Thursday, December 18, 2014

Amateurish and ham fisted negotiation


Invariably the British government likes to spin that its role is that of a facilitator – a neutral chair trying to persuade the obstinate northern parties to see sense and agree a deal. There is a pattern to all of the negotiations that have taken place since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. It’s almost like a complicated dance with some of the participants desperate to demonstrate how good they are at fancy footwork. But David Cameron is no Bruce Forsythe.

Au Contraire. His government is a key participant and has the greater role to play. It claims jurisdiction over this part of the island of Ireland. Its political strategies and self-interest over the centuries created the conditions for conflict and division. Its armed forces were one of the combatant groups. Its Parliament passed a succession of repressive laws over three decades – often in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights – to protect its forces from legal challenge and to control and contain the conflict. Its economic and political policies reinforced the institutional religious and political discrimination that was the hallmark of the unionist era.

Mindful of all of this, and of Britain’s colonial legacy, the Good Friday Agreement set out in clear terms the role of Britain while it still claims jurisdiction; “the power of the sovereign government with jurisdiction there shall be exercised with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people in the diversity of their identities and traditions and shall be founded on the principles of full respect for, and equality of, civil, political, social and cultural rights, of freedom from discrimination for all citizens, and of parity of esteem and of just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos, and aspirations of both communities…”

A fine sentiment which this British government has broken in both the spirit and the letter. The refusal by the British Government to honour its St. Andrews Agreement commitment on an Irish Language Act and the DUP’s refusal to implement the COMEX recommendations in compliance with the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages are indicative of that. Unsurprisingly this provides the licence for the utterances about Gaeilge heard in recent times.

Other outstanding commitments in the Good Friday Agreement yet to be implemented include:

A Civic Forum in the north

An All-Ireland Civic Forum

A Bill of Rights

A Joint north/south committee of the two Human Rights Commissions

An All-Ireland Charter of Rights

Obligations in compliance with the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages

 

The British government has also failed to implement commitments it gave during other negotiations including an Inquiry into the murder of human rights lawyer Pat Finucane and an anti-poverty strategy which were both part of the Weston Park talks. An Acht na Gaeilge, a review of the number of Executive Departments and the number of MLAs, and agreed legislation on Parades are all matters yet to be dealt with.

 

It is a long list. The British government’s obvious failure to honour its obligations is the single most important reason why the process is in such a mess at this time. It also partly explains why political unionism remains disconnected from and hostile to the power sharing institutions. Without a British government giving clear and unambiguous leadership and implementing commitments there is little incentive for political unionism to move in a consistent and progressive way.

 

So, understanding why there is a crisis doesn’t require a lot of deep political analysis. It’s pretty obvious.

This most recent endeavour to bridge the gaps began eight weeks ago. Papers were written and presented by the political parties and largely ignored by the British and Irish governments. Notwithstanding this Sinn Féin presented the governments with our own draft of their paper. It also was ignored.

On this occasion the political crisis is exacerbated by the impact of British government’s austerity policies which have taken on a greater significance than heretofore. Since 2011 £1.5 billion has been stripped out of the block grant which funds the north’s executive. In addition Mr. Cameron seeks significant change to the welfare system that will hurt the most vulnerable citizens.

The ability of the five Executive parties to defend front-line public services, including health and education, defend the poor, the disabled, the elderly and disadvantaged, and create jobs, has been significantly undermined as a result.

The impact of this is so grave that all of the parties, at the urging of Martin McGuinness, reached unanimity on the fiscal demands they would put to the British and Irish governments, including the size of the financial package that is required to enable the institutions to fulfil their mandate, defend citizens and allow for the political crisis in the political process to be dealt with.

Last Thursday David Cameron and Enda Kenny arrived amid the usual media fanfare to commence a negotiation which amounted to little more than a charade. They left within 24 hours.

I wasn’t surprised. This was not a serious effort. I told Cameron and Kenny this during the negotiations. I described it as the ‘most amateurish ham fisted episode I have ever been involved in’. I wasn’t joking. The approach of the British and Irish government was little short of disgraceful. It wasn’t a real engagement by them to reach a reasonable consensus or agreement. It was an exercise in bluster and political grandstanding, especially by the Brits.

The Irish government’s preparedness to sign up for a joint government paper that failed to mention Acht na Gaeilge or a Bill of Rights and which acquiesced to the British government’s use of ‘national security’ to deny information for victims was deeply disappointing. Enda Kenny failed to defend the Good Friday and subsequent agreements or to press the British government on legacy issues, like the Dublin/Monaghan bombs and the Pat Finucane Inquiry. 

Claims that over one billion pounds was available from the British government to the Executive quickly evaporated under scrutiny. As one BBC journalist put it the British cheque book as ‘all stubs and no cheques. The £1 billion in spending power offer by the prime minister is largely a borrowing facility which the executive can already dip into.’

The British Government also offered to provide £10m per year for the proposed Historical Investigations Unit. But this new legacy unit will cost between £30m and 40m per year. This is only one of the institutions proposed to deal with legacy issues. Over five years the Executive will be £100m worse off.

In addition, families, including the Ballymurphy families, who have campaigned for decades for the right to Article 2 compliance inquests are being frustrated by the British government. Under last year’s Haass proposals outstanding inquests were protected. Under the proposal from the two governments the Ballymurphy Massacre and other similar disputed cases would be moved to the ‘Civil Inquisitorial’ section of the Historical Investigations Unit if their inquests have still not been completed. Given the delays in disclosure by the PSNI and British Ministry of Defence it is unlikely that many of these inquests will have concluded.

The powers and remit of the ‘Civil Inquisitorial’ process are unclear and will be dependent on ‘national security’ concerns.

The British Government also proposed that the Executive borrow £100m per year for the next five years to pay for public sector redundancies. This is money the Executive would normally use to invest in health, education and other infrastructure projects, which would then not be available.

And rather than establish a realistic peace investment fund, as proposed by all the political parties, the British Government suggested that the Executive establish this fund through the sale of its own assets with no contribution from the British Government.

The net effect of these proposals would be that the Executive would be up to £100m worse off, public services would be decimated, and we would owe the British Government £500m over five years.

The fact is that we require a different economic and fiscal model to run the north which reflects the difficult circumstances that exist there, including the fact that we are a society emerging from generations of conflict and political instability. Without that the political process will not work.

David Cameron returned to London and Enda Kenny to Dublin leaving the process in a worse state than when they came. Both leaders, despite being the architects of the talks debacle, have since tried to wash their hands of any responsibility for what occurred. With talks continuing this week the British Secretary of State Theresa Villiers has stuck to the script which blames the north’s parties for the crisis. This is not helpful.

There has also been much talk in the media about the institutions collapsing. I don’t believe that any of the Executive parties want this.

Martin McGuinness and our team of negotiators will work hard this week to find solutions. But achieving an agreement to make the institutions work and secure sufficient funding to protect citizens, public services and jobs has been made more difficult by the inappropriate actions last week of David Cameron and Enda Kenny.

No political party in the north has a mandate to implement austerity policies. If that’s what Fine Gael, Labour or the Tories want to do then they should come north and fight the next election on that basis. In the meantime the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister should fulfil their obligations and honour their commitments.

 

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Niall Vallely – an idealist, an activist, a family man, a musician


 
Niall Vallely died on Sunday. His funeral took place in Newry this morning and I was asked to give a eulogy during the mass which I was honoured to do.

Below are my remarks: 

Niall Vallely – an idealist, an activist, a family man, a musician

Bhí idir iontas agus bhrón mór orm nuair a tháinig scéala chugam fá bhás Niall.

Ba mhaith liom mo chomhbhrón a dhéanamh le teaglach Vallely ag an uair millteanach brónach i saol bhur gclann.

Is mór an ónór domhsa a bheith ag caint faoi Niall inniu.

He had a special place in his heart for his ‘three girls,’ Saoirse, Maebh and Roisin.And I am sure you will all miss him enormously.Niall was full of craic and fun and life.He had a boundless energy; an openness and warmth that made him instantly likeable.And he loved politics.

And in so many campaigns over the years he was an activist; handing out leaflets, talking to people on the doorstep or outside the shopping centre, writing letters to the newspapers, articles for local news sheets, speeches for candidates and for himself.

He was a regular contributor at the Ard Fheis.

His contribution in the debate on policing at the Special Ard Fheis in 2007 is fondly remembered.

The chair had the devil of a time trying to get him to stop talking!

Like many of you I knew Niall for a very long time.

I knew him both personally and politically.

We were both active in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.

At that time people from across the political spectrum came together to demand basic human and civil rights for nationalists.

This included many republicans, socialists, communists, liberals, trade unionists, community activists, students and others, including initially some unionists.

Niall was a member of People’s Democracy.

I was in Sinn Féin.

The Civil Rights campaign shaped both of our lives and the lives of many of our contemporaries.

The Armagh branch of People’s Democracy was generally regarded as its most militant.

Not surprisingly Niall was its spokesperson.

In May 1969 a small group of pensioners and PD members held a silent picket outside Armagh Rural Council monthly meeting.

Niall addressed the Council demanding the immediate rehousing of the residents of Mill Row and Lislea.

Angry at the Council’s failure to respond positively Niall and his colleagues returned two weeks later.

This time they were refused permission to speak.

Not an instruction Niall was ever likely to heed.

He and four others were arrested on charges of disorderly behaviour and the Council imposed a ban on public attendance of its meetings.

A few months later August 69 was a particular tipping point for the civil rights movement and for the north.

The Orange state and its armed militia’s in the RUC and B Specials reacted violently against the reasonable Civil Rights demands for – in the sexist language of the day - one man, one vote; the removal of gerrymandered election boundaries; laws against discrimination by local government; the allocation of housing on a point system; the repeal of the Special Powers Act and the disbandment of the B Specials.

One consequence of this was the death in Armagh of John Gallagher following a civil rights demonstration.

This event had a particularly deep impact on Niall.

Niall had organised the civil rights meeting.

Following it B Specials opened fire shooting John Gallagher in the back and wounding two others.

John Gallagher was a father of three.

The B Specials all claimed not to have fired but this was dismissed by the Scarman Tribunal which concluded that the B Specials had ‘no justification for firing into the crowd.’

Through all of what was to come the deep sense of injustice, pain and anger he felt from the murder of John Gallagher never left him.

Niall was enormously likeable and entertaining and insightful about Irish culture, language and republicanism.

Coming so quickly after the death of his beloved wife Úna Niall’s death has been a very difficult time for the entire family.

Úna’s death was a huge blow to Niall.

Úna was his soul mate. His one true love.

I never got to Úna’s funeral but I phoned Niall. He appreciated that very much.

We met a short time after her death.

It was at a Sinn Féin conference. I went over to commiserate with him and we sat talking amidst the hustle and bustle of that gathering.

I remember very well what he said to me and how all the people all around us talking and bantering and shouting were probably oblivious to our presence.

Don’t believe what they tell you about Irishmen not being able to express their emotions.

Niall was very upfront. “Úna was my life. She was my everything.”

So what do you say to that?

He went on to talk about Eimear and Niall and Ruairí who were all he said doing well; though he noted that Ruairí wasn’t paid very well by Sinn Féin for his job of modernizing the party’s approach to elections.

Later he sent me a framed print of one of his brother Brian’s paintings which my son liberated.

Niall would have appreciated that.

I want to tell that it is a great honour to speak here today.

Your father and brother, your Daideo was a great man and although he might blush if he heard me saying that he might also agree with a laugh.

To you Eimear, Niall and Ruairí, to Nico; to Niall’s grandchildren Saoirse, Maebh and Roisin, and to his siblings Brian, Dara, Mairé and Lorainne I want to extend my own personal condolences and those of Sinn Féin at your loss.

Niall loved all of you deeply. You know that.

He had a special place in his heart for his ‘three girls,’ Saoirse, Maebh and Roisin.

It is a great blessing to know your grandchildren.

And I am sure you will all miss him enormously.

Niall was full of craic and fun and life.

He had a boundless energy; an openness and warmth that made him instantly likeable.

And he loved politics.

From his time in People’s Democracy, almost half a century ago, through the civil rights movement, to Sinn Féin.

In many ways it’s easy to be a young radical but there is something compelling about older radicals - about those who keep the faith, but who also move with the times and who are relevant in the modern world - that was Niall – an anti-imperialist who lived in the real world.

But Niall was not just a talker.

Niall was an activist.

He lived his politics every day.

He read it every day.

It was in his blood.

In so many campaigns over the years he handed out leaflets, talked to people on the doorstep or outside the shopping centre, wrote letters to the newspapers, articles for local news sheets, and speeches for candidates and for himself.

He was a regular contributor at the Ard Fheis.

His contribution in the debate on policing at the Special Ard Fheis in 2007 is fondly remembered.

The chair had great difficulty in trying to get Niall to stop talking!

He knew the importance of that debate.

And the historic nature of that Ard Fheis.

He had things to say and say them he did, despite running over time.

Like many of you I knew Niall for a very long time.

I knew him both personally and politically.

We were both active in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.

At that time people from across the political spectrum came together to demand basic human and civil rights for nationalists.

This included many republicans, socialists, communists, liberals, trade unionists, community activists, students and others, including initially some unionists.

Niall was a member of People’s Democracy.

The Civil Rights campaign shaped both of our lives and the lives of many of our contemporaries.

The Armagh branch of People’s Democracy was generally regarded as its most militant.

Niall was its spokesperson.

In May 1969 a small group of pensioners and PD members held a silent picket outside Armagh Rural Council monthly meeting.

Niall addressed the Council demanding the immediate rehousing of the residents of Mill Row and Lislea.

Angry at the Council’s failure to respond positively Niall and his colleagues returned two weeks later.

This time they were refused permission to speak.

Might as well tell a bird not to sing.

Niall and four others were arrested on charges of disorderly behaviour and the Council imposed a ban on public attendance at its meetings.

A few months later August 69 was a particular tipping point for the civil rights movement and for the north.

One event had a particularly deep impact on Niall.

He and others had organised a civil rights meeting in Armagh in solidarity with people in the Bogside under siege from the RUC and B Specials.

After the Armagh meeting the B Specials opened fire killing John Gallagher, a father of three, and wounded two others.

The B Specials all claimed not to have fired but this was dismissed by the Scarman Tribunal which concluded that the B Specials had ‘no justification for firing into the crowd.’

Through all of what was to come in his life afterwards the deep sense of injustice, pain and anger Niall felt from the murder of John Gallagher never left him.

Niall also told about an incident in Armagh in the early 70’s when he was beaten unconscious by a loyalist mob and his heart stopped and for a few minutes he was dead!

As he told it he was the only man who fought for Ireland – died for Ireland – and came alive again for Ireland!.

Humour was very important to Niall.

He was enormously likeable and entertaining and insightful about Irish culture, language and republicanism.

It is in the nature of things that we often wait until a person is dead before we pay tribute to them.

Let me place firmly on the record the hugely important role that the Vallely family have played in shaping the life of our nation; of their contribution to the creative life of our society; and the revival of our music, particularly the tradition of uillean piping, or in Niall’s case the bodhran.

Bhí grá mór ag Niall don teanga, don cheol agus don slí maireach tála 's againne.

Bhí tuiscint dhoimhin aige ar áit agus ar an pháirt a bhí aige I rud éigin níos mó ná a ré féin.

Is minic finnscéalta, scéaltagaisce seanchas agus uaireanta an fhírinne fite fuaite le chéile chun mórscéal níos leithne a chruthú

Niall was also deeply passionate about history.

For him history wasn’t something dry and dusty.

It was an important part of who he was.

He wanted all of us to share in and celebrate our history.

Niall was a generous, decent, human being.

He was wise. He didn’t take himself seriously.

He believed in equality and inclusiveness in all things.

Bhí léargas aige ar chumhacht na teanga, go háirithe nuair a chuireadh sé gáire ar dhaoine.

He was passionate and enthusiastic in all that he did, but especially about his politics.

He travelled the length and breadth of Ireland helping to get Shinners elected, including this Shinner a few miles down the road in Louth.

He believed in a real republic where citizens would have rights and where ordinary people, the citizens would come first.

He believed in a united Ireland and in a real republic, based on social justice.

He was a proud Armagh man.

Niall was born on August 13th.

According to his brother Brian, his birth came during the annual stream of meteors known as the Perseid meteor shower.

He died on December 14th when the annual Geminids meteor shower, created by another comet, can be seen.

As a mathamatician Niall would have appreciated that.

Niall’s death leaves a great void.

For Sinn Féin in Newry/Armagh; but especially for his family.

He leaves a space that can’t be filled; particularly for Eimear, Niall and Ruairí, for Nico and for Saoirse, Maebh and Roisin, and for his siblings Brian, Dara, Mairé and Lore – Ann.

Saoirse, Maebh and Rosin be proud of your Daideo. And your Maimeo.

Your lives are better because of them.

He was an idealist and a pragmatist whose political views were shaped in but never trapped in the 1960’s.

Born and raised at the zenith of the orange state he knew that the Ireland he has left is a different place – a better place – and that he contributed to this.

Chuir Niall misneach ar dhaoine.

Bhí nasc aige le daoine.

Bhí saol dea-chaite aige.

Ba cheart dúinn uilig é sin a cheiliúradh.

He also contributed to the growth of Irish republicanism and Sinn Féin.

His old friend Cyril Toman sent an email, from Australia, when he heard of Niall’s death.

He summed up our sense of Niall perfectly.

Cyril wrote: ‘Niall was a great man; he had vision, he had courage, he had determination, and he had a sense of humour that enabled him to cut through all the pretence and nonsense he encountered… It may not seem important now, but your brother has had a significant influence on the way Irish people - especially those in the north - imagine themselves. And there are not many men or women you can say that about.

I want to finish with a little poem by Brendan Kennelly. I want to dedicate it to Niall’s family. 

Begin  

Begin to the loneliness that cannot end

since it perhaps is what makes us begin,

begin to wonder at unknown faces

at crying birds in the sudden rain

at branches stark in the willing sunlight

at seagulls foraging for bread

at couples sharing a sunny secret

alone together while making good.

Though we live in a world that dreams of ending

that always seems about to give in

something that will not acknowledge conclusion

insists that forever begin.

That’s what Niall would expect you to do. That’s what he would expect us to do. To begin all over again.

 
Thank you Niall for your life, for your love, for your work.

 

 

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