Thursday, September 25, 2014

BRAVE HEARTS?




I don't know a lot about Scotland. I like the accent and the music and Robin Hall and Jimmy McGregor, Kenneth McKeller and an occasional wee dram. I was only there twice. The first time I had to be escorted to the plane by a Police unit after the Orange Order laid siege to a  public meeting I attended in Glasgow.

The other time was in Saint Andrews where we succeeded in getting the DUP  to cross the line and where the two Governments made promises they have yet to keep. The scenery is stupendous. Not unlike our own place. I know lots of people who have big Scottish connections. Pat Doherty, the West Tyrone MP, originated in the Gorbals of Glascow, though he is Irish through and through.  Pearse Doherty TD,  no relation of Pats, has a similar family history. They are not on their own.

Donegal,  their county, is like that. Especially the west of the county. Families have deep roots in both places. In times gone by young Donegal folk, and also many from the West of Ireland, some little more than boys or girls left their poor small holdings to hoke potatoes in Scotland. Tatie hoking was seasonal work. The tatie hokers lived in terrible conditions. Many of them in rough huts or Bothies.  The Donegal writer and poet Patrick McGill has written very memorable novels about the plight of these fine people. Their  conditions became a matter of public scandal in 1937 when  a fire in their accommodation killed 10 young men and boys between the ages of 13 and 23 from Achill Island. This happened in the town of Kirkintilloch just outside of Glasgow. Peadar O Donnell wrote a riveting pamphlet which helped rouse public consciousness about this injustice.


Like lots of exiles some of the Donegal exiles never returned to Ireland. Many of them stayed or moved on to England or North America. Those who stayed drifted into the cities. Here they suffered discrimination on account of their Catholicism. Glasgow Celtic was famously founded  by a Catholic priest to cater for the Donegal Irish who lived in great poverty in the slums of Glasgow. James Connolly one of our foremost political thinkers and activists was born into similar conditions in Edinburgh.

Billy Connolly, the Scottish comedian's stories of growing up in Glasgow are hilarious. They will also find an echo of life on the Falls Road or the Shankill, for that matter, for people of my generation or older. Billy's family hail from Galway.


 The west coast, especially the fishing communities in the North West have historic connections into the coastal regions of the north of Scotland. The island communities in particular.  Our Rathlin Island, a magical place in its own right, has dreamlike views of its neighbours in Islay. It was to here that Robert the Bruce fled from Scotland and where famously his sojourn with a spider who never gave up spinning his web, motivated Robert  to keep going.


The native song tradition in North Antrim is heavily influenced by Scots Gallic. So too is our folk tradition.  Ewen McColl in particular, was a huge influence on Luke Kelly, Christy Moore, the Fureys. The Black Family.



The plantation of Ulster had a much less positive effect on our own history. Dispossessed native people naturally resisted and resented those, many from Scotland, who were settled by force of arms on their land. But over the centuries they too were absorbed and are now part of the sum total of who and what we are as an island people. Unfortunately partition locked many of them and some of us into a sectarian and mean little sectarian statelet. The out workings of this  reality effect in a malign way our politics and our social divisions to this day. Some remain willing or compliant prisoners of these  old divisive ways. They hold themselves apart from the rest of us. Our challenge is not only to liberate ourselves. Our liberation will be found only when they too are free.


All of these disjointed thoughts and other musings of Dalriada (and even the banishment of Gráinne and Diarmuid) nipped at the outer  reaches of my mind and its thought processes as the Scottish Referandum campaign reached its conclusion.  Pat Doherty told me weeks ago that it would be lost because the older Scots Irish would  vote No.


'They remember the discrimination. They don't trust the future. They are afraid of being locked into an Orange state.'


I haven't studied the figures or the demographic of the vote beyond the assertion that the majority of young people voted Yes. The older folks voted No. Or so I understand. So I cannot say if Pat was right or not. But when I woke last Friday morning to listen to the early news I must confess to a feeling of disappointment even though I was anticipating a No vote.


Maybe it was Brave Heart!


Maybe my own political faith, rewarded by the positivity of the million and a half Scots who voted for citizenship over subjection. For their own system over an archaic, elite and monarchy centred London based power structure.


There are lots of lessons for us to learn from the Scottish Referendum campaign. Like our work here in Ireland it has  changed the nature of the Union. But the Union remains. And the elites in London want it to.  Including, most famously Gordon Brown.



So do the majority of Scots. For the time being. 


Maybe the disappointment of many Irish people at this is bedded  in the knowledge that Ireland would have voted Yes if we had been give such a choice before partition. But maybe before we get too comfortable on that particular moral high ground maybe we should consider Pat Doc's suggestion about how the Scots Irish voted.


Our challenge is to get a Yes vote when we have our own Referendum. The Scottish campaign will help us to learn how we can do that. Including the necessary work of understanding and assuaging  fears of the future. If Scots Irish Catholics feared the future and voted accordingly why should Ulster Protestants be any different?


The answer to that question is one only we can answer. 

Friday, September 12, 2014

Up For The Match

 
 
 











The  first barrier beyond which ticketless mortals cannot venture is at the mouth of Clonliffe Avenue opposite Quinns on Dorset street. Traffic  slows down as easy going Gardai marshall the throngs of hurling fans who congest the usually busy Dublin thoroughfare. There is a babble of noise. Shouts and guffaws. Laughter.  The cries of street hawkers and ticket touts. The excited chatter of rival fans. Tipp gansaí's mingle with the black and amber of Kilkenny and the emerald green of Limerick minors. 

Its the same down at Gills corner and other entry points to Croke Park. It is the All Ireland Hurling Final. Me and my older brother Paddy slip through the barrier at Gills. The huge shoulder of the Canal end of Croke Park looms into sight. A duo of street musicians rent the air with traditional ballads. The street is filled with an epidemic of hurling fans. There is a sense of expectation. Of hope. A palpable expectation of being witness to  a feast of sporting and cultural magic.

 Then through the turnstiles and into the Hogan Stand. We take our seats. The minor game is already underway. Kilkenny is edging ahead of a brave Limerick side. The stadium is rapidly filling up. Our Paddy turns to me as he does at this point every year during our annual pilgrimage to the best stadium in the world to watch the best players in the world playing the best game in the world.

' Aren't we lucky to be here? in  Croke Park?  isn't it great to be a Gael?' 

We study the Match Programme. Pore over the clár. Soak up the atmosphere. Discuss the pros and cons, deplore the absence of ground hurling. Debate tactics. check how the winds is blowing the national and provincial flags. Chat with other fans in neighbouring seats. Shake hands with old friends. Applaud the Minors as they conclude the game with a victory for the Cats. Commiserate with each other at the sight of the dejected Limerick lads lying despondently in the background while the jubilant Kilkenny victors celebrate at the plinth  in the Hogan Stand. 

Then the atmosphere builds. The Tipperary All Ireland Champions of 25 years ago line up  and are introduced. Heroes. They beat Antrim that day. I am disappointed that the Antrim  team don't get to parade.  I was looking forward to applauding them as well. Heroes also. 

Huge banners representing the All Ireland Senior teams are carried aloft on to the field  by throngs of young people. The Artane Boys Band assemble below us. Then the Cats take to the field as Croke Park explodes with a roar of rapturous  approval from their supporters. Tipperary follow soon afterwards. 

             
The red carpet is rolled out. We rise to greet the President as he and The Uachtaran of  Cumann Lúthchleas Gael meet the players. The teams parade. Then Amhran na bhFiann.  82 thousand proud Irish voices raised in rousing chorus and conclude in a united roar of support for their county.  The Artane Boys Band exits off the pitch. 

The hurlers shake hands with each other and with the ref and the linesmen.  The ref throws the sliothar in. The midfielders draw on it. The Hurling Final begin. The fastest field game on the planet is underway. 

It's over to the hurlers now. This is their arena. Our arena. Their game. Our game. They are warriors. Gladiators.  Magicans.  Wizards with camans. They will not disappoint us. 

 
They didn't. It all went by in a flash. Point for point. Goal for goal. To and fro. Up and down. 
 

 
Acrobatic high  fielding. Precision passing. Long diagonal pucking of the sliothar. Long distance point scoring. Quick as a flash hand  passing. Side line cuts. Great clearances.  Tight marking. Great goal keeping. Great goals scored. Inspirational solo runs. The ash clashing in close combat dunting. Courageous blocking. Not a malicious stroke the whole game. 

 
 
' It's a pity it will soon be over' our Paddy says at half time. 

'Liam O Neill predicts a draw' I tell him. 

'Now wudn't  that be something' he says in wonderment as the second half starts at break neck speed, 'A draw?'

And it was.  The best game of hurling I ever saw since our school beat Saint Galls in 1958 and I got the best player award. 

Hurling? 

The sport of heroes.

 Kilkenny and Tipperary? 

Legends. 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Irish government needs to act on Palestine (from 2nd September)


The Israeli government has decided to seize 400 hectares of Palestinian land in the Occupied West Bank. This is said to be the largest land grab in 30 years.  Coming in the wake of the recent widely welcomed ceasefire in Gaza this is a profoundly negative and retrograde development. It raises serious questions again about the Israeli government’s commitment to peace and a negotiated 2 state settlement. Of course this latest provocation is in line with the ongoing building of settlements and the Separation Wall, home demolitions, movement restrictions and detentions. The recent Israeli Government aggression against the Occupied Gaza Governorates ran in parallel with the oppression in the rest of the Occupied State of Palestine.

 

I have been raising the need for the Irish government to take the lead within the European Union on the issue of peace in the Middle East, and the need for the international community to uphold international law for a very long time now. Since my election to the Dáil I have raised this directly with the Taoiseach in writing, in the Dáil chamber, on the eve of EU summit meetings, and in the wake of particular developments in the Middle East.

 

So far Mr Kenny has ignored what I have to say. When I say ignored I don’t mean that he hasn’t responded. I mean he hasn’t acted.

So this week I wrote to him again. I also wrote to a number of EU premiers. This is a copy of my letter:

 

“A Thaoisigh, a chara, 

Like me, I am sure you will welcome the latest ceasefire announcement in Gaza. Hopefully this can lead to a resolution and an end to recurring onslaughts against the Palestinian people.

The international community must now ensure that the ceasefire is respected and sustained but what is also clear is the need for a long-term solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It cannot be acceptable for this conflict to erupt with depressing frequency every few years leading to thousands of needless deaths.

With this in mind I have written to a number of EU premiers asking them to work to obtain a resolution at the United Nations Security Council requesting the resumption of serious peace negotiations within a defined period of time.

These should be aimed at securing a two-State solution and the establishment of an independent Palestinian State on the borders of 4th of June 1967, with East Jerusalem as its Capital. All European states should now formally recognize the State of Palestine.

I believe also that European states should support the deployment of a UN protection force in Gaza on the lines of that deployed in Kosovo.

I am asking that you support this approach and that you head up an initiative on behalf of the Irish State to achieve these objectives.

It is clear that the people of Gaza need urgent and massive humanitarian aid. There is now a pressing need to rebuild Gaza. There are now 450,000 people there without homes. There is no electricity, no running water and no sewage system as hundreds of thousands of boys and girls are due to start a new school year. The international community must begin immediately to restore the food, medical, fuel, and electricity needs of 1.7 million people.

The people of Gaza and of the Palestinian territories need hope. They need to believe that there is a real possibility of positive change in their conditions. They need their rights as human beings and their national rights as Palestinians respected and upheld by the international community. They also need to know that international law will be respected.

The Irish Government must do all that it can to ensure that international law is upheld and I ask that you use your influence within the European Union to advance this.

I have travelled to the region on several occasions and have met many of the representatives of the Palestinian people, including Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. I also met Israeli citizens and NGOs. In my conversations I have stressed that inclusive dialogue, involving substantive and inclusive negotiations, and involving all of the participants is the only way forward. They need the help of the international community to achieve this. I would appeal to you to use your influence positively in this regard.”

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Albert Reynolds RIP

 
 
On Monday, Martin McGuinness, myself, Rita O'Hare, Pat Doherty and Lucilita Breatnach represented Sinn Féin at the funeral of former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds in Dublin. All of us, along with others who couldn't attend, had worked with Albert on the peace process. The State ceremony was a fitting send off for a man who was crucial to the development of the peace process.
 
There was poignancy in the fact that his funeral took place just days before the 20th Anniversary of the historic and groundbreaking IRA cessation of 1994.
 
That decision by the IRA leadership resulted in enormous changes and had profound effects on politics in Ireland and on the relationship between Ireland and Britain.
 
Much of the work to bring about that opportunity was carried out away from the public eye and is often now forgotten.
 
 
People rightly remember the great political highs of the past two decades, be it the achievement of the Good Friday Agreement, the St. Andrews and Hillsborough Agreement, the decision of Ian Paisley to share power or the decision by the IRA to leave the stage.
 
But none of these or the other fundamental, political, social and constitutional changes during the peace process would have been possible without the difficult and risk-laden work which was undertaken by Albert Reynolds, Fathers Alec Reid and Des Wilson, John Hume, the Sinn Féin leadership and others in the years before the 1994 cessation including brave citizens from civic unionism, Protestant churches and the community sector.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The Ireland of the early 1990s was very different from now. Armed conflict was part of everyday life. Political censorship and exclusion was the norm. Successive Irish governments worked with British governments in pursuing an entirely negative agenda which merely fed the cycle of discrimination, resistance and conflict.
 
When Albert became Taoiseach he was briefed by the former Taoiseach Charlie Haughey on discussions that had opened up between Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil. Martin Mansergh, senior political adviser was to be an important bridge and Fr Alex Reid was to be the main conduit to Mr Reynolds. Fr Reid persuaded the new Taoiseach of the possibilities which were being created at that time.
 
So, Albert Reynolds brought a different approach. He was persuaded of the potential which existed in my own dialogue with John Hume and he was moved to offer support to this at a time when others deliberately sought to undermine it.
 
 
Alongside this he struck up a dialogue of his own with the then British Prime Minister John Major and despite significant political opposition both inside and outside the British Parliament, the Downing Street Declaration was secured. This declaration, of course was not sufficient and work had to continue beyond that. But at least Sinn Féin was now dealing directly with the Taoiseach and he came to realise that more was needed.
 
 
 
I regard my relationship with Albert Reynolds to be a very good one. He was very open. He and his wife Kathleen welcomed me and others into their home. They were welcoming, down to earth and straight forward. Albert was also very direct. He was a doer. He wasn’t satisfied with dialogue without aim, objective or concrete outcomes. Of course there were profound differences between us but I always felt that in Albert Reynolds we were dealing with someone who was serious about the task of building the peace process and who represented a new departure from the Irish Government failures which had marked previous decades. This in itself was important.
 
He was also prepared to listen. He came to the table with a determination to succeed and also with an ability to take risks.
 
He also knew the North much better than he was given credit for. Some of this goes back to the showband days and he had a very human contact with people in the business community and right across the Six Counties.
 
It is a testament to Albert's ability to get things done that although he was one of the shortest serving Taoisigh, he achieved so much in so short a space of time. In my opinion a lot of this was possible because he was an outsider. He wasn't part of the Fianna Fáil establishment or the Irish establishment at that time. In fact many of them looked down their noses at him. The establishment at that time was very partitionist. Some of the policy makers remain so to this day. But it took someone from outside that culture to turn the system around in the early days of his term as Taoiseach.
 
 
I suppose it is part of the nature of politics that Albert Reynolds was removed from office well before the election of Tony Blair in 1997 and the creation of the sort of inclusive, all-party negotiations which he recognised were necessary but which the Major government failed to deliver in the period after the 1994 cessation.
 
Given the time he had invested in helping to develop the peace process there is little doubt that Albert would have brought his own dynamic to those talks and helped put his own stamp on what would ultimately emerge as the Good Friday Agreement.
 
After his retirement from public life Albert Reynolds remained a firm supporter of the peace process. If there was a role that he was asked to play it was done without fuss or without question. I was in contact with him many times and he was a particular assistance in advising in how we deal with the Irish Government of the day. He also developed a very warm personal relationship with Martin McGuinness.
 
Under Fr Reid's guidance Albert also opened up dialogue with loyalist paramilitaries and their representatives.
 
On occasions over the past 20 years I have heard numerous people described as being architects of the Irish Peace Process. I have to say on many of these occasions I raise my eyes in surprise. Such a description however sits well with the contribution made by Albert Reynolds.
 
 
Albert stepped forward to make peace when it was a risky thing to do. When it was not popular with either the political or the media establishments. He did the right thing. He acted on the North when positive action was needed. As the political process faces into more difficulties, An Taoiseach Enda Kenny would do well if he emulated the actions of Albert Reynolds.
 
At this sad time I wish to extend my condolences to his wife Kathleen, to their children and to the wider Reynolds family.
 
 
Kathleen was hugely supportive of Albert. At times Fr Alec must have driven her to distraction but she was and remains a very sound and solid woman.





 


Friday, August 15, 2014

No to Fracking



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The rising of the moon


 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
 

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

End the slaughter in Gaza


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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