Thursday, March 23, 2017

Martin McGuinness was a committed republican – and that never changed

This piece about Martin was published in Wednesday's Guardian:

The death of my friend and comrade Martin McGuinness has left a deep void. It is a huge blow to all of us who knew and loved him, especially his wife and family. Martin was an extraordinary human being. Funny, caring, a committed family man, a keen fisherman, an enthusiast for all kinds of sport from cricket to hurling. He loved Derry. The city – along with his wife, Bernie, his family and his mother, Peggy – moulded him into the complex, compassionate, warm, human being he was.
Martin was also a deeply committed Irish republican activist who in his youth was confronted by the naked sectarianism and injustice of the British state in Ireland, and stood strong against it. As a result he was imprisoned and spent long periods on the run.
Reading and watching some of the media reporting of his life and death, one could be forgiven for believing that Martin, at some undefined point in his life, had a road to Damascus conversion and abandoned his republican principles, his former comrades in the IRA and joined the political establishment.
To suggest this is to miss the truth of his leadership and the essence of his humanity. There was not a bad Martin McGuinness or a good Martin McGuinness. Martin believed in freedom and equality. He resisted those who withheld these by military means, and then he helped shape conditions in which it was possible to advocate for these by unarmed strategies.
Martin was a committed republican who believed that the British government’s involvement in Ireland and the partition of our island were at the root of our divisions. Along with others of like mind, he understood the importance of building a popular, democratic, radical republican party.
In this way he helped chart a new course, a different strategy. This involved taking difficult initiatives to make political advances. Our political objectives, and our republican principles and ideals did not change. On the contrary, these guided us through every twist and turn of the peace process.
Martin also understood that reconciliation and peace-building meant reaching out to others. He played a leadership role in this throughout his time in elected office, and especially from 2007, when he and Ian Paisley became partners in a unique power-sharing arrangement.
Martin’s leadership and vision helped turn Sinn Féin into the largest political party on the island of Ireland. Our responsibility, now that he has gone, is to build on that legacy. To continue the work that he helped pioneer. That means building a new Ireland – a united Ireland – that embraces all its citizens on the basis of equality and respect.
Last November Sinn Féin launched “Towards a United Ireland” which is a detailed discussion paper setting out the arguments for a United Ireland. It addresses the impact of partition on the island’s economy, on inward investment, on exports, on the health service, on the border region and much more. It takes head-on the argument that the people of the north and south cannot afford a united Ireland. It takes this on and demolishes it.
We have also argued that the British government accept the vote of the people in the north of Ireland to remain in the EU. Theresa May refused to do this. We propose that the north be accorded a special designated status within the EU. This will not change the constitutional issue but it will prevent a land frontier – a new hard economic border on the island of Ireland – between the EU and the British state.
The decision by the British government to trigger article 50 next week and commence the negotiations on Brexit; the assembly election results, which saw the unionist parties lose their electoral and assembly majority; and the warning by the Scottish first minister of a second independence referendum – all these are the context now for the necessary conversation on a new Ireland.
Martin is gone, and we will miss him. But he leaves behind a Sinn Féin party, stronger, better organised, and more electorally popular than it has been in almost 100 years. We have a cadre of young, energetic leaders who are as determined as my generation of achieving a united Ireland. It is a party more determined and more able than ever before to deliver on Martin’s goal of a new Ireland.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Time to plan for Unity

Last year’s centenary of 1916 was a resounding success. Political, cultural, historical and media organisations, individuals and communities held hugely successful events to celebrate the individuals and the organisations that participated in the Rising. There was lots of music, some excellent exhibitions and interesting debates.

The Irish government, which had initially produced a very inadequate and underwhelming programme, went back to the drawing board after ferocious criticism and came up with some very good events. However, official Ireland studiously avoided the issue of partition, its impact on the island and the need for Irish unity.  

For Irish republicans this was at the heart of all that we did in Ireland and across the globe, particularly in North America and Britain. The Republic that was envisaged by the leaders of 1916 and by the Proclamation is at the core of our political beliefs. It is the rock upon which our politics and policies are constructed.

Making these policies work requires the building of significant and active support allied to strategies, tactics and programmes of work.
That is why I welcomed the publication in November 2015 of the academic paper by Professor Kurt Huebner of Vancouver University which is titled ‘Modeling Irish Unification’. It presented three unification scenarios, each with increasingly positive economic benefits for both the north and south of Ireland. 
The authors concluded that political and economic unification would likely result in a sizable boost in economic outcomes and incomes in the North and a smaller boost in the South, with the most aggressive unification scenario estimating a boost in all island GDP of €35.6 billion Euro over eight years. That’s an increase in in each of those years of €5,500 per person north and south.
In November Sinn Féin launched ‘Towards a United Ireland’. It is a detailed discussion paper setting out the arguments for a United Ireland and which addresses the impact on the economy, on inward investment, on exports, on the health service, on the border region and much more. It takes head on the argument that the people of the North and South cannot afford a United Ireland. It takes this on and demolishes it.
What else is new? Fianna Fáil is growing a unity plan, the Taoiseach is for giving the vote to citizens outside the southern state in Presidential elections. The daffodils are blooming and the snow drops as well. Spring is springing. Again. So are Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. For decades they have wrapped the green flag around them when it suited. When the issue of reunification is raised in the Dáil, as it is now regularly by Sinn Féin, the response from the establishment parties is usually that this is not the time to talk about it. Now Irish unity is all the rage in Leinster House.
The announcement by Micheál Martin that Fianna Fáil is to produce a White Paper on Irish unity is a welcome addition to the conversation that is necessary to inform citizens and assist progress. In 2005 Sinn Féin in the Dáil produced a Green Paper on unity. Following on from the publication of our discussion paper – Towards a United Ireland’ - last year- and following consultation with many sectors - we have been working on the production of a more advanced version of this paper.

The imminent decision by the British government to trigger Article 50 to commence the negotiations on Brexit; the Assembly election results, which saw the Unionist parties lose their Assembly majority; and the warning by the Scottish First Minister of a second Independent referendum, are the context for the current discussions on a United Ireland.

On Monday Michelle O'Neill warned again that Brexit will significantly undermine the Good Friday Agreement and lead to the imposition of a hard border. She added all of this increases the urgency for a referendum on Irish unity as set out in the Good Friday Agreement and Sinn Féin wants to see that happen as soon as possible.

The determination of the British government to impose Brexit on the North, despite the vote of the people, underlines the undemocratic nature of partition and the unequal relationship between London and Belfast. The future constitutional position of the North lies in the hands of the people of the north and of the south. The Good Friday Agreement obliges the Irish and British governments to legislate for unity if that is the choice of the people north and south.
So times are changing and relationships are changing. The Taoiseach recently called for a ‘united Ireland’ provision to be included an any Brexit agreement. He also announced this week that the government will now hold a referendum on Irish citizens in the North and in the Diaspora having the right to vote in Presidential elections. Sinn Féin has been pressing the Irish government since the Good Friday Agreement to allow for this. Fianna Fáil voted against this in the Seánad on November 30th last.
The Taoiseach’s announcement is very welcome but the government needs to clarify quickly what this means in practice and when the referendum will be held.
The Constitutional Convention voted on this issue in September 2013. A significant majority of its members agreed to extend voting rights to Irish citizens living abroad and in the North.  In November 2015 the Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Affairs made a recommendation to extend the voting rights also, following criticism by the European Commission.
In addition, there is also the fact that under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement citizens in the North have the right to Irish citizenship. What will Brexit mean for them and their right to EU citizenship. This is one of the reasons why Sinn Féin believes that the North should have a special status within the EU.
So, that’s the battle ahead. To strategise, organise, and persuade. There is no short cut that will work. Sinn Féin’s discussion document, ‘Towards a United Ireland’ lays out the rationale for reunification in terms of the benefits to the economy, public services and reconciliation. It also looks beyond the economic benefits of unity.
The document details the type of new and united Ireland we believe can be delivered. A new Ireland built on the principles of equality and inclusion. A new Ireland with a new constitution and Bill of Rights. A new Ireland with symbols and emblems to reflect an inclusive Ireland, that includes the safeguarding of British Citizenship and recognition of the Unionist Identity.
This cannot be a rhetorical debate. There is an onus on the Irish government to plan for unity. To become the persuader for unity. To unite with the rest of us for unity. Unity for unity. To drive the process and build the maximum agreement and to secure and win a referendum on unity.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Unionists lose Stormont Majority

Mary Lou McDonald TD, Michelle O'Neill MLA, mise agus Órlaithí Flynn 

Last week, just before polling day, I wrote in this column; ‘every election is important. But some have a historic significance that resonates for years. This is one of those.’ And it was, and it is. If ever citizens needed proof of the power and the importance of their VOTE it was this election. The outcome has been variously described by political commentators, the media, and most of the participants as a ‘watershed election’, ‘carnage’, ‘shocking’, ‘remarkable’ and ‘significant’.
What is indisputable is that the Assembly election has brought about a seismic change in northern politics and in politics on this island. The long term consequences of this are potentially enormous. To understand why we need to look briefly at the historical context.
100 years ago next year, in December 1918, following the end of the First World War, a general election was held in Britain and Ireland. It was the first opportunity for people on this island to pass judgment on the Easter Rising of 1916 and the pre-war efforts to partition the island. In the nine counties of Ulster Unionists won 265,111 votes. Nationalists took 177,557 votes.
 For Unionists that was too narrow a majority, especially given that Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan had solid nationalist majorities. So, the 70,000 unionists living in those three counties were abandoned to the new 26 county Free State. The six counties, with their 66% Unionist majority were deemed by the Unionist leadership as a safer geographical area to hold. They would have, they believed a permanent majority.
With numbers on their side, Unionism set about reinforcing their domination by gerrymandering electoral districts and imposing voting restrictions that reduced the nationalist vote. As a result, unionism dominated northern politics for decades. In 1921 the Stormont Parliament had 52 members. 40 were unionist. They represented 77% of the Parliament. That remained largely unchanged for most of that Parliament’s existence. Almost 50 years later in 1969 Unionism held 39 seats or 75%. Shift forward almost 30 years to 1998 and in the Assembly election of that year the unionist percentage share of seats had begun to decline. Out of 108 seats Unionism held 58 or 54% of the Assembly seats.

New Sinn Féin Assembly group

The 2017 Assembly election enabled a transformation unimaginable to the founders of the Northern state. This election has the Unionists back on 40 but now in an Assembly of 90 seats. They have 44% of the Assembly representation. 39 seats are held by nationalists and 11 others. Unionist majority domination of the local Assembly has come to an end. So too is the belief in a perpetual unionist majority in the North. The gap between Sinn Féin and the DUP has been reduced to one seat and only 1,168 votes.
Of course political unionism will try to regroup. There will be lots of talk of unionist unity. The sectarian card may be played yet again. So, the gains made for the future by last week’s vote have to be consolidated and increased in future contests. They have to be built upon.This requires a progressive agenda.
The reality is that this result has been taking shape in the demographic twists and turns of the northern population for decades. It became especially evident five years ago when in December 2012 the census results for 2011 were published. Speaking at a United Ireland conference in the Mansion House in January I reminded the audience that on that occasion and for the first time in a census the statisticians asked about identity - setting to one side the sectarian labels of Catholic and Protestant.
48% of citizens in the North stated that they had a British only identity or a British/Irish identity. For the first time those self-identifying as British were less than 50% of the population.
A quarter of those who filled in their census forms (25%) stated that they had an Irish only identity, and just over a fifth (21%) had a Northern Irish only identity. That means that 46% of citizens in the North have some form of Irish only identity. This was a quantum change in the political demographics of the six counties.
Attitudes are also changing on other important issues. More and more people support Marriage equality for Gay or Lesbian citizens. There’s also widespread support for a Bill of Rights and an Irish Language Act. Equality is increasing embraced as a concept on which to build decent living standards.
 More people want to see women having access to terminations of pregnancy on compassionate grounds and in limited circumstances.  In other words, there is an increasing desire for a more compassionate, caring and tolerant society and it involves people from all political backgrounds particularly, but not exclusively young people.
Mise agus John Brady TD, Michelle O'Neill and Maurice Quinlivan TD
Of course the DUP is opposed to equality. But they no longer rule the roost. We must respect their mandate. But they also have to respect all the other mandates. All the other opinions. That requires an entirely new dispensation. Creating that is the biggest challenge of all.
Brexit is the backcloth against which some of these changes are occurring. It has serious implications for human rights and for the Good Friday Agreement. In the farming sector, unionist farmers know that their best interests will not be served by Brexit despite the DUP support for this. Business people and the community and voluntary sector share these concerns.
What does all of this mean? Can we simply reduce the divisions in our society down to statistics and graphs?
I don’t believe we can. Whatever the outworking of demographics the responsibility of political leaders must be to agree policies and programmes that reduce divisions, end sectarianism, build real equality for citizens and improve the daily lives of all our citizens. There is the potential for a progressive consensus among parties like Sinn Féin, the SDLP, Alliance, the Greens, People before Profit, and individual MLAs who have advocated equality measures.
We have to be prepared to set aside party differences and unite for positive change, recognising and valuing the differences that shape our society. That means progress on Acht na Gaeilge and marriage equality and other matters important to citizens, including anti-poverty measures, and social and economic issues.
Parity of esteem for all our traditions is so vital to our future.
This week has seen the commencement of negotiations. There is a danger that citizens who engaged in the election will become disenchanted if progress is not made or if they believe that the outcome will be another fudge. Nor is it good enough for James Brokenshire to pose as a neutral guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement or for the Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan to claim that it’s up to the northern parties to do the heavy lifting. James Brokenshire is not neutral. He is partisan and a player, as evidenced in his refusal to fund legacy inquests. And Charlie Flanagan and the Taoiseach have a responsibility to stand up to the British government and demand that it honour all of the commitments it has made since 1998.
The Assembly election presents all of us with a new opportunity to do things differently. I believe absolutely that Irish unity is the best outcome for all the people of this island. Sinn Féin will work to achieve that. But in the meantime there is a need to co operate with other progressives to create real changes in peoples’ lives based on everyones right to equality. That has to be our overarching strategy in the time ahead.

But as we do this work we have to understand that further demographic changes are inevitable.  We also have to understand the consequences of Brexit. That means we need a discourse on how we manage the transition from where we are now to an end of partition. And we need to do that now.
Michelle O'Neill MLA, Senadoir Pádraig MacLochlainn agus mise

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Statement to Dáil on Traveller ethnicity 1st March 2017

I want to welcome the Traveller groups represented in the gallery and elsewhere in Leinster House this evening, and I extend solidarity to all Travellers on this historic day.

It is their day, and a momentous step forward for equality.

Travellers have waited a long time for this moment and I am glad that I have been able to see their aspiration for proper recognition come to fruition.

The Taoiseach will know that I have been raising this issue with him for years now, and I want to welcome his statement recognising Traveller ethnicity this evening.

I want to pay tribute in particular to those who have advocated on behalf of the Traveller community; from within the Traveller community itself, but also those from the settled community, who have done so much to advance this cause.

Some have done it for decades.

We need to be mindful also of those who have suffered because they were Travellers and I particularly want to remember the Lynch, Connors and Gilbert families who died in Glenamuck.

I want to pay tribute to the women of the Traveller community.

Like their sisters in disadvantaged sections of the settled community, the women have been the great heroines and the champions who have kept their families going through thick and thin.

I also want to acknowledge the work of Minister of State David Stanton.

Maith thú Aire Stanton. Tá muid buíoch duit.

I commend also the work of the Justice Committees, both in the last Dáil who adopted a report by Pádraig Mac Lochlainn recommending the recognition of traveller ethnicity and also the current Committee chaired by Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin.

Today’s decision to recognise Traveller ethnicity is the right thing to do.

The Taoiseach’s statement this evening finally brings the Irish State into line with existing recognition already in place in the north of Ireland, as well as in England, Scotland and Wales.

The distinct culture, traditions and ethnicity of the Traveller community is to be cherished and valued.

One of the main characteristics of Irish Travellers is their nomadic lifestyle.

This was particularly the case until the 1950s and 1960s.

Until then many earned a living from repairing and making household utensils which were mostly made from tin.

The rapid pace of new technologies, the use of plastic and other cheap goods brought about major changes in Irish Travellers lifestyles.

The Commission on Itinerancy Report of 1963 also had a huge bearing on the lives of Travellers in this State.

The report established policy on Travellers for the following twenty years.

It is one of the most shameful reports in the history of the State.

If Teachtaí want an insight into its agenda or views, they need to look at the terms of reference for the commission.

They were:

(1) to inquire into the problem arising from the presence in the country of itinerants in considerable numbers;

(2) to examine the economic, educational, health and social problems inherent in their way of life;

(3) ... to promote their absorption into the general community.

These terms of reference were dripping in racism and elitism.

They were ignorant, stupid and ill informed.

Little wonder there is, after decades of discrimination and demonisation a sense of demoralisation, low self-worth and inferiority among some in the Travelling community.

The prejudice and discrimination many Travellers face has worsened in recent years.

We need only look to the opposition to a temporary halting site for those bereaved by the Carrickmines fire in late 2015 as an example.

Or the treatment of Travellers in my own constituency who were evicted from a halting site in Dundalk this time last year.

We know that there is much wider institutional discrimination faced by members of the Travelling community, in areas like health and education provision.

That has been a hallmark of the relationship between settled people and Travellers.

It is a relationship that has been blighted by suspicion, resentment and animosity, based on false perceptions and fears.

A lot of this is based on ignorance.

Ignorance breeds fear.

The only cure for ignorance is knowledge.

That comes from education and engagement.

The Proclamation of 1916 should be the mission statement of a modern Irish Republic.
It addresses itself to Irish men and Irish women.

It doesn’t say unless you’re a member of the Traveller community.

All of us have rights.

This includes the right to receive equal service in shops and pubs.

To be able to access education, and health services, and work, and accommodation, on the basis of equality.

Every Irish citizen should enjoy the rights and entitlements that comes with that citizenship.

Regrettably this has not been the case for our Traveller population.

The Traveller child born today faces a life in which he or she will be part of the most socially disadvantaged group in Irish society.

That child will leave school earlier, have little prospect of work, will suffer ill-health and poverty, and will die younger.

He or she will endure substandard living conditions.

Many will have no access to basic facilities such as sanitation, water and electricity.

They will face discrimination in employment and most will never work.

Cutbacks in education, health and other services have impacted severely on the Traveller community.

The suicide rate for Traveller women is six times that of the settled community.
It is seven times higher for Traveller men.

At the root of all these problems are the unacceptable levels of prejudice, discrimination and social exclusion experienced by Travellers at institutional and other levels.

This has to be combatted.

And it can be.

Alongside tonight’s recognition of Traveller ethnicity, there needs to be a process established to improve relation between the settled and Travelling communities.

Sinn Féin have called in the past for the establishment of a national forum, across the island of Ireland, involving Travellers and the settled community, including representatives of all political parties, of government, local authorities, health and education sectors and representatives of media organisations to plan a way forward.

I want to repeat that call this evening.

Such a forum could discuss openly and in detail how discrimination and prejudice against Travellers can be confronted, including prejudicial attitudes facilitated by the actions of some politicians and media outlets.

But despite those decades of discrimination, the Traveller community are a proud people, a resilient people.

I want to acknowledge in particular the huge contribution and influence on Irish traditional music by Irish Traveller families, particularly uilleann pipers and fiddlers.

In their excellent book, Free Spirits, Tommy Fagan and Oliver O’Connell make the point that “Ireland and Irish culture is richer because of the music and songs of the Traveller community”.

The say “wherever Irish music is played, wherever Irish songs are sung, wherever Irish stories are told, and wherever Irish dances are performed the influences of the Dorans, the Keenans, the Fureys, the Dunnes, the Doherty’s and other great Traveller and musical families will be very much in evidence”.

We can add to that Maggie Barry and the Pecker Dunne.

Christy Moore has consistently paid a tribute to John Reilly, who kept alive songs like the ‘Well Below the Valley’, which have been sung for two hundred years.

That is the Traveller community I know.

Creative, strong, resilient, generous.

In the summer of 1969, when sectarian evictions were incited in reaction to the demands of the civil rights movement, I was one of a small group of activists who helped families to move their belongings from their homes.

It should be noted that it was people from the Traveller community in Belfast who provided and drove the lorries at great risk to themselves and which took these families out of danger.

There is among Travellers an articulate grassroots leadership well able to voice Travellers issues and who have consistency raised their community’s awareness of their rights.

Some of them are in the gallery.

Many more are outside.

I know that they are up for the challenge of ensuring that we resolve lingering issues and ensuring our society embraces the differences among citizens that make up the diversity and uniqueness of our island.

Through strong and resolute leadership and co-operation at all levels in political and civic society and in our settled and Traveller communities we can ensure a society that underpins equality for every citizen.

The formal recognition of Traveller ethnicity is not a magic wand or formula that will address the challenges and discrimination faced by the Travelling community on its own, but it is a major step in the right direction.

We need to keep moving in that direction.

That means ensuring the long overdue recognition of Traveller ethnicity is to be the starting point for that process, not the end.

This is a hugely historic moment for the 40,000 members of our travelling community.

It is an important symbolic acknowledgement.

It also must pave the way for real, practical change.

Action must follow ethnicity.

See you later Alligator

This election has been marked by some expressive, funny, biting political satire. The lengths to which some have gone to produce twitter and facebook videos has been little short of astonishing. Computer technology and social media have added a whole new dimension to parody, sarcasm and irony.
Most of it has been directed at the DUP. The Renewable Heat Incentive scandal; the double standards and hypocrisy; the questions over who paid hundreds of thousands to that party for Brexit propaganda for London and Scotland, have all featured.
And then there was that crocodile moment. At one level it was disturbing that a whole section of citizens could be reduced in the eyes of a party leader to the status of an animal. But then the DUP is the party that once promised – sledge hammer in hand - to Smash Sinn Féin. So, this remark fitted neatly into the DUPs current political and media strategy for the election which boils down to scaring the unionist electorate with Sinn Féin. Hence the dark and sinister leaflets warning of ‘Gerry Adams radical agenda …’.
‘Operation Fear’ is older than the northern state. It has its roots in the sectarian politics linked to the Orange Order in the early part of the 19th century and the political turmoil of the late 19th century. It was especially evident in the political battles over a series of Home Rule Bills which saw the Unionist business class in the North allying with the Conservative Party. It was then that the ‘orange card’ was introduced into Irish and British politics.
The tactic was simplicity itself. If you want to stop Irish Nationalism, and retain the Union with Britain, then Protestants must vote unionist. It used to be a vote against Rome Rule but given that none of us want to be ruled by Rome that seems a bit pointless. However it worked in the past.
This is one of the slogans on which the Ulster Unionist Party was formally established in 1905. Sectarian pogroms and the expulsion of Catholic workers from their places of work were commonplace. It was in this dark period of our history, when partition was being advocated, that the ‘Not an Inch’, ‘What we have we hold’ and ‘No surrender’ slogans emerged as the war cry of a community that saw itself as constantly under siege.
The politics of right wing populism are not a new phenomenon. But partition gave it a new dynamic.
Within the northern state an institutionalised supremacism emboldened sectarianism. This was most effectively exploited during the Outdoor Relief Movement of the 1930’s which briefly united Catholic and Protestant workers against poverty and unemployment. Sadly it worked.
Last year the DUP, which has used this single transferable strategy through every election and negotiation, reduced it all down to - if you don’t vote DUP Martin McGuinness will become the First Minister. Shock horror. The fact that the First and Deputy First Ministers are equals – and interdependent – as evident in Arlene’s sacking by Martin when he resigned – is just ignored. He was the bogeyman in that election.
With Martin so obviously ill, and Michelle just new to the job, the DUP decided that this year I would make the perfect bogeyman. The DUP ‘master strategists’ also hoped Sinn Féin would be stupid enough to indulge them by rising to the bait and engaging in an interminable slagging match. So when Michelle was asked at a press conference about Arlene’s crocodile claim she refused to be drawn into a row. We had our agenda for that day and weren’t going to hand it away to the DUP. In an aside I dismissed it with ‘See you later alligator.’
The Irish language community which has been a special target of some of the most vitriolic language from DUP representatives turned Arlene’s political jibe back on her and the DUP. Suddenly Gaeilgeoirí were dressed in crocodile costumes outside DUP offices and outside the Belfast Courts. The crocodile logo started to pop up all over social media.
The refusal of the DUP leader to answer questions at the launch of their manifesto became another point of ridicule. The ‘man flu’ excuse didn’t wash with most people, no more than had the earlier claim of misogyny during Arlene Foster’s initial row over RHI with former DUP Minister and party colleague Jonathon Bell.
The big question of course, is what impact all of this will have on the vote for the parties? The honest truth is I don’t know. The electorate will make their minds up about all that has transpired and pass their judgement on Thursday. The political parties and leaders will then have a job of work to negotiate an agreement that delivers on the outstanding elements of all of the previous agreements.
Every election is important. But some have a historic significance that resonates for years. This is one of those. The future of the Good Friday Agreement, of the political institutions, and of the principles of equality and respect and parity of esteem that underpin the Agreement, are at grave risk.
This election is about rights. The right of every citizen, whatever their religion, colour, gender, sexual orientation, to be treated as equals.
The election is also about making a stand in favour of good governance. That’s why Martin McGuinness resigned. He felt that the electorate should have their say on the RHI scandal. So Thursday is your day. The peoples day. If you don’t vote – don’t complain. Because if you don’t vote you will be rewarding bad behaviour.

I hope people will vote Sinn Féin.  Your VOTE was too hard fought for to be left sitting on the fireplace. 

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Brexit threatens the Good Friday Agreement

Michelle O'Neill, mise agus Martina Anderson arriving for All-Island Brexit conference in Dublin Castle on Friday morning

Two weeks from today – Thursday March 2nd – the electorate of the North will be going to the polls. The future of the political institutions, and of the Good Friday Agreement, the allegations of corruption within the RHI scheme, and the need for integrity and respect within those institutions, are for Sinn Féin the core themes of the election campaign.
So too is the issue of Brexit. At a very well attended and successful United Ireland conference in Dublin three weeks ago, I warned that Brexit would destroy the Good Friday Agreement. That it was a hostile action by the British government. British sources were quick to dismiss my concerns. The Irish government was also dismissive. Why? Because each time the Taoiseach Enda Kenny speaks to or meets the British Prime Minister Theresa May she assures him that the British are 100% behind the GFA. And he accepts this without question.
May visited Dublin at the end of January and spoke of a ‘frictionless’ and ‘seamless’ border, and of no one wanting to return to the borders of the past. Meaningless waffle. Kenny parroted her claims with no evidence to show how this could be achieved. On the contrary there is very clear evidence that Brexit on British terms will see the imposition of a hard economic border on the island of Ireland. Last week, for example, the select committee at Westminster, which has been holding hearings on the impact of Brexit on the border, heard from Michael Lux and Eric Pickett, two EU customs and international trade experts.
Lux told the committee that post Brexit the border would become a European border between the EU and a non EU member and that all goods would be subject to the European customs code on the Irish side.
But if there was ever any doubt about the threat Brexit poses to the Good Friday Agreement then it emerged last Wednesday night. The British Parliament spent hours debating a whole series of amendments to the Brexit Bill that will allow Theresa May to trigger Article 50. This will clear the way for the Brexit negotiations between Britain and the EU to commence.
Among the amendments was one which would have blocked any change to the Good Friday Agreement arising from the Brexit negotiations. The Conservative Party, the DUP, the Ulster Unionist Party – favoured partner of the SDLP - and UKIP, and the MP for Bexley and Sidcup, James Brokenshire – the British Secretary of State for the North - combined to vote it down. So much for the assurances of the British government that the Good Friday Agreement is sacrosanct. No great surprise for those like me who know that British governments always act in their own national self-interest and don’t give a tuppenny damn about the North. And as for those who think that attending Westminster makes a difference – well they got their answer on Wednesday evening.
The Westminster vote also shows the short sightedness of the Taoiseach’s approach which is to play the part of junior partner to the British Government.
So things have to change. If the island of Ireland is to avoid a serious economic crisis arising from Brexit the Irish government has to produce a comprehensive negotiations strategy with clear national objectives to protect citizens, workers and key sectors across the island. It requires credible strategy to protect Irish national self-interest. And they don’t have much time to do it. The British government’s triggering of Article 50 is now only weeks away.
Theresa May has outlined her 12 principles going into the Brexit negotiations and two weeks ago the British published their White paper. It was essentially a longer version of May’s speech containing many of the same clichés we have come to expect on this issue from both governments. It even went as far as to talk about “the strength and support of 65 million people willing us to make it – Brexit – happen.” No reference to the millions in the North and in Scotland who voted to remain.
The White paper also claims, and I quote, that the “devolved administrations are fully engaged in our preparations to leave the EU”. Our party's experience to date, having taken part in the meetings of the Joint Ministerial Committee, and from the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales, is that this is simply not true.
I have repeatedly called on the Taoiseach and Irish government to agree a strategic approach to the negotiations with clear political, economic and trade objectives that protect the interests of all citizens on the island of Ireland, defend the Good Friday Agreement, and ensures that the frontier between the EU and Britain is not on the island of Ireland.
This means upholding the democratic vote in the North to remain. It also requires the government, which is at the negotiating table, to actively campaign for the North to have a special designated status within the EU. This requires, as a matter of urgency, a White Paper from the Irish government setting out its strategy and objectives in the Brexit negotiations.
Michelle speaking to the All-Island Brexit Conference

To try to advance this objective I introduced last week in the Dáil the European Communities (Brexit) Bill 2017. An objective of the Bill is to preserve the rights of those citizens in the north who will remain EU citizens in the aftermath of Brexit by virtue of their Irish citizenship. The Bill also places a statutory requirement on the Taoiseach to outline the government’s approach to negotiations surrounding Brexit to the Oireachtas.
All of this is critical to the well-being and future of the Good Friday Agreement. Thus far the Irish government has failed to act decisively as a co-equal guarantor of the Agreement. The dangers this presents are enormous.
We already know that the British government intends to bring an end to the jurisdiction of the European Court. It is also committed to ending its relationship with the European Convention on Human Rights. These two decisions will have profound implications for the Good Friday Agreement.
And none of this deals with the fact that citizens in the North, under the Agreement, have a right to Irish citizenship and therefore to EU citizenship. How can their rights as EU citizens be protected and realised?
In addition, there have been a succession of economic reports, including one recently by the ESRI, which warned that Brexit will cost tens of thousands of jobs.
Did you know that around 60% of goods exported out of the North to the EU actually go to the South? Or that 14,000 people regularly commute across the border for work and business and education? Or that all of those trucks that cross the border every day on their way to Europe via Dublin and other ports will now face customs checks? And that non-EU trucks can take between 20 minutes to two hours to clear!

That’s a lot of jobs at risk. And a very messy process. That’s why you need to use your vote. It’s not all about the unacceptable behaviour of the DUP, although that is central. It’s also about sending a clear message to the Irish government. It’s about the future. So vote. And vote wisely.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Supporting Victims

Supporting victims
February 4th 1992 was a Tuesday. It was also a typically cold though dry day. Martin McGuinness and I left the Sinn Féin office at Sevastopol Street, just off the Falls Road, around 12.30pm. It was a dangerous time. Sinn Féin offices were being regularly targeted for raids by the British Army and RUC. Following a south African arms shipment a few years earlier, facilitated by British intelligence, the UDA, UVF and Ulster Resistance were now well armed with high-powered assault rifles, RPG’s, hand grenades and pistols.
The impact of this weapons shipment, which the British knew about from their senior agent Brian Nelson in the UDA, and from other agents in the north, as well as in South Africa, was significant. In the three years prior to receiving this weapons shipment the loyalist death squads had killed 34 people. In the three years after the shipment they killed 224 and wounded countless scores more. There was also a dramatic rise in the number of Sinn Féin activists and family members killed.
So, bringing senior activists together in a Sinn Fein office was rartely done. Locations for meetings were constantly changed. On that day we were meeting in Conway Mill.
Shortly after 1pm Richard McAuley, who was due to attend the meeting and was typically late, left Sevastopol Street with Fra Fox. The two of them walked down to the Mill. Just as they arrived word came through that the office had been hit. Richard immediately ran back up to Sevastopol Street. When he arrived the paramedics were navigating a stretcher, on which lay Pat McBride, out of the reception office and through the narrow front door. Pat died a short time later.
55 Falls Road was an old terrace house. There was a reception room on the left as you entered and an advice centre behind it. Upstairs was an interview room for the media and our Prisoner of War office. Stuck in a tiny attic was the press office.
Richard went into the side reception room. On the floor lay Paddy Loughran. He had been shot in the head. On the floor opposite was Pat Wilson. He was sitting with his back to a bench. Pat was clearly very badly hurt but his eyes were open and he was looking at Richard. Michael O’Dwyer, who Richard didn’t know, was sitting on the bench behind the door. Richard went to him but it was obvious that he too was dead. Nora Larkin who had also been injured and had been in the advice centre was already on her way to the hospital.
Richard went over to Pat and knelt beside him. Louise from the POW office was also there. The two spoke quietly to Pat as they waited for the paramedics to arrive to lift him out. After they did Richard and Louise went upstairs. Michael O’Dwyer’s two year old son had been in his father’s arms when he was shot and was being looked after by some of the staff. For the O’Dwyer family this was the second tragedy to shatter their lives. Michael’s mother Sadie had been killed in a UVF bomb attack in North Belfast in 1976.
At that point we all assumed that it was an attack by either the UDA or UVF. As it turned out it was an RUC officer called Allan Moore, who then drove to the shores of Lough Neagh and shot himself.
As he left the building Moore was grabbed by Marguerite Gallagher, a stalwart of the Green Cross Art Shop next door. Holding Moore, Marguerite was dragged by him round to his car which was parked on Sevastopol Street. He told her to ‘fuck off’ as he pushed her away and drove off.
I arrived up from Conway Mill to a scrum taking place outside the door of the office. The RUC wanted to close the building and the activists inside were refusing. They weren’t going to be intimidated by anyone. Later when some of those in the building got back into the reception room to clean it they discovered shotgun cartridges and the bag in which Moore had carried his shotgun. The RUC’s forensic examination of the scene clearly wasn’t serious.
The attack on Sevastopol Street was not the first on that building or other Sinn Féin offices. In all 20 members of Sinn Féin, as well as family members – wives, sons, brothers were killed in this period, mostly by unionist paramilitaries in collusion with British state forces.
Within 24 hours of the Sevastopol Street attack two UDA members entered Sean Graham’s bookmakers shop on the Ormeau Road in South Belfast. They opened fire killing 5 customers and wounding 9 other people. The youngest to die was a 15-year-old schoolboy, James Kennedy, the eldest a 67-year-old father of three, Jack Duffin, together with Christy Doherty (52), William McManus (54) and 18-year-old Peter Magee.
Relatives for Justice later exposed the extent of the collusion between the RUC and the loyalists who took part in this attack. The hand gun used was allegedly 'stolen' from a UDR base by UDA killer Ken Barrett who gave it to UDA quartermaster William Stobie. Both of these men were agents working for the RUC Special Branch. They were also part of the gang that killed human rights lawyer Pat Finucane.
State collusion in the murder of citizens has been a fact of life in the northern state from its foundation. Under British control it was part of the institutional apparatus of its counter insurgency strategies. Reports by the Ombudsman’s office into killings in north Belfast and most recently Loughinisland, in County Down, and other reports by groups like Amnesty International, have revealed the extent of state collusion.
The British do not want those truths from becoming known. That is why they have obstructed the agreement reached at Stormont House two years ago into legacy cases. It is why they refuse to fund legacy inquests. It is also why they want immunity for British soldiers and others who were responsible for beatings, for torture, and for murder.
But the British aren’t alone in this. The DUP and the UUP have joined forces in attacking the Public Prosecution Service and the Lord Chief Justice. They too are only interested in protecting British soldiers, the UDR, and the RUC. Does the SDLP share this position? That’s a question that needs to be asked also. Because that party is calling on nationalists to transfer their votes to the UUP. If the UUP can, they say, they will block investigations into British state killings.
For the families of those killed 25 years ago in Sevastopol Street and the Ormeau bookies the weekend commemorations were poignant events. I am very conscious that it is replicated on other anniversaries by other victims and survivors of the conflict.
The narrative here is one story. One narrative. There are others. Each must be respected. The British government and most unionists know that. But they rarely, if ever, acknowledge or concede this truth. This may be understandable when it comes to victims or survivors. But for British politicians like James Brokenshire it is cynical. It means that the past will distort and impede how we as a society shape our future. And that is one of the reasons why Brokenshire and his ilk say and do what they say and do.
For them the war is not over. They live in the past, in their own version of what happened. We cannot be limited in that way. Our priority must be to support victims and to stay focussed on the future.