Monday, May 3, 2021

The Reality of Partition

The Reality of Partition

100 years ago today the Government of Ireland Act 1920 became law and Ireland was partitioned. What did partition mean for nationalist families trapped at that time in a state that didn’t want them?

Recently I published the latest of my series of Léargas books. It tells the story of Kathleen Thompson (born Kathleen McCready) who was born in 1943. Kathleen was a fine singer and musician. Her rendition of Four Green Fields and its symbolism of one of them's in bondage” continues to resonate today 50 years after the LP was released.

When I came Kathleen’s story I was very mindful that she and her siblings were part of a generation that was born into the Northern State in the years after partition.

They were hard times, especially for Catholic families living in Belfast and in a Unionist dominated state. Upper Library Street, where she was born, was part of a Catholic enclave called Carrick Hill which is situated at the bottom of the Shankill Road. It was bordered by Peter’s Hill, the Old Lodge Road and the Shankill on one side and was separated from the Catholic North Queen Street and New Lodge area by Clifton Street and Donegall Street.

This is an extract from the book which recounts the events leading to 1921 and after.


“At the start of the 19th century Belfast was a small town with a population of about 20,000 citizens. Upper Library Street was then part of its northern boundary. The basis of Belfast’s early growth was the linen industry, which did not threaten English commercial interests. The mills required machinery, which led to an increase in engineering. The 1850s also saw Belfast become one of the biggest centres for ship building in the world.

By the middle of the 19th century the population of Belfast had increased tenfold and by the end of the century the population had reached 350,000. The shipyards, rope works, tobacco works, the mills and engineering factories had expanded significantly and by the start of the twentieth century Belfast had a bigger population than Dublin.

The number of Catholics living in the city also increased from 4,000 in 1800 to just under 100,000 in 1900.

Living and working conditions were appalling. Overcrowding in slum housing with no sanitation was the norm for working people. Hours were long and child labour was prevalent. Conditions for women in the Linen mills were notoriously difficult and dangerous.

A structured system of discrimination, encouraged by an alliance of the unionist political elite, the Orange Order and employers meant that all of the well paid, skilled work, and trades were predominantly protestant, especially in the shipyards and engineering firms.

The exploitation of sectarian divisions among workers was to the advantage of the owners as it prevented the development of effective labour organisations able to fight for better wages and conditions. Playing on these sectarian divisions also ensured that political unionism was able to retain the loyalty of working class Protestants with whom they otherwise had little in common.

It is no accident that the worst years of riots and violence in Belfast, including expulsions of Catholics from the shipyards and other engineering factories, coincide with the introduction of the three Home Rule Bills for Ireland – 1886, 1893 and 1912 – and the Government of Ireland Act in 1920. Carrick Hill was frequently the target of sectarian violence. For example, on 21 April 1893 following the news that the British Parliament had passed the second Home Rule Bill Catholic premises in Peter’s Hill, adjacent to Carrick Hill, and Catholic homes in Carrick Hill were stoned by loyalists.

The next morning the shipyard workers employed by Harland and Wolff held a meeting where they decided that the 600 Catholics employed in the yard would “be dealt with.” Catholic workers were then warned by notices posted up around the yard that they would return to work on Monday “at their peril.” Many did not and those who did were attacked.

In July 1912 up to 8,000 catholic workers were expelled from the shipyards and other factories in the city and eight years later the pattern was repeated with up to 10,000 men Catholic men expelled from the shipyards and four major engineering works and 1,000 women from the linen mills.

One British Labour leader summed it up well in 1912, the same year Titanic was launched in Belfast, when he said: “In Belfast you get Labour conditions the like of which you get in no other town, no other city of equal commercial prosperity from John O’Groats to Land’s End or from the Atlantic to the North Sea. It is maintained by an exceedingly simple device ...Whenever there is an attempt to root out sweating in Belfast the Orange big drum is beaten ...”

In 1911 as the Titanic was being built the census recorded that there were 6809 shipbuilders in Belfast. Of these 518 or 7.6% was Catholic.

Workers had no rights. They were hired and fired at the whim of employers. Children often worked from a very young age. In Belfast in the 19th and early 20th centuries the linen mill-workers lived under the shadow of the mills where they worked. Female and child labour predominated. Children, mostly girls, worked the same hours as ‘half-timers’. They worked three days one week (Monday, Wednesday and Friday) and went to school on Tuesday and Thursday. The following week it was the reverse and they did this until they were 14.

They worked in appalling conditions. The spinning and weaving of linen required the atmosphere to be very hot and humid. This was worse in the cotton mills. In the spinning rooms the floors were always wet and the workers, adults and children, worked barefoot. The spray from the spindles ensured that their clothes were always soaking. These working conditions allied to the absence of a health service, no antibiotics, and cramped and unsanitary living conditions meant that the greater number of these workers died before the age of 45. Children generally were badly developed and small.

One mill worker in 1911 described the conditions: “When you were eight you were old enough to work... If you got married you kept on working. Your man didn’t get enough for a family. You worked till your baby came and went back as soon as you could ... and then counted the years till your child could be a halftimer”.

Other citizens lived and worked in appalling conditions in the docks, the shipyards and in casual labour.

In 1911 James Connolly was appointed Belfast organiser of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. Connolly organised the workers of Belfast, and especially the linen slaves.

He described their conditions: “Many Belfast Mills are slaughterhouses for the women and penitentiaries for the children...” where “with clothes drenched with water, and hands torn and lacerated as a consequence of the speeding up of the machinery, a qualified spinner in Belfast receives a wage less than some of our pious millowners would spend weekly upon a dog.”

In 1920, just two decades before Kathleen was born, the British passed the Government of Ireland Act. This legislation partitioned Ireland into two states. The ‘Free State’ in the southern 26 counties, and ‘Northern Ireland’ in the six north east counties. The border between the two snaked its way for 300 miles across the landscape from Derry in the North West to Dundalk in the East.

Partition separated farmers from their land, businesses from their customers, and children from their schools. Streams and rivers, bóithre, country roads, fields became the boundary for this new border. The front door of a home was suddenly in a different state. Towns were cut off from their natural economic and social hinterlands. Communities were divided and separated. Partition was imposed at gunpoint by the British Government.

The northern state was born in a maelstrom of sectarian violence as thousands of Catholic workers in Belfast were forcibly and violently expelled from their jobs. In addition 40% of the workforce was out of work.

The Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) was unable and unwilling to police the worsening situation. The Unionist political leadership lobbied the British government to recruit loyalists into the state forces. While waiting on the British to respond Unionist leaders began to reorganise and drill the UVF.

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, most living in poverty and in overcrowded unsanitary conditions. The financial and human impact on families and communities of so many Catholic workers suddenly losing their jobs was devastating. There was no welfare safety net to support destitute families.

In the following days Catholic areas of Belfast, including Carrick Hill, North Queen Street, Clonard and Ballymacarrett were attacked by loyalist mobs, the UVF and the British military. 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.

A few months later, in November, a letter in the Dublin Evening Telegraph from James Baird, a Town Councillor in Belfast and one of the Protestant workers who had been forcibly expelled from his work in July wrote: “On the 21st July and on succeeding dates, every Roman Catholic – whether ex-service man who had proved his loyalty to England during the Great War, or Sinn Féiner who claims to be loyal to Ireland and Ireland alone – was expelled from the shipyards and other works; a number were flung into the river and while struggling for life were pelted with rivets and washers; others were brutally beaten, but the majority, hearing the fate of their fellows, escaped injury by beating a hasty retreat, leaving behind costly tools and other personal belongings. Almost 10,000 workers are at present affected, and on several occasions men have attempted to resume work only to find ‘loyal’men still determined to keep them out...”

In October 1920 James Craig, the first Prime Minister of the Unionist regime, addressed a crowd of workers at the shipyards. Referring to the July and subsequent pogrom Craig said: “I think it only fair that I should be asked a question in return, and it is: “Do I approve of the action you boys have taken in the past?’ I say YES.”

That same month unionist paramilitary organisations were recruited almost to a man into the Ulster Special Constabulary (USC). The UVF joined en masse. The USC was divided into three groups: A Specials who were full time: B Specials who were armed and part time: C Specials part time. By June 1922 the Specials numbered around 50,000; that is one in every five adult male Protestants was a Special.

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.

The following week Stanhope Street, Park Street, and Arnon Street all in Carrick Hill, the neighbourhood in which Kathleen was reared, were the scene of attacks by armed loyalists which saw four Catholic men shot dead and a fifth killed when his head was smashed with the sledgehammer used to break into his home.

This extended pogrom against Catholics, which had by now lasted three years, was 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 the decades after 1921 the Unionist establishment solidified its control through the imposition of an apartheid regime in which nationalists and republicans were reduced to the status of non citizen.

Life was hard for working people including working class Protestants. Poverty was endemic. Over a quarter of houses in Belfast were overcrowded. Nine thousand couples had no homes. Eleven per cent of houses were deemed unfit. A housing survey carried out the year after Kathleen McCready was born concluded that the North needed two hundred thousand houses and half of these immediately. But within a couple of years of its foundation the Northern state had instituted discrimination policies in housing which ensured that few Catholics were allocated housing.

Another survey five years earlier concluded that 36% of the population was in absolute poverty. This means they had little food, clothing or fuel to sustain health. Belfast children from unemployed families were on average two to three inches shorter and ten pounds slighter than those in middle class areas. The death rate was 25% worse than that in Britain.

After the brutality of what the Irish News at the time described as a ‘carnival of terrorism,’ and the abandonment of nationalists by the political establishment and government in the South, there was a general sense of hopelessness among the besieged nationalists.”


Let's plan our Future Together: ANC supports Unity Referendum and a United Ireland; Lá breithe Chuck

 ANC supports Unity Referendum and a United Ireland.

Irish Republicans have long enjoyed fraternal relations with the African National Congress. For much of the last three decades there have been ongoing solidarity links between Sinn Féin and the ANC. During the years of armed struggle, according to ANC leader and Government Minister, the late Kadar Asmal, the IRA assisted MK, the ANC’ s army. MK was founded by Nelson Mandela and others in December 1961.

In the 1990s as our own peace strategy evolved Sinn Féin and the IRA called its 1994 cessation Sinn Fein leaders, including myself and Martin McGuinness, Rita O’Hare and others travelled to South Africa. After the Good Friday Agreement was achieved in 1998 ANC leaders, including the current President of South Africa Cyril Ramaphosa travelled to Ireland to speak to the republican grassroots and went into the prisons where they met Republican POWs. 

Recently the Sinn Fein leadership held a series of bilateral meetings with representatives of the leadership of the ANC. Republicans are very mindful that in the early 1990s, following the release of Mandela and others in the ANC leadership, an intensive period of negotiations took place to bring an end to the apartheid regime and create a new democratic South Africa. This included detailed discussions on new constitutional arrangements for this new South Africa.  

Last week Lindiwe Zulu, the Chair of the ANC’s National Executive Committee (NEC) Sub-committee on international Relations held a bilateral meeting on Tuesday 20 April with Declan Kearney, Sinn Féin’s National Chairperson.

In a significant statement afterward Comrade Zulu spoke of the “special historical bond, dating back to the Global Campaign against apartheid and the Irish Peace Process” shared by the two parties. Commenting on the partition of Ireland the ANC representative asserted its “commitment to assisting Sinn Féin in its quest for the reunification of Ireland.”

Crucially, the ANC also agreed to raise the issue of Irish unification through “several multi-lateral fora including the United Nations, African Union, the G20 and other relevant bodies. The party will also mobilise support in its engagement with liberation movements, progressive parties and the trade union movement.”

Currently work is underway in the preparation of a “Memorandum of Understanding (MoU)” that will “underscore key mutual objectives for the two parties to collaborate on common focus areas and solidarity work.” 

This re-energising of the long standing solidarity links between Sinn Féin and the ANC is hugely significant. Sinn Fein long ago recognised the importance of international solidarity in helping to advance the process of change and the peace process in Ireland. In the 1990s most of that solidarity came from Irish America and its ability to influence the policy of US Presidents and administrations.

But the 1990s also saw us reach out to others in the international arena, including the ANC. In 1995 I led a Sinn Fein delegation to South Africa. In June 1997 Martin McGuinness led another delegation there for what he  later described as one of the most memorable experiences of his life. Nine delegations representing parties in the North attended a conference to see if there were any lessons for us in South Africa’s conflict resolution process.

Later in April 1998, at the special Sinn Féin Ard Fheis called to decide our approach to the Good Friday Agreement, Thenjiwe Mtintso, the Deputy Secretary General of the ANC addressed the conference. She spoke of her experience of struggle as a soldier in Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), and of her experiences of negotiations. It was a powerful contribution, which caught the mood of the moment and touched on many of the fears evident among republicans.

As a follow up we asked President Mandela if he would send a senior ANC delegation to Ireland to speak to republicans about their process of negotiations, and the challenges this presents. We were surprised but deeply honoured when Cyril Ramaphosa, Mac Maharaj, South African Minister for Transport, Matthews Phosa, the Prime Minister of the Eastern Transvaal, and Valli Moosa, ANC Executive member and Minister for Provincial and Constitutional Affairs, arrived to offer their opinions. They had all been key participants in the process of negotiations in South Africa.

These comrades travelled widely speaking to audiences eager to hear their thoughts on struggle. Cyril Ramaphosa, speaking to a crowded Ulster Hall in Belfast said; “Negotiations are about give and take. Had we wanted everything or nothing, we would have ended up with nothing.” Ramaphosa and Matthew Phosa also visited the men and women in Long Kesh and Maghaberry Prisons and in Portlaoise prison.

So, the significance of the ANC preparedness to support Irish Unity, to be prepared to lobby for it in international forums is very welcome.

Next month this process of enhanced solidarity will take another step forward when the President of the ANC, Comrade Cyril Ramaphosa, and Uachtarán Shinn Féin Mary Lou McDonald meet.

In many ways the timing of that meeting will be appropriate. 40 years ago on 5 May 1981 Bobby Sands died on hunger strike. On a calendar on his cell wall Mandela wrote on that day: ‘IRA martyr Bobby Sands dies.’

Let’s plan our own Future together

Michelle O’Neill hit the nail on the head in her interview on the Late Late Show with Ryan Tubridy last Friday evening. She said: “In the light of Brexit there is a stark choice that has opened up for people. Which Union do you wish to be part of? Do you wish to be part of an inclusive inward looking Ireland? ... There is something better for us to own our future together. Plan it. Find a way to insure that both Irish identity and British identity can live side by side – we have lived apart for far too long. Now’s the time to plan something that we all have a stake in and that we are all benefiting from.”

She’s right and a lot more people than just those who support Sinn Féin believe she is right. The BBC Spotlight opinion poll last week asked should the North “stay in the UK today.” 43% of people said they would vote for a United Ireland in the Unity Referendum. 49% opposed an immediate poll. The gap between the two positions is amazingly narrow, especially if you consider that there has been no date set for the referendum, no plan discussed, no outline shape of the new Ireland agreed, and the question asks for people’s voting intentions on something that is to happen ‘today.’

In response to another question 48% of people in the North said that partition was a negative development “which should be regretted” with 41% disagreeing.

One observer on Twitter – Declan Lawn - who worked for BBC Spotlight in 2013 reminded us that in a similar poll then 65% of people in the North wanted to stay in the UK. Just 17% wanted a United Ireland.

So the political and demographic shifts are changing the face of northern politics. An Taoiseach Micheál Martin’s continued refusal to even contemplate commencing the process of planning for the referendum has become increasingly threadbare. More so when he appears to be echoing the parroting the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson who told the Spotlight programme  that he cannot see the referendum taking place for a “very, very long time to come.”

What should we make of Boris Johnson’s stance? Should we believe him? This is the same Tory Prime Minister who said there would be no customs border down the Irish Sea. And yet he was the leader who negotiated the Withdrawal Treaty and agreed the Irish Protocol and introduced the customs border.

This is the Tory leader the DUP has put its trust in – again – even after he has stabbed them in the back. He is not to be trusted. How many times does unionism have to be betrayed by British governments before it learns the lesson that it’s time to put its trust in and make friends with its neighbours on this island.

Michelle O’Neill is right. “Partition has failed us all. Not just nationalists or republicans. Those from a unionist background. Those with a British identity. So there is an imperative for us to be ready. Have the conversation. What does the free Irish National Health Service look like for all of us who live on this island? What does education look like? What does the economy look like...?

There is no threat in the constitutional change that may come in the future and I personally as a republican and as the Joint Head of government will want to ensure that in any new constitutional position in the new and agreed Ireland that the British identity lives side by side and is protected and there is no threat to anybody’s identity.”


Lá breithe Chuck

I phoned Chuck Feeney and his wife Helga at the weekend. Last Friday was Chuck’s 90th birthday. Chuck is an amazing human being. Last year he succeeded in his ambition of giving away almost all of his wealth through Atlantic Philanthropies.  Through his ‘giving while living’ approach to philanthropy Chuck has given over €8 billion to a variety of education, cancer research, music, sport and human rights projects, including many here in Ireland.

As an Irish American he also took a close interest in our peace process and was part of the Connolly House Group of leading Irish Americans from business, politics and the trade union movement who contributed to the conditions leading to the first IRA cessation in 1994.

Chuck is an extraordinary individual. I have had the honour and pleasure to have known him for almost 30 years.

When I spoke to him and Helga I’m glad to say that they are both well. I thanked him for his generosity, his solidarity and his humanity. Breithlá sona agus gach dea-ghuí.



Many thanks to our firefighters. From Kerry to Down they risked life and limb tackling the fires which engulfed parts of our most scenic and wild mountainscapes. Well done.


Inflexible Unionism; Black Mountain and Palestinian Prisoners Day

 Inflexible Unionism

The current unionist narrative seeks to present the present political crisis as the fault of everyone else except themselves. Mostly they blame the Irish Protocol element of the Brexit Withdrawal Treaty, the Irish government and the EU, and the funeral of Bobby Storey ten months ago. The fact that the Protocol was negotiated by the Johnson government encouraged by the DUP is simply ignored. The fact that the protocol is a child of Brexit and that Brexit is a child of the DUP is also ignored.  They also claim, as Arlene Foster did last week, that Republicans are waging a ‘cultural war’ on Unionists. At the same time the DUP stall and stall again on their commitment to introduce Acht na Gaeilge.

According to Peter Cardwell – a self-professed unionist and advisor to two former British Secretaries of State - unionists are confused, bewildered, frustrated. Writing in the Irish Times last week Cardwell admitted that “the key tenet of unionism, in its essence, is its inflexibility.” “What is unionism without the union?” he asks.

Next month Unionists will celebrate 100 years of the Northern State – Northern Ireland. Nationalists and republicans will not be joining them.

The Government of Ireland Act 1920 which established two socially conservative states on the island of Ireland was the culmination of forty years of Home Rule agitation and three Home Rule Bills by Liberal governments. All failed to deliver even the minimalist self-government to Ireland that was promised. The Conservative Party successfully exploited the issue in its efforts to replace the Liberal government by using what Lord Randolph Churchill described as the Orange Card.

The Tories engaged in a calculated campaign to inflame passions and undermine British Parliamentary democracy by supporting an insurrection against the government. A provisional government was established in the North. In the political negotiations around partition that followed the British spoke out of both sides of their mouth in their dealings with the unionists and the nationalists – promising each what they wanted to hear.

So, here we are 100 years later and the unionist leadership is again playing the Orange Card. Whipping up fear and uncertainty; encouraging sectarianism and violence; making emotive and untruthful claims, all with the intent of intimidating everyone around them into conceding to their demand that nothing can ever change. In other words they demand that the constitutional status of the Northern state must continue in perpetuity because the key tenet of unionism is its inflexibility. They insist that the commitment in the Good Friday Agreement to the unity referendum be set aside because unionism finds it objectionable.  

None of this is acceptable. Partition was an undemocratic act by a British government in support of a national minority in Ireland. The rejection of the Good Friday Agreement because a minority of citizens in the North do not like the possible outcome of the unity referendum is equally unacceptable.

This is not 1886 or 1912 or 1920. There is a different spirit abroad. The new Ireland is not the Catholic state of 100 years ago. It will be a modern democracy in which the rights of all citizens will be respected and protected including those who identity as British.

No amount of huffing and puffing by unionist leaders can stop this dynamic. The debate on Irish Unity continues to gather momentum. Several weeks ago Úachtaran Shinn Féin Mary Lou McDonald and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar held a widely welcomed and respectful discussion on Irish Unity. Fianna Fáil TD Jim O’Callaghan spelt out his vision of a new Ireland in an online debate with Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge University. On Monday Neale Richmond a Fine Gael TD presented a paper, Towards A New Ireland, to an audience from the same college. While Richmond accepted that there is no good time to discuss the shape of a new United Ireland he acknowledged that it does need to be planned for.

Cardwell’s analysis of the health of unionism deserves attention. His recognition that the comments on the Claire Byrne show of former Ireland international rugby player Andrew Trimble around a “fused British, Irish and Northern Ireland identity” is the “true threat to the union” is a reflection of the old unionist war cries of ‘No Surrender’ and ‘Not an Inch’. But in Trimble’s comments about the shifts in identity are the seeds of progress and of a reconciliation between the people of this island in the years ahead.


Black Mountain.

I’m pleased to say that I sent the final draft of my new book to O Brien Press this week.

The galley proofs will come back mid May for last chance editorial scrutiny.

Publication is in August and I’m grateful to Féile an Phobail for agreeing to host the book launch in virtual or reality format, depending on Covid regulations at that time.

My original book title was The Witness Tree but I’ve opted now for Black Mountain and Other Stories. There are eleven new ones and five which were previously published.

The new book title came from the publisher - one of the stories is called Black Mountain - and I’m very happy with the notion of Sliabh Dubh as the over arching witness to many of the events I’ve written about in this new tome.

So Black Mountain it is. Watch this space for further details. Save the date for publication of Black Mountain and Other Stories during Féile in August.



Palestinian Prisoners Day

12 years ago this month I visited Palestine and Israel as part of a Sinn Fein delegation that included Ted Howell, Harry Thompson and Richard McAuley. For four days we met with NGOs, Israeli and Palestinian human rights organisations, women’s groups, community organisations, University heads, senior United Nations representatives, trauma counsellors and Palestinian and Israeli elected representatives. We also spent two days in Gaza

At that time Senator George Mitchel had recently been appointed US Envoy to the region and Tony Blair was acting as the Middle East representative of the Quartet – the European Union, the USA, Russia and the United Nations. Our visit to Gaza took place just three months after the end of a three-week invasion and assault on the area by Israeli forces in which 1400 people were killed, including more than 400 children and over a hundred women and over 5,000 people were injured, including almost 2,000 children.

We saw for ourselves the extent of the devastation. Schools destroyed; hospitals damaged; homes and businesses flattened. According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) the Israeli attack “caused extensive international displacement of the civilian population with more than 50,000 people seeking refuge in 50 UNRWA schools.” All of this added to the hardship that the Israeli blockade and siege of Gaza by Israel was inflicting on the almost two million people who live there. The siege of Gaza has been maintained by Israel since then.

In the intervening years life for the Palestinian people in Gaza and on the West Bank has deteriorated even further. Israel continues to build illegal settlements on Palestinian Land, steal water rights; demolish homes and evict Palestinian families; destroy education, community facilities built with EU funding and farming equipment; and last year in the midst of the Covid pandemic the Israeli authorities destroyed more Palestinian homes than at any time since 2016. 

Last Saturday was Palestinian Prisoners Day. It is an important date in the Palestinian calendar. Since the Israeli occupation commenced in 1967 it is estimated that one million Palestinians have been arrested by Israel. That means that every family has experienced the trauma of a family member or members being arrested, often brutalised and detained in horrendous conditions. Currently there are four and a half thousand Palestinians in Israeli prisons. According to the most recent statistics this includes 41 women and 140 children below the age of 18. Approximately 550 political prisoners have significant health care issues with at least 10 suffering from cancer. Some Palestinian prisoners have been in captivity for 40 years.

This August nationalists and republicans in Ireland will mark 50 years from the introduction of internment. It was a disastrous unjust British policy, demanded by the Stormont regime, which exacerbated the divisions in Northern society and led to a dramatic increase in conflict. Israel took this British colonial practice that had been used by them in Palestine and gave it a new gloss as ‘administrative detention.’

Palestinians can be detained without charge or trial for indefinite periods and their detention is based on ‘secret evidence.’ Some have been held for 15 years under this system. Palestinian children are tried before a quasi-military court. Some are imprisoned while others are held under house arrest with their parents forced to pay fines if their child is found outside the house.

The decades of ill-treatment of the Palestinian people is a scandal. The international community should be ashamed. The Irish government is now a member of the UN Security Council. It lobbied during the vote for this prestigious position that it would be an advocate for human rights. And yet it still refuses to recognise the state of Palestine – as agreed in a motion passed by the Oireachtas – and prevents the passing into law of the Occupied Territories Bill that would block goods originating in Israeli settlements on Palestinian land being imported into the Irish state. It is long past time that the government used its unique position within the UN Security Council to encourage the peace process in the Middle East while standing up for and defending the democratic and human right of the Palestinian people.

For now, I want to extend my solidarity to all Palestinian political prisoners and to wish the Palestinian people well as they prepare for elections to the Palestinian parliament in May and Presidential elections on 31 July. These are important elections and they offer the Palestinian people a significant opportunity to build new alliances, develop new strategies and reach out to the international community for support as they seek to achieve Palestinian Statehood, on the borders of 1967 with East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine.


Thursday, April 15, 2021

The Process of Change Must Continue: Voting for Bobby Sands

 The Process of Change Must Continue.

The recent loyalist sponsored violence and the provocative and inflammatory language of unionist political leaders has led to speculation about what the violence is really all about? I’m not alone in believing that it is in part an electoral strategy to maximise the unionist vote behind the DUP in advance of next year’s Assembly election. But it is also a reaction to the general direction and trajectory of politics, being shaped by the process of change including the potential of constitutional change in the relatively near future. It’s about intimidating nationalists and republicans and pushing back against the growing demand for the Irish government to begin planning for the unity referendum that is part of the Good Friday Agreement. Brexit too and the Irish Protocol with its border in the Irish Sea has played its part. It’s all of these things and more.

But at its core it is part and parcel of the traditional unionist response to anything perceived as threatening its dominance. Unionists look around them and see their electoral majority in the Assembly and at Westminster gone. They see political and demographic changes taking place that spell an end to the long held belief that the Northern state will have a unionist majority in perpetuity. Unionists have also been deserted and back-stabbed again by a Westminster government that negotiated the very Protocol the DUP now denounce. This recent period has also been marked by significant strategic mistakes by the DUP leadership in particular and Unionists leaders generally. They gave us Brexit and all that has come with it. People aren’t stupid. They know this.

So the winds of change are blowing up a gale around unionism and they don’t like it. The DUP East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson called for "guerrilla warfare" stating that the Protocol has to be destroyed. At the weekend it was reported that the UVF – one of the paramilitary groups the DUP recently met - ordered three families it believed to be Catholic out of a housing estate in Carrickfergus.

The decision by loyalists to shift the riots from areas like Newtownabbey to the Lanark Way interface last week was calculated. The social media messages urging loyalists to meet at various interface areas to “march on west Belfast” was not coincidental – it too was deliberate - it was planned. The intent was and is to foment sectarian conflict. Let me also state at this point that the PSNI should not be using plastic bullets, water cannon or dogs.

The reality is that in the 23 years since the Good Friday Agreement was achieved both Unionist parties – the UUP and DUP – have worked within the institutions to frustrate and delay the introduction of many of the equality, justice and legacy changes promised by the GFA and subsequent agreements.

More than any other factor it is this fear of change that is driving the current unionist agenda. Change can be difficult. It can be challenging. This is part of the human condition.  But there can be no backtracking on the changes that have occurred and will continue to take place in the time ahead. Democratic change must be defended. Constitutional change arrived at peacefully and democratically must be respected.

The rights of every citizen to equality, to respect and to parity of esteem must be accepted by all.

One thing is certain. Whatever the outcome of the debate on the constitutional future of the North the economic and societal changes that we have witnessed in the last two decades will continue. The best way to manage change is to manage it! My appeal to unionists is to join with us in managing that change in the interests of all knowing that it will be the people who decide the future.


Voting for Bobby Sands

As many readers will know this year marks 40 years since the 1981 hunger strike. It was a traumatic, difficult and yet historic year which undoubtedly shaped future politics on this island in ways none of us could have foreseen at the time.

Last Friday, 9 April was the day Bobby Sands won the Fermanagh South Tyrone seat and became the MP for Fermanagh South Tyrone. The by-election had been called following the death of Frank Maguire, the independent nationalist MP who had successfully won the seat in the 1979 general election. On that occasion Maguire had seen off the challenge of the SDLPs Austin Currie whose intervention had split the nationalist vote.

Following Frank Maguire’s death there commenced a serious discussion about the possibility of the National Smash H-Block/Armagh campaign running a prisoner candidate. Bernadette McAliskey said she was prepared to stand and Frank Maguire’s brother Noel was put forward as a candidate. However, when the decision was taken to stand Bobby Sands as a prisoner candidate, Bernadette and Noel withdrew. The SDLPs Austin Curry wanted to stand but he couldn’t get his act together before nominations closed.

Having secured Bobby’s nomination the task then was to fight the election and win it. The reality was that Sinn Féin activists had no idea of how to run an election campaign. The last time Sinn Fein candidates had stood in elections was in 1964 and on that occasion we were a banned party. So, we had to learn fast or face humiliation. In this we were also helped by a Kerry republican, well known in sporting circles, Joe Keohane. Owen Carron from Fermanagh was Bobby’s election agent. Many others like Bernadette, local nationalists with electoral experience and supporters of the prisoners from the South played key roles.

Hundreds of activists mobilised across the North to join in the work of postering and handing out leaflets and canvassing on the doorsteps. We opened two offices: one in Enniskillen and the other in Dungannon. They never closed during those long election days. We galvanised people in Fermanagh and Tyrone, and they responded with great commitment. I was rarely at home during that time, spending almost the entire campaign in the constituency. I met scores of great people and, in the midst of all the activity I enjoyed the wonderful beauty of those two counties.

Among those who came to help us where activists who had been working away for years in the background making sure that the electoral register was up to date. Their experience was invaluable. We learned about presiding officers, personation officers, how to campaign. It was exhilarating.

Most of us had no experience of after mass meetings. We would arrive outside a chapel and when mass was over and folks were coming out we would talk to them about the H-Blocks and Armagh Women’s prison and the conditions the political prisoners had been forced to endure for five years. Most would listen attentively and then applaud.

I stayed overnight in Enniskillen on the eve of the poll, then crossed the border to Clones the next day to report to Ruairí Ó Bradaigh, the President of Sinn Féin who was barred from entering the North. I was convinced we were going to win and I told him that. As I drove away afterwards to meet with Colette, I heard the news on the car radio: Bobby Sands had won the election. I was ecstatic. I thumped the car wheel and shouted with exuberance to the cattle and sheep in the fields adjacent to the country road I was travelling on.

In Belfast the news brought thousands out onto the streets in a spontaneous demonstration of solidarity with the hunger strikers. In the H Blocks and Armagh and other prisons the POWs were ecstatic.

Bobby Sands topped the poll with 30,492 votes. The British government and opposition, followed enthusiastically by the media, had constantly maintained that republicans – and especially the hunger strikers – represented nobody and enjoyed no support; that republicans were criminal ‘godfathers’ operating by intimidation; that they were isolated fanatics. Now that lie had been exposed. The British propaganda campaign had been refuted and the election victory resounded internationally.

Bobby’s success raised the hope that the British government would move to end the hunger strike by reforming the prison regime. I did not share that hope. In my view Thatcher and her government were convinced that the prisoners could be broken and through them the struggle for freedom. They were not for changing policy.

For our part Republicans had been challenged for years to submit ourselves to the ballot box, and now we had done so, demonstrating massive popular support in the election. Yet the British government, as we had feared from the outset, showed no willingness to make concessions in respect of the prison protest. Margaret Thatcher maintained her inflexible approach and, despite all the earnest assurances of their envoys, the Dublin government did nothing to shift her from it.

The Fermanagh South Tyrone by-election was one of those rare moments when, as Seamus Heaney once put it, ‘hope and history rhyme.’ Bobby Sands had a bigger mandate than Margaret Thatcher. The success of that campaign led to the decision to stand prisoner candidates in the Southern general election a few months later. Kieran Doherty and Paddy Agnew where elected as TDs and others, like Joe McDonnell and Mairead Farrell performed very well. Owen Carron was elected MP for Fermanagh South Tyrone after Bobby’s death.

These elections opened up the debate around electoral intervention that was already going on within Sinn Féin and ushered in a new political strategy and all that has flowed from it.

All a consequence of the courage of the Blanket men and Armagh women.



Monday, April 5, 2021

Bin the Orange Card: Inclusion and Reconciliation in the new Ireland

Bin the Orange Card

In recent months unionist politicians and parties have been increasingly turning to the age-old tactic of talking up the potential for conflict and the alleged threat posed by the legitimate aspirations of nationalists and republicans, as a way of preventing democratic and constitutional change. For nationalists and republicans the playing of the Orange Card is older than the northern state. It has its roots in the Home Rule battles of the late 19th century and the machinations of people like arch Tory Randolph Churchill and the unionist business and landed class, to defeat the Gladstone government’s efforts to pass a series of Home Rule Bills for Ireland.

It was used again in the years leading to the partition of Ireland and the creation of this dysfunctional, deeply corrupt and sectarian northern state. It was consistently used in the 1960s to stymie the desperately needed democratic reforms identified by the civil rights movement. It was used to justify the use of sectarian violence by loyalist mobs and the RUC and B Specials, against Catholic areas in 1969.

During the more recent decades of conflict time and time again we witnessed the leadership of political unionism whip up unionist anger and fear against any proposal that was deemed to threaten their political hegemony. This was the Orange state and in it unionists had the right to walk where they chose to walk; pass what discriminatory laws they wanted without any concern for their neighbours; and use whatever means necessary, up to and including state violence and collusion with death squads, to impose their will. For political unionism it was and still is a zero sum game in which they must reject any change, however democratic, because they believe change threatens their dominance, their culture, their Britishness.

Change can be difficult. It can be challenging. This is part of the human condition.  But no one is seeking to erode the sense of Britishness held by anyone in the North.  We leave that to British governments who constantly stab unionists in the back when English national interests are at risk. Nor is anyone threatening their sense of culture. Nor are republicans and nationalists looking to “put the boot on the other foot” by treating the unionist or PUL community in the same way that we were. That’s the road to ongoing conflict. What we do believe absolutely, and without apology, it that the rights of every citizen to equality, to respect and to parity of esteem must be accepted by all. The Good Friday Agreement, which a clear majority in the North and an overwhelming majority on this island, voted for in May 1998 upholds the right of citizens to identify as Irish or British or none. And it also asserts that the right of those who identify as British will be protected and defended in the event of constitutional change.

Unionist leaders  claim that they are democrats. Well, the Good Friday Agreement and the constitutional and political changes it contains were democratically endorsed in a referendum. Brexit was democratically rejected by the people of the North in a referendum. The debate on the unity referendum provided for by the GFA is open to all.

So, my appeal to unionist leaders is to engage. 

Engage in the democratic process – open a meaningful dialogue with the rest of us. Together we have the wit and the intelligence to reach a new accommodation on the island of Ireland. With a little generosity and openness of spirit we can create a better future from the past we have all known. 

Inclusion and Reconciliation in the new Ireland

Sixty one years ago this month South African police acting for the apartheid regime shot and killed 69 demonstrators and wounded almost 200 more as they protested against the Pass Laws which were part of the racist apartheid system. The 1960 Sharpeville Massacre, like Bloody Sunday in Derry just 12 years later, reverberated around the world. It drew huge international criticism of the apartheid South African government, including by the UN Security Council. The British government abstained in the vote.

In 1979 the United Nations General Assembly agreed that a week-long series of activities would be held annually in solidarity with people struggling against racism and racist discrimination. The 21 March – the date of the Sharpeville Massacre – was set as its starting point.

This year the theme of the ‘International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination’ was ‘Youth standing up against Racism’. The aim of the campaign is to “foster a global culture of tolerance, equality and anti-discrimination and calls on each and every one of us to stand up against racial prejudice and intolerant attitudes.”

Despite these efforts racism, intolerance and misogyny are still very much part of societies around the world. The Black Lives Matters campaign has been very successful in drawing attention to it, especially in recent years. So too has the Me Too Movement which has put a focus on violence and discrimination against women. The recent cartoon in the Sunday Independent which depicted Úachtaran Shinn Féin Mary Lou McDonald as a witch is just one deplorable example of misogyny as well as of the anti-Sinn Fein agenda of many in the southern media establishment.

Hate crime, intolerance of and discrimination against citizens take many forms. Violence against people because of their race or colour, their sexual orientation or gender, their nationality or religion or their disability is wrong. All of us have a responsibility to make a stand against such injustice and intolerance whatever form it takes.

Irish republicans believe that society must reflect and include the entirety of its people, not some of them. People have rights and entitlements. Their human dignity must be acknowledged and upheld. Inclusivity is vital. Equality is vital.

The colonisation and partition of Ireland and the periods of intense conflict which resulted from it created significant divisions within Irish society. These remain unresolved. Foremost among these is the right of the people of the island of Ireland to self-government and to have maximum control of that government.

A second crucial challenge is posed by political and religious sectarianism. As the debate increases around Irish Unity so too must the debate on building an inclusive and reconciled society evolve and grow. Reconciliation and healing must be at the heart of the transition to Irish unity. But they cannot be a precondition to achieving it.

As part of our desire for a greater understanding of the issues involved and of the measures needed to confront sectarianism and hate Sinn Féin this month commenced an internal dialogue on inclusion and reconciliation. Declan Kearney and others in our leadership are holding online conversations in the coming weeks with activists across the island to examine what practical steps are required to tackle sectarianism and provide for a reconciliation strategy. Among the contentious issues that will be discussed will be the role of commemorations, the legacy of the past, as well as examining the function of political institutions, political leadership and policy and community and civic society.

So, as the discussion on a unity referendum and a united Ireland increases. As new ideas and proposals emerge with increasing momentum around the shape and form of that new Ireland we need the most informed debate possible. Everything should be on the table for discussion. That’s the way forward.

Bronntanais Mala Na Casca

The recent United Ireland Easter Egg - an Bronntanais Mala Na Casca -  was a great success. The problem was there were not enough of them. We knew that from the start. But I made a mistake of saying they were available only in Belfast. That angered some of our non Belfast Easter egg lovers. I should not have mentioned Belfast and said limited availability instead.

Fact is we did distribute to other places.  From Dublin, all of the Six counties except Fermanagh as well as Leinster, Dublin, South East Ulster and Louth. So, well done me and RG.

Now this was always going to be a tester and a teaser for next Easter. On the basis of the current and ongoing interest it is a success. Getting a United Ireland Easter Egg is like the search for All Ireland tickets in the past. 

Le cuidiú De next year we will do a big United Ireland Easter Egg extravaganza. And intensify our Uniting Ireland activism in the meantime. Have a good Easter. Wear a lily. Honour our Patriot Dead. 



In my recent Saint Patrick’s Day musings I reminisced about my Uncle Paddy and his books of Joyce’s place names. Luke Callinan from the West, contacted me with the very welcome news of a link to electronic versions of these wonderful tomes.

Their proper name is The Origin and History of Irish Names of Places, published in 1910. The author is Patrick Weston Joyce. 

They are in the University of Toronto collection.

And the digitizing sponsor is MSN. The link is:

If you have a grá for the names of our townlands and other places then you will find Mr Joyce’s research very interesting. Go raibh maith agat Luke.