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.