Friday, October 11, 2019

Time for Unity




Carrickdale Hotel

Last Thursday evening, in the midst of Storm Lorenzo, hundreds of citizens braved the weather and turned out to the Carrickdale Hotel on the border for a conference on Brexit. It was organised by Martina Anderson MEP and Mickey Brady MP. The conference room was packed to capacity. It was an informative conversation just days after the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson published his self-proclaimed ‘workable alternative’ proposals to the Backstop.
The Johnson proposals are dangerous and reckless. They will undermine the institutional and all-island structures, as well as the human rights principles, which are the strengths of the Good Friday Agreement.
Any proposal that will establish checks along the border is unacceptable. Any proposal that requires two borders on the island of Ireland is a fantasy. The alignment proposal would mean that significant elements of the all island economy would be outside the single market and customs union. It is woefully inadequate.
Moreover, Mr. Johnson plans to hand a veto to the DUP over all of this. A veto that can be exercised every four years. A veto, not only over the future of the economy in the North, but of the island of Ireland. This is a disgraceful and unacceptable proposal.
In short Johnson’s proposals are unworkable, impractical, and irresponsible. And no Irish government, and no Irish Taoiseach can sign up to these proposals or anything approximating to them.
As this column is published there are just three weeks left to Johnson’s ‘no is or buts’ deadline of October 31st.
Brexit presents many challenges, but also opportunities. Principal among these must be achieving the objective of Irish unity and winning the referendum on unity which is the mechanism to secure this. 
It is important for republicans to understand that we are in the national liberation stage of our struggle. As republicans and socialists we also understand that without national freedom and an end to British rule we cannot build the Ireland envisaged in the 1916 Proclamation and the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil.
A century ago James Connolly was right when he urged Labour to oppose partition. He recognised that partition would divide more than the land of Ireland. It would also divide the working class and worker from worker. This is not just some old adage or slogan that can be trotted out when we want to remember Connolly. His analysis in 1914 that working class unity is only possible in the absence of partition is just as valid today as it was then.
Connolly wrote: ‘Such a scheme (partition) as that agreed to by Redmond and Devlin, the betrayal; of the national democracy of industrial Ulster would mean a carnival of reaction both North and South, would set back the wheels of progress, would destroy the oncoming unity of the Irish labour movement and paralyse all advanced movements whilst it endured’.
Connolly was also right when he identified the national and social as opposite sides of the one coin. Complementary not contradictory. That’s what marked him out from other progressives. That’s what should mark republicans out today.
Sinn Féin is the uniting Ireland party. It is this which distinguishes us out from all of the other parties. Some who espouse socialism and left politics fail to comprehend the connection between Irish Unity and the implementation of socialist policies by a government. This is a serious flaw. Sinn Fein activists must work hard to educate ourselves and others, to inform and to be active on Irish Unity and ending the union as a worthy objective in its own right as well as a necessary prelude to a real republic.
We are back to Tone and the need to unite Catholic, Protestants and Dissenters as the means of breaking the connection with Britain and we are back to Connolly’s reconquest of Ireland by the people of Ireland. Bobby Sands understood this. He wrote: ‘The day will dawn when all the people of Ireland will have the desire for freedom to show. It’s is then we will see the rising of the moon”. 
The fact is there is going to be a referendum on unity. This – and the ending of the Government of Ireland Act - was one of Sinn Féin’s main achievements in the Good Friday Agreement negotiations in 1998. Since then, and understandably, the party has been consumed by efforts to nurture the peace and political process and the many challenges this has thrown up. This has involved our work in representative forums; Stormont, Leinster House, the  European Parliament, Westminster, local Councils, as well as efforts to grow the party and make it fit for purpose.
The issue of a referendum on unity is now centre stage. No other generation of Irish republicans has had this opportunity to end the union and partition. The men and women of 1916 had no such mechanism. Neither did Bobby Sands or Mairead Farrell and their contemporaries. 
Despite resistance from both governments and the main unionist parties a referendum WILL be held in the next few years. The drivers for this are the demographic changes in the north, the politicisation of sections of the community there, the focus on rights which are being denied by a DUP led minority and Brexit. Brexit is also the accelerant. 
Demographic trends suggest a nationalist voting majority in the north is close. Political unionism has lost its electoral majority in four consecutive elections and the exit poll conducted across the 26 counties in the wake of the Local Government and European elections show a huge majority in support of Irish unity.
Brexit has forced many to consider their constitutional future. We are seeing increasing contributions to the unity debate from a wide variety of people, with many citing Brexit as a catalyst for their considerations. Our responsibility as republicans and democrats is to grasp this opportunity.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Climate Justice now




 Two weeks ago the Court House Square in Dundalk was alive with the chants of young people from a variety of Dundalk secondary schools as they gave voice to their concern about the impact of climate change. They were demonstrating their fears about the future of humanity, and demanding that more is done to save the planet. These students represent the millions of young people, in scores of countries around the world, who took part in a global day of action to raise awareness about climate change. Their enthusiasm, energy, and commitment to this campaign is inspirational.

The speeches In Dundalk were thoughtful, informed, direct and a warning of the threat climate change poses to us all and to our families and the billions whose lives are already being changed every day by the damaging effects of human pollution.

A few days later, speaking in New York at a UN climate change summit, Greta Thunberg berated the political leaders of the world for failing to honour past agreements on climate change and failing to set new urgently needed new targets for reversing the current trend toward complete climate breakdown. In a powerful and emotional speech Thunberg accused governments of failing humanity and warned of “the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!
“For more than 30 years the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you are doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight.
“You are failing us, but the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you and if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you.
“We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up and change is coming, whether you like it or not.”

Her warnings of government failure were underlined at the UN summit by the refusal of several of the world’s worst polluters to take part in the climate summit, among them the USA and Brazil. The burning of the Brazilian Amazon rain forest – often referred to as the lungs of the planet - has been a cause of major concern in recent months. China failed to present any new proposals to tackle climate change and India made no commitment on phasing out coal.

The Science Advisory Group to UN Climate Action Summit 2019 produced a report for the UN summit – United in Science. It brings together the most recent data from the world’s six leading environmental organisations. It is an all-too depressing picture of failure by governments and increasing threats to humanity. The report found that if the world is to meet the 2015 Paris agreement goal of holding the temperature to 1.5C then current plans to cut planet-warming gases must be increased by between three and five fold. Some of its more serious warnings are:
·        2015–2019 is on track to be the warmest of any equivalent period on record.
·        Widespread and long-lasting heatwaves, record-breaking fires and other devastating events such as tropical cyclones, floods and drought have had major impacts.
·        Arctic summer sea-ice extent has declined at a rate of approximately 12% per decade during 1979-2018. The four lowest values for winter sea-ice extent occurred between 2015 and 2019.
·        The sea level is rising faster than ever before.
·        Levels of the main long-lived greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4)) and nitrous oxide (N2O) have reached new highs.
Last October the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that we have only 12 years to limit climate change before the people of the world face extreme droughts, heat, floods, increased food insecurity and water supply, and increased poverty for hundreds of millions of citizens.
The National Biodiversity Data Centre in Waterford reports that one third of the bee species on the island of Ireland – which are essential for pollination – is either regionally extinct or vulnerable.
The evidence is overwhelming. Humanity faces greater challenges than ever before. Without resolute action millions are at risk. Failure to achieve the 1.5C rise will see many coastal areas being flooded, including Belfast and coastal towns like Dundalk. Our future, our children and grandchildren’s futures depend on the decisions we take now as a society. Moreover, any strategies to tackle climate change must be rooted in the principles of social justice and equality.
Governments, including the Irish government and the EU, need to significantly step up our climate change commitments and challenge the big polluters. Market solutions haven’t worked.  Carbon taxes don’t work. It’s also time to significantly curtail the influence of the big oil and gas companies.

Greta Thunberg has become the conscience and voice of a generation angry at the destruction of our environment. She is articulate, formidable, authoritative and a gifted speaker. She knows the science. While a plethora of international reports over recent decades, and claims by hundreds of scientists and scientific bodies, have failed to  mobilise mass demonstrations in defence of our world this teenage Swedish climate activist has succeeded in galvanising public awareness and encouraging climate activism in an unparalleled way.

She has also become the target of a vicious, shameful, often personalised campaign of hate from climate deniers fearful of her growing influence and unable to rebut the science. Speaking last week to an estimated half a million at a rally in Montreal she said that: "I guess they must feel like their world view or their interests or whatever... is threatened by us. We've become too loud for people to handle so they try to silence us ... We should also take that as a compliment."
Two weeks ago, and in the days since, young people in cities across the world have shown the way forward. Their example must guide us in the time ahead. 
 

Friday, September 27, 2019

Celebrating 100 years of partition?



Three months ago, during the July marches and rallies by the Orange Order, the DUP declared that the centenary of the northern state in 2021 should be a public holiday and a source of celebration.
Democrats, including nationalists and republicans will see nothing to celebrate in the founding of an apartheid sectarian state that from its violent birth was a narrow, intolerant place - a cold house - for nationalists and republicans, for Irish language speakers, women, and the poor.
The northern state is a consequence of English policy in Ireland. It exists because of the partition of our island almost 100 years ago which was connived at by political unionism and their allies in the British Conservative Party. It was established under the threat and the use of illegal paramilitary forces and sectarian violence against Catholics.
When the Liberal government in London introduced the Home Rule Bill in 1912 unionism was outraged and openly defied the British government. Unionist leaders began to mobilise against it. The Ulster Volunteer Force, which numbered about 100,000 was established. It trained openly. In 1914, with the collusion of the British authorities, unionists brought 25,000 rifles and two and a half million rounds of ammunition into the North. The leader of the Conservatives, Bonar Law, made plain where his sympathies lay. He declared: “I can imagine no length of resistance to which Ulster will go in which I should not be prepared to support them.”
At the end of 1919 the British government announced that it would partition Ireland. Unionists had rejected a nine county Parliament because of the large nationalist majorities in Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan. They opted for six counties which they believed could be more easily controlled. The UVF was re-established with the support of senior figures in the British government. Other vigilante and paramilitary groups like the Fermanagh Volunteer Force and the Imperial Guards were also set up. For Catholics living in the six counties this was a terrifying time. They were left abandoned.
On 21 July 1920 nearly five thousand Catholics who were working in the two Belfast shipyards were expelled from their jobs. “Hundreds were surrounded and kicked. Several were thrown into the water, 25 feet deep and pelted with bolts and others missiles as they struggled for life.” Many were seriously hurt. Over the following days more Catholic workers were expelled from the engineering and many of the textile mills across the city.
Around 93,000 Catholics lived in Belfast at that time, many existing in poverty and in overcrowded unsanitary conditions. The financial and human impact on families and communities of so many Catholic workers losing their jobs was devastating.
In the following days Catholic areas of Belfast, including Clonard and Ballymacarrett were attacked by loyalist mobs. According to ‘The Belfast Pogroms 1920-22’ July 22 was “marked by unprecedented looting and burning of Catholic property, especially in Ballymacarrett. The Orange mobs, many of them drunk with looted whiskey, began early and worked late. When all the Catholic shops in the Newtownards Road area were cleaned out, they even looted a few belonging to their own co-religionists.” These attacks continued for weeks afterward.
A report in the Daily News at the end of August 1920 said: “All but a very few of the business premises of Belfast Catholics, except those in the very heart of the city or in the Catholic stronghold known as the Falls, have now been destroyed.”Over the next two years this pattern was repeated. There were attacks daily.
In October 1920 unionist paramilitary organisations were recruited almost to a man into the Ulster Special Constabulary of A, B and C Specials – which eventually formed the bulk of the Royal Ulster Constabulary RUC). Michael Farrell, in his definitive ‘Arming the Protestants of Ulster’ concludes: “The USC was effectively a Protestant force from the very beginning and the British government made no effort to avert this …”
On 22 September 1921 the first session of the Northern Parliament took place. The British transferred ‘law and order’ powers to the new Unionist Parliament in November and the USC was issued with 26,000 rifles.
The violence against Catholics across the North escalated. In one incident, on 13 February a bomb was hurled into a group of Catholic children playing in Weaver Street in North Belfast. Four young girls were killed along with two women. In March 1922, one particularly notorious attack occurred when Specials burst into the McMahon home in north Belfast. They lined up all the male members of the house and shot them. The father, three sons and a barman were killed and two other sons wounded.
This extended pogrom against Catholics,which had by now lasted three yearswas only the beginning of decades of state institutionalised violence against nationalists/republicans and Catholics in the North.
In the first years of its existence the Unionist Parliament moved to consolidate its dominance. This was done through the systematic gerrymandering of electoral boundaries, the denial of the vote in local government elections, and the extensive use of structured discrimination in employment and housing. Catholics were less than second class citizens.
In June 1969 the Campaign for Social Justice (CSJ), a published ‘The Plain Truth.’Itdetailed “the discriminatory injustices from which the minority has been suffering there for almost 50 years.”In the area of voting injustices the CSJ found that “only house holders and their wives have one vote each. This means that in all of Northern Ireland there are at present a quarter of a million people disenfranchised out of a total electorate of less than one million.”
The ethos of the Northern apartheid state is probably best summed up in an oft quoted remark from James Craig, who was Prime Minister of the North from 1921-40. Speaking in a Parliamentary debate on 24 April 1934, Craig said: “I have always said that I am an Orangeman first and a politician and Member of this Parliament afterwards … all I boast is that we are a Protestant Parliament and Protestant State.”
While there have been many changes since the Good Friday Agreement was achieved 21 years ago the fact remains that almost 100 years after partition political unionism continues to oppose basic human rights for many citizens and refuses to embrace the inclusive, equality based ethos of the Good Friday Agreement. Some unionists may choose to celebrate 100 years of partition. Good luck to them. The rest of us in the majority have no good reason to celebrate such a state.


Saturday, September 21, 2019

Celebrating the Champions of US Labor




Presenting Bridget Hughes with her award

I want to thank the staff of Aer Lingus in Dublin and New York who pulled out all of the stops last week to ensure that RG and I succeeded in getting to and from New York. As regular readers will know navigating the rules and regulations that are often applied to Sinn Féin representatives travelling to America can be problematic.
Last Thursday morning, we presented our passports to the Aer Lingus desk in Dublin Airport just before 8am.  We eventually took to the air New York bound shortly after 3 pm. 
25 years ago when I first visited New York on President Clinton’s 48 hour visa one of those who met me at the airport was Brian McCabe – then a detective in the NYPD. Now retired from that force Brian was at Newark to pick us up. It’s always good to see a friendly face after a long day of travelling.
The visit itself to New York was very good. It was short – just two nights. It gave me an opportunity to meet with some of the senior trade union leaders who visited Belfast in April for the opening by President Michael D Higgins of Áras Uí Chonghaile – the James Connolly Visitor Centre. However, the main purpose for travelling to New York was to speak at the ninth annual Irish Echo Labor Awards. They are a celebration of the hard work of Trade Unions in North America and of Labor activists in improving the working and living conditions of their members.
All of the honourees are ordinary people who in the course of their work have provided leadership and inspiration to others. One honouree was so nervous that he had difficulty reading his note. He was given a rousing reception. Another, Bridget Hughes, a shift worker at McDonald’s in Kansas City gave a stirring speech about the challenges facing low paid – low wage workers. Hughes led the Stand Up Kansas City campaign which successfully secured a $15 minimum wage campaign. Hughes, 28, a mother of three, took part in civil disobedience protests in 2016 and was imprisoned for her efforts.
Bridget said: “If we raise wages, it puts more money in workers’ hands and that goes into the local economy. As the working class, we need to fight for vision for America. No matter if you’re white, black or brown, gay or straight, immigrant or native-born, we must come together so that we can go up together as workers. This is the new American working class identity our country so desperately needs.”
Bridget told her audience that she only read about James Connolly when she was researching for her remarks for the Echo awards. She was deeply impressed by his commitment to workers and referring to him throughout her remarks as ‘Mr. Connolly’ Bridget said: “So many of his words still ring true to me. We are trying to build a new 21st century Union movement and we have to follow Mr. Connolly’s example. It is up to ordinary people – the working class - to organise to solve working peoples’ problems.”
Speaking to Bridget afterward I told her that I hoped we could arrange for her to visit Áras Uí Chonghaile in the future.
I always come away from my visits to the USA uplifted. This visit was no exception.
Unfortunately our flight home coincided with the all-Ireland replay between Kerry and Dublin. So, myself, RG and Ciaran sat outside Terminal 5 at JFK huddled over our mobile phones and trying to listen to the online RTE radio coverage as planes roared overhead. It was an exciting game. The five in a row Dublin team are an exceptional group of athletes. Well deserved winners and although Kerry did their best it was not to be. The best team won. Fair play to both panels of players and management. 
This week sees the Houses of the Oireachtas reopening for business after the summer break. The two big issues which will dominate the political agenda over the next few weeks will be Brexit and the Budget. But those are matters for me to write about another time. In the meantime I am searching for my suitcase. As I file this column it is still missing. A victim of the dreaded SSSS my valise has gone AWOL. I’m sure it will turn up eventually. By then my laundry and especially my under garments will be rather stale. Minty!  Awh the struggle - My flight for Irish freedom - has its cost. Tiochfaidh mo mhála. 

Friday, September 13, 2019

New York – New York



By the time you are reading this column RG and I will be winging our way across the Atlantic to New York for a two night stopover. I am there to speak at the Irish Echo Labor awards. It’s an annual event at which the trade union movement in the USA, and the Irish Echo, celebrate the hard work and achievements of individual Labor activists and honourees.

It is also be an opportunity for me to personally thank many of the Trade Union leaders for their continued support for the peace process, and in particular for their backing of Áras Uí Chonghaile (The James Connolly Centre on the Falls Road) which was opened in April of this year by President Michael D Higgins. The US Labor Movement provided much needed funding, along with Belfast City Council and others, to turn the dream of Áras Uí Chonghaile into a reality.

It’s hard to believe but it is almost exactly 25 years since RG and I made the first of many such visits to the USA. At that time, and within days of the IRA cessation of August 1994, I had just met An Taoiseach Albert Reynolds and SDLP Leader John Hume at Government Buildings in Dublin. Border communities moved quickly to unblock scores of border crossings that the British military had bombed or concreted over the years. And RG and I were on our way to the USA for a four week trek – coast to coast – to meet Irish American leaders and communities. Subsequently, the British Prime Minister John Major was moved to lift the broadcast restrictions on Sinn Féin. It was a decision taken in no small part because of the influence of Irish America and the criticism of US journalists.
25 years later and Irish America continues to play apivotal role in the efforts to strength the peace process and to advance the Sinn Féin goal of Irish unity. The Labor Movement in the USA is a critical component of Irish America. That influence has been especially evident in recent months in the lobbying by Irish American groups and leaders around the Brexit issue and the need for a referendum on Irish Unity.
On Capitol Hill their efforts secured support for the so-called ‘Backstop.’ The opposition of key Congressional leaders to British and DUP efforts to undermine the Good Friday Agreement has been very public. One recent example of this was the intervention by Speaker Nancy Pelosi in which she again rejected suggestions of a speedy trade deal between the USA and British government following Brexit.
Speaker Pelosi said: The Good Friday Agreement serves as the bedrock of peace in Northern Ireland and as a beacon of hope for the entire world… Whatever form it takes, Brexit cannot be allowed to imperil the Good Friday Agreement, including the seamless border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland, … If Brexit undermines the Good Friday accord, there will be no chance of a U.S.-U.K. trade agreement passing the Congress.”

This has been reinforced by Congress members, including Richie Neal, who is the Chair of the powerful Congressional Ways and Means Committee.

25 years ago our journey brought us to Boston where we were greeted by Senator Ted Kennedy. On Thursday we arrive at JFK airport in New York. As we land the debacle over Brexit at Westminster gets worse. An unelected minority government, with an unelected Prime Minister at its head, is seeking to reshape the British political landscape in a way that will further its right wing, populist, agenda. Claims of shock and outrage that Johnson will ignore the law - just passed requiring him to seek an extension from the EU for negotiations - rings hollow to Irish citizens who can recall countless occasions when British governments – both Tory and Labour - ignored their own laws and international laws in their dealings with Ireland. 

The economic, political and social threats posed by British machinations to the island of Ireland are enormous. Another economic report last week predicted thousands of job losses in the North. Last Thursday An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told the British-Irish Chamber of Commerce that checks on goods entering the South would be required “near the Border” in the event of a no-deal Brexit. He also confirmed that the government is in discussions with the European Commission over what cross-border checks will be required. He should be making it clear that there will be no checks anywhere on the island of Ireland.

In addition, at this most critical time the reality is that despite the best efforts of Sinn Féin there are no meaningful discussions taking place at this time with the DUP to restore the political institutions in the North. The DUP is singularly focussed on its alliance with Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party.
So, and not for the first time, the peace process, and the island of Ireland is in dangerous waters. The chaos of Brexit has once again confirmed that Irish interests are not British interests.At the same time the political and economic uncertainty and the deeply corrupt nature of British politics, exposed by this crisis, has created, once again discussions on the merits of Irish Unity. It is an argument I take with me to our friends in the USA.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Hugs Galore.





Fr. Des
Dear reader, have you have noticed that republican men of a certain age are nowadays more inclined than their predecessors were to hug other men, including other republican men of a certain age? I want to take credit for this very welcome development. I have long been a champion of hugging. It is a warmer, more-friendly form of greeting than handshaking. Handshaking is formal. Hugging is more natural. Instinctive. Wee babies don’t shake hands with you when you greet them. No. If they like you they hug you.
People with Downs syndrome do the same. They are wonderfully welcoming and affectionate folks. They could teach us a lot. Latino people hug. Normally macho companeros do it all the time. Irish men? Nawh. So I’ve had my work cut out for me.

Ask RG? He will vouch for my credentials over decades of this pioneering work. He will also advise you if you press him that for a long time this was a lonely and challenging task for me. He may even admit that he frowned upon and resisted my efforts to hug other men. Especially him. Martin McGuinness was the same. They weren’t so bad when they realised that my efforts were completely platonic. So occasionally maybe they would indulge me. The odd time. But only if no one else was about. Hugging in public was a Never, Never, Never occurrence. But thankfully all that has changed.
Hugging Bernie 
I remember once, before he embraced hugging, Martin and I were meeting with David Trimble and Ken McGuinness. John Taylor may have been there also. Or maybe not? But there was a barge pole leaning against the meeting room wall. Anyway we were having a difficult conversation with a lot of grumpiness from our friends. Then one of them flung a document down on the table. We all rose to our feet glowering at each other for a few awkward red faced seconds.

“I think we need a group hug” I suggested opening my arms wide.

“No” said Martin and David in unison. And agreement. No hug here.

It’s funny how other male adversaries hug regularly. Especially sports men. Gaelic footballers or hurlers take big hits off one and other. Then when the final whistle blows what do they do? They hug each other. Boxers do the same. Rugby players too.

So, I never gave up on my hugging mission. I stuck with it. RG was my first convert. Although he is an awkward hugger. At least with me. He doesn’t do full frontal hugs. He is a hip hugger. No groin contact. He swivels his hip forward so that part of his anatomy meets you at a right angle. Although to be fair his upper body embrace is warm and welcoming.At least with me.

Martin McGuinness followed suit. Soon he was hugging everyone in arms length. Nothing too aggressive. More a very respectful and chuckleyarlácuddley bear hug. I think that’s one of the reasons why Martin was so popular. So hugging is good. It helps to break the ice. Unless your breath is bad. That can be offputting.
Mary Lou is a hugger
I think that’s why most unionists don’t hug me. I eat a lot of garlic. Garlic and hugging are not very compatible. But discerning readers will note that I say MOST unionists don’t hug me. That’s right. I didn’t say no unionists hug me. Because some do. Not a lot but fear not. Remember it isn’t that long ago that most republican men wouldn’t hug other men. Ted still resists my overtures. I blame the Catholic in him. Trees have more give in them. So my work continues. And no. I won’t name my unionist hugger mates. In time we will all take these little human embraces for granted. Until then let’s help them by making men hugging men popular. If you know Ted give him a wee squeeze. Ease him into a group hug.

Start now lads. Hug the men in your life. It will do you and them good.
Cyril Ramaphosa at funeral of President Mandela

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

The 94 Cessation – how it happened



The IRA cessation is 25 years old this week. August 1994 was an intense month. I was involved, along with Martin McGuinness, and others in the Sinn Féin leadership, in intense, mostly private, efforts to persuade the SDLP Leader John Hume, the Irish Government and allies in Irish America to establish an alternative unarmed strategy to pursue republican and democratic objectives. Fr Alec Reid was central to this. And Fr Des. 
The Sinn Féin aim was to open up the opportunity for a meaningful peace process that could bring about fundamental political and constitutional change. At the same time we were intent on advancing our republican objectives of ending partition and bringing about Irish Unity.
August 1994 was the month when it all began to come together. To be honest, neither Martin nor I really knew if we would succeed. We were attempting something unique and exceptional - to construct a series of agreements which together could persuade the IRA leadership that there existed an alternative to armed actions capable of achieving republican goals. The danger was that if we pulled everything together and the Army said NO then the process was over before it really started
Our discussions involved the Irish government; I was meeting John Hume; we were negotiating with the US administration through a variety of channels, and there was a delegation of Irish Americans – the Connolly House group – who were lobbying the Clinton administration to develop a new Irish agenda. We were also in contact with the British government though they were not part of the effort to develop an alternative.
At a briefing in early August with the IRA leadership Martin was able to tell it that the Irish government had provided written assurances that if there was a cessation there would be an immediate response on practical matters. Sinn Fein would be treated like any other political party. This would include a speedy meeting between the Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, myself and John Hume.
Incidentally, after the cessation was declared and before that meeting Albert contacted me to say that Seamus Mallon had asked him to put our meeting back until he met with John Hume and Seamus. I dismissed this. The Taoiseach did not press it. 
The Connolly House group had also passed back to us a document which set out a serious programme of work and commitment from them and Irish America. Entitled ‘Policy Statement by Irish American leaders’ it said that in the event of a ceasefire they would commit themselves to ‘the creation of a campaign in the United States dedicated to achieving’ a number of specified goals. Among these were an immediate end to all visa restrictions and the provision of unrestricted access for the Sinn Fein party leader.
The IRA leadership listened attentively to what we had to say. It agreed to meet again to receive an update from us. It was coming close to make your mind up time. Everyone at the meeting knew this. Some of the leadership were against a cessation. They had been very frank about that. It was going to be a close call.
I believed that we had to choreograph a series of statements, actually more public initiatives than statements, from John Hume, An Taoiseach Albert Reynolds, and the Connolly House group, which would signal the coming together of the different pieces of the jig-saw. We also needed a visa for Joe Cahill. It was one of the issues which the Army leadership had raised with us. Fundamentally it was a test to see if the Irish government was prepared to take on the British and if it could win such a political battle with the British within the US administration. It would also be an important indicator of how seriously the Clinton administration intended to take the issue of peace in Ireland.
The Connolly House Group returned to Ireland on August 25. The following Sunday John Hume and I met and issued another joint statement. Later that evening the Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds issued a statement in which he also expressed a belief that a historic opportunity was opening up.
Martin and I met the Army Council again. The meeting was inconclusive. People needed more time to consider all the issues. Joe’s visa became an even greater test. Then late on Monday night, August 29th, President Clinton cleared Joe’s visa.
Martin and I again travelled to meet the Army Council. A package had been agreed. It was now over to the IRA leadership. Everyone at the Army meeting was a little tense. Martin McGuinness spoke eloquently. So did others. For and against.
One of Martin’s great qualities was his sense of conviction and confidence. He could bring a strength to a debate which was very, very compelling. Even if you might not agree with him you knew he was going to deliver on any commitment he made or die trying. The struggle wasn’t ending we told them. They knew that of course.
In many ways, I said, the easy decision was for the IRA to continue to fight. That was the low risk option. The high-risk option was the one we were arguing for. It meant uncharted waters. It would involve compromises. It could mean risking – and losing – everything. But we could also be the generation who would win freedom. We could set in place a process which could create new conditions for a genuine and just peace and from there build a pathway and a strategy into a new all Ireland republic.
A formal proposal was then put to the meeting. The vote was for a cessation. It was not unanimous but those who voted against pledged their support to the new position. Unity, they said was essential.
On Wednesday August 31st at noon the IRA declared its “complete cessation of military operations… We believe that an opportunity to create a just and lasting settlement has been created”.
The peace process and the dramatic changes that have taken place in the last 25 years owe much to the courageous decision by the Army Council and those other Volunteers who followed the path chosen by the IRA leadership.
A quarter of a century later much has changed. Ongoing political and demographic changes have increased the demand for more change. Political Unionism has lost its majority in the Assembly. Nationalism has rejected Westminster. There is a greater confidence and optimism. The demand for equality, for rights for all citizens is now part of our DNA. Support for a referendum on Irish Unity is growing. Nationalists and republicans will never again tolerate a second class status. Many within unionism have also come to accept the need for power-sharing and reconciliation and inclusiveness. And some are publicly speaking for the first time about the possibility of a new Ireland, a shared space which embraces the unity of all our people.
There are of course still challenges to be overcome. Brexit looms. The power sharing government is not functioning. There are still those within political unionism who see everything as a zero sum game in which any change – however innocuous – is a defeat. The British government is allied to the DUP and refusing to honour commitments made when the Good Friday Agreement was achieved. The Irish government and the southern political establishment could do much more to fulfill their obligations as co-guarantor of the Agreement. So, there is still much work to be done.
Looking back twenty five years ago to that period of our history and experience it is clear that dialogue, inclusive and based on equality, is central to any conflict resolution process – to any process of change.  It is very telling that the then Leader of Unionism James Molyneaux described the cessation as ‘The most destabilising event since partition.’ 
Twenty five years later this assertion remains an insightful reminder of the worm at the heart of political unionism. That is the fear of positive political change. It is self-evident now that if it had been left to the Unionist leaders and the British Government there would have not been a cessation. 

Thankfully they did not have a vote at the IRA’s Army Council meeting which took that decision”.

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