Sunday, April 3, 2016

See you in Dublin on April 24

Easter Sunday on the Falls Road in west Belfast last weekend had the four seasons in the space of a few hours. As we gathered in Conway St. the sun was shining. It was cold but the air had the feel of a sharp, crisp spring day. The clouds rolled in and for a time it was overcast and autumn-like. The clouds rolled on and the sun shone. The sky was a sharp blue and the temperature rose. Summer had arrived. 
But as we entered Milltown cemetery the clouds returned, low and ominous. They swept in. A cold piercing wind preceded the hailstones that pounded our heads and the ground.
The umbrellas mushroomed throughout the crowds. One in front of me almost immediately blew inside out. The coats were pulled up. And the heads went down.
None of this deterred the thousands who had come to take part in, or to watch the centenary Easter march of the Rising of 1916.
My morning began in Conway Mill were I met with the families of our Belfast patriot dead. Their courage and resilience in the face of grievous loss remains an inspiration for us all. The Belfast National Graves presented each family with a medallion in memory of Winifred Carney. Carney was a trade union activist, friend and associate of James Connolly, a member of Cumann na mBan, and she took part in the occupation of the GPO in 1916. Afterward she was imprisoned by the British.
We were joined by a delegation of Irish American trade unionists led by Terry O’Sullivan from the International Labourer’s Union of North America, and Irish American activists, including some from Friends of Sinn Féin in the USA and Canada. They had especially travelled to Ireland to take part in the centenary events.
Outside the families gathered in Conway St. to join the main parade as it made its way from Divis Tower to Milltown Cemetery. The footpaths and roads were packed to overflowing by the crowds of people. When the leading colour party reached us it faced the relatives and in an act of recognition and solidarity they dipped their flags and stood in silence in honour of the relatives and of their loved ones who paid the supreme sacrifice. It was a poignant moment. The silence was only broken by the drone of the PSNI helicopter hovering overhead.
And then it was onto Milltown. All along the Falls - as we made our way slowly up the road - the young, and not so young, and the older generation, were there in their thousands applauding and shouting words of encouragement.  I knew many of the faces in the crowds of onlookers. Belfast citizens without whose loyalty and support we could not have advanced.
Many of those taking part in the parade were wearing the uniforms of 100 years ago – of the Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army. Like the 50th centenary parade that took place in 1966 a huge wolfhound led the way. I was there that day also. We marched to Casement Park that day. I had just started working in the Ark Bar on the Old Lodge Road. Some of the working class unionist customers spotted me in the TV coverage. They gave me a good slagging but that was the height of it.
It was a wonderful day. Everyone was in great spirits. There was a strong sense of community, of unity, of being part of something great. Yes, it was about remembering the past but we should never lose sight of the fact that those who fought in 1916, or in subsequent generations, had their eye on the future - a different future – a better future.  
And as we approach the Assembly elections on May 5th – Bobby Sands anniversary - that must also be our focus.
The Peace Process and the Good Friday Agreement have marked a historic shift in politics on this island. For the first time, the roots of conflict have been addressed and a democratic route to Irish unity opened up. But there is much yet to be done. Hurts must be healed. Divisions ended. The scourge of sectarianism must be tackled and ended.
With each election the Sinn Féin vote grows and the number of elected representatives increases. Last month’s general election in the south saw Sinn Féin win 23 seats. Next month we expect to double our representation in the Seanad – and we hope this will include our comrade Niall O’Donnghaile from the Short Strand.
But it’s what Irish republicans do with this political strength that is really important. Sinn Féin is now the main opposition party in the Dáil.
Last week the new Sinn Féin team of TDs travelled to Stormont to meet Martin McGuinness and the strong Assembly teams.
In the Assembly Sinn Fein has been the driving force behind the progressive measures that have blocked water charges, protected free prescriptions and defended welfare payments and promoted the Irish language.
Despite the Irish and British government’s negativity Sinn Féin has delivered the Fresh Start deal which protects core public services, particularly in health and education and the most vulnerable in our society.
After the Assembly election we want to emerge with a stronger mandate.
A mandate that will allow us to continue with our work; a mandate to tackle sectarianism, racism, and homophobia; a mandate to deliver marriage equality; and a mandate to deliver a future of equals, in a society of equals for all our citizens.
A mandate that will help us advance the goals of freedom and unity and independence.
How we do this will be hugely guided by the 1916 Proclamation. That is for me the most important aspect of the Rising. It remains the mission statement for Irish republicans today. It is a freedom charter for all the people of this island which guarantees religious and civil liberty and promotes equal rights and opportunities for all citizens. These are the principles on which Sinn Féin stands.
On April 22nd and 23rd in Dublin Sinn Féin will hold our Ard Fheis. On Sunday April 24th – the actual day of the Rising one hundred years ago - there will be a huge march in Dublin to celebrate that event. It is a citizen’s initiative which has our support, as well as the backing of artists, trade unionists and academics and is chaired by the artist Robert Ballagh.
So, why not join us on April 24th in Dublin. Our task as Irish citizens must be that when the centenary has come and gone that there is more left behind that a memory of a good day out.
The reactionaries and revisionists, the naysayers and begrudgers, the modern day Redmonites who pontificate and waffle about how wrong 1916 was, are wrong.
1916 was right.
The men and women of the Rising were right.
It was Republic against Empire.
Republicanism versus Imperialism.
We know what side we are on.
We stand by and for the Republic.
See you in Dublin on the 24th.

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