 with Tony Blair both Martin McGuinness and I raised the prospect of an Iraq invasion with him. We told Mr Blair and his colleagues very strongly that an invasion would be wrong. We also warned him that, in our view, the outcome of any war would be a disaster for the people of Iraq and for the British people. We put this to him in a very forthright way and on a number of occasions.
It was very clear to us from those conversations, many months before a public decision to invade was announced, that Mr Blair was committed to this course of action.
Finally, at the same time as the Chilcot report was being published commemorations were being held in France, Britain and here in Ireland in remembrance of the victims of an earlier conflict. The Battle of the Somme began on July 1st 1916 and ended in November of that year.
The report of the Chilcot inquiry into the invasion of Iraq is a reminder of how little the British state has learned in the intervening 100 years. The similarities are striking. Disastrous political decisions and the ill preparedness of the British military in attacking the German lines at the Somme in July 1916 are reflected in the invasion of Iraq in January 2003.
On July 1st 1916 after five days in which over a million shells were fired by the British artillery, British soldiers, including many Irish, went ‘over the top’. They did so believing that the barbed wire lines had been destroyed.  However, because of poor quality control, a huge percentage of the artillery shells were duds. Most of those that did explode were shrapnel shells which were largely ineffective against the German soldiers in their deep dugouts and against the barbed wire entanglements.
At the end of that first day the British Army had lost 60,000 men, a third of them dead and many others who would never fight again. When the battle finally ended in November the British Army had 420,000 men killed or injured; the French about 200,000 and the Germans around half a million. No side had won.
Like Iraq 87 years later, and many other post-colonial conflicts after 1945, British military planning was inept, military equipment was often ineffective and the decisions of its political leadership doomed many soldiers and civilians to death.

These wars, like those in this part of Ireland, and in Kenya, Yemen, Palestine and Afghanistan and many more were the result of bad political decisions and the willingness of political leaders to hand over responsibility for political disputes to the generals. A recipe for disaster.

Monday, July 11, 2016

England’s difficulty ….

The fallout from the Brexit vote rumbles on amid predictions of recession in the British economy, and in the north. The last week has seen millions sign an online petition and at the weekend thousands marched in London against Brexit. And to add to the political turmoil in Britain Boris Johnson is ‘betrayed’ by his erstwhile colleague Michael Gove, who has decided he will make the next best leader for the Conservatives, and Nigel Farage has stood down as leader of UKIP.
There is also the obvious rowing back by the leave campaign of claims and commitments they made during the referendum campaign. As you travel along northern roads there are still posters on lampposts proclaiming: We send the EU £350 million a week – let’s fund our NHS instead.” The trouble is that all of the leave spokespersons have spent the last week denying that commitment.
In Europe the leaders of the EU have made it clear that for Britain there is no going back.
The British referendum result is probably the most serious political and economic crisis to face this island in many years. This decision is bad for the island of Ireland, North and South.
How all of this will play out on our little island is still a matter of considerable conjecture. Will the new Conservative Prime Minister – as he or she tries to manage a divided party and negotiate their way out of the EU – be prepared to make up the financial gaps that will emerge as EU finding for our farming community and industrial, community, tourism and business sectors dries up?
And what of the cross border connections that have grown stronger in importance and numbers since the Good Friday Agreement created a range of statutory cross border institutions? Or the agreements reached between local councils on each side of the border corridor who have agreed to increase co-operation?
One example of how the border has become increasingly irrelevant in recent years is the level of cooperation that now takes place between the two health services on the island. On Monday Michelle O’Neill and Simon Harris, the two Ministers for Health, jointly announced a forty two million pound investment in an all-Ireland children’s heart service at the opening of a new cardiac unit in Dublin. That is good for Ireland North and South. All of these areas of cooperation are now in question because of Brexit.
On Monday the North South Ministerial Council meeting took place in Dublin. The agenda was dominated by Brexit. The overriding imperative at this time is to ensure that the Executive and the Irish government cooperate in managing what must be a joint response to Brexit.
In this context there are two immediate priorities. The first is to protect the peace process, the Good Friday Agreement, its institutions and the two economies on this island. While the Executive and the Irish government must lead on this maximum cooperation and coordination would be enhanced if it involved all of the parties on the island.
That is why I wrote to the Taoiseach, to the First and deputy First Minister and to all political party leaders, north and south, to propose the establishment of a National Forum. It purpose would be to discuss how the vote of the clear majority of citizens in the north, who want to remain in the EU, will be respected and defended. It would also seek to meet the unique challenges Ireland will face as a consequence of the referendum outcome.
The Taoiseach’s public response, given in the Dáil on Tuesday was to limit his comment to it being “a good idea” and “an idea with merit.” There was no commitment to establish a Forum. The initial positive noises from some government Ministers at the weekend appears to have been blunted by the DUP’s rejection of it. Their position must not be allowed to stand in the way of its establishment. It’s important to recall that the DUP stood against the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. They lost that referendum vote. In the Brexit referendum they lost that vote also.
In the course of Tuesday’s Dáil business three opposition leaders expressed their support for a national Forum. I have asked the Taoiseach to meet party leaders to progress this proposal. There is clearly a consensus that maximum cooperation and coordination is needed. The ‘remain’ vote, like the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, uniquely brought together unionists, nationalists, republicans and others in common cause.
I also believe that there will be enormous goodwill for a Forum that seeks to defend the North’s vote to remain; protect the peace process; the Good Friday Agreement, and our two economies.
I have no doubt that civic unionism and civic society in general would attend a Forum along with representatives from the agriculture sector, including the agri-food sector, business and the community and voluntary sector, and others.
The second priority involves the EU itself. It has grown enormously in recent years both in terms of the number of countries that are part of it, the greater centralisation of power, and the dominance of the bureaucracy that runs it.
Sinn Féin has a long standing position of critical engagement with the EU. It is one that is shared by many citizens, especially those angered by the treatment of the Irish state by the EU at the height of the financial crisis following 2008.
It was the EU which punished a compliant Fianna Fáil/Green government over the banking crisis landing the state and citizens for decades to come with €64 billion of banding debt.
Later efforts to burn bond holders were blocked by the European Central Bank (ECB) and the EU. The Troika, which included the EU Commission and the ECB imposed severe austerity policies on an equally submissive Fine Gael/Labour government that impoverished many households and forced hundreds of thousands to flee overseas.
And then there is the EU’s response to the refugee crisis which has seen 10,000 people drown in the Mediterranean in the last three years. Europe’s handling of this crisis and its deal with Turkey has provoked widespread criticism.
The political crisis created by Brexit provides an opportunity to change the direction of the EU. To make it democratically accountable to the needs of citizens. To refocus its energies on social justice and equality and the defence of human rights.
The post-Brexit situation will challenge us all to think and act differently. We should grasp the opportunity to redesign the constitutional and political future of the island of Ireland and of Europe. It should not be wasted.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Remain vote must be respected

Last week, for only the second time since the foundation of the northern state there was a significant cross community vote on an issue of political importance. The first time was in 1998 when the people of the north - Unionists, republicans, and nationalists voted for the Good Friday Agreement.
Unionists, republicans and nationalists repeated that extraordinary vote in the Brexit referendum with an equally definitive vote to remain within the EU.
The crisis that the Brexit vote in Britain has caused is reverberating across these islands, within the European Union and beyond. The divorce proceedings that Brexit has initiated will not be straightforward. There is a huge entanglement of EU law with British law, and this includes the north, which has to be separated out. The EU is inextricably connected with every sector of life in the north, including the economy, farming, tourism, the health service, climate change, infrastructure, community supports and investment, equality and workers’ rights law, and much, much more.
Untangling this will be a massive undertaking.
It has also emerged that the Assembly may have to give its legislative consent to repeal the European Communities Act 1972 which gives domestic effect to EU law. This too presents possibilities.
So the constitutional lawyers and courts are likely to be busy in the time ahead as they try to sort this particular issue out.
In one important respect the outcome of the Brexit referendum is a vindication of Sinn Féin’s long standing criticism of the democratic deficit at the heart of the EU and of the two-tier nature of its structures and the social and economic inequalities that are part of it.
In 1972, Sinn Féin and other progressives campaigned against membership of the EEC.
Over the decades since then, we have modified our position to one of critical engagement. This position was formally adopted by our Ard Fheis in 1999. We said then that we were keenly aware of the dangers for Ireland as more and more decisions were ceded to unaccountable structures in the EU.
So, we also set out our objectives; the reform and restructuring of the EU; the decentralising of power; the promotion of state democracy and economic and social justice; and the creation of a 32 county political and economic identity within the EU.
Reform of the EU has been necessary for decades now. The unaccountable nature of much of the EU bureaucracy, and a decision making process that is often distant from citizens, was part of the reason for the Brexit vote.
The treatment of Greece and the imposition of austerity policies on that state and others, also led to anger and frustration at the EU institutions.
The current crisis therefore presents an opportunity to advance the reform project – to transform the EU into something better. Irish republicans want a different kind of European Union. A Union that is democratically accountable and transparent, and responds to the needs and desires of its citizens - a social EU; a Union of equals, of partnership and solidarity, in which member states, at times of adversity, work together in the spirit of co-operation.
The current crisis also presents a historic opportunity to end the injustice of partition and to build a new Ireland.
The British government has no democratic mandate to represent the views of the people of the north in any future negotiations with the EU. Their policy has been rejected by the people.
Citizens in the six counties voted to remain within the EU. The British and the Irish governments must accept that vote. It should be upheld.
Some will say – and I heard this from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in the Dáil on Monday – that we are bound by a so-called United Kingdom vote. No we’re not. Sinn Féin stands by the vote of the people of the north.
We stand for the needs of the Irish nation before those of Britain. That means that the Irish government has to think nationally – not in 26 county terms, but for the island of Ireland. It needs an island wide vision.
As a co-equal guarantor of the agreement, the Irish government has a responsibility to defend the Good Friday Agreement and its political institutions. It has to now agree the maximum cooperation between it and the Executive and to support the right of Ministers in the North to deal directly with the EU institutions.
The Democratic Unionist Party should also respect the remain vote. The majority of people, including many unionists, rejected its exit policy. The DUP should accept this – although I’m not holding my breath.
The vote of the Scottish people is what is now determining the political approach of the Scottish government to the EU and to the British government. The Scottish First Minister and her Cabinet have decided to put into action their plan to negotiate with the EU and to prepare for a referendum on Scottish independence.
The vote in the north is what will determine Sinn Féin’s approach. And it is this context that Sinn Féin is calling for a referendum on Irish unity.
Inevitably all of the usual suspects have lined up to tell us it’s the wrong time; it can’t be won. The Irish government and Fianna Fáil are quick to talk about respecting the rights of the people of Scotland but not those of citizens on this island.
Irish republicans believe that partition is at the root of the divisions that exist between the people of the north and between the two parts of our island. The Brexit vote has demonstrated that citizens in the north are able to step beyond partition – to set aside sectarian politics and take decisions based on rational argument.
I believe the same can be achieved in any debate on Irish unity,
Moreover, we should not lose sight of the fact that the demographics of the north have also dramatically changed in recent years.
The north was created on what was believed to be a permanent two thirds unionist/British majority. But the last census figures revealed that the issue of identity is no longer as fixed as it once was.
Only 40% of people stated that they had a British only identity. A quarter (25%) stated that they had an Irish only identity while just over a fifth (21%) had a Northern Irish only identity. That’s 46% of citizens in the north identifying with some form of Irishness. And others not will to take any position.

The people of England and Wales have taken their decision. They are leaving the EU. If those citizens in the north who voted to remain want to achieve that goal – if they want to stay within the EU - it can only happen in the context of the island of Ireland. That’s a huge challenge for all of us in the time ahead. This week we are seeing the opening exchanges in this debate.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Remembering the Soweto Uprising

Last week 21 years ago I made my first visit to South Africa and had my first meeting with Madiba Nelson Mandela. I was invited by the ANC – with whom Irish republicans have long enjoyed fraternal relations.  The Sinn Féin delegation – which included Chrissie McAuley; Rita O Hare; and RG stayed for a packed week of meetings and travel across a beautiful country that was still trying to come to terms with the enormous change that was then taking place. The previous year Madiba had been elected President of a free south Africa.
Our purpose in going, apart from the solidarity links that connect our two struggles, was to speak to a wide range of ANC negotiators who had succeeded in bringing an end to the apartheid regime.
It was an emotional experience for all of us. There wasn’t a dry eye at our first engagement as we listened to the late Walter Sisulu, the grand old man of African resistance, who had made a special point of coming to meet us. He spoke of his own time in prison and of his memories of the hunger strike in Ireland in 1981. He was in prison then and told us of the great solidarity that existed between ANC prisoners and the republican prisoners.
It was a moving speech in which Walter Sisulu recalled hearing of the death of Bobby Sands and of the silent tribute ANC prisoners across South Africa paid to a fellow freedom fighter. Further evidence of the connection between the two struggles can be found in Madiba’s note on his prison calendar on Robben Island on which he wrote on the 5 May 1981 - ‘IRA Martyr Bobby Sands dies’.
Some days later we visited several of the townships around Jo’burg, including Alexandra and Phola Park. The poverty, that was the legacy of apartheid, was enormous. But the spirit of the people was incredible. They danced and sang and their sense of hope for the future was overwhelming.
I was reminded of this visit in the summer of 1995 as I read newspaper accounts in recent days of the Soweto Uprising that took place in June 1976 - 40 years ago this month. I was in Cage 11 when the uprising began. Inside and outside of the prison republicans identified closely with the struggles for liberation in south Africa, Angola and Mozambique and with the Palestinian people. The nightly news reports of street confrontations on our television screens from Soweto, as young people, armed with stones took on the might of the best trained and equipped army in Africa, reminded all of us of our own experiences on the streets of Belfast and Derry.
Our hearts and heads were with the school children challenging the apartheid regime.
The Soweto confrontation between school children and young students, and an apartheid regime renowned for its brutality, arose because the south African regime– not unlike the British colonial power in our own experience – decided to destroy the language and culture of the native peoples.
In 1974 it made the language of Afrikaans alongside English compulsory as the medium of instruction in schools. This decision was in keeping with an educational system that was an integral part of an apartheid system that included ‘homelands’, pass laws and structured discrimination based on race. It was a system of segregation intended to keep black south Africans in a subservient position.
H.F Verwoerd, who was its architect said: “Natives (black people) must be taught from an early age that equality with Europeans is not for them” …There is no place for [the African] in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour. It is of no avail for him to receive a training which has as its aim, absorption in the European community”.
On June 16th 1976 thousands of students organised a peaceful march to Orlando Stadium in Soweto to protest against this new educational directive. The marchers were confronted by heavily armed police who fired on them. The result was the beginning of a revolt that spread across the state.
News film and photographs of distressed parents and students carrying the bodies of those killed flashed around the world. Official figures of casualties on that first day say that some 23 people were killed but other reports put the figure much higher.
The uprising escalated. 300 predominantly white students marched in protest at the killing of schoolchildren and workers joined in the protests. By the end of 1976 it was estimated that as many as 600 had been killed.
The Soweto Uprising was a pivotal moment in the struggle for freedom in south Africa. It changed the political landscape and renewed international interest in a struggle that had largely slipped off the media agenda. The images of school children facing up to heavily armed south African police and soldiers, and being killed and injured in their hundreds, captured the attention of the world. The Soweto Uprising also filled the prisons with teenagers and young men and women who were determined to break the apartheid system forever. It also led to an increase in the number of young men and women joining the liberation movements inside south Africa and travelling to the training camps in other African states.
One small postscript. During that memorable visit to south Africa we also visited Soweto. There we met ANC activists who had participated in the uprising, joined the struggle for freedom, and were now in the government of a free south Africa. In celebration they took us to the grave of Joe Slovo. When the ANC decided to adopt armed struggle as a means of struggle in 1961 Joe Slovo was recruited by Madiba and Walter Sisulu to form the High Command of Umkhonto we Sizwe (The Spear of the Nation) or MK – the ANC’s armed organisation. He rose to become Chief of Staff of MK.
Joe died six months before our visit. As we made our way through the huge Soweto cemetery to his graveside we were accompanied by hundreds of local ANC activists, mainly women. They sang and danced. At the graveside I made a few remarks about Joe Slovo’s life and example and the crowd sang Nkosi Sikelele, the South African National anthem.
Soweto was the ANC’s hunger strike moment. An event that changed the shape and dynamic of their struggle. Just as we remember those who died on hunger strike in 1981 so too are the heroes of Soweto remembered.

Friday, June 10, 2016

A flicker of hope in the Middle East crisis

The Middle East peace process has been on a life support system for years. The use of words like ‘stalled’ or ‘impasse’ don’t describe the reality – especially after years of failure.
Over the years and on my occasional visits to the region I have met many Palestinians, some Israelis and others who support Palestinian sovereignty and the two state solution, who believe that the peace process is dead.

Saeb Erekat, who is the secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organisation sounded a warning at the beginning of June. He wrote; With the 50th anniversary of Israel’s military and colonial occupation of Palestine coming to a head, we have reached a critical juncture within the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. For over 20 years, bilateral negotiations between Israel and Palestine failed on account of Israeli intransigence over its refusal to recognize Palestinian national rights and the continuation and expansion of its settlement enterprise.”

The French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault last Friday echoed that; “The possibility of two states, Israeli and Palestinian, living side-by-side, in peace and security, grows more distant by the day…The two-state solution is in serious danger. We are reaching a point of no return where this solution will not be possible.”
He gave his assessment after a specially convened conference by the French government in Paris on the Middle East peace process. It was attended by the representatives of 26 states, as well as the UN Secretary General Ban-ki Moon and representatives of the EU and the Arab League. The purpose of the French initiative is to try and inject some life back into the process through a peace conference to be held toward the end of this year.
It is nine years since the last such conference in Annapolis in the USA. That conference had aimed to ‘revive’ the Palestinian-Israeli peace process and implement the ‘Roadmap for peace’. Since then there have been a number of other efforts, most notably by George Mitchell, who chaired the Good Friday Agreement negotiations, and US Secretary of state John Kerry. They all failed.
Despite widespread diplomatic pessimism, fuelled especially by the intransigence of Israel, the war in Syria has increased the fear of Islamic radicalism and pressure on European governments to become more active. In the five years of civil war in Syria over 300,000 people have died; over five million have been displaced – over a million of these have fled to Europe; thousands have died in coffin ships and rubber dinghies on the Mediterranean; and the region is convulsed by war. The French Foreign Minister told the Paris conference; “Islamic State makes propaganda in the Palestinian territories. This extremely dangerous context has raised awareness of the need for an initiative that creates hope.”
This is the context for last week’s French initiative. Their objective is to organise a peace conference by the end of 2016 as a way of kick-starting new peace negotiations. The participants at the Paris conference agreed to establish working parties to prepare economic and security incentives to aid the peace negotiations.
Neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis were invited to Paris, which the French see as laying the groundwork for the peace conference in six months’ time.
For the Palestinians Saeb Erekat described the French initiative as “the flicker of hope Palestine has been waiting for and we are confident that it will provide a clear framework with defined parameters for the resumption of negotiations. The international conference should be viewed as an opportunity to create a negotiating environment in which power is equalized and law and human rights prevail.”
Dave Gold the Director General of Israel’s Foreign Affairs Ministry rejected the French initiative describing it as “doomed to failure.” In a statement from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s office the Israeli government said that it saw no benefit in the French proposals for a peace conference.
The Israelis say they want direct face to face negotiations with the Palestinians. But such negotiations would not be between equals and would place the Palestinians at a huge disadvantage. Saeb Erekat explained: “Today it is essential that we go from the bilateral path between occupier and occupied to a multilateral framework that enables the international community to assume its responsibility to enforce international law in Palestine.”
As the diplomatic niceties and the possibility of a peace conference slowly takes shape life for the Palestinian people of the west Bank and of the Gaza strip continues to deteriorate under a relentless Israeli assault. 
This takes many forms. In a policy similar to the land evictions in Ireland in the 19th century the Israeli authorities have been increasingly using forced expulsions and the destruction of Palestinian homes to steal Palestinian land, often for Israeli settlements.
The Jerusalem Centre for Social and Economic Rights has recently reported on more than 14,900 cases where Israeli identity cards were revoked from Palestinians living on the west Bank and especially in East Jerusalem since the occupation commenced. On a previous visit to Jerusalem I visited Palestinian families who were subsequently forcibly evicted from their homes. It is, as one Palestinian described it, a ‘demographic war’.
The United Nations reported that in February they recorded the highest number of home demolitions since the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) began recording in 2009. It reported that, “Israeli forces destroyed, dismantled or confiscated 235 homes and other structures, displacing 331 Palestinians, including 174 children, and affecting another 740 Palestinians."
Further evidence of this tactic of expelling Palestinians from their land; of disrupting the efforts of aid agencies trying to support them, has emerged in a report published at the weekend. Entitled ‘Squandered Aid,’ the report, by the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor estimates that at least €65 million of EU aid has been destroyed by Israel.
In its report Euro-Med states: Damage to European Union-funded projects in Palestine during Israeli attacks and other incursions is nothing new. However, following the union’s move in 2015 to label Israeli settlement products, the number of EU-funded projects demolished or confiscated by Israel increased dramatically. In the first three months of 2016, the number of demolitions per month, of either private property or Internationally/EU– funded projects, increased to 165, from an average of 50 during 2012-2015. The United Nations office for coordination of humanitarian affairs 'OCHA' has documented 120 demolitions against EU-financed buildings in the first three months of 2016.”
Meanwhile the environmental disaster in the Gaza strip worsens. UNWRA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) reported that there is a “severe water and sanitation crisis… Current abstraction of water from the aquifer to meet the overall needs is way beyond the recharge. As groundwater levels subsequently decline, sea water infiltrates from the nearby Mediterranean Sea. Today, over 90 per cent of the water is unfit for human use.”
Only a quarter of waste water, the report says, can be treated and used in green areas and some agriculture. Some 90,000 cubic metres of raw or partly treated sewage is released everyday into the Mediterranean Sea, “creating pollution, public health hazards, and problems for the fishing industry”.
And while all of this is going on Israel builds settlements on Palestinian land in breach of international law. There are over half a million settlers now living illegally on land stolen from Palestinian farmers and workers and communities.
And then add to this the human cost of the violence. The United Nations has reported the killing of 25 Palestinian children in the last three months of 2015. By the end of December 2015 422 Palestinian children were imprisoned by Israel and since October 2015 204 Palestinians and 32 Israelis have been killed – including four Israelis this week in Tel Aviv.
The Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan attended the Paris conference. I raised the issue of Irish recognition of the Palestinian state with the Taoiseach Enda Kenny last week. He waffled a non-committal response. I will raise the matter again. The people of Palestine seek and deserve the same rights and responsibilities of citizens enjoyed in other states. They also deserve our support. It is also important that in a world in which so much else is happening that we do not forget what is happening to the Palestinian people of the west Bank and the Gaza Strip.


The piece below is taken from Euro-Med Monitor's June 2016 report 'Squandered Aid - Israel's Repetitive Destruction of EU funded Projects in Palestine.'

Southern Hebron

On 2 February, Israeli forces demolished more than 20 Palestinian buildings, including 10 EU-funded structures in Area C of the West Bank. The bulldozers arrived early that day in the villages of Jinba and Halawa, leaving some 110 people, including 60 children, homeless in one of the coldest months of the year and jeopardizing the future of thousands of others. The structures had been funded by the European Commission; others were co-financed by the governments of Denmark and the UK as part of UN programs.

"Tuesday’s operation was the largest of its kind in a decade, "reported the Israeli NGO Breaking The Silence. Media described children digging in rubble for their toys after the incursions. "Measures were taken in accordance with the law," COGAT claimed. An EU spokesperson told the French press agency AFP that, “the EU expects its investments in support of the Palestinian people to be protected from damage and destruction.” The villages date back to the 19th century, yet Israel designated the area as a military firing range in the 1970s and ordered the villagers to leave, triggering a long legal battle.

Friday, June 3, 2016

The first cross border bridge since partition

Narrow Water Bridge Community Network in the Dáil

I love the Cooley peninsula and its two mountain ridges. I have walked Slieve Foye, Maeve’s Gap and the tranquil valley of Glenmore that lies below them, many times over the years. Long before I was elected as a TD for County Louth the Cooley mountains were for me a place of relative peace and welcome. With Dundalk Bay on one side and Carlingford Lough on the other it is a stunning landscape, with seascapes, to take the breath away.
Standing on Slieve Foye you can see Slieve Guillon inland to the west along with the ancient volcanic hills of south Armagh. 60 Million years ago Guillon was a volcano and the ring of Guillon is the remnant of a volcanic dike. Across Carlingford lough to the north and north east stretch the Mourne Mountains. It’s also an ancient granite volcanic range with high peaks, including Slieve Donard, Slieve Muck, Slieve Commedagh and many others. Nestled in between is Silent Valley with its huge stretch of clear mountain water that satisfies the thirst of the people of county Down and Belfast.
From the Cooley peninsula, to Guillon, and the Mourne's the region is full of exceptional areas of beauty, special areas of conservation and environmentally sensitive areas. It is a region of unsurpassing beauty.
It also has a rich past of myths and legends and a history that stretches back thousands of years.
There are cairns and passage graves and ring forts from the Neolithic period. Guillon contains what is left of around 20 large stone tombs. At Clontygora, and Ballymacdermot there are two of the best examples of Court Tombs in Ireland.
Legends of ancient heroes including Fionn MacCumhailll, and the Fianna, and of Cú Chulainn, and Queen Maebh are part of this landscape. The Táin Bó Cúailnge- the Cattle Raid of Cooley- is probably the best known of the epic tales of Ireland.
From the Vikings to the Normans foreign invaders have also left their mark on medieval towns like Carlingford. Norman castles are dotted across the region. In more modern times the impact of partition has had an enduring ad adverse impact on life in the region. The disruption to communities and to business and trade has been enormous. It is no accident that the border region suffers disproportionately from higher than average levels of unemployment and social deprivation. Nor does it receive the same levels of investment, particularly in tourism, that other regions do.
I tell you all of this because in an effort to enhance the economic and tourism potential of the area there has been a long standing campaign to build a bridge across the stretch of water close to Narrow Water Castle, just outside Warrenpoint. The bridge would connect south Down with north Louth.
In recent years Louth County Council, Newry and Mourne, and Down district council, local community organisations and political parties supportive of eth project came close to beginning construction. And then it all fell apart. Higher buildings costs and the refusal of the government to provide additional funding to fill the gap saw the project stall. But it hasn’t gone away.
Last September in the negotiations that led to the Fresh Start Agreement I raised the issue. In a separate section dealing with the Narrow Water Bridge the Irish government confirmed that it “remains committed to the concept of the Narrow Water Bridge, which would provide a valuable North-South link between counties Louth and Down with potential to provide jobs and a significant boost to tourism in the area.”
The Agreement went on to state that ; “The Northern Ireland Executive and the Irish Government agree  to undertake  a review of the project with a view to identifying options for its future development , for consideration by the North South Ministerial Council in June 2016.”
Last week I asked the Taoiseach about the bridge. He confirmed that “initial discussions were held by a group of officials from the North and South which took place in December. Further meetings have taken place and a report will be provided for the June meeting. In addition, officials from North and South met in Newry in April with a view to dealing with the extent of the review. The Government is committed to the Narrow Water bridge concept, which has the potential to provide jobs and a significant boost in the future.”
The meeting of the North South Ministerial Council is due to take place next week, on June 10th in Dublin.
Also last week I hosted a meeting in the Dáil for TD’s and Seanadóirí where they were briefed by Jim Boylan and Adrian O Hare of the Narrow Water Bridge Community Network. If you want any more information on the bridge and its economic significance I would urge you to check out their Facebook page- it’s excellent.
Both men and their colleagues spoke eloquently of the importance of a bridge at narrow Water for the local economy and especially for tourism. They pointed to the regions unique location midway between Dublin and Belfast with their airport and harbour hubs. The potential to increase tourist numbers through walking and cycling holidays, golf, angling and equestrian activities is clearly enormous. Thee financial implications of additional tourists was spelt out by Adrian when he quoted Fáilte Ireland tourism which states that for every one million euro of tourist expenditure 34 tourism jobs are created and one thousand additional tourists into the Cooley’s, Guillon and the Mourne’s can support 18 jobs.
The recent appointment of Sinn Féin MLA Chris Hazzard as the north’s first Infrastructure Minister gives an added impetus to the Narrow Water project. In his first statement in the job Chris acknowledged that there “are a number of significant projects underway to develop our road network including the A5 and A6 and I will be working with the Dublin government on progressing projects like Narrow Water Bridge and the Ulster Canal.”
So, there is real opportunity to achieve a quantum leap forward in economic development and tourism for south down, south Armagh and north Louth. We need to persuade the Irish government to move beyond agreeing with the “concept” to investing in the bridge.
A bridge at Narrow water would be the first cross border bridge project since partition. Now isn’t that a goal worth achieving.