Saturday, April 14, 2018

Equal rights and dignity for Palestinians

Last week, when I was writing about Martin Luther King I came across a line which as I watch the desperate events unfolding in the Gaza Strip struck me as particularly appropriate. In a speech in December 1956 King said: “There is nothing in all the world greater than freedom. It is worth paying for; it is worth losing a job; it is worth going to jail for.” And for Martin Luther King it was worth dying for.
According to some media reports it was King and Ghandi’s example of non-violence which spurred some Palestinian academics and students to organise a mass, non-violent series of protests - ‘The Great March of Return’- in the Gaza Strip along its heavily defended border with Israel. Their intention was to draw attention to the 70th anniversary of ‘The Nakba’ (catastrophe) which witnessed the forced expulsion of over 700,000 Palestinian refugees from their homes in 1948 and that led to the creation of the state of Israel.
The protests commenced on March 30th and are due to continue until May 15th. At the same time on May 14th Israel will celebrate its 70th birthday and the U.S. Embassy in Israel will formally move to Jerusalem.
The response of the Israeli state to the border protests has brought widespread international condemnation. On the first day at least 17 unarmed Palestinians were shot dead and hundreds more were wounded by military snipers dug in on the Israeli side of the border. The Israeli Defence Forces had made no secret of their intention to shoot to kill. Two days before March 30th they announced that there would be 100 snipers in emplacements along the border with orders to fire live rounds at Palestinian demonstrators.
Clearly the intention was to intimidate and frighten Palestinians into not protesting. It failed. On the first day tens of thousands took part in the protests. None presented a physical threat to any of the Israeli forces. But in a calculated and planned operation Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) opened fire. In one tweet the Israeli military said: “nothing was carried out uncontrolled …everything was accurate and measured and we know where every bullet landed.”
Last Friday, April 6th, a further 9 Palestinians were killed, including a 14 year old boy, and Yaser Murtafa a 30 year old photo journalist, who was clearly wearing a blue and white vest with media stamped across it, when he was shot by an Israeli sniper. Five other journalists were also shot and wounded that day. As I write this 31 Palestinians have been killed and hospitals in the Gaza Strip, under-resourced as a result of the Israeli siege, are overwhelmed with the wounded.
The brutal strategy and violent tactics employed by the Israeli state and its armed forces against the current Palestinian protests are not new. They have been part and parcel of Israeli policy for decades. At its core Israeli policy is about control, occupation, theft and repression.
In December 2014 I visited the region. It was my fourth visit there in 8 years. Among the Israeli citizens I met was Yehuda Shaul, a former Sergeant and Commander in the Israeli Army. He is co-director of ‘Breaking the Silence’ an organisation made up of former Israeli soldiers who speak out against the actions of the IDF.  He gave me a copy of a book – Our Harsh Logic – which they had published containing the testimonies of Israeli soldiers who were active in the occupied territories between 2000 and 2010.
The book exposes not just the deeply oppressive nature of the Israeli state in its treatment of the Palestinian people; it also provides an insight into the appalling day to day living conditions of Palestinians. The constant fear, the brutality of the IDF, the use of collective punishment, the destruction of homes, theft of property, and the lack of freedom of movement, even within the Palestinian territories.
The book states: “On a daily basis the Israeli authorities decide which goods may be transferred from city to city, which businesses may open, who can pass through checkpoints and through security barrier crossings, who may send their children to school, who will be able to reach the universities and who will receive the medical treatment they need…Houses, agricultural land, motor vehicles, electronic goods, farm animals – any and all of these can be taken …”
Shaul told me: “It’s all about offensive,” he said, “and maintaining Israeli military control over Palestinians”. He also said that the Israeli policy of occupation and settlements is not designed as a temporary measure but is intended to be permanent. “Occupation takes place every day; it is an offensive act every day.”
This is the reality of life for the people of Palestine. It is especially true for the almost two million people who live in the Gaza Strip. It has a land area half that of County Louth but with a population which is fifteen times greater. They can not leave. The Israeli siege has created the largest prison in the world with the people of Gaza being denied the basic requirements of a decent life. In the nine years since I was there it is clear from every report published that the Israeli stranglehold and conditions for citizens has worsened.
The failure of the international community to take a stand against the multiple injustices being inflicted on the Palestinian people by Israel is a shame and an outrage. It is especially scandalous in this year that also marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At its core is the principle that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

I believe that the Irish government has an opportunity to give leadership on this issue to the international community. It can do this by taking decisive actions that reflect the widespread abhorrence of Israeli actions by the Irish people and by acting in solidarity with the Palestinian victims of Israeli aggression. It should expel the Israeli Ambassador and it should agree to formally recognise the state of Palestine. The equal rights and dignity of the Palestinian people demand nothing less.

Friday, April 6, 2018

We’re on the road to freedom

We’re on the road to freedom

Ten years ago Bruce Springsteen came to Belfast as part of the Seegar Sessions – named after Pete Seegar the great American singer songwriter - and played to a packed Odyssey Arena. I was there. It was an unforgettable night. Springsteen and his band were on fire. The music, and the energy had the thousands packed into the arena singing loudly too.

On that night Springsteen sang one of Pete Seegar’s most enduring songs. It is a song which has a strong historical and emotional connection with the civil rights movements in the USA and the civil rights campaign here in the north of Ireland. Pete Seeger tells how he got the original tune from an old Negro gospel hymn and rewrote it.  

We shall overcome
We shall overcome
We shall overcome, someday

Oh, deep in my heart
I do believe
We shall overcome, someday

We'll walk hand in hand
We'll walk hand in hand
We'll walk hand in hand, some day

Oh, deep in my heart
I do believe
We shall overcome, someday

Ian Paisley jnr was there that night also. I have a vague recollection of him telling a journalist as he left the concert how much he enjoyed the evening.  I always wondered what he thought of Springsteen’s rendition and of the progressive politics behind both Seegar and Springsteen’s playing of that song and of others which advocate equality and rights.

I was reminded of all of this when it was mentioned to me that this week sees the 50th anniversary of the killing on 4 April 1968, of Martin Luther King in Memphis, Tennessee. The Civil Rights leader was there in solidarity with sanitation workers who were on strike for higher pay and better conditions after two of their colleagues were crushed to death in the back of a truck. King will forever be linked to the civil rights movement in the USA and speaking out against the Vietnam War, but his campaigning went beyond achieving the right to vote or ending segregation. He understood that real civil rights had to include economic rights, as well as social rights. That poverty and unemployment had to be tackled just as strongly as racism. That’s why he argued for an economic Bill of Rights.

In 2001 RG and I visited Atlanta where Martin Luther King was born and spent much of his life preaching. We visited the Martin Luther King centre, where he is buried, and which also houses a section dedicated to Rosa Parks – whose refusal to sit at the back of the bus caught the imagination of civil rights activists in the United States and Ireland. We also visited the Ebenezer Baptist Church where King preached. At one point I sat quietly in a pew contemplating those in the USA who marched for civil rights 50 years ago and the inspiration they gave those of us who marched for civil rights in the north at the same time.

In 1994 I had the opportunity to meet Rosa Parks, and in later years I also met separately with Jesse Jackson and Andrew Young, the only two still alive who were with Martin Luther King when he was shot. Much has changed in the USA since those dark days. The courage of Martin Luther King and others has brought about enormous change in that society but intolerance, racism and inequality still exist. They continue to exist also in our own society in sectarianism, inequality, bigotry and intolerance.

King recognised the stubbornness of the status quo in resisting change.Speaking in Montgomery in December 1956 King told his audience that change is not inevitable. He said: “History has proven that social systems have a great last-minute breathing power, and the guardians of a status quo are always on hand with their oxygen tents to keep the old order alive… Freedom has always been an expensive thing. History is a fit testimony to the fact that freedom is rarely gained without sacrifice and self-denial.”
He was right. Resistance to change in the USA means that racism remains a toxic issue. Resistance to change in our own place has seen key commitments in the Good Friday Agreement not honoured and the political institutions of the Good Friday Agreement suspended for over a year.
That is the great truth of all such struggles for freedom and equality and justice. It is a constant battle between those who would deny change and those who demand it. It is true in the United States of America. It is true in the Middle East, where the international community stands mute to the horrors inflicted daily by the Israeli state on the Palestinian people. And it is true in Ireland.
The peace process has brought about many changes and the island of Ireland is a place in transition but at this Easter time 2018 we know that there is still a long road ahead before we achieve the Republic and the freedom and equality envisaged by the leaders of 1916 in the Proclamation.
50 years ago “We shall Overcome” was the anthem of a generation demanding change. But it wasn’t the only gospel song that captured the mood of the time and which became an anthem for change. Another song which also has words by Pete Seegar, was called “We shall not be moved”. It spoke of young and old, black and white, rural and urban, straight and gay, standing together, “just like a tree that’s planted by the water, we shall not be moved.”
In other versions of the song the word “water” becomes “water side” and there is an additional verse about freedom. At Easter as Irish republicans remember our patriot dead and look to the accomplishment of our goals these words resonate.
“We’re on the road to freedom
We shall not be moved
On the road to freedom
We shall not be moved
Just like a tree that's standing by the water side
We shall not be moved”

The struggle goes on. 

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Progressives and democrats must organise for unity

 left to right Michelle O'Neill, Sile Middleton, mise, Pete Middleton, Mary Lou and Michelle Gildernew

Progressives and democrats must organise for unity

This week’s Andersonstown News, because of Easter, was only looking for 500 words for the column. So I had to edit back a little on what I had written. But there is no word limit on the blog so here is the full version. 
Ba mhaith liom go mbeadh Cásca sona, síochánta agus taitneamhach ort, agus féachaint ar an seacláid.

Saturday morning started bright and early. A 7.10 flight brought RG and I to Heathrow Airport where a smiling Ray, one of the stalwarts of the Irish community in London over many years, picked us up. Sinn Féin was holding a one day conference on the theme of ‘After Brexit – the prospects for a United Ireland’. We met up with Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill at a hotel just across from the British Parliament and then headed to the Congress Centre.

The conference was excellent and well attended. The two panels were very good. The discussion ranged across key themes including the likely impact of Brexit on the island of Ireland, British government policy on Brexit and the border, the importance of the Good Friday Agreement, our relationship with political and civic unionism, the strategies we need to achieve a united Ireland, and Sinn Féin’s vision for the kind of Ireland we want to build.

The starting point for Irish republicans in developing strategies to challenge these issues is our belief that it is impossible to properly understand the island of Ireland, its people, politics and society, unless you set it in the context of the long history of the English occupation, colonisation and partition of the island. The island of Ireland today has been and continues to be shaped by these events and by British government policy. That policy is inevitably determined by what is in British national interests not in the interests of the people of our island.
The current alliance at Westminster between the Conservative Party and the DUP is an example of this. For its own narrow, party political selfish reasons and in an effort to stay in power, Theresa May’s government has actively encouraged the most negative, regressive, intransigent and sectarian elements of political unionism to attack and undermine the Good Friday Agreement. She is collaborating with the DUP to deny citizens our rights.
In addition, right wing politicians in Britain and ardent Brexiteers, from former British Secretary of State Owen Patterson, to Labour MP Kate Hoey, to Tory MEP Daniel Hannan have all attacked the Good Friday Agreement which they claim has failed. British national interests, in their view and in this instance a hard Brexit, trump Ireland’s interests. They are being facilitated in their rhetoric by the Tory party leadership.
No one who knows anything of Irish history will be surprised by this. This is the historical record of Britain’s relationship with Ireland and its disgraceful exploitation of the fears of those who came as planters four centuries ago. The connection between the Tories and Irish unionism can be traced back to early nineteenth century when an alliance between the Orange Order and the Tories, which opposed Catholic Emancipation, secured two seats in the 1832 Westminster election.

The unionists celebrated their victory by attacking Catholics in Belfast. The Northern Whig reported how one prominent Orangeman speaking from the window of the Tories’ Committee room said: “Mr. Boyce … flourished a staff exultingly, and told them that the Protestants had gained this victory, and that they would continue to maintain their ascendancy: they had trodden down their enemies, and they would keep them down…”

The Orange Order declined in the mid nineteenth century. But it was given a violent lease of life with a new alliance with Tory leader Randolph Churchill’s. His visit in February 1886 saw an outbreak of widespread sectarian violence in Belfast. Churchill told a packed Ulster Hall in Belfast; “I am of the opinion that the struggle is not likely to remain within the lines of what we are accustomed to look up as constitutional action …”

Later, in an open letter in the Pall Mall Gazette he provided unionists with their war cry in the years ahead. Churchill wrote: “If political parties and political leaders …should… hand over coldly … the lives and liberties of the loyalists of Ireland to their hereditary and most bitter foes, make no doubt on this point – Ulster will not be a consenting party; Ulster at the proper moment will resort to the supreme arbitrament of force; Ulster will fight, Ulster will be right …”

The Tory stance was dictated by a belief in the British Empire and a desire to use the issue of Ireland as a means of defeating the Liberal governments of Gladstone and take power.

The Tories and the unionists did the same less than 40 years later when they threated civil war in order to achieve partition. When it was over and the northern state had been created, the then leader of unionism Edward Carson, speaking in 1921, on the Tory intrigues that had led him on a course that would partition Ireland said: “What a fool I was. I was only a puppet, and so was Ulster, and so was Ireland, in that political game that was to get the Conservative party into power.”

The Tories and the unionist leaders are at it again today. They want to turn back the clock to the bad old days of unionist domination. So, what should the response of progressives and democrats, particularly in Britain, be to this, and to the threat to the Good Friday Agreement? The first step should be for unity of purpose in defending the Good Friday Agreement and ensuring that all aspects of the Agreement are implemented in full.

Last Saturday’s conference majored on the two big issues which must be resolved if partition is to be ended. One is the need for the rest of us and the unionists to become friends or at least to be tolerant and respectful toward each other. The second issue is for a British government to embrace Irish unity and to see it as in Britain’s national interest. Both these matters are interconnected.

Some commentators speculate endlessly about why the British government remains in Ireland or about why it would love to leave. I see no evidence of it wanting to leave. If it did it would but very few states willingly give up territory. The British government supports the union but it is obliged to end it if what is what the people in Ireland vote for.

That is why progressives in England must organise to bring this about. In the past such demands for justice for Ireland or on Irish issues made a considerable impact on political and public opinion.

The advent of the Good Friday Agreement and the success of the peace process understandably removed many of these issues from the public agenda. The war in Iraq. The Middle East. Syria. Other important issues filled the space. Brexit has changed that and Saturday’s conference provided ample proof of that.

Sinn Féin believes that the demographic and political changes that have and are taking place require a referendum on Irish unity to take place within the next five years. The responsibility of progressives and democrats in Ireland, in Britain, in the USA and elsewhere must be to campaign to secure a date for such a referendum and then it is up to progressives in Ireland to devise the means to win it.

After almost 100 years of a failed partitionist system and centuries of British involvement in Irish affairs, it is time for the Irish people, all of us on the island of Ireland, to shape out our own future.

We done to everyone involved with the London conference for creating a forum to discuss this.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Farewell to The White House

Meeting up with friends on Capitol Hill

Regular readers of this column will know that I find the engagement with the Irish diaspora in the USA really uplifting and positive. It is also exhausting. A perpetual round of meetings, travel and living out of a suitcase. And the jet lag! But it is the human element of it all that makes it worthwhile. The interaction with our friends, the craic, the real interest in what is happening back in Ireland, the hospitality and willingness to help are what makes these visits worthwhile. Last week’s Saint Patrick’s Day’s trip was very worthwhile indeed.

It was Mary Lou’s first visit as Uachtarán Shinn Féin. She was accompanied by Leas Uachtarán Michelle O Neill. I was there, as part of the transition of our party, to appeal to all those we met to give them the same support that they gave me for the last twenty-five years that I travelled there. It was entirely appropriate that our first event was in the home of a Tyrone couple, Rosemary and Fay Devlin. They had gathered a great bunch of stalwarts to welcome us and it was in the Devlin home that Mary Lou made her first speech in North America as Sinn Féin President.

The next morning it was snowing. I sat in their kitchen and had a very nice chat with Rosemary and Fay. Rosemary’s mother Kathleen died a month ago back in Ireland and she and Fay were just back after the Month’s Mind Mass. Kathleen was a great Irish woman, a quiet patriot and a great supporter of Irish freedom and unity. The vast majority of our friends are like the Delvin’s. The Downes’ are the same. The Macken’s. The Donaghy’s. The Bryce’s. The Smith’s. Durkan’s. The O Sullivan’s. Kehoe’s. Murrihey’s. Curtin’s. Glennon’s. And that’s only in New York. Across the USA there are hundreds and thousands more. The Guilfoyle’s. The Doris clann. The Scally’s. Doyle’s. Many many more. Making a living. Rearing their families and keeping faith with Ireland. And the Irish cause. And with their families back home.

It is little wonder the 1916 Proclamation singled out ‘our exiled children in America’. They funded the Rising. They wanted a revolution in their homeland and worked to make it happen. The Fenian tradition started here. The United Irish Men (and Women) drew on the revolutionary principles of the American tradition. James Connolly worked in the USA. So did Tom Clarke. All the 1916 leaders travelled to the USA to engage with the base here. Liam Mellows in his time did great work preparing the way for Eamonn De Valera. Nowadays the difference is that there is a peaceful way to win freedom and Irish unity. Irish America supports that.

And the Irish republican base is well informed. Right across the USA. It knows about Brexit. About the DUP pact with the English Tories. About the recent talks. About Martin McGuinness’ first anniversary coming up. About the recent elections. About what the Irish government should be doing. About what it actually does. Or doesn’t do.

I thought of this as we arrived in Washington. The access that the Irish have there is extraordinary. And that includes Sinn Féin, not least because of the pioneering work of Rita O Hare, our North American Representative. Rita would be the first to acknowledge that this is only possible because of the support from so many individuals, organisations and activists. It is most obvious on Capitol Hill. It was there Mary Lou addressed Congress members led by Richie Neal and Peter King. The night before they had hosted a 20th Anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement discussion. I joined other representatives of Irish parties including the Taoiseach to give our views on this. I focused my remarks on the future. George Mitchell made a wonderful speech. The event, in the Library of Congress, was a great success.
Mary Lou’s briefing session reflected that. From the consequences of Brexit, the danger to the Good Friday Agreement, the Gerrymander of the Constituency Boundaries and the need for a referendum on Irish unity. I thanked those in attendance for all the work we had done together. Some of us had cooperated for over a quarter of a century. A few as far back as the hunger strikes. They presented me with an American flag that had flown over the Capitol.
Sinn Féin have close connections with the American Labour Movement. The Labourers International Union of North America, led by Terry O’Sullivan and Friends of Sinn Féin hosted a wonderful event for us. Two videos, one about Martin McGuinness, another on 100 Years of Sinn Féin and a fired up Terry set the mood for a capacity crowd which included John Samuelson. Later Terry and I went to the White House. This was probably my last visit. I have been there scores of times. The Clinton years Saint Patrick Day Celebrations were the most inclusive. With the biggest crowds. 
And we had a great crowd at the Sheraton where Mary Lou addressed our New York supporters. Sean Downes chaired and Mary Lou paid tribute to Jim Cullen, our late president of Friends of Sinn Fein, making a presentation to his partner Catherine Kelly.
It was great to see so many women in attendance to welcome Mary Lou.
On Saint Patrick’s Day the Mayor Of New York, Bill de Blasio very kindly presented me with a citation and declared the Seventeenth Of March to be Gerry Adams Day. “Happy Gerry Adams Day” doesn’t have the same ring as “Happy St Patrick’s Day” but I am humbled by the honour. Even the Taoiseach seemed impressed.
Breakfast with the resurgent James Connolly Irish American Labor coalition with Chair Bill Lynn and other Labor leaders was inspiring.
Then off to the parade with Mary Lou and Michelle. A final meeting with interested New Yorkers hosted by Joseph Smith and from there back to Ireland.
Bumped into Tom DiNapoli, NY State Comptroller on the March
I will continue to be involved with our diaspora because of their importance to and commitment to Ireland. Especially in the USA and Canada. I am confident that Sinn Féin will continue to get support there.  Mary Lou will do a good job of engaging with them. Without doubt Irish America will help to secure and win a referendum on Irish unity. Speed the day.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Martin McGuinness: A few words I penned for the Derry Journal to mark the first anniversary of Martin's death.

Martin McGuinness - Looking to the Future by Gerry Adams TD
The Duke Street civil rights march on October 6th 1968, the death of Samuel Devenney, after being beaten at his home by the RUC in April 1969, and the Battle of the Bogside later that year, were cumulative and transformative moments in the history of Derry. They also changed the lives of the people of this city and especially of many of its young people.
Like many other teenagers that year in Derry, Belfast, Newry and other parts of the north, Martin McGuinness’s life was suddenly upended by a political crisis created by partition 50 years earlier. The apartheid system of injustice and inequality that was the north’s Orange State was being challenged by nationalists fed up with being treated as second class.
Three years later as we prepared to travel to London for secret meetings with the British government I met Martin behind the barricades in Derry. Those were different, more difficult days. The conflict was raging. Internment was the order of the day. Bloody Sunday had taken place only months earlier. The shock and anger among nationalists was still palpable. The Bogside and Creggan were under siege from the British Army.

In these circumstances most people, including a 22-year-old working class lad from the Bogside, could have been forgiven for feeling stressed and anxious - but not Martin. He was in control – calm, confident, a natural leader – wanting to talk about how we should approach the upcoming engagements with British Ministers – our agenda, proposals, bottom line.

In the 45 years since then Martin never changed. He was insightful and shrewd. He could read a situation better than most and had a way of getting to the heart of an issue.

Whether it was canvassing for votes in elections in Mid Ulster or the Presidential campaign, or meeting constituents or political opponents, Presidents and Prime Ministers, Martin had that unique ability to engage at a personal human level. They might not have agreed with his politics but they all came to respect him.

Even before he entered into the Office of First and Deputy First Ministers with Ian Paisley, Martin understood the importance of reaching out to our unionist neighbours. As the Minister for Education he reached out beyond the nationalist constituency. He fought for every child and every school without favour. His decision to end the 11 plus system was a visionary step which remains the only way forward for an inclusive, equal educational opportunity for all children.

Along with Ian Paisley, and then with Peter Robinson and Arlene Foster, Martin tried to build a new society in which everyone is equal and all opinions are valued. He was a united Irelander but he also understood the imperative of reaching out the hand of friendship to our unionist neighbours, even when they refused to take it. He wanted to understand what they meant by their sense of Britishness.

On one occasion Martin was part of Sinn Féin delegation that travelled to South Africa with unionist leaders to meet with President Mandela and other ANC leaders. They were there to learn from the South African process of reconciliation and negotiations. The unionists refused to talk to the Sinn Féin group. They refused to share the same social facility. They astounded their ANC hosts by refusing to meet Mandela with Martin. They also rejected the joint travel arrangements the ANC made for a break in the meetings to travel to the southernmost tip of South Africa. This was post-apartheid South Africa and unionism was behaving like the old South African National Party.

Martin was never fazed by any of this. He understood that unionism’s siege or laager mentality was a consequence of our shared colonial past. Unionism fears compromise. It believes that saying yes could be another step toward a united Ireland – even if that yes is to arrangements that would work for everyone.

But Martin never gave up. Before and after the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal Martin was looking for ways in which to persuade the DUP to take the sensible steps needed to restore confidence in the political institutions.

When it became obvious that that wasn’t going to happen Martin recommended to the Sinn Féin Ard Chomhairle that he resign from the office of First and Deputy First Minister. Even then, although seriously ill and against my advice and that of other comrades, Martin believed that he should travel to Parliament Buildings and tell Arlene Foster face to face what he intended to do. It was a mark of his strength of character and his belief in being straight with those he worked with that he made that difficult physical journey.

Martin McGuinness was a good friend and a great leader. He made compromises where he believed they could help peace and reconciliation. He never stopped taking risks for peace.

A year after he left us we still mourn and miss him. But I know if he was here now Martin would be the first to tell us to give ourselves a good shake. Our responsibility is for the future. And whatever the recent difficulties we have to bend our minds and will to finding a way to shape that future so that everyone has a share in it.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Lá Féile Pádraig in New York

I arrived back into Ireland this morning after 6 busy days in the USA. Yesterday was a great day to be Irish with millions celebrating St. Patrick’s Day across the globe. My day started early with the traditional St. Patrick’s Day breakfast with New York Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Mayor de Blasio presented me with a Proclamation. In turn I presented him with a copy of a book Elizabeth Billups from New Mexico and I produced two years ago – Ireland: One Island, No Borders – which is a mix of photographs from across the island of Ireland mixed with text by both of us.
I also presented Mayor de Blasio with a special limited edition of ‘Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass – an American Slave’ which has been published by his direct descendants, Nettie Washington Douglass and her son Kenneth Morris. Only 711 signed and numbered copies have been produced and I am grateful to my friend Todd Allen for his generosity in providing it. I might write more on this later.
Lá Féile Pádraig is an opportunity each year to thank Irish America and to reaffirm the strong bonds between Ireland and that very important part of the Irish diaspora. Irish America has never lost sight of Ireland and the desire for peace and independence, and it continues to be as supportive of this today as in previous generations.
And then there was the Rugby grand slam. What a win. What a great day to be Irish.

Friday, March 16, 2018

The Chieftain’s Walk

If you have never visited the Stone Fort of Grianán of Aileach on the Inishowen peninsula you are missing one of the most spectacular locations on the island of Ireland. I have been there many times. Standing on the five-metre-high, four-metre-thick walls you have an amazing panoramic view. On one side you can see Derry City in the distance. Grianán also overlooks Inishowen, Inch Island and there is a dramatic view of Lough Foyle and especially Lough Swilly.
It was one of Martin McGuinness’s favourite places in the world. He would walk there, no matter the weather, and whenever the opportunity presented itself. I walked there with him on many occasions. It is a place of quiet beauty.
On March 25th the ‘Chieftains Walk’ (Siúlóid an Taoisigh) in memory of Martin McGuinness will take place. Martin’s family are asking people to join them in this walk as a way of raising awareness about amyloidosis – the genetic disease from which he died. All proceeds will go to the Cancer Centre at Altnagelvin Hospital. I will be there and I hope to see many of you there also.
The walk will also be an opportunity to remember our friend Martin, whose first anniversary is on March 21st and to reflect on his life and contribution to the struggle for freedom and unity.
It is important to remember that Martin was a teenager back in the 1960s. Like hundreds – thousands – of others he was not a dedicated political activist. Just a young man living through what were unusual and turbulent times in the north.
Martin was born in 1950 into a Unionist controlled Orange State. A state that did not want him, his family, his community. Over five decades it had ruthlessly imposed a system of discrimination and inequality in employment and housing against the nationalist community. Derry suffered more than most during this time.
The civil rights movement was born out of this injustice and a demand for fairness and equality and human rights. Derry was in the vanguard of this campaign for justice. Partition, which had cut Derry off from its natural hinterland, made no sense.
The violent response of the Unionist regime and its paramilitary forces, and the militarization of the situation by the British government, set the scene for the decades of conflict which followed.
It was into this maelstrom that a young Martin McGuinness and many other Derry wans bravely stepped. It was this Martin McGuinness - young, idealistic, courageous, a leader – who I met for the first time behind the barricades in Derry. His politics were shaped by the Derry experience, by his love of Derry and by his mother Peggy’s homeplace in Inishowen.
There was a ready warmth in his smile. A genuine openness and a pleasant, unpretentious personality. In the years that followed Martin and I shared many adventures and memorable times. Some funny, some not.
It was a time of great hurt and loss. Many people, including children, died. Fine republican men and women were killed during the years of war and it fell to Martin and I on many occasions to speak at the gravesides of fallen comrades.
During the battle of the funerals I remember him in Milltown Cemetery - when we were surrounded by lines of battle wielding, riot clad RUC men –telling everyone to turn round and face them. To look them in the eye. Not to be afraid. To remember that they were the oppressors and that it was we who desired freedom and justice.
When Michael Stone attacked the Gibraltar funerals 30 years ago this month Martin was there helping the wounded, bringing calm to a dangerous situation. He was fearless.
Over more years of struggle than I care to remember Martin was there. It was he who was our representative in the secret talks with the British government in the early 90’s. When the first Sinn Féin delegation met the British at Parliament Buildings in December 1994 it was led by Martin. When the first republican delegation visited Downing Street in December 1997 there was Martin. He was our Chief negotiator – the man who sat across the table from British Prime Ministers and Ministers and Unionist representatives and argued for change.
He could also be funny and insightful. In December 1997 as we returned from our first meeting with the British in Downing Street we found ourselves waiting in the lounge at Heathrow Airport. A contingent of Unionist MPs, including the former leader of the UUP James Molyneaux, arrived into the departure lounge. The Unionists were still not talking to us. Hadn’t said a word to us in the negotiations. They were clearly displeased to see us and ignored our greetings. ‘Hello’ ‘How ya doing’– nothing. When they got on the plane they still refused to talk to anyone.
‘If they had any real principles’ Martin told me with a smile, ‘they would have got another plane. Isn’t it funny what people will do when they have to?’
Several years later in 2002 and sitting in Tony Blair’s inner office in Downing Street Martin forcefully told the British Prime Minister not to invade Iraq. Martin told him that if he thought the war in Ireland was bad invading Iraq would be so much more. We both urged Blair to turn back from what would be a disastrous course for the people of that region and for Britain. Blair ignored us.
Fast forward four years to July 12 2006. Speaking at an Orange march Ian Paisley declared that ‘No unionist who is a Unionist will go into partnership with IRA-Sinn Féin. They are not fit to be in partnership with decent people. They are not fit to be in the government of Northern Ireland. And it will be over our dead bodies that they will ever get there …”
Less than a year later in March 2007 the same Ian Paisley joined Martin and I in a press conference at Parliament Buildings to announce we had a deal. In May that unlikely partnership of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness was complete when they became joint First Ministers. Within days their willingness to meet as equals and in friendship and good humour was producing political results and building public confidence. None of it would have been possible without the patience and tenacity of Martin. He saw beyond the slagging words – the caustic comments – and stayed focused on making peace.
In the years that followed Martin made a remarkable personal and political journey, first with Paisley, then with Peter Robinson and then with Arlene Foster.
He remained a steadfast republican, unbowed and unbroken throughout his life of activism. He never deviated from his republican principles; his belief in the unity of the Irish people in a free, independent, united Ireland; or in his humanity. He always did his best – he gave it one hundred percent.
He was a decent man, a loving husband and father and grandfather, a family man who loved walking the hills, reading poetry and occasionally producing poems of quality and vitality and warmth. Martin was also a friend who stayed true during the good times and bad times. He died last March from amyloidosis. I miss him every day.
So join us and Bernie and the McGuinness clann on The Chieftain’s Walk on March 25th at Glenowen in Derry at 1.30.
By the way – and Martin would enjoy this – I contacted Andrew McCartney for advice on how to register for the walk. Given my aversion to computers I asked him where there any shortcuts in the registration process. “Yes’ he said. “There’ll be arrangements to walk part of the way and get on a bus or join it en route. We could also arrange for your car to pick you up. You could just jump into that when you want.” That’s Derry wans for you.
Every registered participant in The Chieftains Walk will receive a bespoke commemorative medal. Entry fee is £10 and you can register via the Chieftains Walk Facebook page or online at