Monday, September 13, 2021

Are you listening Jeffrey? Reclaiming the Enlightenment

Are you listening Jeffrey?

Unionism, especially its DUP component, has been talking up unionist and loyalist resistance to the Irish Protocol since before Boris Johnson dirty-joed them, broke his commitments to them, negotiated and then signed up to the Protocol.

There is some evidence of this in the loyalist street disturbances earlier this year and the sacking of Arlene Foster and of Edwin Poots. The dramatic decline in the polling fortunes of the DUP, as it flounders about trying to assert its former role as the undisputed leader of unionism, is also linked to its stance on Brexit and its transparent efforts to blame everyone else for a debacle they helped create.

Jeffrey Donaldson was in Dublin two weeks ago meeting An Taoiseach Micheál Martin. The Protocol was top of his agenda. The arrogance and rhetoric were loud - the politics insipid. He was at it again last week when he met the Tánaiste in Belfast. “The protocol, the Irish Sea border, has to go” he told Leo Varadkar.

Inevitably, his comments contained the not-so-subtle threat. If unionism doesn’t get its way then the Protocol, he said “has the capacity to so undermine the political progress here that it drags us backwards … the Irish Government needs to very quickly recognise the damage that this protocol is doing to political stability in Northern Ireland.”

The DUP leader speaks as if he represents the majority of citizens in the North. He doesn’t. The political instability he speaks of is rooted in the attitude and behaviour of the DUP he now leads. Donaldson refuses to accept the reality that he represents a minority. He seems to believe that if he says something often enough – however inaccurate or plain wrong - that people will believe it. Even Jeffrey himself doesn’t. So, the Protocol is all Dublin’s fault. The Protocol is damaging the northern economy. The business and farming sector are opposed to it. It is undermining the Good Friday Agreement. And so on. None of which is true.

Brexit is the responsibility of those who advocated for it, campaigned for it and voted for it, especially the DUP.

The fact is a majority of citizens in the North voted against Brexit. They wanted to remain within the EU. They were worried by the likely economic dislocation Brexit would bring. And they were right to be worried. Its impact on the British economy is clear for all to see. Ian King, who presents the daily business programme on Sky summarised the situation for many last week, when he said: “England has become a country where the pubs have no beer, farmers don’t have anyone to pick their fruit and even if they did there aren’t enough lorry drivers to get it to the shops.”

The medical supplier Seqirus has said it is postponing deliveries due to a Brexit-related shortage of lorry drivers. Logistics UK, which represents freight firms, and the British Retail Consortium (BRC) warned last month that the loss of 25,000 EU drivers is putting significant pressure on supply chains for retailers. The list of companies impacted is growing daily – Brewers, Coca Cola, Nando, McDonalds, BP, Iceland are just some. The Bank of England has also reported shortages of furniture, car parts and electoral goods, as well as cement and timber for the construction industry.

In stark contrast the most recent trade figures for the island of Ireland reveal that the business sector is taking advantage of the unique position of the North which is in both the EU single market and the customs territory with Britain. Last month the Central Statistics Office (CSO) in Dublin released trade figures showing what the London Guardian has described as evidence “deeper economic unity on the island of Ireland.”

The value of goods moving North to South in the first six months of 2021 dramatically increased by 77 per cent to €1.77 billion (£1.5 billion) – an increase on the same period last year when it was just under €1 billion. The value of good travelling South to North also jumped by 40 per cent to €1.57 billion. This is an increase of almost half a billion over the same period last year.

The Guardian newspaper concluded: “If it is sustained, Northern Ireland’s deepening economic ties with the republic – and weaker ones with mainland Britain – will raise questions over the region’s relationship with the rest of the UK.”

So, where now stands loyalist/unionist resistance to the Protocol? Two weeks ago Jamie Bryson and Jim Allister and an assortment of hangers-on travelled to Enniskillen to campaign against the Protocol. The reports on the numbers who attended vary. Most fall between one hundred and three hundred.

One seasoned journalist from Fermanagh, Denzil McDaniels writing about the Enniskillen protest said: “It’s clear that decisions to accommodate Brexit are taken at an international level and if there has been a betrayal of Unionism, loyalists should remember that it was their own basketcase of a British Government that let them down. That should be the real focus of their disillusion. Not the Irish Government and certainly not the people of Fermanagh who don’t want a return to the difficult times of Borders past…”

And that’s the prize we have to keep our eyes firmly fixed on. No going back. No returning  to the past. A future in which we can all live in harmony and equality with each other. I believe that can be best achieved in a United Ireland. Others have a different view. Ok. Let’s talk about it. Are you listening Jeffrey?

 

Reclaiming the Enlightenment

The best kind of history is that which successfully brings the stories of our past to life. Recently I had the good fortune to buy three little books that do exactly that from An Fhuiseog on the Falls Road, beside Sevastopol Street. The three are Mary Ann McCracken 1770-1866 – Feminist, Revolutionary and Reformer; The United Irishmen and the Men of no Property, The Sans Culottes of Belfast; and Cave Hill and the United Irishmen.

Together they give a wonderful insight into the lives and working experience of those in the Belfast region who helped shape the United Irish Society of the late 18th century. They are all written by John Gray who is the former Librarian of Belfast’s Linen Hall Library. John Gray has written and lectured on “many aspects of Ulster’s Labour and radical history.”  The pamphlets are written under the auspices of ‘Reclaim the Enlightenment’ which “is committed to recalling and celebrating that progressive era in Belfast’s past. We are convinced that doing so can lend inspiration in the present.”

Anyone born in Belfast or who has lived here even for a short time, is conscious of our Belfast Hills. These cradle the city and give it a spectacular backdrop. Foremost among these is Cave Hill, to the North of the city. It is a place long associated with the United Irish Society. Many of us are familiar with the account of the occasion in May 1795 when the leaders of the United Irishmen went to McArt’s Fort. Wolfe Tone recorded what happened there. “Russell, Neilson, Simms, McCracken and one or two more of us, on the summit of McArt’s Fort took a solemn obligation … never to desist until we had subverted the authority of England over our country and asserted her independence.”

Through John Gray’s three pamphlets the men and the women of 1798 become more than just names on the pages of a book. The connections between Belfast – a town of around 20,000 people – and its hinterland of Carnmoney, Templepatrick, Skegoneill, Hightown, and Roughfort rath, the first rebel assembly point in County Antrim that is only four miles from the Cave Hill – are described. So too is the plight of the tenant farmers and the growth of the first trade unions linked to the hand loom weavers, many of whom were from that locality.

In July 1792 Belfast celebrated the third anniversary of the French Revolution. There was a ‘Grand Procession’ with ‘citizens in pairs and people of the neighbourhood for several miles round, with green ribbons, and laurel leaves in their hats.’ 

Gray describes how one group was singled out. He writes, “namely, ‘one hundred and eighty of the most respectable inhabitants of Carnmoney and Templepatrick’. They bore a green flag, with the following mottos: -

Our Gallic brother was born July 14, 1789;

Alas we are still in embryo”

And on the reverse side:

“Superstitious galaxy.

The cause of the Irish Bastille; let us unite to destroy it.

Their banner was designed by James Hope, a weaver from Mallusk to the west of Cave Hill and later destined to become the most celebrated artisan United Irish leader …”

The central role played by Presbyterians and by women is also recorded in the pages of these pamphlets, one of which reflects at length on the life of Mary Ann McCracken. For a long time she was known mostly as the sister of Henry Joy McCracken but Gray reminds us of her contribution as “a revolutionary, yes, as a feminist before the term was invented and as a social reformer.”

He writes, Mary Ann “did not approve of separate women’s societies though for entirely liberated reasons arguing for the admission of women to the main societies, ‘as there can be no other reason for having them separate but keeping the women in the dark and certainly it is equally ungenerous and uncandid to make tools of them without confiding in them.’

Three relatively short pamphlets. Full of information and detail about a pivotal moment in our history. I am happy to recommend these for anyone interested in the people and places and events that have shaped Ireland.

 

 

 

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Want a United Ireland? – Get on the register to vote!: The Lazy Gardener. : Frederick Douglass – I have a home in Belfast

Want a United Ireland? – Get on the register to vote! At the weekend the Belfast Telegraph published an opinion poll by the Belfast based polling and market research company LucidTalk. As a matter of long standing policy I usually don’t comment on opinion polls which deal with the electoral fortunes of our political parties. I see no reason to change this policy. So I will ignore the party political content and deal only with the Unity Referendum elements. Two thirds of those polled believe the unity referendum should be held, although about half of these would prefer it to take place after 2026. A minority of 29 per cent were against ever holding a unity referendum. 49 per cent of those polled want to retain the Union with Britain while 42 per cent want a United Ireland. Imagine – without a plan or a discussion or a campaign – and with an Irish government opposed to the unity referendum, 42 per cent are already for a United Ireland. Bill White, LucidTalk’s managing director says that the fact that the pro-Union vote has remained around 50% should not be a surprise as “a united Ireland is still the unknown option, and although many people support the concept of a united Ireland, they would like to know a bit more about it, and how it would work.” He’s right. So it’s up to us who want a United Ireland to let people know more about it and to explain how it will work. It’s time to plan for the unity referendum. The Irish government must take the lead. And if they won’t, then let’s change the government. More immediately, there is a need to ensure that everyone who can vote and who wants to vote has the opportunity to do that. Whether it is next year’s Assembly election or the unity referendum an effective election or referendum campaign depends on votes. Posters, social media, leaflets, canvassing and all the rest are hugely important in winning arguments and motivating voters but it all amounts to just so much hot air if voters are not on the electoral register. In July the Electoral Office in the North wiped the entire electoral register. Each and every citizen of voting age was taken off the register in one fell swoop. A couple of months on and the uptake of citizens actively working to get themselves back on the electoral register has been patchy. An ambitious and comprehensive registration campaign to try and get as many people on to the new register as quickly possible is needed. It can’t be left to the Electoral Office or the political parties. Citizens who never vote in elections will vote in the Unity Referendum. But they can only do that if they are on the electoral register. So get help and advice on how to register to vote or log in directly to https://www.gov.uk/register-to-vote Play your part in building the new Ireland. Register to vote - Now. The Lazy Gardener. For years I used to gather up acorns and chestnuts and hazel nuts and little sycamore seeds and all manner of other seeds. My growing methods are fairly basic. I collected as many as I could and then planted them out in pots or growbags and let nature do the rest. I worked on the general assumption that if I planted a lot there was a greater chance that I would harvest a lot. I’m not talking of hundreds of seeds by the way. Pocketfuls picked up on walks. The Falls Park has plenty of oak and chestnut trees. There are native trees also in The Water Works, Colin Glen and Woodvale. Acres of broadleafs. And in all of our forests. The British Prime Minister’s country residence at Chequers has great Rowan trees. I got heaps of Rowan berries there. They are always a wee bit trickier - like the tenant in Chequers. The seeds are contained in the little red berries but well worth the trouble. Unlike the tenant in Chequers. Rowans are favourite smaller trees. And Blackthorn. Chestnuts are straight forward. In fact chestnuts are probably the easiest to grow. Once they take, these trees will be very content in pots for as long as ten or even twenty years. They are unique presents and great living memorials for friends who have died. I have a wonderful tall oak, grown from a tiny acorn, in memory of the late Eileen Howell. Another for Siobhan O Hanlon. Others for Colette’s sisters Marie and Leah. A special chestnut for Joe Floorboards and a gingerish leaved Acer for Cleaky. And it’s not just for deaths. Babies too deserve their own trees. This last few years I haven’t been as diligent as I used to be with my seed gathering. It’s too easy to be too busy. I didn’t give it up completely but I’m glad to say I am now refocused again. Why am I telling you this? Because now is the season for seed gathering. Most of the tree seeds won’t be ready for a few months but now is the time to spot the parent tree or trees. Then it is a simple matter of gathering up your seeds when they fall to earth. Even a few chestnuts planted in wee pots and left to their own devices will make a difference. And give you great pleasure. But while you’re waiting on the trees to reward you there are lots of wild flowers coming into seed at this time. Basically anything with a seed pod. Or a flower head. Fox gloves, or Lus Mór, are an old favourite of mine. Just cut off the seed pods and let them air dry then store the seeds in envelopes until you are ready for planting. Some people grow them on in little trays before planting out but I’m a lazy gardener. I just sprinkle the seeds where I want them to grow and let nature do the rest. It’s always a good tip to wash your hands after handling seeds. Some can be picked directly from the flower heads. Flowers will drop seeds themselves when they are ready so it’s easy to know the best time to gather your share. Incidentally, there are social media sites to guide you. Just google seed gathering. And don’t confine yourself to wild flowers. Many garden blooms can also be procreated. From seed. Or cuttings. Apart from flowers themselves and your own enjoyment, the bees and butterflies will be grateful. Frederick Douglass – I have a home in Belfast Last week I was part of an online panel discussion on the life and times of escaped slave Frederick Douglass, his time in Ireland in the 1840s and the relevance of his message of hope and equality in today’s world. The conversation was part of an ambitious and successful one day conference organised by the Irish Echo in New York. The event – The Big Irish Campfire (the title alone attracted me) - showcases Irish American organisations across the USA. All of the discussions were short – 30 minutes – so there was no time to bore those contributing or watching. The Echo staff – comhgairdheas to all involved - ran a tight ship. My discussion, which was hosted by State Senator Tim Kennedy, included the acknowledged expert on Douglass, Prof Christine Kinealy who is Director of the Institute of Ireland’s Great Hunger at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut. Under the clever title, ‘A Camino for our Times: On the Trail of Frederick Douglass in Dublin, Belfast and New York’ Christine talked about the three different trails/walks she has developed in Belfast, Cork and Dublin where it’s possible to visit sites that are linked to Douglass’s time in Ireland. The Belfast trail commences at the grave of Mary Anne McCracken and includes the First Presbyterian Church in Rosemary St outside of which Belfast City Council has agreed to erect a statue of Douglass. Douglass visited Ireland and Britain following the publication in 1845 of his autobiography, ‘The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave’. He arrived here in September 1845, on the cusp of An Gorta Mór and travelled to Wexford, Waterford, Cork, Limerick and Belfast. His repeated visits to Belfast during the months he stayed in Ireland are an important part of our own history and a reminder that slavery was opposed by radical Presbyterians like United Irishman, Thomas McCabe in Belfast in the late 18th century. Ireland was in his own word “transformative” for Douglass. It was he said the first time he felt like a man and not a chattel. Douglass also witnessed the awful conditions endured by Irish peasants and this led him to see the issue of slavery not in isolation but as part of a wider campaign for equality and social justice. He wrote: “I see much here to remind me of my former condition, and I confess I should be ashamed to lift up my voice against American slavery, but that I know the cause of humanity is one the world over. He who really and truly feels for the American slave, cannot steel his heart to the woes of others …” Douglass’s story is also a reminder that the evil of slavery is still with us. It is estimated that between 20 and 40 million people, including ten million children, across the world today live in slavery. In January 1846 the ‘Belfast Anti-Slavery Society’ gave a breakfast in his honour. It was his last appearance in Ireland. One of the objectives of the event was to establish a ‘Ladies Ant-Slavery Association.’ Mary Ann McCracken was listed as a committee member. She was also active over fifty years earlier in Thomas McCabe’s time when they stopped a slaving company being set up in Belfast. The event was attended by 250 people. As Douglass left Belfast he said: “Wherever else I feel myself to be a stranger. I will remember I have a home in Belfast.”

Monday, August 23, 2021

An Féile Abú - Black Mountain - Afghanistan - The expulsion of Ken Loach

An Féile Abú

Well done Féile an Phobail and to all of the staff who plan and prepare Féile. Many thanks to all those volunteers who work around the clock every August to make it all come together. This was Féile’s 33rd year and despite the pandemic and all of the restrictions and understandable worries that people have at this time Féile an Phobail was another wonderful August extravaganza and community celebration.

The Fight Night was extraordinary and from earlier that day there was a buzz on the road. The 80s music night and the Wolfe Tone concert were amazing. Well done to the Wolfe Tones who gave a shout out to the efforts of the Moore Street Preservation Trust to preserve and protect the historic 1916 Battlefield site. This is a hugely important campaign that deserves the support of everyone. The free night for young people – The Féile Dance Night – was absolutely super. It is a successful alternative by Féile to the bonfires and riots of previous years.

Well done also to the all the smaller but no less important debates and discussions. The hybrid model of real gigs, limited quite rightly in size, being streamed or zoomed across social media is a mark of the ingenuity, creativity and sheer expertise of the Féile team. And of the living loving singing dancing acting the eejit generous outward looking artistic community which Féile represents.

Finally, as a lapsed Póc Fada champ, comhgairdheas to all of this year’s winners. Tá muid fior buioch daoibhse. An Féile Abú!

 

Black Mountain

Thanks also to Féile for hosting the launch of my latest book Black Mountain And Other Stories. Harry Connolly- Féile Chair- was very kind and Timothy O Grady travelled from Poland to be with us. He too was very kind. He also did the Foreword to Black Mountain. Thanks to them all, and to The Felons who hosted the event.

The following Saturday I was in Derry for another book launch in the Gas Yard Féile. Thanks for the invite and to all of those who came along to listen to me read extracts from my books and to answer some questions. Both launches were very enjoyable. So too was Scribes at the Rock where I joined Seamus Carabine and Tadhg Hickey. Their contributions were much funnier than mine. But I enjoyed reading again from my book. Thank you one and all.

Black Mountain is available from An Fhuiseog and wwwsinnfeinbookshop.com. Or from good book shops everywhere.

Afghanistan

Almost exactly 20 years ago the USA and Britain invaded Afghanistan. On Monday the Taliban returned to Kabul amid scenes of the chaos as thousands tried to flee. The British pulled their Army out of Afghanistan in 2014 after losing 457 soldiers and spending some £37 billion there. This week, like the fall of Saigon in another era, they are pulling out their citizens and Embassy staff.

The future for the people of Afghanistan is less certain. But a look at the Iraqi situation gives a sense of the stupidity of these adventures.

Like the decision to go to war in Iraq the human consequences of the political/military strategy of western states in that region has proven to be catastrophic. Hundreds of thousands have died, millions have been displaced, and the political and economic instability created by the western wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been disastrous.

Under the grand title of ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ British and US forces invaded Afghanistan in October 2001. Sinn Féin spoke out against the decision. While we opposed the policies of the Taliban government we were convinced that a military invasion would only make a bad situation worse.

The following year, in the course of Sinn Féin’s negotiations with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, both Martin McGuinness and I repeatedly raised with him the intense speculation then circulating about a possible invasion of Iraq by British forces.  We reminded Mr. Blair that British military adventures overseas never end well, but especially for the people who have been the target of the invasion. Military occupation always leads to confrontation with local communities and the imposition of special powers to maintain control. We pointed to the decades of conflict in Ireland following British soldiers coming back onto our streets in 1969 as evidence of this.

During that first occasion in Blair’s office in Downing Street we very bluntly told Mr. Blair and Jonathon Powell, his Chief of Staff, that invading Iraq would be disastrous for Britain and especially for the people of Iraq. We put this to him again on a number of subsequent occasions. To be frank both Martin and I were convinced, even before a public decision to invade was announced, that Mr. Blair was already committed to invasion.

With military forces in both Afghanistan and Iraq the techniques of occupation, of interrogation and torture, of population control and manipulation of the media, which had been used extensively in the North of Ireland, all came to the fore. The handling of the media was particularly crucial in covering up or distracting from the killing of civilians and the many accusations of torture.

The publication by WikiLeaks of 90,000 US military files in July 2010 revealed the depth to which these techniques were used in Afghanistan between 2004 and 2009. The WikiLeaks documents provided evidence of previously unreported actions in which Afghan civilians were killed or wounded. In 144 incidents detailed almost 200 civilians were killed and hundreds more injured. This was almost certainly a serious underestimation of the true scale of civilian casualties.

Human Rights Watch, which reported on the war in the North of Ireland, said at that time: ‘These files bring to light what’s been a consistent trend by US and NATO forces: the concealment of civilian deaths.’  The files also revealed the existence of Taskforce 373 – a covert operations unit whose task is to ‘remove’ the enemy. All of this was evidence of another dirty war using old strategies and techniques, and once again failing.

When asked if the publication of the battlefield and intelligence documents by WikiLeaks would make a difference the British Foreign Secretary William Hague said; ‘None.’

Six years later in June 2016 the Chilcot Report into the Iraq War was published. Chilcot accused Tony Blair of invading Iraq before all ‘peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted. Military action at that time was not a last resort.’ What also emerged from Chilcot’s two and a half million words is evidence of a British government that had not prepared its military for the invasion. It had no long term political strategy. It didn’t even have the right military equipment essential to an invasion.

Afghanistan and Iraq are examples of western powers thinking they still have the right to do what they like, when they like and against whomever they like. Their national interests, however short term, are all that matters. The end result is chaos and calamity for the peoples they invade.

The stupidity and incompetence of the British political, military and bureaucratic establishment, which fought a war in this part of Ireland for almost 30 years, is underlined by the nonsense claim of Colonel Richard Kemp in 2010. Kemp worked to the British Cabinet between 2001 and 2006 during which time he was a senior strategist and Commander in Afghanistan. In the summer of 2010 he claimed that the British Army won the war in Ireland. Writing in the Guardian newspaper in August 2010 I said: If Kemp could get it so wrong in our country, why should anyone expect him to get it right in Afghanistan? And if he and William Hague are reflective of British thinking today, then the British are destined to make the same mistakes in that part of the world they made here.”

Almost exactly 20 years after the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 and my prediction in 2010, it would appear that successive British governments opted to make the same mistakes. The thing about the lessons of history is that imperial governments rarely learn the lessons of history instead they ignore them.

 

The expulsion of Ken Loach

Two weeks ago my column focussed on the British Labour Party, and the approach of its current leader Keir Starmer toward Ireland. The internal decision making processes of that party and the leadership style of Mr. Starmer are obviously a matter for it and for him. My concern is for its Irish policy and in particular the Labour leader’s stated willingness to stand on the side of Unionists in any debate on Irish Unity. His stance is in direct contradiction to the principles of the Good Friday Agreement which state that it is for the people the island of Ireland alone to determine our own future.

Regrettably, the news that Ken Loach, film producer, director and writer has been expelled from the Labour Party has reinforced my concerns.

Ken Loach has long been a friend of Ireland. The 85-year-old is widely respected, with an impressive international reputation as a film maker. His style of filming making is described as socially critical” and he makes no secret of his belief in socialism. His films have tackled issues of poverty, and homelessness (Kathy come home), of worker’s rights, the Spanish Civil War and the power of the state against the unemployed. The first episode of his powerful 1974 television series Days of Hope showed British soldiers in Ireland during the Tan War and in one memorable scene Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill sings The Bold Fenian Men to British soldiers who have taken over her family farm. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OtJq5NLTQY8

Loach’s 1990 film Hidden Agenda tackled the issue of shoot-to-kill and Britain’s dirty war in Ireland and The Wind that Shakes the Barley, about the Irish Civil War, and I, Daniel Blake both won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, making him one of only nine filmmakers to win the award twice.

And now he has been expelled from the Labour Party. Loach has reportedly said that his expulsion is because he would “not disown those already expelled.” The move follows closely on reports that Keir Starmer is preparing a purge of members supportive of Jeremy Corbyn.

Whatever the truth of this Ken Loach is someone who has stood up for the downtrodden all of his life. His expulsion is a significant loss to the British Labour movement.

Monday, August 16, 2021

Internment: Alex and Liz Maskey: and The last cock a doodle doo

 Internment

Imagine lying in your bed as the sun begins to rise above the horizon. You are awakened by loud banging on your front door. The sound of breaking glass and the splitting of wood as the door finally surrenders to the sledge hammer. Sitting up half asleep as the noise of booted feet come charging up your stairs and your bedroom door is kicked in. The screams of your children, or wife or partner or your parents as uniformed soldiers in blackened faces grab and drag you from your bed, demand your name, and haul you out of the bedroom. Baton blows rain down on you.

Heaved down the stairs to the street outside where you are roughly thrown into the back of an armoured vehicle and forced to lie on the floor. Shouted abuse and threats in English accents ringing in your ears. Fists and boots hammering against your head and body. Rifle butts and batons thumping into you. The noise and clatter of metal doors being opened and closed. The smell of diesel. Of people screaming in the street. Of not knowing what is happening, where you are going or what has happened to the family you have just been yanked from.

Last Monday, exactly 50 years to the day – 9th August 1971 – hundreds of families in nationalist areas across the North suffered that terror. Thousands of British soldiers smashed their way into homes dragging men and boys, old and young, from their beds and their terrified families to holding centres where most were beaten. 14 men were hooded and subjected over a week to brutal in-depth interrogation techniques by the RUC and the British Ministry of Defence’s Joint Services Interrogation Wing (JSIW).

Internment or Operation Demetrius, as it was named by the Brits, was an act of mass political violence and intimidation directed by the Unionist regime and Downing Street, against its nationalist and civil rights activists. It led to fierce rioting with British forces and the erection of barricades around most nationalist areas of Belfast and Derry. 14 people were killed on that first day. Five of them were among the 10 who were to die over a 36 hour period when shot by the Paras during the Ballymurphy Massacre. It took 50 years for their families to break through the lies and propaganda and secure truth about the events of August 1971 through an inquest. 

Thousands of families became refugees in their own country fleeing their homes from violence and intimidation. Most of those from Belfast ended up in a refugee camp in Gormanstown, Co Meath, run by the Irish Army. Refugees from Derry and Tyrone made their way to Finner camp in Donegal. Some of these eventually ended up in camps in Coolmoney, County Wicklow, Kilworth in Cork, and in Galway. Within a week the Irish Times was quoting An Taoiseach Jack Lynch warning that their reception centres for refugees had “almost reached saturation point.”

More than 5,000 refugees, mostly women and children, had fled the North and were now in camps in the South. According to a report by Freya McClements in the Irish Times last weekend there were 601 refugees “in the Garda training college at Templemore, Co Tipperary, Dublin Corporation housed 1,250 in hospitals, schools and convents, and about 100 refugees from Derry were sent to the Ursuline Convent in Sligo.”

The people who were lifted came from several different generations. Liam Mulholland was seventy-eight, one of about fifty older men like who were lifted simply because they had been interned before. Then there were young student members of People’s Democracy and a few members of the Civil Rights Association. Some people were perhaps picked up because they were related to political activists; others, completely uninvolved people, were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. There were local community and tenants’ association activists, and there were republicans, but despite the fact that the first killings had been carried out by loyalists, that the first explosions were the responsibility of the UVF, and the first RUC man had been killed by unionists, no unionists were interned. 

Violence escalated. Scores more died. In December 1971 McGurks pub in North Belfast was bombed and 15 nationalists were killed. The RUC tried to blame the IRA but it was unionist paramilitaries acting in collusion with British forces. The Parachute Regiment, the shock troops of the British Army, who had killed so many in Ballymurphy were sent into Derry on 30 January 1972 and killed 14 civil rights marchers on Bloody Sunday. Weeks later the Stormont Parliament and Regime was gone – never to return. 

But the street protests and marches against internment continued and eventually morphed into protests in support of the political prisoners in the H-Blocks and Armagh Women’s prison. Decades more conflict followed. 

It is difficult for those who didn’t live through those times to appreciate at an emotional and human level the trauma that individual families and the nationalist community collectively experienced. But instead of coercing the nationalist republican people into acquiescing to Unionist/British rule internment galvanised resistance to the Unionist regime and the British state in Ireland. Internment cemented the nationalist community’s opposition to British rule.

One additional consequence out of the chaos and conflict in the aftermath of internment was the publication in November 1972 of an eight page local newspaper published by the Andersonstown Central Civil Resistance Committee. The new paper’s focus was on telling the truth and lifting the lid on the actions of the British state that were being largely ignored, censored or excused by most of the mainstream media. Andersontown News has played a central and continuing role ever since.

Thank you Alex and Liz.

Alex Maskey will not be running in the Assembly elections next May. It will be the first time since winning Sinn Féin’s first Belfast Council seat in 1983 that he will not be an elected representative. I have known Alex since the 1970s. He is first and foremost a Republican activist. He is committed to the goal of Irish Unity and of a Republic based on the 1916 Proclamation. I am confident that he will continue to be an activist and to work for the principles and objectives he has dedicated his life of activism to.

Of course, it is impossible to think of Alex and not think also of Liz. She has been by his side through all of these years. She is an activist in her own right. This week as we recall the introduction of internment 50 years ago it is important to remember that Liz was the first woman interned. Alex was also interned and they married after their release.

When Alex was first elected in June 1983 as a Belfast City Councillor the Unionists refused to talk to him. They tried to shout him down, sounded horns, blew rape whistles, and threatened him.

As an elected official Alex continued to be constantly stopped, delayed, detained, searched and verbally, and physically, abused. Sometimes the British Army was involved. Most times it was the old RUC. When the Stevens Inquiry into collusion concluded its findings, it found that Alex was targeted by the notorious Brian Nelson. 

During their decades of activism the Maskey home was frequently the target of attacks by the RUC, British Army and Unionist death squads. Alex was grievously wounded in one such attack in 1987 and on another occasion, in May 1993, his friend Alan Lundy was shot dead in Alex’s living room by a UDA gang.

Undaunted by all of this Alex went on to become the first ever Sinn Féin Mayor and only the second Catholic at that time to hold that post in the entire history of our fair city. Perhaps it was his love of boxing and the 71 out of 75 fights he won as a school boy boxer that gave him the courage and tenacity to face up to the challenges of being a republican leader during desperately hard times. Most likely it’s because he is a natural a leader, who is prepared to stand up to injustice and oppression, regardless of the efforts of others to terrorise or intimidate or beat him into submission.

Alex demonstrated his strength of character in more recent times as the Ceann Comhairle – Speaker – of the Assembly. He was fair even when dealing with those who wanted to play the old sectarian politics.

So, Alex is standing down from elected office but I am sure he will continue to inspire and lead us as we  continue to make progress toward achieving and winning the unity referendum. In the meantime we wish him and Liz good luck. And we thank them.

The last cock a doodle doo

Readers who have been following my struggle with Russell the renegade rooster will be pleased to know that that stressful period in my life has come to an end. Daddy Dognapper was no helpful whatsoever. After his initial burst of bravado he wilted in the face of Russell’s intimidating aggression. I can’t say I really blame him. Russell fowled him while he was using the outside toilet. I caught the end of that attack as Daddy Dognapper retreated backwards, hobbled by his trousers and under garments floundering around his ankles as he tried  to protect his Henry Halls while Russell lunged at him, and them. 

Russell fled when I arrived with my hurling stick. So did Daddy Dognapper. I haven’t seen him since. It was the day after that that I caught Russell. I am not going to give you all the details of that grisly last encounter. My Ballymurphy childhood and our big game hunting expeditions on the Black Mountain and Divis stood me in good stead along with my camouflaged poncho. His death was an accident but I won’t dwell on that. 

Suffice to say Russell’s goose is cooked. Vegans among you may object. Vegetarians also. Even Pescetarians, including Free Pescetarians like RG. Though they have little room for complaint, given that they kill fish. 

So Russell has cock a doodled for the last time. He was defiant to the end. How will I remember him?

He made the best Coq Au Vin I ever tasted. Slán Russell. Dont mess with the best because the best dont mess.

 

Monday, August 9, 2021

The cause of Ireland should be the cause of Labour: Cock A Doodle Doo - Part 3.

 The cause of Ireland should be the cause of Labour

The internal machinations of the Labour Party in Britain are a matter for that party but the policies it adopts and advocates in relation to Ireland have for decades adversely impacted on the lives of citizens here.  A month ago the current British Labour Party leader Keir Starmer visited the North and provided a valuable insight into the double-think that has long been at the core of the British Labour Party’s attitude to Ireland. 

During his two day visit Starmer asserted his support for the Good Friday Agreement and the ‘principle that the decision, in the end, is for the people of the island of Ireland.’ On this he is absolutely right. The Agreement specifically states that: “it is for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively and without external impediment, to exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given …” 

But then in stark contradiction to this Starmer stated his willingness to stand “very much on the side of Unionists, arguing for Northern Ireland to remain in the UK”. Why? Because he says: “I believe in the United Kingdom”.

What part of; “it is for the people of the island of Ireland alone” and “without external impediment” does he not understand? Has Starmer no understanding of the divisive, negative, inept, condescending, violent contribution that successive British governments, including Labour governments, and successive British politicians, including Labour politicians, have had in Ireland for generations? 

After partition Labour leaders adopted a policy of non-intervention in issues related to the North. For them, and the Tories, this convention meant that the governance of the North was the responsibility of the Unionist Regime. In the early 1960s the Campaign for Social Justice (CSJ) began exposing the extent of discrimination against Catholics and advocating for reform. In August 1964 the Labour opposition leader Harold Wilson wrote to the CSJ: “I can assure you that a Labour government would do everything in its power to see that infringements of justice are efficiently dealt with.”

Wilson became Prime Minister in October of that year. The convention did not change. Despite a significant lobby of Labour MPs who were members of the Westminster based Campaign for Democracy in Ulster (CDU), the Labour government failed to achieve any meaningful reform. Why? Because according to Wilson’s Home Secretary Jim Callaghan, they were determined “not to get sucked into the Irish bog.”   Instead the Labour government looked to the Unionist Prime Minister Terence O’Neill to introduce reform. 

That approach failed when the Stormont Unionist regime resorted to violence to oppose the civil rights campaign and its demands for civil rights.

It was a British Labour Government which deployed the British Army on the streets of the North in August 1969. They should have faced down Ian Paisley and forced through civil rights reforms. Labour’s failure to do this marked the beginning of decades of conflict. In the summer of 1970 Labour was replaced by the Tory government of Ted Health. They continued to pander to unionist extremists and introduced internment. After Bloody Sunday they prorogued Stormont.

Four years later Labour was back in power and backing repression. Merlyn Rees was appointed Secretary of State. Under his control political status was ended, the H-Blocks were built, the criminalisation and Ulsterisation policies were ruthlessly pursued and the conveyor belt system of torture, special Diplock courts, and changes to the rules of evidence, all began to take shape. 

In April 1976 Rees was replaced by Roy Mason. Working closely with the RUC and British Army Mason was determined to break the republican struggle. Harassment, brutal beatings in the interrogation centres, house raids, arbitrary arrests, plastic bullets, shoot-to-kill operations, state collusion with unionist death squads, all became commonplace under Mason. Infamously he claimed in 1978: “We are squeezing the terrorists like rolling up a toothpaste tube.” 

Mason was wrong as the events of the following years were to prove. Labour, like the Tories failed to learn one of the many lessons of Irish history – repression leads to resistance. Historian and writer Dorothy McArdle remarked that after the Act of Union was passed in 1801 Ireland was governed almost exclusively throughout the 19th century by a succession of Coercion Acts, which “made every expression of national feeling a crime.” 

Did these coercion laws pacify Ireland? Of course not. Not then. And not in our time.

And even after Labour was no longer in power and Thatcher entered Downing Street, its leaders continued to provide support to her and the Tories. Lest we forget on this year of the 40th anniversary of the 1981 hunger strike it was a British Labour representative Don Concannon who visited the hunger strikers on 1 May 1981, four days before Bobby Sands died. Concannon carried a message from the Labour leader Michael Foot telling the prisoners that Labour supported Thatcher’s intransigence and that the men should abandon the hunger strike. When he met Francie Hughes in his cell in the H-Blocks, Francie asked him did he support the prisoners’ five demands. When Concannon said ‘No’, Francie told him to ‘close the door after you.’ Francie died 11 days later.

Tony Blair brought a new style to Labour and to its Irish policy. He was still a British unionist but was prepared to take risks for a peace process that the Tories had squandered. Jeremy Corbyn was for a United Ireland. And he was prepared to state that. 

The current Labour leader – Keir Starmer - has now stated his preference and his willingness to ignore the principles of the Good Friday Agreement and interfere in any referendum campaign. He has failed to raise any concerns around the many aspects of the Agreement that have still not been implemented almost a quarter of a century later. And worse he is choosing to ignore the growing and widespread democratic debate currently taking place around the unity referendum and the prospect of a united Ireland.

Is Starmer intending to imitate the Tories narrow brand of English nationalism by wrapping the Union flag around his party and adopting the same little Englander strategy of Johnson? Or is it a new version of Callaghan’s not wanting to the “sucked into the Irish bog”? Starmer’s opinion that a united Ireland “is not in sight” is not shared by many in Ireland. Moreover, the future of this island and of how we as an island people share it together in peace, equality and inclusivity in the future, is our decision not his.

That should also be the position of the British Labour Party.

 

Cock A Doodle Doo - Part 3.

I am sure you are tired of this elongated tale of my travails with our local rooster thug. I know I am. But you dear reader, at least you have a choice. You can skip over this sorrowful story, reflect instead on Squinter’s adventures or visit one of the other columnists. Me? I’ve no choice. I’m stuck with Russell the outlaw rooster.

It’s like being on the run again. Jooking around corners. Afraid to go out. I’ve taken to carrying a hurling stick. That causes consternation with the dogs. They presume that I’m going to póc the sliothar for them to fetch and when they discover that is not the game plan their disappointment is woeful to behold. And they are useless against the murderous rooster. Dogs are too shrewd to go up against Russell. Or at least our dogs are.

So I just try to stay in. Accept for this evening. John the Joiner had left me some of his wonderful home grown vegetables.  Spuds, pods of peas, beetroot, early carrots.  The carrots and beetroot were topped with luxuriant foliage. The beetroot leafs looked really nutritious and lush. Good enough to eat. So I consulted my River Cottage Cookbook. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall agreed. Cook it like spinach he advises. So I did. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall was right.  The beetroot greenery was scrumptious.

Afterwards, well fed and watered, I scooped all the remnants of pea pods, potato bits and assorted greenery on to a plate and ventured forth to give the two donkeys a treat.

The donkeys, Thelma and Louise, are related through marriage to The Dognappers but that’s another story.

In my desire to do good by the donkeys I forgot about Russell. Russell hadn’t forgotten about me. As I turned the corner he came at me like a feathered projectile. At head height and all beak and talons! A deadly feathered rocket. I clattered him with the plate. It shattered and crockery and bits of veg scattered everywhere. The air was thick with blood and snatters and feathers. No quarter asked for. None given. I don’t know who screeched the loudest. Russell or me?

I do know who retreated first. It was Thelma and Louise. Heehawing and braying loudly these two wise wee donkeys fled the ambush site. Russell retreated also after a few minutes and perched on the roof  of our shed. He crowed in triumph

I realised then that’s what roosters do. Even when you think they’ve lost they think they’ve won. It’s like the struggle for big ideas.  When you’re up against the system THEY want you to think you are a loser but you are a winner just by going up against THEM with your own ideas. That’s when the winning starts. That way you’re never a loser. You’re always a winner. Like Russell. That’s how losers become winners. That’s how struggles are won. Winning is never giving in to losing. Never giving up.

Daddy Dognapper confirmed all this for me when, alerted by the sounds of combat, he arrived soon after.

“You are never going to best that rooster,” he told me. “ Roosters are famous warriors. Top of the pecking order. Symbols-of war.Fighting cocks and all that. In Celtic culture they were fertility symbols on account of their sexual assertiveness.”

Russell crowed again.

“He will never give in. He would rather die,” Daddy Dognapper continued.

“That sounds like a good idea,” I said.

“Well if we can catch him I will give him away,” Daddy Dognapper offered plaintively. “Let’s put together a plan”.

“A cunning plan,” I retorted.

Russell looked down at us scornfully.

“Cock a doodle doo,” he trumpeted defiantly.

Daddy Dognapper and I retired to consider our  next move.

Its big boys rules now.

Bas no Bua.

Russell is a dead duck walking.

 

Monday, August 2, 2021

West Belfast at the Olympics; The Olympic Spirit; Russell Crow- Part 2.

 West Belfast at the Olympics

Well done to the Irish Olympic team. It’s been a long hard road for all of them in getting to these, the 32nd Olympics of modern times now taking place in Japan. The Covid pandemic, the postponements and the lack of competitions have all made the last year and a half a difficult time for them and for the thousands of other athletes from across the world who have been diligently preparing and honing their skills for the Games.

The big day finally arrived on Saturday. The Irish team, courtesy of the Japanese alphabet, was the fourth to enter the new national stadium in Tokyo. According to Google the translation for Ireland in Japanese is Airurando (アイルラン).

This year the International Olympic Committee ensured that each team was laid by a woman and a man. For Ireland that honour was given to boxer Kellie Harrington and her west Belfast colleague Brendan Irvine who side by side, and carrying our national flag, led the Irish team into the almost empty Tokyo stadium. It was a welcome change, enhanced by the Irish team ceremonially bowing to their Japanese hosts. A proud moment of solidarity and courtesy between the Irish athletes and the host nation.

This is Ireland’s largest ever Olympic team. In all they will be participating in 19 of the 33 sports events in the Games. I wish them all well. Whether they bring home a medal or not I believe they have already won through their participation and by their example.

The Olympic Games will run until 8 August.

 

The Olympic Spirit

The Olympic spirit of solidarity, humanity, equality and generosity comes through in other ways and others places also. Just ahead of the Irish Olympic team as it entered the Stadium was the Refugee Olympic Team. It was established in 2016 for the Rio de Janeiro Games by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees and the International Olympics Committee. Its purpose is to raise awareness of the plight of refugees and send a message of hope to the estimated 82 million displaced persons across the globe. In 2016 there were just 10 athletes in its ranks. This year there are 29 athletes representing 11 countries, including Syria, Afghanistan and South Sudan.

Meanwhile in Kells in County Meath the local community has opened its heart to helping refugees and is fundraising to bring a second Syrian refugee family to their community. Ahmed and his wife Fedaa, and their three children Maysa, 8, Kays, 5, and Tasnin, 3, moved to Kells in 2019. Another 20 communities in the South are also preparing to receive Syrian families in the autumn under the Community Sponsorship scheme.  

Sadly that same Olympic Spirit was absent among those who chose last week to abuse a small number of asylum seekers staying at the Loughshore Hotel in Carrickfergus. The asylum seekers are being temporarily housed in the hotel. The vitriol that has been directed at them is in part the outworking of a Tory government policy that aims to criminalise asylum seekers and which finds legal expression in the Nationality and Borders Bill currently being pushed through the British Parliament.

In an act of compassion and solidarity an online petition - #RefugeesWelcome – was established which has attracted over a thousand signatures and the support of most political parties, human rights bodies, elected representatives and individuals. They are making a stand against racism and defending the right of migrants and ethnic minority communities to feel safe in their homes, workplaces and streets. As Caoimhe Archibald MLA said: “Tá fáilte roimh theifigh anseo.”

Sadly, the same generosity of spirit cannot be said to exist within the Israeli Government’s apartheid policy toward the Palestinian people.

Last week saw the publication of the report by the Dáil’s Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence into “Demolitions and Displacements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.”

 The report was undertaken in April of this year following reports of an increase in demolitions, “including buildings that had been constructed and renovated with financial assistance granted through EU funded multilateral aid and potentially with the assistance of monies allocated under the International Cooperation budget” of the Department of Foreign Affairs.”

The report looks at the current situation in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and acknowledges that “Israeli actions in the occupied Palestinian Territory are making the goal of peace and a viable two state solution harder to achieve.”

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) has been recording every demolition of Palestinian property in the west Bank, including East Jerusalem.

Displacements & persons affected by demolitions 2017-June 2021

Year            Demolitions          Displaced              Affected

2017            421                       664                       7,095

2018            468                       472                       7,023          

2019            628                       907                       65,524

2020            854                       1,001                              5,394

2021            362                       562                       2,904

This means that almost 90,000 men, women and children have been affected by demolition and displacement. A result of this is that family unity and cohesion is shattered as the displaced families are forced to move in with relatives or neighbours.

Among its conclusions the Joint Oireachtas Committee accepts that the “pattern of evictions, demolition orders and displacements are not random but appear to be strategically focused on altering the demography of East Jerusalem … for the establishment of more illegal Israeli settlements in the area and physically segregating and fragmenting East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank.”

It urges the government to use its seat and forthcoming Presidency of the UN Security Council to:

·        address the root causes of the prolonged occupation of Palestine territory, the poverty, inequality and injustices.

·        demands directly (and through international bodies) reparation from the Israeli Government, for the destruction of projects where Irish and EU funding was utilised.

·        supports the setting of a clear timeframe towards the recognition of the State of Palestine.

These common sense objectives must be part of any genuine effort to achieve a permanent peace.

As a people that has suffered from colonialism these objectives also reflect the natural empathy that the Irish people have other colonised and oppressed people. As much of our world burns and communities are devastated by floods arising in large part from climate change, the disparity in the distribution of Covid vaccines exposes the deep inequalities in wealth that exist between developed and developing nations.

It is our duty, our responsibility, to confront these injustices, to be generous toward the victims of famine and conflict and the climate emergency, to oppose imperialist and adventurist wars, to be internationalist and fair, and to be champions of the cause of freedom in every land. Our objective must be to join with James Connolly and the United Irish Society as “part of the world-wide upward march of the human race”.

 

Russell Crow- Part 2.

I have learned a lot about roosters since I told the tale of my battle with Russell Crow last week.

Russell has been keeping a low profile since his savage cowardly assault on my goolies. Apparently Im not the first victim of unprovoked rooster aggression. Roosters have a reputation for crabbid behaviour that makes Jim Allister seem placid. Apparently roosters are really Stormin Normans with fancy feathers.

Pity the poor hens having to put up with that all the time!

John the Joiner told me that a rooster on his granny’s farm landed on his head when he was a wee boy and proceeded to peck at his cranium. His granny swooped by. She deftly grabbed the rooster by the neck with one hand and karate chopped it with the other.

‘We had roast rooster that Sunday. Grannies rule the roost. Grannies don’t take prisoners.’ John said.

A South Armagh correspondent who signed in as P. O Neill, tells me they have a saying around her way. 

“Every Rooster has it own dunkill”. Meaning every rooster has its own dunghill. Make of that what you will. In this case P.O Neill is a Pauline. Make of that what you will also.

A Leitrim songster reminded me of the immortal lines; ‘And every cock in the farmyard stock crows a triumph for the Gael and it wouldnt be surprising if there was another Rising, says the man from the Daily Mail.’

The little people in my life are oblivious to all this.  Russell is their hero. The  Dognappers also seem to be quietly proud of their feathered thug. I associate his low profile with them. It is obvious they have him hidden away somewhere though I shudder to think how they keep him from crowing. I suppose if you can kidnap dogs you can silence a crowing cock. Some people are very creative.

The Daddy Dognapper didnt take my complaint too seriously when I reported Russells assault on me to him.

“He has never attacked me” he said. And that was that.

Then later that night I heard a loud series of cackles, a string of curses and the noise of battle.Thats when Russell went undercover.

Later the little people in my life told me that Russell attacked the Daddy Dognapper. I was glad. Maybe now he will do something about Russell.  It makes the devil laugh to see the biterbitten.

But its not over until its over. I will get my own back on that hallion of a rooster if its the last thing I do.

He can’t hide forever. He’s too proud for that. Some of these dawns his crowing will give him away. And then ……..

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