Mention the Sinn Féin office on the Falls Road, at its junction with Sevastopol Street, and most people will immediately associate it with the iconic gable wall mural of Bobby Sands that has been there for years. Along the front of the building are a number of plaques relating to Sinn Fein Vice President Maire Drumm and former H-Block hunger striker Pat McGeown, as well as of Pat McBride, Paddy Loughran and Michael O’Dwyer who were shot dead by an RUC officer in the building in February 1992.
Less well known and just around the corner, alongside Bobby’s mural, there is a small round black plaque dedicated to Seamus Robinson. Robinson was born in Sevastopol Street in 1890. His story as a founding member of Na Fianna Éireann, a leading figure in the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and his role in the Easter Rising of 1916, as a political prisoner, and later in the IRA, Sinn Féin and in Fianna Fáil, are not as well-known as that of many others. Nor too is his central role in the opening shots of the Tan War during the Soloheadbeg ambush on 21 January 1919.
At that time Seamus Robinson was the O.C (Officer Commanding) the Third Tipperary Brigade. Along with Séan Treacy and Dan Breen they ambushed a shipment of one hundred and sixty pounds of gelignite that was being taken to the quarry at Soloheadbeg. According to historical accounts the event lasted only a few minutes. When it was over the two RIC (Royal Irish Constabulary) policemen, Constables MacDonnell and O’Connell, who were guarding the shipment of explosives, were dead. These were the first shots and the first fatalities in the Tan War and subsequent Civil War which consumed Ireland over the next five years.
On the same day, and almost 200 kilometres to the north east in Dublin, the First Dáil Éireann was meeting. The 21s January 1919 saw all of those Sinn Féin TDs elected in the general election of December 1918, and who were not in a British prison, gather in the Mansion House to establish the first ever democratically elected Parliament in Ireland. It was a historic day. There were huge celebrations in Dublin.
The First Dáil was the promise of 1916 taking shape. It was the moment when the Irish people democratically asserted their desire for national freedom and independence from the British Empire. It witnessed the publication of the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil. That extraordinary document envisaged a new Republic, a new Ireland, in which the people are citizens, not subjects; where there is equality, not elitism; and where there is unity, not partition and division.
Reflecting the language of the Proclamation of 1916 the Democratic Programme declared “the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies to be indefeasible …” It also called for, “our country to be ruled in accordance with the principles of Liberty, Equality, and Justice for all …”
The Democratic Programme embraced equality and the belief that citizens have rights and that the state has a responsibility to deliver and defend those rights.
The Programme called on the Government of the Republic “to make provision for the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of the children, to secure that no child shall suffer hunger or cold from lack of food, clothing, or shelter, but that all shall be provided with the means and facilities requisite for their proper education and training as Citizens …” And to “safeguard the health of the people.”
100 years later the two states created by partition have failed to meet these democratic objectives. Sinn Féin believes that only through Irish unity can the schisms and divisions, and decades of conflict and insecurity, be set aside. As part of our celebration of the centenary of events that commenced six years ago with the signing in 1912 of the Solemn League and Covenant, and witnessed the creation of the Citizen Army, the Irish Volunteers, Cumann na Mbán, the 1916 Easter Rising, and much more, Sinn Féin will be holding a national meeting in the Mansion House on January 12th to celebrate the remarkable events of January 1919. Why not join us?
In a few short months on 24 May voters in the 26 counties will have the opportunity to build on the events of 1919 by voting to allow Irish citizens living outside the state a vote in future Presidential elections.
Sinn Féin will be campaigning in support of this vote. In the meantime those MPs who want to, should have speaking rights in the Dáil, without voting rights, as former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern promised over twenty years ago. The Southern parties should also, as they are constitutionally obliged, plan for a new shared Ireland. They could do this by the Oireachtas or the Government convening an all island and Diaspora wide consultation process, including consultative conventions, to discuss how a shared Ireland can be built in an inclusive way. In keeping with the Good Friday Agreement this involves a referendum on Irish unity. The Taoiseach gas a duty to plan for this now.