Sunday, February 19, 2017

Brexit threatens the Good Friday Agreement

Michelle O'Neill, mise agus Martina Anderson arriving for All-Island Brexit conference in Dublin Castle on Friday morning

Two weeks from today – Thursday March 2nd – the electorate of the North will be going to the polls. The future of the political institutions, and of the Good Friday Agreement, the allegations of corruption within the RHI scheme, and the need for integrity and respect within those institutions, are for Sinn Féin the core themes of the election campaign.
So too is the issue of Brexit. At a very well attended and successful United Ireland conference in Dublin three weeks ago, I warned that Brexit would destroy the Good Friday Agreement. That it was a hostile action by the British government. British sources were quick to dismiss my concerns. The Irish government was also dismissive. Why? Because each time the Taoiseach Enda Kenny speaks to or meets the British Prime Minister Theresa May she assures him that the British are 100% behind the GFA. And he accepts this without question.
May visited Dublin at the end of January and spoke of a ‘frictionless’ and ‘seamless’ border, and of no one wanting to return to the borders of the past. Meaningless waffle. Kenny parroted her claims with no evidence to show how this could be achieved. On the contrary there is very clear evidence that Brexit on British terms will see the imposition of a hard economic border on the island of Ireland. Last week, for example, the select committee at Westminster, which has been holding hearings on the impact of Brexit on the border, heard from Michael Lux and Eric Pickett, two EU customs and international trade experts.
Lux told the committee that post Brexit the border would become a European border between the EU and a non EU member and that all goods would be subject to the European customs code on the Irish side.
But if there was ever any doubt about the threat Brexit poses to the Good Friday Agreement then it emerged last Wednesday night. The British Parliament spent hours debating a whole series of amendments to the Brexit Bill that will allow Theresa May to trigger Article 50. This will clear the way for the Brexit negotiations between Britain and the EU to commence.
Among the amendments was one which would have blocked any change to the Good Friday Agreement arising from the Brexit negotiations. The Conservative Party, the DUP, the Ulster Unionist Party – favoured partner of the SDLP - and UKIP, and the MP for Bexley and Sidcup, James Brokenshire – the British Secretary of State for the North - combined to vote it down. So much for the assurances of the British government that the Good Friday Agreement is sacrosanct. No great surprise for those like me who know that British governments always act in their own national self-interest and don’t give a tuppenny damn about the North. And as for those who think that attending Westminster makes a difference – well they got their answer on Wednesday evening.
The Westminster vote also shows the short sightedness of the Taoiseach’s approach which is to play the part of junior partner to the British Government.
So things have to change. If the island of Ireland is to avoid a serious economic crisis arising from Brexit the Irish government has to produce a comprehensive negotiations strategy with clear national objectives to protect citizens, workers and key sectors across the island. It requires credible strategy to protect Irish national self-interest. And they don’t have much time to do it. The British government’s triggering of Article 50 is now only weeks away.
Theresa May has outlined her 12 principles going into the Brexit negotiations and two weeks ago the British published their White paper. It was essentially a longer version of May’s speech containing many of the same clichés we have come to expect on this issue from both governments. It even went as far as to talk about “the strength and support of 65 million people willing us to make it – Brexit – happen.” No reference to the millions in the North and in Scotland who voted to remain.
The White paper also claims, and I quote, that the “devolved administrations are fully engaged in our preparations to leave the EU”. Our party's experience to date, having taken part in the meetings of the Joint Ministerial Committee, and from the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales, is that this is simply not true.
I have repeatedly called on the Taoiseach and Irish government to agree a strategic approach to the negotiations with clear political, economic and trade objectives that protect the interests of all citizens on the island of Ireland, defend the Good Friday Agreement, and ensures that the frontier between the EU and Britain is not on the island of Ireland.
This means upholding the democratic vote in the North to remain. It also requires the government, which is at the negotiating table, to actively campaign for the North to have a special designated status within the EU. This requires, as a matter of urgency, a White Paper from the Irish government setting out its strategy and objectives in the Brexit negotiations.
Michelle speaking to the All-Island Brexit Conference

To try to advance this objective I introduced last week in the Dáil the European Communities (Brexit) Bill 2017. An objective of the Bill is to preserve the rights of those citizens in the north who will remain EU citizens in the aftermath of Brexit by virtue of their Irish citizenship. The Bill also places a statutory requirement on the Taoiseach to outline the government’s approach to negotiations surrounding Brexit to the Oireachtas.
All of this is critical to the well-being and future of the Good Friday Agreement. Thus far the Irish government has failed to act decisively as a co-equal guarantor of the Agreement. The dangers this presents are enormous.
We already know that the British government intends to bring an end to the jurisdiction of the European Court. It is also committed to ending its relationship with the European Convention on Human Rights. These two decisions will have profound implications for the Good Friday Agreement.
And none of this deals with the fact that citizens in the North, under the Agreement, have a right to Irish citizenship and therefore to EU citizenship. How can their rights as EU citizens be protected and realised?
In addition, there have been a succession of economic reports, including one recently by the ESRI, which warned that Brexit will cost tens of thousands of jobs.
Did you know that around 60% of goods exported out of the North to the EU actually go to the South? Or that 14,000 people regularly commute across the border for work and business and education? Or that all of those trucks that cross the border every day on their way to Europe via Dublin and other ports will now face customs checks? And that non-EU trucks can take between 20 minutes to two hours to clear!

That’s a lot of jobs at risk. And a very messy process. That’s why you need to use your vote. It’s not all about the unacceptable behaviour of the DUP, although that is central. It’s also about sending a clear message to the Irish government. It’s about the future. So vote. And vote wisely.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Supporting Victims

Supporting victims
February 4th 1992 was a Tuesday. It was also a typically cold though dry day. Martin McGuinness and I left the Sinn Féin office at Sevastopol Street, just off the Falls Road, around 12.30pm. It was a dangerous time. Sinn Féin offices were being regularly targeted for raids by the British Army and RUC. Following a south African arms shipment a few years earlier, facilitated by British intelligence, the UDA, UVF and Ulster Resistance were now well armed with high-powered assault rifles, RPG’s, hand grenades and pistols.
The impact of this weapons shipment, which the British knew about from their senior agent Brian Nelson in the UDA, and from other agents in the north, as well as in South Africa, was significant. In the three years prior to receiving this weapons shipment the loyalist death squads had killed 34 people. In the three years after the shipment they killed 224 and wounded countless scores more. There was also a dramatic rise in the number of Sinn Féin activists and family members killed.
So, bringing senior activists together in a Sinn Fein office was rartely done. Locations for meetings were constantly changed. On that day we were meeting in Conway Mill.
Shortly after 1pm Richard McAuley, who was due to attend the meeting and was typically late, left Sevastopol Street with Fra Fox. The two of them walked down to the Mill. Just as they arrived word came through that the office had been hit. Richard immediately ran back up to Sevastopol Street. When he arrived the paramedics were navigating a stretcher, on which lay Pat McBride, out of the reception office and through the narrow front door. Pat died a short time later.
55 Falls Road was an old terrace house. There was a reception room on the left as you entered and an advice centre behind it. Upstairs was an interview room for the media and our Prisoner of War office. Stuck in a tiny attic was the press office.
Richard went into the side reception room. On the floor lay Paddy Loughran. He had been shot in the head. On the floor opposite was Pat Wilson. He was sitting with his back to a bench. Pat was clearly very badly hurt but his eyes were open and he was looking at Richard. Michael O’Dwyer, who Richard didn’t know, was sitting on the bench behind the door. Richard went to him but it was obvious that he too was dead. Nora Larkin who had also been injured and had been in the advice centre was already on her way to the hospital.
Richard went over to Pat and knelt beside him. Louise from the POW office was also there. The two spoke quietly to Pat as they waited for the paramedics to arrive to lift him out. After they did Richard and Louise went upstairs. Michael O’Dwyer’s two year old son had been in his father’s arms when he was shot and was being looked after by some of the staff. For the O’Dwyer family this was the second tragedy to shatter their lives. Michael’s mother Sadie had been killed in a UVF bomb attack in North Belfast in 1976.
At that point we all assumed that it was an attack by either the UDA or UVF. As it turned out it was an RUC officer called Allan Moore, who then drove to the shores of Lough Neagh and shot himself.
As he left the building Moore was grabbed by Marguerite Gallagher, a stalwart of the Green Cross Art Shop next door. Holding Moore, Marguerite was dragged by him round to his car which was parked on Sevastopol Street. He told her to ‘fuck off’ as he pushed her away and drove off.
I arrived up from Conway Mill to a scrum taking place outside the door of the office. The RUC wanted to close the building and the activists inside were refusing. They weren’t going to be intimidated by anyone. Later when some of those in the building got back into the reception room to clean it they discovered shotgun cartridges and the bag in which Moore had carried his shotgun. The RUC’s forensic examination of the scene clearly wasn’t serious.
The attack on Sevastopol Street was not the first on that building or other Sinn Féin offices. In all 20 members of Sinn Féin, as well as family members – wives, sons, brothers were killed in this period, mostly by unionist paramilitaries in collusion with British state forces.
Within 24 hours of the Sevastopol Street attack two UDA members entered Sean Graham’s bookmakers shop on the Ormeau Road in South Belfast. They opened fire killing 5 customers and wounding 9 other people. The youngest to die was a 15-year-old schoolboy, James Kennedy, the eldest a 67-year-old father of three, Jack Duffin, together with Christy Doherty (52), William McManus (54) and 18-year-old Peter Magee.
Relatives for Justice later exposed the extent of the collusion between the RUC and the loyalists who took part in this attack. The hand gun used was allegedly 'stolen' from a UDR base by UDA killer Ken Barrett who gave it to UDA quartermaster William Stobie. Both of these men were agents working for the RUC Special Branch. They were also part of the gang that killed human rights lawyer Pat Finucane.
State collusion in the murder of citizens has been a fact of life in the northern state from its foundation. Under British control it was part of the institutional apparatus of its counter insurgency strategies. Reports by the Ombudsman’s office into killings in north Belfast and most recently Loughinisland, in County Down, and other reports by groups like Amnesty International, have revealed the extent of state collusion.
The British do not want those truths from becoming known. That is why they have obstructed the agreement reached at Stormont House two years ago into legacy cases. It is why they refuse to fund legacy inquests. It is also why they want immunity for British soldiers and others who were responsible for beatings, for torture, and for murder.
But the British aren’t alone in this. The DUP and the UUP have joined forces in attacking the Public Prosecution Service and the Lord Chief Justice. They too are only interested in protecting British soldiers, the UDR, and the RUC. Does the SDLP share this position? That’s a question that needs to be asked also. Because that party is calling on nationalists to transfer their votes to the UUP. If the UUP can, they say, they will block investigations into British state killings.
For the families of those killed 25 years ago in Sevastopol Street and the Ormeau bookies the weekend commemorations were poignant events. I am very conscious that it is replicated on other anniversaries by other victims and survivors of the conflict.
The narrative here is one story. One narrative. There are others. Each must be respected. The British government and most unionists know that. But they rarely, if ever, acknowledge or concede this truth. This may be understandable when it comes to victims or survivors. But for British politicians like James Brokenshire it is cynical. It means that the past will distort and impede how we as a society shape our future. And that is one of the reasons why Brokenshire and his ilk say and do what they say and do.
For them the war is not over. They live in the past, in their own version of what happened. We cannot be limited in that way. Our priority must be to support victims and to stay focussed on the future.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Civil Rights struggle continues

For the first time footage from August 1968 of the first ever civil rights march in the North was released last week by RTE. The very short 31 second clip is an old grainy black and white film. It shows civil rights marchers arriving in Dungannon from Coalisland to be met by RUC men. In one shot it shows Gary Lennon being served with a notice from the RUC not to enter the Market Square. The report features men, women and children marching and holding banners in protest at discrimination in housing. There were about 2,000 on the march.
It is a potent reminder of the institutionalised abuses of the Orange state and of the courage and determination of the many ordinary men and women who decided to challenge it in the 1960’s. I joined Sinn Fein in the mid 1960’s as a teenager. It was then a banned organisation under the Special Powers Act. The Republican Clubs were initially established to circumvent the ban on Sinn Fein. They were also banned. In early January 1967 I took part in a meeting at which it was agreed to establish the Civil Rights Association (NICRA). Subsequently, on January 29th – 50 years ago last Sunday - a meeting was held in the International Hotel in Belfast.
There were over 100 of us in the room. Young and old, women and men, teenagers, all from many different organisations, political parties and none. There were trade unionists, members of the Wolfe Tone Societies, the Campaign for Social Justice, the Communist Party, the Republican Clubs, the Republican Labour Party, the NI Labour Party and others.
A few months later in early April NICRA agreed its constitution and listed its demands. These were:
·         "One man, one vote" which would allow all people over the age of 18 to vote in local council elections and remove the multiple votes held by business owners - known as the "business vote".
·         An end to gerrymandering electoral wards to produce an artificial unionist majority.
·         Prevention of discrimination in the allocation of government jobs.
·         Prevention of discrimination in the allocation of council housing.
·         The removal of the Special Powers Act.
·         The disbandment of the B Specials.
Six simple demands but each deeply resented and resisted by the unionist elite and by many working class unionists who ever fearful of an end to partition were stuck in a narrow political mindset of ‘no surrender’ and ‘not an inch’.
The Civil Rights Association was hugely influenced by the Civil Rights Movement in the USA, its tactics and philosophy and music. We Shall Overcome became the anthem for civil rights protestors on both sides of the Atlantic. And like the Civil Rights in the USA, it soon became obvious that marches that peacefully challenged the status quo were one way of attracting media attention and raising political awareness.
As a result a decision was taken to hold the first Civil Rights march between Coalisland and Dungannon, with the focus principally on housing. Dungannon Council had a reputation for housing discrimination. The importance of this issue was to be found in the gerrymandering of elections. There was a property qualification in local elections. This meant you had to be the owner or ratepayer of a property to be able to vote. For unionists this meant not building homes for Catholics. That disenfranchised them. Tens of thousands had no vote in local elections.
The result was that every council in the North was controlled by the Ulster Unionist Party, including those in towns and villages with nationalist majorities. One example of this which is cited in the Cameron Report, that examined events between October 1968 and March 1969, was that of Derry County Borough "where 60% of the adult population was Catholic but where 60% of the seats on the Corporation were held by unionists". Cameron confirmed that the unionist controlled criteria for housing "was not actual need but maintenance of the current political preponderance in the local government area".
The housing issue was brought to a head when a father and mother and their three young children were evicted from a house they were squatting in in the village of Caledon in South Tyrone. The Gildernew family, led by Michelle Gildernew’s granny Annie Mary – Nana –had squatted in the house in October 1967 after it was allocated to a single 19-year-old woman. She was employed by a solicitor who was a prospective unionist candidate. She was allocated the house over 269 other applicants on the waiting list, including some living in dwellings designated as unfit for human habitation. The Gildernew’s were supported by local republicans, including Francie Molly and Stan Corrigan.
When the case went to court the judge gave them six months to stay in the hope that the Council would change its mind. However, on June 18th 1968 bailiffs, and RUC men, forced their way into the home and the family were evicted. There was widespread outrage.
The response of NICRA to this and to the scandal of discrimination in housing was to organise the Coalisland to Dungannon march at the end of August.
Six weeks later on October 5th and the hope of peaceful marches was shattered when the RUC brutally attacked the Civil Rights March at Duke Street in Derry. This became the pattern for the future as the Unionist regime at Stormont sought to contain the demand for civil rights through violence and intimidation. It culminated in Bloody Sunday, 45 years ago on Monday, when 14 civil rights marchers were shot dead by the Parachute Regiment of the British Army.
But Bloody Sunday and the decades of repression that followed didn’t end the struggle for civil rights. That struggle goes on today.
It is to be found in the demand for equality and parity of esteem; for an end to sectarianism; and for a society in which citizens are treated respectfully and fairly. The appalling abuse by the DUP and other unionists of Irish language activists and the contemptuous manner in which they treat the Irish language is just one example of continuing inequality.
The denial of marriage equality; the claim by DUP politicians that they have to ‘hold their nose’ when working with Sinn Féiners, are all symptomatic of what is wrong in that party and is still wrong in this society. It’s time to call a halt. That’s what Sinn Féin has done over the RHI scandal and the outrageous decision on Liofa.

But in the meantime if you have a minute – or in this case half a minute – type in ‘Coalisland to Dungannon March RTE’ – and watch a small piece of history being made.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Passing the baton to Michelle

I’m quite sure that the Unionist leaders who built Stormont in the 1930’s and thought they were putting in place a Unionist Parliament for the Unionist people of this part of our island never for a second thought that the day would come when Sinn Féin would a party of government with MLAs walking those corridors as equals. They certainly would never have imagined in their worst nightmares that they would see the Long Gallery taken over by scores of enthusiastic Sinn Féin elected representatives from across the island of Ireland applauding the appointment of a new Sinn Féin leader for the North – and a woman at that!
After the turmoil and frustration of the most recent crisis in the political institutions the introduction of Michelle O’Neill at Parliament buildings as Martin’s successor as party leader in the North was like a deep breath of fresh air. It was a good day.
Mary Lou travelled up from Dublin. Rose Conway Walsh our leader in the Seanad started out early that morning in North Mayo. Peadar Tóibín was there from Meath, Carol Nolan was there from Offaly and Martin Kenny from Roscommon. And there were others. There were MEPs and MPs and MLAs representing all parts of this island. That’s the strength of Sinn Féin. No partitionism in our ranks.
A united party – an all-island party –committed and working for all the people and determined to end partition on this island.
Notwithstanding the election and the huge amount of work that everyone knew will be entailed there was a real sense of change, of passion, of vitality. Everyone present was in great form. There was sadness that Martin’s illness meant he was not standing for Foyle but as he said himself to great applause, ‘I haven’t gone away you know.’ And he hasn’t.
Early last year the two of us and others in our leadership took time to quietly talk about the next steps in the development of the Sinn Féin party, including the need for generational change. Martin told me of his intention to resign as Deputy First Minister in May. That would have marked his tenth year as DFM. He had intended remaining as an MLA for the duration of the Assembly term. However, his illness and the RHI scandal forced a change to his plans. But the rest of the plan is intact.
Over our many years of working together Martin and I have both learned that advances in struggle require creativity and imagination and the occasional introduction of new initiatives. It’s the planned application of classic political strategies to build support and develop new policies for a changing world. It’s also necessary in our unique, innovative power sharing arrangements, about being willing to work with others on the basis of equality and parity of esteem, of respect and generosity. Martin and his colleagues did that every day. It was rarely reciprocated.
Our conversation was necessary because in the last couple of years Sinn Féin has seen our membership expand from three thousand to over twelve thousand. New members bring new ideas, new energy, increased enthusiasm, and create a new dynamic. While remaining true to our republican objectives space must be created for new members to take on responsibilities and help build the party further. We must empower our members to use their initiative, to engage with others, to provide leadership.
As part of this process of last summer the party held a conference in Ballyfermot in Dublin. The purpose was to begin mapping out a ten-year strategy for further growth for Sinn Féin. At the time I said that Sinn Féin is a party in transition. That includes our leadership. I believe that transition must be visible in the gender and age profile as well as the energy and dynamism of our leaders. It must also be evident in a genuinely collective leadership. To achieve that we have to refresh, reimagine and regenerate our party and our leaderships at every level.
Michelle O’Neill is part of this process of generational change within the party. Over her years of activism Michelle has proven herself to be an articulate, committed Sinn Féin leader. Like many republicans her family has had a long connection with republican politics. Her father, Brendan was a former political prisoner and local Councillor, and her Uncle Paul is President of NORAID in the USA.
In her speech to the packed room of the Long Gallery Michelle struck the right note. She set out her stall. She said: “Over the course of the last number of weeks, while others shouted from the sidelines it was Sinn Féin that stood up and confronted corruption.  It was Sinn Féin that called a halt to the arrogance and the intolerance of the DUP…These are challenging times and we have set ourselves big objectives but republicans have never been afraid of challenge. I've never been afraid of challenge and never been afraid to act….” 
Michelle also said: Agreements made must be honoured. Commitments given must be delivered. Partnership government must mean exactly that. It must mean that regardless of where you come from, what language you speak, what your sexuality is, what gender you are – that you are treated with respect. We are standing up for ourselves, for our neighbours and for our communities.”
That is a commitment to action; a promise to deliver for every citizen. I’m very proud to have had the opportunity to appoint Michelle. She comes from a historic tradition of women republican leaders from the North. Some paid the ultimate price for their commitment to freedom, equality and solidarity. They include Máire Drumm who led Sinn Féin in the most difficult times. Michelle is the first of her generation – the post conflict generation – to take up such a primary leadership post. We wish her well. Adh mór Michelle. See you on the campaign trial!

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Stand against corruption

Last Monday Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy First Minister because Arlene Foster refused to stand aside, without prejudice to allow an independent investigation to be established into allegations of corruption, fraud and incompetence at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment.
During this scandal another DUP Minister withdrew Irish language grants of £50,000 from children wanting to travel to the Gaeltacht as part of the Líofa project. It was a deliberate snub to those who wish to live their lives through Gaeilge.
Then serious allegations of sectarian bias emerged about the allocation of money for community centres by the same DUP Minister.
Martin McGuinness’s resignation effectively ended Arlene Foster’s role as First Minister. Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement it fell to the British Secretary of State James Brokenshire to acknowledge the inevitability of an election and March 2nd was set as the date.
And then 24 hours later the British Prime Minister Theresa May finally set out her strategy for Brexit.
So a busy week and an even busier time ahead.
In the Dáil on Tuesday the Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin used statements on the North to engage in his usual sour grapes about Sinn Féin and in support of the SDLP and UUP. He tried to lay every problem that ever existed at our door.
Micheál gets quite hysterical when sounding off about republicans. It was ok when we were up there – you know up North – but with 30 elected representatives in the Oireachtas we are now too close for comfort. Sinn Féin represent a viable alternative for voters and he doesn’t like that.
Spokesperson for some of the parties, particularly Fianna Fáil, have been saying this is an unnecessary election. Micheál Martin said: "Whatever the reasons for the cause of this election". Whatever the reasons??
As I said in the Dáil: That says more about his leadership's historical tolerance of corruption than anything else. For example, Deputy Micheál Martin sat at the Cabinet table for 14 years. While I have no doubt there were good people at that table, the Fianna Fáil leader did nothing about the corruption and waste of public money that characterised that period. He did nothing about the brown envelope culture”.
Sinn Féin will not tolerate behaviour of this kind. All such allegations must be rigorously and independently investigated. So we took a stand against corruption.
We took action as soon as the head of the civil service informed Martin McGuinness early last year that there were serious problems. On 2 February 2016, the deputy First Minister was provided with a briefing on this matter. He immediately asked for urgent action to close down the scheme. That closure was formally agreed by an urgent procedural decision on 5 February and the issue was then passed to the Assembly.
During the Assembly debate on 15 February, Conor Murphy raised his concerns about allegations of fraud within the scheme. At the end of the debate, the SDLP voted to keep the flawed scheme open. So did the UUP. Sinn Féin voted to close it. It was closed on 29 February. Conor Murphy also spoke to the Comptroller and Auditor General and raised with him his concerns about the RHI scheme. The Comptroller and Auditor General produced a damning report in the summer of 2016.
Regrettably, despite our best efforts, the institutions are now gone and an election will be held. On Tuesday in the Dáil I invited Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour to contest to forward candidates. Mary Lou thought it was a great idea.
There was silence from the other parties. But I repeat my invitation. They are going to come up anyway. Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour members will be on the campaign trail to support the SDLP and UUP.  
Beyond the election, there will still be a need for negotiations to establish the institutions, but let us be clear. There is no point in re-negotiating what has already been negotiated but not implemented. These agreements need to be delivered. Much of what is at fault lies in past agreements not being implemented.
There must also be a step change in the behaviour and attitude of the DUP to its partners in government and to the working of the institutions. All people need to feel they are respected. There is also an urgent need for a step change in the approach of the Irish and British Governments.
There is a responsibility on the Irish Government to ensure the agreements are upheld and implemented. In recent years, apart from the pioneering work done by Albert Reynolds and the work done by Bertie Ahern on the Good Friday Agreement, successive Irish Governments have consigned themselves to the role of spectator and occasional commentator. This is no longer good enough.
Finally, Theresa May set out her vision for Brexit. In truth it wasn’t much of a vision. Her decision to leave the single market and the customs union sets Britain on course for a hard Brexit. The economic and political implications of this for the people of this island are significant.
The British Prime Minister provided no new information about Britain’s approach to the North in respect of Brexit; no willingness to look at a special designated status for the North within the EU; no real role for the devolved governments in the negotiations; and old rhetoric on the future of the Common Travel Area. Her remarks on the future of the Common Travel Area contained no new detail.
The British Prime Minister also said that the electorate voted with their eyes open to leave the European Union. She ignores the fact that voters in the north did not. They voted to remain. The DUP’s refusal to accept this is a betrayal of the electorate.
Ms May also repeated her intention to bring an end to the jurisdiction of the European Court. Along with her commitment to remove Britain from the European Convention on Human Rights this will have profound implications for the Good Friday Agreement. The role of these institutions are fundamental to the human rights elements of the Good Friday Agreement.
So, it’s now over to the people. It’s time for you to have your say. The election on March 2nd is about accountability in public life and zero tolerance of corruption. It is about delivering real powersharing based on respect. It is about moving towards a new Ireland. It is about negotiations on Brexit that see the north remain part of the EU. 
It is an opportunity to stand up and be counted.  To do that you need a vote – so put the Andersonstown News down and check if you are registered. If you’re not registered you can’t vote.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Stand up with Martin

The Christmas and New Year period has been a busy time as Sinn Fein grappled with the DUP created Renewable Heat Incentive scandal, the allegations of corruption and fraud associated with it, and the potential half a billion loss to the North’s exchequer.
The actions of the DUP have been outrageous. The refusal of Arlene Foster to step aside until a preliminary report is published effectively blocked any possibility of a robust comprehensive investigation taking place.
Last Friday the Sinn Féin National Officer Board met to discuss the worsening crisis. On Sunday the Ard Chomhairle convened in Dublin and agreed on a recommendation from Martin McGuinness that the time had come for him to resign as Deputy First Minister.
On Monday I spent time with Martin and our negotiating team at Stormont Castle and Parliament Buildings as we worked through the detail of the day’s events, including preparing for the publication of Martin’s resignation letter.  It was a long day for Martin. He has been ill for some weeks and it has taken a toll on him. His frame is leaner and his voice weaker. Many people who haven’t seen him in a while were shocked at his appearance when he spoke to the media on Monday afternoon and announced his resignation. He made it clear that his health has nothing to do with his decision. I also know that he and his wife Bernie and their family are very grateful for the messages of support they have received.
Martin is getting the very best of medical treatment. He is very resilient and will, God willing, be back to full health soon.
On Monday Martin was sharp, articulate and focussed in his meeting with the journalists. He set out the reasons for his resignation in a clear and logical fashion. He said: "We in Sinn Féin will not tolerate the arrogance of Arlene Foster and the DUP. I believe today is the right time to call a halt to the DUP's arrogance."
In response to a question Martin said that the DUP was living in a "Fool's Paradise" if they thought that the status quo would remain unchanged and they could return to government with Sinn Fein after an election.
So, Monday was a significant day for Sinn Féin and for the political institutions, but also for my friend and comrade Martin McGuinness who has led Sinn Féin in the Assembly and Executive for the last ten years.
When I nominated Martin as Deputy First Minister in 2007, after we and the DUP agreed to restore the political institutions, I knew he was the right activist for the job. Sinn Féin and the DUP in the lead roles in the power sharing executive was not a partnership made in heaven – but in the other place. Challenging doesn’t begin to describe it. In 1985 at a time when unionist death squads were smashing down doors to kill nationalists and Sinn Féin members Ian Paisley had infamously posed for an election photo with a sledgehammer in hand and the threat to smash Sinn Féin.
Of course they never did and now in 2007 Ian Pailsey and this former IRA leader from Derry were going to share power in the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister. Remarkably they hit it off. They became the Chuckle brothers. Always smiling, always laughing, and always respectful to each other.
Like many other Derry ‘wans’ Martin had grown up in a city in which Catholics were victim of widespread political and economic discrimination and in which poverty was endemic. Anti-Catholic sectarianism, especially around the July and August loyal order marches, was an annual feature of life. The unionist state’s violent suppression of the civil rights campaign; the Battle of the Bogside, and the emerging troubles, propelled Martin into a different kind of life.
He spent time on the run and was imprisoned in Portlaoise in the 1970’s. He and Bernie and their clann have, like many republican families, been through difficult and turbulent times in the decades since then. When the British reopened the back channel of contact between it and republicans in the late 1980’s it was Martin and Gerry Kelly who took on that arduous and dangerous role.
Without him I don’t think there could have been a peace process. His contribution to the evolution of republican thinking and the creation of the peace process was enormous. When we entered into formal negotiations with the British and Irish governments after the historic cessations Martin was the obvious choice for Sinn Féin’s Chief negotiator.
After the Good Friday Agreement I nominated him as Minister for Education and then in 2007 he became Deputy First Minister – an equal partner to Ian Paisley. In the decade since he has worked with two other DUP First Ministers. He has proven himself to be an able DFM and his work on behalf of victims, and for peace and reconciliation, in Ireland and internationally, has been widely applauded.
He once said: “When change begins, and we have the confidence to embrace it as an opportunity and a friend, and show honest and positive leadership, then so much is possible.”
Martin’s approach to all of this has been guided by the principles of mutual respect, equality and parity of esteem that underpin the Good Friday Agreement. Regrettably during most of this time, Martin, and we in Sinn Féin, have frequently faced deliberate provocation, arrogance and disrespect. 
Under Martin’s leadership Sinn Féin Ministers and MLAs have remained patient. Even when the DUP were behaving in a disrespectful manner we sought to make the Agreement work. It is only through the Good Friday Agreement that peace can be advanced and reconciliation is possible.
As part of this Martin has met Queen Elizabeth several times. He did so very conscious of the criticism this might lead to. He said: “I was – in a very pointed, deliberate and symbolic way – offering the hand of friendship to unionists through the person of Queen Elizabeth for which many unionists have a deep affinity.”
And when so-called dissident Republicans have killed British soldiers, PSNI officers or prison officers, Martin has stood firm and resolutely opposed their actions. As a result his family home in Derry has been the target of attack and his life has been threatened.
Martin would be the first to acknowledge that some republicans and nationalists were discommoded by his ongoing efforts to reach out to unionists. Nonetheless these initiatives were entirely correct. As of right unionists will have an equal place with the rest of us in the new United Ireland. That work cannot wait until then. That work needs done now.
The real test of leadership is to reach out beyond your base. As Mandela did, to make friends with your enemies - your opponents.  Even when the others are churlish, bad mannered or in some cases downright bigoted. That is the real test of leadership. And it is a test Martin McGuinness has passed every time.
There are some, especially in the DUP, who have seen his attempts to promote reconciliation, to defend the peace process, to be generous and patient, as a sign of weakness. It is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of strength.
Martin has been my friend for almost 45 years. He is a remarkable and gifted human being and a great leader and a patriot. By resigning in the face of intransigence and arrogance he has taken a huge step in defence of the peace process. In the election that will now follow the people of the North will have an opportunity to stand with Martin and the rest of us in defence of the Good Friday Agreement and against corruption, against bigotry, against disrespect and to help change the status quo.
Some will say what difference will an election make? That depends on the voters. If people don’t vote or if they vote for the wrong parties then the scandal of the RHI will not be properly investigated and there will be no accountability.
However, if people accept their responsibilities as citizens – if you register to vote and come out in defence of equality, unity, fairness and zero tolerance of corruption, then you will make a difference.

Just like Martin McGuinness has done.