Friday, May 20, 2016

Europe condemns treatment of Traveller community

There was nothing to show that the land adjacent to the car park had housed seven traveller families. New concrete bollards had just been laid. They blocked  the entrance to the piece of waste land, behind the KFC outlet at the Dundalk Retail Park. Until a few hours earlier that had been their temporary home.
I arrived a short time after An Garda Síochána had carried out the eviction. Some of the families, who are among 23 evicted from the Woodland Park halting site in January by Louth County Council, had already moved around the corner onto land in the nearby IDA (Industrial Development Authority) complex. Others were on the road – slowly driving around Dundalk searching for somewhere to park. All know that wherever they park it is only for a short time until they are told to move on again. For the parents and for their children this is a confusing, enormously stressful and difficult time.
At Woodland Park I met Rebecca Quinn, who is the spokesperson for all of the families. We discussed recent developments and what progress has been made by the Council on renovating the site. Woodland Park is a depressing, poorly designed concrete complex of connecting bays for mobile homes that was built as a halting site for Traveller families. It lay vacant for 8 years until early last year when families moved back on to it.
In January the Council evicted the families. Some have been temporarily rehoused in B&Bs, others moved in with relatives, and some have illegally occupied other sites.
Louth County Council undertook to refurbish Woodland Park. Since then trees have been cut back and tons of rubbish, mostly dumped while the site was vacant and vandalised, has been removed. It is a spartan, austere, unfriendly place. Not somewhere you would want to live.
The decision by Louth County Council to renovate the site and to undertake a review of the numbers and circumstances of the Traveller community in Louth is welcome. The funding for Woodland Park will come from the government so the Council’s resources for housing for the settled community is unaffected. However, it will take some time, perhaps another year, before the Woodland Park site will be reopened. It will accommodate four permanent bays and ten transient bays for a maximum of 14 families – plainly more sites are needed.
In the meantime Traveller families are being pushed from one illegal site to another. There is an absence of compassion or empathy in their treatment. There is little or no understanding of the Traveller way of life. It reminds me of how nationalists in the north were treated under unionism. In 1969 Prime Minister Terence O Neill infamously remarked: "It is frightfully hard to explain to Protestants that if you give Roman Catholics a good job and a good house. they will live like Protestants because they will see neighbours with cars and television sets; they will refuse to have eighteen children. But if a Roman Catholic is jobless, and lives in the most ghastly hovel, he will rear eighteen children on National Assistance. If you treat Roman Catholics with due consider and kindness, they will live like Protestants in spite of the authoritative nature of their Church ... "
No attempt to understand Irish nationalists. No empathy with us as human beings. Unionists wanted us to fit into their view of the world.
And so it is frequently between the agencies of the Irish state and the Traveller community. Earlier this week in a landmark judgement by the European Committee of Social Rights the committee found that the Irish government has failed to provide enough accommodation for Travellers, that many of the sites provided are in a poor condition and that legal safeguards for Travellers threatened with eviction are insufficient. Specifically, the ECSR found that the government was in breach of Article 16 of the revised European Social Charter which it signed up to in 2000.
This judgement has implications for the treatment of the Travelling community in not just in Louth but across the state. It arose because of a complaint brought in April 2013 by the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) for alleged breaches of the Revised European Social Charter linked to Travellers’ rights to housing and accommodation.
The ECSR found a number of violations of Travellers rights, including; insufficient provision of accommodation for Travellers. It pointed out that of 1,000 “transient bays” identified as needed by a 1995 task force there are only 54 in existence and not all function as proper transient sites; the Traveller community has also grown in the meantime.
The European committee also found that many Traveller sites are in an inadequate condition. The committee concluded that a “not insignificant number” of sites are in poor condition, lack maintenance and are badly located. There is also a lack of water, poor refuse collection and problems with damp, flooding and sewage.
Significantly, in light of the use of forcible evictions against the Traveller families in Dundalk, the European Committee determined that the legal safeguards for Travellers threatened with eviction are inadequate. The committee added that the relevant legislation fails to provide for adequate consultation or notice or a requirement to propose alternative accommodation; there is also no legal aid available and limited access to judicial review.
It is also worth noting that the budget for Traveller specific accommodation was slashed from €40 million in 2008 to €3 million in 2014 and the European report identified ‘chronic underspending by local authorities.’
All of this was done at a time when the number of Traveller families living in unsafe, unserviced, and authorised sites has increased by almost 50% in the last two years and that those living in overcrowded accommodation has increased by 30%.
The Irish government has also failed to recognise the distinct culture, traditions and ethnicity of the Traveller community. Their ethnicity is recognised in the north, as well as in England, Scotland and Wales but not in southern the Irish state.
In April 2014 the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality recommended that the Irish State should recognise the ethnicity of the Traveller community. 
In November 2014 the then Minister of State for Equality Aodhán Ó Riordáin told an audience at an event to promote understanding between Traveller and settled children that the government planned within six months to formally recognise Travellers as a distinct ethnic group.
It would be the Minister proclaimed “one of the greatest things we can do to finally celebrate and acknowledge the rich and vibrant culture that the Traveller community have in Ireland.”
Over two years on from the recommendation of the Oireachtas Committee and 19 months after the Minister’s six month deadline, there has been no progress on this issue and the government again failed to include it in the recently published Programme for Government.
At the same time living conditions for many Travellers continue to deteriorate. Media reports this week showed images of sites with piled rubbish, leaking water pipes and inadequate sanitation.
I met new Minister for Housing, Simon Coveney on Thursday morning. It was a useful meeting. Our discussion focussed on finding a solution to the issues in Louth, including the provision of an emergency and temporary halting site to resolve in the short term the scandal of families being evicted from illegal sites because they have nowhere else to go. But a longer term strategic approach is urgently needed. This must include the recognition of Traveller ethnicity.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

We will stand by our commitments

Last Friday was one of those days. It started in Dublin with the election of a Taoiseach and finished at the Assembly count centre in the Titanic quarter in east Belfast with four Sinn Féin MLAs returned for west Belfast.
The Dáil met at noon to decide the fate of Enda Kenny and his government. It was 70 days to the day that the electorate had passed their judgement on the Fine Gael and Labour government. They were stripped of their mandate to govern. In the intervening months Fianna Fáil wasted weeks in a cynical charade to form the next government. This little sham process was really about Fianna Fáil trying to inflate their status as the main opposition party and the alternative government in waiting.
After more weeks of interminable negotiations Fianna Fáil finally abstained from the vote for Taoiseach while a number of former independents – who had sought votes in the general election on the basis that they wanted to get rid of Fine Gael – u-turned on that commitment. They moved from being independents to becoming ‘Endapendents’ – supporting Enda Kenny for Taoiseach.
In his Dáil remarks the Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin spent a tediously long time desperately trying to convince the Fianna Fáil faithful why they were about to put Enda Kenny back into office as Taoiseach. His spin claimed that their party had just won a great victory and forced Fine Gael to adopt Fianna Fáil policies.
It was typical Fianna Fáil strategy. In the years it was in government its TDs frequently railed against government policies. This allowed them to be in and out of government at the same time. In his remarks Martin claimed that the “election represented an overwhelming rejection of the Fine Gael-Labour Party Government, its policies and its hyper-political behaviour…”
The Fianna Fáil leader went on to accuse Fine Gael of being “committed to the idea that the outgoing Government's policies were correct ...“
If Teachta Martin were to follow the logic of his criticism of Fine Gael, then he should have voted against Enda Kenny for Taoiseach.
It all sounds very complicated and not very stable or durable. In effect Fine Gael has handed Fianna Fáil the ability to pull the government down at a time that suits that party. Of course there is always the possibility of this government lasting a full term or close to it. Nobody knows But for now we have a coalition government led by Fine Gael aided and abetted by its new partners in Fianna Fáil and some of the so-called Independents. Fianna Fáil is a semi-detached partner with no substantive policy differences between the two conservative parties.
Worse, the price Fianna Fáil extracted from Fine Gael for this arrangement leave us with Irish Water intact, charges merely suspended, no new initiative to tackle the crisis in housing - no new money to tackle poverty and deprivation and a health service in chaos. Together with those independents who backed Enda Kenny Taoiseach their joint programme for government is a master class in waffle and bluster. It has no real ambition, no big ideas, no costings, little real detail. Never was so much negotiated for so long for so little. There are a few miserly lines, not even a section on health, which say the "humane approach" for the revision of medical card provision should be maintained. What "humane approach"?
At the end of this farce there is one certainty. Sinn Féin is the lead opposition party in the Dáil and we intend enthusiastically and energetically challenging the government parties on their bad policies.
In the north the Assembly election saw the percentage share of the vote of all of the parties drop. Unusually, the drop in the nationalist vote was marginally greater. The result in Assembly seats saw no change for the DUP and UUP, although this fell short of UUP leader, Mike Nesbitt’s predicted three additional seats. The expected Jim Allister challenge was seen off by a DUP which effectively used the ‘fear’ of Martin McGuinness as a possible First Minister to mobilise its vote.
The election also witnessed a further damaging decline in votes and seats for the SDLP. It’s now at its lowest level of support ever. Despite the barrage of criticism directed at Sinn Féin we returned with 28 seats. One seat was lost due to poor vote management in Fermanagh south Tyrone where we took over 40% of the vote. A shift by some voters in west Belfast and Derry away from the SDLP and Sinn Féin benefited the two People Before Profit candidates. Two Green Party MLAs were also elected in north and south Down.
The overall result is an endorsement of the Fresh Start Agreement and a rejection of the negativity of the smaller Executive parties.
There are also many positives for Sinn Féin emerging from these results, especially when one considers that the next Assembly election will see the number of Assembly seats in constituencies reduced to five.
In Upper Bann Sinn Féin took a second seat with the election of Catherine Seeley. In East Derry we were only a couple of hundred votes away from taking a second seat. In Mid Ulster our three candidates were returned on the first count, including two high profile women - Michelle O’Neill and Linda Dillon. And in West Tyrone there was another strong result with the party winning three seats. Significantly in South Down we closed the gap with the SDLP to within 200 votes.
All in all the Assembly elections saw a strong performance by Sinn Féin. Of course, the decline in the overall nationalist vote needs closely examined and policy and organisational measures taken to address this. Is it because in the minds of some we were associated with the British government’s austerity policies? Has it to do with the constant crises in the Assembly and Executive? The growth in the PBP vote in two constituencies with strong anti-Sinn Féin dissident elements also needs close examination.  
Finally, I want to thank everyone who voted for our party. I also want to thank all of the Sinn Féin candidates who worked very hard during a long election campaign; and their families.

Along with our colleagues who were recently elected to the Dáil and the Seanad we pledge to continue our efforts in the time ahead to ensure that real solutions are found to the problems affecting our communities, ending divisions and uniting the people of Ireland.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Parallels in struggle

Last week I had a moment to myself and settled down for the evening to watch Django Unchained. It’s a Quentin Tarantino movie. It is very violent. But it is also a powerful anti-racist movie in which the main character challenges slavery and the injustices inflicted on African Americans. When it was over I posted a tweet which included the n-word. My purpose was to draw the parallels between the courage and defiance of Django and the people of my own district during the recent years of conflict. Within minutes I deleted it. I later apologised for using it.
However there were those who then spent the next few days telling me, and anyone else who would listen, that there is no comparison between the plight of African Americans and the Irish. I was accused of misrepresenting the parallels between the campaigns for justice, equality and civil rights for the people of Ireland under colonialism, and in particular of the north post partition, and that of the generations of African Americans who struggled for civil rights in their place.
I take a different view. Ireland was a colonised nation that suffered enormously under centuries of British occupation. The Irish people were dispossessed of our land, forced into poverty and denied our rights as human beings. Whether during the clan wars or the plantations or the Cromwellian invasion Irish people died in their tens of thousands.
Séan O’Callaghan in his excellent book ‘To hell or Barbados – the ethnic cleansing of Ireland’ reminds us that between 1641 and 1652 over half a million Irish were killed by the English out of a small population of several millions, and that 300,000 more were sold as slaves. Under Cromwell in 1649 all captured Irish soldiers were sold as slaves. In 1650 25,000 Irish ‘were sold to planters in St. Kitts. During the 1650’s over 100,000 Irish children, generally from 10 to 14 years old, were taken from their parents and sold as slaves in the west Indies, Virginia and New England… Between 1652 and 1659 Cromwell shipped 50,000 Irishmen and Irish women as slaves to the Barbados… The planters began breeding the Irish women because it was profitable. Children of slaves were themselves slaves.’
Callaghan tells us that “The planters had to pay more for a black slave. African slaves cost about 20 to 50 pounds sterling compared to 900 pounds of cotton (about 5 pounds sterling) for an Irish.”
By 1685, nearly 80 percent of all land in Ireland was held by the colonists. The penal laws were designed to crush any sense of Irishness – to destroy our language and culture, and any desire for freedom. Catholics were denied the right to practice their religion; Catholic schools were banned; Catholics could not own a horse worth more than five pounds; they were barred from most professions; were not allowed to live in many of the larger towns; and could not acquire land, and much more.

A hundred years later Irish Catholics owned only 5 percent of the land in the country. As a result, the vast majority of Irish people lived as peasants in abject poverty, frequently facing the trials of famine. The English landlord class and its agents cruelly exploited this situation to maximise their profits.  One English writer of the time Arthur Young, in ‘A Tour in Ireland 1780,’ wrote of the condition of the Irish peasant:
“A landlord in Ireland can scarcely invest an order which a servant, labourer or cotter dares to refuse to execute. Nothing satisfies him but an unlimited submission… Landlords of consequence have assured me, that many of their cottars would think themselves honoured by having their wives or daughters sent for to the bed of their master; a mark of slavery that proves the oppression under which such people must live.”
And what of the thousands of Irish who were sent to Australia in convict ships in chains?  Men, women and children, like David Fay from Dublin who was 11 years old when he arrived in 1791, indentured servants with no way home.
And then there is An Gorta Mór. A million dead. Millions more in poverty. And millions fleeing in coffin ships – some of them former slave ships – across the Atlantic. The people abandoned their mostly one roomed, mud or turf-walled cabins, with their sod roofs, and their small parcels of land. Frederick Douglass, a former slave on the run from slavers in the USA visited Ireland in 1845 and noted that in the conditions of those working the land for the British landlord class there was “much here to remind me of my former condition.”
Subsequently partition created two conservative, mean spirited states on the island.
The unionist regime that controlled the northern state especially depended upon the gerrymandering of local electoral boundaries, restrictions on the right to vote and the imposition of a permanent state of emergency. Discrimination in employment and housing was endemic. It was an apartheid state.
It was little wonder that Vorster, the South African Minister for Justice in the apartheid regime, while introducing a new coercion bill in 1963 commented that he would “exchange all the legislation of that sort for one clause of the Northern Ireland Special Powers Act.”
In January 1967 I participated in the meeting that formally established the Civil Rights Association. It was inspired by the American Civil Rights Movement and consciously fashioned itself on it. Irish rights activists identified with the plight of African Americans. We each were denied the right to vote; we each were discriminated against in employment and housing; and we each had to endure the physical and legislative oppression of special laws that banned music and literature and newspapers and peaceful protests.
The orange state reacted violently to the civil rights movement. It employed the RUC and its armed militia the B Specials to suppress peaceful demonstrations. What is the difference between the attacks on black civil rights marchers walking to Selma and white civil rights marchers walking to Derry? What’s the difference between images of RUC officers armed with batons attacking civil rights marchers at Duke Street in Derry in 1968 and on other marches across the north, and police in the southern states of the USA attacking civil rights campaigners there? What is the difference between African Americans being killed because of their colour or 11 people in Ballymurphy being shot dead by British troops because they were Irish and nationalist?
There is none. The struggle in Ireland is about rights. The civil rights struggle in the USA was about rights. The struggles in many other places around the globe are about rights. Sharing in solidarity is what we do. Republicans are internationalists and we are proud of this.

Frederick Douglass’s four months in Ireland in 1845 brought home to him the awfulness of colonialism and reinforced the need for the abolition of slavery and oppression. In a world today in which there are an estimated 20 million slaves we share his goal. 

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Ten Men Dead and David Beresford

35 years ago this Thursday, May 5th 1981, Bobby Sands died on hunger strike after 66 days without food.  He was the first of 10 men to die in the H Blocks of Long Kesh that terrible summer of 1981. For those republican political prisoners in the H-Blocks, in Armagh Women’s prison and in other prisons in Ireland and England there was a shared sense of grief and anger.

For the families of those who died and for the rest of us and the tens of thousands of ordinary citizens in Ireland and around the world who campaigned on their behalf, this was our Easter 1916. It was a transformative, watershed moment in our lives but also in the struggle for Irish freedom.

To their families and comrades and supporters the hunger strikers are heroes. They were courageous comrades who selflessly gave their lives that others might not experience the brutality and savagery of a vicious prison regime. And in their painful deaths, watched daily by families and friends, and reported by a generally hostile media, they defied the Thatcher government’s efforts to criminalise them and the struggle that they were part of.

When it ended in October 1981 it appeared that the prisoners had lost. But in reality that long and difficult summer resulted in a few short years with the demands of the prisoners being met. The hunger strike also internationalised the struggle in a way that nothing else had. It facilitated connections with other political and liberation movements and it saw a huge growth in the number of republican activists. It helped accelerate the acceptance by republicans of electoralism as part of strategy.

All of this opened up significant new opportunities, including within a decade secret contacts with the British government and efforts by Sinn Féin to explore the potential for a peace process.

Several years later David Beresford, the Guardian’s correspondent to the north, published the definitive account of the hunger strike – Ten Men Dead. David died last week and his funeral service took place on Tuesday. He was remarkable man and an exceptional writer, author and journalist. He arrived into the north in 1978 at a dangerous and difficult time.

The prison protests in the H-Blocks and in Armagh women’s prison had been going on for three years. There were some 500 protesting prisoners and hundreds more in other prisons in Ireland and England.

The use by the British state of widespread torture in the interrogation centres; of shoot-to-kill actions: and of collusion between state forces and unionist paramilitaries in the killing of political opponents and civilians was widespread. The IRA war against the British state showed no sign of abating.

There was also a major propaganda battle taking place. Many in the establishment media played the game. Their first port of call when anything happened were the numerous press officers working for Britain’s Northern Ireland Office or for the RUC or British Army. Frequently they went no further. The British line was their line. And their editorial bosses, whether in Belfast or London, were happy to sustain this relationship. Censorship, official and unofficial, was deep rooted and corrosive.

This was the north and the state of conflict into which David arrived. From the beginning he looked beyond the official spin. he travelled widely in the north; made a point of speaking to republicans, loyalists and community activists, and to those directly affected by the war.

He had a healthy scepticism; was a good listener; and his writing was insightful, informative and discerning. Occasionally I met him also to discuss the current politics of the moment.

All of us who knew him were struck by his commitment to truthful journalism. Consequently, when he broached the possibility of writing a book on the hunger strike there were no objections. He was trusted to tell an honest account of that very difficult time in our history and in our lives. To aid him in this we gave him access to the ‘comms’ – the messages that were smuggled out from the prison.

In the main these were written on thin tiny cigarette papers, or torn scraps of paper from the Gideon bible that each cell had, using the refill of biros hidden inside the bodies of the prisoners. They were then wrapped in cling film and smuggled out.

Ten Men Dead is probably the best book written about any aspect of the conflict in Ireland. It remains as potent a piece of journalism today as it was when first published. It is a compelling book; impossible to put down once you begin to read it. It is a passionate book that tugs at the emotions. It provides a harrowing and moving account of one of the most extraordinary events during the decades of war in the north of Ireland.

Its longevity; its’ honesty and David’s ability through his words to empathise with those he was writing about  have combined to ensure that Ten Men Dead has never been out of print.

A few years after the hunger strike David moved back to South Africa to record the historic changes that were taking place in that country. In 1995 I had the good fortune to meet him again in South Africa when a Sinn Féin delegation travelled there to meet with Madiba – Nelson Mandela - and others in the ANC leadership.

The IRA had the previous year called a cessation and we want to discuss with the ANC their strategies, tactics and general approaches to their peace process and the lessons for ours.

By this stage David was suffering from Parkinsons. It is an awful disease but he faced it with courage and great dignity and wrote about his experience. I also watched the television documentary he made detailing the operation in 2002 to ease the symptoms.

David Beresford believed in the rights of people; in human rights. He wanted to tell their stories in a way that would help others understand what was happening.

As we in Ireland remember our friend Bobby Sands and his nine comrades it is appropriate that we also remember David Beresford who shone a light on the horrors of the H-Blocks.

Bobby was a fine writer also. A poet. From within the confines of his prison cell, naked and brutalised he smuggled out words that resonate today. Among them is his poem The Rhythm of Time. It applies equally to David Beresford:

There’s an inner thing in every man,
Do you know this thing my friend?
It has withstood the blows of a million years,
And will do so to the end.

It is found in every light of hope,
It knows no bounds nor space
It has risen in red and black and white,
It is there in every race.

It lights the dark of this prison cell,
It thunders forth its might,
It is ‘the undauntable thought’, my friend,
That thought that says ‘I’m right!’

On behalf of Sinn Féin I want to extend my deepest condolences to David’s family. To Marianna, Belinda and Norman; and Ellen and their son Joris, and to David’s elder brother Garth. Ar dheis dé go raibh a anam dílis. 

Friday, April 29, 2016

The Challenges Ahead - Five for west Belfast

Against the backdrop of a crisp beautiful Sunday morning in Dublin the raised voices of thousands echoed in song along O’Connell Street.

“When boyhood's fire was in my blood
I read of ancient freemen,
Greece and Rome who bravely stood,
Three hundred men and three men;
And then I prayed I yet might see
fetters rent in twain,
And Ireland, long a province, be.
A Nation once again!

A Nation once again,
A Nation once again,
And Ireland, long a province, be
A Nation once again!”
A Nation once again,
A Nation once again,
And Ireland, long a province, be
A Nation once again!”

Thomas Davis was one of the founding leaders of the Young Ireland Movement in the 1840s and was responsible for some of the best nationalist ballads of that period. He published them in The Nation newspaper. A ‘Nation once again’ is among his best known works and Davis published it in July 1844.
Sinn Féin had organised the event to celebrate exactly 100 years from the commencement of the 1916 Rising and Pearse’s historic reading of the Proclamation at the front of the GPO. In bright sunshine Micheál MacDonnacha, dressed as a Volunteer and Lynn Boylann, dressed in the uniform of Cumann na mBán, introduced the many flags associated with the struggle for freedom and these were accompanied by large posters of each of the leaders of the Rsing, including some, like Tomas Ashe who died subsequently on hunger strike.
Later Martin McGuinness and I joined tens of thousands of citizens, some dressed in period costume, as we walked from Merrion Square to O’Connell Street. The “Reclaim the Vision” march was a citizen’s initiative organised by among others Robert Ballagh. That too was an inspiring event.
The Sinn Féin Ard Fheis on Friday evening and Saturday saw thousands of delegates participate. It was professional, well managed and saw scores of Sinn Féin activists, including many of our new TDs, make thoughtful contributions on over 100 motions on wide ranging issues affecting citizens on this island and internationally.
Some in the media described it as ‘lack-lustre’. But then they generally don’t get republicans. They rarely catch the mood or recognise the underlying changes that are taking place. The Ard Fheis reflected a party in transition. An all-Ireland party developing policy for all sections of our people, in all parts of the country. A growing party, with a breadth of membership in terms of geographical spread and age and gender.
In the last election we had 23 TDs elected. This week seven Sinn Féin Senators were elected to the Seanad, including Belfast Councillor Niall O’Donnghaile from the Short Strand. That's more than double what we had previously.
Next Thursday May 5th – the anniversary of the death on hunger strike of my friend and comrade Bobby Sands – there will an election to the Assembly.
My first ever election was to the Assembly established by British Secretary of State Jim Prior in 1982. It was in the aftermath of the hunger strike and was part of our evolving electoral strategy. There were five Sinn Feiners elected on that occasion on an abstentionist platform and I had the honour to stand for and be elected to represent the people of west Belfast.
I am very honoured to have represented this strong forward looking vibrant community. And in very difficult times the people of west Belfast provided real leadership.
On this occasion we have a strong team of five MLAs seeking re-election:Jennifer McCann; Pat Sheehan; Fra McCann; Rosie McCorley and Alex Maskey. It is a tough battle to hold five out of six seats but it is doable.
They along with our Councillors and Paul Maskey MP have helped transform west Belfast. This would have been impossible without the support of the people of the constituency. In this centenary year of the 1916 Rising their work needs to continue.
Sinn Féin doesn’t take the voters for granted. Our commitment to the electorate is to build on the progress that has been made. To deliver well-paid jobs, especially for our young people. To defend the health service and to continue the redevelopment of the RVH. To support business and build safer communities and ensure that our children get the education and opportunities they need and deserve.
Of course, more jobs are needed; and more homes; and issues like Casement Park, and La Salle School need ongoing attention.The Fresh Start Agreement too needs fully implemented.
Only Sinn Féin candidates are committed to this and will stand up to the bluster of those unionists who seek to attack Irish medium education. We are also the only party committed to the implementation of the rights of citizens, including, worker’s rights, women’s rights, Irish language rights, civil rights, LGBT rights and the rights of citizens with disabilities.
The Assembly election provides an opportunity to build on Sinn Féin’s success in the recent Dáil election and to advance the republican goals of the men and women of 1916 - Irish unity and equality. No other local candidates have this objective.
This is a big challenge. Our opponents say we cannot get five MLAs elected again. They underestimate the people of west Belfast. On May the west Belfast electorate has the opportunity to take another decisive step forward by voting for the best west Belfast Sinn Féin team and our five candidates.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Micheál Martin could play a leadership role in the necessary process of making Irish unity a reality

Micheál Martin is a man with a mission. To trample on the politics of those whose roots are in the radical republican tradition of Tone and Emmet and Pearse and Connolly and to rewrite Irish history in the image of a so-called constitutionalist revisionist republican narrative. In this narrative republican history ended in the GPO in Dublin and Fianna Fáil are the inheritors of the vision of 1916. The rest of us are upstarts, or worse.
So, a Micheál Martin speech at Bodenstown or in the Dáil or at Arbour Hill, where the leaders are buried, would not be complete without an attack on Sinn Féin. I suppose we should take some comfort from this. Teachta Martin does it because he fears the growth of Sinn Féin and the message of radical republicanism that we espouse.
This has been especially evident in recent months when during and after the general election the one thing that all Fianna Fáil spokespersons agreed on was their hostility to Sinn Féin emerging as the official opposition in the Dáil. The last eight weeks of negotiations over the formation of a government have been as much about that as anything else, as the Fianna Fáil leadership tries to construct an outcome in which it supports Enda Kenny in government on the one hand while pretending to be opposed to him on the other.
Micheál was at it again this weekend at his party’s centenary event at Arbour Hill. His speech majored on negativity and invective but offered no message of hope. Instead he sought to rationalise why Fianna Fáil will support the return of a Fine Gael government. He said he would even agree to Labour being back in government! What an abandonment of his electoral commitments and of the mandate he claimed Fianna Fáil was given not to put Enda Kenny and Joan Burton back into power!
But much of his time was spent attacking Sinn Féin – again. Not only do his remarks reveal how far he will go to misrepresent politics in the north but they are evidence of how far this Fianna Fáil leader has departed from the principles and vision that marks the Good Friday Agreement.
For decades Fianna Fáil posed as 'the republican party' while wielding power in the interests of visitors to the Galway Tent as opposed to those of ordinary citizens. Now under Micheál Martin’s leadership they are reinventing themselves as the party of fairness and reform. Even though this is a response to Sinn Féin successes it is to be welcomed.
The centenary celebrations of the 1916 Easter Rising have brought these issues into sharp focus along with the ideals and courage and heroism of the men and women of that period. For them the Proclamation was a Proclamation of a new society – a new Ireland – a real Republic. IN this centenary year the southern establishment parties and sections of the media fear this growing awareness about the men and women of 1916, what they fought for and why the British killed them in an effort to destroy the Republic they had proclaimed.
The Fianna Fáil leadership may defend the actions of 1916 but they want republican history and the legitimacy of that revolutionary option to end there. For their own narrow party political interests there has to be a line drawn between Terence McSwiney and Bobby Sands; between Thomas Ashe and Francie Hughes; between Countess Markievicz and Mairead Farrell.
So, revisionism is alive and well. Alongside Fianna Fáil’s efforts to shape 1916 in its own image there is an unprecedented campaign in some media and political circles to downgrade this seminal event in our nation’s history, and to denigrate many of those who took a leading part in it.
The popular response to, and the genuine pride, in centenary events has highlighted the unacceptability of that position. For our part Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin agree that there would be no Irish state, no level of independence and no amount of sovereignty, however limited, for Ireland but for the revolutionary republican tradition.
The others argue that the 1916 Rising was unnecessary. They demand to know by what right and what authority did the 1916 Revolutionaries launch a rebellion? They also seek to elevate what has been termed the ‘constitutional nationalist tradition’ in Irish history at the expense of the revolutionary republican tradition.
They ignore the reality that in the Ireland of 1916 there was no democracy. Repression and militarism were the means by which British interests in Ireland were defended.
Armed resistance was an appropriate response to that. Some who went on to become founder members of Fianna Fáil were part of that resistance. Micheál Martin could not easily disown them, even, and I doubt this, if that is his position.
But he does repudiate in the most vindictive terms those who employed the same methods in our time.
As we move beyond the centenary of 1916 and the revolutionary period to consider the events of the counter-revolution, the civil war, partition, the establishment of two conservative states, and the evolution of Fianna Fáil, there will be many interesting topics to discuss.
The fact is the counter revolutionaries won and the southern state developed into a narrow-minded, mean spirited place which was harsh on the poor, on women and on republicans or radicals of any kind.
Many of the scandals that we have witnessed in that state in recent years are a product of this post-colonial condition. This then was the reality that unfolded in place of the Republic which the 1916 Rising sought to bring about. This was the state constructed by conservative nationalists in the 'constitutional' tradition.
This is the political system which saw the establishment parties in the Irish state – including Fianna Fáil – abandon the citizens of the north; acquiesce to partition; then actively defend it.
Partition and the apartheid type system of governance in the north created the conditions for armed conflict. If 1916 had never happened this was a very likely outcome not least because successive Irish government made no real or consistent effort to engage the British government on its obligations and responsibilities to uphold and promote the rights of all citizens in the six counties.
Instead when the British state resisted the civil rights demands Dublin acquiesced to the British strategy of militarisation. It was in that vacuum that the IRA – which was almost non-existent – came back to life. The continued existence of the revolutionary tradition and its physical force tendency made that more likely, but not inevitable. The democratic, secular and revolutionary tradition of republicanism in Ireland dates back to Wolfe Tone and the 1798 Rebellion. Inspired by the American and French revolutions those progressives and radicals set their faces against sectarianism and in favour of equality, freedom and solidarity.
It is this noble tradition and upon these core values, espoused again in the 1916 Proclamation, that Sinn Féin makes our stand.
Some of this was under consistent and ongoing attack during the long years of conflict but it was the revolutionary republican tradition that recognised the stalemate that had developed and which actively sought to create and build a peace process. It was the initiatives of the IRA and the peace strategy of Sinn Féin, along with the contribution of others, which created the opportunity to end the war and create an alternative way forward.
As a consequence, and for the first time, the roots of conflict were addressed and a democratic route to Irish unity opened up.
Those who subscribed unapologetically to the Irish republican and revolutionary tradition were to the fore in achieving this. 
Micheál Martin could play a leadership role in the necessary process of making Irish unity a reality. There is an imperative on him to do so.
That would require him working with the rest of us who are wedded to that objective. That of course is much more challenging than his current stance. It would also be much more in the interests of the people of this island.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

See you in Dublin on April 24

Easter Sunday on the Falls Road in west Belfast last weekend had the four seasons in the space of a few hours. As we gathered in Conway St. the sun was shining. It was cold but the air had the feel of a sharp, crisp spring day. The clouds rolled in and for a time it was overcast and autumn-like. The clouds rolled on and the sun shone. The sky was a sharp blue and the temperature rose. Summer had arrived. 
But as we entered Milltown cemetery the clouds returned, low and ominous. They swept in. A cold piercing wind preceded the hailstones that pounded our heads and the ground.
The umbrellas mushroomed throughout the crowds. One in front of me almost immediately blew inside out. The coats were pulled up. And the heads went down.
None of this deterred the thousands who had come to take part in, or to watch the centenary Easter march of the Rising of 1916.
My morning began in Conway Mill were I met with the families of our Belfast patriot dead. Their courage and resilience in the face of grievous loss remains an inspiration for us all. The Belfast National Graves presented each family with a medallion in memory of Winifred Carney. Carney was a trade union activist, friend and associate of James Connolly, a member of Cumann na mBan, and she took part in the occupation of the GPO in 1916. Afterward she was imprisoned by the British.
We were joined by a delegation of Irish American trade unionists led by Terry O’Sullivan from the International Labourer’s Union of North America, and Irish American activists, including some from Friends of Sinn Féin in the USA and Canada. They had especially travelled to Ireland to take part in the centenary events.
Outside the families gathered in Conway St. to join the main parade as it made its way from Divis Tower to Milltown Cemetery. The footpaths and roads were packed to overflowing by the crowds of people. When the leading colour party reached us it faced the relatives and in an act of recognition and solidarity they dipped their flags and stood in silence in honour of the relatives and of their loved ones who paid the supreme sacrifice. It was a poignant moment. The silence was only broken by the drone of the PSNI helicopter hovering overhead.
And then it was onto Milltown. All along the Falls - as we made our way slowly up the road - the young, and not so young, and the older generation, were there in their thousands applauding and shouting words of encouragement.  I knew many of the faces in the crowds of onlookers. Belfast citizens without whose loyalty and support we could not have advanced.
Many of those taking part in the parade were wearing the uniforms of 100 years ago – of the Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army. Like the 50th centenary parade that took place in 1966 a huge wolfhound led the way. I was there that day also. We marched to Casement Park that day. I had just started working in the Ark Bar on the Old Lodge Road. Some of the working class unionist customers spotted me in the TV coverage. They gave me a good slagging but that was the height of it.
It was a wonderful day. Everyone was in great spirits. There was a strong sense of community, of unity, of being part of something great. Yes, it was about remembering the past but we should never lose sight of the fact that those who fought in 1916, or in subsequent generations, had their eye on the future - a different future – a better future.  
And as we approach the Assembly elections on May 5th – Bobby Sands anniversary - that must also be our focus.
The Peace Process and the Good Friday Agreement have marked a historic shift in politics on this island. For the first time, the roots of conflict have been addressed and a democratic route to Irish unity opened up. But there is much yet to be done. Hurts must be healed. Divisions ended. The scourge of sectarianism must be tackled and ended.
With each election the Sinn Féin vote grows and the number of elected representatives increases. Last month’s general election in the south saw Sinn Féin win 23 seats. Next month we expect to double our representation in the Seanad – and we hope this will include our comrade Niall O’Donnghaile from the Short Strand.
But it’s what Irish republicans do with this political strength that is really important. Sinn Féin is now the main opposition party in the Dáil.
Last week the new Sinn Féin team of TDs travelled to Stormont to meet Martin McGuinness and the strong Assembly teams.
In the Assembly Sinn Fein has been the driving force behind the progressive measures that have blocked water charges, protected free prescriptions and defended welfare payments and promoted the Irish language.
Despite the Irish and British government’s negativity Sinn Féin has delivered the Fresh Start deal which protects core public services, particularly in health and education and the most vulnerable in our society.
After the Assembly election we want to emerge with a stronger mandate.
A mandate that will allow us to continue with our work; a mandate to tackle sectarianism, racism, and homophobia; a mandate to deliver marriage equality; and a mandate to deliver a future of equals, in a society of equals for all our citizens.
A mandate that will help us advance the goals of freedom and unity and independence.
How we do this will be hugely guided by the 1916 Proclamation. That is for me the most important aspect of the Rising. It remains the mission statement for Irish republicans today. It is a freedom charter for all the people of this island which guarantees religious and civil liberty and promotes equal rights and opportunities for all citizens. These are the principles on which Sinn Féin stands.
On April 22nd and 23rd in Dublin Sinn Féin will hold our Ard Fheis. On Sunday April 24th – the actual day of the Rising one hundred years ago - there will be a huge march in Dublin to celebrate that event. It is a citizen’s initiative which has our support, as well as the backing of artists, trade unionists and academics and is chaired by the artist Robert Ballagh.
So, why not join us on April 24th in Dublin. Our task as Irish citizens must be that when the centenary has come and gone that there is more left behind that a memory of a good day out.
The reactionaries and revisionists, the naysayers and begrudgers, the modern day Redmonites who pontificate and waffle about how wrong 1916 was, are wrong.
1916 was right.
The men and women of the Rising were right.
It was Republic against Empire.
Republicanism versus Imperialism.
We know what side we are on.
We stand by and for the Republic.
See you in Dublin on the 24th.