Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Remembering the Soweto Uprising

Last week 21 years ago I made my first visit to South Africa and had my first meeting with Madiba Nelson Mandela. I was invited by the ANC – with whom Irish republicans have long enjoyed fraternal relations.  The Sinn Féin delegation – which included Chrissie McAuley; Rita O Hare; and RG stayed for a packed week of meetings and travel across a beautiful country that was still trying to come to terms with the enormous change that was then taking place. The previous year Madiba had been elected President of a free south Africa.
Our purpose in going, apart from the solidarity links that connect our two struggles, was to speak to a wide range of ANC negotiators who had succeeded in bringing an end to the apartheid regime.
It was an emotional experience for all of us. There wasn’t a dry eye at our first engagement as we listened to the late Walter Sisulu, the grand old man of African resistance, who had made a special point of coming to meet us. He spoke of his own time in prison and of his memories of the hunger strike in Ireland in 1981. He was in prison then and told us of the great solidarity that existed between ANC prisoners and the republican prisoners.
It was a moving speech in which Walter Sisulu recalled hearing of the death of Bobby Sands and of the silent tribute ANC prisoners across South Africa paid to a fellow freedom fighter. Further evidence of the connection between the two struggles can be found in Madiba’s note on his prison calendar on Robben Island on which he wrote on the 5 May 1981 - ‘IRA Martyr Bobby Sands dies’.
Some days later we visited several of the townships around Jo’burg, including Alexandra and Phola Park. The poverty, that was the legacy of apartheid, was enormous. But the spirit of the people was incredible. They danced and sang and their sense of hope for the future was overwhelming.
I was reminded of this visit in the summer of 1995 as I read newspaper accounts in recent days of the Soweto Uprising that took place in June 1976 - 40 years ago this month. I was in Cage 11 when the uprising began. Inside and outside of the prison republicans identified closely with the struggles for liberation in south Africa, Angola and Mozambique and with the Palestinian people. The nightly news reports of street confrontations on our television screens from Soweto, as young people, armed with stones took on the might of the best trained and equipped army in Africa, reminded all of us of our own experiences on the streets of Belfast and Derry.
Our hearts and heads were with the school children challenging the apartheid regime.
The Soweto confrontation between school children and young students, and an apartheid regime renowned for its brutality, arose because the south African regime– not unlike the British colonial power in our own experience – decided to destroy the language and culture of the native peoples.
In 1974 it made the language of Afrikaans alongside English compulsory as the medium of instruction in schools. This decision was in keeping with an educational system that was an integral part of an apartheid system that included ‘homelands’, pass laws and structured discrimination based on race. It was a system of segregation intended to keep black south Africans in a subservient position.
H.F Verwoerd, who was its architect said: “Natives (black people) must be taught from an early age that equality with Europeans is not for them” …There is no place for [the African] in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour. It is of no avail for him to receive a training which has as its aim, absorption in the European community”.
On June 16th 1976 thousands of students organised a peaceful march to Orlando Stadium in Soweto to protest against this new educational directive. The marchers were confronted by heavily armed police who fired on them. The result was the beginning of a revolt that spread across the state.
News film and photographs of distressed parents and students carrying the bodies of those killed flashed around the world. Official figures of casualties on that first day say that some 23 people were killed but other reports put the figure much higher.
The uprising escalated. 300 predominantly white students marched in protest at the killing of schoolchildren and workers joined in the protests. By the end of 1976 it was estimated that as many as 600 had been killed.
The Soweto Uprising was a pivotal moment in the struggle for freedom in south Africa. It changed the political landscape and renewed international interest in a struggle that had largely slipped off the media agenda. The images of school children facing up to heavily armed south African police and soldiers, and being killed and injured in their hundreds, captured the attention of the world. The Soweto Uprising also filled the prisons with teenagers and young men and women who were determined to break the apartheid system forever. It also led to an increase in the number of young men and women joining the liberation movements inside south Africa and travelling to the training camps in other African states.
One small postscript. During that memorable visit to south Africa we also visited Soweto. There we met ANC activists who had participated in the uprising, joined the struggle for freedom, and were now in the government of a free south Africa. In celebration they took us to the grave of Joe Slovo. When the ANC decided to adopt armed struggle as a means of struggle in 1961 Joe Slovo was recruited by Madiba and Walter Sisulu to form the High Command of Umkhonto we Sizwe (The Spear of the Nation) or MK – the ANC’s armed organisation. He rose to become Chief of Staff of MK.
Joe died six months before our visit. As we made our way through the huge Soweto cemetery to his graveside we were accompanied by hundreds of local ANC activists, mainly women. They sang and danced. At the graveside I made a few remarks about Joe Slovo’s life and example and the crowd sang Nkosi Sikelele, the South African National anthem.
Soweto was the ANC’s hunger strike moment. An event that changed the shape and dynamic of their struggle. Just as we remember those who died on hunger strike in 1981 so too are the heroes of Soweto remembered.

Friday, June 10, 2016

A flicker of hope in the Middle East crisis

The Middle East peace process has been on a life support system for years. The use of words like ‘stalled’ or ‘impasse’ don’t describe the reality – especially after years of failure.
Over the years and on my occasional visits to the region I have met many Palestinians, some Israelis and others who support Palestinian sovereignty and the two state solution, who believe that the peace process is dead.

Saeb Erekat, who is the secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organisation sounded a warning at the beginning of June. He wrote; With the 50th anniversary of Israel’s military and colonial occupation of Palestine coming to a head, we have reached a critical juncture within the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. For over 20 years, bilateral negotiations between Israel and Palestine failed on account of Israeli intransigence over its refusal to recognize Palestinian national rights and the continuation and expansion of its settlement enterprise.”

The French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault last Friday echoed that; “The possibility of two states, Israeli and Palestinian, living side-by-side, in peace and security, grows more distant by the day…The two-state solution is in serious danger. We are reaching a point of no return where this solution will not be possible.”
He gave his assessment after a specially convened conference by the French government in Paris on the Middle East peace process. It was attended by the representatives of 26 states, as well as the UN Secretary General Ban-ki Moon and representatives of the EU and the Arab League. The purpose of the French initiative is to try and inject some life back into the process through a peace conference to be held toward the end of this year.
It is nine years since the last such conference in Annapolis in the USA. That conference had aimed to ‘revive’ the Palestinian-Israeli peace process and implement the ‘Roadmap for peace’. Since then there have been a number of other efforts, most notably by George Mitchell, who chaired the Good Friday Agreement negotiations, and US Secretary of state John Kerry. They all failed.
Despite widespread diplomatic pessimism, fuelled especially by the intransigence of Israel, the war in Syria has increased the fear of Islamic radicalism and pressure on European governments to become more active. In the five years of civil war in Syria over 300,000 people have died; over five million have been displaced – over a million of these have fled to Europe; thousands have died in coffin ships and rubber dinghies on the Mediterranean; and the region is convulsed by war. The French Foreign Minister told the Paris conference; “Islamic State makes propaganda in the Palestinian territories. This extremely dangerous context has raised awareness of the need for an initiative that creates hope.”
This is the context for last week’s French initiative. Their objective is to organise a peace conference by the end of 2016 as a way of kick-starting new peace negotiations. The participants at the Paris conference agreed to establish working parties to prepare economic and security incentives to aid the peace negotiations.
Neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis were invited to Paris, which the French see as laying the groundwork for the peace conference in six months’ time.
For the Palestinians Saeb Erekat described the French initiative as “the flicker of hope Palestine has been waiting for and we are confident that it will provide a clear framework with defined parameters for the resumption of negotiations. The international conference should be viewed as an opportunity to create a negotiating environment in which power is equalized and law and human rights prevail.”
Dave Gold the Director General of Israel’s Foreign Affairs Ministry rejected the French initiative describing it as “doomed to failure.” In a statement from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s office the Israeli government said that it saw no benefit in the French proposals for a peace conference.
The Israelis say they want direct face to face negotiations with the Palestinians. But such negotiations would not be between equals and would place the Palestinians at a huge disadvantage. Saeb Erekat explained: “Today it is essential that we go from the bilateral path between occupier and occupied to a multilateral framework that enables the international community to assume its responsibility to enforce international law in Palestine.”
As the diplomatic niceties and the possibility of a peace conference slowly takes shape life for the Palestinian people of the west Bank and of the Gaza strip continues to deteriorate under a relentless Israeli assault. 
This takes many forms. In a policy similar to the land evictions in Ireland in the 19th century the Israeli authorities have been increasingly using forced expulsions and the destruction of Palestinian homes to steal Palestinian land, often for Israeli settlements.
The Jerusalem Centre for Social and Economic Rights has recently reported on more than 14,900 cases where Israeli identity cards were revoked from Palestinians living on the west Bank and especially in East Jerusalem since the occupation commenced. On a previous visit to Jerusalem I visited Palestinian families who were subsequently forcibly evicted from their homes. It is, as one Palestinian described it, a ‘demographic war’.
The United Nations reported that in February they recorded the highest number of home demolitions since the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) began recording in 2009. It reported that, “Israeli forces destroyed, dismantled or confiscated 235 homes and other structures, displacing 331 Palestinians, including 174 children, and affecting another 740 Palestinians."
Further evidence of this tactic of expelling Palestinians from their land; of disrupting the efforts of aid agencies trying to support them, has emerged in a report published at the weekend. Entitled ‘Squandered Aid,’ the report, by the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor estimates that at least €65 million of EU aid has been destroyed by Israel.
In its report Euro-Med states: Damage to European Union-funded projects in Palestine during Israeli attacks and other incursions is nothing new. However, following the union’s move in 2015 to label Israeli settlement products, the number of EU-funded projects demolished or confiscated by Israel increased dramatically. In the first three months of 2016, the number of demolitions per month, of either private property or Internationally/EU– funded projects, increased to 165, from an average of 50 during 2012-2015. The United Nations office for coordination of humanitarian affairs 'OCHA' has documented 120 demolitions against EU-financed buildings in the first three months of 2016.”
Meanwhile the environmental disaster in the Gaza strip worsens. UNWRA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) reported that there is a “severe water and sanitation crisis… Current abstraction of water from the aquifer to meet the overall needs is way beyond the recharge. As groundwater levels subsequently decline, sea water infiltrates from the nearby Mediterranean Sea. Today, over 90 per cent of the water is unfit for human use.”
Only a quarter of waste water, the report says, can be treated and used in green areas and some agriculture. Some 90,000 cubic metres of raw or partly treated sewage is released everyday into the Mediterranean Sea, “creating pollution, public health hazards, and problems for the fishing industry”.
And while all of this is going on Israel builds settlements on Palestinian land in breach of international law. There are over half a million settlers now living illegally on land stolen from Palestinian farmers and workers and communities.
And then add to this the human cost of the violence. The United Nations has reported the killing of 25 Palestinian children in the last three months of 2015. By the end of December 2015 422 Palestinian children were imprisoned by Israel and since October 2015 204 Palestinians and 32 Israelis have been killed – including four Israelis this week in Tel Aviv.
The Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan attended the Paris conference. I raised the issue of Irish recognition of the Palestinian state with the Taoiseach Enda Kenny last week. He waffled a non-committal response. I will raise the matter again. The people of Palestine seek and deserve the same rights and responsibilities of citizens enjoyed in other states. They also deserve our support. It is also important that in a world in which so much else is happening that we do not forget what is happening to the Palestinian people of the west Bank and the Gaza Strip.


The piece below is taken from Euro-Med Monitor's June 2016 report 'Squandered Aid - Israel's Repetitive Destruction of EU funded Projects in Palestine.'

Southern Hebron

On 2 February, Israeli forces demolished more than 20 Palestinian buildings, including 10 EU-funded structures in Area C of the West Bank. The bulldozers arrived early that day in the villages of Jinba and Halawa, leaving some 110 people, including 60 children, homeless in one of the coldest months of the year and jeopardizing the future of thousands of others. The structures had been funded by the European Commission; others were co-financed by the governments of Denmark and the UK as part of UN programs.

"Tuesday’s operation was the largest of its kind in a decade, "reported the Israeli NGO Breaking The Silence. Media described children digging in rubble for their toys after the incursions. "Measures were taken in accordance with the law," COGAT claimed. An EU spokesperson told the French press agency AFP that, “the EU expects its investments in support of the Palestinian people to be protected from damage and destruction.” The villages date back to the 19th century, yet Israel designated the area as a military firing range in the 1970s and ordered the villagers to leave, triggering a long legal battle.

Friday, June 3, 2016

The first cross border bridge since partition

Narrow Water Bridge Community Network in the Dáil

I love the Cooley peninsula and its two mountain ridges. I have walked Slieve Foye, Maeve’s Gap and the tranquil valley of Glenmore that lies below them, many times over the years. Long before I was elected as a TD for County Louth the Cooley mountains were for me a place of relative peace and welcome. With Dundalk Bay on one side and Carlingford Lough on the other it is a stunning landscape, with seascapes, to take the breath away.
Standing on Slieve Foye you can see Slieve Guillon inland to the west along with the ancient volcanic hills of south Armagh. 60 Million years ago Guillon was a volcano and the ring of Guillon is the remnant of a volcanic dike. Across Carlingford lough to the north and north east stretch the Mourne Mountains. It’s also an ancient granite volcanic range with high peaks, including Slieve Donard, Slieve Muck, Slieve Commedagh and many others. Nestled in between is Silent Valley with its huge stretch of clear mountain water that satisfies the thirst of the people of county Down and Belfast.
From the Cooley peninsula, to Guillon, and the Mourne's the region is full of exceptional areas of beauty, special areas of conservation and environmentally sensitive areas. It is a region of unsurpassing beauty.
It also has a rich past of myths and legends and a history that stretches back thousands of years.
There are cairns and passage graves and ring forts from the Neolithic period. Guillon contains what is left of around 20 large stone tombs. At Clontygora, and Ballymacdermot there are two of the best examples of Court Tombs in Ireland.
Legends of ancient heroes including Fionn MacCumhailll, and the Fianna, and of Cú Chulainn, and Queen Maebh are part of this landscape. The Táin Bó Cúailnge- the Cattle Raid of Cooley- is probably the best known of the epic tales of Ireland.
From the Vikings to the Normans foreign invaders have also left their mark on medieval towns like Carlingford. Norman castles are dotted across the region. In more modern times the impact of partition has had an enduring ad adverse impact on life in the region. The disruption to communities and to business and trade has been enormous. It is no accident that the border region suffers disproportionately from higher than average levels of unemployment and social deprivation. Nor does it receive the same levels of investment, particularly in tourism, that other regions do.
I tell you all of this because in an effort to enhance the economic and tourism potential of the area there has been a long standing campaign to build a bridge across the stretch of water close to Narrow Water Castle, just outside Warrenpoint. The bridge would connect south Down with north Louth.
In recent years Louth County Council, Newry and Mourne, and Down district council, local community organisations and political parties supportive of eth project came close to beginning construction. And then it all fell apart. Higher buildings costs and the refusal of the government to provide additional funding to fill the gap saw the project stall. But it hasn’t gone away.
Last September in the negotiations that led to the Fresh Start Agreement I raised the issue. In a separate section dealing with the Narrow Water Bridge the Irish government confirmed that it “remains committed to the concept of the Narrow Water Bridge, which would provide a valuable North-South link between counties Louth and Down with potential to provide jobs and a significant boost to tourism in the area.”
The Agreement went on to state that ; “The Northern Ireland Executive and the Irish Government agree  to undertake  a review of the project with a view to identifying options for its future development , for consideration by the North South Ministerial Council in June 2016.”
Last week I asked the Taoiseach about the bridge. He confirmed that “initial discussions were held by a group of officials from the North and South which took place in December. Further meetings have taken place and a report will be provided for the June meeting. In addition, officials from North and South met in Newry in April with a view to dealing with the extent of the review. The Government is committed to the Narrow Water bridge concept, which has the potential to provide jobs and a significant boost in the future.”
The meeting of the North South Ministerial Council is due to take place next week, on June 10th in Dublin.
Also last week I hosted a meeting in the Dáil for TD’s and Seanadóirí where they were briefed by Jim Boylan and Adrian O Hare of the Narrow Water Bridge Community Network. If you want any more information on the bridge and its economic significance I would urge you to check out their Facebook page- it’s excellent.
Both men and their colleagues spoke eloquently of the importance of a bridge at narrow Water for the local economy and especially for tourism. They pointed to the regions unique location midway between Dublin and Belfast with their airport and harbour hubs. The potential to increase tourist numbers through walking and cycling holidays, golf, angling and equestrian activities is clearly enormous. Thee financial implications of additional tourists was spelt out by Adrian when he quoted Fáilte Ireland tourism which states that for every one million euro of tourist expenditure 34 tourism jobs are created and one thousand additional tourists into the Cooley’s, Guillon and the Mourne’s can support 18 jobs.
The recent appointment of Sinn Féin MLA Chris Hazzard as the north’s first Infrastructure Minister gives an added impetus to the Narrow Water project. In his first statement in the job Chris acknowledged that there “are a number of significant projects underway to develop our road network including the A5 and A6 and I will be working with the Dublin government on progressing projects like Narrow Water Bridge and the Ulster Canal.”
So, there is real opportunity to achieve a quantum leap forward in economic development and tourism for south down, south Armagh and north Louth. We need to persuade the Irish government to move beyond agreeing with the “concept” to investing in the bridge.
A bridge at Narrow water would be the first cross border bridge project since partition. Now isn’t that a goal worth achieving.

Monday, May 30, 2016

The dangers of Brexit

To leave or not to leave - that is the question - facing millions of voters in Britain and in the north on June 23rdwhen they decide whether to stay in or leave the EU. 
The referendum on EU membership was proposed just over three years ago by the British Prime Minister, David Cameron. He had warned that unprecedented levels of immigration were: ‘undermining support for the European Union’ within Britain. And for the Tories there were issues around welfare payments to immigrants, closer EU co-operation and increasing political union among EU states.
It was and is a high risk strategy for Cameron given the deep divisions around Europe than lie within his own party. At least six Cabinet members, including the Secretary of State for the north, Theresa Villiers, are now part of the ‘leave’ campaign. And Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London and a rival for leadership of the Conservative party, has become the effective leader of the leave campaign.
Several months ago Cameron agreed a deal with the EU that he claims meets his demands around reducing welfare and child benefit payments to immigrants; provides for the ability to curb immigration into Britain; and rejects closer political links to the EU. He claimed that the deal means that Britain will: “never join the Euro, never be part of its bailouts, never join a European army or a European superstate”.
But whether he can win the referendum is another days’ work. A series of opinion polls have repeatedly shown that the British public is split almost evenly on the issue. In the north Sinn Féin, the SDLP, Alliance and Ulster Unionist Party oppose Brexit. The DUP, TUV and UKIP want to leave.
With the Executive now established Sinn Féin will be campaigning for a Yes vote to remain in the EU. While Sinn Féin believes there is a serious democratic deficit within the EU and seeks a different kind of social Europe, nonetheless we also believe that the north is best served being part of the EU.
The political and economic implications for the island of Ireland if Villiers, and Arlene Foster persuade the voters to back Brexit are enormous. It could have potentially devastating consequences, especially for the border region.
The British Secretary of State has ridiculed concerns that Brexit would see controls imposed along the border. But her arguments rang hollow. The border, which has in recent years become largely invisible, would become the EU’s only land border with Britain - a non EU country. All other such borders are marked by checkpoints and border controls. Why would this border be any different?
April saw the 18th anniversary of the signing in 1998 of the Good Friday Agreement, which was then endorsed in referendum north and south. The peace process and the Good Friday and subsequent agreements, have led to a political and economic transformation. The border is largely irrelevant; and families, farmers, tourists and business people travel freely and frequently. As a consequence the economy of the island is benefitting.
The potential damage that a return of border controls could create is deeply worrying.
The current debate around Brexit presents the most serious economic challenge to the border region since partition. It also can significantly damage the wider economies of the two states on the island. 
More than €1 billion is traded each week in goods and services between this State, the north and Britain. Much of this is in agriculture. That’s almost £150 million each day in trade. That’s a lot of jobs and a lot of wages.
In the north the end of the Single Farm Payment for farmers would result in a loss of €2.5 billion euro. AndBritain exiting the EU would mean an end to the Rural Development Fund, Structural Funds, and PEACE Funding.
The north would lose €982 million alone in Structural Funds which are crucial for Small and medium businesses, community regeneration and community groups.
In addition the introduction of trade barriers between the Irish state and Britain would cost jobs.
There is also considerable concern that Brexit will see the British government introduce legislation to make it clear that the British Parliament is sovereign and that British courts are not bound by the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. This will have profound implications for citizens in the North and, in particular, our ability to use the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union as a defence against punitive British legislation. David Cameron has also stated his desire - and it was part of the Tory Party manifesto - to replace the Human Rights Act.
The implications of the Tory plans to repeal the Act and reject the current oversight role of the European Convention on Human Rights are enormous for the administration of government, for justice, policing and equality in the north.
It is also a direct attack on the Good Friday Agreement and the international treaty signed by the British and Irish governments which gives legal affect to the Agreement.
Under the terms of the treaty between Ireland and the Britain, which incorporates the Good Friday Agreement into law, and is lodged with the United Nations, the British government is obliged to complete the incorporation into law in the north of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The Agreement also commits to safeguards to ensure that the Assembly and public authorities in the north cannot infringe the European Convention on Human Rights. These safeguards also apply to policing. 
When Sinn Féin asked the British Secretary of StateTheresa Villiers, if the British government would replace the funding which would be lost to the north as a consequence of withdrawal by the British state from the European Union; she refused to answer. The reality is that no British government is going to make-up the gap in funding that Brexit will create.
The fact is that the case for Brexit is not motivated or sustained by alternative and better strategies and policies. Instead it is the product of a growth in influence by narrow inward looking nationalism linked to conservative, Tory ideological interests and the crisis over refugees.
Sinn Féin will be campaigning in the June 23rdreferendum in the north to oppose Brexit. I would invite others, in political parties and business to join with us in that effort and to strive to win the argument for continued EU membership.

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.