Monday, January 18, 2021

Blog: Des Wilson, The Peoples Priest; How Mandela and his comrades paid tribute to hunger strikers; A week of high drama in Washington DC




 Des Wilson – A Voice for the Poor and Oppressed by Joe McVeigh

Fr. Joe McVeigh was a close friend and colleague of Des Wilson. It wasn’t just that both were priests. They both shared a passionate believe in justice and were committed to standing up for the rights of citizens against a British state apparatus which was oppressive and violent.

Fr. Des died on the 5th November 2019 aged 94. He lived a full life. A good life. And in the course of his years of service he helped thousands of people. During the dark years of war and violence he lived and worked in Ballymurphy and Springhill. With Joe McVeigh, Fr. Des established the Community for Social Justice. Its role was to highlight the real nature of violence in Ireland and to challenge the leaders of the Church. Fr. Des believed that the Church had a moral responsibility to stand against injustice and repression.

As a tribute to his friend Fr. Joe has just published a thoughtful pamphlet - Des Wilson – A Voice for the Poor and Oppressed by Joe McVeigh - telling the story of Des, his early life, his work as a priest in St. John’s parish and then in Ballymurphy and Springhill, and then setting up of Springhill Community House. Fr. Joe describes its purpose:

Des had a deep love and respect for the people in the Ballymurphy/Springhill community in which he lived. He always had time for a conversation and a cuppa tea. The door was always open. There was always a céad mile failte. Conversations at lunch in Springhill were a lively and interesting experience. Springhill Community House became ‘a house of hospitality’ somewhat like the Catholic Worker houses in America which had been set up by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in the 1940s and 1950s, and indeed somewhat like the Celtic monasteries in years gone by.”

Fr. Des was deeply affected by the killing of his colleague Father Hugh Mullan and ten local people by the British Army’s Parachute Regiment in August 1971 during internment. The Ballymurphy Massacre left families and a community devastated and Des was always there supporting their efforts for truth.

For over 40 years Fr. Des was at the heart of many of the positive initiatives to emerge from west Belfast, including Springhill Community Centre; Conway Mill and the peace process. He was a leader, a man of great courage and vision, a good neighbour, an honest down to earth decent human being and a priest.

Joe McVeigh’s account of his life is evidence of a man who lived a long and full life and whose contribution to community politics, to education, and to peace in Ireland is immeasurable. I want to commend Fr. Joe for writing this account of Des’s life. If you are interested in buying a copy of Fr. Joe’s book - Des Wilson – A Voice for the Poor and Oppressed – it will be available from Springhill Community House and An Fhuiseog, 55 Falls Road when they reopen following the current lockdown priced £5.

 

The ANC and the 1981 hunger strikers

The African National Congress was founded on 8 January 1912. Last week, it celebrated its 109 birthday. An odd number you might think to celebrate a birthday. However, 30 years ago the ANC leadership was able for the first time in 30 years to publicly mark its 79th birthday following the unbanning of the party by the apartheid South African government.

In its online celebration last Friday the ANC broadcast the archive film footage of the historic press conference from 30 years ago - January 1991. The then ANC President Oliver Tambo – who had just returned home from 30 years of exile - Deputy President Nelson Mandela, who had been freed the year before after 27 years in prison; and Walter Sisulu who had spent 26 years imprisoned on Robben island, all spoke of their hopes for the future and their determination to achieve a free South Africa.

As I watched the five minute video of these three giants of the South African liberation struggle I was reminded of all that has happened in that country and of the four years of difficult and dangerous negotiations that lay ahead of them. An agreement was finally achieved and in 1994 Mandela was elected as President of a free South Africa. But as the three spoke in January 1991 the outcome of the negotiations was uncertain. The political and personal risks they were taking were enormous. Violence was still widespread. Thousands were still in prison. And there was significant opposition within the apartheid system to any negotiated settlement.

The year after the 1994 election I had the honour and pleasure to meet Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu. In June 1995 I travelled to South Africa as part of a Sinn Féin delegation to meet with the ANC’s senior negotiators. Our objective was to talk to them about their strategies and tactics and to see what Sinn Féin could learn from their experience for our peace efforts. The IRA cessation was then ten months old and the British were stalling on establishing all-party talks. By the end of our visit we had made many new friends, confounded the British who had tried to block a meeting with President Mandela, and were pleased to discover that our peace strategy was already following the pattern of that used by the ANC.

On our first day in the country we were taken to have lunch with the ANC’s National Executive at their party headquarters in J’Burg. To our great surprise and honour Walter Sisulu, the grand old man of African resistance who had retired from his ANC positions after the 1994 election (he was then aged 82) made a special point of coming to the lunch. The room was packed and all of us sat riveted to Walter Sisulu’s description of his 26 years in prison and his memory of the deep respect and solidarity ANC prisoners had for Bobby Sands and his nine comrades who died on hunger strike 40 years ago this year in the H-Blocks.

ANC prisoners had watched events unfold in our prison struggle. Sisulu recalled hearing of Bobby’s death and of the silent tribute ANC prisoners across South Africa paid to a fellow freedom fighter. Most of our delegation was in tears by the time he was finished. Speaking to him privately later Walter told us that ANC prisoners marked and commemorated each of the hunger strikers who died. Mandela too spoke of the hunger strikers when we met him. On the wall calendar in his cell on Robben island on the 5th May 1981 a simple single line is written: ‘IRA martyr Bobby Sands dies.’

Afterwards I presented Walter Sisulu with a wooden Celtic cross carved by the republican prisoners in Long Kesh. It was one of several gifts made by the prisoners that we had brought with us, some of which were damaged when the British opened our baggage in Heathrow airport. An ANC former prisoner helped repair them. Later another ANC activist who had spent 15 years on Robben island was to tell us that from that point on ANC prisoners rarely spoke of ‘a hunger strike. When discussing whether a hunger strike should be employed in any given situation the political prisoners referred to it asa Bobby Sands’.  

This year we in Ireland will mark 40 years from the 1981 hunger strike. It is important that like Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu we remember and honour those who courageously gave their lives for their comrades and whose extraordinary valour set an example for people in struggle around the world.

 

 

 

The storming of the Capitol

The political and constitutional fallout in the USA to the unparalleled events last week in Washington will continue for years to come. I have visited the Capitol Building many times since my first visit to Washington DC in September 1994. I know well many of those Congressional and Senate representatives and their staffers who have regularly met with me to discuss Ireland. It was surreal and deeply troubling to watch as mobs rampaged along corridors and stairwells and offices that I have visited many times. Consequently, my thoughts last Wednesday, as I watched the disturbing scenes in the Capitol Building unfold, were primarily for the women and men who work there and who have worked closely with us in promoting peace and unity.

In recent decades Sinn Féin has developed a strong connection with those on Capitol Hill who are Democrats or Republicans or neither. Sinn Féin does not involve itself in the internal affairs of the USA. It’s not our business. But we long ago understood the importance of encouraging successive US administrations to have a progressive foreign policy position on Ireland. We have worked closely with Irish America to make that happen.

That approach has worked well both in terms of US support for the peace process; opposition to any efforts to dilute or undermine the Good Friday Agreement – especially as a consequence of Brexit - and endorsement of the goal of Irish Unity.  

I want to extend best wishes to all our friends on Capitol Hill. I would also like to thank some of those Congressional members who will no longer be on the Hill and who were steadfast in their support for the peace process. Eliot Engel, Peter King and Joe Kennedy are moving on. Thank you for your solidarity.

Finally, comhgairdheas to Boston Mayor Marty Walsh who has been appointed to President Biden’s cabinet as Secretary of Labor. Secretary Walsh is a son of Irish immigrants from Connemara and has worked closely with Máirtín O’Muilleoir and John Finucane MP in recent years in building up a close relationship between Belfast and Boston. In a video message in November to the opening ceremony of the 2020 Golden Bridges Conference linking Northwest Ireland and Irish America, Marty Walsh said: “Under the leadership of President-elect Biden, the United States is ready to move forward and to once again live up to our highest ideals. And we are committed to supporting peace and unity in Ireland, too."

I have every confidence that the Biden administration and the new Congress and Senate will build on the positive work of recent years. I look forward to an even closer relationship in the time ahead.

 

Monday, January 11, 2021

This weeks Blog: Stay Safe; Brexit Border; Irish govt & UN Security Council; & Solidarity with Catalonia

Stay Safe. 

As the pandemic surges out of control the under investment in health services north and south on this island is obvious for everyone to see. The good news of the vaccine must be tempered with a resolve by all of us to follow the health advice and to minimise contact with others until the vaccine is administered. When we eventually put this horrible pandemic behind us we must also be resolved to ensure that a fully resourced and accessible public health service becomes a reality. 

 

The Brexit Border

An hour before midnight on New Year’s Eve the Brexit deal was finally done – sort of. Four and a half years after the Brexit referendum the little Englanders and the DUP party who campaigned for Brexit got their way. The British state left the EU, including the people of the North and of Scotland who voted to remain.

Of course, it didn’t quite work out the way the DUP wanted. Instead of a ‘United Kingdom’ waving goodbye to Europe they now have a deeply disunited kingdom with Scotland battering at the gates of independence; Welsh nationalism on the rise; and the demand for a referendum on Irish Unity a growing demand across Ireland.

In addition the North remains in the EU’s single market for goods and will apply EU customs rules at its ports under the watchful eye of EU officials. There are now export checks and regulatory differences between the North and Britain. Full responsibility for this rests squarely with the DUP. 

It will take a while for the dust to settle on the mess that has been created by Brexit but a mess it is. Ireland’s interests north or south were never a consideration in the English, or the DUP support for, the decision to leave the EU. Indeed, Ireland only became an issue in the Brexit negotiations when Sinn Fein ensured that the issue of the Good Friday Agreement, and avoiding a hard border, would be a central objective of the EU negotiators. However, there is a way out of the chaos that will unfold in 2021. It is rooted in the Good Friday Agreement – the people of the north have the right to choose which union we want to be a part of: a new union between all the people of the island of Ireland or the old failed unacceptable and imposed union with England. 

One thing is certain. There will be a referendum on Irish unity. There are no ifs about it, though resistance from the usual suspects, to a referendum will continue. It is now a matter of when that referendum will be held. So those of us who want self government need to increase our efforts, and intensify the sensible call for the Irish government to initiate ways to plan how we will agree our future. Better still we need to start planning that future now. 

  

The Irish government and the UN Security Council

As 2020 came to a close most of the public and media focus was understandably on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations and the increase in the number of people across the island of Ireland testing positive for the Coronavirus.

However one other event also deserves attention. As of 1st January the Irish government holds one of 15 seats on the UN Security Council. In June of last year a secret ballot among the almost 200 member states saw the Norwegian and Irish governments win two non-permanent seats on the Council. They will hold these influential seats for the next two years.

The Irish government campaigned for the seats on the basis that it will defend and promote human rights and peace. Its success in winning the Security Council seat provides a unique opportunity to make a positive impact in world affairs, international relations and in peoples’ lives. There are a significant number of armed conflicts and international disputes which urgently need a positive engagement by the UN, including in the Middle East. The plight of the people of Palestine is crying out for justice.

Poverty, hunger, and water scarcity is also on the increase. Almost one billion people do not have access to clean water and climate change is set to make this dire situation worse.

The government also has a responsibility to use this unique opportunity to defend the Good Friday Agreement – which is an international Treaty lodged with the UN – to defend the peace process and to use this crucial international forum to insist that the British government honour its GFA commitments on human rights, legacy matters, and the role of civic society which it has so far refused to implement.

Most importantly, in a forum which places great emphasis on self-determination and self-government (the UN has grown from to 51 states in 1945 to 193 today) there is an onus on the Irish government to use this forum to articulate the desire for a United Ireland. As the debate for the referendum on Unity continues to grow the government now has within its grasp at the United Nations an unparalleled opportunity to further that objective, democratically, peacefully, and inclusively.

 

Solidarity with Catalonia

Like many other republicans I have spent several Christmas’s in prison. It’s not a nice place to be at any time but especially over Christmas. I was reminded of this a few days before Christmas when I had the opportunity to hold a video conference with two of the imprisoned leaders of 'Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya' (ERC) - the main pro-independence party in Catalan. 

Oriol Junqueras is President of the ERC and Raul Romeva is the former Foreign Minister of the Catalan government. Both are currently serving prison sentences of 13 years and 12 years respectively in Lledoners prison, Catalonia.  Declan Kearney MLA joined me in the conversation and also in attendance was Marta Rovira, the ERC’s General Secretary, who is currently exiled in Switzerland, and Jordi Solé, the ERC's Secretary for International Affairs.

The imprisonment of the two comrades arose from the peaceful and democratic independence referendum that was held by the government of Catalan in October 2017. The Spanish state reacted violently. Our television screens were filled with images of Spanish Civil Guards firing plastic bullets at Catalan citizens trying to vote, and violent scenes of heavily armoured police batoning defenceless and peaceful citizens – some of them lying on the ground, many of them women, some elderly. 

The 2017 referendum was the culmination of almost two decades of Catalan efforts to achieve greater autonomy within Spain. Catalan leaders tried to engage successive Spanish governments in a dialogue but their efforts were rebuffed. They were frustrated at every turn by an intransigent central government and the courts. 

Rather than engage in a process of dialogue to resolve this constitutional crisis the Spanish government choose to arrest and imprison senior Catalan politicians. Oriol Junqueras and Raul Romeva are among those who received lengthy prison sentences. Despite their unjust treatment and imprisonment both men were in good spirits when we spoke to them and clearly determined to continue their struggle for freedom and independence.  

Our conversation lasted an hour. Declan and I expressed Sinn Féin's ongoing solidarity with all of the political prisoners, those leadership figures still in exile, and the right of the Catalan people to independence. We also expressed our support for the Amnesty Bill currently being proposed by Catalan Independent representatives.

The connections between the people of Ireland and of Catalonia go back a long way. In 1920 Máire Ní Bhrian, a member of Cumann na mBan, travelled to Catalonia as part of the republican outreach seeking support for the Irish cause in Europe. Writing after the death on hunger strike of Terence MacSwiney the Lord Mayor of Cork, Ní Bhrian recalled;

‘In Barcelona and in Catalonia generally there was the deepest sympathy for Ireland and when Terence died the papers there were full of articles about him and masses were offered for him in many churches which were crowded to the doo… The Catalans always cherish the desire for separation from Spain and their aspiration for independence is the bond between them and us.’

A doll dressed in traditional Catalan clothing was sent from the people of Catalonia to MacSwiney’s young daughter Máire. Last year the doll was refurbished as part of an exhibition on MacSwiney by Cork public museum.

The Spanish government needs to return to the negotiating table. The international community, especially the European Union, has an obligation to ensure that Catalonia can pursue the course of self-determination without fear of suppression.

In the meantime find below the names and addresses of imprisoned Catalan leaders and political prisoners. Take a few minutes and send them a solidarity card – a letter – a book. Show them they are not alone and not forgotten. 

Dolors Bassa Coll
Centre penitenciari Puig de les Basses

Mòdul de dones
Raval disseminat, 53
17600 Figueres
(Girona)

Jordi Cuixart i Navarro
Centre Penitenciari de Lledoners
Mòdul 2
Carretera C-55, km 37
08250 St Joan de Vilatorrada
(Barcelona)

Carme Forcadell Lluís
Carme Forcadell i Lluís
Centre Penitenciari Wad Ras
Doctor Trueta, 76
08005 Barcelona

Joaquim Forn i Chiarello
Centre Penitenciari de Lledoners
Mòdul 2
Carretera C-55, km 37
08250 St Joan de Vilatorrada
(Barcelona)

Oriol Junqueras i Vies
Centre Penitenciari de Lledoners
Mòdul 2
Carretera C-55, km 37
08250 St Joan de Vilatorrada
(Barcelona)

Raül Romeva Rueda
Centre Penitenciari de Lledoners
Mòdul 2
Carretera C-55, km 37
08250 St Joan de Vilatorrada
(Barcelona)

Josep Rull i Andreu
Centre Penitenciari de Lledoners
Mòdul 2
Carretera C-55, km 37
08250 St Joan de Vilatorrada
(Barcelona)

Jordi Sànchez i Picanyol
Centre Penitenciari de Lledoners
Mòdul 2
Carretera C-55, km 37
08250 St Joan de Vilatorrada
(Barcelona)

Jordi Turull Negre
Centre Penitenciari de Lledoners
Mòdul 2
Carretera C-55, km 37
08250 St Joan de Vilatorrada
(Barcelona)

Monday, January 4, 2021

Bliain Úr Faoi Mhaise Daoibhse.

 Bliain Úr Faoi  Mhaise Daoibhse.

Chairde, a very happy 2021 to you all. Here are ten personal things I want to do in this bright new year. 

·        Survive the pandemic. Stay alive and stay healthy. That means following the health advice and getting the vaccine as soon as I can.

·        Climb Errigal again. I used to do that regularly but the pandemic and travel restrictions intruded. Ewan McColl wrote ‘The Joy Of Living, a very fine song when he realised that he could not hill walk or climb as he used to because of his age. I never really knew what he meant until my last ascent up Errigal. But as I panted slowly heavenwards I discovered the secret. Take your time. Its not a race. So I will keep going upwards for as long and as slowly as I can. And as soon as possible in 2021.

·        Publish my new book of short stories. The Witness Tree has also fallen foul of the pandemic but hopefully mid summer will see OBrien Press launching this collection.

·        Keep producing the Léargas series, in partnership with the incredible R G McAuley. This not for profit project is aboutwomen and men I came to know, or know of, alonglifesjourney. Kathleen Thompson, nee Largey,nee McCready, the singer and activist, is the subject of our next tribute. Hopefully to be published before Easter. Then we intend to do one about The Armagh Women in time for the Hungerstrike Anniversary.

·        Get to more games. The standard of hurling, camogie and football at underage, and all other levels, is rising in Belfast as a result of the work of many dedicated local GAA volunteers, parents and mentors and club stalwarts. Spectating is a great way to support Gaelic games. Commenting on the state of play and shouting loudly about the referee’s shortcomings from the safety of the ditch, is a great way to entertain those around you. And to get rid of stress. And self-respect.

·        Learn an entire song. It is a little known fact that I gave up a promising singing career in order to concentrate on  the cause of Irish freedom. I have recently realised that I know a few lines of hundreds of songs but if I was called on to sing I could not sing an entire song. I hope to rectify that by learning all the words of I Wish I Had Someone To Love Me and Mo Ghille Mear.

·        Get called to sing.

·        Improve my knowledge and use of the Irish language. 

·        Give up Twitter.

·        Have a few very pleasant ordinary social outings with family and/or friends.

·        Intensify my involvement in the cause of Irish freedom so that I can enjoy being a citizen in a free Ireland as soon as possible.

·        Relaunch my singing career.


A DOGS LIFE!

We have two dogs. Truth to tell we have had two dogs for a very long time. Once we had three. Three times or four times when puppies arrived we had a dozen or so. But that was only for a wee while. I wouldnt be without a dog. Since I was about six or so, when my uncle went to Canada and left his dog with me, there has always been a mutt in my life.

Our two dogs are Fionn and Fiadh. They are labadors, a good breed, especially tolerant of  children. Fionn is a large male, beautifully gingerishly gold in colour and  very handsome. The problem is he wont let another dog pass him without challenging it to a fair dig. He is also very strong and hard to contain when he engages in this belligerent behaviour. Apart from the stress and sheer annoyance involved I am very embarrassed by these outbursts. As a dog owner of the old school I believe that the human must always be in control of the canine. I tut tut to myself when other dogs ignore the commands of their humans. So when my dog does that to me I am scundered.

Incidentally Fionn’s belligerent behaviour can be traced to a mauling  he endured when he was a pup. A particularly obnoxious terrier seized him one day in the Falls Park and left him bloodied and wounded and in need of medical attention. This trauma is at the root of Fionn’s anti social attitude to other dogs. This tendency increased when Fiadh arrived. Fiadh is from Tipperary. She is a smaller, more intelligent and a much more biddable hound. With a very fetching smile. She is also a bitch. She made Fionn a father. Twice. That added a jealous macho element to his behaviour around other dogs, especially if he is in Fiadh’s company.

Controlling him on his own in these circumstances is challenging. Controlling the two of them is a herucüalean task.  It takes the joy out of a good walk. Unless in a lonely wild place which is devoid of other mutts. And thats not always easy to get to. Especially with big dogs. Transporting them can be problematic.

Why am I telling you all this? I suppose I have to tell someone. I am coming slowly to terms with the reality that big dogs and I have had our day. I think I have a way forward. I could leave the dog walking to more enabled,younger,anonymous family members. And I could get a smaller dog for myself. A wee Cairn terrier, a Glen of Imaal madadh, or a good old fashioned mongrel? A wee house dog. That would be the solution. If my good wife and Fionn would let him or her in. That seems unlikely at the moment but I think it is the only feasible solution.In the longer term.So I intend to work on that. Slowly.

In the meantime I won't give up entirely on walking Fiadh or Fionn. Dogs love walks. Even more than they like their dinner. And Im contrary. So if you spot me being dragged by two, or even one, large good looking canine, along the highways and byways of West Belfast be warned. Especially if  you are walking your dog. Take pity on me. As much as I hate to admit it Im not entirely in control. Its hard to teach an old dog new tricks.  Stay clear. And dont blame me. Big dogs make me  do it.

 

FINALLY.

While Brexit and the Coronavirus dominated the political agenda for much of 2020 nonetheless the debate on the proposal in the Good Friday Agreement for a unity referendum and the value, form and nature of such a referendum, have all gathered momentum. Several initiatives on this by academics have recently taken place; two weeks ago Fianna Fáil MEP Billy Kelleher held an interesting and informative online debate on this issue; and Sinn Féin, Ireland’s Future and others have also held similar online events.

The constitutional status of the North has long been the determining factor in northern politics. I believe the opportunity now exists for this generation to finally end this by achieving a United Ireland.

From an Irish republican perspective 2020 was a good year. It saw the restoration of the power sharing institutions of the Good Friday Agreement, the continuing electoral erosion of political unionism, and the emergence of Sinn Féin as the largest party in the 26 counties. Sinn Féin is now the largest party on the island of Ireland.

A continuation of the hard work that achieved these gains means that the opportunities in 2021 for continued growth and for the advancement of Irish Unity are enormous. The positive arguments in favour of self-government and for Irish Unity are common sense and winning more and more converts. So, if you believe in a new Ireland – a shared Ireland – based on fairness, equality and mutual respect join the conversation in 2021 for a United Ireland.

Monday, December 28, 2020

Nollag Shona Daoibhse. A Visit to Bethlehem

 Nollag Shona Daoibhse.

This Christmas will be unlike any other Christmas for most of us. The pandemic is to blame for that. Christmas can be a lonely place for some people. This year will be especially lonely for families who lost loved ones to the Coronavirus. Our thoughts are with them all. I hope everyone who can, enjoys the festive season as best as you can. Nollag shona daoibhse.  

There are lots of things to dislike about the modern Christmas. The blatant commercialism of it. That may be a recent trait. Or maybe it was always thus. But nowadays the omnipresent pervasive media, social and otherwise, makes it difficult to escape the relentless advertising of the latest fad that we are persuaded that our children, spouse or friends cannot do without. I hate - if that’s not too strong a word - the distress caused for so many who cannot afford it getting caught up in this madness and getting into debt as a result. My heart goes out to stressed-out parents trying to make ends meet. I also greatly resent ‘Xmas’ replacing ‘Christmas’. 

You dear reader may respond to these remarks by declaring; ‘That’s not Christmas’. You may characterise my comments as Scrooge-like. You may even mutter; ‘He has turned into The Grinch’. All this may or may not be true. But it misses the point. The point is Christmas is supposed to be about the birth of a little baby. Some believe this baby was the son of God, sent to save humanity. If he was it is edifying that he was born in a stable, in poverty, the boy child of a refugee couple, Joseph and Mary, fleeing from occupation forces. 

If God was trying to teach us a lesson there is a lifetime of lessons in that. Jesus wasn’t born in a palace. Or a grand big mansion. He was not born in a castle surrounded by riches and wealth. The baby Jesus was surrounded by farm animals. The stable was a cave. His bed was a manger. He grew up to become a working man, like Joseph the carpenter. His daddy. He grew up to teach love and fairness. His teachings are generally non-judgemental. Except when he addressed the great and the good. The wealthy powerful one. In the end he was executed, done to death by crucifixion, by the great and the good. The wealthy powerful ones.

I greatly appreciate those who work over Christmas. In hospitals and hospices. Nursing homes and orphanages. On the streets with the homeless and helpless. The Emergency Services. The ones who mind us. 

So it is good that we, believers or sceptics, should celebrate Christmas. And all humanity’s other great feast days. And that we should celebrate our own joyousness and good heartedness. Whether Christian or Jew, Muslim, Buddist or Pagan. Believer or Non Believer. We should celebrate and give thanks for the great benevolent givingness of decent hopeful people.

I have lost most of my faith in the institutional Christian church. I know great churchmen and women who I respect. I still like Mass, the sociability and assurances of it. But any institution which refuses to accord women full rights or which is more concerned about controlling instead of empowering, or with rules and obscure doctrinal matters has lost its way. Institutions tend to do that unless they are democratic and empowering. They forget their founding purpose. Or origins. In this case a baby born in a stable who grew up to mix with all the ‘wrong’ people.

I like the   crib. The baby Jesus. I remember there was a stuffed camel in the crib in Clonard. It was a childish treat to visit it. Or the Moving Crib in Parnell Square in Dublin. The simplicity of it. That’s the Christmas I like. I like Dadaí na Nhollag. Daddy Christmas. 

I like giving and receiving presents. There is nothing I need but I like not to be forgotten. I try not to open my presents until Christmas Day. 

I love that children are at the centre of it all. I like nice surprises. I love mince pies and good Christmas pudding. I love my Christmas dinner, especially when others cook and serve it and you get a wee drink as well.

And pre-pandemic and post-pandemic when extended family and friends break bread together. When we give silent thanks for the roof over our heads and the warm fire and family and friendship, the good food and company. 

And think fondly of absent friends. And others not as well off as we are. Lonely, impoverished isolated pilgrims. In this time of pandemic Christmas will be a strange occasion for many people. 

I dislike Boxing Day. I’m a Saint Stephen’s Day man. A day for the outdoors, for walks and Christmas Day left overs and lazing about. An old crocks match. And a decent film. Or a good book. Another wee drink or two. Peace and quiet. Celebrating life and the goodness of it.

So Christmas is about us minding each other. Trying to be kind. Making the effort. Like the Inn keeper who relented and gave Joseph and the very pregnant Mary shelter from the cold. 

Happy Christmas to you all.  That’s  the preaching over for this year. Mind yourselves. Be kind. And tolerant. And thankful. Nollag shona daoibh. 

 

A Visit to Bethlehem.

In December 2009 I visited Bethlehem as part of a week-long visit to Israel and Palestine for a documentary on Jesus. It was one episode of a Channel 4 series, The Bible: A History. My role in the episode was to discover the real Jesus – Jesus the man; the historical Jesus. We know only about one year of his life. Was it possible to look at what came before this? What type of person was he? Did he have siblings? Sisters? Brothers? Girl friends? Children? I was very taken by this challenge. I was intrigued by the opportunity to visit what many call ‘The Holy Land’ to reflect on the life of this singular figure.

As a strong supporter of the people of Palestine I also wanted to set this unusual opportunity in the context of today’s Israel and Palestine. I had visited the Palestinian territories before. Eight months earlier in April 2009 a delegation of us were there. At that time we met a huge number of NGOs, Israeli and Palestinian human rights organisations, women's groups, refugees, community organisations, all of the main Palestinian political parties and a Kadima member of the Israeli Parliament. We visited Ramallah and Bethlehem and spent two days in the Gaza Strip.

In December 2009 my visit was non-political. It was the run in to Christmas Day. Bethlehem was aglow with Christmas lights and colourful Christmas trees were evident everywhere. There were crowds of tourists visiting the Church of the Nativity. It is a World Heritage site and holds the grotto which is believed to be the birthplace of Jesus.

But Bethlehem is also an occupied city. The tragic irony of this was sharpened for me by my new and growing knowledge of the ancient history of the place gleaned from the conversations I was having about Jesus and the Palestine of 2000 years ago. At that time Bethlehem was an occupied town under Roman rule. Roman soldiers patrolled its streets and Roman policies dictated the economic and much of the social life of the region. Most importantly the Jewish people were denied their freedom – a denial which led to several failed and bloody rebellions.

In 2009 and still today the people of Bethlehem live under Israeli military occupation. The Israeli separation wall – a monstrous construction which stretches for hundreds of kilometres – and separates Palestinian families; separates farmers from their farming land and their water – overshadows Bethlehem. It surrounds the town. The Wall, the military fences and gates through which Palestinian workers must go each day to and from work and the armed Israeli soldiers are a constant reminder of military occupation. So too are the frequent reports of Israeli brutality, house demolition and killings.

Christmas is a time is for everyone and especially children, but if you are a Palestinian child living under Israeli military occupation then you face constant threat and danger. A report last week from ‘Defense for Children International – Palestine’ (DCIP) entitled - Isolated and Alone: Palestinian children held in solitary confinement by Israeli authorities for interrogation – reveals the detail of arrests, the conditions of detention, and interrogation practices against children by Israeli authorities. The report concludes that the Israeli practices amount to torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment under international law norms. If you would like to read it google: https://www.dci-palestine.org/israels_isolation_of_palestinian_child_prisoners_amounts_to_torture

The report documents 108 cases in which Palestinian children arrested by the Israeli military were held in isolation for two or more days. The average duration of isolation was 14.3 days and 43 of the children endured a prolonged period of isolation of 16 or more days. The report states that, “The interrogation techniques used by Israeli forces are mentally and physically coercive...They combine intimidation, threats, verbal abuse and physical violence with the clear intention of obtaining a confession.”

I have now visited Israel and Palestine four times. I always leave feeling deeply saddened at the plight of the Palestinian people and the failure of the international community to do what it should to encourage a peace settlement.

2020 has been especially difficult for the Palestinian people.  The Coronavirus has made life much more difficult. Bethlehem is devoid of tourists. The hotels and the tourist shops are closed. 2021 is just days away. I wish the people of Palestine and of Israel a peaceful Christmas and I want to extend solidarity to the Palestinian people and to assure than that the people of Ireland continue to support their just demands for national sovereignty and independence.

 

 

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

DUP betrayed again by a British government and the British threaten the EU with gunboats

Betrayed again! 

British policy is dictated by British interests. It has always been so. The fact that Prime Minister Boris Johnson has again betrayed unionists over Brexit should have come as no surprise to anyone with even the most rudimentary understanding of how British policy works. The British Prime Minister Palmerston spelt it out most clearly almost 200 years ago when he said: “We (England) have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow...” Irish Republicans and others who have had first-hand experience of British duplicity have a name for it – perfidious albion. 

The surprise is that so many unionists are surprised by the turn of recent events. Have they no memory of the twists and turns of Theresa May in her relationship with the DUP?  Do they not recall the many warnings given, including by this writer that the deal reached between the DUP and Theresa May in the summer of 2017 would end in tears? The DUP thought they had it made. They believed that the confidence and supply arrangement which would see them keep May in power would ensure them enhanced influence at the heart of Westminster.

Less than a year later it was starting to fall apart. As the British negotiated the Withdrawal Agreement in October 2018 Arlene Foster warned: “There cannot be a border down the Irish Sea, a differential between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.  The red line is blood red.” 

With the British and the EU close to a Withdrawal Agreement Theresa May employed the bureaucratic gobbledegook language of the Sir Humphrey Appelby character in Yes Minister and wrote to Arlene Foster talking about “specific alignment solutions in some scenarios.” Arlene Foster interpreted this as preparedness on the part of the British government to embrace “the idea of a border down the Irish Sea.” Foster wrote a letter back to Theresa May in which she said that “The Prime Minister’s letter “raises alarm bells for those who value the integrity of our precious union.”

When the announcement of the Withdrawal Agreement was made some days later Sammy Wilson went into verbal overdrive. He described it as “a punishment beating for the UK because they dared to vote to leave the EU.”

The DUP stopped voting with May. It even voted with Labour. The DUP turned its back on May and embraced Boris Johnson as the saviour of the union. Two months after Foster’s “blood red” comments Boris Johnson was given a rousing welcome at the DUP party conference in Belfast. He warned against the North being left behind as “an economic semi-colony of the EU”; attacked any suggestion of regulatory or customs checks between the North and Britain describing them as; “damaging the fabric of the Union”; called on the British government to “junk the backstop”; and in a bizarre reference to the Titanic warned against the EU being allowed to set the rules for the North. Johnson said: “The Titanic springs to mind and now is the time to point out the iceberg ahead.”

Two years later and the Johnson government has driven the ship right smack into the iceberg and the DUP is facing mounting criticism as more and more people come to realise the failure of its strategy and the disastrous impact Brexit is going to have on the North’s economy and their lives. Under Johnson’s leadership all of the commitments he gave two years ago to the DUP have been abandoned. Worse, from their perspective, there will be a border down the Irish Sea; customs posts will exist in northern ports and airports checking goods coming from Britain; and the North will remain within the EU single market. 

One consequence of all of this is that the words “betrayed” and “betrayal” have again been dusted off by political commentators and unionist politicians. The former UUP press officer and commentator Alex Kane was scathing of Boris Johnson last week. He wrote that the “sheer scale of this betrayal is unprecedented”.

The trouble is it’s not. In March 1972 the British government scrapped the Unionist regime at Stormont. In November 1985 they signed the Anglo Irish Agreement with Dublin. Hundreds of thousands marched in protest. Remember, ‘Never, Never Never!’ In December 1993 John Major signed the Downing Street Declaration with Albert Reynolds. In September 1997 the DUP walked away from the talks process because Sinn Fein joined it and stayed outside the process until 2007.

But then unionist political leaders since the Home Rule Bills of the 19thcentury, and especially the DUP in the last 50 years, have frequently relied on claims that unionists are being sold out or betrayed to mobilise support in opposition to any meaningful reforms. This tactic facilitated the creation of paramilitary groups like the UDA, UVF and Ulster Resistance. 

Last week the Belfast Newsletter wrote in an editorial: “The Prime Minister will always do what is right for him personally, then for his party, and then for England.” That same comment is true for every British Prime Minister. 

Remember the old adage? ‘Fool me once shame on you – fool me twice shame on me’. How should it go if you have been fooled so often and so shamelessly over so many decades? DUP-ed again?

So, if you are a unionist and are fed up with British politicians and unionist politicians, playing you for a fool, and betraying and using you in their own interests, consider a different future – a different approach. Consider engaging in the growing conversation about a new Ireland – a shared Ireland – in which new constitutional arrangements will protect and promote your interests. Remember, for Boris Johnson and others like him there is no precious union there is just eternal and perpetual English interests. 

 

Gunboat diplomacy

Brexit is the outworking of a little Englander mentality that harks back to the days of Empire. It believes that by cutting itself off from its ties with the European Union a ‘sovereign’ Britain can attain the power and prestige it once enjoyed as the Empire on which ‘the sun never sets’.

A key tactic of British imperial strategy for much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and part of the 20th century, was the use of gunboat diplomacy. This was used when the British Empire wished to extend its economic and political influence and power, or curb the desire for independence by others, without the necessity of a full scale military intervention. British gunboats would be sent in to blockade ports and threaten governments. It was the brazen use of intimidation and the threat of greater violence to achieve its objective. 

Of course the British were not alone in using this tactic. All of the European colonial powers used similar tactics. However, as the largest Empire ever in the history of humanity, and with a navy providing it with unrivaled power, the use of gunboat diplomacy allowed the British to hold hundreds of millions of people across the world in thrall to its demands and exploitation.

Last week gunboat diplomacy was resurrected by the British government. The weekend headlines in the British tabloids spelt it out “We’ll send in gunboats.” Four military vessels are on standby to take to the seas around Britain to defend its fish.  One headline spoke of “Royal Marines abseiling from helicopters on to French vessels” and “arrest fishermen.”

Will the EU or indeed any of its member states feel moved to change their stance by a threat to use gunboats? Unlikely. What this does signify is that the narrow minded little Englander mentality that narrowly won the Brexit referendum in 2016 continues to be a potent force within the British political system. A further reason for Scotland and Wales to increase their efforts to achieve independence and a potent reminder to United Irelanders of the importance of achieving the unity referendum contained in the Good Friday Agreement and of winning that referendum. 

 

Hail The Antrim Hurlers.

Well done Antrim. Well done the legions of hurling enthusiasts who kept the faith in lean times and passed on the skills and love for hurling to new generations. Well done Darren Gleeson and the management and backroom team. Well done all their predecessors and our county board. But especially well done to our warriors who battled tenaciously against a stubborn Kerry side; who never gave up until the ref finally brought Sunday’s game to a close and with it an All Ireland win for our glorious county. Aontroim Abú. Thank you Antrim Hurling Champions. Fáilte abhaile Joe Mac Donagh.

 

 

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