Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Irish government acted as junior partner in negotiation


Sinn Féin’s objectives throughout the recent negotiations, which led to the Stormont House Agreement were very clear. These were to agree a comprehensive deal to protect the most vulnerable in society, to safeguard the rights and entitlements of citizens, to deliver on outstanding agreements, to grow the economy and to enhance the working of the institutions.
It wasn’t an easy negotiation. The ability of the five Executive parties to defend front-line public services, including health and education, to defend the poor, people with disabilities, the elderly and disadvantaged, and to create jobs, was being significantly undermined by British Tory demands for welfare cuts, as well as by the £1.5 billion cut to the block grant since 2011.This Austerity policy is similar to Dublin’s and was actively endorsed by the Taoiseach and the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Sinn Féin was steadfast in our opposition to this agenda.

The British government’s failure to honour its commitments made in the Good Friday and other agreements, such as an inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane was another important factor in why the political process was in such a mess.
There is little incentive for political unionism to move forward in a consistent and progressive way if a British government is not giving clear and unambiguous leadership and implementing commitments.

The British government’s refusal to back the Haass proposals to deal with the vexed issues of identity, parading and the legacy of past had succeeded only in emboldening unionist hostility to the power sharing institutions.

The position of the Irish government on all of this was especially frustrating; driven I believe by a short-sighted selfish electoral political agenda. They took on the role of junior partner and allowed the British government to set the agenda and the pace of negotiations and sat passively as the British tried to dictate the outcome.
By the time the Taoiseach and British Prime Minister arrived in Belfast on December 11th there was no great optimism that progress could be achieved. Their departure 24 hours later led many to believe that the negotiations were over and that the political institutions were at real risk of collapsing. This intervention amounted to little more than a charade.

It was not a serious endeavour. The presentation of a deeply flawed joint paper by the Irish and British governments and the approach of both during those talks was amateurish and ham fisted. It effectively sought to nationalise austerity with Irish government support for the British Tory efforts to hurt the most vulnerable in the north.
The Irish government’s preparedness to sign up for a joint government paper that failed to mention Acht na Gaeilge and talked only of ‘language strategies’ was equally disgraceful.

It also acquiesced to the British government’s use of ‘national security’ to deny information to victims and to the British demand to end the right of families of victims to an inquest in the coroners’ courts.
Nor was there any guarantee that the Dublin and Monaghan bombings would be considered under the proposed new ‘civil Inquisitorial’ process under the new Historical Investigations Unit.

So, on December 12th David Cameron returned to London and the Taoiseach to Dublin leaving the process in a worse state than when they came.
Despite the negative approach of the two governments the Sinn Féin leadership remained determined to find solutions. A consensus was reached, at the initiative of Martin McGuinness and under the leadership of Martin and Peter Robinson, among the Executive parties to push for a real and meaningful negotiation.

Six days later and following lengthy discussions, many of them into the wee hours of the morning, and at least one all-night session, an Agreement was achieved.
The total value of the British government’s revised financial proposals amount to almost £2 billion –double what was originally offered.

This includes £650 million of new and additional funding, including up to £500 million over 10 years of new capital to support shared and integrated education.

Crucially, there will be no reductions in welfare payments under the control of the Executive. The new welfare protections are unique to the north and are in sharp contrast to the austerity-driven welfare system being rolled out in Britain. Anti-poverty measures will be retained.
The Irish government also made financial commitments, including €25 million annually for the A5 project; as well as some additional funding for reconciliation and for EU Peace and Interreg programmes.

I welcome these and the renewed commitment by the government to the Narrow Water and the Ulster Canal projects.
On the wider political issues significant progress was achieved:

The effort to close off access to inquests to the families of victims of the conflict failed.
The two governments will endorse the respect for and recognition of the Irish language consistent with the Council of Europe Charter on Regional or Minority Languages.

Work will commence on considering whether the devolution additional fiscal powers needed to grow the economy can be progressed.
A detailed proposal on a Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition was agreed, including its make-up and remit.

Legislation on parades will be prepared with proper regard for fundamental rights protected by the European Convention on Human Rights.

The agreement, like all previous agreements, is only as good as the determination on the part of the participants to implement it.
I would urge the Irish government to accept that the success and stability of the peace and political process in the north and the all-island institutions are bigger and more important than any short-sighted selfish electoral political agenda.

The peace process is the most important political project on this island at this time. It needs to be nurtured and protected and enhanced. Notwithstanding the other political priorities of the moment it must remain at the top of the government’s agenda.
As we approach the centenary of the 1916 Rising and later of the Tan War there is an historic opportunity to resolve the real ‘national question’; end the partition of this island; end sectarianism, and create a new republic. These should be the goals of all progressive political forces on this island.

Friday, January 9, 2015

The Rise and Rise of Negative Politics


As regular readers of this column will know I have been known to ‘tweet’ – occasionally. It’s an enjoyable and relaxing process made all the more pleasurable because I can escape the Sinn Féin thought police – those esteemed colleagues who want to scrutinise every word, mull over every nuance and ensure that anything written falls within party policy.

I understand and appreciate their concerns. My tweets have been the subject of hilarious and occasionally bizarre reflection by newspaper and broadcasting columnists, commentators and serious political analysts. Some believe my tweets are the work of a special committee; others are less kind.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs in Dublin was on the receiving end of this type of scrutiny on New Year’s Day when he seemed to suggest that he favoured the use of the ‘c’ word in describing Sinn Féin politics. He felt it necessary to issue a public apology and to express regret if he had caused offence. As someone who recently apologised for the inappropriate use of language in criticising bigots I can empathise with Charlie.

However, the episode was much more revealing and significant than the implied use of a swear word. The Minister was consciously attempting to use his twitter remarks as part of the government’s strategy of demonising Sinn Féin. Along with other conservative elements of southern society – most especially the Sindo and Indo and their coterie of columnists and hacks - Sinn Féin has been regularly accused of being a ‘cult,’ not a democratic party.

Hence the deliberate use of the word in the Minister’s tweet – “2015 offers Ireland the choice of Constitutional politics or Cult politics.”

My very observant and quick thinking colleague Donegal TD Pádraig MacLochlainn responded with; “Hopefully cult politics doesn’t make a comeback.” And he attached a 1930s photograph of the Blueshirts – a Fine Gael dominated organisation - giving a fascist salute.

One twitter commented that; “think that was a spelling mistake”.

To which the Minister replied with; “yep left out the ‘n’”.

Minister Flanagan’s implied use of the 4 letter ‘c’ word sparked controversy and he issued his apology.

But in the short lived furore around his use of language no one should lose sight of the bigger picture.

The opinion polls suggest that the next general election to the Oireachtas could be the most significant in generations. With Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fail trailing Sinn Féin and the Independents in most of the polls there is a very real concern among conservative elements that the two and a half party system that has dominated Irish politics could be about to radically change.

Sinn Féin in particular has become the bête noire of the conservative class. They believe the independents are too fractured to pose a real concern to the governmental ambitions of Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fáil, but Sinn Féin is a radical, growing, visionary political party with cogent alternative policies. Sinn Féin is the real threat to the cozy consensus of the established parties. Consequently there is a concerted effort underway to demonise the party, blunt our potential to grow, and force us to spend valuable time responding to a negative agenda set by our opponents rather than promoting our own sensible alternative policies.

Political scientists have written volumes on the use of negative politics in election campaigns. It is a fixture of U.S. Presidential elections and a regular feature of the Irish electoral cycle. Labour used it effectively against Fine Gael in the 2011 campaign with their now infamous Tesco ad which warned of cuts to essential services and benefits if Fine Gael was elected. (It got them a place in a coalition government implementing the very policies they were warning of). Michael McDowell used it in 2002 to scare voters into backing the Progressive Democrats when he raised the possibility of a majority Fianna Fáil government.

As Sinn Féin’s poll numbers stay high the established parties and their conservative allies will increasingly use negative politics to attack the party, our policies and to scare their own voters – many of whom are politically apathetic at this time – back to the fold.

At the end of November Enda Kenny asserted that the choice at the next election would be between a government led by Fine Gael or one led by Sinn Féin. His Minister for Finance jumped in on the same day and told RTE that the choice facing the electorate was either a Sinn Féin-led left-wing government or the present coalition.

Afraid of being left out of the debate Micheál Martin joined in just before Christmas with his absurd claim that the IRA still runs Sinn Féin. As a senior government Minister in past Fianna Fáil governments he knows this to be untrue. He was also part of the government which accepted reports from the Independent Monitoring Commission and the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning that the IRA had effectively left the stage after its momentous and courageous decision in July 2005 to end the armed struggle.

Now, as he tries to rebuild his shattered party and improve its consistently poor poll results he sets aside the needs of the peace process and indulges in negative politics against republicans.

The Labour leadership whether under Eamonn Gilmore or Joan Burton has also made increasingly hysterical criticisms of Sinn Féin as the polls predict a meltdown in that party’s support.

We can expect more of the same vitriol in the year ahead. As the tenor and tempo of the political discourse increases so too will the snide, offensive, malicious and provocative attacks on Sinn Féin.

I have no idea when the general election to the Oireachtas will be held. Charlie Flanagan obviously thinks it will be this year. Some political pundits speculate that Enda will go to the polls after a give-away budget in October. Maybe – maybe not.

We do know there will be a British general election in May. It is shaping up to be particularly significant given unionist efforts to agree unity candidates and try to take seats currently held by Sinn Féin, the SDLP and Alliance parties.

All of this means for republicans that there is an imperative on us to organise and strategise and prepare as never before. We have to think long term. We have to work locally while thinking nationally.

The next 18 months will be a defining point in politics on this island. As well as celebrating the centenary of the 1916 Rising there will be two general elections and an Assembly election. The potential to advance Sinn Féin politics, to defend the interests of working people, to achieve a realignment of Irish politics, and to win new supporters to Irish republicanism has never been greater.

There is a hunger, a desire for real change among citizens across the island. They don’t want the tired, old, recycled politics of the conservative parties north and south. The rhetoric of change but the delivery of the same-old, same-old.

 Citizens want a new start, a fresh start; a positive and a real alternative to the negative and corrupt politics of the conservative parties.

Our goal as Irish republicans is to achieve maximum change; to advance Irish unity, to build a fair economy, and a just and equitable society in which equality and citizen’s rights are the foundation stones. The next year and a half are crucial to building the republic that those who wrote the 1916 Proclamation dreamed of. A republic in which there is no place for partition, or sectarianism or elitism or inequality, or poverty. It’s a big ask but one I am confident 2015 will see Sinn Féin make significant strides toward creating.

PS Thanks to Hugh O Connell from Journal whose recollection of election campaigns is excellent.
 

Monday, January 5, 2015

Supporting dialogue to resolve conflicts



With President Abbas
 
For those who doubt the imperative of dialogue in advancing negotiations the two historic international decisions in respect of Cuba and Palestine just before Christmas are clear evidence of its importance.

At the beginning of December I met President Abbas of the Palestinian government in Ramallah. He and others in the Palestinian leadership explained the importance of their strategy to achieve international recognition of Palestinian statehood and its potential to stimulate renewed momentum into the stalled peace process in that region.

Some of their key negotiators and senior Ambassadors have been travelling in recent months to European capitals and lobbying European political parties and Parliaments to pass motions of support and solidarity in favour of a Palestinian state.

The Palestinian focus has been on securing two key votes. The first was in the European Parliament – which they achieved on December 17th. 

The second was in the United Nations security council. Jordan brought forward a motion to the United Nations on behalf of the Palestinians which would set a one year timeline for concluding peace negotiations, and a late 2017 deadline for an Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian lands.

The Jordanian draft sought a resolution based on the 1967 borders and "Jerusalem as the shared capital of the two States which fulfils the legitimate aspirations of both parties and protects freedom of worship."

The draft also "calls upon both parties to abstain from any unilateral and illegal actions, including settlement activities that could undermine the viability of a two-state solution."

The vote on this took place at the end of December. Although the Palestinian motion was backed by a majority of eight in the 15 strong Council it did not secure the necessary ninth vote for it to pass. Speaking later President Abbas said: We didn't fail, the UN Security Council failed us. We will go again to the Security Council, why not? Perhaps after a week ...We are studying it, and we will study this with our allies and especially Jordan ... to submit the resolution again, a third time or even a fourth time."

At the same time President Abbas signed onto 20 international conventions, including the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which gives the court jurisdiction over crimes committed on Palestinian lands. It opens up the potential for Israel to be held accountable for war crimes against the Palestinian people.

Israel retaliated within days by withholding taxes from the Palestinian Authority that it collects on its behalf.

As part of Sinn Féin’s contribution to the Palestinian strategy we introduced a motion into the Dáil before Christmas which was passed unopposed.

This vote and the unprecedented motion passed at the European Parliament wasn’t the only success for the Palestinians. At their request, and on the same day as the EU Parliament vote, 126 of the signatories to the Geneva conventions met in Switzerland for a one day conference. Israel had sought to have the conference cancelled.

These conventions are supposed to govern the rules of war and military occupation. A declaration adopted by consensus among the participating nations concluded that all serious violations of international humanitarian law must be investigated and that all those responsible should be brought to justice.”

The Israeli government rejected the conclusion arguing that it doesn’t apply to the West Bank and Gaza. It claims that Jordan and Egypt no longer claim sovereignty over the occupied territories and, according to the Israeli government, as the Palestinians don’t have a state the declaration can’t apply to it.

This highlights the importance of the need for a Palestinian state and for Palestinian sovereignty to be recognised and it should be remembered that the UN General Assembly upgraded Palestine to a “non-member observer state” of the United Nations in 2012.

The Geneva Declaration also makes clear that Israel should “fully and effectively” respect the Fourth Geneva Convention. This is intended to protect civilians during times of war including in the occupied territories and East Jerusalem.

So clearly there is a lot of dialogue going on – much of it driven by the Palestinian leadership – to secure progress toward full recognition of the Palestinian state. The UN security council vote shows how much work still has to be done. The Palestinian people need our continuing support and solidarity in their endeavours.

Dialogue too was the driver for progress in improving relations between the United States and Cuba.

On the same day as the Palestinian vote in the European Parliament the United States and Cuba unexpectedly announced that they are commencing a new relationship between the two countries after more than 50 years of hostility. This included the release of prisoners by both governments.

President Obama and President Raul Castro, and all of those who have worked to achieve this historic agreement, are to be congratulated.

Sinn Féin played a small part in this rapprochement between the two nations.

In September two years ago Roelf Meyer, who was the senior negotiator for the Apartheid South African government in the negotiations with the African National Congress, organised a conference in Miami. The conference brought together leading conservative Cuban American citizens to discuss the need for reconciliation and dialogue between Washington and the Cuban government. Others included senior figures in the Catholic Church.

Among those who participated in the conference was Sinn Féin’s senior negotiator Pat Doherty MP who stressed the importance of dialogue and the need for a dialogue between the two governments.

I visited Cuba in 2001. On that occasion President Fidel Castro, and senior government representatives, discussed  issues of human rights, civil and religious liberties, democratic values, social justice, equality and other matters of concern to people wherever they live. It was also very obvious that the Cuban government was closely watching developments in Washington.

To mark 20 years since the 1981 hunger strike the Sinn Féin delegation also led wreaths at the memorial in Havana to the ten Republican hunger strikers. The memorial event was a full state occasion, with full honours being accorded to the memory of Bobby Sands and his comrades. Whatever one thinks about Cuba, it is true that people there, like people worldwide, were moved and remember the sacrifice of the Irish republican prisoners.

The people of Ireland have a long record of solidarity with Cuba. Despite the enormous problems faced by the Cuban people over the last five decades, Cuba has remained steadfast to the goals of eradicating poverty, ending privilege and corruption and of promoting social justice.  

As evidence of this commitment Cuban doctors and teachers have travelled widely to help those in need around the world. This is a great act of generosity that deserves our thanks and our praise 

We also visited medical centres and saw for ourselves the amazing work Cuban doctors do around the world. But it was also very obvious that the United States embargo has caused long term difficulties for the Cuban economy and people.

I hope the new and more positive relationship between both countries can lead to the speedy lifting of the blockade.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Ard Chomhairle ratifies Stormont Agreement


The Sinn Féin Ard Chomhairle today met to discuss the agreement reached at Stormont on Tuesday December 23rd.

There was an informed discussion. The Ard Chomhairle recognised that progress has been made in defending the most vulnerable against the Tory welfare and budget cuts. It also recognised that progress has been made with regard to the issues of flags, the past and parading.

When Agreement was finally reached I acknowledged at the time that there was more to do at a community, political and national level to resolve these matters. Sinn Féin representatives have consistently recorded our concern that the governments have failed to deliver on their outstanding commitments including a Bill of Rights, Acht na Gaeilge, and an inquiry into the killing of Pat Finucane and other outstanding matters. The British government specifically refused to implement a number of outstanding commitments and the Irish Government representatives accepted this.

However, the recent talks also demonstrated that with the five main parties acting together, significant progress can be made to safeguard the most vulnerable and to rebuild the reputation of the political institutions.
The day before the talks concluded I penned a column for the Andersonstown News which I enclose for your interest below.

Agreement is possible

This column comes to you from the Castle at Stormont. Could it be a fifth column? Its Monday, it’s late and the talks are continuing. By the time you read this you will know if they have concluded and if an agreement has been achieved.

Sinn Féin’s objectives over the last three months of discussions have been to reach a deal that protects the most vulnerable in society, safeguards the rights and entitlements of citizens, delivers on outstanding agreements, grows the economy and enhances the working of the institutions.

It hasn’t been easy not least because the British government’s welfare reform agenda represents an attack on the welfare state and on the most vulnerable and the least able to pay in our society. Sinn Féin has been steadfast in our opposition to this agenda.

The contribution of the two governments has at times been very unhelpful. The British government in particular, far from seeking to engage constructively with parties, tried to present itself as some sort of independent broker. It then tried to impose its own view and predetermine the outcome of the discussions. It was not willing to engage in meaningful negotiations.

At the same time elements of the media were engaged in talking down the possibility of agreement. It’s almost as if some of our journalistic friends want the process to collapse. And some quickly got involved in the blame game – unsurprisingly targeting Sinn Féin.

They were joined in this by some of the political leaders in the Dáil who have very deliberately used the negotiations process as a platform to attack Sinn Féin. The leaders of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour have been especially vocal. To their shame they have put their own narrow electoral self-interest over the needs of the peace process.  When Mr Cameron bluntly told me, in the Taoiseach’s presence, that he would not honour the Weston Park Agreement and hold an Enquiry into the killing of Human Rights lawyer Pat Finucane, the Taoiseach said nothing. Not a word.

Despite these shenanigans and the media fuelled pessimism Martin McGuinness and the Sinn Féin negotiating team were undaunted. We remained focussed, positively engaged and are working hard to secure a comprehensive agreement.

Toward the end of last week a concrete change in the dynamic within the negotiations saw progress made. Very specifically the five Executive parties agreed a set of proposals regarding the public finances that would enable the Executive to advance a reconciliation process and to invest in the economy. These proposals will require additional financial support and are now with the British Government.

The parties also agreed a range of welfare protections designed to safeguard the most vulnerable in our society, particularly those with disabilities. These protections are unique to the north of Ireland and would be paid for by the Executive. This ensures there would be no reductions in entitlement to benefits under the control of the Assembly.

The Executive will create a supplementary payment fund alongside a range of other measures, involving top-ups and the retention of a number of anti-poverty measures.

It has been estimated that the cost of this to the Executive would average £94 million per year – ranging from £54 million in the first year to £134 million in year four.

The outworking of these measures would mean that there would be no increase in the rate of people being disallowed disability benefits; that those receiving the Severe Disability Premium would remain protected; child additional rates for those with disabilities would also be protected.

Over the weekend Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson drove home the message to David Cameron that the British government is a participant in these negotiations and must contribute to a comprehensive agreement, not just in terms of the financial issues facing the Executive but also on the past and truth and justice for victims of the conflict.

Substantial work has also gone into discussions on the other key issues, including the implementation of outstanding issues from previous agreements including the Past, Parades and Flags, and reconciliation, including a stronger role for civic society.

The parties are continuing their work tonight to narrow down the issues and to move in the direction of a comprehensive agreement, which all the parties and the two governments can sign up to.

Progress has been made. Is it enough? At this point I can’t say. But I remain optimistic that an agreement can be reached. It may not resolve all of the outstanding issues but it can mark a step change in the peace process and would allow the political institutions to begin the New Year in a positive atmosphere and protect the most disadvantaged in our society from the worst excesses of the British Tory welfare agenda. 

I am very mindful that this business of change- making is a process. It is painfully slow, incremental and at times frustrating. It is always challenging. But that should not daunt us. Whatever comes out of these talks the struggle for equality continues.

The need to be change-makers, to win Irish language rights alongside a Bill of Rights and other modest entitlements in a rights based, citizen centred society will make 2015 an interesting year.

Bliain Úr Faoi Mhaise Daoibhse.

 

 

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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