Friday, September 11, 2020

An Taoiseach Is Not A United Irelander.

Partition is almost 100 years old. But for democrats across this island, and in the Irish diaspora, for all of that time it has always been the great wrong that has to be righted. But it is not only a historic wrong. It is also a great injustice now, today. It remains the greatest cause of instability and division on our island. 

Where stands the leader of Fianna Fáil ‘The Republican Party’ on ending partition and achieving Irish Unity? In the past Fianna Fail leaderships have proven particularly adept at exploiting the widespread desire for Irish Unity and the republican rhetoric of a ‘united Ireland’ in order to win votes. And of course many Fianna Fáil voters and members are republican. However, at no time has their party leadership made a serious effort to develop a strategy, in keeping with their constitutional obligation to end partition and “unite all the people who share the territory of the island of Ireland ...” 

Why? Because both the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael leaderships are comfortable with partition. For decades they have alternated in power, defending a status quo that protects their interests, and those of their friends in the political establishment.

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael’s Ireland is best represented by the map of the island first produced by the Irish government several years ago which drowns the North in the Irish Sea and Atlantic. We are left with a landmass which bears no resemblance to Ireland and with a new shoreline that stretches from Derry through Donegal, Tyrone, Cavan, Fermanagh, Monaghan, and Armagh and Down to Louth.

An Taoiseach Micheál Martin is not a United Irelander. Under his leadership the traditional rhetoric of the leadership of Fianna Fáil, whose first aim according to its own constitution and rules – is to “restore the unity and independence of Ireland as a Republic” - has been systematically eroded.

In March 2017 he committed his party to publishing within months a 12-point plan which would prepare the way for the reunification of the island. He also told the Irish Times that as part of this he intended publishing a White Paper on Irish Unity. Neither the 12-point plan nor the White Paper was ever published.

The Fianna Fáil leader also pledged that Fianna Fáil would organise in the North. When Éamon Ó Cuiv and Seanadóir Mark Daly attempted to do that they were sacked from their senior party positions. In 2017 Pearse Doherty and I met Martin to seek his support to establish an Oireachtas Committee on Irish Unity as a means of focussing the debate on this issue. He said No.

Micheál Martin’s alternative proposal, published this year, is to establish a “shared Island Unit”. Not once does the Programme for Government reference the constitutional obligation on an Irish government to achieve a United Ireland. The words ‘United Ireland’ or ‘Irish Unity’ are entirely absent. And there is no reference to the commitment in the Good Friday Agreement for a referendum on Unity.

Instead a “Unit within the Department of An Taoiseach is to work towards a consensus on a shared island. This unit will examine the political, social, economic and cultural considerations underpinning a future in which all traditions are mutually respected.” When he was asked about this unit in the Dáil at the beginning of July An Taoiseach Martin said that “work on its structure, staffing and work programme is underway and I hope that the unit will start work by the end of the month.” When at the end of that month Ruairí Ó Murchú, who is a Sinn Féin TD for Louth, asked him for an update Martin replied: ““work on its structure, staffing and work programme is underway and I hope that the unit will start this work in the coming weeks.”

In reply to a query from online news outlet ‘The Detail’ – published on 14 August – the Taoiseach’s department could still not provide “any guidance on the annual budget or staffing levels of its newly-promised Shared Island Unit. A department spokesperson could also not explain to The Detail how regularly Micheál Martin plans to meet with the unit; what new high profile roles, if any will be created in the unit or how it will interact with northern voices.”

The Taoiseach cannot be allowed to do this. He has to involve all Party leaders in a real process of engagement. Mary Lou McDonald, Leader of the Opposition has to have a central role in this. There has to be a positive and inclusive conversation that many within civic nationalism and some within civic unionism have been calling for.

Sinn Féin is for a shared island as part of our vision of a new Ireland – a United Ireland. However, it is not inevitable. It will not happen because we simply wish or hope for it. It will only happen if we work for it. Therefore the responsibility of political leaders is to lead and to plan. That is especially true of the Irish government.

The Shared Island Unit can play a useful role in this, along with the establishment of a Citizen’s Assembly; a White Paper on Unity; a Joint Oireachtas Committee; the creation of additional all-island institutions; and eventually winning a referendum on Irish Unity. Micheál Martin must set out in clear terms the objectives of the Shared Island Unit; its terms of reference; staffing and resources that will be made available to it; outline how the Unit will engage with the public; with Oireachtas members and parties; with the Assembly and Executive in the North; with local councils north and south; with the diaspora; and with other stakeholders, including the business community.

Brexit has changed the political landscape and at a time when the British government appears determined to crash out of the EU, and is threatening to tear up the Withdrawal Treaty and Irish Protocol, the desire and demand for Unity – even if only as a means for the North to stay within the EU – will only grow stronger. The demand for a united Ireland is also being fueled by the political and demographic changes that are taking place in the North.

Consequently, this Irish government is facing a stark choice. Does it ignore all of this and ostrich-like stick with a policy approach which seeks to ignore the growing clamour for Irish Unity? Or, does it undertake a genuinely serious attempt to discuss how we share this island and share our future?

The debate – the conversation - around Irish Unity has been ongoing for years. It’s not going away. On the contrary, interest in and support for Irish unity is growing at the same time as support within England for maintaining the British Union is diminishing. As the debate around Irish unity increases our collective endeavour should be to shape that debate in a constructive and positive direction and to encourage the widest possible engagement between all strands of opinion on the island of Ireland.

Friday, September 4, 2020

Partition sucks. It doesn’t merit celebration

A century ago a new line appeared on the map of Ireland. It carved its way for 300 miles across the landscape from Derry in the North West to Dundalk in the East. Partition separated farmers from their land, businesses from their customers, and children from their schools. Streams and rivers, bóithre, country roads, fields became the boundary for this new border. The front door of a home was suddenly in a different state. Towns were cut off from their natural economic and social hinterlands. Communities were divided and separated. Partition was imposed at gunpoint by the British Government.

The northern state was born in a maelstrom of sectarian violence as thousands of Catholic workers in Belfast were forcibly and violently expelled from their jobs. A brutal pogrom against Catholics saw hundreds killed, and thousands evicted from their homes. Loyalist paramilitaries became the new police force – the Royal Ulster Constabulary and Ulster Special Constabulary with a new law – the Special Powers Act – given to them as legal cover for the reign of terror which followed.

In the decades after 1921 the Unionist establishment solidified its control through the imposition of an apartheid regime in which nationalists and republicans were reduced to the status of non citizen. This was done through the systematic gerrymandering of electoral boundaries, the denial of the vote to hundreds of thousands of Catholics in local government elections, and the extensive use of structured sectarian discrimination in housing and employment.  

Life was hard for working people including working class Protestants. Poverty was endemic. But for Catholics it was even worse. Jobs and houses were few and wages a pittance. After the brutality of what the Irish News at the time described as a ‘carnival of terrorism,’ and the abandonment of nationalists by the political establishment and government in the South, there was a general sense of hopelessness among the besieged nationalists. Unable to find employment or a home many emigrated to England, Canada, Australia and the USA.

For decades the convention within the British Parliament was that Westminster did not interfere in the affairs of the North. The British media followed this practice. But the emerging public agitation in the 1960s by groups like the Campaign for Social Justice, the Wolfe Tone Societies, the Derry Housing Action Committee and then the Civil Rights Association saw the beginning of a fight-back. Some elements of the British media began to give attention to the corrupt practices and policies of the Unionist regime.

In July 1966, as the English Queen visited Belfast, the Sunday Times wrote a rare article about the north. Under the headline ‘John Bull’s political slum’ the article described the northern state as ‘a part of Britain where the crude apparatus of political and religious oppression, ballot rigging, job and housing discrimination and an omnipresent threat of violence co-exists with intense loyalty to the Crown.’                    

But there was also dissent. A young nationalist known ever after as ‘Throw The Brick’ flung a breezeblock at her car.

The following year The Times published the results of an investigation carried out by its News Team headlined ‘Ulster’s Second-Class Citizens’ which reported on the ‘grave allegations of religious discrimination in the planning’ of Craigavon. The former head of the design team Professor Geoffrey Copcutt revealed that he was told ‘by a source close to the Stormont Cabinet’ that the unionist government ‘would not countenance any scheme that would upset the voting balance between Protestants and Roman Catholics …’ Copcutt went on to describe the situation of Catholics as ‘very similar to that of the Negro in the United States.’

The campaigning journalist Mary Holland in the Observer the day after the RUC’s infamous and widely televised attack on the 5 October 1968 civil rights march in Derry – under the title ‘John Bull’s White Ghettoes’ wrote; ‘Houses in Northern Ireland are a crucial political weapon and people don’t get houses if they don’t vote the right way.’

A year later the violent response of the Unionist regime to the just demands of the civil rights movement; the Battle of the Bogside; the August 1969 pogroms by loyalists against Catholic districts in Belfast; the violence of the RUC and B Specials; the refusal of successive British governments to confront the despotic actions of the Stormont government; and its decision to militarily bolster that government all led to a conflagration that lasted three decades.

Today the adverse political, economic and societal consequences of partition and of those policies are still with us. They exist in the disproportionate number of Catholics on the housing waiting lists; unionist resistance to the construction of new housing in nationalist areas; the denial of Irish language rights; the continued opposition by political unionism of basic human rights for all citizens; a biased approach to the issue of victims; and resistance to the full implementation of all aspects of the Good Friday Agreement.

This is partition. A disastrous British government policy which has caused huge hurt. And yet British Prime Minister Boris Johnson believes it merits a celebration. Two weeks ago he announced his intention to establish a Centenary Forum and a Centenary Historical Advisory Plan as part of his government’s plans to mark 100 years of the Northern state.

Already we can see the political battle lines being drawn. On one side are those who see this as an opportunity to laud the creation of the northern state and to promote the union with Britain. On the other are those who point to the systemic institutional violence and discrimination of the northern state against nationalists and who believe that the future lies in a united Ireland. Different narratives that illicit starkly opposing opinions with the potential of building the walls of division stronger and higher.

If this is to be avoided, or at best minimised, our focus must be on ensuring the widest possible debate in the most positive atmosphere. We need the widest possible engagement in which everyone and anyone with an opinion feels free to express that knowing it will be heard with respect. The complexity of our history and of the relationships between the people of our island and between this island and our nearest neighbour must be examined, honestly and openly. Everyone, whether nationalist or unionist, loyalist or republican, or none of these, has to have the space in which to discuss their view of the events of 100 years ago, and their consequences.

But crucially it must not all be about the past. That would be a huge mistake. The conversation about partition must also be about the future. About the next 5 years – 10 years – 100 years.

This is an opportunity for unionists to explain to nationalists and republicans why they believe maintaining the union with Britain is in all our best interests. What’s in it for nationalists and republicans and not just for unionists? Where will stand parity of esteem and equality of treatment? And will they respect the democratic wish of people in a referendum if that is for a United Ireland?

And for nationalists and republicans it is an opportunity not just to rehearse again the arguments around the failure of partition but to set out the republican vision for a new Ireland – a shared Ireland – a united Ireland and what advantages it holds for unionists and for the people of this island and their future?

The Irish government has a crucial role to place in this process. In its Programme for Government published in June it committed to establishing a ‘Shared Island Unit’ within the Taoiseach’s department. It also said it expected it to be up and running within a month. Almost four months later there is no information on its remit and resourcing; the role of the Taoiseach, or its outreach into the North. This is unacceptable. The centenary of partition is an opportunity for discussion and examination and re-evaluation. Instead of turning the centenary of partition into a fleg fest with bonfires adorned with the emblems of the other side we have the opportunity to open up a real debate on the future – a normal conversation about matters of concern for us all.

The Irish government should be taking a lead on this.

Finally, we must not lose sight of the significant political and societal and demographic changes that are taking place. Already we can see that these are driving change. Forcing some to engage in new thinking, contemplating different options, looking for new answers. The centenary of partition is an opportunity to break with the past. That will prove enormously challenging but through dialogue and planning I believe we can change the future. For me it has always been straight forward. Why would anyone want to be ruled by anyone from another country? We are well able to govern ourselves. No one else should decide our future. That should be our decision.


Sunday, August 30, 2020

Support The Chieftains Walk.

Martin McGuinness was our leader, comrade and friend. His death shocked us all. His life of activism also motivated many people to become active in struggle and today. Countless citizens have empowered themselves to do just that as we engage in the politics of change making.

One of the events which brought us all together is The Chieftains Walk in Derry.

But this year The Chieftain’s Memorial Charity Walk which is held on the anniversary of Martin’s death was cancelled because of the Covid-19 pandemic.  Initially the organisers proposed asking supporters to do their own 5k walk wherever they are next Sunday.

Now because of COVID ‘surges’ that also has been cancelled.  Instead on Sunday 6 September at 2pm Martins family, led by the indomitable Bernie and their children will do the walk for us all.  The only thing we have to do is to sponsor them. The proceeds are for The Martin McGuinness Peace Foundation, a not-for-profit charity organised by his family, friends and the Gasyard Wall Féile.

Chieftan's Walk 2019

The purpose of the foundation is to celebrate the life, work and achievements of Martin McGuinness, as a leader, a political activist and an international states person, by promoting his progressive ideas of;

• National reconciliation, unity and peace;
• Social, economic and political change;
• Community empowerment;
• Rights;
• Equality;
• Inclusivity and diversity;
• Conflict resolution and peace building locally, nationally and internationally.

The Foundation will promote these goals through an inclusive program of education, sport, debate, art and culture which will be open to all. 

The Foundation will tell the story of Martin McGuinness’s life in Derry’s Bogside, his roots in Donegal and celebrate his contribution to peace and reconciliation locally, nationally and internationally.

This Sunday’s sponsored walk is not only a tribute to Martin. It is a much needed fundraiser for the Foundation. Register below le do thoil to play your part.

The Walk this year will be done by Bernie, Grainne, Fionnuala, Fiachra and Emmett. They will walk the planned route on behalf of the thousands that have walked this past 2 years in memory of Martin. They will walk from Martin’s house through the Bogside, around Derry Walls and then through the Brandywell. All places of significance to Martin.

We can all play our part by registering for the Walk sponsoring Martin’s family and all proceeds will go to Martin’s Peace Foundation!

You can register/donate for the walk at


Saturday, August 29, 2020



I used to have an old hard backed copy of Nora Connolly O’Brien’s; ‘Portrait Of A Rebel Father’. This wonderful account of James Connolly’s life, as recalled by his daughter, is a must read for followers of the great man. I foolishly lent my copy to a comrade and that is the last I saw of it. But that’s another story.

Áras UÍ Chonghaile has an edition in their wonderful library. If you want to know more about James why not call into Áras Uí Chonghaile – the James Connolly Centre, 374 Falls Road – a few hundred metres from Connolly’s home. It’s an amazing account of Connolly’s life and times and death.

In my copy of ‘Portrait Of A Rebel Father’ - the one that was stolen from me - there is a photo of some of the Connolly children outside their family home at Nos 1 Glenalina Terrace opposite the City Cemetery on the Falls Road. They moved there from Dublin in May 1911. Three of the six Connolly children can be seen standing outside their front door beside a young tree. Sadly, the tree outside the Connolly home is no longer there but the others are. Including two outside Áras Ui Chonghaile.

In a biography of her father another of Connolly’s daughters Ina Connolly -Heron recalls the family arriving in Belfast where her father was taking up a position as Belfast Branch Secretary and Ulster Organiser of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union.

Ina writes: ‘Our destination was near the City Cemetery ... We were very pleased with our surroundings: big green fields lay at the backdoor – bog meadows, they were called.’

For years I believed that the trees that had been planted along that stretch of the Falls Road are the same ones that are there today. Regular readers will know that this column doesn’t spoof. I liked the notion that these trees would have seen Connolly walking along the road as he went about his revolutionary work. So a few weeks ago I asked my good friend and lifelong leader Councillor Seanna Walsh to make enquiries of Belfast City Hall.

He did so with his usual diligence. Back came the word. ‘These trees were planted in 1903’. So my hunch about the trees along that stretch of the Falls Road is vindicated. I feel like Detective Colombo successfully concluding an investigation. No more will I be accused of being like Inspector Clouseau by Ted and some of my less informed detractors when I credit these trees as silent noble witness to James Connolly’s life in our community.

These trees would have seen him and his wife Lillie and their six children taking up residence in Glenalina Terrace. They would have seen all the comings and goings in the build up to the Rising. Did Seán Mac Diarmada visit there when he lived in Belfast? Or the Countess? She and Bulmer Hobson founded Na Fianna hÉireann and rented a hall in the Rock Streets across from the Connolly residence. Did Pearse ever call when he was in Belfast? Or Roger Casement? Old Tom Clarke? Winifred Carney would certainly have been a frequent visitor? The trees would have watched Connolly departing for Dublin in 1916. If only trees could talk.

They have been observers of many events in their lifetimes. From the Rising to Partition to the Hungerstrikes, to the Good Friday Agreement and all the thousands of marches and rallies and demos and funerals and shootings and explosions and Féile An Phobail carnivals. All the good, sad, angry, happy, proud, confusing events of their time. That’s what Witness Trees do. They stand witness and provide connections to times outside of our mere human lifespan.

For example a Dutch artist, Theodore Maas, was present at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. 2000 died that day. Maas captured the carnage in a series of drawings. In the middle of the battlefield and recorded by Maas stands a majestic oak tree. It is there yet. It’s called the Mighty Battle Oak. It is over 500 years old.

The oldest tree in Ireland is in County Fermanagh. It is a yew. Like another Yew in Maynooth - the Silken Thomas tree- it is over 700 years old. An oak tree in Belvoir Park Forest is 500 years old. It was here when Belfast was a wee village.

We Irish have a long relationship with trees. Six thousand years ago native woods of oak, elm, birch, ash, pine, hazel and alders were plentiful. By 1900 only one percent survived the ravages of our colonisers.

Native trees are embedded in our culture. The ancient Irish lived in harmony with nature. Trees were of great spiritual value to them. They were sacred. Many were used as protection against evil. Others are associated with holy places. Or fairies. Holy wells. Thirteen thousand Irish townland names mention trees. Many of these ancient pagan groves were colonised by the Christians. But their old names persist. Sometimes in a combination of the Irish ‘Cill’ – Church - with tree names.

So our Falls Road Witness Trees are not on their own. They are survivors. Incidentally, apart from the tree outside 1 Glenalina Terrace I have a vague recollection that at least one of other trees close to Saint John’s Chapel was cut down in an act of subversive stupidity some time ago. And finally all of this came into my head recently when I finished a new book of short stories to be published next year. Its name is The Witness Tree. More of that anon.

In the meantime if you pass our Falls Road Witness Trees salute them. They knew James Connolly. And he knew them.


Thursday, August 6, 2020

Remembering John Hume

The death of John Hume is a huge loss for the Irish people but especially for his wife, his life partner and confidant, Pat and their family. My thoughts and prayers are with them. 

During the years of conflict one of the tactics deployed by the British and Irish governments was that no one should talk to republicans. This British-led strategy was premised on an approach, developed through years of bitter colonial wars, that the objective must always be to defeat the enemy. For successive British governments that meant the use of extensive repressive legislation; a compliant judiciary and media; torture; shoot-to-kill actions; counter-gangs (UDA and UVF); and the demonising of that enemy. The Irish political and media establishment – with a very few honourable exceptions - bought into this Self serving stupidity. 

In the late 1970s and early 1980s I publicly and repeatedly said that the politics of condemnation would achieve nothing. What was needed was the creation of an alternative unarmed strategy. Republicans were thinking, intelligent people who believed that armed struggle, in the context that existed then, was the only means by which real political change could be achieved. If that was to change then a realistic alternative was needed. Establish that and other possibilities became feasible. That was the essence of the argument I was putting. 

As a result of conversations I was having at the time with Fr. Des Wilson and Fr. Alex Reid we tried to engage with the Catholic Hierarchy, the governments, and other parties to tease out what this alternative process might look like.

Regrettably, with the exception of Archbishop, later Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich, they weren’t for talking. The establishments were committed to their approach which was to defeat republicans. Sinn Féin’s early electoral successes in the 1982 Assembly election, in the 1983 Westminster election and in the local government elections of 1985 only served to reinforce this inflexible stance by the political and media establishments. Anything less than the defeat of Irish republicanism was anathema to them. So was dialogue. 

In an attempt to open up a debate Fr. Reid wrote a paper in July 1985 in which he sought to identify the military and political conditions in which those republicans who were engaged in armed struggle would examine an alternative. His focus was on getting agreement between the nationalist parties around a united policy of aims and methods for solving the conflict. 

He laboriously handwrote copies of this proposal and posted it off. He eventually spoke to the SDLP Deputy Leader Seamus Mallon about meeting with me. At first Mr. Mallon indicated a willingness to consider this but as time passed Fr. Reid suggested to Mallon that he was thinking of approaching John Hume. Mallon told him not to and to give it another few weeks. Meetings that were arranged were then cancelled. The British and Irish governments signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement in November 85 and in Westminster by-elections in early 1986 Seamus Mallon won the Newry and Mourne seat. In March Mr  Mallon told the Sagart (Fr. Reid) that he would not meet me.

I bumped into the Sagart in the airport in the Basque country as he returned from his efforts for peace in that place.

This then was the background to the Sagart’s decision to write directly to John Hume on 19 May 1986. In a long letter, he set out his pastoral and moral obligations for writing. He wrote about our conversations and of our commitment to finding an alternative to conflict and gave John a real sense of what that alternative might be.

The Sagart went to and fro between us for a short time and eventually we arranged to meet in September. Our meeting was friendly and constructive. I put to John my belief that we needed to build a broad alliance of nationalist parties, or at least a consensus among us, to press the British into setting aside the 1920 Government of Ireland Act.John phoned Clonard Monastery the next day and he and the Sagart, along with Fr. Seamus Enright and Fr. Reynolds met on 21 May. John told the three priests that he would co-operate with them. He told them that he agreed in principle with their efforts to create a ‘political alternative to armed struggle through the process of dialogue between the parties and especially between Sinn Féin and the SDLP'.

I thought it was a good first meeting. While we had different political positions I found John very down to earth and easy to talk to. Both of us agreed to go off and reflect on what had been said. I agreed to relay our discussions back to the IRA and he said he would try to establish whether the British government would be prepared to say the sort of things I had suggested would be helpful. Looking back now I still find it hard to believe that the process of dialogue took as long as it did. That was 1986. It took another 12 years to get to the Good Friday Agreement. 

In March 1988 the first of a series of leadership meetings between the SDLP and Sinn Fein took place. While some progress was made there remained significant gaps between us. The talks ended in September. Nonetheless John and I weren’t for giving up. In the midst of atrocities by all sides, and the perpetual political crisis that is the North, John and I continued to talk quietly.

At Easter 1993 the story of our meetings broke in the media. There was a storm of protest, condemnation, and vitriol almost all aimed at John. The Irish and British political and media establishments were outraged by John’s impertinence in breaking the consensus position of refusing to speak to Republicans. Sections of the Dublin based media was especially vitriolic toward John. Their attacks were personal, political and often just abusive. The Independent Group of Newspapers led the charge. Day after day, week after week thousands of words were written about John in the most hurtful, cruel, and spiteful manner.

I know that he found much of this very difficult. He was especially concerned at the impact on his family. But he refused to be put off course. 

One of John’s great strengths was his dogged determination to see a thing through. He was convinced, as I was, that we were both very serious and genuine about finding an alternative to armed actions. Our shared objective was to agree a way forward that would see conflict ended for good.

Unlike those who were condemning him John did not live in a bubble divorced from ordinary people. He was a proud son of Derry who was deeply connected with his community in ways that his critics could never be. He knew many republican families – they were his neighbours. Although he fundamentally disagreed with the IRA, and was opposed to their actions, he knew that republicans were not criminals or gangsters but serious people who believed in what they were doing. He and I were trying to find another way forward. 

John also faced criticism from within his own party. Eddie McGrady MP once said: “Terrorism will not be defeated by giving Sinn Féin a leg-up from the gutter.”  This fitted with the belief by some that he helped Sinn Féin at the cost of the SDLP. None of that is true. The reality is that Sinn Féin was fit for purpose following the Good Friday Agreement. The SDLP without John Hume was not.

Over the 12 years of our conversations, both secret and public, I got to know John well. At his best he had an instinctive affinity for people. Our conversations were never combative. He listened attentively to my opinions while ably arguing his own views when we disagreed. We both came to believe in each other’s commitment to the task we had set ourselves.  John Hume made a historic contribution to Ireland and to the future of our island. We are all the better for his leadership. John was also a good singer. One of my abiding memories is the two of us at my first White House St. Patrick’s Day event in 1995 singing ‘The Town I love so well’ about his native city of Derry. Together we cleared the building.

Singing in the White House

His wife Pat also deserves great credit. She was John’s mainstay, his life partner and constant adviser and supporter. She always made me welcome. Father Alex often told me that Pat was the biggest influence on John and he often talked to her about our process. I thank her for all she has done. Mó comhbhrón lei agus a clann. Agus leis an SDLP. 

John’s contribution to Irish politics cannot be underestimated. When others talked endlessly about peace John grasped the challenge and helped make peace happen.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a Á am dílis. 

Friday, July 31, 2020

‘Lean ar aghaidh’ – ‘Go Ahead’.

This Sunday, August 2nd, the 2020 National Hunger Strike Commemoration will take place online. Sunday will also be the anniversary of the death on hunger strike of Andersonstown man Kieran Doherty.  The national commemoration for the ten H-Block hunger strikers, as well as for Michael Gaughan and Frank Stagg, who both died in English prisons, takes place each August. However, like so many other events this year Covid-19 has disrupted long established commemorations and organizers have had to go online.

I have watched all of the online events and participated in many of them. The organizers are to be commended for their efforts and their ingenuity. They have successfully combined music and song, poetry, news footage of the time, and interviews with friends and relatives to create informative, emotional and uplifting productions.

The online events for the hunger strikers have been especially poignant. The memories come flooding back. The Fermanagh South Tyrone by-election and the election of Bobby Sands. His death and funeral. The deaths that followed of Francie Hughes, Raymond McCreesh, Patsy O’Hara, Joe McDonnell, Martin Hurson, Kevin Lynch, Kieran Doherty, Thomas McElwee and Michael Devine. The general election in the South in June 1981 in which Kieran Doherty and Paddy Agnew were elected as the first TDs of this generation of republicans. The marches, protests, the funerals, and the confrontations with British state forces. The attack on Joe McDonnell’s funeral, the plastic bullet deaths. All against the backdrop of a small number of courageous and amazing human beings, taking on the criminalisation and demonisation policy of the Thatcher government.

Prison struggles have been an important part of the story of Ireland’s long struggle for freedom and independence. From the 1798 Rebellion, to the young Irelanders and Van Dieman’s Land in Australia, the Fenian prisoners, driven mad by horrendous conditions in English prisons in the 1880s, to the 1916 Rising and Kilmainham, and prisons and prison camps in Ireland, England and Wales. The blanket protest of the H-Blocks and Armagh Women’s prison and the resulting 1981 hunger strike, were a watershed moment in this phase of our struggle and of modern Irish history.

Regrettably, there have always been those in the media and political establishment in Ireland who enthusiastically joined the chorus of condemnation of republicans by the British. It served their narrow self-interests. In particular, the use of abusive and sectarian language, of describing political opponents in terms that make them less than human, was used for generations by the Unionist government at Stormont to justify discrimination and repression against nationalists. It was also a fundamental part of the counter-insurgency strategy of successive British and Irish governments to defeat republicanism. British governments in colonial wars after 1945 demonised their opponents to defend the use of concentration camps in Kenya or torture and shoot to kill tactics in Oman, Malaya, Aden, Cyprus and Borneo or the creation of counter-gangs to facilitate collusion between state forces and state sponsored terror groups.

The use of racist language to dehumanise people has been consciously used to excuse and justify slavery, the exploitation of native peoples, of women, and the ill-treatment and abuse of others. The English media of the 19th century regularly pictured the Irish as ape-like. One Punch satirist described the Irish who fled to England after the great hunger as ‘a creature manifestly between the gorilla and the negro’ which sometimes ‘sallies forth in states of excitement and attacks civilised human beings that have provoked its fury.’

For centuries the Irish were depicted as brutish, drunkards and stupid. The poverty and destitution, the forced emigration and cyclical famines were blamed on the Irish character, not British colonialism. The recent years of conflict saw British cartoonists and newspapers repeated this racism. In the 1980s one writer in a mainstream British newspaper described the Irish ‘as extremely violent, bloody minded, always fighting, drinking enormous amounts, getting roaring drunk’ and that IRA violence tended to make them ‘look rather like apes – though that’s rather hard luck on the apes.’

Even today there are some in the media, in academia and in the political establishments who believe it is still ok to use degrading and insulting language when describing Sinn Féin and our voters. A column last week in the Irish Times, about the need to detoxify Sinn Féin, and of the party needing to be house trained, is a recent example.

It’s at times like these that the heroism of the hunger strikers and the words and deeds of Bobby Sands, Kieran Doherty and their comrades, and of Mairead Farrell and hundreds of others, shine through.

So, on Sunday evening as you sit down to watch the 2020 National Hunger Strike Commemoration on Facebook, on YouTube and Twitter remember the courage of Kieran Doherty and his comrades.

39 years ago at around 7.15 pm on the evening of August 2nd Big Doc died. He had been on hunger strike 73 days. He was just 25 years old. Kieran was first arrested as a 17 year old and interned. He spent seven of the last ten years of his life in prison. Big Doc’s remains arrived at his family home at Commedagh Drive in Andersonstown in the early hours of the following morning. Two days later thousands followed his cortege to the Republican Plot in Milltown Cemetery where he was laid beside Bobby Sands and Joe McDonnell.

I knew Big Doc. The last time I met him was a few days before he died. I was visiting the prison hospital to speak to the hunger strikers. After speaking to Tom McElwee and Lorny McKeown, Matt Devlin and others I walked into Big Doc’s cell. He was too weak to join the others. I had known Big Doc on the outside but there in that prison cell he was a shadow of himself.

Doc was propped up on one elbow, his eyes unseeing. He looked massive in his gauntness, as his eyes, fierce in their quiet defiance, scanned my face. I spoke to him quietly and slowly. I sat on the side of the bed.

I told him that he would soon be dead and that if he wanted I would leave the blocks and announce that the hunger strike was over. He paused momentarily, and said: “We haven’t got our five demands and that’s the only way I’m coming off. Too much suffered for too long, too many good men dead. Thatcher can’t break us. Lean ar aghaidh. I’m not a criminal.”

After that we talked quietly for a few minutes. As I left his cell we shook hands, an old internee’s handshake, firm and strong.

“Thanks for coming in”, he said, “I’m glad we had that wee yarn. Tell everyone, all the lads I was asking for them and…”  

He continued to grip my hand. “Don’t worry, we’ll get our five demands. We’ll break Thatcher. Lean ar aghaidh... For too long our people have been broken. The Free Staters, the Church, the SDLP. We won’t be broken. We’ll get our five demands. If I’m dead well, the others will have them ... I don’t want to died but that’s up to the Brits. They think they can break us. Well they can’t. Tiocfaidh ár lá.”

Big Doc was right. Thatcher was beaten. The political prisoners won their five demands. And today because of their self-sacrifice and that of countless others, Sinn Féin is the biggest party on the island of Ireland.

We refuse to allow anyone to delegitimise or criminalise the hunger strikers or our struggle.

Kieran Doherty put in well in those final moments before we parted.  ‘Lean ar aghaidh’ – Go Ahead.

The Links to the online commemoration are:

Friday, July 24, 2020

Roger Casement Versus The Empire: Statues for Irish Heroes

Roger Casement

Belfast has a long and proud tradition of opposition to slavery and colonialism. On 8 July we celebrated the birth in 1770 of Mary Ann McCracken a fierce opponent of slavery. She and her brother Henry Joe McCracken, one of the leaders of the 1798 Rebellion, campaigned against slave ships docking in Belfast port. In her late 80s Mary Ann was still a frequent visitor to Belfast docks where she handed out anti-slavery leaflets to those travelling to the USA where slavery still existed. Thomas McCabe, a United Irishman, from the Antrim Road, was another stalwart who opposed slavery and efforts to set up a slave trading company in Belfast.

In the 1840s escaped slave Frederick Douglass was warmly received when he toured Ireland speaking about his experience of slavery. He visited Belfast and spoke there. Daniel O Connell was a leading opponent of slavery. This aspect of our history is especially relevant today as more and more people across the world speak out against modern slavery and racism.

The Black Lives Matter movement in the USA has led the way on this and there is now an international focus on the role other countries played in the slave trade. 

The British Empire, which at its height was the largest in human history, ruthlessly exploited hundreds of millions of people in Africa and India and elsewhere. The Empire had its supporters in Ireland also and that imperialist British legacy is all around us today. It is to be found in partition and the economic, political and human cost of that disaster. But it is also to be found in the symbols and statues and place names which are everywhere.

For example, for the ten years that I was a TD in the Dáil I parked each day in the shadow of a statue to Prince Albert, the consort of the English Queen Victoria. In Belfast there are two bridges named after English Queens. The Queens Bridge was opened in 1849 and is named after Victoria. The Queen Elizabeth Bridge is named after the current holder of that office and was opened in 1966. Interestingly there was a row among unionists in Belfast City Council who wanted to name it after Unionist leader Edward Carson whose statue stands in front of Parliament Buildings at Stormont.

There is the Craigavon Bridge in Derry – named after James Craig, later Viscount Craigavon who was the first Unionist Prime Minister of the North after partition. In Belfast there is Royal Avenue and the Royal Victoria Hospital and countless other thoroughfares named after British Royals or unionist leaders. There is Queens University and the Albert Clock named after Victoria’s other half. Belfast City Council proudly erected statues and stain glass windows within the precincts of the City Hall reflecting this British and Unionist dominance. They also named streets after places associated with Britain’s imperial past. The Sinn Féin office on the Falls Road is at its junction with Sevastopol Street which runs into Odessa Street. Both names associated with the Crimea War. Other places include Bombay Street, the Kashmir Road and Cawnpore Street named after places in India.

As societal, political and demographic changes have taken place there is a greater understanding of the need for places to reflect the entirety of society and not just one section. So, some of this is changing. But it is very slow. In recent years there has been a campaign to use Irish street names and to erect Irish name plates. A statue was erected on the Falls Road to James Connolly, not far from where he and his family lived for several years up to 1916. There are also plans for a statue in the grounds of Belfast City Hall to Winifred Carney, an activist and revolutionary in her own right, who was with Connolly in the GPO.

Plaque at Casement Park

In Dun Laoghaire, outside Dublin a statue is to be erected later this year to Roger Casement who was born in nearby Sandycove in 1864. Historian, activist and author Jim McVeigh has suggested a statue for Casement at the new Casement Park Stadium? I think that’s a good thought.

It would also be fitting in this current climate when the colonial and imperial abuses of the past, especially around slavery, are being confronted. When the European Empires in 1885 carved up Africa between them Belgian King Leopold 11 was allocated two million square kilometers of land to run as his own private fiefdom. His rule, in what is now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo, saw ten million and more murdered, and millions more, including children, maimed. Their hands and feet cut off if they failed to obey the orders of his overseers. Leopold tried to keep others out of the region but the stories of torture and slavery and abuse gradually emerged. However, it was the work of Roger Casement which convincingly exposed Leopold’s reign of terror.

Roger Casement was raised in and around Ballymena in County Antrim. He was a member of an Ulster Protestant family, a Knight of the British Empire and a British diplomat. He was also a gaelgeóir who loved the Glens of Antrim. He was proud to be Irish. He was a thinker who took many of the weightiest decisions of his life whilst pacing on Cushendall beach.

Casement was very conscious of the role and history of British involvement in Ireland. He was resolute in his opposition to it and his goal was a free, united and independent Ireland. During his time as a British diplomat he saw at first hand the impact of European Imperialism in Africa and South America. Casement wrote extensively about this.

In 1903 he was asked by the British government to produce a report on the conditions into the region controlled by Leopold. Leopold had established what he called the Congo Free State. He set up the Force Publique, a military body run by white officers whose job it was to ensure that the Congo’s vast wealth and resources were exploited in Leopold’s interests.

Rubber and ivory were the main produces. Indigenous workers were mercilessly exploited. Many died from exhaustion and hunger and disease working on the rubber plantations. Resistance was ruthlessly suppressed. Victims were often whipped used the chicotte, a whip made of sun-dried hippopotamus hide with razor-sharp edges. Most victims were given a hundred lashes. Many died. Those who tried to escape or rebel were hunted down by the Force Publique who cut off the right hand of anyone they killed.

Casement’s expose of the cruelty of Leopold’s activities created an international outcry which led to Leopold being stripped of his control of the Congo.

Later Casement was sent to South America where he investigated the use of slaves and the ill-treatment of local native people by a British rubber company.

It was this record of work as a diplomat and a senior public servant for the British Empire which almost certainly sealed his fate in August 1916. More than any of the other leaders of the Easter Rising Roger Casement was viewed by the British establishment as a traitor to his class and to the Empire. In a fortnights time we will remember the life and courage of Roger Casement who was hanged on 3 August 1916.

The extent to which the British Empire exploited and killed and impoverished hundreds of millions is rarely told, especially by the British media. It is not a version of history taught in schools. But for the scores of nations, including our own, which are still faced with the legacy and challenges of that involvement, the current public challenge to the legacy of slavery and colonialism and Empire is an opportunity to ensure that the real story of the British Empire and Ireland is told and retold. Including those brave souls like Roger Casement and Mary Anne McCracken who stood against it.