Friday, September 22, 2017

What next for the Middle East?

24 years ago this month, on September 13th 1993, the Oslo Accord was signed on the lawn of the White House in the presence of Yasser Arafat for the PLO, Yitzhak Rabin for Israel and US President Bill Clinton. It was another stage in a process of secret and public negotiations that had begun under the aegis of the Norwegians. The accord provided for the creation of a limited form of self-government for the Palestinian people and the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank by April 1994 and a final agreement by February 1999.
President Clinton proclaimed: "The peace of the brave is within our reach. Throughout the Middle East there is a great yearning for the quiet miracle of a normal life.”
Almost a quarter of a century later and the hoped for miracle of a normal life seems as far away as ever, certainly for the Palestinian people. Thousands have died in the low intensity violence that has marked much of the intervening years, occasionally broken by deadly and intense Israeli assaults on the Gaza Strip.
At the same time the issue of illegal settlements has become a huge concern. In 1978 it was estimated that there were seven and a half thousand Israelis living in the west Bank. By 1997 that number had grown to 150,000. Today that figure is closer to half a million. An estimated 170,000 of them live outside of the settlements.
Last month, at an event to mark the 50th anniversary of Israel’s occupation of the west Bank Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that he would not evacuate Israeli settlements in the west Bank; “We are here to stay, forever … we will deepen our roots, build, strengthen and settle …” This week the Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman  described the occupied territories as “the State of Israel’s true defensive wall.”
I have visited the region three times in the last eleven years. During those visits I met Israeli and Palestinian representatives and witnessed for myself the tragedy and the trauma of the Palestinian people living under a permanent state of siege in the Gaza Strip. In the west Bank I spoke to Palestinian people of all ages who are desperately trying to survive in the hostile environment created by an oppressive military occupation. Their lands and water have been stolen and the monstrous separation wall cuts them off from friends and family.
In truth the peace process that was so full of hope 24 years ago seems like just a distant memory. There is no real engagement by the international community – so essential for breaking the deadlock. There is a longstanding unwillingness by the great and the good to take a stand against the countless Israeli breaches of International Law and of United Nations resolutions - even when Israeli forces deliberately destroy community, agricultural, educational or economic projects established as a result of funding from the EU and individual European states. It is estimated that over seventy million euro worth of such projects have been destroyed.
Last month Israeli forces sealed off the Jubbetal-Dib area and dismantled six prefabricated school buildings that had been largely funded by the European Union. The 80 children were due to start school the following day. Tear gas and stun grenades were used to keep residents away. This was not an isolated incident. In 2016, according to the United Nations, one thousand and sixty five Palestinian homes were demolished by Israel. So far this year 330 Palestinian structures have been destroyed. The response of the European Union and of the international community to this aggression has been muted. It is little wonder that among Palestinians there is little room for optimism.

This week the possibility of progress was given a boost with the news that Hamas has said that it is ready to open a dialogue with the Palestinian government of President Mahmoud Abbas without preconditions. Hamas also announced that it has dissolved the Gaza Administrative Committee, by which it has run the Gaza area and that it will agree to a general election. This is potentially a critical initiative by Hamas. Both it and Fatah have been at loggerheads for decades. At the weekend a senior Fatah official Mahmoud Aloul described this as a “positive sign” and acknowledged that Fatah “are ready to implement reconciliation.”

A few days later it was confirmed that a Fatah delegation, in Cairo for talks with the Egyptian government, met with Hamas. This initiative opens up new possibilities at a time when the economic, energy and environmental crisis for the two million residents of the Gaza Strip has significantly worsened. It needs to be grasped and encouraged, especially by the international community.

However, with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu pledging no withdrawal of Israeli settlements in contravention of international law, and the international community looking away and prioritising other concerns over the Palestinian/Israeli issue; it is little wonder that many are depressed about the prospects of meaningful progress toward the two state solution.

Friday, September 15, 2017

The Dreaded SSSS

Last Friday I arrived in New York for an overnight visit. I was there to speak at the Irish Echo’s Labor (it’s the US spelling) Awards. On Saturday I met up with my good friend Bill Flynn for lunch. Bill celebrated his 91st birthday on Labor Day last week. He was as sharp as ever in his observations about the political situation in the USA and in Ireland.
The Irish Echo Labor Awards event was a huge success. So too was our brief visit to the Labor March to meet old friends and to make new ones. My congratulations to all involved especially the honourees and their families. 
It was as a result of the hard work of Bill, Niall O’Dowd, Bruce Morrison, Chuck Feeney and others in Irish America that I first received a visa to allow me entry into the USA in January 1994. Since then I have regularly travelled to the USA – at least four times a year. I go there in response to invitations and am very grateful for the opportunity to present Sinn Féin’s analysis of developments in Ireland; to seek support for the peace process; to lobby for investment, to meet political leaders and administration officials; and to fundraise through Friends of Sinn Féin. Our travel itinerary is always given to the US Consul in Belfast well in advance and we have visas. 
In recent years the staff of Aer Lingus, Delta and other airlines have become very familiar with myself and RG. They have the task of navigating their way through the bureaucratic hurdles thrown up by an increasingly security conscious US system.
As a result RG insists that we now arrive at airports for USA trips at least four hours before departure time. We have both come to appreciate the looks of consternation on the airline officials faces when they first punch in our names into their computers. They then have to phone someone in the USA to get us our boarding passes. That can take up to two hours. In Dublin at least the airline people know the score. Stateside they haven't a clue what it's all about. 
Inevitably they are apologetic. ‘Sorry this is taking so long’. ‘I don’t understand why there is this delay’. ‘The supervisor is also on the phone trying to resolve this.’ ‘We’re very sorry.’
Eventually the word comes through. The machine punches out our boarding passes and labels for the bags, and the first hurdle has been overcome. The second hurdle awaits. It is printed on the boarding pass – the dreaded four SSSS’s – Secondary Security Screening Selection. To make sure no one misses the instruction the staff have to write SSSS in large lettering across the boarding pass also and circle it. Last Saturday one enthusiastic staff member at JFK airport got so carried away she used a puncher label to print SSSS in large red letters six times across each pass!
We are always told that this procedure is random. I’m sure that is true for most people. And I have no problem with that. But RG and I have received the 4 SSSS’s on every boarding pass for over ten years. As a result when we reach the security area – either at the preclearance in Dublin or any airport in the USA – we are taken out of the line. We and our bags are methodically searched.
Because last weekend was simply an overnight visit RG and I had brought small overnight carry-on bags. They received the same treatment. The officer involved in my search was abrupt and unpleasant. His mammy would have been embarrassed.
When we got to the Departure Gate there was a repeat performance but this time with much more relaxed and pleasant searchers. Then as RG wandered towards the plane I was relieved of my passport. I was standing in no man’s land between the gate and the plane for another ten minutes. Much to the amusement of many of the other passengers. Selfie Hell. I eventually got on board. My passport was only returned then by an embarrassed airline manager.
In the context of the 16th anniversary of the September 11 attacks I am very mindful of the need for airline security – for every effort to be made to protect passengers. But singling out Sinn Féin reps actually distracts security attention from those who do present a threat. I have raised this issue many times with US officials. Some are obviously embarrassed. It runs entirely against the commitment of President Bill Clinton 20 years ago to regularise relations between Sinn Féin and the US administration. 
Nowadays children or grand-children of Sinn Féin representatives are singled out for special treatment. They too go on whatever list is kept by Homeland Security. 
All of this can at times have a Monty Pythonesque feel to it. Leaving Havana two years ago Cuban diplomatic officials told us that the airline couldn’t issue our boarding passes because the plane would be flying over US airspace and we didn’t have clearance. We were told the flight had to log a new flightplan away from US airspace before we could get our boarding passes.
Last month we were delayed so long in Dublin that we missed our flight. We were told there was no way we would get away that day. Only for the professionalism of Aer Lingus staff our schedule would have been up ended. They got us a later flight on the same day. 
So why am I writing about this? It's because other protestations have failed. And this isn't just happening on President Trump's watch. The same things happened under President Obama and before him. In fact it happened as we were going to meet with Presidents at their invitation.  Home Land Security Rules. 
Sinn Féin doesn’t expect special treatment. We have no absolute right to visit anyones country but I have always travelled there only at the invite of American citizens. The dreaded SSSS is a nuisance. It’s also an example of how big systems – or even wee systems – can get bogged down in bureaucracy. Even when it’s patently no benefit to anyone. On the other hand the 4 SSSSs keep us grounded.

Below: At the Labor Day events in New York

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Sinn Féin is committed to restoring the institutions

In the cut and thrust of negotiations there is always the risk that someone will say something that makes the process of achieving agreement more difficult. Sometimes they do that deliberately. Sometimes they are just stupid. Or tongue in cheek. During the negotiations leading to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 the Ulster Unionist politician John Taylor famously dismissed proposals from Senator George Mitchel saying he wouldn’t touch them with a ’40 foot barge pole’. Taylor was renowned for such hyperbole.
Last week he was at it again claiming that nationalists in the North ‘are not equal’ to unionists. He wasn’t alone in making outrageous and stupid comments. The morning after the DUP leader Arlene Foster made, what some in the media described as a ‘new offer’ and a ‘compromise proposal’ to Sinn Féin, her Westminster colleague Sammy Wilson was in fine ‘Taylor mode’. He said: “They (Sinn Féin) are not a serious party… we now have the spectacle of a party with seven MPs who don’t go to their work and 27 MLAs who won’t go to their work – why on earth would anyone vote for such a bunch of malingerers.”
That’s Sammy doing what he does best. Messing. His problem of course is that more and more people in the North are voting for Sinn Féin, as evident in the Assembly and Westminster elections earlier this year.
More crucially, Arlene Foster’s ‘new offer’ – her ‘compromise’ proposal was nothing of the sort. It came during a period when Michelle O Neill was exploring the potential of the next phase of talks with other leaders, including Arlene and the two governments. The same proposal, that Ministers be put back in place while negotiations continue in parallel, was suggested by DUP negotiator Edwin Poots in June and raised some weeks ago by his party colleague Simon Hamilton. It was rejected then and Arlene Foster knew it would be rejected last week. It wasn’t a serious effort to resolve the crisis.
And when you think about it why would Sinn Féin agree to go back into power sharing with the DUP with no agreement in place? On the vague possibility of possible legislation that may or may be agreed by a DUP party which thus far has shown no real desire to agree. And if it doesn’t work we pull the whole edifice down again. That’s not a recipe for progress, but for disaster. 
In addition, as it has tried to put the blame on Sinn Féin for the current crisis the DUP, and elements of the media, have claimed that Sinn Féin doesn’t really want to be in the power sharing institutions. They accuse us of not wanting to have to manage the mess that Brexit is already creating for the economy of the North, and in particular for our rural and farming families, and for those living on both sides of the border corridor. They also say that being in government in the North undermines our political project in the South.
This is patent nonsense. From the time of the Good Friday Agreement Sinn Féin’s political strategy has been built on the need for an Executive and Assembly and all-Ireland institutions. For almost 20 years we have worked to ensure that these are viable and effective. For ten years – first with Ian Paisley, then with Peter Robinson and latterly with Arlene Foster, Martin McGuinness stretched himself and our party to keep the institutions in place through the most difficult of circumstances. Martin’s decision in January was reluctantly taken.
It is also a fact that Sinn Féin’s electoral fortunes in the South are assisted by an Executive and Assembly in place.
In the Oireachtas our political opponents, especially the Fianna Fáil leader Michéal Martin, cynically exploit the absence of the institutions to attack Sinn Féin. Martin doesn’t care that the status quo continues to discriminate against nationalists; or that Irish speakers are being treated as second class citizens; or that commitments in Agreements, which a Fianna Fail government of which he was part, have not been implemented; or that LGBT citizens in a part of this island do not have the right to marriage equality. Martin’s only interest in the current crisis is to exploit it in his electoral battle with Sinn Féin in the South.
So, let me be very clear. Sinn Féin is fully committed to the power sharing institutions agreed in the Good Friday Agreement. However, the institutions can only work if they are based on equality, respect and integrity.
Last week’s proposal by the DUP Leader Arlene Foster for a parallel process did contain a welcome acknowledgement that the Irish language threatens no one. The crocodiles will be delighted to hear that. And she did include a promise of legislation. This is welcome also. But more than soft words are required. So, to ensure there is no misunderstanding let me repeat what I said last week. There will be no return to the Assembly or Executive without a stand-alone Irish Language Act and the resolution of the other outstanding issues.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Our Children's Voice

 Padraig MacLochlainn; Michelle O'Neill; Gina Grant; Gerry Adams; Aisling Nibbs

Many, many years I heard Father Alec Reid say 'There is no blessing like the blessing of a healthy child'. When I first heard him say this I was under-impressed. It was such a patently obvious observation. Usually when he made this remark we would be in the company of a new baby or some boisterous youngster. Or youngsters. Full of energy and life and potential. 

Then as I got older and met children with life limiting ailments and disabilities and their parents or carers I came to reflect on the Sagart's remarks.  Fr. Alec was right. There is no blessing like the blessing of a healthy child. Imagine having to cope with the heartbreak of a child with a terminal illness?  Or a child with profound disabilities? 

This is the challenge facing many parents. Terminal illness is perhaps the most difficult and emotional crisis to confront families. It is difficult enough if this is an adult. But it is especially demanding when the person who is ill is a child.
As an activist and particularly as a public representative I have been honoured to meet many carers over a very long time. I'm sure all public representatives have the same experience whether they are TDs, MPs, MLAs or MEPs. Whether they are unionists or the rest of us. It is particularly moving to meet the parents or grandparents of children who are grievously ill. It is also an absolute imperative that we help to shape society to give them the supports they deserve. That means a rights based society. 

During the Stormont negotiations in June, at my request, Ashling Nibbs and Gina Grant of the Donegal based parent-led campaign group “Our Children’s Voice”, made the long journey to Stormont Castle to meet Michelle O’Neill and me.  The two parents were accompanied by Senator Padraig Mac Lochlainn. This was my second meeting with them. 

Michelle and I had agreed to meet them to explore how an all-Ireland/cross border solution could be put in place to ease the distressing trauma faced by desperately ill children in Donegal who urgently need palliative care and treatment for life limiting conditions. They and their families must travel approximately 140 miles to access treatment and care.

Ashling and Gina explained to us how they have been campaigning for over three years for the level of care that their children need and deserve. Their very personal and harrowing accounts of the distress they and their children have had to endure was upsetting.

The two very brave mothers spoke about how they are forced to bring their very sick children to Dublin to access end of life care, palliative care and respite care.  

Ashling told us about the ordeal experienced by her seven year old son, Órán. Órán suffered from Mitochondrial Disease and faced eight hour round trips for surgeries while seriously unwell. Imagine how much these grueling journeys must have drained Órán of the energy he so badly needed in his fight? Sadly, Órán has since passed away. Since 2014, when the campaign group was established, four children have died.
The parents expressed their anger at the lack of facilities closer to their homes and the physical and emotional strain that the long journey create for them and their children. Michelle and I heard of the indignity one family endured. They had to transport their child's body for over 4 hours home and then a further ferry trip to the islands.
The only respite services currently available to these children are accessed via referral to Laura Lynn Children’s Hospice, based in Dublin. Families may be offered fifteen nights per year, in blocks of two or three night stays. In many cases, the travel outweighs the benefit of respite for children and families. So they go without. 

The absence of such services closer to Donegal is an injustice. It is unacceptable that extremely sick children must undertake such lengthy and tiring trips to access vital care and treatment. Children's Palliative and End of Life care should not be determined by geography. Not in a modern wealthy society. Not anywhere.

The reality is that the parents of ‘Our Children’s Voice’ shouldn’t have to protest, lobby or fight to secure the right of their children to have proper access to the required standard of care. But they have to. They have to become activists and campaigners because they have been failed by the state. They have been punished by the marginalising policies implemented by successive governments. 

A central objective of Our Children's Voice campaign is for children in Donegal to have access to necessary respite/palliative /hospice care closer to home. That includes the possibility of services within the North as an alternative to having to travel to Dublin. There is obvious potential for an all-island approach to this problem.

When Michelle O’Neill was Minister for Health in the North, she launched a ten year strategy for children’s palliative and end of life care (2016-2026). This strategy provides for extending Paediatric networks outside of the north to explore access to specialised services on an all-island basis.

Sinn Féin has consistently advocated for healthcare to be developed on an all-island basis. In fairness other parties have acted on this imperative as well, including the DUP's Edwin Poots. They recognise the mutual benefits of such a policy. The provision of cancer services at Altnagelvin Hospital in Derry for the whole of the north west of the island is a model that works. It makes sense. There are healthcare benefits for all. And ultimately and potentially for the children represented by ‘Our Children’ Voice.’

The courage and bravery of Ashling and Gina and the other parents is amazing. Their tenacity in the face of governmental failure to provide a necessary service is astonishing and uplifting. I believe all public representatives can and should support them. Since our meeting in June we have engaged with the Irish government, the HSE, and even in the absence of Northern Assembly, with the departments and bodies in the North.  There is an urgent need to put in place a system of care that is compassionate and effective and meets the needs of terminally ill children and their families. A severely ill child should not be forced to travel such distances to receive the care they need. 

Not if we are really serious about cherishing all our children. Equally.

Sunday, August 27, 2017


Once upon a time I was in prison. Truth to tell I was in prison a few times. That experience stays with you. Even now I occasionally have the sense of being a lapsed prisoner. Though not in any serious way. I suppose I say that only because I think it is a funny thing to say. I don't seriously believe I could end up back in prison. But never say never. We live in a funny old world. Anyway prison never did me any harm. I met many interesting people there. Some of them were prisoners. Some were prison officers. 
Some of the ones who were prisoners were Trusties. ODCs. Ordinary Decent Criminals. Jimmy was one of these. That's not his real name. The ODCs emptied the rubbish. Worked in the kitchen. Or the hospital.  The ODCs wouldn't have much truck with us anyway. Especially the ones from loyalist neighbourhoods. Jimmy was a loyalist. Or at least that was his background. How do I know that I hear you ask. He told me so himself. The Ordinary Decent Criminals didn't consort much with republican political prisoners. Probably afraid to. Not that there were many points of contact between us anyway.  Especially with the loyalists. By the way there were quite a few ODCs from nationalist neighbourhoods as well less I am accused of caricaturing loyalists. 
Jimmy worked with the prison doctor. I was over one day chancing my arm looking for a milk ration. Getting a milk diet was a good way of avoiding some of the worst of the prison food. Jimmy noted down my details. There was no one else in the waiting room. The Doctors was in a little wing of its own. A small cell. There was a slightly bigger one just beside where the doctor had his office. Jimmy and I were in the small cell. Just me and him. 
'How you getting on?' I asked.
He was a little bit surprised. Looking up from his folder - my folder - he asked ' Who me? You talking to me?'
'I don't see anybody else here.'
'Oh I'm dead on. Just not used to one of youse talking to one of us'. He looked around anxiously. ' I'm not of your sort. I dig with the other fut.'
'Good man' I replied 'what's your name?'
'Jimmy' he said ' and I know who you are.'
I stuck my hand out.  He shook it firmly. 
'You smoke?' I asked. 
'Yup' he said ' like a train. Nothing else to do in this kip'. 
I gave him a few cigarettes. He smiled warmly at me. 
'Thanks mate. I appreciate that.' 
'I'm giving them up' I said. 'Again.'
'Wait there' he ushered me into the bigger cell. 'the doctor will call you in a minute'. 
When I finished with the doctor and returned to the small cell Jimmy was gone. But I saw him again the following week. My milk ration had to be prescribed on a weekly basis. I didn't mind that. It got me out and about. Getting a ration of milk every day was a big deal. And getting out to the doctors was a break in the monotony of prison life. So was meeting Jimmy. He and I became friends. I would bring him a few fags. He would slip me a newspaper or a bar of chocolate. That might not sound like a big deal but when I was on punishment a square of Cadburys was a feast and getting a newspaper was like a visit to the library. 
Jimmy was also taking a chance giving me this stuff. He could have got into trouble. Loss of his privileges. Maybe even loss of remission. Me? I was in trouble anyway. On a Red Book. So it didn't really matter to me. Most of the time I was in with a bunch of other political prisoners. We looked after each other. We didn't have that much contact on a daily basis  with the prison system. Or as I've mentioned, with the Trusties. That wouldn't be approved of. By the prison regime. Or maybe by our own ones as well. 
But as luck would have it Jimmy and me never got caught. These weekly encounters became part of our routine. We would only be together for a few minutes. Even less. But we liked chatting to each other. Jimmy chatted a lot. So after six months I knew he started his gaol career for stealing drugs from a chemist he worked for. He said he was pressured into doing it. That's how he got to work with the prison doctor.  Because he used to work for a chemist. He said he was a young man at the time. Now Jimmy was married and had two kids. But since his first stint he was in and out of prison a good deal. Just for a few months or a year or so at a time. Nothing too big. Mostly bits and pieces of fraud. Once for assaulting a peeler. 
'What type of loyalty is that? I scolded him. 
'I'm also fond of a wee drink' he confessed to me. 
One day as we discussed his release. It was only a month off. 'Drinks a curse if it gets to you' he proclaimed. 'I'm gonna give it up'. 
'Well' I said ' You have a lot going for you. A wife. Two babies. You gotta think of them'. 
'That’s okay for you to say that. Your side has everything going for you'. He replied. 
I burst out laughing. 
'Would you ever catch yourself on' I told him. 'I'm stuck in here. No charges. No trial. No release date. You're out next month. I'm sure there will be a wee rehabilitation job waiting for you. There is no reason for you ever to be back in here again. If you mind yourself. Remember if you can't do the time don't do the crime'.
'That's not what I mean!' He retorted. 'You know that. I mean your side are getting everything that's going. All the oul shite about discrimination is paying off. You really think our side has all the good jobs and the nice houses? We have nothing. Not where I come from.'
'Well do something about it' I said. 'Don't blame me. I don't blame you. I don't believe in this two sides carry on. Who does that suit?'
We left it at that. But when I was leaving a few minutes later he slipped me a packet of Polo mints. 
'Your breath is stinking' he smiled. 
We parted on good terms. He, a few weeks later, out to East Belfast. Me back to solitary. I missed our weekly engagements. Then eventually I got out as well. Years later up at Stormont I was on my way into Martin McGuinness' office one day when a man detached himself from a group of visitors and hailed me. It was Jimmy. 
I was delighted to see him.  He was delighted to see me. We shook hands warmly. 
'You've come up in the world' he exclaimed.
'So have you' I said.
'I'm taxi-ing' he told me 'showing these French visitors around. Giving them the real history of our wee country. Will you get a photo with them? '
'Sure' I agreed ' if you come in and say hullo to Martin'. 
So we did.  Martin was as gracious as ever. I told him about me and Jimmy and our gaol soirées. Jimmy insisted on getting a photo with Martin. As he looked around his big office he turned to me. 
'Didn't I tell you your side is getting everything that's going?' He laughed.
'And didn't I tell you that I don't believe in this two sides nonsense. We disagree on  things  but we're all the one'. 
'That’s my position too' Martin said. 'You won't be surprised to hear!' 
'Ask my brother am I a liar? Jimmy smiled. 'Seriously Martin you're doing a great job with the peace process'. 
'You never said that to me' I chided him. 
'I get the credit' Martin laughed ' he gets the blame. Now if you two aul jailbirds get out of my office I'll get back to my work'. 
So we left him. Jimmy and I parted in the Great Hall. As he went out with his group he slipped me another packet of Polo mints. 
'Your breath is still stinking' he told me. 
That was Jimmy.  We arranged to meet again but we never got round to it for a while after I became a TD for Louth. Then he came down to Dublin for a Bruce Springsteen concert and I got him - Jimmy that is not Bruce - to come into the Dáil for lunch and we had a great session together. 
When we were parting he told me he hopes he never goes back to gaol again. I hope so too. Jimmy is a decent man. He has learned his lesson. If he does end up in clink again that would be a disaster. Especially if I was there as well. 

Friday, August 18, 2017

Féile an Phobail - Thirty Years a Growing

Thirty Years A Growing

I didn't get to any Féile events this year. That's a first. Truth is I was too tired. Martin's death. Two elections. Two USA trips in July. Constituency duties in the Dáil and in Louth. Talks or what passed for talks at Stormont. It all takes time and effort. 

So I decided to forgo Féile this year.  I missed a very wonderful series of events. I was particularly sore not to get to the RFJ's Plastic Bullet picket. Another first. But I followed it all on Twitter. Especially Clara Reilly. A mighty woman. Battling on. Never giving up. Emma Groves and Clara were never beaten. Never will be. 

Féile is great. Taking a step back from it all is a very good way to appreciate how great it really is. So once again well done and thanks to Sam and Kevin and Angela and Harry Beag and all the women and men of the current brilliant, energetic and ever resourceful Féile team. That includes Ciaran Morrison who is leaving after 17 year of Féile adventures. And Ciaran eile who keeps us honest.

Back in the days before Féile An Phobail, West Belfast was a different country. Under military occupation. Censored. Community structures subjected to political vetting.  Discrimination rampant. Everyone was related to or knew someone who was a political prisoner.  Neighbours' sons and daughters. No state funding whatsoever for Irish language education.  Little for Gaelic games. Neighbourhoods subjected to counter insurgency  measures. Betrayed by church hierarchies and by the great and the good. Including Dublin. Especially Dublin. Community leaders and political representatives targeted by British State sponsored death squads. 

Republican West Belfast was a community in rebellion. We still are. Back then we were deeply invested in a culture of resistance against occupation and oppression. Many of our battles were defensive. Underground. But we were in transition. Our culture of resistance was becoming a culture of change. Of reconquest. But there were too few platforms for this. The republican community of West Belfast was hemmed in. Under the cosh. Unbowed and unbroken. But needing an outlet for our positive energy and imagination. And vision. 

The killings at Gibraltar of three outstanding West Belfast citizens Volunteers Mairead Farrell, Seán Savage and Dan McCann and especially the establishment's vile demonisation of their community- our community - was a tipping point. A lesser people could not have survived the decades of vicious insults, lies and invective. But this onslaught and the attacks on their funerals and the other funerals and deaths of Caoimhín Mac Brádaigh, Thomas Mc Erlean and John Murray which followed, including the two British soldiers,  became a catalyst for that culture of change to find a platform. Féile An Phobail was a result of that. We were telling our detractors to f... off. We knew who we were. We were no better than anyone else. But we were no worse.  

So Féile was our answer. Our alternative. It became the forum or forums for local artists, poets, photographers, singers, dramatists, dancers, painters, chancers, writers, talkers, sports people and spoofers to strut their stuff. To yell yahoo!  In harmony. To give licence for hope and creativity and cheerfulness and positivity. To reclaim our space. To create space for others. To enjoy ourselves. To say this is who we are. Not a terrorist community. But a patriotic, resourceful, intelligent, cheerful, confident, caring and hopeful gathering of men and women looking to the future and prepared to imagine that that future could be fair and inclusive. And happy. Capable of making our own music. Of shaping and creating our own vision.

Féile was also an invite for other progressives to join us. And they did. Playwrights. Painters. Singers. Musicians. Actors. Actresses. Activists from other struggles. Other political views. Other traditions. Boy Bands and Girl Bands. Writers. Orchestras. Rap artists. Seán nós singers. Hip Hoppers. Rappers. Céili dancers. Movers and shakers. Stilt walkers. Discreet Walzers. Tango dancers. Talkers. Walkers. Citizens with disabilities. Old people. Children. Youth. Wannabe Youths. Cooks. Cranks. Fly boys from the love comics. Loose men. Delinquent pensioners. Dog lovers. Dogs. Glamorous Grannies. 

Some are coming to Féile still. Now part of the Féile family. Marie Jones  brought her plays. She nurtured a theatrical undercurrent which took its own communal stories and experiences and gave them dramatic form. Pam Brighton mentored local writers and stage designers and sound engineers. Citizens who were never in a theatre flocked to parish halls, local schools, community centres and GAA clubs to be uplifted and moved to tears or cheers. Field Day included the Féile in its tours. Stephen Rea brought Oscar to life. Ulick O Connor and the late Tomás MacAnna gave us Executions. Dan Gordon gave us A Night in November. The list is endless. A new generation of young artistes blossomed. They are still captivating us with their art. Local performers, writers. Bi lingual drama at its best. Communal tales with universal themes. 

Robert Ballagh arrived to acknowledge the artistic beauty and integrity of our fledgling mural painters.  Where previously the painting of political graffiti was liable to incur RUC harassment or worse no one could stop you painting a gable wall if the householder was content to have their gable transformed by Mo Chara or Danny D, Martie or their legions of fledgling Jim Fitzpatricks. And Jim came as well to praise their masterpieces. 

So did Gerry Keenan with orchestras to beat the band. The Sky's The Limit opened for The Ulster Orchestra. Peadar O Riada brought An Cor Cullaigh. Eddie Keenan sang 'I Was There.'  Seán Maguire enthralled us with his fiddle magic. Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin with his piano. Terry Enright brought us up the Black Mountain. The Falls Park hosted a Póc Fada. The Bobby Sands Cup challenged soccer teams. The Mairead Farrell Tournament did the same for Camogs. Aidan Creen and Terry Goldsmith opened up The Bog Meadows. Tom Hartley started his graveyard tours. Féile opened our own radio station. If we were blocked from other media why not start our own? Hector McNeill and Tea Pot footered at that for a while. Donnacha Rynne made his debut there. Fergus Ó’ Hír dabbled in Irish language radio broadcasting. Radio Fáilte was born. Ag fas fos. 

Martin Sheen came to visit. And later Michael Moore. And many, many more. President Mary Robinson defied both the British and Irish governments and visited us with the active encouragement of Inez McCormack, Eileen Howell and other sisters.  Mary McAleese, no stranger, was later to make the same journey also as President. 

And those who censored us? We reached out to them and invited them to talk and to listen to us. We welcomed detractors and other  naysayers along with ordinary decent citizens to West Belfast Talks Back. Discussion groups, debates and lectures flourished under the leaderships  of Jake Jackson, Paddy Kelly, Majella McCloskey, Siobhan O Hanlon, Carol Jackson, Bill Rolston, Danny Morrison and Jim Gibney. Danny also pioneered Scribes at The Rock and the odd time in The West Club, and brought authors from far and near.

Exhibitions blossomed everywhere. Quilts. Photos. Posters. Drawings. Paintings. Sculptures. H Block Comms. The West Belfast Film Festival brought Stephen Fry to visit. He was amazed at the grey threatening awfulness of the Barracks opposite Milltown Cemetery and delighted by the welcome he got in McAneany's. Seamus Heaney came as well. His first time back in St Thomas's since he taught there. A memorable day with Jimmy Ellis at Sam Thompson's graveside in the City Cemetery and later in St Mary's.

And singing? We sang like angels. With Planxty. Anúna. Frances Black. Mary Black. The Bueno Vista Social Club. The Wolfe Tones. Bríd Keenan. Altan. Brian Kennedy. Shane Magowan. Davy Spillane. Dolores Keane. Mick Hanley. Jimmy Yamaha. A Welsh miners choir. Brush Shiels. Jimmy McCarthy, Fra McCann. Floyd Westerman. St Agnes Choral Society. Tony McMahon and Noel Hill. Christy. UB40. Brian Moore. Noírín Ní Riain. Tony Carlisle, Flair, Jim Moody became friends of the stars. High flyers. 

For years we survived without funding. Our leaders included Deirdre McManus, Siobhán, Danny Power, Seán Paul O Hare, Geordie Murdoch, Caitriona Ruane, Niamh Flanagan, Geraldine McAteer, Ciaran Quinn, Aidan McAteer, Ciaran Kearney, Deirdre Mackle, Margaret McKernan, Deirdre Walsh, Maura Brown, Chrissie Keenan and Bridie. And countless others. Many worked in a voluntary capacity. The Andersonstown News was always an ally. And the local Irish language community. And Springhill the main concert venue for years. Right in the centre of the war zone. No one else would have done it with such panache. 

Now the Féile is Irelands foremost community festival. Despite the best efforts of those who lorded it over us thirty years ago. I am sure the history of this all will be chronicled. It needs to be. Memory is important. So too is the telling of our own stories. That's what Féile is about. Writing the future while righting the past. 

But the arts needs proper dedicated core funding. Local sponsors have kept faith. We are grateful to them but the Féile team survives on a shoe string. Could it be better? Of course. But almost 30 years later Féile is still one of the best things I was ever involved with. It's success is a great credit to everyone who was or is associated in any way with this outstanding communal celebration. Not all the names are included here. That is not intentional. So if you're left out or if you know somebody who is left out shout! This is only my flawed hurried little recollection. Write your own. Send it to Andytown News. Or the Féile office. With photos if you have them. 

Maybe as we celebrate thirty years a growing some of us will find the time to write a list of all the Féile leaders and champions and do a Féile Thirty Years On Birthday ReUnion. Just to remember and say Go raibh mile Maith agaibh go leir. 

An Féile Abú!