Thursday, July 20, 2017

The challenge facing Fianna Fáil


20 years ago this month the IRA declared its second cessation. As a result of that historic initiative all-party negotiations commenced in September 1997. After eight months of difficult negotiations the Good Friday Agreement was agreed on April 10th 1998.
The Agreement is an historic compromise between nationalists, unionists, republicans, and the British and Irish governments. It is not the republic proclaimed at Easter 1916 but it is based on the principles of equality and respect, and parity of esteem, and provides a route to further progress towards our republican objectives. The Good Friday Agreement has been described as an agreement to a journey but not to a destination. It moved beyond notion of an internal 6 county settlement. It is all-Ireland, in form and structure. It is about a new political dispensation on the island of Ireland and a new relationship between Ireland and Britain. It is also about fundamental constitutional and institutional change.

In essence, the Good Friday Agreement is about establishing a level playing field which provides an opportunity for unionists to present their case in support of the union, and for nationalists and republicans to present our case for a United Ireland. Recognising that the constitutional or national question is yet to be resolved the Agreement specifically states that “if, in the future, the people of the island of Ireland exercise their right of self-determination on the basis set out in sections (i) and (ii) above to bring about a united Ireland, it will be a binding obligation on both Governments to introduce and support in their respective Parliaments legislation to give effect to that wish.”

So there you have it. For nationalists and republicans and democrats who seek to achieve a united Ireland our task must be about persuasion. If we are serious about a united Ireland then we have to agree strategies that promote it. We have to present convincing and cogent arguments in favour of Irish unity. And we have to engage with unionism and seek to persuade a section of that part of our society to support Irish unity.

At first glance agreeing the means by which the people of Ireland, north and south, can exercise our right to self-determination should be relatively straightforward. Most parties on this island say they are for Irish unity. Since partition the establishment political parties in the 26 counties have consistently promoted themselves and their policies as ‘republican’ and their desire for Irish unity being their primary objective. Fianna Fáil is ‘The Republican Party’; Fine Gael is the ‘United Ireland Party’; and Labour claim ownership of the Connolly tradition.

The reality, of course, has been very different. Their focus has been on the competing demands of electoral politics within the southern state. At differing times, usually when there is an election, they have wrapped the green flag round themselves because they know that Irish unity is popular.
Last year’s centenary celebrations for the 1916 Easter Rising were evidence of this. The vast majority of Irish people at home and abroad proudly celebrated the Rising and the Proclamation of the Republic. One result of this, and of the two elections in the North this year, and the dire consequences of Brexit, has been an increase in the debate around Irish unity. Late last year Sinn Fein produced a discussion paper on this. Others have produced detailed economic papers on the benefits of unity. 
In January in the Mansion House in Dublin and last month in the Waterfront Hall in Belfast Sinn Féin also held two very successful conferences discussing the future of Ireland and the potential for Irish unity. This year also saw former Taoiseach Enda Kenny commit to holding a referendum on voting rights for Presidential elections for citizens in the North and within the Irish diaspora. The European Union has also said that following Brexit, and in the event of Irish reunification, the North would automatically become a member of the EU.

These developments and the triggering of Article 50 by the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, for the commencement of negotiations on Brexit, has also changed the political climate in which the debate on Irish unity is now taking place.  

In April I wrote to the leaders of the political parties in the Dáil about the possibility of establishing an all-party Oireachtas Committee on Irish unity. As Oireachtas members TDs and Seanadóirí have the right to establish Committees to assist in formulating legislative and political work that impact on people’s daily lives and the future direction of our county.

On that basis I proposed the establishment of an Oireachtas Committee on Irish Unity that would bring forward proposals for what a united Ireland might look like, how we get there and how the Irish State needs to plan for reunification across all areas of the economy and society. The committee would provide a forum where party political interests could be left at the door and where the idea of a broad consensus for Irish Unity could be nurtured.

I pointed out that the cause of uniting Ireland is not the property of any one grouping or party and that consequently it is crucial that we leave party political and electoral interests at the door and embrace the idea of a broad consensus and civic movement for Irish Unity. The campaign for Irish Unity should be accessible to all and exclude nobody.

Crucially, part of the work of the Committee would be to put in place a vision for the future of the island that assures Unionists of their place in a New Ireland. It could also consider the circumstances in which a referendum on unity would be held and how it could be won.  I submitted for their consideration a draft of such a Committee’s Orders of Reference, though obviously these can be amended and shaped as desired on a consensus basis.

I have yet to receive a response from the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar or from the leader of the Labour Party Brendan Howlin. However, the Fianna Fail leader Micheál Martin has refused to support the establishment of an Oireachtas Committee. His excuse is that Fianna Fáil is committed to “working within the framework of the Good Friday Agreement and procedurally through the Oireachtas Committee on the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.”

But the Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement is about cross border co-operation.  It is not about Irish unity. The Good Friday Agreement has a specific commitment to the holding of a referendum on Irish unity. The Fianna Fáil leader is against this. This stance of Micheál Martin is very disappointing. He needs to get serious about a United Ireland. 

The reality is that an agreed Ireland is not inevitable. It has to be worked for. It will not happen by accident. It has to be planned for.  Nationalists and republicans have to work together towards the development of a broad civic movement for Irish Unity. We have to reach out to unionists. The establishment of an Oireachtas Committee would advance these objectives by helping in the formulating of legislative and political work that impact on the future direction of our county.

There are no short cuts to Irish unity. It is a huge challenge for those of us who want to go beyond the rhetoric of a united Ireland to the actual achievement of that objective. That is the challenge facing Fianna Fáil. And the rest of us. 

DRAFT ORDERS OF REFERENCE FOR OIREACHTAS COMMITTEE ON IRISH UNIFICATION

"That, notwithstanding anything in Standing Orders, Dáil Éireann—
recognises:
— the cross-community, all-island support for the Good Friday Agreement, as endorsed collectively in referenda by the people of Ireland, north and south, on the 22nd May 1998;
— the political, economic, social and cultural progress brought about by the peace process and the Agreement, benefiting all the people of Ireland;
— the important work undertaken by the North-South Ministerial Council and by the North-South Implementation Bodies under the terms of the Agreement; and
—in accordance with the Agreement, that it is the firm will of the Irish nation, in harmony and friendship, to unite all the people who share the territory of the island of Ireland,
resolves:
— to promote all-Ireland policies and strategies, benefiting all parts of the island of Ireland;
— to actively seek to persuade all those who share the island of Ireland, through dialogue, of the advantages of Irish unification; and
— to prepare politically, economically, socially and culturally for Irish unification, identify steps and measures, including the preparation of a report, which can assist a successful transition to a united Ireland,
orders that:
(a) a Special Committee (hereinafter referred to as ‘the Committee’) is hereby appointed, to be joined with a Special Committee to be appointed by Seanad Éireann, to form the Joint Committee on Irish Unification;
(b) the Committee shall present a report, with recommendations, to both Houses of the Oireachtas, in accordance with paragraphs (j) and (k);
(c) the number of members of the Committee shall not exceed 14, and the members shall be appointed as follows:
(i) four members shall be appointed by the Government,
(ii) three members appointed by Fianna Fáil,
(iii) two members appointed by Sinn Féin, and
(iv) one member each appointed by the Labour Party, Solidarity—People Before Profit, Independents4Change, the Rural Independent Group and the Social Democrats—Green Party Group;
(d) the Ceann Comhairle shall announce the names of the members appointed under paragraph (c) for the information of the Dáil on the first sitting day following their appointment;
(e) the quorum of the Joint Committee shall be seven, at least one of whom shall be a member of the Dáil, and one a member of the Seanad;
(f) the Joint Committee shall have the powers defined in Standing Order 85(1), (2), (3), (4), (5), (7), (8) and (9);
(g) Members of the Westminster Parliament elected from constituencies in Northern Ireland may attend meetings of the Joint Committee and of its sub-Committees and may take part in proceedings without having a right to vote or to move motions and amendments;
(h) the Chairman of the Joint Committee shall be a member of Dáil Éireann;
(i) the Committee shall be mandated to hold hearings in public with expert witnesses; invite and accept written submissions;
(j) the Committee shall, within six months of its initial meeting, present a final report to both Houses of the Oireachtas, for earliest possible discussion in both Houses;
(k) the Committee’s final report shall examine and identify the benefits of Irish unification, make recommendations to overcome obstacles to unification and develop a plan to achieve Irish unification, in line with the objectives of:
(i) promoting all-Ireland policies and strategies, benefiting all parts of the island of Ireland,
(ii) seeking to persuade all those who share the island of Ireland, through dialogue, of the advantages of Irish unification,
(iii) preparing politically, economically, socially and culturally for Irish unification,
(iv) identifying steps and measures which can assist a successful transition to a united Ireland;
(i) the Committee shall produce an interim report, containing also its proposed work schedule, to be debated at a meeting of the Dáil no less than one month, and no more than two months, after its establishment; and
(m) the Committee shall meet as frequently as appropriate to fulfil its remit.”





Saturday, July 15, 2017

GAA thriving in the USA


The Great Hunger memorial at Rockland GAC
Rita O Hare says she doesn't understand sports. "A load of balls" says she in a dismissive tone when the subject comes up. So, she didn't really show any interest when I tried to keep up with the Lions versus the All Blacks as we departed from Dublin Airport for the USA last Saturday morning. Later when we got to our hotel, The Time NYACK in Rockland county in the Hudson River Valley, she feigned complete disinterest in my efforts to keep track of the hurling and football Championship play offs back home. 
Me? I was keeping my commitment to Claire Kerraine to support Roscommon against Galway in the Connacht Football Final. I’m a big fan of Galway but given that they are doing so well with the hurling I succumbed to Claire's faith in her heroes and opted for the Rossies. And I'm glad I did. What a win! 
And then the hurling thriller at Thurles when Waterford and Kilkenny were neck to neck at half time. The Déise went on to victory in extra time. What a game! Same buzz on Sunday when Cork overpowered Clare. I like Clare hurling but the Rebel county out hurled them. I followed all these games on social media in upstate New York. Rita was oblivious to it all. 
But even she was impressed when we got to Rockland Gaelic Athletic Club's grand opening of their new club rooms. They are situated in the rural green rolling countryside of Pearl River and Orangeburg, an hour plus outside New York City. The club is a hub for the Gaeldom in that community. It has been years in the planning and two years in construction. It began with some of the club members putting up their homes as collateral for the loan needed to begin work. In April 2015, the construction began and just over two years later the clubhouse has been completed. On the upper floor of this two-storey building is a large community hall which spreads out into a canopied pavilion. From there you have a clear view across the upper and lower pitches. The clubrooms include locker rooms, showers and all of the facilities you would expect in a modern GAA club for players and members alike.
I was in Pearl River before. At the Saint Patrick's Day Parade many moons ago. Another memorable occasion. I was the guest of the late Congress Member Ben Gilman. This time I was the guest of Cormach Murrihy, his wife Vivian and their children Cain and Caoimhe. Cormach is a stalwart Gael and upright citizen from that parish. The new club rooms would grace any Gaelic grounds anywhere. Facing on to the playing field the seated area was bunged with Gaels of all shapes and sizes. A live band pumped out Irish ballads. County geansais (jerseys) competed also in the jersey stakes. O Neill tops were omnipresent. And there were children everywhere. Camógs and footballers swarmed in perpetual games on the pitch. Junior teams vied with one and other. The craic was ninety. The warm July sun shone brightly over us all from a clear blue sky.
GAA Aogán Ó Fearghaíl was there to do the official opening. He had flown in from Argentina where he assured us Gaelic games are thriving. He too was impressed by Rockland GAC. The new facilities there are a tribute to the spirit of volunteerism and community that is the essence of An Cumann Luthcleas Ghael. I spoke to many of the Club Officers all of who gave credit to Brian Pearson who ramrodded the building of the club rooms. The Woods brothers played their part also so did Mick Healy. And big Jimmy O’Sullivan who literally poured the foundations. His father taught him all he knows.  They could rebuild Casement Park on their own. Founding member John Cawley started the whole thing off a long time ago. Hard work, commitment, perseverance and vision paid off. Everyone deserves credit. From Committee members to builders, mentors, players, those who maintain the pitches and mark it out.
Vincent Tyer was delighted with the huge turn out and the excitement of it all. And Vince had another surprise for me. He presented me with a proclamation   designating July 9th in Orangetown, where the Rockland County GAC is situated, as Gerry Adams Day. It was a great honour. I bumped into old friends at every turn. Mattie Reilly and his family. Mike McGinley and his clann. Thirty former footballing All Stars had flown in from Ireland to play a special game on Sunday evening. They included Peter Canavan, Oisín McConville, Paddy Bradley and Graham Geraghty. There were players from Derry, Monaghan, Tyrone, Armagh, Down and Donegal, from Wexford and Meath and Kilkenny, from Sligo and Mayo and Galway and Cork. A warm go raibh maith agaibh to Paul Rowley and Marty McKenna who showed me around the Clubrooms and to Georgina Boyle the architect.
With Jimmy Snr and Jimmy Jnr O'Sullivan
Someone had heard of my prowess and success as a leading competitor in the west Belfast Féile an Phobail Poc Fada and press ganged me into their Poc Fada contest. Me against All Stars, Cork’s Seán Óg O’hAlpáin and Martin and Andy Comerford from Kilkenny. Between us we had twelve All Ireland medals. Jimmy O Flynn and Kevin McKay joined us. One of them, a Carnlough man won the Poc Fada. I softened the opposition up for him. Antroim Abú. 
All in all it was a great weekend. The GAA at its best. The Diaspora united in its vibrant brightest colours. Hot wired into our culture and Gaelic games. Connected to home. Patriots all. 
Rita relented at the end. 
'But that's more than sport' she said 'It’s part of what we are'. 
Rita is right. As usual. 

Mise agus Cormach with Joseph Smith and Vincent Tyer behind



Saturday, July 8, 2017

There can be no return to the status quo


The anti-equality approach of the DUP, supported by the British government, has seen the shutters effectively pulled down on this round of talks. This constitutes a monumental failure by Theresa May and her government. Decades of work are being put on hold to keep her in power. As a result it is unlikely that any agreement will now be possible this side of the summer. None of this is surprising. The character of the current negotiations has been different from others we have had with the DUP in recent years. We were back to the David Trimble style of slow, tedious, minimalist negotiations. As a consequence, there was no agreement on Irish language rights, marriage equality, the Bill of Rights, legacy matters or anti-sectarian measures. The DUP has resisted the imperative of rights-based policies and agreements that are essential for the political institutions to be sustainable. This is especially true in the context of Brexit, the DUP alliance with the Tories and the fallout from the RHI scandal.
Contrary to claims by the British Secretary of State James Brokenshire that good progress was made the fact is that no substantive movement was achieved on the core issues. Once again a British government has pandered to the DUP’s anti-rights, anti-equality agenda. This tacit endorsement of the DUP’s stance has been driven in large part by Theresa May’s desire to stay in power. The British Prime Minister is backing the denial of basic rights here which are the norm in England, Scotland, Wales and the rest of Ireland, That cannot be tolerated.

During this process some elements of the media and of the political establishments, north and south, tried to pressurize Sinn Féin into acquiescing to discrimination. We refused. The Irish Times editorial last Saturday is a case in point. It called on the ‘two big parties in Northern Ireland to show they are serious about politics by striking a deal that will enable the powersharing institutions to be restored.’ What did they think Sinn Fein was trying to do?

The shallowness of their analysis is further evident in the line which states; ‘What divides the two parties appears more symbolic than real.’ There is nothing symbolic about marriage equality. The Irish Times editorialized in support of same sex marriage three days before the historic vote in that part of the island in May 2015. Its banner slogan says it all: ‘Marriage referendum: In the name of equality’. And it was right. Marriage equality was and is about equality, and it is important both for those citizens directly affected by it and for a society that seeks to be inclusive and non- discriminatory.

So, the Irish Times has no difficulty recognising the historic importance of the marriage equality vote for the South and for the rights of citizens who live there. Does it then believe that citizens who want to be married in this part of the island should be treated differently; should be denied equality? On Saturday Michelle O’Neill and I joined thousands of citizens in Belfast City Centre demanding marriage equality. They packed the streets around the City Hall. They made their demand for equality loud and clear. It is unacceptable that this is the only place in these islands that citizens do not have the right to marriage equality. It becomes even more unacceptable as the tide of history moves forward in support of same sex marriage, as was evident in the vote the previous day by the German Parliament.

 

Marriage equality is only one of the rights based issues that are at the heart of the current difficulties. An Irish Language Act is another. Irish language rights are a central part of the Good Friday Agreement and Acht na Gaeilge is a part of the 2006 St. Andrew’s Agreement. This issue has both practical and symbolic importance. As was evident in the Assembly and Westminster votes there are many citizens who do not speak Irish but who believe that those citizens who wish to should have the protection of the law.

 

Sinn Féin also has concerns about the way in which the DUP has used the Petition of Concern (PoC) and other legal instruments to block agreements signed by all of the parties, including the Irish and British governments. The Petition of Concern was introduced after the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. It means that a contentious piece of legislation can be blocked if 30 MLAs sign a petition of concern.  Given the discriminatory history of the northern state the PoC was intended to prevent political and religious discrimination from occurring again.  However, with the DUP holding more than 30 seats in the previous two Assembly periods they have been able to use it to block, for example, marriage equality legislation. Even though the majority of MLAs support marriage equality.

 

In my last column, and in my Waterfront Hall speech at the recent conference on a United Ireland, I acknowledged the deep chasm that exists in this state since partition. The division between the nationalist and unionist position goes beyond the national question. It’s also about the right of those citizens in the North who embrace their sense of Irishness. Whether this is in music or literature, in language or sport or politics, or in their sense of history and family roots, there is a significant section of opinion in the North which is Irish and is proud to be Irish.

 

There comes a point when you have to take a stand against injustice. Martin McGuinness made that clear on January 9th when, despite being gravely sick from an illness that would shortly after take his life, he travelled to Stormont to resign as Deputy First Minister. Speaking to the media Martin said: ‘There will be no return to the status quo. The situation we have been dealing with the course of recent years is unacceptable. I have called a halt to DUP arrogance and if the DUP think in the aftermath of an election that they are going to step back into Ministerial positions, short of resolving the critical issues IO have identified, then they are living in a fools paradise.’

 

Let me be equally clear. There can be no return to the status quo. Measures to resolve all of the issues at the heart of this crisis were agreed previously. We expect these to be implemented and the rights of citizens in the North to be acknowledged and respected. We also expect, as a result of the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal that integrity and transparency in government will now be agreed by all of the parties. Equality, rights and respect are the only basis for sustainable institutions.


The reality is that the Sinn Féin electorate will not consent to be governed by the DUP on their terms. We do not and would not expect the DUP electorate to consent to be governed by us on Sinn Féin terms. So it’s really quite simple. It’s all about rights. It’s about equality. Equality is good for everyone. It’s all about agreement and how these rights are going to be delivered. That’s the only way to get the institutions back in place. We have told that very directly to the DUP. We have said the same thing to the British Government. Mrs May is prepared to tolerate the denial of rights here which are enjoyed everywhere else on these islands. That is not acceptable to us. It should not be acceptable to anyone else and we look especially to the Taoiseach to make this clear to Theresa May.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Any threat to Good Friday Agreement will be opposed



Last Thursday’s visit to London for a meeting with the British Prime Minister Theresa May was my first without Martin McGuinness. I was very mindful of that as Mary Lou, RG and I boarded the Aer Lingus flight in Dublin that morning. I was equally conscious of this because Thursday was the day that the Rev. Jesse Jackson was in Derry to officially open the Bloody Sunday museum with Martin’s son Fiachra, and to visit Martin’s grave.

Bernie McGuinness with Jesse Jackson and her son Fiachra

Despite the recent attacks in London and Manchester the streets around Westminster were packed with people, including many who were obviously tourists, enjoying the bright sunshine and the sights. The attacks have added a new edge to the area around Britain’s Parliament Buildings and Whitehall. There are many more visible and heavily armed police officers and police vehicles. There are also a formidable series of heavy metal barriers at major road junctions that can be moved into place with the clear purpose of sealing the centre of London off in an emergency.

The newspapers, television news and social media, were dominated by the horrific scenes from the catastrophic fire at the Grenfell block of flats the previous day. As we arrived into London Theresa May was visiting the scene of the disaster but twitter was already carrying reports quoting local people angry at her for not meeting grieving families, residents and survivors. Jeremy Corbyn, who also visited the scene, was being widely praised for his compassionate engagement with ordinary citizens and his obvious empathy at their plight.

As the media fallout continued it emerged that a year and a half ago the Tories voted against a Labour amendment to the Housing and Planning Bill which would have made it a requirement for landlords to ensure that any homes they are renting should be fit for human habitation. The Tory legislation, which was eventually passed with the support of DUP MPs, was part of a process of deregulation which is being viewed by many as contributing to the Grenfell fire.  

The fire came on the back of a bad couple of weeks for the Tories. Theresa May had called her snap election believing she would win more seats. Having promised ‘strong and stable’ government Mrs May returned with less MPs and her own status as Tory leader and Prime Minister severely weakened. She immediately turned to the DUP and its ten MPs to provide a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement to sustain her government in power. The reaction from the media in Britain was one of almost universal shock. The record of the DUP and its homophobic, sectarian, ultra conservative, anti-climate change and creationist philosophy became front page news and dominated social media.

The implications for the peace process, the Good Friday Agreement and the current talks to restore the political institutions were at the top of our agenda when we met the British Prime Minister in the Cabinet Office. Mary lou, RG and I were joined by Michelle O’Neill, our new MP for Foyle Elisha McCallion and Stephen McGlade.  
 
I opened our contribution by offering our sympathy at the loss of life in the Grenfell tragedy. I then proceeded to set out the context for the current crisis in the political institutions in the North, including the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal and the allegations from within the DUP of corruption. I handed the Prime Minister a copy of Martin McGuinness’s resignation letter. It succinctly explains the issues behind the crisis, including the years of disrespect and obstruction within the institutions by the DUP.
Michelle and I both bluntly told Mrs May, James Brokenshire, the British Secretary of State, and their officials that the British government is in default of the Good Friday Agreement. We told her that in our view the government and the DUP have refused to implement key agreements on language and equality rights and dealing with the legacy of the past. I told Mrs May that there could be no deal without a stand-alone Irish Language Act based on best international protocols for indigenous languages.
The British side voiced the usual clichés about wanting to encourage the parties to reach a deal but we told them that the issues at the heart of the crisis are not simply Sinn Féin issues or DUP issues. Equality, Irish language rights, marriage equality, the Bill of Rights are all British government issues and Irish government issues also, and they have to meet their obligations.
Michelle O’Neill challenged Mrs May on austerity, the one billion cut from the North’s budget and argued for funding for public services and capital projects. With the Brexit negotiations due to commence on Monday we also raised the imposition of Brexit, against the will of the people of the North who voted against it.  Mrs May repeated the meaningless rhetoric about not wanting a return to the borders of the past . We urged her to look at Sinn Féin’s proposal for designated status for the North within the EU. It is a proposal that would not impinge on the constitutional status of the North.
We warned Prime Minister May that doing a deal with the DUP in order to hold on to power carried with it huge risks. Sinn Féin will oppose any pact that undermines the Good Friday Agreement and we will look to the new Taoiseach to oppose it also as a co-guarantor of the Agreement. In her contribution Mary Lou Our referenced the demographic changes that are taking place in the North and the increased interest in Irish unity. We told Mrs May that a referendum on Irish unity is inevitable and that she and her government had to prepare for it.
At the same time, we made it clear that our objective in the talks is to reach an agreement with the DUP and the other parties on restoring the institutions. But this will only happen if they are sustainable, viable and properly resourced. That means resolving all of the outstanding issues, and the British government providing a financial package that addresses the austerity cuts to the block grant that the Cameron and May governments have been responsible for.

As I write these few words there is still no clarity around the DUP and Tory pact. The Brexit negotiations have begun and the talks to restore the institutions have recommenced following the Westminster election. With the June 29th deadline next week and the marching season about to kick-off there is only a short window to agree a restoration of the institutions.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Active Abstentionism

Following on from the very successful Assembly election in March last week’s Westminster election produced another historic result for Sinn Féin. We achieved our largest vote ever of 238,915 or 29.1%, and won seven seats – an increase of three.
The Tory party lost seats and lost its majority in the British Parliament. It almost immediately turned to the DUP for a ‘confidence and supply arrangement’ to prop it up as Theresa May scrambles to survive. She promised ‘strong and stable’ government and has instead delivered chaos and uncertainty. We will see the outworking of this new Tory/DUP coalition over the next few days.
As the results emerged in the early hours of last Friday morning Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Irish Labour Party, looking to their own narrow self-interests, cynically turned their attention to attacking our abstentionist approach to Westminster. It was as if they were hearing about this for the first time. In fact they know our policy will not change.
The reality is that in the seven weeks of the campaign the SDLP, which had members of all of the southern establishment parties campaigning for it, used every opportunity to raise the issue of abstentionism. Sinn Féin’s refusal to take seats in Westminster became a key issue for the SDLP as it tried to claim that its presence in the British House of Commons had made a difference. It obviously thought that abstentionism would be a negative for Sinn Féin in the election. Every broadcast interview by a Sinn Fein candidate saw this issue exhaustively examined as some elements of the media rowed in behind the SDLP position.
The first problem for the SDLP was in its failure to produce anything of substance to bolster its claim of making a difference sitting in the British Parliament. The widely shared social media video imagery of the three SDLP MPs swearing allegiance to the English Queen and her successors also had its effect.
On June 8th the nationalist/republican voters saw through this nonsense. They chose to support Sinn Féin. Our vote increased in every constituency. The nationalist electorate made a choice. They voted for the active abstentionism of Sinn Féin and against the pointless participation of the SDLP at Westminster. The nationalist/republican people of the North conclusively turned their back on Westminster.
Ignoring the democratic choice of the electorate Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin and others demanded that we should take our seats in Westminster. They bemoaned the fact that there was no longer an Irish nationalist voice at Westminster – as if being there was a good thing.
One SDLP representative even went so far as to evoke the names of Daniel O’Connell, Charles Stewart Parnell and Michael Davitt as examples of successful participation in Westminster. The reality is that all of these leaders failed to achieve their primary political objectives. O’Connell failed to secure the Repeal of the Union; Parnell failed to achieve Home Rule; and Michael Davitt was so exasperated with the British system that when he withdrew from the British Parliament in October 1899 he declared: "I have for years tried to appeal to the sense of justice in this House of Commons on behalf of Ireland. I leave, convinced that no just cause, no cause of right, will ever find support from this House of Commons unless it is backed up by force."
This was 17 years before the 1916 Rising. Two years after the Rising and following the 1918 election, the Sinn Féin MPs abstained from Westminster and established the First Dáil. This was not just about the taking of an oath of allegiance to an English Queen. That was certainly part of the equation. But the key issue was and is one of sovereignty. To take seats in Westminster requires that a successful Irish republican MP begin their political life by accepting that the British state has the right to sovereignty over Ireland or a part of the island. It also means that their first political act as an MP is to take the oath which states:
“I … swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors, according to Law. So help me God.”
Let me be very clear. I am an Irish republican. I believe in the sovereignty of the Irish people. I am against monarchies and elites of all kinds. As the MP for west Belfast I was very proud to represent all of the people of west Belfast for decades. Those who voted for me in election after election saw no disadvantage in my being an active abstentionist. Last week Paul Maskey increased that vote again taking over twenty-seven thousand votes.
Active abstentionism is about energetically representing citizens. It’s about working with those citizens as equals and empowering communities to effectively fight for their rights, whether they be cultural rights, economic, national or political rights. Sinn Féin has an unparalleled reputation for effective constituency representation.
We have also been diligently and steadily building an all-Ireland movement for equality and unity. Our MPs will attend the Good Friday Agreement Committee in the Dáil this week and we will campaign to have speaking rights in that institution in the time ahead. Our seven MPs will join thirty Sinn Féin TDs and Seanadóirí and twenty seven MLAs. They will be actively backed by our all-Ireland team of MEPs who are showing great leadership, particularly and importantly on the issue of Brexit and the need for designated special status for the North.
The building of this all-Ireland movement and strong representation by Sinn Féin across the island, including in Councils, will continue in the time ahead, beyond the distractions of temporary alliances between the DUP and the English Tories.
In the late 1990’s we discovered that abstentionist MPs could avail of facilities at Westminster to represent their constituents. This was to accommodate English republicans or others who were against the Oath. We sought a mandate for active abstentionism and were given the use of offices and other resources in Westminster. We have utilised these since then to fulfil our mandate.
After the 1997 Westminster election, in which Martin McGuinness and I were elected for Mid Ulster and west Belfast, the Speaker of the British Parliament, Betty Boothroyd, banned us from the facilities unless we took the Oath of Allegiance. That was overturned five years later, although periodically Conservative and Unionist MPs will raise the issue. Sinn Féin MPs contrary to some inaccurate reporting do not receive a Westminster salary.
Where Sinn Féin fundamentally differ from the Dublin establishment parties is in our commitment to Irish national self-determination; to the unity and sovereignty of this island and the ending of partition. Their demand that Sinn Féin MPs should take the Oath of Allegiance and accept British sovereignty has nothing to do with what is good for the people of the North, or for those who voted for us on the basis of our abstentionist position; it is about trying to do what the SDLP failed to do – present Sinn Féin as a party that refuses to represent its electorate.
Fianna Fáil especially has a short memory. Its founding leaders stood on a platform of abolishing the British oath to the Dáil. The war cry was ‘Dismiss the Imperialists – Abolish the Oath – Vote for the Fianna Fáil candidates – One Allegiance Only.’
Is Micheál Martin now telling us that if his party ever stands candidates in the North, and they are successful, that they will take the Oath to the English Queen? What kind of Irish leader of a party which claims to be ‘The Republican Party’ would ask Irish men and women to ignore their electoral mandate; swear loyalty to the English Queen, or legitimise the British Parliament's role in Ireland?
When it comes to the North, the Fianna Fail leader is a champion hurler on the ditch. If they gave out all-Ireland medals for making zero effort on matters of importance to northern citizens, Micheál Martin would be an All Star every year. The Fianna Fáil leader should end his abstentionist policy in respect of the North, come off the side-lines and onto the pitch, and allow his party to stand candidates in Northern elections and seek a mandate from the people. I would welcome such a development.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Unity referendum - an imperative and a winnable objective.

In the post count excitement of the election RG forgot to post this article which was published in this weeks Andersonstown News. Given the outcome and the emerging DUP/Tory arrangement/coalition it's still worth a read.
At the Count Centre on Thursday night

your vote counts.
By the time you get to read this the Westminster election could be over. You may know the result. But as I write this column that's all before us. It’s Wednesday morning. The sun is shining as Bill and I cross the Glenshane Pass on the way to the Foyle constituency. It’s the last day of the election campaign. Later today, after spending the morning with Elisha McCallion, I will join Michelle Gildernew in Fermanagh South Tyrone. So far, for Sinn Féin, it’s been a good election campaign. Having spent time in many of the constituencies the mood is very positive. The activists are in great form. The mass canvasses in north Belfast and south Down involving scores of people have been hugely uplifting.
But however good the political message; however bullish the candidates have been in the debates; and however energised the canvas teams are, on election day it’s all down to you the citizen marking your X beside your candidate and party of choice. Thursday is your day. You will have the final say in who is elected or not elected, and whether parties achieve success or failure. That’s how it should be.
The media and academic pundits – those who make a living from interpreting the intention of voters and the statistics of elections – will be looking to see how it compares with the Assembly election in March.
That was a transformative election. Since the state was established in 1920 Unionists dominated local politics. The brazen use of gerrymandered constituencies and the disenfranchisement of tens of thousands of nationalists ensured that unionists dominated politics in the Stormont Parliament or in local councils.

Arriving at the Count on Thursday night

However, the March Assembly dramatically changed that. For the first time since partition the unionist political majority in a locally elected Assembly, which was intended to permanent, came to an end. The longer term demographic and political trend is for that to continue but how will it shape out when the votes are counted in the early hours of Friday morning? In March Sinn Féin came within 1,168 votes of over taking the DUP as the party with the largest vote. That was a huge psychological blow to the psyche of political unionism. That lesson was learned quickly by the DUP and their objective in this election has been to reverse that.
All of the stops have been pulled out. The DUP and UUP agreed an electoral pact. Having called for Arlene Foster’s resignation over the Renewable Heating Initiative before Christmas the UUP did a quick flip flop. Now they are happy to support the DUP leader. And not for the first time the endorsement of the DUP and the UUP by the so-called Loyalist Communities Council (LCC) – in essence the UDA, UVF and Red Hand Commando – means that those organisations are now actively campaigning for those two parties.
Calls for Arlene Foster to reject the endorsement were met with a stony silence. In this election every vote counts and the DUP appear happy to embrace the support of illegal unionist paramilitary organisations.
They know that every vote will count. They know what needs to be done to re- establish viable sustainable political institutions. They know that the gap between the parties, and especially between Sinn Féin and the DUP, to achieve this is significant. The issues which led to the collapse of the Executive and political institutions are still there. And the Irish and British governments have agreements they have yet to honour.
There is also the looming issue of Brexit. Whether it it’s a Tory government or a Labour government that is returned to power after the election both parties are committed to pursuing Brexit. And Brexit will have a serious detrimental impact on the economy of this island but especially of the North and the border counties. It is already having a damaging effect on Irish jobs and businesses, in particular in the agriculture and agrifood sectors.
The aim of the Irish government and of the European Union in the time ahead should be to prevent a land frontier between the European Union and Britain on the island of Ireland. This can best be achieved if the North achieves designated special status within the European Union. The Irish government should also have a veto on any agreement reached between the European Union and the British Government that does not include this position.
Designated status is the best and only way to ensure that the entire island of Ireland will remain within the European Union. It is an imaginative solution that addresses the complexities of the problem. It does not affect the constitutional status of the North. That will be changed only by a referendum.
Crucially, it already enjoys substantial political support. Designated special status within the European Union is the position endorsed by the Dáil. It is endorsed by the majority of MLAs in the Assembly. It recognises that the people of the North voted to remain part of European Union. It is a solution being advocated by representatives of Border communities.
Designated special status for the North within the European Union is about allowing all of Ireland to remain in the Customs Union and the Single Market and under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. It is about maintaining the European Convention on Human Rights and it is about protecting the rights of citizens in the North who have a right to Irish citizenship and, therefore, to citizenship of the European Union. None of this is beyond our collective wisdom or ability.
In the short term however the focus of the next few weeks will be on political talks to restore the Executive. Sinn Féin will enter that process in good heart and with the desire to reach an agreement – irrespective of the outcome of Thursday’s election. We all know what the issues are. Our leader, Michelle O’Neill spelt it out well recently when she said: “We are for an Executive that respects the rights of all citizens and operates with integrity, an Executive that implements agreements”.


Speaking to Miriam at the Titanic Centre

For republicans the issue of a unity referendum is now firmly on the political agenda. We believe that such a referendum should be held within the next five years. We also believe that the political dynamic of recent years makes this issue an imperative and a winnable objective.
Next week will also see the election of a new Taoiseach. Leo Varadkar will be the Fine Gael nominee. He will have a keen interest in the northern election result. There will be another election in the South, though no one knows exactly when. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil probably don't want it too soon but sometimes these things take on a life of their own. So Sinn Féin has to be prepared. 
Wherever you live on the island of Ireland your vote counts.  I hope you use it wisely.



Waiting for the national broadcaster 

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