Thursday, October 20, 2016

The centre ground and the politics of Tweedledee and Tweedledum

Following the February election Fianna Fáil engaged in a long drawn out charade of seeking to form a government. It refused to talk to Sinn Féin – as did Fine Gael – and spent weeks posturing. No one believed that a Fianna Fáil government was possible. At one point, under pressure from others in the establishment to end the crisis in government formation, Enda Kenny offered the Fianna Fáil leadership a partnership government. This was a good offer. And a brave one. It was rejected outright. Why?
Fact is there is a genuine nationalist and republican instinct in the grassroots of Fianna Fail. They want a united Ireland. They know the Fine Gael leadership have no interest in this. Neither does its own leadership at this time but that’s another story. An alliance in government between the Blueshirts and the Soldiers of Destiny would leave sections of Fianna Fail voters looking for a new political home. A republican one. Sinn Féin?
So FF and FG in Government was a no go. At least at this time.
But a deal was reached between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael to form a minority Fine Gael led government with the help of Independents. Key to this is  a ‘confidence and supply’ agreement between the two larger parties in which Fianna Fáil agreed to abstain in the election of Taoiseach, the nomination of Ministers and the reshuffling of Ministers; to facilitate three budgets and to abstain on any motions of no confidence in the government. In return Fine Gael agreed to facilitate Fianna Fáil Bills and implement the policy matters set out in the ‘confidence and supply’ agreement.
Essentially this is a partnership covering all of the key areas of governance including the economy, industrial relations and public sector pay, housing and homelessness, jobs, public services, crime and community services and putting off a decision on the toxic issue of water charges.
Totally contrary to Fianna Fails election manifesto and mandate it puts Fine Gael in power with the support and blessing of Fianna Fáil.
The Fianna Fail leader described this as ‘new politics’. It is nothing of the sort. It’s all about sustaining the status quo. Liam Mellows put it well during the Treaty debate in 1922, when he spelt out the consequences of partition and said: “men will get into positions, men will hold power and men who get into positions and hold power will desire to remain undisturbed…”
However, Budget 2017 also marks another step in the slow, incremental realignment of politics in the South. The common interests of the Fine Gael and Fianna Fail leaderships crystallised more clearly than ever before. So much so that Fianna Fail never published an alternative budget of its own.
Instead they and Fine Gael have also been very busy espousing the importance of so-called ‘centre ground’ politics. In his speech on the budget in the Dáil the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Paschal Donohoe said: “Those of us in the middle ground of politics have a duty to show that co-operation and consensus can work; to show that our tone can be moderate, but still convincing; and to show that things will not just fall apart and the centre can and will hold, stay firm and will grow.”
He was followed minutes later by the Fianna Fáil spokesperson Michael McGrath who raised the spectre of the ‘extremes’. According to Teachta McGrath, “the bigger picture is that the centre ground of politics is under attack, not just here in Ireland but throughout Europe, and I agree with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, that there are various definitions of centre ground. When one looks at the alternative, one realises just how vital it is that the centre holds.”
Later in the Dáil debate Thomas Byrne of Fianna Fail returned to the notion of the centrist politics when he claimed that it is the people of Ireland who “are at the centre of our thinking, as are the policies that will make change happen for them”.  Fine Gael Minister Simon Harris took time out of his Budget remarks to agree with one point made by Deputy Byrne, namely, the one on the centre holding. There are many people on the extreme of Irish politics who would not have thought that we could have delivered a budget and who did not do anything to contribute to that process.”
What does all of this mean? At one level it is about using fear -trying to frighten sections of the electorate into supporting Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. At another level its complete nonsense.
Michael Martin made a play for the centre ground of southern politics in a speech he gave to the MacGill summer school in the Glenties in July. In that he warned that it is the “extremes which are setting the terms of the debate” and he spoke of the challenge to “democratic societies”. Ironically in his critique of the referendum debate in Britain, and of the Brexiteers, he exposes the very same strategy that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are employing to try and see off the challenge from Sinn Féin. Martin accuses the British leave campaign of: “the classic scapegoating of an “other” or a “them” who could be blamed for all discontents.” And he claimed that the campaigners in favour of Brexit exploited the idea “that ‘if only “we” took back power and “they” were kept out we could discover a glorious past.’
He said this with his brass neck shining brightly in the warm twilight of a Donegal forum. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? This from the man who has accused Sinn Fein of every conceivable foul deed known to humanity. Operation fear.
At the same time the Fianna Fáil leader is verbally embracing Sinn Féin’s progressive policies. Fairness is the new buzz word.
But Budget 2017 is not about fairness and equality. Nor can its politics end the crises in health and housing; or deliver tax fairness; or end water charges. On the contrary Budget 2017 represents the same old doublespeak and political manoeuvring of the past. There is no new politics just new language for an old story.
The conservative parties remain firmly wedded to an ideology that prefers cuts to capital acquisitions tax for some of the wealthiest citizens in this State rather than investment in the health service. At a time when homelessness is at an historic level and people are being priced out of the rental and first-time buyers’ market, Budget 2017 will simply make matters worse. And the budget allocation for a health service in crisis will not resolve the underlying problems.
And none of this takes into account the huge threat to the economy of this island and to society by Brexit.
At a time when the shortcomings of partition are so obvious the partitionism of the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael leaderships – the status quo and its maintenance – vindicate Mellows prophetic warning.

In the Dáil Sinn Féin is the opposition. In policy terms it is Sinn Fein’s articulation of radical republican politics and policies that is challenging the conservatism of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil and Labour. Sinn Féin’s politics are embedded in the Proclamation of 1916. We are for economic equality and sustainable prosperity and a new republic which will deliver the highest standard of services and protections for all our citizens. It is these politics and policies that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil fear.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Brits plan to ignore human rights laws - again

British governments like to pose as the defenders of freedom. Last year’s celebration by the British system of the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta sought to reinforce a political and historical narrative in which it is a beacon of light and justice for the oppressed of the world.

The truth is much different and last week’s Tory party conference exposed once again the British establishment’s largely xenophobic view of the world outside of England.

Theresa May described Britain’s armed forces as the “finest armed forces known to man.” In full Thatcherite mode she attacked “those left wing human rights lawyers” who she claimed “harangue and harass” those forces. The applause was loud and sustained. The British Prime Minister and her Ministers plan to protect their soldiers from the legal consequences of any criminal actions they might be responsible for by making them exempt from European human rights laws during any future conflicts.

This is not the first time they have tried to do this. It also ignores the reality that British soldiers have always been largely immune from prosecution for murders and torture carried out on behalf of the British state.

Examine the record. For centuries successive British government’s ruthlessly exploited a colonial Empire it established by force and held by force. Its historical record of abuse and corruption is often ignored, especially in Britain itself. The stealing of land, the exploitation of the natural resources of other places, and the military domination of a quarter of the Earth’s landmass and peoples is brushed aside as if it is of no consequence.

The horrifying experiences of scores of indigenous peoples, who in the last hundred years have had to fight the “finest armed forces known to man” in order to achieve their freedom is also ignored.

Whether in Ireland a century ago; or in south East Asia, in the African continent, or the Middle East, scores of wars have been fought by the British, up to and including Iraq and Afghanistan, to protect their economic and trading interests. Human rights violations are an intrinsic part of this. Torture. Beheadings. Summary executions. Famine. Concentration camps. Internment. Censorship. They have all been consistently used. Millions died. All of these policies were part and parcel of an overarching political strategy which used repressive laws and technologies to control and oppress national movements and to deny hundreds of millions of people their freedom.

In 1969 British troops arrived on our streets in the North and immediately began to apply so-called counter-insurgency strategies used extensively in previous wars. During the 70s, 80’s and 90’s Britain derogated from the European Convention on Human Rights many times. It did so because of its reliance on repressive laws and the illegal actions of its state forces. It was able to do so because under the rules of the Council of Europe, which oversees the Strasbourg-based institution, states can derogate from the Convention.

This outcome is also true for British military operations in Kenya and Aden and Cyprus and in countless other wars. In the 21st century this modus operandi was used in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since 2004 the British state has paid out more than £100 million in litigation to victims. In Iraq twenty million pounds in compensation has been paid out in 326 cases.

And like the ‘hooded men’ who were victim of torture by the British Army and RUC after internment in 1971, the methodology used – the five techniques – have remained largely unchanged. The Iraq claims of torture, no less than the torture inflicted in the North, were not “vexatious”. As Britain’s politics lurch further to the right the attacks, on what one former British soldier called the ‘parasitic lawyers,’ has intensified. This narrative promotes a dishonest and deceitful view of British soldiers as innocents in wars with ‘terrorists’ and ‘insurgents’ and the lawyers as “activist left wing human rights lawyers.”

One former Lieutenant colonel, the Rev Nicholas Mercer, writing in the London Guardian last week accused the British government of inventing “an orchestrated narrative”. He wrote: “The idea that the claims are largely spurious is nonsense.”

It is successive British governments that have lied about using torture. On March 2nd 1972 the then Tory Prime Minister said: The techniques which the committee examined will not be used in future as an aid to interrogation. The statement that I have made covers all future circumstances.” But even as he said this Heath knew it was a lie. And almost 40 years later the five techniques, involving sleep deprivation, the use of noise, hooding, and stress positions, and the deprivation of food and drink were still being extensively used in Iraq.

Like lawyers in the North who stood up against state injustice, human rights lawyers in Britain have sought to expose torture and to secure compensation for its victims. If Theresa May wants to end litigation against British troops during conflicts then she needs to end the violations of human rights by those troops.

And for those others who are horrified by the vitriolic attacks on human rights lawyers they should remember the fate of Pat Finucane and Rosemary Nelson. These were two brave human rights lawyers who dared to challenge the British state’s use of repressive laws in the North. Both were vilified by the British state. Both were victim of a campaign of hate from within the RUC and British intelligence agencies. Both were murdered.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Brexit battle lines are drawn

After five months of confusion over what Brexit will mean in practice the British Prime Minister Theresa May has finally given some substance to her ‘Brexit means Brexit’ line. The Conservative Party conference this week was an opportunity for the Tory Brexiteers in the British Cabinet to finally spell out the direction they plan to take.
According to Ms May the British government will trigger Article 50 before the end of March 2017. This will begin the two-year process of negotiation by the end of which the British state will have left the EU. The British Prime Minister has now set the British state on the path to a so-called ‘hard Brexit’.
This means that Britain will leave the single market. The emphasis in May’s speech was on independence and sovereignty with Britain taking back full control of immigration. Consequently, there will be no free movement of workers as the barriers to immigrants are raised and reinforced.  The British Prime Minister also said that Britain will leave the European Court of Justice which is the ultimate enforcer of European Laws. The Tories are already committed to scrapping the Human Rights Act and leaving the European Court of Human Rights. At the same time Tory Ministers were talking up the likelihood that Britain will leave the customs union.
By insisting that Britain pursue a ‘hard Brexit’ Theresa May has set Britain on a collision course with the EU, in which Ireland, north and south, is regarded as collateral damage. She has moved from supporting the Remain side in the referendum last June to cow-towing to the right-wing of her own party.
In the months since the Brexit vote there has been widespread concern that the border would become an international frontier. There were those who hoped that Britain would opt for a ‘soft’ option. The examples of the border between Norway and Sweden and the EU relationship with Switzerland were frequently promoted. In her speech at the Conservative Party conference Mrs May rubbished both.
As a result, the British approach now puts in doubt the maintenance of the ‘common travel area’ between Ireland and Britain, which has existed since 1923. It also raises serious questions about the shape of the border post Brexit; the free movement of citizens; the likely impact on cross-border and bilateral trade, which accounts for one billion euro a week between Ireland and Britain and which supports 200,000 jobs.
On Tuesday Edgar Morgenroth, an adviser to the Irish Government warned that the British stance ‘imperils the Common Travel Area’. He also warned against the belief that Dublin could negotiate some form of bi-lateral agreement with the British on trade and the movement of people. Under EU rules he pointed out that there are ‘no bilaterals here. It’s always the 27 EU countries and the UK.’
Also at the weekend Prime Minister May called for preparatory work to be carried out between the EU and Britain in advance of March to facilitate a smoother process of negotiation. The response from the EU was immediate and dismissive. Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council rejected any suggestion of preliminary talks. The EU Commission has also warned Britain that there will be no informal discussions prior to Article 50 being triggered. And media reports also suggested that the German Chancellor Angela Merkel is against informal negotiations.
So, the battle lines on Brexit have been drawn.
The Tories are determined to exit the EU. They are also intent on pulling the North and Scotland out of the EU, despite both having voted overwhelmingly to Remain. Ms May told her party conference that there will be ‘no opt-out from Brexit.’ The Remain votes in the North and in Scotland are to be set aside. The Parliamentary convention that the Westminster Parliament will only legislate on matters affecting either the North or Scotland or Wales with the consent of the local Assemblies is also to be ignored.
Martin McGuinness insisted at the weekend that the Remain vote in the North must be respected in any negotiation. He warned that the British government’s confrontational approach to Brexit threatens the North’s economy and the Good Friday and subsequent agreements. While both he and Arlene Foster are committed to doing their best for citizens the reality is that the DUP is committed to Brexit and this makes the political relationships and situation more problematic.
At the same time two legal challenges began on Tuesday in Belfast High Court. One is being taken by Raymond McCord and the other by a group of MLAs, including Sinn Féin MLA John O Dowd, SDLP Leader Colum Eastwood, Steven Agnew of the Green Party and David Ford the Alliance leader. Their legal team will contest the legality of the process and they will argue that the North cannot leave the EU without the consent of the Assembly.
Also on Tuesday in its response to Brexit the Irish government finally produced a series of proposals, including the establishment of an all-island Civic Dialogue. In July the Taoiseach had promised to bring the all-island dialogue forward in September. He failed to do this. Which is why I  accused him of dithering on this issue. 
The establishment parties of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil seem to be mesmerised by what the British government is going to do as opposed to what the Irish government should be doing. 
Irish national interests have to be protected and promoted. The all-island civic dialogue will begin its deliberations in Dublin on November 2nd and will involve civic society groups, trade unions, business groups as well as political representatives.
However, its overriding priority must be to advocate on behalf of the remain vote in the North. It’s worth remembering that 56% of the electorate backed remaining within the EU and 44% voted to leave. A strong majority. The Irish government must defend this vote. Last week when I raised this with the Taoiseach, as I have on previous occasions, he agreed that he would advocate in support of the Remain vote in the North.

Our focus in the time ahead must be to agree an all-island strategy that challenges Brexit. Martin McGuinness said at the weekend that Brexit is not a done deal. He’s right. So, on Saturday October 8th, if you oppose Brexit, join the campaign group, Border Communities Against Brexit, in its day of action. Protests will be held at six locations right along the border from Derry to Dundalk

Friday, September 30, 2016

The shame of the International Community

Imagine being so frightened and desperate that you are prepared to be packed tightly with your babies and children, and hundreds of other distressed and despairing people, into a cold dark storage room in the bowels of an old dilapidated boat? And then the absolute terror and panic as the boat rolls over and sea water suddenly floods in as the boat quickly sinks beneath the Mediterranean.
That’s what happened last Wednesday to hundreds of men, women and children several miles off the coast of Egypt. The boat, which should only have held 200, was filled to overflowing with an estimated 600 refugees. Hundreds died. No one knows yet exactly how many. Only 169 were rescued and that was largely thanks to the quick response of local fishermen. Scores of bodies were recovered and the stench at the pier at El Borg was described as overpowering. Many more may never be found.
Those who died were victims of human traffickers – smugglers who ruthlessly exploit the desire of those fleeing war and poverty to find a new life in Europe. Over three hundred thousand more have made the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean this year, some in the flimsiest of rubber dinghies or in boats totally unsuitable to such a crossing.
The ongoing war in Syria and the economic and humanitarian crises in that region, and in North Africa, have led to one of the greatest humanitarian disasters of modern time. So far this year over three and a half thousand people, including many women and children, have drowned in the Mediterranean. As the search for hundreds of bodies from the boat that sank off Egypt last week continues that number will rise.
The number who have drowned so far this year is now believed to be highest number of fatalities of any year.
Across the world the International Organisation for Migration estimates that the number of deaths among refugees will exceed 10,000.
At the same time that this tragedy unfolds in the Mediterranean region the war in Syria plumbs new depths of awfulness. Day after day the siege of Aleppo produces dreadful images of a city in ruins being systematically bombed out of existence. A quarter of a million people survive in Aleppo. There is little food and even less water. The doctors and first responders, with inadequate medical equipment and supplies, are exhausted trying to cope with the scale of deaths and injuries.
A truce that was negotiated by the USA and Russia, and was intended to facilitate the distribution of humanitarian aid, has collapsed in recrimination following an air strike on a UN convoy heading for Aleppo. The Syrian government and its Russian allies blame rebel groups and the west and they in turn blame Syrian Government forces and Russia. And all the time the number of civilians killed grows. One radiologist in Aleppo at the weekend was quoted in the media: “We have just one message to the world today; We are pleading for them to help us stop these warplanes. Leave us under siege, we will deal with thirst and hunger. But please, stop these bombs.”
But days later that cry for help has been ignored. The air attacks continue. The siege continues as Syrian government forces try to capture rebel held Aleppo. One western diplomat was also quoted saying: “The only way to take eastern Aleppo is by such monstrous atrocity that it would resonate for generations. It would be the stuff of history.”
While the international community fails to effectively engage in a constructive effort to end the war what has been the response from Europe? The focus has been on reducing the number of refugees trying to reach the EU. The EU leaders summit at Bratislava last week produced more money for border guards.  But the ongoing tragedy in the Mediterranean is evidence that this crisis is not going away. According to the United Nations there are at least a quarter of a million migrants in Libya alone who are seeking ways across the Mediterranean.
The Hungarian Prime Minister thinks he has the answer. He wants the EU to set up armed camps somewhere in Africa and to gather up all of the refugees and transfer them there. This shameful proposition should be repudiated by all fair minded people.
Others have tried to chart a different course. Last week there was a meeting on refugees at the United Nations. A non-binding declaration was agreed. This governments pledge to uphold existing principles. Critics point to the fact that any proposals of substance were removed. However, there was some very limited progress in new commitments to aid.
Sadly, the Irish government has not led from the front on this issue. Speaking in New York last week, where the Irish government co-chaired the UN summit on refugees the Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald admitted that the Government has been “slow” in meeting its commitments to resettle Syrian migrants. Last year the government committed to accepting 4,000 refugees – a small number in light of the scale of the problem. Thus far it has failed to reach even this number. Less than a thousand have been resettled.
The plight of people in Direct Provision Centres – some for over a decade – is a scandal and an indictment of successive Irish governments.
Words cannot adequately describe the humanitarian disaster that is taking place in Syria or the EU’s treatment of refugees, including those in refugee camps. The international community has much to be ashamed of.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Covering up British Killings

Last week the Assembly resumed following its summer break. Next week it will be the turn of the Dáil. Normally we would be back in Leinster House by now but a major renovation is in progress and this includes a new sound system in the Dáil chamber. Next Tuesday it will be what passes for business as usual in the chamber but most of the rest of the original Leinster House building will remain out of bounds as work continues.

Among the first items I intend to raise will be the disgraceful attitude of the British government toward the Ballymurphy Massacre families. On Monday they met the current British Secretary of State, James Brokenshire. He is the fourth such Minister they have met in recent years. Their hope was that he would agree to release the funds needed for the inquests into the murders of their family members. The 11 dead were all civilians from the Ballymurphy district, including a mother of eight children and the local parish priest. They were killed by the British Paras in August 1971 in the days immediately after the introduction of internment.

It was another fruitless meeting with another British Secretary of State. The families walked out in frustration. John Teggart, whose father was among those killed described the meeting as “terrible”.

It’s 45 years since the Ballymurphy Massacre. The families have been tireless in their efforts to get to the truth. They have had some success along the way but the new inquests that were ordered in 2011 by the Attorney General are key to making more progress.

For this reason, there has been a deliberate policy by the British government and its intelligence agencies to block inquests. Currently there are scores of outstanding inquests into disputed killings by British state forces or unionist death squads acting in collusion with those forces. It is estimated that the average time these families have had to wait for an inquest thus far is close to 23 years.

The reality is that the British state is actively working to prevent the truth from emerging. The Historical Enquries Team (HET), which was established in 2005 to re-examine cases was actively blocked from accessing files held by the PSNI and British Ministry of Defence. It was eventually closed down when a report by the Inspectorate of Constabulary accused the HET of investigating killings by British forces will less vigour that it was using in other cases. The HET lost credibility as a result.

Like the HET the Police Ombudsman’s office has faced hurdles in accessing intelligence and policing documents relating to scores of murders, including those carried out by the infamous Glenanne Gang, which included members of the RUC and UDR. According to a new book, The History Thieves, by Guardian reporter Ian Cobain, the archive of documents that was painstakingly built up by the investigations of John Stevens into collusion were handed back to the PSNI in 2011. There are an estimated 100 tonnes of documents – 100 tonnes!!!!!

Today they sit in Seapark, a high security facility at Carrickfergus. The archive – which the PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton called ‘The Vault’ is, according to Cobain ‘unreachable’. It includes the Stalker and Sampson reports into the RUC’s Shoot-to-kill policy of the 1980s, as well as files on collusion involving the UDR and the Military Reaction Force (MRF).

Cobain, whose book I will review in more detail in another blog, states that ‘The Vault’ is guarded by the ‘Legacy Support Unit’ of the PSNI; “Many of them are former Special Branch detectives, brought out of retirement specifically to perform this task.”

The Guardian reporter quotes Hamilton from a television interview in the course of which the Chief Constable describes the content of the Vault. He says: “If the Vault was to be opened, I know there will be literally millions of documents. I’m not just talking about intelligence documents, I’m talking about plans for covert operations, I’m talking about minutes of meetings. My understanding is that the IRA, the UVF and other players in this didn’t keep notes or minutes of meetings or records of decisions. We did. And I think all of that has left us somewhat exposed.”

Is it any wonder that successive British governments have gone to extraordinary lengths to withhold intelligence information and to obstruct families desperately trying to get to the truth of the death of a loved one?

The Lord Chief Justice for the North Declan Morgan has urged the British government to release the funds. He warned that failure to do this will mean ‘further devastation for grieving families’ and a delay of more decades before all of the outstanding cases might be completed.
All of the North’s political parties want inquest funding released except for the DUP. Their opposition is designed to protect British state agencies and individual members of the RUC, its Special Branch and a range of intelligence agencies from being held accountable for the murder of citizens. The Irish government has a responsibility to assist all of these families. I have raised this with the Taoiseach many times. It is my intention to do so again.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Building Gaeilge for future generations

The Irish language was almost destroyed as a result of centuries of British colonial policy.  As the greatest imperial power in human history successive British governments understood the importance of destroying the language, identity and culture of a people in order to make it easier to control, occupy and exploit them.
Irish history is full of examples of policies intended to deter the use of the Irish language while promoting English. But it is also full of courageous men and women, from all classes and all sections of society who strove to defend the language and music and culture of Ireland. Here in Belfast one of the most important of these was Robert Mac Adam, a Presbyterian industrialist in the 19th century – after whom An Culturlann is named - and his family. His uncle, also Robert, had helped found the Irish Harp Society to provide a means by which blind boys and girls could learn the Harp and thus earn a living. The Society also promoted the study of Irish. Robert travelled widely and collected manuscripts in Irish which he then copied and preserved and which can be seen today in Belfast Central Library and in Queens University.
And there are many others, including those who established the Gaeltacht on the Shaws Road or the Ard Scoil in Divis Street or An Cumann Cluain Ard in the Lower Springfield.
It is no accident that the Irish language witnessed a revival in Belfast and other parts of the north during the years of conflict. While many of us had received some basic teaching in school, especially from the Christian Brothers, and some had gone to the Donegal Gaeltacht in the 1960s, the language was very much a minority interest.
But in the course of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s an estimated 20,000 men and boys, women and girls, from nationalist areas went through Britain’s penal system. In the Cages and H-Blocks of Long Kesh and in Armagh Women’s prison, and in other jails on this island and even in England, political prisoners of an older generation or Irish language speakers from Gaeltacht areas used the time to teach the language to those who didn’t have it.
Along with existing Gaeilgeoirí who loved the language for its own sake and worked valiantly to use and promote it, this new cadre of Irish language speakers joined the efforts to grow the language. Instinctively they wanted their own children to have the opportunity to learn and speak Irish in ways they hadn’t. This saw an increase in the demand for Irish medium education. There is now a thriving, vibrant activist community in this city and other parts of the island. Currently, five thousand children are being taught through Irish medium education in the North. They enter education at the age of 3 and are able to spend their entire pre-primary, primary and post-primary education in Irish medium schools through the medium of the Irish language.
Five years ago this month the then Culture Minister Carál Ní Chuilín MLA launched the Líofa Initiative - the word Líofa means ‘fluent’. Its objective was to get 1000 people to sign up to Líofa and commit to improving and using Irish. The target was then revised to 20,000 pledges by 2020. It currently stands at 18,257.
On Tuesday I attended the opening of Gael Ionad Mhic Gioll on the Whiterock Road. It is an amazing project. It is part of a pioneering type of bottom-up community and youth work through the medium of Irish which is being spearheaded by Glór na Móna.  Gael Ionad Mhic Gioll is a £400,000 capital development which was jointly funded by An Ciste Infheistíochta Gaeilge, the Department of Culture Arts and Learning under former Minister Caral Ní Chuilin, and Belfast City Council.
I want to commend all of those involved in the project and especially my party colleagues in the Executive, the Assembly and Belfast City Council, including the local Upper Springfield Sinn Féin representatives, who have worked in partnership with the local community to secure the land and funding for this project.
The centre is purpose built and includes new modern facilities for Irish language classes for the local community, parents, as well as youth facilities. It will enable the Irish speaking community in the Upper Springfield to sustain and enhance a whole range of community services and to promote ‘Gaelsaolaíocht – the Gaelic way of life – within the area.
This centre is named after Sean Mackle who played a significant role in sustaining and developing the Irish language. As an architect and community activist he was intimately involved in the life of west Belfast, including the building of the Shaw’s Road Gaeltacht, the founding of Whiterock Enterprises on the Industrial Estate on the Springfield Road, the reconstruction of Bombay Street after the pogroms of August 1969, and the Ballymurphy Community Centre which is now the site of the nearby Fold apartments.
Sean Mackle was a very practical activist. He told me once that we needed to replace names of buildings and project with Irish names and that people would use them. He cited An Cumann Chluain Ard and the old Ard Scoil as examples of this. He said Sinn Féin should have done that with Connolly House and of course he’s right. An Chultúrlann is a good example of Sean’s philosophy. So is Féile an Phobail. An even older example is the name Sinn Féin. It is an honour for Sean and his family to have Gael Ionad Mhic Giollnamed after him. But it is also an honour for the Ionad to be given his name. 
It is of course important to remember that there is still opposition to the language most obviously to the introduction of an Acht na Gaeilge and the resourcing of Irish medium education. I also have very real concerns about the decisions of DUP Education Minister Peter Weir in respect of Irish medium education.
Specifically, there is the failure by the British Government to honour its 2006 commitment in the St. Andrew’s Agreement to an Acht na Gaeilge. It is my view that the public is ahead of those unionist politicians who remain opposed to an Irish Language Act and the implementation of a Language Strategy.
While the struggle to attain full Irish language rights for all citizens has to continue it is a fact that due to the diligence, vision and hard work of Gaeilgeoirí huge progress has been made and that progress has to continue. That is how the Irish language movement has been built and it’s our duty to continue to support this work. As Seán Mackle told us at the opening of Gael Ionad Mhic Gioll; 'This is only the beginning'.  

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Saying No to the Apple Billions

The British vote to leave the European Union – Brexit - and the ruling by the European Commission that successive Irish governments gave illegal state aid to Apple and that Apple now owes €13 billion, plus interest, in back taxes, will dominate politics for the foreseeable future.
The Apple ruling by the European Commission has forced the Irish government to recall the Dáil three weeks early. But Fine Gael and the Independent Alliance, aided and abetted by the Labour party and Fianna Fail, have already decided to appeal the Apple ruling. This means that Wednesday’s Dáil debate and its conclusion was already predetermined. The establishment parties and the Independent Alliance had already rubber stamped the appeal.
In addition no detail was provided on the rationale behind the Commission’s ruling. Nor have Teachtai Dalai seen the ruling.
So much for the claim that the last general election saw the emergence of new politics in the South. Look at the Dáil record just before the summer recess. It was more of the same with Fianna Fail voting with Fine Gael and against Sinn Féin proposals to scrap water charges, provide for rent certainty, provide for banded hours contracts for workers and to deal with the issue of bin charge hikes.
Nevertheless, the issues raised by the Apple deal with successive Irish governments go to the very core of the government’s attitude to citizens; to public services; to tax justice here and internationally; to fairness for our business sector; and to corporate social responsibility.
They are issues on which Sinn Féin has taken a stand consistently, only to be castigated by the political establishment of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour whenever we raised the issue of tax avoidance by large multinational corporations.
Sinn Féin believes firmly in tax fairness - that means that every person and every company pays their fair share of tax. That has been our consistent position. Tax revenues are the means by which public services are funded, by which we pay for social protections and from which infrastructure is developed.
In Sinn Féin’s view the record of successive Irish governments on investing citizens’ taxes to build a fair society is a shamefully disastrous record; but the principle stands - taxes are collected to pay for the betterment of citizens’ lives and their services.
Taxes also need to be fair and equitable. There can’t be one set of rules for some and different rules for others, with small and medium enterprises – the backbone of the Irish economy – weighed down by government tax policies while one very large company pays less than one percent in Corporation Tax.
Nor should we lose sight of the international implications of tax avoidance and evasion. These activities by multi-national companies, supported by governments, is not a victimless crime.
It is a sad fact that every night one billion people go to bed hungry. Three million children die every year from malnutrition and hunger and many more from preventable diseases. Millions more suffer from stunting – a physical condition that limits physical and cognitive development that is caused by chronic malnutrition.
Multinational corporations’ use a multiplicity of tax avoidance schemes to hide their profits so that they can avoid paying their fair share of tax, especially in developing nations.
One recent report by the African Union said that some €60 billion is lost to African countries annually due to this type of activity.
Christian Aid believes that the lives of 350,000 children could be saved each year if corporate tax avoidance was ended.
Save the Children estimates that around $78billion is lost annually in tax avoidance in the 75 countries where most of the world’s child and maternal mortality occurs. 
It’s a huge, global problem. If a government cannot collect tax it cannot develop the essential public services, especially in health, education, housing and water that are necessary.
Sinn Féin is for tax justice. A fair tax system is needed to fund public services. The crises in health and in housing and homelessness within the Irish state have not gone away. The government has failed to get to grips with these important matters.
There is also serious concern about the likely impact of Brexit on the Irish economies, north and south.
However, it is the decision by Fine Gael and the Independent Alliance, supported by Fianna Fáil and Labour, to reject the EU Commission ruling on Apple and to turn their back on €13 billion plus interest that is the big story this week.
The Apple Billions, if invested wisely in social infrastructure, in schools and hospitals, in job creation, in the provision of desperately needed acute hospital beds, in supports for the elderly, the young, the disabled, could be life changing.
Last February citizens in the 26 counties voted for change – for new politics. Instead it’s the same old story – the same old politics. It is a mark of the hypocrisy and corruption and duplicity of a political class that hounds citizens who take a stand against water charges, that burdens struggling families with an unjust family home tax and that bowed to the elites of the EU when people’s interests were at stake.

Now they claim they will take a stand against the EU. This has as much credibility as a heap of horse manure. It would almost be comical if it weren’t so serious. These are the parties which invited in the Troika and forced the people to pay the price for the greed of a corrupt banking system. These are the parties that imposed water charges, introduced a family home tax, cut acute hospital beds, and created the crisis in our hospital emergency departments. In the end its all about these conservative parties clinging to political power.