Thursday, June 22, 2017

Any threat to Good Friday Agreement will be opposed

Last Thursday’s visit to London for a meeting with the British Prime Minister Theresa May was my first without Martin McGuinness. I was very mindful of that as Mary Lou, RG and I boarded the Aer Lingus flight in Dublin that morning. I was equally conscious of this because Thursday was the day that the Rev. Jesse Jackson was in Derry to officially open the Bloody Sunday museum with Martin’s son Fiachra, and to visit Martin’s grave.

Bernie McGuinness with Jesse Jackson and her son Fiachra

Despite the recent attacks in London and Manchester the streets around Westminster were packed with people, including many who were obviously tourists, enjoying the bright sunshine and the sights. The attacks have added a new edge to the area around Britain’s Parliament Buildings and Whitehall. There are many more visible and heavily armed police officers and police vehicles. There are also a formidable series of heavy metal barriers at major road junctions that can be moved into place with the clear purpose of sealing the centre of London off in an emergency.

The newspapers, television news and social media, were dominated by the horrific scenes from the catastrophic fire at the Grenfell block of flats the previous day. As we arrived into London Theresa May was visiting the scene of the disaster but twitter was already carrying reports quoting local people angry at her for not meeting grieving families, residents and survivors. Jeremy Corbyn, who also visited the scene, was being widely praised for his compassionate engagement with ordinary citizens and his obvious empathy at their plight.

As the media fallout continued it emerged that a year and a half ago the Tories voted against a Labour amendment to the Housing and Planning Bill which would have made it a requirement for landlords to ensure that any homes they are renting should be fit for human habitation. The Tory legislation, which was eventually passed with the support of DUP MPs, was part of a process of deregulation which is being viewed by many as contributing to the Grenfell fire.  

The fire came on the back of a bad couple of weeks for the Tories. Theresa May had called her snap election believing she would win more seats. Having promised ‘strong and stable’ government Mrs May returned with less MPs and her own status as Tory leader and Prime Minister severely weakened. She immediately turned to the DUP and its ten MPs to provide a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement to sustain her government in power. The reaction from the media in Britain was one of almost universal shock. The record of the DUP and its homophobic, sectarian, ultra conservative, anti-climate change and creationist philosophy became front page news and dominated social media.

The implications for the peace process, the Good Friday Agreement and the current talks to restore the political institutions were at the top of our agenda when we met the British Prime Minister in the Cabinet Office. Mary lou, RG and I were joined by Michelle O’Neill, our new MP for Foyle Elisha McCallion and Stephen McGlade.  
I opened our contribution by offering our sympathy at the loss of life in the Grenfell tragedy. I then proceeded to set out the context for the current crisis in the political institutions in the North, including the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal and the allegations from within the DUP of corruption. I handed the Prime Minister a copy of Martin McGuinness’s resignation letter. It succinctly explains the issues behind the crisis, including the years of disrespect and obstruction within the institutions by the DUP.
Michelle and I both bluntly told Mrs May, James Brokenshire, the British Secretary of State, and their officials that the British government is in default of the Good Friday Agreement. We told her that in our view the government and the DUP have refused to implement key agreements on language and equality rights and dealing with the legacy of the past. I told Mrs May that there could be no deal without a stand-alone Irish Language Act based on best international protocols for indigenous languages.
The British side voiced the usual clichés about wanting to encourage the parties to reach a deal but we told them that the issues at the heart of the crisis are not simply Sinn Féin issues or DUP issues. Equality, Irish language rights, marriage equality, the Bill of Rights are all British government issues and Irish government issues also, and they have to meet their obligations.
Michelle O’Neill challenged Mrs May on austerity, the one billion cut from the North’s budget and argued for funding for public services and capital projects. With the Brexit negotiations due to commence on Monday we also raised the imposition of Brexit, against the will of the people of the North who voted against it.  Mrs May repeated the meaningless rhetoric about not wanting a return to the borders of the past . We urged her to look at Sinn Féin’s proposal for designated status for the North within the EU. It is a proposal that would not impinge on the constitutional status of the North.
We warned Prime Minister May that doing a deal with the DUP in order to hold on to power carried with it huge risks. Sinn Féin will oppose any pact that undermines the Good Friday Agreement and we will look to the new Taoiseach to oppose it also as a co-guarantor of the Agreement. In her contribution Mary Lou Our referenced the demographic changes that are taking place in the North and the increased interest in Irish unity. We told Mrs May that a referendum on Irish unity is inevitable and that she and her government had to prepare for it.
At the same time, we made it clear that our objective in the talks is to reach an agreement with the DUP and the other parties on restoring the institutions. But this will only happen if they are sustainable, viable and properly resourced. That means resolving all of the outstanding issues, and the British government providing a financial package that addresses the austerity cuts to the block grant that the Cameron and May governments have been responsible for.

As I write these few words there is still no clarity around the DUP and Tory pact. The Brexit negotiations have begun and the talks to restore the institutions have recommenced following the Westminster election. With the June 29th deadline next week and the marching season about to kick-off there is only a short window to agree a restoration of the institutions.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Active Abstentionism

Following on from the very successful Assembly election in March last week’s Westminster election produced another historic result for Sinn Féin. We achieved our largest vote ever of 238,915 or 29.1%, and won seven seats – an increase of three.
The Tory party lost seats and lost its majority in the British Parliament. It almost immediately turned to the DUP for a ‘confidence and supply arrangement’ to prop it up as Theresa May scrambles to survive. She promised ‘strong and stable’ government and has instead delivered chaos and uncertainty. We will see the outworking of this new Tory/DUP coalition over the next few days.
As the results emerged in the early hours of last Friday morning Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Irish Labour Party, looking to their own narrow self-interests, cynically turned their attention to attacking our abstentionist approach to Westminster. It was as if they were hearing about this for the first time. In fact they know our policy will not change.
The reality is that in the seven weeks of the campaign the SDLP, which had members of all of the southern establishment parties campaigning for it, used every opportunity to raise the issue of abstentionism. Sinn Féin’s refusal to take seats in Westminster became a key issue for the SDLP as it tried to claim that its presence in the British House of Commons had made a difference. It obviously thought that abstentionism would be a negative for Sinn Féin in the election. Every broadcast interview by a Sinn Fein candidate saw this issue exhaustively examined as some elements of the media rowed in behind the SDLP position.
The first problem for the SDLP was in its failure to produce anything of substance to bolster its claim of making a difference sitting in the British Parliament. The widely shared social media video imagery of the three SDLP MPs swearing allegiance to the English Queen and her successors also had its effect.
On June 8th the nationalist/republican voters saw through this nonsense. They chose to support Sinn Féin. Our vote increased in every constituency. The nationalist electorate made a choice. They voted for the active abstentionism of Sinn Féin and against the pointless participation of the SDLP at Westminster. The nationalist/republican people of the North conclusively turned their back on Westminster.
Ignoring the democratic choice of the electorate Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin and others demanded that we should take our seats in Westminster. They bemoaned the fact that there was no longer an Irish nationalist voice at Westminster – as if being there was a good thing.
One SDLP representative even went so far as to evoke the names of Daniel O’Connell, Charles Stewart Parnell and Michael Davitt as examples of successful participation in Westminster. The reality is that all of these leaders failed to achieve their primary political objectives. O’Connell failed to secure the Repeal of the Union; Parnell failed to achieve Home Rule; and Michael Davitt was so exasperated with the British system that when he withdrew from the British Parliament in October 1899 he declared: "I have for years tried to appeal to the sense of justice in this House of Commons on behalf of Ireland. I leave, convinced that no just cause, no cause of right, will ever find support from this House of Commons unless it is backed up by force."
This was 17 years before the 1916 Rising. Two years after the Rising and following the 1918 election, the Sinn Féin MPs abstained from Westminster and established the First Dáil. This was not just about the taking of an oath of allegiance to an English Queen. That was certainly part of the equation. But the key issue was and is one of sovereignty. To take seats in Westminster requires that a successful Irish republican MP begin their political life by accepting that the British state has the right to sovereignty over Ireland or a part of the island. It also means that their first political act as an MP is to take the oath which states:
“I … swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors, according to Law. So help me God.”
Let me be very clear. I am an Irish republican. I believe in the sovereignty of the Irish people. I am against monarchies and elites of all kinds. As the MP for west Belfast I was very proud to represent all of the people of west Belfast for decades. Those who voted for me in election after election saw no disadvantage in my being an active abstentionist. Last week Paul Maskey increased that vote again taking over twenty-seven thousand votes.
Active abstentionism is about energetically representing citizens. It’s about working with those citizens as equals and empowering communities to effectively fight for their rights, whether they be cultural rights, economic, national or political rights. Sinn Féin has an unparalleled reputation for effective constituency representation.
We have also been diligently and steadily building an all-Ireland movement for equality and unity. Our MPs will attend the Good Friday Agreement Committee in the Dáil this week and we will campaign to have speaking rights in that institution in the time ahead. Our seven MPs will join thirty Sinn Féin TDs and Seanadóirí and twenty seven MLAs. They will be actively backed by our all-Ireland team of MEPs who are showing great leadership, particularly and importantly on the issue of Brexit and the need for designated special status for the North.
The building of this all-Ireland movement and strong representation by Sinn Féin across the island, including in Councils, will continue in the time ahead, beyond the distractions of temporary alliances between the DUP and the English Tories.
In the late 1990’s we discovered that abstentionist MPs could avail of facilities at Westminster to represent their constituents. This was to accommodate English republicans or others who were against the Oath. We sought a mandate for active abstentionism and were given the use of offices and other resources in Westminster. We have utilised these since then to fulfil our mandate.
After the 1997 Westminster election, in which Martin McGuinness and I were elected for Mid Ulster and west Belfast, the Speaker of the British Parliament, Betty Boothroyd, banned us from the facilities unless we took the Oath of Allegiance. That was overturned five years later, although periodically Conservative and Unionist MPs will raise the issue. Sinn Féin MPs contrary to some inaccurate reporting do not receive a Westminster salary.
Where Sinn Féin fundamentally differ from the Dublin establishment parties is in our commitment to Irish national self-determination; to the unity and sovereignty of this island and the ending of partition. Their demand that Sinn Féin MPs should take the Oath of Allegiance and accept British sovereignty has nothing to do with what is good for the people of the North, or for those who voted for us on the basis of our abstentionist position; it is about trying to do what the SDLP failed to do – present Sinn Féin as a party that refuses to represent its electorate.
Fianna Fáil especially has a short memory. Its founding leaders stood on a platform of abolishing the British oath to the Dáil. The war cry was ‘Dismiss the Imperialists – Abolish the Oath – Vote for the Fianna Fáil candidates – One Allegiance Only.’
Is Micheál Martin now telling us that if his party ever stands candidates in the North, and they are successful, that they will take the Oath to the English Queen? What kind of Irish leader of a party which claims to be ‘The Republican Party’ would ask Irish men and women to ignore their electoral mandate; swear loyalty to the English Queen, or legitimise the British Parliament's role in Ireland?
When it comes to the North, the Fianna Fail leader is a champion hurler on the ditch. If they gave out all-Ireland medals for making zero effort on matters of importance to northern citizens, Micheál Martin would be an All Star every year. The Fianna Fáil leader should end his abstentionist policy in respect of the North, come off the side-lines and onto the pitch, and allow his party to stand candidates in Northern elections and seek a mandate from the people. I would welcome such a development.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Unity referendum - an imperative and a winnable objective.

In the post count excitement of the election RG forgot to post this article which was published in this weeks Andersonstown News. Given the outcome and the emerging DUP/Tory arrangement/coalition it's still worth a read.
At the Count Centre on Thursday night

your vote counts.
By the time you get to read this the Westminster election could be over. You may know the result. But as I write this column that's all before us. It’s Wednesday morning. The sun is shining as Bill and I cross the Glenshane Pass on the way to the Foyle constituency. It’s the last day of the election campaign. Later today, after spending the morning with Elisha McCallion, I will join Michelle Gildernew in Fermanagh South Tyrone. So far, for Sinn Féin, it’s been a good election campaign. Having spent time in many of the constituencies the mood is very positive. The activists are in great form. The mass canvasses in north Belfast and south Down involving scores of people have been hugely uplifting.
But however good the political message; however bullish the candidates have been in the debates; and however energised the canvas teams are, on election day it’s all down to you the citizen marking your X beside your candidate and party of choice. Thursday is your day. You will have the final say in who is elected or not elected, and whether parties achieve success or failure. That’s how it should be.
The media and academic pundits – those who make a living from interpreting the intention of voters and the statistics of elections – will be looking to see how it compares with the Assembly election in March.
That was a transformative election. Since the state was established in 1920 Unionists dominated local politics. The brazen use of gerrymandered constituencies and the disenfranchisement of tens of thousands of nationalists ensured that unionists dominated politics in the Stormont Parliament or in local councils.

Arriving at the Count on Thursday night

However, the March Assembly dramatically changed that. For the first time since partition the unionist political majority in a locally elected Assembly, which was intended to permanent, came to an end. The longer term demographic and political trend is for that to continue but how will it shape out when the votes are counted in the early hours of Friday morning? In March Sinn Féin came within 1,168 votes of over taking the DUP as the party with the largest vote. That was a huge psychological blow to the psyche of political unionism. That lesson was learned quickly by the DUP and their objective in this election has been to reverse that.
All of the stops have been pulled out. The DUP and UUP agreed an electoral pact. Having called for Arlene Foster’s resignation over the Renewable Heating Initiative before Christmas the UUP did a quick flip flop. Now they are happy to support the DUP leader. And not for the first time the endorsement of the DUP and the UUP by the so-called Loyalist Communities Council (LCC) – in essence the UDA, UVF and Red Hand Commando – means that those organisations are now actively campaigning for those two parties.
Calls for Arlene Foster to reject the endorsement were met with a stony silence. In this election every vote counts and the DUP appear happy to embrace the support of illegal unionist paramilitary organisations.
They know that every vote will count. They know what needs to be done to re- establish viable sustainable political institutions. They know that the gap between the parties, and especially between Sinn Féin and the DUP, to achieve this is significant. The issues which led to the collapse of the Executive and political institutions are still there. And the Irish and British governments have agreements they have yet to honour.
There is also the looming issue of Brexit. Whether it it’s a Tory government or a Labour government that is returned to power after the election both parties are committed to pursuing Brexit. And Brexit will have a serious detrimental impact on the economy of this island but especially of the North and the border counties. It is already having a damaging effect on Irish jobs and businesses, in particular in the agriculture and agrifood sectors.
The aim of the Irish government and of the European Union in the time ahead should be to prevent a land frontier between the European Union and Britain on the island of Ireland. This can best be achieved if the North achieves designated special status within the European Union. The Irish government should also have a veto on any agreement reached between the European Union and the British Government that does not include this position.
Designated status is the best and only way to ensure that the entire island of Ireland will remain within the European Union. It is an imaginative solution that addresses the complexities of the problem. It does not affect the constitutional status of the North. That will be changed only by a referendum.
Crucially, it already enjoys substantial political support. Designated special status within the European Union is the position endorsed by the Dáil. It is endorsed by the majority of MLAs in the Assembly. It recognises that the people of the North voted to remain part of European Union. It is a solution being advocated by representatives of Border communities.
Designated special status for the North within the European Union is about allowing all of Ireland to remain in the Customs Union and the Single Market and under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. It is about maintaining the European Convention on Human Rights and it is about protecting the rights of citizens in the North who have a right to Irish citizenship and, therefore, to citizenship of the European Union. None of this is beyond our collective wisdom or ability.
In the short term however the focus of the next few weeks will be on political talks to restore the Executive. Sinn Féin will enter that process in good heart and with the desire to reach an agreement – irrespective of the outcome of Thursday’s election. We all know what the issues are. Our leader, Michelle O’Neill spelt it out well recently when she said: “We are for an Executive that respects the rights of all citizens and operates with integrity, an Executive that implements agreements”.

Speaking to Miriam at the Titanic Centre

For republicans the issue of a unity referendum is now firmly on the political agenda. We believe that such a referendum should be held within the next five years. We also believe that the political dynamic of recent years makes this issue an imperative and a winnable objective.
Next week will also see the election of a new Taoiseach. Leo Varadkar will be the Fine Gael nominee. He will have a keen interest in the northern election result. There will be another election in the South, though no one knows exactly when. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil probably don't want it too soon but sometimes these things take on a life of their own. So Sinn Féin has to be prepared. 
Wherever you live on the island of Ireland your vote counts.  I hope you use it wisely.

Waiting for the national broadcaster 

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Refugees, coffins ships and hunger

At the start of most weeks in Dublin I drive through the Port Tunnel for Leinster House. As we make our way up the Quays toward the Customs House on my left stand a group of bronze figures. There are few more haunting memorials anywhere in the world than this group of six tall, bronze figures of emaciated men and women, and one dog, which stand on Quays. They are permanently caught in the act of walking toward a ship that will take them to the USA or to Canada or England or some other far off distant shore. Their clothes are in tatters. Their faces are etched in despair and pain. The figures are a stark testimony to the dreadful human cost of An Gorta Mór - the Great Hunger - on Ireland in the middle of the 19th century.

Entitled, ‘Famine’, the sculpture was created by Rowan Gillespie and was unveiled on the 150th anniversary of An Gorta Mór in 1997. It hauntingly represents the ordeal of those who suffered through five years of hell between 1845 and 1850 as a million died in the fields, on the laneways and in the hovels and millions more fled the island of Ireland in search of food, and work, and the hope of a new life elsewhere. The bronze figures stand on the departure site of the Perseverance. In 1846 it was one of the first of the ships to leave Dublin with refugees seeking safety across the water.

A few metres beyond the figures stands the Jeanie Johnston. It is a replica famine boat – a floating museum - named after the original Jeanie Johnson which made 17 voyages across the Atlantic during the turbulent years of the great hunger. Each journey took around seven weeks in very cramped conditions for crew and passengers. According to the historical record no life was ever lost on the Jeanie Johnson – a significant achievement given the numbers who died on coffins ships and in the fever camps in Canada and the USA between 1846 and 1850.

This week An Gorta Mór will be remembered when a group of academics, dressed in period costume, follow in the footsteps of one thousand four hundred and ninety tenants forced from their homes in Roscommon in May 1847. They will pass the bronze figures on Dublin Quay and the Jeanie Johnson before finishing at the Irish Emigration Museum on the Quays. The original tenants were evicted off their land on the Strokestown estate in county Roscommon by an unscrupulous landlord Denis Mahon. They were then forced to walk over 150 kilometres to the Dublin Quays where they were put aboard four ships –Erin’s Queen, Naomi, The Virginius and The John Munn.

Unlike conditions aboard the Jeanie Johnson these ships were badly provisioned and poorly equipped for the long journey. Almost half of those who boarded in Dublin died on the journey or in the fever camp at Grosse Île outside Quebec. During those years 100,000 tenants fled to Canada. More than 20,000 died at sea or in the fever camps. Five and a half thousand alone are buried in mass graves on Grosse Île. Many thousands more sailed to the United States of America.

The story of the great hunger is not one of famine. The potato crop failed but there was food in Ireland. The British government, its colonial administration in Dublin castle and the landlord class, chose not to implement policies that could have saved lives. The great hunger was at its core an issue of economics and politics and of powerful people in the English establishment deciding that it was cheaper and more expedient to let people starve to death or die from cholera and other diseases.

This week as the mis-named ‘National Famine Walk’ takes place from Strokestown to the Dublin Quays, the same issues of death by hunger and disease, of drowning in coffins ships, of refugees abandoned by powerful people and governments, are playing out again in countries in central Africa and the Middle East—Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen—and on the waters of the Mediterranean Sea.

As you read this at least twenty million men, women and children are facing immediate starvation. While drought is playing its part in the catastrophe it is widely accepted that this is largely a man-made famine, exacerbated by civil war, government policy, and the actions of groups like Al-Shabaab in Somalia who are blocking aid workers getting to communities in trouble.

In Yemen the crisis has left seven million people not knowing where their next meal is coming from. The UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien told the Security Council two months ago that; “We stand at a critical point in history… we are facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the United Nations. Now, more than 20 million people across four countries face starvation and famine. Without collective and coordinated global efforts, people will simply starve to death. Many more will suffer and die from disease.”

The New York Times recently reported that in the last month, as well as the millions facing hunger, more than 360 have died in Yemen as a result of cholera and other diseases. The military role of the government of Saudi Arabia in the conflict in Yemen has added enormously to the violence and to the plight of civilians. Despite the widespread concerns at the involvement of the Saudi government and its appalling human rights record, the British and US governments continue to sell it weapons. President Trump last week signed a military deal worth one hundred and ten billion dollars. The deal includes precision guided munitions which have been used by Saudi forces to attack hospitals, schools, and mosques.

To add to the crisis confronting these four states, and many others in the region, President Trump has initiated foreign policy cutbacks that will see the U.S.A. overseas aid budget slashed by more than 40 percent. In dollar terms this will mean a cut of one billion dollars. When set against the one hundred and ten billion arms deal this cut to the aid budget is relatively small but its loss will leave millions of people victim to disease and hunger.

And then there are the coffin ships of this century in the Mediterranean Sea. The latest figures show that so far this year 60,521 people have crossed from North Africa to Italy. At least 1,530 refugees have died in the same period. This includes one child per day.  Last weekend the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) urged the G7 countries meeting in Sicily to adopt a six-point action plan to keep refugee and migrant children safe, including protecting child refugees and migrants, particularly unaccompanied children, from exploitation and violence, and ending the detention of children seeking refugee status or migrating.

But objections from President Trump killed off these proposals and others by the Italian government which would have protected migrants’ rights and stressed the threat they faced from traffickers. What the G7 produced instead was a statement highlighting the right of states to secure their borders, and to set migration targets. It was an opportunity spurned.

So, if you are concerned by the issues raised in this column then help the victims as best you can. Support morally, financially, politically, those many voluntary and state organisations that are working to save lives. Oppose racism and sectarianism. And raise the plight of refugees and of those millions starving with your political leaders.

Friday, May 26, 2017

A tale of two elections

The energy and enthusiasm which surrounds the demand for an Irish Language Act has not diminished since the Assembly election in March. The sea of red on the Falls Road and in Belfast City centre last Saturday was evidence of that. The singing, the music, the chanting of slogans, the passion and energy of thousands of mainly young people, all echoed back on marchers as we made our way by Divis Tower, and then again between the tall buildings in the City Centre.
Like many older activists who participated I was overwhelmed and uplifted by the sheer joy and eagerness of the young people. I have to admit it did the heart good walking along listening to all of those many voices speaking, singing, chanting and enjoying the Irish language.
‘An Lá Dearg’ – the Red Day – the fourth such march - saw Irish language activists coming together in a massive demonstration of support for an Irish Language Act. The dismissive and offensive comments of some DUP leaders and spokespersons has failed to diminish the fervour of those demanding the right to have our language and culture formally recognised and protected in legislation. 
While the Westminster election campaign in the North has largely focussed on Brexit, those issues which were at the heart of the Assembly election – equality, respect, parity of esteem, marriage equality, a Bill of Rights and an Acht na Gaeilge – are also very much to the fore in this campaign.
Today (Thursday) marks two weeks to election day. Like March the outcome on June 8th could mark another historic shift in the North’s political demographics. So, we need another mighty effort to challenge the Tories and the DUP on Brexit. This is key. Brexit will have far reaching economic and political consequences for the North.
Did you know that around 60 per cent of the North’s exports to the EU actually go into the 26 counties and that over 30,000 people regularly commute across the border for work or study? Or that some 600 million litres of milk go south to be turned into cheese and milk products for export by companies there. Or that thousands of beef and pigs leave farms in the South and come North for slaughter.
These are just some of the examples of the connectiveness between the agriculture and agri-foods sectors on this island. Thousands of jobs on both sides of the border depend on this trade.
The DUP have blinded themselves to all of this and to the consequences of Brexit for ordinary working people, for business people, trade unionists, farmers and for community groups.
The RHI scandal, which will return to the headlines this week with the publication of the names of those who availed of it, and the DUP’s arrogant refusal to deal with it properly has created a real appetite for political change, and a growing desire for vibrant, relevant and dynamic political leadership. It’s this desire for more success that is fuelling the rise of Sinn Féin in areas like south Down, North Belfast, and of course in Foyle and gives Michelle Gildernew a real chance to take back Bobby Sands Fermanagh and South Tyrone seat.
While all of this is taking place in the North there is a second election in the other part of our island. The resignation of Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny after a series of scandals, particularly around a crisis in policing and justice, has precipitated a fight within that party over who the next leader will be. The electorate is tiny in comparison to the North. Under Fine Gael’s rules the parliamentary party has 65% of the vote; Councillors get 10% of the vote and the party’s 21,000 members get 25%.
It’s a two horse race between Leo Varadkar, the Minister for Social Protection and Simon Coveney the Minister for Housing. It’s not a race to inspire republicans. Both politicians are conservative and promise to cut taxes while claiming to protect public services – a circle that cannot be squared.
For his part Enda Kenny will be the former leader of Fine Gael on June 2nd. He came into office at a time of crisis. Fianna Fáil had effectively run the economy into the ground. Kenny then ran working families and those on low and middle incomes into the ground through an austerity programme that robbed them of essential public services, jobs and homes, and forced hundreds of thousands to emigrate.
He leaves office with those public services still in crisis; a crisis in the health service and justice system; homelessness increasing; and a Brexit strategy that will force the North out of the EU.
Several months ago I asked Kenny if reports of his government looking where customs checks would be, were true. He denied it. Only to be contradicted by his Finance Minister. Last week at the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Finance Sinn Féin Seanadóir Rose Conway Walsh asked a senior official from Kenny’s office if the government has ever raised the issue of designated special status for the North with the European Union at any level. The answer was no.
The Dáil and the Seanad, and the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation have all endorsed the need for special designated status. The people of the North voted against Brexit. The majority of MLAs elected to the Assembly are against Brexit. Kenny chose to ignore this. His starting point has been to accept that the North must leave the EU and then hope that in the negotiations some mitigating measures might be agreed. This is a short sighted, politically flawed approach and it will cost our island economies dearly.
At that same Committee meeting last week there was also confirmation that customs checks will be established. Officials from the Revenue Commissioners revealed that over two million heavy good vehicle journeys take place between the north and south each year. At least eight per cent will need to be checked, including some by physical inspections.
That means that at least one hundred and sixty thousand HGV vehicles will be subject to customs checks. The Revenue representative also said there would be roaming border patrols to police and monitor those checks. So after these two elections there could be the return to the border being monitored by an Irish government. That’s why you should vote on June 8th. It’s also why you should vote wisely.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Victory to the Hunger strikers

 Last week, we remembered with pride Bobby Sands and Francis Hughes, who died on hunger strike in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh in 1981. At the weekend the anniversaries will occur of Raymond McCreesh and Patsy O’Hara. And in July and August we will celebrate the lives, sacrifice and courage of other six hunger strikers who died 36 years ago; Joe McDonnell, Martin Hurson, Kevin Lynch, Kieran Doherty, Tom McElwee and Mickey Devine.
I was reminded of all of this as I read the An Phoblacht/Republican News from July 18th 1981. The paper is a miniature copy that the Sinn Féin POW department and the AP/RN staff produced for smuggling into the H-Blocks and Armagh and to other prisons. The miniatures were four inches by six. They were printed on thin paper to make it easier for them to be concealed for smuggling. The July 18th edition had the one word ‘Sadness’ over three photos. One was a picture from Martin Hurson’s funeral and the other two were of Martin and of Joe McDonnell. This edition of the paper was reporting on their funerals. It also carried a profile of Kevin Lynch who was to die three weeks later.
In 1995, on my first visit to South Africa, I met former ANC prisoners who told me of their experience of hunger strike and of their admiration for Bobby Sands and his comrades. The hunger strike as a means of protest has a long tradition in Ireland and especially among Irish political prisoners in English prisons. But as in South Africa it has also been used in other places.
Two and a half thousand miles away there are over one thousand Palestinian political prisoners in the fifth week of a mass hunger strike in Israeli prisons. Entitled, ‘Freedom and Dignity’ their hunger strike reflects much that is similar with the 1981 hunger strike, especially in the response of the British and Israeli states.
In a letter I received from Marwan Barhouti, the imprisoned Palestinian leader who is leading the hunger strike, he says: “Palestinian prisoners have always suffered from injustice and violations of their rights. But in recent years Israeli occupation authorities have ever deprived us of rights acquired through prior hunger strikes.”
The Palestinian hunger strike is about the inhumane treatment of and the appalling physical conditions currently being endured by Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli prisons. It is also has its roots in the all-pervasive oppression of the Palestinian people by the Israeli state; the poverty and deprivation that is the daily experience of Palestinians; the military raids; the theft of Palestinian land and water; the separation Bill, and the construction of illegal settlements.
I know from my own visits to the west Bank and Gaza in recent years that there is a deep sense of despair, helplessness in the face of an Israeli state that Europe and the USA refuse to stand up and hold to account by international laws. As a result there is a lack of hope, and lots of anger, especially among young people, and there is huge frustration within the Palestinian refugee camps, the Gaza Strip and the west Bank.  
Currently there are six and a half thousand Palestinians held I Israeli prisons. Approximately 300 of these are children. 53 are women and nearly 550 are being held under what the Israeli’s like to call administrative detention – in effect internment without trial. According to Addameer, the Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association more than 800,000 Palestinians have been imprisoned or detained by Israel in the last 50 years.
The conditions under which the prisoners are held are appalling. Torture has been documented. Addameer has reported the case of Arafat Jaradat who died six days after he was arrested by the Israelis in 2013. The post mortem showed he had six broken bones in his spine, neck, arms and leg. He died of cardiac arrest.
The hunger strike among the prisoners, as well as some former prisoners on the outside of the prisons, has already seen one Palestinian hunger striker, Mazan al-Magrebi, die. The prisoners are protesting the mass incarceration of Palestinian people by the Israeli authorities as well as the serious deterioration of prison conditions. The prisoners are seeking basic demands, including access to books, newspapers and clothes, and the resumption of bi-monthly family visits. They are also seeking the installation of air conditioning in prisons where summer temperatures can regularly be over 40 degrees centigrade; an end to the extensive use by the Israeli Penal Service of solitary confinement and access to study and educational facilities, including exams. 
Several months ago the worsening crisis in the region saw the United States and Israel succeed in having a United Nations report entitled: Israeli Practices towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid – withdrawn after just two days.
The report was published in March by the United Nation’s ‘Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia’ (ESCWA). It examines the practices and policies of Israel with regard to the Palestinian people in its entirety. It concludes that ‘Israel has established an apartheid regime that dominates the Palestinian people as a whole. Aware of the seriousness of this allegation, the authors of the report conclude that available evidence establishes beyond a reasonable doubt that Israel is guilty of policies and practices that constitute the crime of apartheid as legally defined in instruments of international law.’
The report draws heavily on international law and specifically refers to the definition of apartheid in article II of the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid. It defines apartheid as; ‘… inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them.’
An Israeli spokesperson described it as “despicable and constitutes a blatant lie,” while the Israeli Foreign Ministry likened the report to Nazi propaganda. The head of ESCWA, Rima Khalaf, resigned rather than withdraw the report.
All of this amounts to an escalating crisis in a region which has known little else. Some Palestinian leaders, exasperated and outraged by the Israeli stance, and speaking about a possible intifada, have said there is an onus on the United Nations, and all those genuinely interested in peace in that region, to speak out against Israeli aggression.
Just over two years ago a Sinn Féin motion calling on the Irish government to formally recognise the state of Palestine received unanimous support in the Dáil. The Irish government has refused to take that necessary diplomatic step. Sinn Féin will raise this issue this week in the Dáil. In the meantime, there are a growing number of protests in support of the Palestinian hunger strikers taking place across the island. Support them if you can. Organise protests if you are able. In words that resonate with those of Bobby Sands, Marwan in his letter writes: “Some believe that this is the end of the story, that II will perish here in solitary confinement. But I know, even in this forced solitude, that we are not alone. I know millions of Palestinians and many more around the world stand with us.”

36 years ago the hunger strikers and the political prisoners in the H-Blocks and Armagh Women’s prison were uplifted by reports of international solidarity. Let’s send our Palestinian brothers and sisters a message of hope and support and solidarity. Victory to the Hunger Strikers.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Let’s make history

Last week Arlene Foster told an election rally in Derry that a poll on Irish unity should not be allowed because it would destabilise the North. Do you think she was at all conscious of the huge irony in making that comment in a city that suffered more than most under unionism? I suspect not. The leader of political unionism is blind to its faults and to its role in creating and sustaining decades of political instability, injustice, poverty and conflict.
Talk to most unionist representatives about the deep rooted religious and political discrimination that prevailed in Unionism’s apartheid state and they dismiss it out of hand as propaganda. No senior unionist leader has ever accepted any culpability on the part of the state for creating the conditions for years of inter-communal conflict.
What they do instead is frighten their supporters with dire warnings of what equality for nationalists would mean for them. The loss of privilege. The end of dominance. The boot on the other foot. This has been the tried and tested strategy of unionist leaders from the latter part of the nineteenth century. Then as now British Conservatives allied themselves with northern unionists and the Orange Order. At that time it was about opposing a Home Rule Bill being introduced into the British Parliament by Gladstone. Now it’s about pushing through Brexit.
In 1885 the Tories, unionist business class, landed aristocracy, and the Orange Order working together stirred up memories of the conflict resulting from the plantation centuries earlier. They claimed that Home Rule would mean domination by the Catholic Church. It would also bring about, they said, the loss of industrial jobs in Belfast at a time when the northern economy was booming.
This so-called ‘constitutional issue’ – the constitutional connection or Union with Britain - has dominated northern politics since. Every election fought before and since partition has been dominated by this single overriding issue. Rarely do bread and butter matters get raised in northern elections by unionist candidates, except as side issues. The big question is where you stand on the Union. Are you for or against it? And if you are a unionist which party do you believe is more able to protect your interests. Fear of change is exploited mercilessly.
As a political strategy it has proven to be an effective weapon for unionist parties in mobilising and maximising their vote. This week the DUP leader rolled it out again. She told the media launch of her candidates, At this election, we will seek a mandate for the union that really matters – the union with Great Britain… In recent months, there has been increased noise about the possibility of a united Ireland.  Rather than be concerned about that debate we need to seize the moment and positively present the case for the union that matters most to the future prosperity and well being of Northern Ireland – the union between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.”
However, the Brexit referendum vote last year, the Assembly results in March, and the census conclusions from 2011, are evidence of a shifting demographic and political dynamic in northern politics. Those who defined themselves as ‘British’ in the census were for the first time in almost 100 years a minority in the northern state. The Assembly election saw the hardline unionism of the DUP and UUP lose its majority in the Assembly. The DUP and UUP leaders are mindful of all of this. For that reason they are engaged in a degree of co-operation in several constituencies in the June 8th election.
For the rest of us the Westminster election is an opportunity to challenge the folly of Brexit and demand that the North be designated a special status within the EU. And an opportunity to win more support for the objective of Irish unity.
The contradiction in Arlene Foster’s position now stands exposed. You can’t claim, as the DUP leader does, that she is confident in the pro-union position in the event of a poll on Irish reunification and then deny citizens the opportunity to make a choice. While I would not claim that last June’s remain was a vote for Irish unity, nonetheless 56% of citizens voted to remain within the EU. The figures indicate that a significant section of unionist opinion voted to stay in the EU. The economic arguments warning of the disastrous consequences of Brexit on the northern economy and society obviously had an impact. In this context the decision last week by the EU Council, that in the event of Irish reunification all of Ireland will automatically be in the EU, substantially changes the political dynamic around the question of Irish unity.
There is now a powerful argument, as a result of the threat Brexit poses to communities, to jobs and the economy, which if properly articulated can persuade more and more people that our economic self-interest is best served by an all island approach.
This election is an opportunity to put forward our alternative Republican vision and policy proposals. The outcome will be closely scrutinised. It will shape the talks to re-establish the Executive. It will be seen as another measure of support for the potential of Irish unity.
Sinn Féin currently holds 4 of the 18 seats in the North. There is real potential to increase this. And to build on the Assembly election result. Every vote will count. The deadline for postal and proxy votes is 18 May. The deadline for registration is 22 May.