Thursday, April 27, 2017

Gardaí and Government have questions to answer following Omeath shooting

Last week RTE broadcast a special investigative programme about events in Omeath on 11 October 2015 which left a Garda Officer, Tony Golden dead, Siobhán Phillips, a young mother of two fighting for her life in hospital and the gunman Crevan Mackin also dead after taking his own life. Like everyone else I was shocked when the news broke. Omeath is a quiet, tranquil village on Carlingford Lough. It is a beautiful part of the Cooley Mountains.

In the aftermath of the shootings the news reports appeared to suggest it was an open and shut case. No one else was involved in the incident and the perpetrator, Crevan Mackin, was dead. However, four days after the shooting I received anonymously to my office in the Dáil a copy of the Statement of Charges relating to the arrest in January of that year of Mackin. The detail contained within the document raised serious and fundamental questions about the role of elements of An Garda Síochána in the circumstances surrounding Mackin’s arrest in January 2015, their relationship with him subsequently, and the multiple shooting in Omeath.

I immediately contacted the office of the Minister for Justice, Frances Fitzgerald, and then wrote to both her and An Taoiseach providing them with a copy of the Book of Statements and setting out my concerns.

The document revealed that Mackin was arrested on 16th January 2015 at his home in Omeath under Section 30 of the Offences against the State Act. The warrant accused him of being a member of the IRA on the 16th January 2015 and in possession of explosives in suspicious circumstances. The Gardaí believed that he had six handguns, as well as explosives, ammunition and timing devices.

During subsequent interrogation in Dundalk Garda station Mackin denied the membership charge but admitted possession of weapons and explosives. According to his family and solicitor he was taken at one point from the station to a house at Edentubber where two hand guns were recovered. Later Mackin was charged with membership but not with the possession of the explosives or weapons.

His family say that Mackin told them later that he did a deal with his Garda interrogators that in return for working for them he would not be charged with the firearms and explosives offences. He told his family that the Gardaí wanted him to go on to the dissident wing in Portlaoise as their informer. However when the dissident prisoners refused to accept him Mackin’s bail conditions were significantly dropped from twenty thousand euro to five to allow for his release.

Both the evidence of the Statement of Charges and the accounts given by his family show that with the knowledge of some in An Garda Síochána, Mackin continued to have access to at least four other handguns.

On Saturday 10 October Crevan Mackin’s partner Siobhán Phillips contacted her father Sean and step mother Norma. She told them that Mackin had savagely beaten her overnight from the Friday evening into the Saturday morning and that he had attacked her with a knife. Sean and Norma brought Siobhán to Dundalk Garda station but the Duty Officer refused to take a statement from her. This was despite the family telling him that Mackin was currently out on bail and had threatened to kill them and all of their immediate family.

The family drove to Daisy Hill hospital in Newry where because of her injuries, the staff contacted the PSNI. They took notes and photos of Siobhán’s injuries. When they left Daisy Hill hospital at 11.30 pm on the Saturday night the family drove toward Carlingford intending to make a complaint at the Garda station there. On route they flagged down a Garda car whose occupants referred them to Garda Tony Golden. It was arranged that he would meet Siobhán at 3pm on the Sunday. The next day Siobhán, and her father Sean, met Garda Golden who took a statement and then offered to bring Siobhán to her home to collect some things. According to Sean shortly after Garda Golden and Siobhán entered the house shots were fired. Garda Golden was killed. Siobhán was shot four times and grievously wounded in the head, and Crevan Mackin then shot himself.

In the 18 months since the Omeath shooting I have written to the Minister for Justice eight times and to the Taoiseach four times. I also handed over all of the information to the Garda Officer in charge of the investigation. And when it appeared that the government was not taking this matter seriously I made a formal complaint to the Garda Ombudsman.

The ramifications of this case are far reaching for An Garda Siochána and for the government, especially in light of the number of Commissions of Investigations and scandals currently surrounding the Gardaí.

Crevan Mackin was an individual with known serious mental health issues. Despite having admitted possession of weapons and explosives he was not charged with these but with– membership – an accusation he consistently denied. All of the available information indicates that some in the Gardaí – in particular the Special detective Unit - were aware that Mackin was still in possession of other handguns, including two Glock handguns. It was a Glock that Mackin used in the Omeath shooting.

Informers and agents are regularly used by police services to provide information on individuals and organisations. However, it is widely accepted that such informers should not act as agent provocateurs or engage in criminal actions or encourage others to do so. In the North the use by the RUC and British security agencies of informers and agents has long been a major source of controversy. The Crevan Mackin case has turned the spotlight on the Gardaí and how it recruits and runs informers.

Why was Mackin not charged with the more serious offences which he had confessed to? Why was he allowed to retain possession of a significant number of handguns? Were local Gardaí informed that Mackin still had access to weapons? Why were Siobhán Phillips and Garda Golden placed in such a perilous situation? Had Garda Golden no means of checking Mackin’s record before approaching the house? What assurances and protections were given to Mackin by the Special Detective Unit?

There is also the very serious matter of the Garda’s treatment of Siobhán Phillips, a victim of significant violence by her partner. When the family sought to make a complaint at Dundalk station they were refused. Why? What protocols are in place with An Garda Síochána for dealing with victims of domestic violence? Clearly the treatment of Siobhán Phillips is evidence that any protocols that might exist are inadequate. It is worth noting in this regard that only two weeks ago the Garda Commissioner was forced to admit that the Garda’s statistics on murder and domestic violence may be wrong and that it is now re-examining all of its statistics.

The responses of both the Taoiseach and Minister for Justice to my correspondence have been unsatisfactory. I have never received any indication that the government was taking this matter seriously.

Those responsible must be held accountable and, if necessary, they must face a criminal investigation and possibly charges. Last week, just hours before the RTE programme was broadcast Siobhán Phillips, Crevan Mackin’s sister, and I received letters from GSOC. I was told that the Garda Ombudsman now intends to conduct an investigation in the public interest into the information I gave it.

Separately the family of Siobhán Phillips have called on Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald to establish a public inquiry into the incident. This week they will begin proceedings in the High Court in Dublin.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Hopes for peace in the Basque country

In the midst of the ceremonies last week to complete the process of putting the weapons and explosives of ETA beyond use, the figure of former Methodist Minister Harold Good was centre stage. In 2005, along with my very good friend the late Fr. Alec Reid, the two men played a key role as independent witnesses, in the process by which the IRA put its weapons beyond use.
Last weekend Rev. Harold Good was in Bayonne, a city in south west France. It is part of the extended Basque country. He was there to take part in the final act by ETA of putting its weapons beyond use. It was a simple ceremony held in the City Hall. It involved a list of arms dumps being handed over to the international witnesses providing the location of these dumps. The French police then took possession of them. Outside tens of thousands of Basques celebrated this momentous decision and held aloft white cards containing the symbol of a dove of peace.
The decision by ETA to take this historic step has the potential to transform the relationships between the Basque country and the Spanish and French states.
I want to commend the leadership of ETA on this momentous initiative. I also want to commend Basque Civic Society, the International Verification Commission and EH Bildu for their courageous efforts over many difficult years to build the peace process. This is a truly defining moment, a milestone, in the efforts to build a lasting peace in that region and to achieve a political settlement that respects Basque self-determination.
There is an enormous responsibility now on the Spanish and French governments, and all of the political parties, to grasp the opportunity provided by this extraordinary development.
The people of the Basque country, represented by a range of political parties and civic organisations, have been involved in recent years in a substantial dialogue around building a peace process. Their objective has been to bring an end to violence while creating the conditions for democratic and peaceful political change, including independence.
They took as their model the Irish peace process. Consequently, myself and other Sinn Féin have leaders travelled regularly to the Basque country to participate in this debate and to encourage its development. Sometimes the discussions were held in the Basque country, sometimes in Belfast and on a number of occasions senior Sinn Féin representatives travelled to Geneva for meetings with Basque representatives and other international players.
The strategy that emerged, based largely on language and principles agreed in the Irish peace process, commits Basque activists to using ‘exclusively political and democratic means’ to advance their political objectives. It seeks to advance political change ‘in a complete absence of violence and without interference’ and ‘conducted in accordance with the Mitchell Principles.’ And its political goal is to achieve a ‘stable and lasting peace in the Basque country’.
There is a long affinity between Irish people and the people of France and Spain and the Basque country. Sinn Féin’s efforts to assist in building a peace process there go back to the Good Friday Agreement. In that time there have been moments of great hope but also of despair as the opportunity for peace suffered setbacks.
The Irish peace process, despite its imperfections, has demonstrated that with imagination and dialogue and a commitment to achieve peace it is possible to make progress. In Donostia in October 2011 I said that: “Violence usually occurs when people believe that there is no alternative. Transforming a situation from conflict to peace requires therefore that an alternative is created.”
Making peace is hugely challenging and enormously difficult. It demands that we seek to understand what motivates, what inspires, what drives our opponent. Ultimately, as Madiba - Nelson Mandela - said, we have to make friends with our enemy. Each conflict is different but it is possible to discern broad guidelines or principles that can contribute to a peace process. These include: putting in place a process of inclusive dialogue; tackling the causes which lie at the heart of the conflict; ensuring a good faith engagement by all sides; creating an inclusive process – with all parties treated as equals and mandates respected; all issues on the agenda; no pre-conditions; no vetoes; and no attempt to pre-determine the outcome, or preclude any outcome. There should also be time frames. 
Confidence building measures are also crucial. In Ireland this meant, for example, improving conditions for prisoners, including moving those who were in England closer to their homes in Ireland. It meant demilitarizing the environment and ending the use of emergency laws and repression, a new beginning to policing and the release of political prisoners.
In this context I would appeal the Spanish and French governments to respond positively to this very important development with generosity and imagination. As a first step both should engage in dialogue with the representatives of all of the Basque people. Addressing the treatment of Basque political prisoners – including ending the policy of dispersal of Basque prisoners and moving those who are a significant distance from their families closer to their homes - previous to an early release process - would also be an important confidence building measure.
The Basque people have repeatedly demonstrated in elections and on the streets their support for a peaceful resolution of the conflict in that region. The initiative by ETA is an opportunity that must not be squandered.

The Spanish and French governments have a key role to play now in promoting a process of dialogue that can advance the goal of a just and lasting peace in the Basque Country and of bringing to a permanent end one of the last European conflicts. 

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Celebrate and Organise

The Ballyfermot Civic and Community Centre is an impressive, three storey, modern facility which provides many local services to the Ballyfermot community. 25 years ago it was a dilapidated, poorly equipped, inadequate community centre. But in 1992, despite threats from the government and Dublin council that their funding would be cut, Ballyfermot opened its doors to our Ard Fheis. It was a time when the establishment parties in Dublin were blocking our use of public buildings. The local community took us to their hearts and provided billets for scores of activists,
Last July we were back again for a special national strategy meeting. It was tasked with beginning a process of mapping out Sinn Féin’s organisational and political goals for the next ten years. That conversation has been taking place since then at all levels of the party.
On Sunday we returned to Ballyfermot to take that discussion to the next level. This time however our friend and comrade Martin McGuinness was absent. The current talks over the political institutions are also the first that Martin has not been present for. As far back as most of us can remember Martin was with us. He was always there. He was with us in all the heartlands of resistance in the North and in every other county across this island. And in many other parts of the world.
Those of us who knew Martin well are in the midst of a grieving process. I don’t say that lightly. Look at the video that his grandson Oísín tweeted last week. But as I reminded the hall on Sunday and said in my oration at Martin’s graveside: “Don’t mourn. Celebrate and organise. That’s what Martin would want.”
And part of that organisational work is to manage the generational change within the party. As part of this Martin was to stand down from the position of OFMDFM in May. This was to be one of our big moves. Michelle O Neill’s appointment as our leader in the North was another. In the time ahead there will be other changes. Our intention is to do this in a way which is democratic and at a time and in a way which moves us forward strategically.
Sunday’s meeting also discussed at length the importance of building political and electoral strength and how we, as republicans, will use that strength locally, regionally and nationally in the time ahead. Currently Sinn Féin is stronger than at any time since partition. But if we want to achieve our political goals we need to build even greater political strength, as well as building alliances with others.
It is of crucial importance that Sinn Féin also actively seeks to win social and economic rights for everyone. The best way to do that is to work in tandem with those who are denied those rights so that there is a real depth to our campaigning.
We must also have a belief that political and societal change is possible. If we lower our expectations or limit our vision then we are not playing to our own strengths. If you think your opponents are going to win; or if you think you cannot win, then without doubt that is what will happen. You won’t win. However, if you go out to win, if you believe you can win, then anything can happen. Then you will win.
Especially if you’re up for it, fit for it, trained for it, and clear about what you need to do. And if we go forward together, united, cohesive, and with energy, determination and high hopes. So we are in a time of great opportunity.
In the south the government has stumbled from scandal to scandal, sometimes a scandal a week. It survives because the Fianna Fáil leadership needs to keep Fine Gael in power until it believes it can win an election. It is also worried at the potential for Sinn Féin to grow.
In my view the type of changes that Irish republicans require, socially and economically, will not be achievable unless we are in government. And these rights will not be fully achieved unless Ireland is united. And that is unlikely to happen in conditions which would move more easily towards a real Republic unless we are in government.
I know there are lots of questions about who Sinn Féin should be in government with; who we should not be in government with, and so on. That’s an issue for another day. But we need to understand that we cannot contest a general election unless we are very clear that we want to be in government.
That means a step change in our thinking. It means creating an active culture that moves us into and prepares us for being in government on republican terms. The timing of such an initiative; when we might be in government; our influence on that government; our partners in that government; the programme for government; will all be dependent upon how many TDs we get elected.
We also need to articulate and implement the politics of making the northern institutions work as a logical transition on the journey to a new and agreed united Ireland.
Martin’s resignation and last month’s election result has in a very real way transformed the political landscape. Sinn Féin received our biggest ever vote in the North. The unionist electoral majority was ended and their majority in the Assembly is gone. Of course they could regain this in the next election. 
We also have to be the defenders of the Good Friday Agreement. It is that Agreement which defines the institutional, constitutional and legal framework and the new relationships that now exist within Ireland and between Ireland and Britain.
So Sinn Féin’s position is that the only option for the British government, if talks do not succeed, is to call another election. We have also said clearly that any return to direct rule will be a breach of an agreement in 2006 between the Irish and British governments. Our position is that this would be an act of bad faith which the Irish government should oppose.
All this will be crucial as the negotiations around Brexit take place. I am confident that as the consequences of Brexit become clearer more and more people from a unionist background will be open to the idea of exploring new relationships on this island. We need to be intelligently putting the argument for unity and for a referendum as set out in the Good Friday Agreement.  
Of course we will be accused of exploiting Brexit to suit our own agenda. That is nonsense. The fact is Brexit is bad for all parts of our island. It will bring back a hard economic border. So our main argument has to be about preventing this. The fact is that a majority of people voted against it. Sinn Féin’s position is for a designated special status for the North within the European Union. That must be our focus in the immediate term. 
Sunday’s meeting was excellent. Lots of positive contributions and a high level of energy and enthusiasm is evident across the party. The short term focus is on the talks in Belfast but the work of building the party now moves into a new phase. Why not join us? 

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Martin McGuinness was a committed republican – and that never changed

This piece about Martin was published in Wednesday's Guardian:

The death of my friend and comrade Martin McGuinness has left a deep void. It is a huge blow to all of us who knew and loved him, especially his wife and family. Martin was an extraordinary human being. Funny, caring, a committed family man, a keen fisherman, an enthusiast for all kinds of sport from cricket to hurling. He loved Derry. The city – along with his wife, Bernie, his family and his mother, Peggy – moulded him into the complex, compassionate, warm, human being he was.
Martin was also a deeply committed Irish republican activist who in his youth was confronted by the naked sectarianism and injustice of the British state in Ireland, and stood strong against it. As a result he was imprisoned and spent long periods on the run.
Reading and watching some of the media reporting of his life and death, one could be forgiven for believing that Martin, at some undefined point in his life, had a road to Damascus conversion and abandoned his republican principles, his former comrades in the IRA and joined the political establishment.
To suggest this is to miss the truth of his leadership and the essence of his humanity. There was not a bad Martin McGuinness or a good Martin McGuinness. Martin believed in freedom and equality. He resisted those who withheld these by military means, and then he helped shape conditions in which it was possible to advocate for these by unarmed strategies.
Martin was a committed republican who believed that the British government’s involvement in Ireland and the partition of our island were at the root of our divisions. Along with others of like mind, he understood the importance of building a popular, democratic, radical republican party.
In this way he helped chart a new course, a different strategy. This involved taking difficult initiatives to make political advances. Our political objectives, and our republican principles and ideals did not change. On the contrary, these guided us through every twist and turn of the peace process.
Martin also understood that reconciliation and peace-building meant reaching out to others. He played a leadership role in this throughout his time in elected office, and especially from 2007, when he and Ian Paisley became partners in a unique power-sharing arrangement.
Martin’s leadership and vision helped turn Sinn Féin into the largest political party on the island of Ireland. Our responsibility, now that he has gone, is to build on that legacy. To continue the work that he helped pioneer. That means building a new Ireland – a united Ireland – that embraces all its citizens on the basis of equality and respect.
Last November Sinn Féin launched “Towards a United Ireland” which is a detailed discussion paper setting out the arguments for a United Ireland. It addresses the impact of partition on the island’s economy, on inward investment, on exports, on the health service, on the border region and much more. It takes head-on the argument that the people of the north and south cannot afford a united Ireland. It takes this on and demolishes it.
We have also argued that the British government accept the vote of the people in the north of Ireland to remain in the EU. Theresa May refused to do this. We propose that the north be accorded a special designated status within the EU. This will not change the constitutional issue but it will prevent a land frontier – a new hard economic border on the island of Ireland – between the EU and the British state.
The decision by the British government to trigger article 50 next week and commence the negotiations on Brexit; the assembly election results, which saw the unionist parties lose their electoral and assembly majority; and the warning by the Scottish first minister of a second independence referendum – all these are the context now for the necessary conversation on a new Ireland.
Martin is gone, and we will miss him. But he leaves behind a Sinn Féin party, stronger, better organised, and more electorally popular than it has been in almost 100 years. We have a cadre of young, energetic leaders who are as determined as my generation of achieving a united Ireland. It is a party more determined and more able than ever before to deliver on Martin’s goal of a new Ireland.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Time to plan for Unity

Last year’s centenary of 1916 was a resounding success. Political, cultural, historical and media organisations, individuals and communities held hugely successful events to celebrate the individuals and the organisations that participated in the Rising. There was lots of music, some excellent exhibitions and interesting debates.

The Irish government, which had initially produced a very inadequate and underwhelming programme, went back to the drawing board after ferocious criticism and came up with some very good events. However, official Ireland studiously avoided the issue of partition, its impact on the island and the need for Irish unity.  

For Irish republicans this was at the heart of all that we did in Ireland and across the globe, particularly in North America and Britain. The Republic that was envisaged by the leaders of 1916 and by the Proclamation is at the core of our political beliefs. It is the rock upon which our politics and policies are constructed.

Making these policies work requires the building of significant and active support allied to strategies, tactics and programmes of work.
That is why I welcomed the publication in November 2015 of the academic paper by Professor Kurt Huebner of Vancouver University which is titled ‘Modeling Irish Unification’. It presented three unification scenarios, each with increasingly positive economic benefits for both the north and south of Ireland. 
The authors concluded that political and economic unification would likely result in a sizable boost in economic outcomes and incomes in the North and a smaller boost in the South, with the most aggressive unification scenario estimating a boost in all island GDP of €35.6 billion Euro over eight years. That’s an increase in in each of those years of €5,500 per person north and south.
In November Sinn Féin launched ‘Towards a United Ireland’. It is a detailed discussion paper setting out the arguments for a United Ireland and which addresses the impact on the economy, on inward investment, on exports, on the health service, on the border region and much more. It takes head on the argument that the people of the North and South cannot afford a United Ireland. It takes this on and demolishes it.
What else is new? Fianna Fáil is growing a unity plan, the Taoiseach is for giving the vote to citizens outside the southern state in Presidential elections. The daffodils are blooming and the snow drops as well. Spring is springing. Again. So are Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. For decades they have wrapped the green flag around them when it suited. When the issue of reunification is raised in the Dáil, as it is now regularly by Sinn Féin, the response from the establishment parties is usually that this is not the time to talk about it. Now Irish unity is all the rage in Leinster House.
The announcement by Micheál Martin that Fianna Fáil is to produce a White Paper on Irish unity is a welcome addition to the conversation that is necessary to inform citizens and assist progress. In 2005 Sinn Féin in the Dáil produced a Green Paper on unity. Following on from the publication of our discussion paper – Towards a United Ireland’ - last year- and following consultation with many sectors - we have been working on the production of a more advanced version of this paper.

The imminent decision by the British government to trigger Article 50 to commence the negotiations on Brexit; the Assembly election results, which saw the Unionist parties lose their Assembly majority; and the warning by the Scottish First Minister of a second Independent referendum, are the context for the current discussions on a United Ireland.

On Monday Michelle O'Neill warned again that Brexit will significantly undermine the Good Friday Agreement and lead to the imposition of a hard border. She added all of this increases the urgency for a referendum on Irish unity as set out in the Good Friday Agreement and Sinn Féin wants to see that happen as soon as possible.

The determination of the British government to impose Brexit on the North, despite the vote of the people, underlines the undemocratic nature of partition and the unequal relationship between London and Belfast. The future constitutional position of the North lies in the hands of the people of the north and of the south. The Good Friday Agreement obliges the Irish and British governments to legislate for unity if that is the choice of the people north and south.
So times are changing and relationships are changing. The Taoiseach recently called for a ‘united Ireland’ provision to be included an any Brexit agreement. He also announced this week that the government will now hold a referendum on Irish citizens in the North and in the Diaspora having the right to vote in Presidential elections. Sinn Féin has been pressing the Irish government since the Good Friday Agreement to allow for this. Fianna Fáil voted against this in the Seánad on November 30th last.
The Taoiseach’s announcement is very welcome but the government needs to clarify quickly what this means in practice and when the referendum will be held.
The Constitutional Convention voted on this issue in September 2013. A significant majority of its members agreed to extend voting rights to Irish citizens living abroad and in the North.  In November 2015 the Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Affairs made a recommendation to extend the voting rights also, following criticism by the European Commission.
In addition, there is also the fact that under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement citizens in the North have the right to Irish citizenship. What will Brexit mean for them and their right to EU citizenship. This is one of the reasons why Sinn Féin believes that the North should have a special status within the EU.
So, that’s the battle ahead. To strategise, organise, and persuade. There is no short cut that will work. Sinn Féin’s discussion document, ‘Towards a United Ireland’ lays out the rationale for reunification in terms of the benefits to the economy, public services and reconciliation. It also looks beyond the economic benefits of unity.
The document details the type of new and united Ireland we believe can be delivered. A new Ireland built on the principles of equality and inclusion. A new Ireland with a new constitution and Bill of Rights. A new Ireland with symbols and emblems to reflect an inclusive Ireland, that includes the safeguarding of British Citizenship and recognition of the Unionist Identity.
This cannot be a rhetorical debate. There is an onus on the Irish government to plan for unity. To become the persuader for unity. To unite with the rest of us for unity. Unity for unity. To drive the process and build the maximum agreement and to secure and win a referendum on unity.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Unionists lose Stormont Majority

Mary Lou McDonald TD, Michelle O'Neill MLA, mise agus Órlaithí Flynn 

Last week, just before polling day, I wrote in this column; ‘every election is important. But some have a historic significance that resonates for years. This is one of those.’ And it was, and it is. If ever citizens needed proof of the power and the importance of their VOTE it was this election. The outcome has been variously described by political commentators, the media, and most of the participants as a ‘watershed election’, ‘carnage’, ‘shocking’, ‘remarkable’ and ‘significant’.
What is indisputable is that the Assembly election has brought about a seismic change in northern politics and in politics on this island. The long term consequences of this are potentially enormous. To understand why we need to look briefly at the historical context.
100 years ago next year, in December 1918, following the end of the First World War, a general election was held in Britain and Ireland. It was the first opportunity for people on this island to pass judgment on the Easter Rising of 1916 and the pre-war efforts to partition the island. In the nine counties of Ulster Unionists won 265,111 votes. Nationalists took 177,557 votes.
 For Unionists that was too narrow a majority, especially given that Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan had solid nationalist majorities. So, the 70,000 unionists living in those three counties were abandoned to the new 26 county Free State. The six counties, with their 66% Unionist majority were deemed by the Unionist leadership as a safer geographical area to hold. They would have, they believed a permanent majority.
With numbers on their side, Unionism set about reinforcing their domination by gerrymandering electoral districts and imposing voting restrictions that reduced the nationalist vote. As a result, unionism dominated northern politics for decades. In 1921 the Stormont Parliament had 52 members. 40 were unionist. They represented 77% of the Parliament. That remained largely unchanged for most of that Parliament’s existence. Almost 50 years later in 1969 Unionism held 39 seats or 75%. Shift forward almost 30 years to 1998 and in the Assembly election of that year the unionist percentage share of seats had begun to decline. Out of 108 seats Unionism held 58 or 54% of the Assembly seats.

New Sinn Féin Assembly group

The 2017 Assembly election enabled a transformation unimaginable to the founders of the Northern state. This election has the Unionists back on 40 but now in an Assembly of 90 seats. They have 44% of the Assembly representation. 39 seats are held by nationalists and 11 others. Unionist majority domination of the local Assembly has come to an end. So too is the belief in a perpetual unionist majority in the North. The gap between Sinn Féin and the DUP has been reduced to one seat and only 1,168 votes.
Of course political unionism will try to regroup. There will be lots of talk of unionist unity. The sectarian card may be played yet again. So, the gains made for the future by last week’s vote have to be consolidated and increased in future contests. They have to be built upon.This requires a progressive agenda.
The reality is that this result has been taking shape in the demographic twists and turns of the northern population for decades. It became especially evident five years ago when in December 2012 the census results for 2011 were published. Speaking at a United Ireland conference in the Mansion House in January I reminded the audience that on that occasion and for the first time in a census the statisticians asked about identity - setting to one side the sectarian labels of Catholic and Protestant.
48% of citizens in the North stated that they had a British only identity or a British/Irish identity. For the first time those self-identifying as British were less than 50% of the population.
A quarter of those who filled in their census forms (25%) stated that they had an Irish only identity, and just over a fifth (21%) had a Northern Irish only identity. That means that 46% of citizens in the North have some form of Irish only identity. This was a quantum change in the political demographics of the six counties.
Attitudes are also changing on other important issues. More and more people support Marriage equality for Gay or Lesbian citizens. There’s also widespread support for a Bill of Rights and an Irish Language Act. Equality is increasing embraced as a concept on which to build decent living standards.
 More people want to see women having access to terminations of pregnancy on compassionate grounds and in limited circumstances.  In other words, there is an increasing desire for a more compassionate, caring and tolerant society and it involves people from all political backgrounds particularly, but not exclusively young people.
Mise agus John Brady TD, Michelle O'Neill and Maurice Quinlivan TD
Of course the DUP is opposed to equality. But they no longer rule the roost. We must respect their mandate. But they also have to respect all the other mandates. All the other opinions. That requires an entirely new dispensation. Creating that is the biggest challenge of all.
Brexit is the backcloth against which some of these changes are occurring. It has serious implications for human rights and for the Good Friday Agreement. In the farming sector, unionist farmers know that their best interests will not be served by Brexit despite the DUP support for this. Business people and the community and voluntary sector share these concerns.
What does all of this mean? Can we simply reduce the divisions in our society down to statistics and graphs?
I don’t believe we can. Whatever the outworking of demographics the responsibility of political leaders must be to agree policies and programmes that reduce divisions, end sectarianism, build real equality for citizens and improve the daily lives of all our citizens. There is the potential for a progressive consensus among parties like Sinn Féin, the SDLP, Alliance, the Greens, People before Profit, and individual MLAs who have advocated equality measures.
We have to be prepared to set aside party differences and unite for positive change, recognising and valuing the differences that shape our society. That means progress on Acht na Gaeilge and marriage equality and other matters important to citizens, including anti-poverty measures, and social and economic issues.
Parity of esteem for all our traditions is so vital to our future.
This week has seen the commencement of negotiations. There is a danger that citizens who engaged in the election will become disenchanted if progress is not made or if they believe that the outcome will be another fudge. Nor is it good enough for James Brokenshire to pose as a neutral guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement or for the Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan to claim that it’s up to the northern parties to do the heavy lifting. James Brokenshire is not neutral. He is partisan and a player, as evidenced in his refusal to fund legacy inquests. And Charlie Flanagan and the Taoiseach have a responsibility to stand up to the British government and demand that it honour all of the commitments it has made since 1998.
The Assembly election presents all of us with a new opportunity to do things differently. I believe absolutely that Irish unity is the best outcome for all the people of this island. Sinn Féin will work to achieve that. But in the meantime there is a need to co operate with other progressives to create real changes in peoples’ lives based on everyones right to equality. That has to be our overarching strategy in the time ahead.

But as we do this work we have to understand that further demographic changes are inevitable.  We also have to understand the consequences of Brexit. That means we need a discourse on how we manage the transition from where we are now to an end of partition. And we need to do that now.
Michelle O'Neill MLA, Senadoir Pádraig MacLochlainn agus mise

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Statement to Dáil on Traveller ethnicity 1st March 2017

I want to welcome the Traveller groups represented in the gallery and elsewhere in Leinster House this evening, and I extend solidarity to all Travellers on this historic day.

It is their day, and a momentous step forward for equality.

Travellers have waited a long time for this moment and I am glad that I have been able to see their aspiration for proper recognition come to fruition.

The Taoiseach will know that I have been raising this issue with him for years now, and I want to welcome his statement recognising Traveller ethnicity this evening.

I want to pay tribute in particular to those who have advocated on behalf of the Traveller community; from within the Traveller community itself, but also those from the settled community, who have done so much to advance this cause.

Some have done it for decades.

We need to be mindful also of those who have suffered because they were Travellers and I particularly want to remember the Lynch, Connors and Gilbert families who died in Glenamuck.

I want to pay tribute to the women of the Traveller community.

Like their sisters in disadvantaged sections of the settled community, the women have been the great heroines and the champions who have kept their families going through thick and thin.

I also want to acknowledge the work of Minister of State David Stanton.

Maith thú Aire Stanton. Tá muid buíoch duit.

I commend also the work of the Justice Committees, both in the last Dáil who adopted a report by Pádraig Mac Lochlainn recommending the recognition of traveller ethnicity and also the current Committee chaired by Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin.

Today’s decision to recognise Traveller ethnicity is the right thing to do.

The Taoiseach’s statement this evening finally brings the Irish State into line with existing recognition already in place in the north of Ireland, as well as in England, Scotland and Wales.

The distinct culture, traditions and ethnicity of the Traveller community is to be cherished and valued.

One of the main characteristics of Irish Travellers is their nomadic lifestyle.

This was particularly the case until the 1950s and 1960s.

Until then many earned a living from repairing and making household utensils which were mostly made from tin.

The rapid pace of new technologies, the use of plastic and other cheap goods brought about major changes in Irish Travellers lifestyles.

The Commission on Itinerancy Report of 1963 also had a huge bearing on the lives of Travellers in this State.

The report established policy on Travellers for the following twenty years.

It is one of the most shameful reports in the history of the State.

If Teachtaí want an insight into its agenda or views, they need to look at the terms of reference for the commission.

They were:

(1) to inquire into the problem arising from the presence in the country of itinerants in considerable numbers;

(2) to examine the economic, educational, health and social problems inherent in their way of life;

(3) ... to promote their absorption into the general community.

These terms of reference were dripping in racism and elitism.

They were ignorant, stupid and ill informed.

Little wonder there is, after decades of discrimination and demonisation a sense of demoralisation, low self-worth and inferiority among some in the Travelling community.

The prejudice and discrimination many Travellers face has worsened in recent years.

We need only look to the opposition to a temporary halting site for those bereaved by the Carrickmines fire in late 2015 as an example.

Or the treatment of Travellers in my own constituency who were evicted from a halting site in Dundalk this time last year.

We know that there is much wider institutional discrimination faced by members of the Travelling community, in areas like health and education provision.

That has been a hallmark of the relationship between settled people and Travellers.

It is a relationship that has been blighted by suspicion, resentment and animosity, based on false perceptions and fears.

A lot of this is based on ignorance.

Ignorance breeds fear.

The only cure for ignorance is knowledge.

That comes from education and engagement.

The Proclamation of 1916 should be the mission statement of a modern Irish Republic.
It addresses itself to Irish men and Irish women.

It doesn’t say unless you’re a member of the Traveller community.

All of us have rights.

This includes the right to receive equal service in shops and pubs.

To be able to access education, and health services, and work, and accommodation, on the basis of equality.

Every Irish citizen should enjoy the rights and entitlements that comes with that citizenship.

Regrettably this has not been the case for our Traveller population.

The Traveller child born today faces a life in which he or she will be part of the most socially disadvantaged group in Irish society.

That child will leave school earlier, have little prospect of work, will suffer ill-health and poverty, and will die younger.

He or she will endure substandard living conditions.

Many will have no access to basic facilities such as sanitation, water and electricity.

They will face discrimination in employment and most will never work.

Cutbacks in education, health and other services have impacted severely on the Traveller community.

The suicide rate for Traveller women is six times that of the settled community.
It is seven times higher for Traveller men.

At the root of all these problems are the unacceptable levels of prejudice, discrimination and social exclusion experienced by Travellers at institutional and other levels.

This has to be combatted.

And it can be.

Alongside tonight’s recognition of Traveller ethnicity, there needs to be a process established to improve relation between the settled and Travelling communities.

Sinn Féin have called in the past for the establishment of a national forum, across the island of Ireland, involving Travellers and the settled community, including representatives of all political parties, of government, local authorities, health and education sectors and representatives of media organisations to plan a way forward.

I want to repeat that call this evening.

Such a forum could discuss openly and in detail how discrimination and prejudice against Travellers can be confronted, including prejudicial attitudes facilitated by the actions of some politicians and media outlets.

But despite those decades of discrimination, the Traveller community are a proud people, a resilient people.

I want to acknowledge in particular the huge contribution and influence on Irish traditional music by Irish Traveller families, particularly uilleann pipers and fiddlers.

In their excellent book, Free Spirits, Tommy Fagan and Oliver O’Connell make the point that “Ireland and Irish culture is richer because of the music and songs of the Traveller community”.

The say “wherever Irish music is played, wherever Irish songs are sung, wherever Irish stories are told, and wherever Irish dances are performed the influences of the Dorans, the Keenans, the Fureys, the Dunnes, the Doherty’s and other great Traveller and musical families will be very much in evidence”.

We can add to that Maggie Barry and the Pecker Dunne.

Christy Moore has consistently paid a tribute to John Reilly, who kept alive songs like the ‘Well Below the Valley’, which have been sung for two hundred years.

That is the Traveller community I know.

Creative, strong, resilient, generous.

In the summer of 1969, when sectarian evictions were incited in reaction to the demands of the civil rights movement, I was one of a small group of activists who helped families to move their belongings from their homes.

It should be noted that it was people from the Traveller community in Belfast who provided and drove the lorries at great risk to themselves and which took these families out of danger.

There is among Travellers an articulate grassroots leadership well able to voice Travellers issues and who have consistency raised their community’s awareness of their rights.

Some of them are in the gallery.

Many more are outside.

I know that they are up for the challenge of ensuring that we resolve lingering issues and ensuring our society embraces the differences among citizens that make up the diversity and uniqueness of our island.

Through strong and resolute leadership and co-operation at all levels in political and civic society and in our settled and Traveller communities we can ensure a society that underpins equality for every citizen.

The formal recognition of Traveller ethnicity is not a magic wand or formula that will address the challenges and discrimination faced by the Travelling community on its own, but it is a major step in the right direction.

We need to keep moving in that direction.

That means ensuring the long overdue recognition of Traveller ethnicity is to be the starting point for that process, not the end.

This is a hugely historic moment for the 40,000 members of our travelling community.

It is an important symbolic acknowledgement.

It also must pave the way for real, practical change.

Action must follow ethnicity.