The current unionist narrative seeks to present the present political crisis as the fault of everyone else except themselves. Mostly they blame the Irish Protocol element of the Brexit Withdrawal Treaty, the Irish government and the EU, and the funeral of Bobby Storey ten months ago. The fact that the Protocol was negotiated by the Johnson government encouraged by the DUP is simply ignored. The fact that the protocol is a child of Brexit and that Brexit is a child of the DUP is also ignored. They also claim, as Arlene Foster did last week, that Republicans are waging a ‘cultural war’ on Unionists. At the same time the DUP stall and stall again on their commitment to introduce Acht na Gaeilge.
According to Peter Cardwell – a self-professed unionist and advisor to two former British Secretaries of State - unionists are confused, bewildered, frustrated. Writing in the Irish Times last week Cardwell admitted that “the key tenet of unionism, in its essence, is its inflexibility.” “What is unionism without the union?” he asks.
Next month Unionists will celebrate 100 years of the Northern State – Northern Ireland. Nationalists and republicans will not be joining them.
The Government of Ireland Act 1920 which established two socially conservative states on the island of Ireland was the culmination of forty years of Home Rule agitation and three Home Rule Bills by Liberal governments. All failed to deliver even the minimalist self-government to Ireland that was promised. The Conservative Party successfully exploited the issue in its efforts to replace the Liberal government by using what Lord Randolph Churchill described as the Orange Card.
The Tories engaged in a calculated campaign to inflame passions and undermine British Parliamentary democracy by supporting an insurrection against the government. A provisional government was established in the North. In the political negotiations around partition that followed the British spoke out of both sides of their mouth in their dealings with the unionists and the nationalists – promising each what they wanted to hear.
So, here we are 100 years later and the unionist leadership is again playing the Orange Card. Whipping up fear and uncertainty; encouraging sectarianism and violence; making emotive and untruthful claims, all with the intent of intimidating everyone around them into conceding to their demand that nothing can ever change. In other words they demand that the constitutional status of the Northern state must continue in perpetuity because the key tenet of unionism is its inflexibility. They insist that the commitment in the Good Friday Agreement to the unity referendum be set aside because unionism finds it objectionable.
None of this is acceptable. Partition was an undemocratic act by a British government in support of a national minority in Ireland. The rejection of the Good Friday Agreement because a minority of citizens in the North do not like the possible outcome of the unity referendum is equally unacceptable.
This is not 1886 or 1912 or 1920. There is a different spirit abroad. The new Ireland is not the Catholic state of 100 years ago. It will be a modern democracy in which the rights of all citizens will be respected and protected including those who identity as British.
No amount of huffing and puffing by unionist leaders can stop this dynamic. The debate on Irish Unity continues to gather momentum. Several weeks ago Úachtaran Shinn Féin Mary Lou McDonald and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar held a widely welcomed and respectful discussion on Irish Unity. Fianna Fáil TD Jim O’Callaghan spelt out his vision of a new Ireland in an online debate with Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge University. On Monday Neale Richmond a Fine Gael TD presented a paper, Towards A New Ireland, to an audience from the same college. While Richmond accepted that there is no good time to discuss the shape of a new United Ireland he acknowledged that it does need to be planned for.
Cardwell’s analysis of the health of unionism deserves attention. His recognition that the comments on the Claire Byrne show of former Ireland international rugby player Andrew Trimble around a “fused British, Irish and Northern Ireland identity” is the “true threat to the union” is a reflection of the old unionist war cries of ‘No Surrender’ and ‘Not an Inch’. But in Trimble’s comments about the shifts in identity are the seeds of progress and of a reconciliation between the people of this island in the years ahead.
I’m pleased to say that I sent the final draft of my new book to O Brien Press this week.
The galley proofs will come back mid May for last chance editorial scrutiny.
Publication is in August and I’m grateful to Féile an Phobail for agreeing to host the book launch in virtual or reality format, depending on Covid regulations at that time.
My original book title was The Witness Tree but I’ve opted now for Black Mountain and Other Stories. There are eleven new ones and five which were previously published.
The new book title came from the publisher - one of the stories is called Black Mountain - and I’m very happy with the notion of Sliabh Dubh as the over arching witness to many of the events I’ve written about in this new tome.
So Black Mountain it is. Watch this space for further details. Save the date for publication of Black Mountain and Other Stories during Féile in August.
Palestinian Prisoners Day
12 years ago this month I visited Palestine and Israel as part of a Sinn Fein delegation that included Ted Howell, Harry Thompson and Richard McAuley. For four days we met with NGOs, Israeli and Palestinian human rights organisations, women’s groups, community organisations, University heads, senior United Nations representatives, trauma counsellors and Palestinian and Israeli elected representatives. We also spent two days in Gaza
At that time Senator George Mitchel had recently been appointed US Envoy to the region and Tony Blair was acting as the Middle East representative of the Quartet – the European Union, the USA, Russia and the United Nations. Our visit to Gaza took place just three months after the end of a three-week invasion and assault on the area by Israeli forces in which 1400 people were killed, including more than 400 children and over a hundred women and over 5,000 people were injured, including almost 2,000 children.
We saw for ourselves the extent of the devastation. Schools destroyed; hospitals damaged; homes and businesses flattened. According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) the Israeli attack “caused extensive international displacement of the civilian population with more than 50,000 people seeking refuge in 50 UNRWA schools.” All of this added to the hardship that the Israeli blockade and siege of Gaza by Israel was inflicting on the almost two million people who live there. The siege of Gaza has been maintained by Israel since then.
In the intervening years life for the Palestinian people in Gaza and on the West Bank has deteriorated even further. Israel continues to build illegal settlements on Palestinian Land, steal water rights; demolish homes and evict Palestinian families; destroy education, community facilities built with EU funding and farming equipment; and last year in the midst of the Covid pandemic the Israeli authorities destroyed more Palestinian homes than at any time since 2016.
Last Saturday was Palestinian Prisoners Day. It is an important date in the Palestinian calendar. Since the Israeli occupation commenced in 1967 it is estimated that one million Palestinians have been arrested by Israel. That means that every family has experienced the trauma of a family member or members being arrested, often brutalised and detained in horrendous conditions. Currently there are four and a half thousand Palestinians in Israeli prisons. According to the most recent statistics this includes 41 women and 140 children below the age of 18. Approximately 550 political prisoners have significant health care issues with at least 10 suffering from cancer. Some Palestinian prisoners have been in captivity for 40 years.
This August nationalists and republicans in Ireland will mark 50 years from the introduction of internment. It was a disastrous unjust British policy, demanded by the Stormont regime, which exacerbated the divisions in Northern society and led to a dramatic increase in conflict. Israel took this British colonial practice that had been used by them in Palestine and gave it a new gloss as ‘administrative detention.’
Palestinians can be detained without charge or trial for indefinite periods and their detention is based on ‘secret evidence.’ Some have been held for 15 years under this system. Palestinian children are tried before a quasi-military court. Some are imprisoned while others are held under house arrest with their parents forced to pay fines if their child is found outside the house.
The decades of ill-treatment of the Palestinian people is a scandal. The international community should be ashamed. The Irish government is now a member of the UN Security Council. It lobbied during the vote for this prestigious position that it would be an advocate for human rights. And yet it still refuses to recognise the state of Palestine – as agreed in a motion passed by the Oireachtas – and prevents the passing into law of the Occupied Territories Bill that would block goods originating in Israeli settlements on Palestinian land being imported into the Irish state. It is long past time that the government used its unique position within the UN Security Council to encourage the peace process in the Middle East while standing up for and defending the democratic and human right of the Palestinian people.
For now, I want to extend my solidarity to all Palestinian political prisoners and to wish the Palestinian people well as they prepare for elections to the Palestinian parliament in May and Presidential elections on 31 July. These are important elections and they offer the Palestinian people a significant opportunity to build new alliances, develop new strategies and reach out to the international community for support as they seek to achieve Palestinian Statehood, on the borders of 1967 with East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine.