Friday, August 18, 2017

Féile an Phobail - Thirty Years a Growing

Thirty Years A Growing

I didn't get to any Féile events this year. That's a first. Truth is I was too tired. Martin's death. Two elections. Two USA trips in July. Constituency duties in the Dáil and in Louth. Talks or what passed for talks at Stormont. It all takes time and effort. 

So I decided to forgo Féile this year.  I missed a very wonderful series of events. I was particularly sore not to get to the RFJ's Plastic Bullet picket. Another first. But I followed it all on Twitter. Especially Clara Reilly. A mighty woman. Battling on. Never giving up. Emma Groves and Clara were never beaten. Never will be. 

Féile is great. Taking a step back from it all is a very good way to appreciate how great it really is. So once again well done and thanks to Sam and Kevin and Angela and Harry Beag and all the women and men of the current brilliant, energetic and ever resourceful Féile team. That includes Ciaran Morrison who is leaving after 17 year of Féile adventures. And Ciaran eile who keeps us honest.

Back in the days before Féile An Phobail, West Belfast was a different country. Under military occupation. Censored. Community structures subjected to political vetting.  Discrimination rampant. Everyone was related to or knew someone who was a political prisoner.  Neighbours' sons and daughters. No state funding whatsoever for Irish language education.  Little for Gaelic games. Neighbourhoods subjected to counter insurgency  measures. Betrayed by church hierarchies and by the great and the good. Including Dublin. Especially Dublin. Community leaders and political representatives targeted by British State sponsored death squads. 

Republican West Belfast was a community in rebellion. We still are. Back then we were deeply invested in a culture of resistance against occupation and oppression. Many of our battles were defensive. Underground. But we were in transition. Our culture of resistance was becoming a culture of change. Of reconquest. But there were too few platforms for this. The republican community of West Belfast was hemmed in. Under the cosh. Unbowed and unbroken. But needing an outlet for our positive energy and imagination. And vision. 

The killings at Gibraltar of three outstanding West Belfast citizens Volunteers Mairead Farrell, Seán Savage and Dan McCann and especially the establishment's vile demonisation of their community- our community - was a tipping point. A lesser people could not have survived the decades of vicious insults, lies and invective. But this onslaught and the attacks on their funerals and the other funerals and deaths of Caoimhín Mac Brádaigh, Thomas Mc Erlean and John Murray which followed, including the two British soldiers,  became a catalyst for that culture of change to find a platform. Féile An Phobail was a result of that. We were telling our detractors to f... off. We knew who we were. We were no better than anyone else. But we were no worse.  

So Féile was our answer. Our alternative. It became the forum or forums for local artists, poets, photographers, singers, dramatists, dancers, painters, chancers, writers, talkers, sports people and spoofers to strut their stuff. To yell yahoo!  In harmony. To give licence for hope and creativity and cheerfulness and positivity. To reclaim our space. To create space for others. To enjoy ourselves. To say this is who we are. Not a terrorist community. But a patriotic, resourceful, intelligent, cheerful, confident, caring and hopeful gathering of men and women looking to the future and prepared to imagine that that future could be fair and inclusive. And happy. Capable of making our own music. Of shaping and creating our own vision.

Féile was also an invite for other progressives to join us. And they did. Playwrights. Painters. Singers. Musicians. Actors. Actresses. Activists from other struggles. Other political views. Other traditions. Boy Bands and Girl Bands. Writers. Orchestras. Rap artists. Seán nós singers. Hip Hoppers. Rappers. Céili dancers. Movers and shakers. Stilt walkers. Discreet Walzers. Tango dancers. Talkers. Walkers. Citizens with disabilities. Old people. Children. Youth. Wannabe Youths. Cooks. Cranks. Fly boys from the love comics. Loose men. Delinquent pensioners. Dog lovers. Dogs. Glamorous Grannies. 

Some are coming to Féile still. Now part of the Féile family. Marie Jones  brought her plays. She nurtured a theatrical undercurrent which took its own communal stories and experiences and gave them dramatic form. Pam Brighton mentored local writers and stage designers and sound engineers. Citizens who were never in a theatre flocked to parish halls, local schools, community centres and GAA clubs to be uplifted and moved to tears or cheers. Field Day included the Féile in its tours. Stephen Rea brought Oscar to life. Ulick O Connor and the late Tomás MacAnna gave us Executions. Dan Gordon gave us A Night in November. The list is endless. A new generation of young artistes blossomed. They are still captivating us with their art. Local performers, writers. Bi lingual drama at its best. Communal tales with universal themes. 

Robert Ballagh arrived to acknowledge the artistic beauty and integrity of our fledgling mural painters.  Where previously the painting of political graffiti was liable to incur RUC harassment or worse no one could stop you painting a gable wall if the householder was content to have their gable transformed by Mo Chara or Danny D, Martie or their legions of fledgling Jim Fitzpatricks. And Jim came as well to praise their masterpieces. 

So did Gerry Keenan with orchestras to beat the band. The Sky's The Limit opened for The Ulster Orchestra. Peadar O Riada brought An Cor Cullaigh. Eddie Keenan sang 'I Was There.'  Seán Maguire enthralled us with his fiddle magic. Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin with his piano. Terry Enright brought us up the Black Mountain. The Falls Park hosted a Póc Fada. The Bobby Sands Cup challenged soccer teams. The Mairead Farrell Tournament did the same for Camogs. Aidan Creen and Terry Goldsmith opened up The Bog Meadows. Tom Hartley started his graveyard tours. Féile opened our own radio station. If we were blocked from other media why not start our own? Hector McNeill and Tea Pot footered at that for a while. Donnacha Rynne made his debut there. Fergus Ó’ Hír dabbled in Irish language radio broadcasting. Radio Fáilte was born. Ag fas fos. 

Martin Sheen came to visit. And later Michael Moore. And many, many more. President Mary Robinson defied both the British and Irish governments and visited us with the active encouragement of Inez McCormack, Eileen Howell and other sisters.  Mary McAleese, no stranger, was later to make the same journey also as President. 

And those who censored us? We reached out to them and invited them to talk and to listen to us. We welcomed detractors and other  naysayers along with ordinary decent citizens to West Belfast Talks Back. Discussion groups, debates and lectures flourished under the leaderships  of Jake Jackson, Paddy Kelly, Majella McCloskey, Siobhan O Hanlon, Carol Jackson, Bill Rolston, Danny Morrison and Jim Gibney. Danny also pioneered Scribes at The Rock and the odd time in The West Club, and brought authors from far and near.

Exhibitions blossomed everywhere. Quilts. Photos. Posters. Drawings. Paintings. Sculptures. H Block Comms. The West Belfast Film Festival brought Stephen Fry to visit. He was amazed at the grey threatening awfulness of the Barracks opposite Milltown Cemetery and delighted by the welcome he got in McAneany's. Seamus Heaney came as well. His first time back in St Thomas's since he taught there. A memorable day with Jimmy Ellis at Sam Thompson's graveside in the City Cemetery and later in St Mary's.

And singing? We sang like angels. With Planxty. Anúna. Frances Black. Mary Black. The Bueno Vista Social Club. The Wolfe Tones. Bríd Keenan. Altan. Brian Kennedy. Shane Magowan. Davy Spillane. Dolores Keane. Mick Hanley. Jimmy Yamaha. A Welsh miners choir. Brush Shiels. Jimmy McCarthy, Fra McCann. Floyd Westerman. St Agnes Choral Society. Tony McMahon and Noel Hill. Christy. UB40. Brian Moore. Noírín Ní Riain. Tony Carlisle, Flair, Jim Moody became friends of the stars. High flyers. 

For years we survived without funding. Our leaders included Deirdre McManus, Siobhán, Danny Power, Seán Paul O Hare, Geordie Murdoch, Caitriona Ruane, Niamh Flanagan, Geraldine McAteer, Ciaran Quinn, Aidan McAteer, Ciaran Kearney, Deirdre Mackle, Margaret McKernan, Deirdre Walsh and Maura Brown. And countless others. Many worked in a voluntary capacity. The Andersonstown News was always an ally. And the local Irish language community. And Springhill the main concert venue for years. Right in the centre of the war zone. No one else would have done it with such panache. 

Now the Féile is Irelands foremost community festival. Despite the best efforts of those who lorded it over us thirty years ago. I am sure the history of this all will be chronicled. It needs to be. Memory is important. So too is the telling of our own stories. That's what Féile is about. Writing the future while righting the past. 

But the arts needs proper dedicated core funding. Local sponsors have kept faith. We are grateful to them but the Féile team survives on a shoe string. Could it be better? Of course. But almost 30 years later Féile is still one of the best things I was ever involved with. It's success is a great credit to everyone who was or is associated in any way with this outstanding communal celebration. Not all the names are included here. That is not intentional. So if you're left out or if you know somebody who is left out shout! This is only my flawed hurried little recollection. Write your own. Send it to Andytown News. Or the Féile office. With photos if you have them. 

Maybe as we celebrate thirty years a growing some of us will find the time to write a list of all the Féile leaders and champions and do a Féile Thirty Years On Birthday ReUnion. Just to remember and say Go raibh mile Maith agaibh go leir. 

An Féile Abú! 



Friday, August 11, 2017

The View From A High Stool.


The pub was empty. Except for me and the bartender. In this particular pub the bartender was a bean an tígh. She was a wise woman. She served me my pint with a cordial, indulgent and native generosity which underpinned her roots, her gender and her age. In other words she indulged me, knowing instinctively that I was after a quiet interlude. 
'Bain sult as,' said she 'sláinte' as she retired to polish the shelves and wash glasses. 
It was just me and her in silent harmony as I digested the sports pages and savoured the pundits' musings on the weekend's hurling treats and football results while sipping on a pint of plain. The sun shone blissfully and cheerfully through the pub windows  and smiled upon our little soirée. The pint was a work of art.  All was bliss. 
It was then that two is company and three is a crowd became a reality. A tall gangly gent draped himself on the high stool beside me, ordered a drink and shattered the silence. 
'You're just the man I wanted to see. I said to the wife this morning if I ever see Gerry Adams I'm gonna ask him this question. Isn't it funny that I said that this morning and here you are? Sitting beside me?'
I said nothing. Instead I smiled lamely and peered earnestly at my drink. 
He continued without appearing to notice my disinterest. And discomfiture.
'What question' says she to me. 
'Who wud want to be a unionist?  That's what I said to her. Who wud want to be a unionist? And do you know what she said to me?'
He looked at me earnestly. I maintained my silence. 
'Arlene Foster' says she to me. 'What do you think of that for an answer? Arlene Foster'.
'Well' I ventured ' Arlene IS a unionist. She isn't a wannabe unionist. She's the real deal.'
'I know' he countered ' but my question is who wud want to be a unionist?'
I swallowed the last dregs of my glass as the bean a tígh appeared with a successor. 
'I don't know' I replied ' but whether we like it or not some folks are unionists. That's the reality.' 
'So you think that's ok' he accused me. 'It's very clear that they don't want any old union. They only want a union which reflects their jaundiced view of the world.'
'That was always the case' I said 'only it’s more obvious nowadays'
'I wud never do business with Arlene Foster!' He told me assertively.
'Do you think you will ever have to?' I enquired as pleasantly as I could in the circumstances. 
'That's not the point' he asserted ' you're like my wife. Typical politician's answer'. 
'Is your wife a politician?' I queried. 
He ignored me. I hated being ignored. Even when I want to be. 
'Did you ever meet with Arlene? Or Edwin? Or Gregory?' I asked. 'When is the last time you had to do business with any of them? It’s me or Michelle O Neill or God rest him Martin McGuinness has to do all that. Not you'. 
'I know that' he responded'. 'That's why I vote for youse. But that's not the question. The question is who wud want to be a unionist? Imagine! If you're a Unionist you not only have to stop other people getting their rights you have to give up your own  rights as well.'
He ordered another drink for himself. The bean a tígh sniffed crossly at him as she took his money but it made no difference. He was on a roll. 
'Do you know any gay Orangemen?' He continued. 
I said nothing. Even though I do know some gay Orangemen. But I didn't want to think about that. I was still in the ecstasies, in the after flow of the Tipp and Galway game. It's funny how you retain and savour some things. They live on in your memory. I can still see clearly DJ Carey and Seán Óg facing each other like gladiators in an epic game from years ago. That's where my mind was. But I said nothing. Instead I folded my paper and shifted slightly on my stool as I got ready to leave. 
'So do you know any gay unionists?' He repeated.
'Well I don't think our sexual orientation is determined by our political views or our constitutional preference' I replied affably. 
'That's not the point' he asserted. 'what is a gay unionist to do?' 
'The same as gay nationalists did before we all became gay!' I said more tersely than I intended.
 'What you mean? I'm making a serious point' he argued. 'They not only deny equality to others. They deny equality to themselves. They condemn themselves to lives of denial, deceit and misery.'
'And I'm on my holidays' I said ' I'm on a break'.
'I'm sorry' he said ' you're probably sick of people asking you these questions. But my big issue is who wud want to be a unionist? If you're gay? Or against Brexit? Or against inequality? Not just for others. But for yourself?'
'I'll ask Arlene that the next time I see her' I said. 'I'm going now'
'Glad to meet you' he said. 'Keep up the good work'.
'Go raibh maith agat' I said.  
'Slán ' I said to the patient bean a tígh. ' Thanks for the hospitality' 
'You're welcome 'she smiled. 'I have a question as well. Who would want to be a Sinn Féin rep? In a pub?'
'I'll ask Arlene that as well' I smiled back at her. 'Slán'.

Sometimes it's hard to be a Shinner.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Collusion and the abuse of power


On Monday of this week the families and friends of Fran O’Toole, Tony Geraghty and Brian McCoy remembered their loved ones who were killed when members of the Glenanne Gang attacked the Miami Showband as they returned home from a successful gig in Banbridge on July 31 1975 outside Newry. The survivors have been fighting for justice ever since.
Last Thursday, as part of the ongoing battle around truth and legacy, around 40 relatives were in a courtroom in Belfast to hear the outcome of a case taken by one of the families against the PSNI. Patrick Barnard aged 13 was one of four people killed in a bomb attack on the Hillcrest Bar in Dungannon in March 1976. It was one of scores of attacks carried out by the Glenanne Gang, which included in its ranks members of the British Army, the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR), the RUC, and unionist paramilitaries. In what is a significant judgement the High Court concluded that the PSNI breached its human rights obligations by refusing to publish an overarching thematic report regarding the murder of Patrick and “its linkage to other murders and offences carried out by the Glenanne Gang.”
During the 1970s, when the gang was active, it was responsible for over 120 killings, and scores of injuries, including the Dublin and Monaghan bombs in May 1974 which killed 33 people, and the bomb attack in December 1975 at Kay’s Tavern in which two Dundalk men Jack Rooney and Hugh Watters were killed. In 2001 a Commission of Inquiry under Mr. Justice Henry Barron was established by the Irish Government. Four reports were published and a Sub-Committee of the cross-party Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights conducted an extensive examination of the reports. The Sub-Committee concluded “that given that we are dealing with acts of international terrorism that were colluded in by the British security forces, the British Government cannot legitimately refuse to co-operate with investigations and attempts to get to the truth.”
The Sub-Committee was right. But the British have consistently and illegitimately refused to co-operate. It is now clear that policing, intelligence and political elements within the British system have sought to frustrate families and victims getting to the truth of the Glenanne Gang and its actions.

The judgement last week by Mr. Justice Treacy, sitting in the High Court in Belfast, was given in a case taken by Edward Barnard, the brother of Patrick. Edward’s legal team argued that the PSNI was in breach of a package of measures agreed between the British government and the Committee of Ministers (CM), which is responsible for implementing judgements by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). These measures had been agreed after the ECtHR ruled between 2000 and 2003 that a number of complaints, regarding killings with British state involvement, had breached Article 2 – the right to life – of the deceased. The British government gave a commitment to the Committee of Ministers that investigations into state killings would be carried out independently.

The Historical Enquiries team (HET) was part of this process. It was supposed to be an independent investigative process with three main objectives. Firstly to assist in bringing a measure of resolution to families of those killed between 1968 and 1998; to re-examine all deaths linked to “the troubles” and to ensure that “all investigative and evidential opportunities are subject to thorough and exhaustive examination” and to do so in a manner that “commands the confidence of the wider community”.

However, seven years ago the PSNI brought the HET under the control of its Crime Operations Branch and removed investigative functions from HET officers. Under the new regime the HET could no longer arrest and question suspects. The PSNI also took control of the HET’s budget. Critically, in a reply to a letter from Edward Barnard’s legal representatives the Assistant Chief Constable of the PSNI (ACC) Drew Harris, on 12 June 2014, confirmed that the “HET does not intend to prepare an overarching thematic report into those cases referred to as the ‘Glenanne Gang’ linked cases.”

In deciding whether the PSNI decision not to produce an overarching report into the Glenanne gang was an abuse of power Justice Treacy “referred to case law which stated that “conspicuous unfairness” amounted to abuse of power. The more extreme the unfairness, the more likely it is to be characterised as an abuse of power.”
Justice Treacy ruled: “The unfairness here is extreme – where the applicant had believed that the murder of his brother would finally be considered in context for the purposes of discovering if there was any evidence of collusion in the murder, that process is now completed and will not be taken up by any other body.
The frustration of the HET commitment communicated by the ACC completely undermined the “…primary aim [of the HET] to address as far as possible, all the unresolved concerns that families have”. It has completely undermined the confidence of the families whose concerns are not only still unresolved but compounded by the effects of the decisions taken … “
The Judge is also critical of the decisions of the then PSNI Chief Constable in 2010. He expresses his concern that “decisions were taken apparently by the Chief Constable to dismantle and abandon the principles adopted and put forward to the CM to achieve article 2 compliance.”
Justice Treacy concluded that: “In the context of the Glennane series, as I said earlier, the principal unresolved concern of the families is to have identified and addressed the issues and questions regarding the nature, scope and extent of any collusion on the part of state actors in this series of atrocities including whether they could be regarded, as the applicant argued, as part of a ‘state practice’. I consider that whether the legitimate expectation (that the HET would publish an overarching thematic report) is now enforceable or not its frustration is inconsistent with Article 2, the principles underpinning the ECtHR judgments in the McKerr series and with the Package of Measures.”
In other words as the summary of the judgement states “the Chief Constable’s decision to transfer the work of the HET into a branch of the PSNI was fundamentally inconsistent with Article 2 and frustrated any possibility that there would be an effective investigation in the Glenanne cases.”
That has been the pattern for decades. The British state has consistently sought to cover-up the role of its policing, intelligence and military agencies in the killing of citizens.
Despite these efforts last week’s judgement was a significant success for the Barnard family and the scores of others effected by the actions of the Glenanne Gang. Regrettably, this legal milestone was largely ignored by the mainstream media or given little prominence in their news coverage. Where it was covered words like ‘rogue’ were used to describe the role of RUC, UDR and British Army members in the Glenanne Gang. The cover-up continues but so too does the search for truth by families.


Sunday, July 30, 2017

Restoration of Institutions must be on sustainable basis













Congressman Richard Neal, Gerry Adams 
and Fiachra and Emmett McGuinness
For the second time this month I am in the United States of America. And not for the first time I am writing my weekly column on the train between Washington DC and New York. It’s a beautiful Tuesday evening as the train speeds its way through the American countryside. The sky is largely blue with some clouds rolling across it. RG and I travelled up to DC on Monday evening. Rita O’Hare had warned me to be prepared for hot weather. New York and DC have been experiencing a heat wave with temperatures in the 90’s. I was told that temperatures this week would be in the more ‘bearable’ 80’s. I had to keep telling my American friends that for Irish people temperatures in the 80’s are still a heat wave!
As it turned out they were all wrong. The temperature in New York only climbed to the low 70’s and on Monday it rained most of the day. Just like an Irish summer!
Terry O Sullivan and Gerry Adams
Washington was the polar opposite. The sky was blue. The heat was blistering. When RG and I arrived in DC we first travelled to the Du Pont Hotel for a brief meeting with the British Secretary of State James Brokenshire who is also in Washington to present the British version of the current impasse in the political process.
This morning, Tuesday, there was a very nice memorial mass in St. Peter’s Church in DC for Martin McGuinness. It was a poignant affair organised by Congressman Richard Neal and some of his colleagues who have known Martin for many years and were deeply shocked by his death. Martin’s two sons Fiachra and Emmett travelled over from Derry to join us.
Bruce Morrison and Gerry Adams
After the mass I met with the Congressional Friends of Ireland Caucus on Capitol Hill. The Committee members have been good friends to Ireland and to the peace process going back over two decades. They share the understandable concern within Irish America about the failure to reach agreement in the recent negotiations around the restoration of the political institutions.
There is also a real worry about the political and economic implications of Brexit and the detrimental effect that it is likely to have on the Good Friday Agreement.
I made it clear to our American friends that Sinn Féin is committed to the re-establishment of the political institutions, but that they must be on a sustainable basis. The institutions have to work for everyone. That means they must serve all citizens. They must also be based on respect, integrity and equality. As Martin McGuinness said at the beginning of the year when he resigned; the status quo as it has existed is not acceptable.
I reminded them that the Irish and British governments have a key role to play in re-establishing the institutions. Many of the rights issues that remain outstanding from the Good Friday and subsequent agreements are the responsibility of the two governments. That means progress must be made on Irish language rights, marriage equality, the Bill of Rights, legacy matters and anti-sectarian measures. So far, the DUP has resisted agreement on these fundamental matters that are essential for the political institutions to be sustainable.
This is especially true of the British government and its refusal to honour its commitments on legacy issues. It has cynically used the excuse of ‘national security’ to frustrate the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement on legacy. In particular, the British government has denied the inquest courts and the Police Ombudsman’s office the funding they need to fulfill their legal responsibilities.
The Lord Chief Justice, Declan Morgan, proposed a plan for dealing with the inquests relating to 97 deaths that have yet to take place. Many of these deaths go back decades. The McGurk bomb attack in December 1971 is just one example. 15 civilians were killed. 46 years there has been no inquest. Last November the families of the victims were told that a British Army file that could shed important light on what occurred will not be released until 2056. This is unacceptable.
 As part of its efforts to side-line legacy issues the British Secretary of State recently said that his government would now consult on the legacy proposals. Most victims’ groups are opposed to this. They believe it is a cynical ploy to delay, delay, delay, dealing properly with legacy. And they are right. While he is here the British Secretary of State James Brokenshire will meet with some of the Congressional leaders and I urged them to challenge him on these matters.
I also reminded our Congressional friends that the second IRA cessation, which paved the way for the all-party talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement, took place 20 years ago this month. They and the Clinton Administration, and Irish America, played a pivotal role in helping to create the conditions for the cessation to happen. Despite the difficulties a lot of progress has been made in the two decades since and it is possible to make more if everyone committed to the Agreement stay focused on resolving the remaining issues that have given rise to the current difficulties.
For this reason, we still need the support of Irish America and our friends on Capitol Hill, and their ability to influence US government policy as well as the Irish and British governments.
Finally, our discussions touched on the issue of Brexit. The implications of Brexit and the likely imposition of a hard economic border on the island of Ireland, was very much on the minds of those Congressional leaders I met. Their concerns have been heightened following last week’s inconclusive Brexit negotiations between the EU and British government. Michel Barnier the EU’s Chief negotiator on Brexit warned that there are‘fundamental divergences’ between the British and EU. He also told journalists last Thursday July 20th that more detailed discussion is needed on how to protect the Good Friday Agreement and ‘in particular more work needs to be done to protect North-South co-operation.’
I took the opportunity to set out our view that the best way to defend the Good Friday Agreement and to ensure that the two economies on the island of Ireland are protected is for the North to be designated special status within the EU. That is the only way to respect the majority vote in the north to remain.
Following that meeting it was a working lunch with the State department and then a short taxi journey back to Union Station and the 4pm ACELA express to New York. It takes three hours but the train ride is generally smooth and it has provided the opportunity for me to scríobh (write) these few words. See you back home.

Jack O Brien and Gerry Adams

Speaking at the Memorial Mass for Martin McGuinness


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



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