Monday, May 3, 2021

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

 ANC supports Unity Referendum and a United Ireland.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s plan our own Future together

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Lá breithe Chuck

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

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

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

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



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


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