Thursday, June 14, 2012
Remembering Redmond O Neill – A revolutionary socialist, internationalist and peoples Champion
I was to give the inaugural Redmond O Neill lecture in London on Wednesday night. All of the arrangements were made and the lecture was being held in Bolivar Hall, courtesy of the Venezuelan Embassy.
Unfortunately I had to pull out at the last minute. I hate doing that. But thankfully Pearse Doherty stepped into the breech and with minutes to spare managed to catch a slightly later flight.
Jayne Fisher, a friend of Redmond and one of the organisers, told me that Pearse was excellent. That he really impressed the 150 diplomatic, media and political colleagues and family and friends of Redmond who attended and that he delivered my speech probably better than me.
Ken Livingstone, for whom Redmond worked when he was Mayor of London, chaired the event and Samuel Moncada, the Venezuelan Ambassador also spoke as did Kate Hudson, Redmond’s partner.
Who was Redmond O Neill?
He was the son of Irish immigrants from Tipperary who was born in London. But his love and commitment to Ireland, its people and its freedom was a part of his core beliefs.
This was reflected in the work he did on behalf of the Irish struggle and the Irish community in London.
In 2000 he became Ken Livingstone’s deputy Chief of Staff and together their work in support of working people in London and oppressed peoples around the world, in Latin America and Palestine and Ireland and elsewhere was prodigious.
Redmond was committed to a United Ireland. He played an important role in the development of Sinn Féin’s uniting Ireland strategy and specifically its outreach into the Irish community in Britain and to others here who support that demand. His work on behalf of the victims of British state violence in Ireland was invaluable.
Redmond was also very proud of his Irish roots and of his part in transforming the London St. Patrick’s Day festival into one of the largest in the city.
He was a great human being, a life-long revolutionary socialist, and internationalist who in his all too brief life, touched the lives of so many others in a positive and caring way.
Revolutionaries are very ordinary people. A successful revolution is achieved when a critical mass of these ordinary people unite in active pursuit of genuine equality.
Redmond understood this. He was an anti-imperialist. He rejected colonialism and racism and organised and fought against both.
He was a socialist. He knew that the road to socialism and to a better future would be complex and difficult and to achieve that goal requires allies.
Redmond also understood the importance of reaching out to and embracing others who might not necessarily share all aspects of your politics. His ability to forge alliances around specific goals was rooted in that belief.
For example, Redmond was a pivotal figure in organising the campaign against Cruise missiles, opposing the Gulf War and the Israeli assault on Gaza.
His solidarity work with the Venezuelan revolution is well known, as was his defense of Muslim communities in London and elsewhere.
Redmond was full of energy and enthusiasm for everything he did. Even when he was very seriously ill. He never let it get on top of him.
There were no half measures about his activism. He gave 100%. No one worked harder. But he also enjoyed good craic – music and good food and gardening. I never heard him sing but I’m told that he was renowned for his rousing rendition of the Fields of Athenry.
Redmond had much in common with many other great leaders and fighters for truth and justice. It was very fitting therefore that the inaugural lecture was held in a room dedicated to the memory of one such leader - Simón Bolívar.
Bolívar successfully led the struggle for freedom against Spanish colonialism in much of South America. His strategic planning, vision and leadership won independence for Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru, and inspired and motivated countless other liberation struggles.
He was helped in this, like many other colonised peoples across the world by Irish emigrants, many of whom had, either fought in or been influenced by the struggle in Ireland against British colonialism.
Bolívar’s legacy is to be found in the many free and independent states that exist today in central and south America.
His legacy also exists in the humanitarian efforts of nations like Venezuela and Cuba who provide help and assistance to peoples around the world struggling against poverty and ill-health, disease and inequality.
The people of Ireland share many connections with the peoples of central and south America, including and most especially in our shared politics – our shared rejection of colonialism and imperialism and injustice, and our shared desire – our hunger - for freedom.
Time after time the Irish people have confronted and challenged colonialism. Despite the setbacks and the disappointments and the defeats we have never given up – never been bowed or broken.
Pearse expressed this best at his court martial when he said:
‘Believe that we, too, love freedom and desire it. To us it is more desirable than anything in the world. If you strike us down now, we shall rise again to renew the fight. You cannot conquer Ireland. You cannot extinguish the Irish passion for freedom.’
This experience – this determination to overcome oppression whatever the odds - has its echo in Latin America and in the struggles there against dictatorships and foreign interference.
The root of the conflict in that part of the world was colonialism.
The root of the conflict and divisions in Ireland is colonialism.
Redmond understood this and worked closely with Sinn Fein in seeking to end Britain’s colonial presence in Ireland and he was hugely supportive of our efforts to build a new Republic on the island of Ireland.
Earlier this week I announced that Martin McGuinness would be resigning as MP for Mid Ulster. His future focus will be on the Assembly and Executive where he is Deputy First Minister.
Our other four MPs have resigned as Members of the Assembly to concentrate on their roles as MPs. They and whoever replaces Martin will now be able to give greater time and attention to building our connections into Britain. Their priority will be the promotion of our uniting Ireland goal.
This is an important step change for Sinn Féin and one Redmond would have applauded.
I remember talking to him on one of my visits about the strength of the Irish in Britain. Did you know that ten years ago there were 674,786 people in England (1.4 per cent of the population) who had been born in Ireland? This is the greatest concentration of Irish-born - as distinct from persons of Irish ancestry – outside of Ireland anywhere in the world.
In a London poll several years ago 11 per cent of those polled said that one or more of their parents were Irish.
This is untapped potential. We are also looking for democrats, socialists, internationalists in Britain who will join with us in putting Irish freedom and reunification at the top of the political agenda.
So, Redmond is gone. He died in 2009 at the age of 55. But he left a rich legacy and set an example for organisation and planning and strategising that will help republicans move our uniting Ireland agenda forward in the time ahead.