Thursday, August 25, 2016

Ode to a Dog

Long suffering readers of this column will know I am a dog lover. That’s the way it is. For all my many faults that may well be one of my redeeming qualities. 
I was thinking the other day that it may be possible to measure your life by the number of dogs you have known. In my case that would mean that I am starting to get old. 
My first dog was called Darkie. He was a large black and tan canine that stayed with me and my Granny Adams when my Uncles Frank and Seán emigrated to Canada in the 1950s. He was a great dog. I always think of him being big but size is relative. I was only seven or eight at the time so big then mightn’t be so big now. 
It’s like the schoolyard at St Finian’s. When I returned there as an adult it was tiny. But back in the day when Brother Christopher, Mr Nolan, Johnny Blake and Brother Aloysius did their best to educate us the yard was enormous to wee Falls Road primary school students.  
 So too with Darkie. In my memory he is about the size of a Wolfhound. Or at least as big as a Labrador. When our Abercorn Street North  gang used to  foray into Getty Street or into the Dunville Park Darkie was always a great ally against the wee bucks from Getty Street. If he hadn’t been with us I’m sure they would have scalped a few of us or certainly inflicted Chinese water torture on any of us they chanced to capture. Darkie prevented that.  
He also never had a dog licence. I have a distinct memory of my Uncle Paddy telling me how he had trained Darkie to walk well behind us if there were any peelers about. Paddy explained to me how he taught the dog to let on it wasn’t with us in case we were challenged about its licence. Or the lack of it. I always thought Darkie was very smart to be able to do that.  So was Uncle Paddy. 
I don’t recall how Darkie died.  Or even what age he might have been. My Granny Adams  went to Canada for a while and I moved back to the Murph so I suppose Darkie might have moved in with the Begley’s. They lived in Abercorn Street North as well. Funny how important the North bit of that address was to older residents. If any of us said we were from Abercorn Street we usually got corrected. 
‘It’s Abercorn Street NORTH,’ we were told. 
  Funny I’ve never heard of Abercorn Street South or East or West though I suppose there may well be such places. 
So that was Darkie. He is still alive in my memory – that place of wonderment and imagination. He is the first of a long line of four legged  friends. Rory, Mickey, Shane. Cara 1 and Cara 2. Cindy. Barney. Cocker. Oscar. Nuada, Snowie. Fionn. 
I hope I haven’t left anyone out.  All but the last three are in doggie heaven. 
Nuada is up in the mountains living the good life. She was too energetic for our back yard. A real hyper hound, and handsome too. 
Snowie nipped one of the little people in my life.  Dogs do that sometimes. Especially wee dogs. She was banished to the MacManus’ household – the dog not the child - where she now lives a life of ease as befits a madadh of her disposition.
Fionn is lying at my feet now. Snoring gently. He is a  gentleman. Biddable. Calm. Patient. A great buddy to the little people in my life and an intrepid  fetcher of a well pucked sliothar. Or even a mis-pucked one.  
He seems to have life sussed out.  He is a walking, sleeping, eating four legged bundle of good natured doggyness.    
He also loves me. I love him too. And all his ancestors. 

Sunday, August 21, 2016


I don’t mind the rain. I never have. Away back in the day when I was on the run it was easier to wander around West Belfast on a wet day when there weren’t a lot of people about and those who ventured out weren’t paying much heed to anything except the need to get back indoors again as soon as possible.

In the rain you could become invisible. A cap, a parka jacket or a duffle coat hood kept out the drizzle and provided much needed cover from passing British army jeeps and other trespassers. So me and the rain are good friends.

When I was a school boy it wasn’t so easy. Not when your shoes were letting in. My shoes used to let in a lot. It was entirely my own fault. There were no brakes on my bike. So in order to stop or slow down the trick was to wedge your foot in between the front fork of the bike and against the front tire. This had a debilitating effect on the sole of the brogues.

My right shoe had a groove which eventually became porous. My Ma was going to kill me when she found out. That was after Joe Magee had the bright idea of making insoles from oil cloth. But that didn’t stop the socks from getting soaked. That’s the socks which survived. My granny used to darn the lesser damaged ones.

Anyway once it was discovered how our shoes were getting destroyed it wasn’t long before we were forbidden from using our feet as brakes. That was when Joe Magee came up with a wooden wedge as a sort of a brake which worked sometimes. That wonderful invention meant that we only had to use our feet in the event of an emergency. The reason our bikes had no brakes was because me and Joe Magee used to make our own bikes from old frames, bits and pieces of rejected cycle parts and wayward wheels rescued from the dump between Westrock and Beechmount.

For a while we used to collect lemonade bottles up at the Dundrod road races to finance our perambulationary adventures. In those days you got a few pence for returning empty bottles. That was when John Surtees was king of the road. All this was great in the summer when it didn’t seem to rain as much as it does these days. So porous footwear wasn’t such a big problem. Especially with the arrival of plastic sandals. But come the Winter and the rainy season the walk back from school was a bit of a squelch.

Walking back from school was a frequent occurrence. The bus fare usually subsided a bag of broken biscuits from Stinker Greenwoods shop. So it was the young dog for the hard road. Skipping the puddles on route and avoiding the overflows along the way.

In time when I graduated to serious hiking and camping. Water boots became de rigeur. And walking boots plastered with Dubbin. Tents were heavy water proofed canvass. Ground sheets were an optional extra. Joe Magee took himself off sailing in drier warmer climes and ended up in Australia.

I stayed. I like a soft day.

Then along came modern wet gear. Gore Tex. Fleeces. Layers. Window wipers on my specs. All this makes it easier.
My uncle Francie, back home from Canada for my mother’s funeral in 1992, put it well.’

‘ Ireland would be a great country to live in if we put a roof on it.’

My Granny used to say the snow in Canada was dry snow. I couldn’t figure it out when she complained about Irish snow being wet.

A friend of mine did a lot of time in prison in France. When he returned home I asked him what was the difference between prison in Ireland and prison in France. He reflected for a long minute before replying.

‘Nobody talked about the weather.’

Au contraire. We Irish seem to be obsessed by the weather. Little wonder.

I’m sitting here drying out, scribbling these few words. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Another friend of mine, a German woman, said one day.’ The Irish weather! A few days of sunshine and you forgive a month of rain.’

That’s what I hope for. A chance to forgive the rain. Before the Summer gives way to the Autumn.

Friday, August 12, 2016

An all-Ireland suicide strategy is essential

There is not a single family across this island that has not been affected by the challenge of mental health issues. It is now accepted that one in seven adults will experience mental health issues in any given year.
Allied to this is the issue of suicide. It is now believed that the real figures for suicide across the island of Ireland are as high as 1,000 people annually. Under-reporting of suicide has always been a problem. Often deaths resulting from road accidents and drowning are impossible to classify.
The reality is that all sections and all generations of our society are affected, from the very young to the very old, and in rural and urban areas.  Self harming is also a huge issue in Irish society today. Thousands are admitted to hospitals every year as a result of self-harm which in many cases go unreported.
The impact on families and communities is huge. Most are left wondering, Why? They are left asking what they could have done to prevent the death of a loved one. The emotional trauma is enormous. In the aftermath of a suicide, especially of a young person, the potential of others also taking their own lives is high. I still remember visiting the wake homes of four young victims from the Upper Springfield area in west Belfast who had all died from suicide within days of each other.
There is no single or easy explanation for someone deciding to take their life. In my experience the reasons can be many – mental health problems, loneliness, alcohol and substance misuse, an absence of hope for the future, can all contribute to suicide.
There is also a clear and direct correlation between deprivation and suicide. In every statistical analysis that I have read areas of high unemployment and deprivation suffer greater levels of suicide. At the same time suicide is no respecter of class or age or gender.
Last month the investigative on-line news website The Detail reported that there were 318 suicides registered in the North in 2015. This was, it said, the highest annual death rate in 45 years and it means that on average 6 people every day are taking their own lives in the North each year. 93 of those who died by suicide lived within the Belfast Health Trust area. Deprived areas in the six counties suffered from suicide rates that are three times higher than the least deprived areas.
Alarmingly The Detail reported that there had been a total of 7,697 suicides (5,666 were males) from the beginning of 1970 to the end of 2015. This is more than twice the numbers of citizens killed during the decades of war.
12 years ago I was the MP for west Belfast which had, along with north Belfast the highest suicide rates in the north. In October 2004 I lead a delegation of Sinn Fein and community activists to meet with the British Direct Rule Minister Angela Smith. Families bereaved by suicide were leaders in this endeavour. Amongst the proposals we tabled was the creation of a regional suicide prevention strategy and an all-Ireland strategy.
A series of meetings followed with the Department of Health, the Children's Commissioner in the north, and with the North and West Health & Social Services Trust. Protests were also held and on one occasion I wrote to Mary Harney, the Dublin Minister for Health, requesting a meeting to discuss a suicide prevention strategy for the island. I’m still waiting a response to that letter.
The intensive lobby in the North succeeded in 2006 in securing the establishment of the ‘Protect Life’ suicide prevention strategy and action plan. Since then over £50 million has been spent on suicide prevention. Undoubtedly many lives have been saved but the recent statistics are evidence that much more needs to be done.
Suicide is also a major issue in the South. In June the Mental Health Commission published its annual report. The State's mental health policy, A Vision for Change, has been in place since 2006 and the Mental Health Commission undertook a strategic review as part of developing a new strategic plan for 2016-2018.
The commission's report illustrates how much remains to be done. This includes a need for independent monitoring of the Vision for Change policy which is now ten years old.
There are also significant issues around the lack of funding. The current level of funding for mental health is still less than the 8.24% target based on the 2005 figures envisaged in A Vision for Change. The staffing levels are about 75% of the Vision for Change recommended number.
According to the Mental Health Commission's report, there is a serious deficiency in the development and provision of recovery oriented mental health services. This concept, which is about aiding a person's recovery rather than managing the illness, is crucial. The report also states that the reason for this is the combined effect of poor manpower planning, lack of change in professional training schemes, cuts in public expenditure, delays in recruitment and a shortage of appropriately trained staff.
The most recent statistics available for suicide in the South claim say that 459 persons - 368 males and 91 females - took their own lives in 2014.

In the North a new 'Protect Life 2' strategy is expected to be issued for consultation next month with final publication of the strategy being due in 2017. To be successful it needs to reflect the experience of those bereaved families and community and voluntary groups campaigning on suicide. It also needs to be properly resourced.
12 years after the commencement of the campaign for a suicide prevention strategy for the North and ten years after A Vision for Change, the need for an all-island suicide prevention strategy is even greater than ever. Such a strategy needs to be properly funded and coordinated and bring together all of the statutory agencies, including health and education. Voluntary and community groups cannot provide this. Governments must do so.
Useful Numbers
Lifeline is the crisis response helpline service in the North for people who are experiencing distress or despair. It can be contacted confidentially on 0808 808 8000.
The Samaritans can be contacted by telephone on 116 123 or
Suicide Down to Zero can be contacted on
Pieta House Freecall 1800 247 247. Or if you can simply text HELP to 51444.
Public Initiative For The Prevention Of Suicide And Self- Harm (PIPS) is a support service for people who need intervention or for those who have survived suicide loss. It can be contacted at T 086 193 3074: W

Save Our Sons and Daughters (Sosad) can be contacted at 041 984 8754 and w

The H.S.E. Suicide Prevention Helpline Free Phone 1800 222 282

Thursday, August 4, 2016

I am proud to be a rebel - Roger Casement

A Plaque and Mural to Roger Casement were unveiled at Casement Park on Wednesday morning the centenary of his execution.

Tuesday was the anniversary of Big Doc’s (Kieran Doherty) death on hunger strike. He died the day after Kevin Lynch. Five days earlier on July 29th 1981 I had visited the H Block Hospital in Long Kesh with Owen Carron and Seamus Ruddy of the IRSP. By this point in the hunger strike Bobby, Francie, Raymond, Patsy, Martin and Joe had all died. As well as Big Doc and Kevin, Tom McElwee, Laurence McKeown, Matt Devlin, Pat McGeown, Paddy Quinn and Mickey Devine were in the prison hospital.
I met all of them together except Kevin and Bid Doc. Kevin was too ill. When I entered Doc’s room he was propped up on one elbow listening. He was on his 69th day of hunger strike and could no longer see. But Doc was as determined as ever. He understood the gravity of the situation. His words were defiant: “Too much suffered for too long, too many good men dead. Thatcher can’t break us. Lean ar aghaidh. I’m not a criminal… I don't want to die, but that's up to the Brits. They think they can break us. Well they can’t…Tiocfaidh ár lá."
Five days later Big Doc died.
Sadly, Irish history is replete with the stories of men and women, of heroes who died in pursuit of freedom. Another of these is Roger Casement whose centenary anniversary is this week. He was hanged by the British on August 3rd 1916. He was the last of the leaders of the Rising to be executed.
Casement was born in Dublin but was raised in and around Ballymena in County Antrim. He was a member of an Ulster Protestant family, a Knight of the British Empire and a British diplomat. He was also a gaelgóir who loved the Glens of Antrim. He was proud to be Irish and was resolutely opposed to British rule in Ireland.
During his time as a British diplomat Roger Casement saw at first hand the impact of European Imperialism in Africa and South America. He wrote extensively about this and his efforts succeeded in bring some positive change to the lives of millions of people.
In 1903 Casement was asked by the British government to produce a report on the conditions in what was then called the Belgian Congo. Casement was thorough in his endeavours and his report gives an insight into how European colonialism acted in its own self-interest and the horrifying effect this had on the local peoples. And like Ireland, where the initial excuse for the English invasion was to ‘civilise the barbarians’, so too was this pretext used in Africa.
The Belgian King Leopold 11 had established in 1876 an ‘international benevolent committee for the propagation of civilization among the peoples of Central Africa.’ 8 years later at the Conference of Berlin the European colonial powers, along with the Ottoman Empire and the United States, divided Africa up among themselves.
Leopold established the Congo Free State, a territory of over two million square miles and it became his personal fiefdom, his sole property. He set up the Force Publique and military body run by white officers whose job it was to ensure that the Congo’s vast wealth and resources were exploited in Leopold’s interests.
Rubber and ivory were the main produces. Indigenous workers were mercilessly exploited. Many died from exhaustion and hunger and disease working on the rubber plantations. Resistance was ruthlessly suppressed. Victims were often flogged using the chicotte, a whip made of sun-dried hippopotamus hide with razor-sharp edges. Most victims were given a hundred lashes from which many died. Those who tried to escape or rebel had their right hand cut off.
This was the state of the Congo when Casement was asked to journey there and produce a report. Casement’s exposé of the cruelty of Leopold’s activities created an international outcry. Leopold was stripped of his control of the Congo by the Belgian government.
Casement was subsequently sent to South America by the British government. He was appointed Consul-General in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil and was asked to investigate the use of slaves and the ill-treatment of local native people by a British rubber company. In his report to the British Foreign Secretary on St. Patrick’s Day 1911 he graphically described the atrocities being carried out by the rubber company. 
It was this record of work as a diplomat and a senior public servant for the British Empire which almost certainly sealed his fate in August 1916. More than any of the other leaders of the Rising Casement was seen by the British establishment as a traitor to his class and to the Empire.
In 1913 Casement helped found the Irish Volunteers. He travelled to the USA to raise money for that organisation and was involved in the smuggling of German weapons into Howth in July 1914. Casement negotiated with the German government during the First World War for more guns and assistance for the planned rebellion. In April 1916, Casement returned to Ireland on board a German submarine. He was captured at an old ringfort near Banna Strand in County Kerry just three days before the Rising. He was sent to London where he was tried for treason. The inevitable verdict was guilty and despite many pleas for clemency, he was sentenced to death. Roger Casement was hanged on August 3rd 1916.
Casement’s speech from the Dock, like the last words of those executed in May 1916, still resonate 100 years later for a new generation of Irish republicans. It is a scathing critique of Britain’s presence in Ireland and of the right of the Irish nation to freedom.
It’s much too long to carry here but the following excerpts give some sense of its strength and vitality and durability. 
“With all respect, I assert this court is to me, an Irishman, charged with this offence, a foreign court -- this jury is for me, an Irishman, not a jury of my peers to try me on this vital issue, for it is patent to every man of conscience that I have a right, an indefeasible right, if tried at all, under this statute of high treason, to be tried in Ireland, before an Irish court and by an Irish jury. This court, this jury, the public opinion of this country, England, cannot but be prejudiced in varying degrees against me, most of all in time of war. I did not land in England. I landed in Ireland. It was to Ireland I came; to Ireland I wanted to come; and the last place I desired to land was in England…
This is the condemnation of English rule, of English-made law, of English government in Ireland, that it dare not rest on the will of the Irish people, but exists in defiance of their will: that it is a rule, derived not from right, but from conquest... I am proud to be a rebel and shall cling to my ‘rebellion’ with the last drop of my blood.”

Thursday, July 28, 2016

An end to the Union

On her first visit this week to the North as British Prime Minister Theresa May met the First and Deputy First Ministers. Martin McGuinness told her that the British have to respect the democratically expressed wishes of the people of the North who see their future in Europe and voted to remain in Europe. 
One of Mrs May’s first jobs on becoming Prime Minister was to appoint a new Secretary of State. Jude Collins likes to refer to them as our ‘pro-consul’ to give them their full imperial Roman title.
Believe it or not the new occupant of Hillsborough Castle – James Brokenshire – is the nineteenth British politician to hold that position. The first was William Whitelaw in 1972. He was appointed after the Conservative government of Ted Heath had decided to consign the unionist regime at Stormont to the dustbin of history. He was also the first that I met as republicans attempted to negotiate with the British government in the summer of that year. That’s a story for another time.

Apart from Theresa Villiers and Mo Mowlam the rest were men. All of those I have known had different personalities. Some were friendlier than others. Some of them were downright Machiavellian in their machinations. But all of them were in the North to defend and promote British national interests. These interests rarely co-incided with the interests of the people of the North or of the island of Ireland.

They were a mixed bunch in terms of ability. Most were distant and aloof – most were in the pockets of the generals and securocrats and the intelligence services. I suspect some of them liked to play at being M in James Bond.

Merlyn Rees came across as a bit of a bumbler. But it was he who introduced the criminalisation policy and built the H-Blocks.

Roy Mason was an arrogant wee man with a Napoleonic complex who believed that he would ‘squeeze the IRA like a tube of toothpaste.’ Under his watch torture was routinely used in the interrogation centres in the RUC’s Castlereagh centre, Gough Barracks in Armagh, Strand Road in Derry and other places. It was Mason who presided over the ‘conveyor belt’ system of arrest – torture – Diplock non-jury courts and the H-Blocks and Armagh Women’s prison. The law became another weapon in the British arsenal to defeat republicans.

After Margaret Thatcher because British Prime Minister in May 1979 she appointed Humphrey Atkins to the North. A local wit painted a long graffiti question, ‘Humphrey WHO?’ on the wall at Beechmount Leisure centre on the Falls Road. Atkins was the Secretary of State during one of the most turbulent periods in the ‘troubles’. Under his watch the hunger strikes of 1980 and 81 occurred. He was the face of Thatcher in the media defending British inflexibility. Those who followed him during the 1980’s were all Thatcher’s men. In my memory one merges into the other.

The first British Secretary of State I met after 1972 was Patrick Mayhew. As British Attorney General he agreed a deal with Brian Nelson, a British agent within the UDA, which saw charges of murder against Nelson dropped in order to avoid embarrassing revelations about the role of the British state in collusion. Mayhew was in the North when the media broke the story of secret contacts between republicans and the British government.  Mayhew initially denied this then he lodged a record of the exchanges in the British Parliament in November 1993. Embarrassingly for the British their effort to rewrite some of them was quickly exposed.
A team of us worked overtime in the Sinn Féin office in Turg Lodge to compile our record of these exchanges. When we published them our version was generally accepted as the truthful account.

My first meeting with Mayhew took place in Washington in May 1995. President Clinton had organised an economic conference to boost the peace process. It proved impossible for the British, who had been trying to prevent Mayhew meeting with the Sinn Féin leadership, not to agree a meeting at the conference. It was a very surreal meeting. There was to be no coffee, tea or anything stronger. Just a quick handshake — in private, no cameras — and a fifteen-minute meeting. Mayhew, using a written speaking note, told us why the British government would not allow Sinn Féin into all-party negotiations. He was visibly shaking and nervous as he spoke, and he stuck rigidly to the text of his note, which the British issued afterwards, almost word for word, as a public statement.

I met Mayhew several times after that. He loosened up a wee bit but under his and John Major’s intransigent stewardship the IRA cessation collapsed and the opportunity for progress was stalled.

Mayhew was followed by Mo Mowlam – an entirely different character. She is generally fondly remembered by all of us who knew her. She was smart and funny and willing to listen. Her battle against ill-health is well known. Her famous wig – which she would throw on the table at the start of a conversation – was a great device for disarming the most outraged politician at the table.

But like all of her predecessors and successors Mo was in the North to defend British interests. Though these changed slightly under Tony Blair she did her job. On one occasion we discovered that the car Martin McGuinness and I were using to attend secret meetings was bugged. It was a stupid move by the British – a breach of good faith – and was authorised by Mo Mowlam.

But she had a good heart. She authorised funding for Bunscoil Phobal Feirste – despite huge resistance from within the Department of Education. She gave former British military bases back to local communities and supported the development of the Black and Divis mountains as a public amenity alongside numerous other little things.

I spent my Sunday mornings or Saturday afternoons walking the garden at Hillsborough Castle with her and her predecessors and successors trying to get as much progress as possible while also impressing upon them the need for an end to the union and partition.
Those that came after Mowlam brought their own personalities, competence and bias with them. Whether Peter Mandelson or Peter Hain or Theresa Villiers all were first and foremost in the North as Britain’s pro-consuls – to defend British interests on the island of Ireland.

Before they arrived most were also relatively unknown – certainly in Ireland. Few here had ever heard of Francis Pym or Roy Mason or Peter Brooke. Many were never heard of again.
And now we have James Brokenshire. Who I hear you ask? And truth be told I don’t know. Once again a British politician – who has no stake in this island - is given influence over our lives by a British government whose priority interests are not ours. And so it goes on. And so it should end.

The Brexit referendum vote is just one more example of this. The Conservative government in London is committed to leaving the European Union. The people of the North rejected this. All of this is an argument for an end to the union with Britain and for new relationships on the island of Ireland in which our priorities, or interests are what will dictate policy.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Building for Success and a United Ireland

In 1992 Sinn Féin held our Ard Fheis in the Ballyfermot Community Centre. The previous year Dublin City Council had barred us from the Mansion House and the political establishment was united in blocking us from all municipal buildings.
It was a historic Ard Fheis. We launched our Towards a Lasting Peace in Ireland policy document which was the cornerstone of our peace strategy and which within three years saw the successful opening up of the peace process.
At that time the community centre was a ramshackle and deprived public utility. It was so small that we had to erect and attach a marquee. The community association, led by Vincent Jackson, were told their funding would be cut if they let us across the door. The government and Dublin City Council were told where to go.
Last weekend Sinn Féin was back in Ballyfermot in the Civic and Community Centre. It is a modern, open and airy, three story building and a fitting testimony to the hard work of the local community.
Sinn Féin activists from across the island of Ireland were there to map out our ambitions for Ireland over the next decade, as we continue to work towards Irish unity and the transformation of Irish society.
Ten years ago we engaged in a National consultation process – “Regaining the Momentum”. We set ourselves clear goals, and agreed local programmes of work. We set ourselves two election cycles as a timeframe.
10 years on and we are planning for the next decade. Last weekend’s Ballyfermot meeting was about democratising that process.
Our starting point is as a United Ireland party. Our objectives are Irish reunification; to build an Ireland of equals; and to secure national self-determination and political independence and sovereignty. There will not be a real republic without a United Ireland. To achieve this we need to build our political strength and build alliances with others. We are also for fundamental political and societal change.
The political establishments north and south are opposed to our objectives. The British establishment is also opposed to the emergence of the type of Ireland we envisage. All those interests act to thwart us.
When you add to this the task of government in the north and the political objective of getting into government in the south, then the challenges are significant, but not insurmountable.
Republicans have to turn the majority nationalist emotional commitment to reunification into an active political commitment.  We have to persuade an undefined small percentage of unionists to that position.
One of the game changers for Sinn Féin in pursuit of ending partition will be our influence over or leadership of an Irish Government.  By definition that means that Sinn Féin in government in Dublin or Sinn Féin as the main opposition party. This is a huge challenge. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael will not easily surrender that ground to us.
People in the 26 Counties also need to be convinced that a United Ireland is affordable. 
People in the six counties need to be convinced that unity will work and that the loss of the subvention will not impoverish them. 
On June 23rd the overwhelming majority of citizens in the north voted to remain within the EU. In the aftermath of that vote I and others in Sinn Féin said that an opportunity existed to hold and win the referendum on Irish unity contained in the Good Friday Agreement. A series of well attended public meetings is evidence of the popularity of this view.

Initially our position was criticised by some of our political opponents. But in recent days that early response has dramatically changed. At the weekend the Fianna Fail leader and then the Taoiseach Enda Kenny came around to this position also. The SDLP has also supported a referendum.

Last Monday I was in Stormont. It is clear that there is widespread concern within the business community, the voluntary and community sector, within the agriculture and tourism sectors that Brexit will adversely impact on the North’s economy.

The Good Friday Agreement allows for national reunification if a majority in the North consent to that. In the context of the North being dragged out of the EU by England there is now a greater opportunity to achieve this. The Agreement also makes very clear that in the event of a majority of citizens opting for reunification that the sovereign government would be obliged in this international treaty to exercise its responsibilities and powers with rigorous impartiality and would fully respect the “civil, political, social and cultural rights, of freedom from discrimination for all citizens, and of parity of esteem and of just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos, and aspirations of both communities.”
In the time ahead more and more people, who would have either opposed Irish unity or would have been dubious of it, will be open to the idea of exploring new relationships on this island. To make best use of this opportunity all of those parties on the island which support reunification need to discuss how best this can be achieved.

There is a need to be open and imaginative about the possible new constitutional arrangements and political structures that might be needed. At a meeting of party leaders with the Taoiseach I urged the Taoiseach to push ahead with an island-wide dialogue to discuss how the remain vote in the North can be respected and what agreed strategy can be put in place to minimise the impact of Brexit.

He agreed that an island wide dialogue is needed. He also agreed to bring forward propositions to achieve this.

That project needs to move ahead speedily so that in any negotiations involving the EU and Britain and the Irish government that the proposal for a referendum on Irish unity is on the agenda.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Brexit, Iraq and the Somme

It has not been a good couple of weeks for British politics. The Chilcot report into the War in Iraq and the Brexit referendum result, which will see the British state exit from the EU over the next few years, coupled with the internal divisions in both of the main political parties, has created a significant political crisis.
All of this, but especially Brexit, will have a considerable impact on the island of Ireland, and especially the north. The loss of funding from the various EU sources, including the Peace Programmes and the Interreg Cross border programmes, as well as for farming families and the community sector, is expected to be considerable.
Last week I met delegates from the East Border Region programme which covers six local councils – three on each side of the border. Our focus was on how funding from the EU can be protected following the Brexit vote. The delegates are worried that Brexit puts at risk 19 projects it is currently developing worth 132 million euro. They are not alone in this concern.
Theresa May is now the British Prime Minister. She has the responsibility for managing the British disengagement from the EU but she also has responsibility for implementing the Good Friday Agreement. In April she publicly announced her commitment to ending the British government’s involvement with the European Convention on Human Rights.
The Tories have also stated their desire to scrap the Human Rights Act which according to the Human Rights group Liberty ‘would amount to a serious breach of the GFA’.
These are the essential rights framework within the Good Friday Agreement that are needed to ensure no repeat of the past policies of discrimination and repression that were a part of the northern state from partition.
As co-equal guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement the Irish government has an onerous responsibility to defend this international treaty and the human rights elements of it. The Taoiseach must make very clear to Ms May that the Irish government will not countenance any action by the British government that will undermine the integrity of the 1998 Agreement and subsequent agreements.
A week later however the fallout from the Chilcot report continues to reverberate. Chilcot accused Tony Blair of invading Iraq before all ‘peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted. Military action at that time was not a last resort.’ Much attention has also focussed on the former British Prime Minister’s words to George W Bush eight months before the invasion in which he said: “I will be with you, whatever.”
What emerges from Chilcot’s two and a half million words is a British government that had not prepared its military for the invasion. It had neither the right military equipment nor the necessary strategies essential to an invasion. Nor did it adequately plan for any political vacuum arising from the defeat of Saddam Hussein. Like David Cameron who had no plan for a successful ‘leave’ Brexit vote, Tony Blair had no post-invasion strategy.
In the course of Sinn Féin’s negotiations in 2002 with Tony Blair both Martin McGuinness and I raised the prospect of an Iraq invasion with him. We told Mr Blair and his colleagues very strongly that an invasion would be wrong. We also warned him that, in our view, the outcome of any war would be a disaster for the people of Iraq and for the British people. We put this to him in a very forthright way and on a number of occasions.
It was very clear to us from those conversations, many months before a public decision to invade was announced, that Mr Blair was committed to this course of action.
Finally, at the same time as the Chilcot report was being published commemorations were being held in France, Britain and here in Ireland in remembrance of the victims of an earlier conflict. The Battle of the Somme began on July 1st 1916 and ended in November of that year.
The report of the Chilcot inquiry into the invasion of Iraq is a reminder of how little the British state has learned in the intervening 100 years. The similarities are striking. Disastrous political decisions and the ill preparedness of the British military in attacking the German lines at the Somme in July 1916 are reflected in the invasion of Iraq in January 2003.
On July 1st 1916 after five days in which over a million shells were fired by the British artillery, British soldiers, including many Irish, went ‘over the top’. They did so believing that the barbed wire lines had been destroyed.  However, because of poor quality control, a huge percentage of the artillery shells were duds. Most of those that did explode were shrapnel shells which were largely ineffective against the German soldiers in their deep dugouts and against the barbed wire entanglements.
At the end of that first day the British Army had lost 60,000 men, a third of them dead and many others who would never fight again. When the battle finally ended in November the British Army had 420,000 men killed or injured; the French about 200,000 and the Germans around half a million. No side had won.
Like Iraq 87 years later, and many other post-colonial conflicts after 1945, British military planning was inept, military equipment was often ineffective and the decisions of its political leadership doomed many soldiers and civilians to death.

These wars, like those in this part of Ireland, and in Kenya, Yemen, Palestine and Afghanistan and many more were the result of bad political decisions and the willingness of political leaders to hand over responsibility for political disputes to the generals. A recipe for disaster.