The Process of Change Must Continue.
The recent loyalist sponsored violence and the provocative and inflammatory language of unionist political leaders has led to speculation about what the violence is really all about? I’m not alone in believing that it is in part an electoral strategy to maximise the unionist vote behind the DUP in advance of next year’s Assembly election. But it is also a reaction to the general direction and trajectory of politics, being shaped by the process of change including the potential of constitutional change in the relatively near future. It’s about intimidating nationalists and republicans and pushing back against the growing demand for the Irish government to begin planning for the unity referendum that is part of the Good Friday Agreement. Brexit too and the Irish Protocol with its border in the Irish Sea has played its part. It’s all of these things and more.
But at its core it is part and parcel of the traditional unionist response to anything perceived as threatening its dominance. Unionists look around them and see their electoral majority in the Assembly and at Westminster gone. They see political and demographic changes taking place that spell an end to the long held belief that the Northern state will have a unionist majority in perpetuity. Unionists have also been deserted and back-stabbed again by a Westminster government that negotiated the very Protocol the DUP now denounce. This recent period has also been marked by significant strategic mistakes by the DUP leadership in particular and Unionists leaders generally. They gave us Brexit and all that has come with it. People aren’t stupid. They know this.
So the winds of change are blowing up a gale around unionism and they don’t like it. The DUP East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson called for "guerrilla warfare" stating that the Protocol has to be destroyed. At the weekend it was reported that the UVF – one of the paramilitary groups the DUP recently met - ordered three families it believed to be Catholic out of a housing estate in Carrickfergus.
The decision by loyalists to shift the riots from areas like Newtownabbey to the Lanark Way interface last week was calculated. The social media messages urging loyalists to meet at various interface areas to “march on west Belfast” was not coincidental – it too was deliberate - it was planned. The intent was and is to foment sectarian conflict. Let me also state at this point that the PSNI should not be using plastic bullets, water cannon or dogs.
The reality is that in the 23 years since the Good Friday Agreement was achieved both Unionist parties – the UUP and DUP – have worked within the institutions to frustrate and delay the introduction of many of the equality, justice and legacy changes promised by the GFA and subsequent agreements.
More than any other factor it is this fear of change that is driving the current unionist agenda. Change can be difficult. It can be challenging. This is part of the human condition. But there can be no backtracking on the changes that have occurred and will continue to take place in the time ahead. Democratic change must be defended. Constitutional change arrived at peacefully and democratically must be respected.
The rights of every citizen to equality, to respect and to parity of esteem must be accepted by all.
One thing is certain. Whatever the outcome of the debate on the constitutional future of the North the economic and societal changes that we have witnessed in the last two decades will continue. The best way to manage change is to manage it! My appeal to unionists is to join with us in managing that change in the interests of all knowing that it will be the people who decide the future.
Voting for Bobby Sands
As many readers will know this year marks 40 years since the 1981 hunger strike. It was a traumatic, difficult and yet historic year which undoubtedly shaped future politics on this island in ways none of us could have foreseen at the time.
Last Friday, 9 April was the day Bobby Sands won the Fermanagh South Tyrone seat and became the MP for Fermanagh South Tyrone. The by-election had been called following the death of Frank Maguire, the independent nationalist MP who had successfully won the seat in the 1979 general election. On that occasion Maguire had seen off the challenge of the SDLPs Austin Currie whose intervention had split the nationalist vote.
Following Frank Maguire’s death there commenced a serious discussion about the possibility of the National Smash H-Block/Armagh campaign running a prisoner candidate. Bernadette McAliskey said she was prepared to stand and Frank Maguire’s brother Noel was put forward as a candidate. However, when the decision was taken to stand Bobby Sands as a prisoner candidate, Bernadette and Noel withdrew. The SDLPs Austin Curry wanted to stand but he couldn’t get his act together before nominations closed.
Having secured Bobby’s nomination the task then was to fight the election and win it. The reality was that Sinn Féin activists had no idea of how to run an election campaign. The last time Sinn Fein candidates had stood in elections was in 1964 and on that occasion we were a banned party. So, we had to learn fast or face humiliation. In this we were also helped by a Kerry republican, well known in sporting circles, Joe Keohane. Owen Carron from Fermanagh was Bobby’s election agent. Many others like Bernadette, local nationalists with electoral experience and supporters of the prisoners from the South played key roles.
Hundreds of activists mobilised across the North to join in the work of postering and handing out leaflets and canvassing on the doorsteps. We opened two offices: one in Enniskillen and the other in Dungannon. They never closed during those long election days. We galvanised people in Fermanagh and Tyrone, and they responded with great commitment. I was rarely at home during that time, spending almost the entire campaign in the constituency. I met scores of great people and, in the midst of all the activity I enjoyed the wonderful beauty of those two counties.
Among those who came to help us where activists who had been working away for years in the background making sure that the electoral register was up to date. Their experience was invaluable. We learned about presiding officers, personation officers, how to campaign. It was exhilarating.
Most of us had no experience of after mass meetings. We would arrive outside a chapel and when mass was over and folks were coming out we would talk to them about the H-Blocks and Armagh Women’s prison and the conditions the political prisoners had been forced to endure for five years. Most would listen attentively and then applaud.
I stayed overnight in Enniskillen on the eve of the poll, then crossed the border to Clones the next day to report to Ruairí Ó Bradaigh, the President of Sinn Féin who was barred from entering the North. I was convinced we were going to win and I told him that. As I drove away afterwards to meet with Colette, I heard the news on the car radio: Bobby Sands had won the election. I was ecstatic. I thumped the car wheel and shouted with exuberance to the cattle and sheep in the fields adjacent to the country road I was travelling on.
In Belfast the news brought thousands out onto the streets in a spontaneous demonstration of solidarity with the hunger strikers. In the H Blocks and Armagh and other prisons the POWs were ecstatic.
Bobby Sands topped the poll with 30,492 votes. The British government and opposition, followed enthusiastically by the media, had constantly maintained that republicans – and especially the hunger strikers – represented nobody and enjoyed no support; that republicans were criminal ‘godfathers’ operating by intimidation; that they were isolated fanatics. Now that lie had been exposed. The British propaganda campaign had been refuted and the election victory resounded internationally.
Bobby’s success raised the hope that the British government would move to end the hunger strike by reforming the prison regime. I did not share that hope. In my view Thatcher and her government were convinced that the prisoners could be broken and through them the struggle for freedom. They were not for changing policy.
For our part Republicans had been challenged for years to submit ourselves to the ballot box, and now we had done so, demonstrating massive popular support in the election. Yet the British government, as we had feared from the outset, showed no willingness to make concessions in respect of the prison protest. Margaret Thatcher maintained her inflexible approach and, despite all the earnest assurances of their envoys, the Dublin government did nothing to shift her from it.
The Fermanagh South Tyrone by-election was one of those rare moments when, as Seamus Heaney once put it, ‘hope and history rhyme.’ Bobby Sands had a bigger mandate than Margaret Thatcher. The success of that campaign led to the decision to stand prisoner candidates in the Southern general election a few months later. Kieran Doherty and Paddy Agnew where elected as TDs and others, like Joe McDonnell and Mairead Farrell performed very well. Owen Carron was elected MP for Fermanagh South Tyrone after Bobby’s death.
These elections opened up the debate around electoral intervention that was already going on within Sinn Féin and ushered in a new political strategy and all that has flowed from it.
All a consequence of the courage of the Blanket men and Armagh women.