Monday, October 2, 2023

We must listen to each other: My Big Toe: Tom Dunn - the Peasant Patriot


Catherine Pollock, Catherine Cooke and Alison Wallace in Derry

We must listen to each other

Efforts by the British government and the unionist parties to stymie the conversation on future constitutional change has actually brought a greater focus on the growing momentum around the upcoming unity referendum.  The criticism of An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar by the British Secretary of State and a range of unionist voices for daring to suggest that a United Ireland will happen in his lifetime is the latest example of unionist and Tory efforts to delegitimise the goal of Irish Unity.

In their view it is not acceptable to promote Irish Unity. This is presented by them as dangerous and destabilising and is criticised and condemned with contempt.  The intention is to create a row so that United Irelanders will be quiet and to misrepresent republican and nationalist aspirations as second class.  Nonsense, bluster and feigned outrage will not stop the conversation about the future. Listening and learning makes more sense. 

Twenty five years ago the Good Friday Agreement acknowledged the “equally legitimate, political aspirations” of nationalists and unionists. The talks participants, including the Irish and British governments, and subsequently the majority of citizens in a referendum, accepted that the future had to be one based on partnership, equality and mutual respect.  The Agreement recognised the birthright of all the people of the North to identify themselves and to be accepted as Irish or British. A referendum process was agreed to determine the future constitutional shape of the island of Ireland

The DUP and the Tory government do not accept these principles. That much is clear. They want to delay and dilute the changes that are coming. But in their hearts they know they cannot stop them. That much is clear also. The unity genie is out off the bottle. It is not going in again. 

In recent weeks Sinn Féin’s Commission on the Future of Ireland has held two very successful public events. One was at the Ploughing Championship last week in Laois. 

This put a focus on the benefits that Irish unity will bring to rural Ireland. The other event was held in Derry where three women from the unionist section of our community participated in an event billed as: “Exploring Northern Protestant Identities and Culture in a Shared Future.”  The three participants – all community based activists - Catherine Pollock, Catherine Cooke and Alison Wallace are from that broad tradition.

The event was very informative and the three women spoke eloquently of the concerns and of the diversity of opinions and traditions that exist within unionism. Speaking afterward Chairperson of the event, Catherine Pollock said that she hoped those who attended would begin to understand the “diversity of feeling, traditions and culture among the unionist communities.” The conversation ranged across how people can engage and move forward in civic and political conversations, on the environment, a citizens Assembly on education, the marching bands and much more. Catherine Cooke hoped that what they said would provide food for thought: “I came in feeling very nervous but leave feeling very good.” Alison Wallace said: “People listened and were very respectful.” She described it as a very positive experience.

We need more of these events, of these conversations. Irish republicans and nationalists must listen carefully and attentively to what our Protestant/Unionists neighbours are saying in all of their diversity. And we need to plan for the future.

Thus far the Sinn Féin Commission has held eight public events, as well as sectoral engagements. Two more will be held by the Commission in the coming months. There will be a Peoples’ Assembly in Waterford on 12 October and another through Irish in the Galway Gaeltacht in November.

Incidentally during a recent visit to New York An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar met US President Joe Biden. He said Mr Biden was very well informed on Irish affairs and that he asked if there was any way he could help. Mr Varadkar says: “I told him we had no specific ask at the moment …”

It’s little wonder the British government disrespects the Irish government the way it does. An Taoiseach needs to listen and learn also. And to work with those who are prepared to help. In Ireland. And internationally. 


My Big Toe

Jim Donnelly is a Springhallion. His mother, May Donnelly, was one of the indomitable warrior women from the Upper Springfield who faced down hordes of British soldiers and RUC officers for decades while also combatting poverty and discrimination and rearing a good family. These mighty women are to be found in communities everywhere. The local ones are too many to name but I remember them all and I am grateful for their friendship and protection and comradeship. And I am always uplifted by the tenacity and good humour of these working class heroines, mostly mothers of large families, including Mrs Donnelly. 

Little wonder then that she has a central role in Jim Donnelly’s book - My Big Toe. Jim is a community activist from Springhill. Like many of his neighbours he is also a former prisoner -he did  nine years hard time.  His life as a community activist  is dedicated, again like many others, to tackling inequalities and developing a better society for all with a particular focus on young people especially through his role as joint CEO with the Active Communities Network.

Jims journey through writing was a difficult one. At school he was dismissed as ‘slow at everything he does.’  He says he became like a ghost in the classroom. ‘I was there but no one really noticed’. 

In prison he read a lot. With great difficulty. Ditto with his writing. It was a struggle. After his release from prison he endured anxiety, depression and mental health issues. He then went on to do a Higher Professional Diploma in Counselling. As part of this course he had to keep a journal. This enabled him to explore his life and his experiences. Later he studied for a Masters Degree. Again more reading and writing. More challenges. 

Jim almost abondoned this work because it was too hard for him but his tutor got him to talk to an educational psychologist. She told him he was dyslexic. He understood then why he had such a hard time with reading and writing, why school work was so difficult. This gave him the impetus to complete his masters degree - a great accomplishment for a disadvantaged lad  from Springhill. Jim is one of the many men and women who succeeded against the odds. In all kinds of ways. In all sectors. And our children or grandchildren have done even better.  

Jims book - poems and prose-  came to be published through the efforts of his friends especially Danny Barkley. When Jim began writing on his phone he shared his musings on WhatsApp with Danny, Harry Connolly, Conor , Louise and other friends and family. Danny thought Jims work should be published. He talked to Harry about this  but didnt tell Jim, probably as Jim acknowledges because  I wouldnt have been convinced. My Big Toe was published as a gift to Jim by his friends.  

So well done Danny and company. 

My Big Toe is brutally honest reflection on life growing up under military occupation, in a large poor working class family in a republican community in the time of conflict. It is frank about the traumas, hardships and indignities. The ups and downs. But it is also funny and full of love. My Big Toe is a tale of redemption. When I asked Jim how people can get a copy he  laughed and said  Send them to Danny Barkley.

My Big Toe is  available in limited numbers from the author at Active Communities Network, Twin Spires, Falls Road. 

Tom Dunn – the Peasant Patriot

Well done to the people of Rostrevor who last week invited former President Mary McAleese to unveil a bronze statue to Tom Dunn – the Peasant Patriot - a local hedge school master and United Irish leader who taught ‘The Rights of Man’ by Tom Paine and the writings of Wolfe Tone to local patriots. In 1797 Tom’s barn was raided by the British and he was captured. He refused to name any of his comrades. He was ordered to be lashed. He died, aged 62, after 260 lashes. Think about that dear readers. 260 lashes. 


Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Lough Neagh facing an ecological disaster: Tory backing for Pinochet: Siúlóid An Taoisigh.


Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy at Lough Neagh

Lough Neagh facing an ecological disaster 

Up the Shore


The lough will claim a victim every year.

It has virtue that hardens wood to stone.

There is a town sunk beneath its water.

It is the scar left by the Isle of Man.


At Toomebridge where it sluices towards the sea

They’ve set new gates and tanks against the flow.

From time to time they break the eels’ journey

And lift five hundred stones in one go.


But up the shore in Antrim and Tyrone

There is a sense of fair play in the game.

The fishermen confront them one by one

And sail miles out and never learn to swim.


‘We’ll be the quicker going down,’ they say.

And when you argue there are no storms here,

That one hour floating’s sure to land them safely –

‘The lough will claim a victim every year.’


Seamus Heaney’s poem, published in 1969, captures much of what makes Lough Neagh unique. It has long been a place of myth and fable, where the palace of the Tuatha Dé Danann is supposed to lie beneath its waves. It is said that Lough Neagh was created by the giant Finn McCool who legend claims scooped out a huge chunk of earth and threw it after the Scottish giant Benandonner. He missed and thus created the Isle of Man. Richard believes that the Lough was created 400 million years ago as a result of massive tectonic events.

People have lived and worked around the shores of Lough Neagh for thousands of years. This is evident in the huge number of artefacts and ruins. Stone axes have been found at Toome and Shanes Castle. Neolithic pottery has also been found at Newferry north of Toome.

In the ninth century the Lough was a base for a Viking fleet as part of their efforts to occupy Ireland. 

Following the English invasion of Ireland the shores of Lough Neagh have witnessed many battles. It played a strategically important role in the English defeat of the O’Neill and O’Donnell clans in the late 16th century and in the subsequent plantation of Ulster.

The Lough is the largest fresh water lake in Ireland. It is home to many rare plants, waterfowl and fish. It is bordered by five counties – Antrim, Down, Armagh, Tyrone and Derry. For millennia it has been at the heart of the local economy. A transport hub before roads and a major source of fishing that has provided a living for the generations who have lived around its’ almost 400 square kilometres. It is a significant cultural and historic site and in more recent years a place for water sports and relaxation for tens of thousands. It also provides 40% of the fresh water for citizens living in the North.

Today all of that is under threat. Recent satellite images have shown the extent to which a toxic blue green algae has infested the Lough. Cyanobacteria is a danger to animals and humans. According to the Lough Neagh Partnership climate change and the increased water temperature of the Lough has created the conditions for this algae to thrive.

In addition millions of tons of sand have been dredged from the floor of the Lough for building projects here and in Britain. In an article by Tommy Green in The Detail last December he reported that around 30% of the North’s “construction sand comes from Lough Neagh … Prior to 2021, when extraction was unregulated, it is estimated that at least 1.1m -1.8m tonnes were being dredged from the Lough every year…”

    Sinn Féin team meet Lough Neagh Partnership

The Lough Neagh Fishermen’s Co-operative Society warned last year that sand extraction was destroying habitat areas on the floor of the Lough and that this was reducing the number of fish.  The impact of the climate crisis, the presence of a toxic algae, the incidence of raw sewage and the dredging of the Lough floor and the destruction of that critical underwater environment, mean that Lough Neagh is now facing an ecological disaster. 

With 40% of the North’s population relying on Lough Neagh for fresh, clean water there is mounting concern that none of the government departments are prepared for or appear willing to take the steps necessary to protect this hugely important community and environmental asset.

Last week First Minister designate Michelle O’Neill, Francie Molloy MP, Declan Kearney MLA and Philip McGuigan MLA met with the Lough Neagh Partnership. Later Declan Kearney led a political and community delegation, including Philip McGuigan, locally based councillors, fishermen, anglers and the Lough Neagh Partnership, to meet senior officials of the NI Environment Agency and Inland Fisheries.

The message is clear. As Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy said: “The situation is untenable. The Lough needs to be brought into public ownership and managed by a community partnership.”  This must include the bed of the Lough which is currently owned by an absentee British Earl who receives royalty payments for every tonne of sands extracted from the bed of the Lough.

There is also an urgent need for a comprehensive and co-ordinated action plan to tackle the toxic algae. A multi-agency and inter-departmental task force is a priority. Public ownership will facilitate a clear management structure to provide immediate and long-term plans to keep the Lough safe and sustainable for future generations.

When I was a young lad a gang of us from Ballymurphy led by Joe Magee used to walk to Lough Neagh and spend the day there. Decades later in Long Kesh some of us used to feast on Lough Neagh eels sent to us by the bucket full. The story of Lough Neagh is an integral part of the story and history and environment of the island of Ireland. The ecological crisis it currently faces arises from the actions of human beings. It is our responsibility to change that.

     Michelle O'Neill with the Gerry Darby of the Lough Neagh Partnership

Tory backing for Pinochet

Many of my generation will remember the military coup in Chile in September 1973 that overthrew the socialist President of Chile Salvador Allende. The images of the bombing of the Presidential Palace, of an armed and courageous Allende defending the building and the quickly emerging reports of brutality by the Chilean military, horrified many around the world.

The coup was led by General Augusto Pinochet in collusion with the CIA. In the years that followed Chile became a byword in summary executions, torture and repression. Almost 20 years later when the regime fell a truth commission revealed that 40,000 people had been tortured, 200,000 had been forced to flee the country and at least 3,000 were killed. 

The British government led Edward Heath strongly supported the junta.  Foreign Secretary Alec Douglas Home wrote that: “For British interests … there is no doubt that Chile under the junta is a better prospect … and the sky-high price of copper (important to us) should fall as Chilean production is restored.”   One third of Britain’s copper imports came from Chile. Allende’s nationalisation of the copper industry in July 1971 had been condemned by the USA and Britain.

The Labour government that followed Heath imposed sanctions on Chile but during Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as Prime Minister she restored diplomatic relations; authorised visits by British Ministers to Chile; and lifted the arms embargo. Hundreds of members of the Chilean armed forces were trained by the British and in September 1982 the Thatcher government refused to support a motion at the UN condemning Pinochet’s human rights abuses. British political and economic interest once again trumped human rights and international law.

In October 1998 Pinochet was arrested in London. Not surprisingly Margaret Thatcher campaigned hard to secure his release. He was returned to Chile in March 2000. By their friends we will know them.


Siúlóid An Taoisigh. 

This column had a great day out in Derryat The Chieftain’s Walk organised by The Martin McGuinness Peace Foundation and Martin’s family led by his wife Bernie. There was a similar event in New York. Well done to all involved. It was good to meet many of Martin’s old friends and to walk the ground he trod on many, many times. Despite the rain there was a great turn out. 


                         New York


Monday, September 18, 2023

Time to say Yes to Palestinian State: Raising Awareness about Sepsis: Sláinte

 Time to say Yes to Palestinian State

Last week the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin visited Israel, the West Bank and Jordan. It was an opportunity for the Irish government to take a firm stand against Israeli aggression and its apartheid system of governance. Instead Mr. Martin became little more than a commentator on the ongoing and worsening crisis in that region.

While Mr. Martin was occasionally critical in his public remarks of the expansion of Israeli settlements into Palestinian land and concerned at the daily attacks by Israeli settlers on Palestinian homes and families there was little of substance to his visit. With Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu making clear there would be no change in Israeli policy and his government’s veto over any possibility of viable negotiations toward a peace agreement, it needs more than meaningless rhetoric from An Tánaiste. It needs action from the Irish government to give peace a chance. months ago members of the ‘Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem’, visited Dublin. The Commission was established by the United Nations following the 11-day Israeli bombardment of the besieged Gaza Strip in May 2021. Two hundred and fifty Palestinians and 13 Israeli’s were killed in that period. While praising the cross party approach in Leinster House the Commissioners said “at this stage of the situation on the ground, mere statements – no matter how progressive are not sufficient. We need more action.”

There was no action from Mr. Martin. Rather he chose to urge the Palestinian leaders “to take risks in terms of the pursuit of peace.”

In 2015 the Oireachtas supported a motion calling on the Irish government to recognise the State of Palestine. It refuses to do so claiming that such a move must be part of a new peace agreement. And yet Micheál Martin last week acknowledged that on the basis of his conversations with Israeli leaders: “I don’t see any immediate signs of a change in direction.” And why should they when the Irish government and others stand aside and facilitate Israeli aggression?

If the Irish government is serious about peace in the Middle East it should move immediately toward recognising the State of Palestine and using its membership of the European Union and the United Nations and its international influence to persuade others to do likewise. It’s time for action.


Raising Awareness about Sepsis

The month of September has been designated as Sepsis Awareness Month. Sepsis is not a condition that often attracts attention but across the island of Ireland annually there are an estimated twenty two thousand cases of sepsis. Of these, approximately three and half thousand victims die. In the South sepsis kills more people than breast cancer, prostate cancer and AIDS combined. Sepsis also is the number one killer in deaths in hospitals in the USA. Every year 350,000 people die from it.

While thousands of miles apart two Irish families, one in Ireland and the other in the USA, who have been tragically touched by sepsis, have initiated campaigns to draw attention to this silent killer.

In New York in 2012 Rory Staunton, the 12 year old son of Ciaran and Orlaith, died four days after taking ill. I knew Rory. He was an articulate, enthusiastic, intelligent and very astute young person. He fell ill after playing basketball in school where he slightly cut his arm in a fall. Overnight he became feverish, vomited and developed a pain in his leg. He was taken to hospital where essential warning signs were missed. He eventually ended up in intensive care but four days after the accident he died of septic shock.

Ciaran and Orlaith established the ‘End Sepsis, the legacy of Rory Staunton’ Foundation and have fought tirelessly since then to introduce ‘Rory’s Regulations’ – new rules and protocols - to ensure that medical staff are trained to recognise the symptoms of sepsis. It is estimated that 20,000 lives in New York State alone have been saved by their efforts.

Last week the case of 15 year old Seán Hughes from Dublin was highlighted. He died from sepsis in 2018. His father Joe described his son as a “healthy young man” who was a “singer, entertainer, comedian and best friend to all who had the pleasure of knowing him.” Seán was a well known and popular rapper who had performed under the stage name Lil Red in the Aviva Stadium and the National Concert Hall.

In January 2018 he came home from school with what appeared to be flu-like symptoms similar to a chest infection. He was eventually taken to hospital where doctors “were baffled as they had absolutely no clue what was wrong.” Sean died after four days. The family only discovered at the inquest that the cause of death was sepsis, a disease they had never heard of before.

Like Ciaran and Orlaith in New York Seán’s parents, Joe and Karen, decided to raise public awareness about sepsis. They have established ‘Lil Red’s Legacy Sepsis Awareness Campaign.’ This includes Sean’s parents going to schools, colleges and sports clubs to make their presentation.

Well done to these two families who have courageously who despite their heartache are actively involved in trying to help others.

Awareness is hugely important but so too is training and resources for family doctors and hospitals. If you have concerns information on sepsis is available at   and



A friend of mine has told me that  he is thinking of giving up the drink. He has been saying the same thing for the last ten years so you will understand if I dont take him too seriously. In the past his desire to be abstemious coincided with his hangovers. When the hangover retreated so  did his desire to be teetotal. But this time he seems to be more serious.


Its my age he told me Im not fit to drink the way I used to. A couple of pints and Im stupored. And then I have to run to the toilet for the rest of the night, especially in the middle of the night. My bladder does be like a hard hat.

He looked at me across the table. We were in a pub. He was drinking alcohol free beer. 

Alcohol free beer misses the whole point I observed. And it probably has the same porous effect on your bladder.

Probably so” he replied. “But the taste is the same and you dont feel like a tube drinking water or a soft drink in company. There is also a limit on how much water you can drink. 

He gazed forlornly at my pint. 

We Irish drink too much anyway, he continued. 

No more than any other societyI suggested.

Maybe so he conceded but we drink differently. We drink to get drunk. Others drink with their food or in a measured way. A few glasses. Not us. We go out for a session. To get plastered. I cant hack getting stocious  any more.

Fair enough I agreed with him. So drink less. You dont need to get  legless.

I rarely get legless he responded.

Im well able to hold my drink. You know that. But having just one or two drinks on a night out?  Thats easier said than done. He said sadly.

First you get the bottle. Then the bottle gets you.” 

 So how long are you off the drink I asked. 

 Since last night.

 I wish you well I replied, resisting the temptation to ridicule him. 

 I will let you know how I get on,  he smiled determinedly. 

 Are you off buying drink as well I queried. Mines a pint and its your round.

 Maith go leor he said. 

 By the way a wee bit of advice for you I continued.  

Dont broadcast it that you are off the drink. Too many of our friends take pleasure when people go on  the wagon and then fall off it again. Just say you’re not drinking that night. You’re driving. Or you’re minding the grand kids. Or you have something to do early in the morning.

Good advice he said. Dont you tell anyone.

 OkI replied. “My lips are sealed.