Friday, February 16, 2018

Seomra 316

Many years ago when I was an Assembly representative for West Belfast RG and I were the tenants of room 316 in Parliament Buildings up at Stormont. If you’re looking up the steps at the front of the building it’s the room with two windows between the pillars on the right side. It’s a large office – bigger even that the one I ended up with in Leinster House.

It has a magnificent panoramic view of the Stormont estate and across the Belfast landscape to the Black Mountain, the ‘Murph and West Belfast.  
In November 2010 I announced my intention to stand down from the Assembly and Westminster and to seek the Sinn Féin nomination to stand for the constituency of Louth in the upcoming February general election. It was a big step for me and for the party but it was a necessary part of our long term strategy to build Sinn Féin north and south. A few months later the good people of Louth elected me with a resounding mandate. And two years ago myself and Imelda Munster, were elected to the Dáil.

So I bade a fond fair well to Room 316 which then became a meeting room for the party leadership in the Assembly. Last summer, after two unsuccessful rounds of negotiations, the parties and governments moved out of Stormont Castle and up to Parliament Buildings. Room 316 came into its own again as Michelle, Declan, Carál, Conor et al moved back in, and it became the hub for our extended negotiating team. And not a shadowy figure amongst us.

In between the preparation for last weekend’s special Ard Fheis – comhghairdeas to everyone who made it an exhilarating event - Mary Lou and I have spent much of the last fortnight closeted with them. There have been countless meetings with the DUP leadership and also with the Irish and British governments. And the other parties. As with every negotiation every word is scrutinised, every commitment examined, legal advice is sought where necessary, especially around the production of legislation, and the implications of what is proposed or agreed is teased out. It’s a laborious process, which hasn’t changed much in the 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement negotiations.

The Sinn Féin team is there seeking the restoration of the institutions. Ignore the usual begrudgery from the usual suspects who claim we are not serious. Most of the time I think the DUP are serious also. And then they step back and doubts return. Despite these obstacles the DUP and Sinn Féin have made progress. The focus now is on getting the final bits and pieces tied down and producing an agreement that is fair and balanced, based on equality and the rights of citizens, and which creates the opportunity for more progress in the time ahead.  In a very real sense this is the last chance agreement.
So today, and yesterday and the day before and last week and the week before we have been closeted back in Room 316 with occasional visits for meetings in other rooms.

On Monday the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar arrived at Stormont House along with British Prime Minister Theresa May. The DUP didn’t meet the Taoiseach. Mary Lou, Conor, Declan and Michelle met both separately. It was an opportunity to remind them that both governments separately or together have the responsibility for resolving some of the outstanding issues.

Monday was the 29th anniversary of the murder by British government agents of human rights lawyer Pat Finucane. The failure of the British to establish the international public inquiry promised at Weston Park was raised by Mary Lou. Next week will see the 30th anniversary of the killing by a British soldier of Aidan McAnespie at Aughnacloy. The Irish government appointed Garda deputy commissioner Eugene Crowley to investigate the killing. His report was handed over in April 1988 but the content has never been made public. The family are asking for it to be released now. Michelle told the Taoiseach this.
They also raised other legacy issues, Brexit, the recent proposals from the Boundary Commission and the terms for a referendum on Irish unity.
The British PMs visit was a clumsy intervention. A visit to Bombardier because there was a convenient recess at Westminster. A visit to the talks was an add-on. A distraction. Michelle insisted the Taoiseach needed to be there also. So he was.
This morning as I write these few words the sun is shining on the snow on the Belfast Hills. It makes for a grand sight. It’s not all serious. There are moments of levity and of black Belfast humour. Even the DUP like a laugh. Sometimes. Especially you know who.

Ted has as ever provided some of the best food you could hope to eat anywhere. One of these days he should publish a cook book of his favourite dishes – The Negotiators Cookbook - it would be a best seller.

In the meantime, we work to get this negotiation over the line. This is part of the process of change that commenced with the talks between myself and John Hume in 1986 and which led two decades ago to the Good Friday Agreement. If the principles and objectives of that Agreement and subsequent agreements are to be achieved then we have to work together, in partnership, to create the space in which all sections of our people can meet and moderate our differences. Ted reminded me that my first negotiation with the British Government was in 1972. Dáithí Ó Conaill and I negotiated a bi-lateral truce at that time. That’s forty-six years ago. Peace surely does come dropping slow. Then our focus was on the future. Same as now.

Is the DUP up for this? Time will tell. An agreement could be made this week. But, given DUP hesitancy, that is unlikely.

In the meantime, its back to Room 316 to read the latest draft of words on the issues still in contention.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

It’s been a funny old week

This has been a funny old week – at least for me. It is a week of ‘lasts’. After 35 years it is my last week as Uachtarán Shinn Féin. Wednesday was supposed to be my last occasion for ‘Leaders’ in the Dáil but I was at Stormont and so missed that. I attended my last meeting of the party’s National Officer Board and last week I chaired my last group meeting in Leinster House of TDs, Seanadóirí and party staffers. After 40 years last Saturday should have been my last attendance at an Ard Chomhairle (National Executive) meeting but I missed it because I was in the talks at Stormont. I was there at the end of a phone but conference calls aren’t the same.
On Saturday, at the RDS in Dublin, where I announced my decision last November to step down as President, a Sinn Féin special Ard Fheis will begin at 1pm. When it opens I will be Uachtarán Shinn Féin. When it concludes I will be one of thirteen thousand party members and Mary Lou McDonald will be the new Uachtarán Shinn Féin.
A new chapter in the story of our party and of our efforts to achieve independence and unity for the island of Ireland will have begun. Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill will be taking over a very different Sinn Féin from that which I and Martin McGuinness and others inherited in November 1983. The context is also very different. The peace process, which Sinn Féin played a pivotal role in fashioning, has created new political opportunities and transformed the political landscape on the island of Ireland. There is now a peaceful and democratic opportunity to achieve an end to the union with Britain. One challenge facing Mary Lou and Michelle is to grasp these opportunities and create new ones to advance our political goals.
Mary Lou and Michelle will also bring their own unique and individual style to the task of leading Sinn Féin. Both are formidable leaders. They are articulate, eloquent, passionate comrades who are committed to achieving a new Ireland, a united Ireland, a socially just Ireland based on equality for every citizen. And they have around them an amazing group of dedicated and experienced activists.
In the four months since I announced my decision to step down as Uachtarán Shinn Féin I have had the opportunity to travel widely and to meet party members and supporters across the island. From Derry to Belfast, Armagh City to Fermanagh, from Sligo to Cork, from Meath to Dundalk, Dublin and Kilkenny. Packed meetings. Filled with enthusiastic, eager, activists all looking forward. All looking to the future. All embracing the opportunity for change. And all up for the challenges ahead.
And the challenges are many. The talks in the North are still going on. I have been at Stormont almost every day in the last week. Under Michelle O’Neill’s leadership our efforts to restore the political institutions are continuing. Whether the two governments and the parties can succeed or will fail remains to be seen. Putting in place a rights-based society and implementing the Good Friday Agreement isn't easy.
Given the stark differences in attitude between those for and against Brexit, the outworking of the current negotiations between the British government and the European Commission also presents a significant challenge. So too do the austerity policies of the British government which continues to reduce the budget available to run government departments in the North, as well as inflicting major cuts to housing benefit and welfare payments to families and households.
There are also many challenges facing republicans in the South. The Irish state is not the republic envisaged by the 1916 leaders. The crises in housing, homelessness and in the health service are evidence of this. Nor is there an iota of difference between the conservative policies of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. Both parties are champions of economic and social conservatism, austerity and cuts to the living standards of working people.
But none of this is insurmountable. Sinn Féin activists know what we need to do. We want to be in government North and South. A government in Dublin with Sinn Féin as part of it will place Irish unity at the top of its political agenda and face a British government with this clear demand.
No one knows when the next general election will be held in the 26 counties. But Sinn Féin is preparing for that now. And part of this means ensuring that Mary Lou has time to make her mark, demonstrate her undoubted abilities as leader, and plan for a bigger party with more candidateswinning more seats, and with more women and young people than ever before.
In the meantime the consequences of Brexit will become clearer and the efforts to deliver the promise of equality in the Good Friday Agreement will have advanced. 
So I’m looking forward to Saturday’s special Ard Fheis. I’m looking forward to the challenges and opportunities that are before us. I think our best years are yet to come.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Support Ahed Tamimi

Stephen McConomy

There are lots of connections between the struggles in Ireland and Palestine. We share an affinity for freedom and sovereignty. And in both places the British Government has played a divisive and repressive role. The shaping of the law to allow states to kill, imprison, torture, demonise, marginalise and oppress a community have been part and parcel of our joint experiences over many decades.
Senior British military figures and at least one former RUC Chief Constable, Ken Newman, learned their trade in part in the Middle East region.
The north was also a laboratory for the British state. New and ever more sophisticated surveillance technology, the gathering and holding of intelligence on citizens, the recruitment of agents and informers, the use of collusion and the running by British agencies of counter gangs were all a part of this. The case this week of UVF agent Gary Haggarty is a case in point.
The deployment of rubber and plastic bullets were a part of this also, along with CS and CR gas. In the five years after their introduction in 1970 fifty six thousand rubber bullets were fired in the north. They were then replaced by plastic bullets. In the five years after that thirteen thousand of these were fired. In 1981, the year of the hunger strike, almost thirty thousand plastic bullets were fired. 17 people, including 8 children were killed. Hundreds more were maimed for life.
One of those killed was 11 year old Stephen McConomy from Derry. Stephen died on April 19th 1982 three days after he was shot in the head by a plastic bullet fired by a member of the British Army’s Royal Anglian Regiment. He was out playing with friends. There was no trouble, no riots, no confrontation between local people and the Brits. Residents who tried to go to Stephen’s aid were prevented from doing so by the soldiers. He was eventually taken to Altnagelvin hospital in Derry and then to the RVH in Belfast where he died.
One of the iconic images of the years of conflict, taken by Chris McAuley then a journalist from An Phoblacht, was of Stephen lying in the intensive care unit in the RVH. Efforts by the British Army to prevent and arrest her were only stopped by the intervention of Stephen’s father.
All of this came to mind when I saw a photograph of 15 year old Mohammed Tamimi, a Palestinian youth, who just before Christmas was shot at close range with a plastic bullet fired by an Israeli soldier. The bullet that struck Mohammed entered his face under his nose, broke his jaw and lodged in his skull. He was placed in an induced coma and underwent a seven hour operation. In the Israeli version of the plastic bullet the round is about the same size as a real bullet. It is metal and coated with plastic. The damage it can do is characteristic of that used in the north.
The similarity in the photographs of two children lying in hospital beds hooked up to machines fighting for their lives after being struck by these lethal weapons is a potent reminder of the impact of state violence.
An hour after Mohammed was shot, and only metres from that incident, his 16 year old cousin Ahed Tamimi challenged Israeli forces who were on the family’s land. She slapped two of the heavily armed soldiers. Ahed was subsequently arrested and is now in Israeli custody awaiting a military trial. She has been refused bail and if convicted faces between 10 and 14 years in an Israeli prison.
Ahed’s treatment has made her an international figure of Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation and aggression. Demonstrations in support of her have been held around the world, including here in Ireland. Amnesty International has called for her release and the UN Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights has criticised Israel.
I and others have raised her situation in the Dáil with the Taoiseach. Ahed’s seventeenth birthday was on Wednesday and there were many demonstrations held around the world to coincide with this and demanding her release. Her military trial was also due to begin the same day.
She is part of another generation of Palestinian children who have grown up under occupation knowing nothing else but military raids, house demolitions, the theft of land and water rights, arrests, and aggression and hostility from an Israeli state that treats them as less than second class. Israel’s apartheid system continues to cause great hardship and poverty for the people of Palestine. The fabric of life for most Palestinians is rooted in fear; it is arbitrary and constantly changing at the whim of the Israeli authorities.
Since President Trump’s announcement on December 6th that he recognises Jerusalem the United Nations has reported that at least 345 Palestinian children have been injured in clashes with Israeli forces. At least 17 Palestinians have been killed.
I would urge anyone concerned with the situation in the Middle East to join the protests in support of Ahed. Ultimately however, if the Israeli government is to be moved, and if a meaningful peace process is to begin, it will require the efforts of governments and the international community. Very specifically, the Irish government should implement the Oireachtas decision from 2014 to recognise the state of Palestine and to upgrade the Palestinian Mission in Dublin to that of a full Embassy.

For our part we who live in Ireland are thankful that our children no longer die in conflict.  No matter who the perpetrator was the violent death of a child is a dreadful event for parents. For families and communities. They will never forget what happened. They should not be expected to. But In Ireland those days are now history. That is not the case for Palestinian children. Let’s try to make it so.
Mohammed Tamimi

Friday, January 26, 2018

Last Tango in The Balmoral

The piped music in the Balmoral Hotel was playing a jazzy tune. I asked Michelle O’Neill for a dance before she, Mary Lou, Elisha McCallion and I went into the packed hall for the AGM of the Cúige Uladh (Sinn Féin’s Northern Executive). Michelle jumped up, swung into my arms and we were off. Ted and Gerry Kelly have always been jealous of my moves on the dance floor. With good reason. Michelle and I floated around the hotel foyer like gossamer shadows caressed by the wind. Mary Lou and Elisha looked on enviously. Some might say it was also my last dance as Uachtarán Shinn Féin but never say never. It’s still two weeks to the special Ard Fheis on February 10th. The opportunity for another dance is always possible. If Michelle is very good we might give it another go. Or maybe Arlene will oblige. A last tango.

The Balmoral was packed. There was an expectant atmosphere in the hall. Everyone present knew that the nominations for the position of President of the Party had closed at 5pm the previous evening. Most delegates would have known there was only one name in the ring. In the last two weeks Mary Lou has travelled the length and breadth of the country holding a series of exhaustive meetings, speaking to party activists, setting out her vision for the future of Sinn Féin and for the people of the island of Ireland, and seeking their support. So, all eyes followed Mary Lou as we entered the hall.

 However, the several hundred party delegates who were present weren’t going to get it that easy. Before any mention was to be made of the election they first had to endure my last speech to them at Uachtarán Shinn Féin. I began by apologising to any of them I might have upset or annoyed during my 35 years as President and to any others I might annoy in the remaining three weeks. But the main focus of my remarks centred on where republicans are now and where we want to go in the time ahead.

If you want to bring about change, meaningful change in your life, the life of your family, your community or society or indeed a political party you can’t stand still. If the last five decades has taught this generation of Irish republicans anything it is that change requires action, initiatives, risk taking, engaging with political opponents and strategising. You have to know where you want to go and then plan how to get there.

Ted says: “Nothing is inevitable in life, except death”. Even though he is having a mid-life crisis he’s right. So, we will not wake up one morning and find ourselves in a united Ireland. It will not happen by chance or through luck or because someone says “it’s inevitable”. If we want a united Ireland then we need to be match fit to achieve it. Anyone who plays competitive sport, especially hurling and football, know that you need a team that is in peak condition and well prepared, with good backup, trainers who will push you to the limit, and experienced managers to map out the game strategies. You won't win any game, whether its chess or hurling, playing in your own half. Yes, you have to get your defences right but you also have to advance – you have to play in your opponents half of the pitch - if you want to win. And we want to win.

So we have to plan to win. Planning is key. Planning and delivering. Doing nothing is not an option. Results count. Outcomes matter. To make all of this work we need to constantly build our political strength. I have been beating this particular drum for a very long time. That means making Sinn Féin bigger. We have 13,000 members currently. We want to double that in the time ahead. We also need more people voting for our party.

This year marks the centenary of the 1918 election and Sinn Féin’s famous landslide victory which led to the establishment of the First Dáil. Today over half a million people vote for Sinn Féin across this island. More than voted Sinn Féin in 1918. But it isn’t enough. If we want to be in government in Dublin after the next general election then we need more TDs.

Last November the Ard Fheis took the very important decision of stating our preparedness to go into government in Dublin, on republican terms, after the next election if we get a sufficient mandate. If we want to transform peoples’ lives in that state; end poverty; fix the housing and health crises; then we need to be in government. Just, if the terms are right, as we do in the North.

But it’s also about achieving Irish unity. Sinn Féin can best do that if we are in government north and south. Sinn Féin want a referendum on Irish unity in line with the Good Friday Agreement. So we must persuade those parties, especially in the Dáil, who employ the rhetoric of a united Ireland, to step outside of their comfort zone and take positive steps to actually promote it. Sinn Féin is the only party capable of getting them to do this.

We must also plan for a referendum. Winning a date for a referendum is only one part of the project. We also want to win that referendum. That will involve a huge amount of work, including engaging positively with unionism. That means tackling the toxic politics of this era. There will always be political tension between unionism and republicanism. That’s natural. But it can be managed in a better way to everyone’s benefit so that the real issues affecting people can be tackled.

The job of leading that strategy – of building Sinn Féin – of getting functioning institutions in place, of dealing with Brexit, of winning a referendum on Irish unity will be for all of us but it will soon be the primary focus of the next Uachtarán Shinn Féin – Mary Lou MacDonald.

I have every confidence in Mary Lou and in the younger generation of Sinn Féin activists who are stepping into the shoes of my generation. Or as Mary Lou put it so well on Saturday – she’s not stepping into my shoes – she’s brought her own! Good luck to her in all that she does. I hope she takes time out to dance as well in the time ahead. As long as it’s not with Ted or Gerry Kelly. Or Sammy Wilson

Friday, January 19, 2018

Thank you Shane MacGowan

I have been a fan of Shane MacGowan for decades. His music is tremendous and his lyrics are poetic and insightful and wondrous. The Pogues were one of the best bands ever. Their musicality and the quality of their art is beautiful. And enduring.
On Monday evening Shane’s friends, family and fans celebrated his 60th birthday in the National Concert Hall in Dublin. It was an amazing evening. The NCH is a very unique venue with a layout and architecture more associated with a different, kind of music.
The audience was a mix of young and older. Some reliving their punk days of the 70s and 80s. And we were joined by President Michael D Higgins. There was an expectant atmosphere. People weren’t sure what to expect. This after all was about Shane MacGowan. Most people thought, and several performers said they never expected that he would see 30 never mind 60.
The line-up of musicians who took to the stage was impressive. I wanted to be there to honour Shane but I also knew we were in for a good night. Former Pogue members mixed with others, including the Waterboys Steve Wickham and the great Shannon Shannon. They were the house band.The first singer, American Jesse Malin, had the audience up on their feet at the first song. We rarely sat down for the next three hours.
There was dancing, singing, screams of joy, loud whistles and an exuberance and energy rarely seen at any concert. It was a boisterous come all ye as singer after singer blasted out their version of a Shane MacGowan song.
Cerys Matthews, of Catatonia, sang a moving version of The Broad Majestic Shannon which was dedicated to Dolores O’Riordan who died that day. Later Bono, who was joined on stage by Johnny Depp playing guitar, sang A Rainy Night in Soho which he ended with a chorus of The Cranberries’ Linger.
After a 20 minute intermission an unassuming Sinead O’Connor quietly walked out onto the stage. It took a few moments for the audience to realise who it was and then there was thunderous and sustained applause. Sinead then delivered a spectacular version of You’re the One to a hushed and spell bound audience. And when she was finished she curtsied and bowed and skipped off the stage.
Shane has never hidden his politics in his lyrics. Lisa O’Neill who has a powerful voice, joined Terry Woods of the Pogues to sing Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six. Most of Shane’s songs are about the underdog, the marginalised. He has a poets eye for words of love, betrayal, justice, rejection, redemption and the musicians ear for rhyme and lyrics and rhythm. His music has enriched our culture, broadened our sense of Irishness. Made us happy. And sad. Lifted us.
Clem Burke from Blondie, Damien Demspey, Camille O’Sullivan, Imedla May, Lankum, and Finbar Fury were among the chorus line providing song after song. The concert hall really went wild when Glen Hansard, John Sheahan of The Dubliners and Lisa O’Neill let loose with Fairytale of New York. It was a joyful, enthusiastic rendition of probably one of the best Shane MacGowan songs and one of the most popular Christmas songs ever, with Lisa O’Neill’s voice reminiscent of the late Kirsty MacColl.
At the end of the night Nick Cave sauntered onto the stage and begins singing Summer in Siam. And then out from the wings Shane MacGowan, the man of the moment, is pushed on to the stage in a wheelchair by Victoria to thunderous applause. Shane has been in a wheelchair since a fall two years ago. Victoria deserves a medal for minding him. Even before the wheelchair. Especially before the wheel chair.
With a glass of something in one hand and a mic in the other Shane joined Cave in finishing Summer in Siam. He also wished his audience a happy Christmas and New Year. Each time he lifted his glass to salute the audience he was wildly cheered. And then there was a spontaneous burst of Happy Birthday from the audience before Shane sang the Wild Mountain Thyme.
At the end Michael D came down onto the stage and presented Shane with a National Concert Hall Lifetime Achievement Award.
It was a mighty night. John Kelly was the Fear a Thigh. He did a great job. He knew as we all did that this was a very special gig. A raucous celebration of music, of one of our finest poets. A celebration of life, of the human spirt. I felt very lucky that I was there. I am still buzzing with the joy of it all and I will be for some time. The words of The Old Main Drag, A Pair of Brown Eyes, I’m a Free Born Man of the USA, A Rainy Night in Soho are spinning around in my brain.
‘And its lend me ten pounds,
I’ll buy you a drink
And mother wake me early in the morning.’

Thank you Shane MacGowan.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Looking for a job?

If you are a member of Sinn Féin, and are interested in an unwaged job, you now have until Friday January 19th to submit your nomination papers for the position of Uachtarán Shinn Féin. As most readers will know two months ago at the November Ard Fheis I told the party membership that it was my intention to step down as Uachtaráin Shinn Féin in the New Year. I asked the incoming Ard Chomhairle to organise a special Ard Fheis to elect a new leader.
There was intense media speculation about when this would happen. The media especially love to speculate – frequently dressing up their guessing with words like ‘it is believed’ or ‘it is understood’ and ‘sources close to the leadership’ or ‘well-placed sources.’ Not infrequently, especially by those renowned for their anti-Sinn Féin bias, it is all just invented.
Some suggested that my departure could take up to a year or that I wouldn’t stand down until the negotiations in the North had concluded, for good or ill. I have to say that none of that played any part in my decision. My one consideration was to provide the new leader with sufficient time to prepare him or herself for the next general election in the South.
I was and am entirely confident and comfortable in the ability of Michelle O’Neill and her team in the North to negotiate with the DUP, the British and Irish governments and manage the challenge of finding a resolution to the crisis here.
Just before Christmas the new Ard Chomhairle of the party met and decided on the timetable for the leadership election. Earlier this week our National Chairperson Declan Kearney announced that the Special Ard Fheis will be on February 10th in the RDS in Dublin. The nomination process for the vacancy for Uachtaráin Shinn Féin opened on Monday morning.
There are two weeks for anyone thinking of running for the job to secure the necessary support for nomination. For a candidate to be nominated they must be a member of the party for a minimum of one year and have renewed their membership for 2018. The prospective candidates also require the support of at least ten of the 300 plus registered cumainn across the island (cumann are essentially local branches) or the support of two registered comhairle ceantair (the next tier of middle leadership that co-ordinates the work of Cumainn in its district). 
There will then be a three week period for the candidates to speak to the party membership at specially convened regional meetings where candidates can debate their respective vision for the party and for the future. On Saturday February 10th each cumann will send three voting delegates to the Ard Fheis. Each of the 50 or so Comhairlí Ceantair will send two voting delegates. And the four Cúigí, representing the four European Parliament constituencies on the island of Ireland, also have two votes each at the special Ard Fheis.
In addition, the 12 directly elected members of the Sinn Féin Ard Chomhairle will have one vote each, as will the Uachtarán and Leas Uachtarán, and the two treasurers and secretary. That means up to 1200 Sinn Féin members will participate in the democratic process of electing the next leader of the party.
The new leader of Sinn Féin will face many challenges, some of these internal to the party as we seek to continue to grow in political strength and improve the skills of our activists. It is a fact that Sinn Féin is electorally and organisationally stronger than at any time since partition. This is as a result of the great team of political activists that we have consciously developed over recent years. We have to build on this and make Sinn Féin, as a national movement, fit for purpose.
There are also external challenges facing the new leader. These include the need to agree a positive outcome to the negotiations to restore the power sharing, partnership institutions in the North; the all-island bodies established by the Good Friday Agreement; preparing the party for a general election in the 26 counties and potential elections in the North; and charting a course through the madness that is Brexit.
As the only all-island republican party committed to a United Ireland the Good Friday Agreement provides the means by which an end to the Union can be achieved. Political and demographic changes in the North and the outworking of Brexit mean that there is a greater interest in, and willingness to be open to, the possibility of a United Ireland. This is our primary political and strategic national objective and nothing will change that until we achieve that.
So, this is an exciting time to be an Irish republican and to be part of the process of renewal and regeneration in the party. On February 10th we will have a new party leader who will bring their own unique style and vision to the party.
With a new leader at the helm I am confident that Sinn Féin will grow even bigger and stronger in the time ahead. So, if you want a new future, a better future, a future determined by citizens, and not by elites in Dublin or London, then join me and twelve thousand others in Sinn Féin as we write a new and defining chapter in the history of our nation.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Athbhliain faoi mhaise daoibh

Next Tuesday January 9th will mark one year from the day Martin McGuinness resigned from the office of First and Deputy First Minister. It was not a decision Martin took lightly. He understood the political ramifications of his resignation. But the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal, the increasing arrogance of our DUP partners in the Executive, and the refusal by them, and by the Irish and British governments, to honour agreements previously made meant that a stand had to be taken.
In the months since there have been two elections which validated Martin’s decision and there have been at least four attempts to restore the political institutions. Some progress has been achieved but not enough to guarantee equality, fairness and respect, and to end the impasse around an Irish Language Act, marriage equality, legacy matters and other longstanding issues like a Bill of Rights. Regrettably, as we begin 2018 there is still no real evidence of a willingness by the leadership of the DUP to embrace the Executive and the political institutions in the way required if they are to serve every citizen.
In a few short months April will see another important anniversary. The Good Friday Agreement will reach its twentieth birthday on April 10th. In the two decades since then this, and subsequent agreements, have made a significant and positive improvement to the lives of citizens. Although the process to implement it is incomplete the Good Friday Agreement is the defining document and agreement which sets out the relationship between the people who live on this island and the people of these two islands. 
Sinn Féin’s objective in any new negotiations that will take place will be to defend the integrity of the Agreement and to ensure that those aspects of it, and of the subsequent agreements, that have not been implemented, are positively resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, and progressed. We are also very mindful of the major differences that exist among potential partners to any new Executive around the Brexit issue. We are also very aware of the danger from Brexit to the fundamentals of the Good Friday Agreement. 
A successful conclusion to any fresh negotiations must ensure agreement on a new dispensation which delivers for every citizen on the basis of equality. If the DUP wishes to be part of this and wishes to return to the Executive and the Assembly, it knows precisely what it must do. It means implementing past agreements. It means building respect, tolerance and equality. It also means the two Governments stepping up to the mark as co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement.
For example, there is a commitment to a bill of rights in the Good Friday Agreement, but 20 years later there is no bill of rights. There is a commitment to establishing a civic forum, but there is no civic forum. In the St. Andrews Agreement, there is a commitment to an Irish language Act, but there is no such Act. In the Stormont House and Fresh Start Agreements between all the parties and the two governments, measures were agreed to deal with legacy issues. The British Government is blocking these.
Just before Christmas it was revealed that the British government is intending to insert a statute of limitations covering all Troubles-related incidents for British crown forces in a new section of legislation covering the Stormont House Agreement. Sinn Féin was not told about this. To the best of my knowledge the Irish Government only knew about it when Sinn Féin brought it to its attention. This was an act of gross bad faith and is unacceptable. Michelle O'Neill, Mary Lou McDonald and I told the British Prime Minister this directly. The British want everybody else to deal with the past, but they excuse themselves from this responsibility.
So, the big question in any new negotiation is, can the political parties in the North and the two governments resolve outstanding differences?
That is more of a question for the DUP than for a Sinn Féin. Michelle O’Neill and our negotiating team stand ready to engage positively in any talks. Sinn Féin wants the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement to be a positive point in the history of our island.
The call by the DUP Leader for a return to British Direct Rule flies in the face of her party’s devolutionist position. But it also reflects a refusal to face realities. The fact is the DUP is betraying the people of the North and the clear vote against Brexit. In particular it is acting against the interest of a section of its own support base, particularly in the Agri-food sector which will take a huge hit if Brexit goes through on English Tory and Westminster DUP terms. The DUP is also actively denying people in the North rights available everywhere else on these islands. 
The rationale behind the DUP stance is that it is focused on maintaining the Union. But there is no longer any absolute protection for the Union from British Governments the way there used to be. British Government involvement in our affairs will end when a majority vote for that. That is why the Irish government’s recent assertions about Irish Unity are welcome. But of course the Taoiseach needs to move beyond the rhetoric. So far he and the Fianna Fáil Leader are refusing to establish an Oireachtas Committee to discuss and consult on how an agreed new Ireland can be achieved. 
So, 2018 will present many challenges. If progress with the DUP proves impossible then the onus falls on to the Irish and British governments to spell out how they intend to jointly ensure that all past agreements are honoured. A first step toward this will be the establishment of the intergovernmental conference.
In the absence of local agreement the Taoiseach has committed to that. If Arlene Foster wants to make 2018 a better year for everyone, including herself, she needs to focus on the needs of our health service, our schools, our homeless and everyone else. Their interests will be better served and protected by local accountable representatives. Their well-being certainly needs to take precedence over narrow out-dated negative interests. A rights based dispensation is the best way to advance this imperative. 
So Arlene let me wish you and your family a happy, peaceful, prosperous and hopeful New Year. 2018 will be interesting.  Athbhliain faoi mhaise daoibh.