Mise agus Liz and Mary Lou in Parliament Buildings
As I sat in the public gallery at Stormont last Saturday afternoon, alongside Liz Maskey, Mary Lou McDonald and Bill Groves, I had a birds-eye view of the proceedings in the Assembly chamber below me.
The first business of the assembled Members of the Legislative Assembly was to elect a Ceann Chomhairle. I knew that Sinn Féin’s Alex Maskey would get that position, and I thought how fitting it was that his wife, Liz was there. She was the first woman interned in the 1970s. An activist in her own right Liz and Alex’s home was also the target of ongoing attacks by the RUC, British Army and Unionist paramilitaries. Alex was grievously wounded in one such attack and on another occasion, in May 1993, his friend Alan Lundy was a victim of state collusion when he was shot dead in Alex’s living room by a UDA gang.
When Alex was first elected in 1983 as a Belfast City Councillor the Unionists refused to talk to him and tried to deny him speaking rights. They tried to shout him down, sounded horns, blew rape whistles whenever he tried to speak. Unionist Councillors illegally created a series of sub-committee which they excluded Alex and other Sinn Féin Councillors from and refused to invite them to civic events. Sinn Féin had to go to court to end that practice. Later the Sinn Féin Office at City Hall was bombed. Alex went on to become Belfast’s first republican Lord Mayor.
So here he was now poised to take up the responsibility to run the Assembly and to do so with the support of unionist MLAs. It’s a long way from the internment cages of Long Kesh which he and I and many others endured for a while.
When Alex was duly elected and took the Chair, and the MLAs went through the protocol of selecting the First and Deputy First Minister I reflected back on the first time Sinn Fein nominated Ministers. That was on 29 November 1999 when I nominated Bairbre de Brún as the Minister for Health and Social Services, and Martin McGuinness as the Minister for Education. I remember clearly the loud gasp from the unionist benches when Martin’s nomination was made.
Now another generation of republican MLAs were going to be nominated for Ministerial position with little of the drama or rancour of that first election of the power sharing government. I remember well making my way to my office in Parliament Buildings after that occasion. I was hissed at by some senior unionists. “Scum” they hissed.
Now things are much more cordial and mannerly. That’s a good thing.
Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill were duly elected to the office of First and Deputy First Minister before Alex adjourned proceedings for a short period. Across from me in the public gallery opposite, among the Irish and British civil servants, was a delegation of activists from An Dream Dearg. They were resplendent in their red t-shirts with its familiar white circle. They correctly welcomed the legislation on the Irish Language as historic and as a staging post in their campaign. Acht na Gaeilge is indeed historic but all of us have much more to do to win support for, and increase the use of Irish so that it becomes a normal part of all our lives, including those who currently oppose it, if thats what they want. All of us should try to normalise the use of Irish and demonstrate that it really is no threat to anyone. On the contrary it enriches all of our lives.
I left Stormont before it concluded its business to do some food shopping after all the time spent in negotiations, but happy in the knowledge that Conor Murphy would soon be the Finance Minister, Deirdre Hargey the Minister for Communities and Declan Kearney a junior Minister in OFDM. A formidable Ministerial team who will be backed up by strong Sinn Féin committee chairs and John O’Dowd as Priomh Aoire an Phairtí – Party Chief Whip. All in all it was a good afternoon’s work. I wish the new Executive well.
Of course, there are aspects of the New Decade New Approach document which are not part of the agreement. Sinn Féin has not signed up to these. They include the British Armed Services Covenant, additional days for the flying of the Union flag and other elements produced by London and acquiesced to by Dublin.
The first item on the agenda of the incoming Executive will be to introduce pay parity in the Health Service. There will be reform of the Petition of Concern, welfare mitigations are to be extended, the definition of citizenship which the Emma de Souza case has highlighted will be changed, and there will be strategies , based on objective need, to tackle poverty and sectarianism. The British government has now committed to bring forward within 100 days the legacy proposals that were agreed five years ago in the Stormont House Agreement but have been blocked ever since by that government.
The agreement itself does have the potential to deliver real change and I think the Sinn Féin negotiating team did a good job, in keeping with the standards set out by our leader Martin McGuinness in his resignation letter.
Of course there will be many, many challenges in the time ahead but I wholeheartedly welcome the re-establishment of the power sharing government as progress. I have long believed that there needs to be a space for the people of the North, through their political representatives, to moderate our differences. I believe that the responsibility of United Irelanders is to continue to make preparations for Irish Unity. This can be complemented if approached strategically by our involvement in the Assembly, and the all-Ireland institutions of the Good Friday Agreement.
Practical all-Ireland economic measures are required as well as ongoing opposition to Brexit. The development of a Bill of Rights and an all-Ireland Charter of Rights, Civic Forums north and south, and the securing of a referendum on Irish Unity, all need to be priorities in the time ahead. So progress can be made in advancing the national struggle peacefully and democratically alongside the battle for economic rights, equality and an end to poverty.
So there you have it. By the time you get to reading this column the Taoiseach will probably have announced a date for the general election in the South. That means I will be out of a job. Any offers. Anyone?
It also means I can get my hair cut – if I so decide. I won my bet with Martin Ferris to let my hair grow until the general election is called.