Saturday, May 19, 2018

The state versus women

The last few weeks have seen the southern state rocked by the cervical smear scandal and a shameful lack of individual and institutional accountability for this. It’s a story that only emerged as a result of the determination of terminally ill Vicky Phelan to stand up for truth and transparency. In April Vicky refused to collude in the cover up by rejecting a demand that she sign a confidentiality agreement as part of the settlement between her and a US Laboratory, Clinical Pathology Laboratories Inc. The laboratory was responsible for giving her the all clear from a 2011 smear test.
Three years after her test and the all clear she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. It was another three years before Vicky Phelan learned that her original smear result had been wrong.
Her refusal to acquiesce to the demand that she remain silent was key to lifting the lid on this scandal. In the weeks since almost every day has brought new information and new victims to light.
Several hundred women were wrongly given the all clear. Despite an audit of cervical smear tests which brought this information to light most the women affected – 162 – were not told that their results were incorrect. 18 of these women are dead and 15 died without ever knowing that their original all-clear smear results were wrong.
Stephen Teap’s wife Irene was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2015, and died two years later. Last week Stephen was told by the Health Service Executive (HSE) that she had been given two inaccurate smear test results. The first in 2010. The second in 2013.
Emma Mhic Mhathúna’s desperately sad and emotional interview on RTE’s Morning Ireland programme last Thursday morning shocked everyone who heard it. A mother of five from Kerry Emma told how she had been given the all clear in 2013 after a smear test. Three years later she was diagnosed with cervical cancer and last week she was told that she is going to die. She said: “If my smear test was right in 2013 I wouldn’t be where I am today. That’s what makes it so heartbreaking. I’m dying while I don’t need to die. My children are going to be without me and I’m going to be without them… I don’t even know if my little baby is going to remember me.”
At the weekend Paul Reck revealed that his wife Catherine was one of the 209 women who had not been told that their all-clear results were wrong. Catherine had had a smear test done in November 2010 and was subsequently told that it showed low grade cell abnormalities. A year later she was diagnosed with cervical cancer and died in April 2012. Last Thursday Paul was told by Tallaght hospital that the smear test result was wrong.
On its own the cervical cancer smear test scandal is bad. It reveals much about the poor state of the health system in the south and the desire of those in senior positions to cover-up mistakes, incompetence and bad decisions. It reveals a government failing its citizens and especially our most vulnerable patients.
But it also says much about the very nature of the southern state. Over recent years and decades there have been a succession of scandals that have for a time captured the headlines and shocked society. The revelations about the ill-treatment of children in the industrial schools, the horrifying extent of clerical child abuse, the disgraceful mistreatment of women in the Magdalene Laundries, the butchery of symphysiotomy, the death of Savita Halappanavar, the mother and baby homes, the arrogance of a state that forced Louise O’Keefe to go through the trauma of an endless court battle and many more.
Cover-up, the deliberate use of misinformation and concealment, incompetence and lies have been the norm in the Irish state’s response to scandals that have emerged.
In the 1990’s over a thousand people, mainly women, were infected with contaminated blood products. The Blood Transfusion Service Board were told this but failed to tell those who had received the products. A report published three years ago revealed that at least 260 people who were infected with Hepatitis C from these blood products, had died in the 20 years since the facts first emerged.
One of those to die was Brigid McCole. As well as fighting for her life Brigid was forced to contest a long legal battle, which only ended several days before she died when the state finally agreed compensation. Over one billion euro has since been paid in compensation to the victims of Hepatitis C.
Another victim of the state’s strategy of forcing victims into lengthy legal ordeals is Louise O’Keefe. She was the victim of child abuse at a school in West Cork. In January 2014, after a fifteen year legal battle with the Department of Education the European Court of Justice ordered the Irish government to pay Louise compensation for the abuse she had endured as a pupil.
Shortly after I was elected as a TD for Louth and East Meath I met with several elderly women who came to see me to explain about symphysiotomy and about what had been done to them. I had never heard of symphysiotomy, but from them I learned that it involves severing the cartilage that connects the symphysis pubis with a scalpel under local anaesthesia, followed by unhinging of the pelvic bones to the extent needed for the delivery of a baby.
I was deeply moved by their stories of pain and abuse and overwhelmed by their courage and resilience. Many of them were never asked if they wanted the procedure and endured decades of distress afterward. Almost all are now in the eighties. Once again the government had to be dragged into agreeing a redress scheme which has so far paid out almost €34 million in compensation. Some women refused to participate in the government sponsored scheme and continue to seek redress through the courts.
In all of these and other instances there are two common threads. In almost every case the victims were women. And in almost every case the Irish state refused to treat the victims humanely and compassionately, forced them into court and spent millions fighting court cases despite knowing that they were in the wrong. One media report in recent days quotes Caoimhe Haughey, a solicitor who represents victims of medical negligence saying: “My experience of dealing with these cases is that is it a nightmare. Everything is fought tooth and nail”.
This has to change. So too must the denial of information to victims and families. As Health Minister, Leo Varadkar promised to introduce mandatory disclosure for health professionals but, following advice from the Chief Medical Officer, he decided not to proceed. Sinn Féin brought forward a Dáil motion this week calling on the government to legislate for mandatory disclosure before the summer recess. The onus is now very much on the government to right these past wrongs.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Let our revenge be the laughter of our children

RG and I arrived in Bilbao in the Basque Country, on the same flight as former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, last Thursday afternoon. While we were in the air a press conference in Geneva, Switzerland had heard a statement from ETA, the Basque resistance group, announcing that it was dissolving. From Bilbao RG and I were driven for more than two hours along fast motorways, and then through narrow country roads that twisted and turned along steep valleys, green and beautiful despite the overcast sky.

Despite the poor mobile signals, that was more often down than up, we did our best to keep abreast of developments in the west Tyrone by-election.

Towards 6pm arrived at our hotel in the picturesque village of Ainhoa, on the French side of the border between France and Spain. We joined several others, including Bertie, Jonathan Powell, and Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas of Mexico and some Basque colleagues who were due to take part the following day in an international conference to discuss the Basque peace process.

On Friday morning I awoke to the news that Orfhlaith Begley had comprehensively won the west Tyrone seat – taking almost half of the vote. A remarkable success. And I told her so when eventually, in between her interviews, I managed to speak to her.

The International Panel left the hotel shortly before 10.30am and in a convoy of five cars, we travelled the short distance to Kanbo, or in French Cambo les Bains. This is a small rural town in the foothills of the Pyrénées in the Basque province of Labourd in the French Basque country. One its more famous inhabitants was the French playwright and novelist Edmond Rostand. His most famous work is Cyrano de Bergerac. His home, the Villa Arnaga, is now a museum and heritage centre and on Friday hosted the conference.

A hundred or so guests, representative of Basque society and from both sides of the border, were there to listen to our contributions. Regrettably the Spanish government was not represented. There was a very large press corps to hear the outcome of our deliberations and our view on the decision by ETA.

Sinn Féin has had a long engagement with the Basque peace process. After the Good Friday Agreement was achieved in 1998 I travelled to the Basque Country and met political representatives from all sections of society there.

In the years since then Sinn Féin leaders, including Alex Maskey, Gerry Kelly and Martin McGuinness and others have travelled regularly to the region. Over the years the process that has emerged in the Basque country has drawn closely on the Irish peace process, including adopting the Mitchell Principles of ‘exclusively political and democratic means’to advance political objectives.

Almost eight years ago I attended a conference in Donostia-San Sebastian in Euskadi ‘to promote the resolution of the conflict in the Basque County’. Following our deliberations we called upon ETA to ‘make a public declaration of the definitive cessation of all armed action and to request talks with the governments of Spain and France to address exclusively the consequences of the conflict.’ Three days later ETA declared a “definitive cessation of its armed activity …”

In the years since then Sinn Féin has continued to engage in the Basque peace process. Last year ETA put its arms beyond use and two weeks ago it apologised for the hurt that it had caused. Last week it announced its decision to dissolve. It is a historic moment for the people of the Basque country everyone who has worked to create this opportunity for peace must be commended, especially the people of the Basque country.

When I addressed the conference last Friday I recalled the contribution of my friend Fr. Alec Reid who played a pivotal role in the Irish peace process and then spent many years travelling to the Basque country to help foster the conditions for the progress we were witnessing. I commended also the contribution of the Rev Harold Good, who was in Euskadi several weeks ago, and Martin McGuinness who had energetically supported this process over many years.

The Basque peace process, like the Irish peace process, is an example of what is possible when people of goodwill, determination and vision, refuse to lose hope and don’t give up.This is especially important as we look around the world today – at the desperate conditions of the Palestinian people – at events in Syria and Yemen, at the conflict in South Sudan and other wars in so many places.
In war you demonise, imprison, isolate, marginalise, criminalise and you kill your opponents. Making peace is much more challenging. It requires a different mindset and the starting point has to be dialogue. Making that happen requires positive leadership.

In my view there is a particular onus on governments, which are the powerful actors in any conflict, to proactively engage in efforts to create and sustain the conditions for a peace process. This isn’t easy for any state that has invested time, effort, money and lives in trying to win a conflict and defeat its enemy.
It is proving especially difficult for the Spanish government which has adopted a triumphalistic, entirely negative and unhelpful response to the ETA decision. A historic opportunity for peace and reconciliation has now opened up thanks to the efforts of the people of the Basque country and international community. The Spanish and French governments should embrace this new opportunity. The Spanish government could especially send a very positive signal of intent for a new future by agreeing to transfer Basque prisoners to prisons closer to their homes. That would not be a sign of weakness but a positive sign of compassion and compromise.

The issue of victims is also hugely important. Reconciliation and healing, and dealing thoughtfully and compassionately with the past, is an integral part of any conflict resolution process. The views of victims, all victims, must be heard. People on all sides to the conflict in that region have been hurt. But anger is not a policy. Revenge is not an option.

As I addressed the conference I told them that the following day, Saturday May 5th was the anniversary of the death on hunger strike of Bobby Sands. Bobby once wrote about revenge. He said; “Let our revenge be the laughter of our children.”

On that good day for the Basque people and the Spanish people I extended my best wishes to them all and my hope that all other concerns will be overcome by the laughter of their children.

Monday, May 7, 2018

A Ten Point Plan for Irish Unity

 Matt Carthy MEP; Gerry Adams TD; Mary Lou McDonald TD; Cllr Ruairi Ó Murchú; and Michelle O'Neill MLA at All-Island Civic Forum on Brexit in Dundalk on Monday April 30

There has been more written and speculated about the likelihood of achieving a United Ireland in recent years than in previous decades. What was once dismissed as fantasy is increasingly being discussed by academics, newspaper columnists and politicians as a real and viable outcome. Perhaps in a few short years, if we who support this objective approach it intelligently and in an inclusive way, and build support for an agreed Ireland and secure a referendum to end the Union. 

Two weeks ago a report by one academic, Dr. Paul Nolan, stirred widespread public interest when he claimed that there will be more Catholics than Protestants in the North by 2021 – the centenary of the creation of the northern state.

Of course, as we all know the use of statistics to promote one opinion over another is an imperfect science. Consequently, great care must be applied when interpreting statistics or opinion polls. It would also be a mistake to presume that religious denomination defines political allegiance.
There was widespread discussion about Nolan’s claims, including from some who point out that there are many citizens who don’t identify now with any religion. Thrown into this current debate were the additional stats which show that there are more Catholics of working age than Protestants, and more Catholic school children than Protestant. And so it goes on.

All of which ignores the fact that while once it might have been acceptable in the sectarian context of the northern state to equate Catholic with Nationalist, and Protestant with Unionist the increasing reality of life in this part of the island is that this is no longer necessarily true. However, we can get a sense of the shifting patterns in the north’s demographics if we look at the results from the 2011 census. It broke new ground by asking for the first time a question on identity.  

Significantly, those who defined themselves as ‘British only’ were 48%. A far cry from the two thirds majority enjoyed by unionism almost 100 years ago. A quarter of respondents (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% had some form of Irish only identity. Of course that doesn’t mean that they will all be rushing to vote in a referendum in support of Irish unity but it does reveal a significant shift in political demographics in the last 20 years. 

This was given added weight in the Brexit referendum vote in 2016 in which 53% voted to remain within the EU, and the Assembly and Westminster results last year which saw the perpetual unionist majority in the north ended. All of this is evidence, in my view, of a thawing of the political iceberg which is the northern state.

So, what does this mean? For Irish republicans and other democrats, it means that there is everything to play for. That there are no fixed certainties in terms of people’s identity or how they might vote in a referendum on Irish unity. That means republicans need to pull together all of the arguments in favour of Irish unity – whether these be economic, rights based, cultural, social, historic and political. And we need to explain them, promote them, debate their merits with others and do all of this in a respectful manner.
Last week an interesting report by Paul Gosling, a financial and economic commentator arrived on my desk in the Dáil. Entitled ‘The Economic Effects of an All Island Economy 2018’ the report brings together many of the recent positive arguments there have been made for Irish unity. It also includes a ten point plan setting out how Paul Gosling believes Irish reunification might be achieved.
The plan argues for the continuation, on a gradually reducing basis, of the British subvention to the north; increased spending on capital projects; support from the European Union; the island of Ireland to be promoted as a single economy; a harmonised corporation tax regime and much more.
The report warns of the dangers of Brexit. It quotes a leaked analysis from the British Treasury which concludes that the North will be severely and negatively affected by Brexit. A European Parliament report predicts a 3% reduction in the North’s Gross Domestic Product as a result of Brexit. All of which will lead to job losses. In the worst case scenario that could mean the loss of 100,000 jobs.
Gosling points out that the agri-food sector is particularly at risk. There are over 29,000 farmers in the six counties with 87% of total farming incomes coming from the EU’s Single Farm Payment.
Gosling’s report quotes from EY’s latest Economic Eye study. EY (Ernst & Young) is one of the "Big Four" accounting firms in the world. Gosling states that “while economic growth in the Republic last year was an estimated 4.9%, in Northern Ireland it was a mere 1.4%. Worse still, EY’s previous Economic Eye predicted that while the Republic will generate an additional 91,000 jobs by 2020 compared to 2016, the north will lose 3,500 jobs.”
Concluding his report Paul Gosling states: “If Irish reunification is to be achieved, it has to be achieved by consensus. That means that the unionist population needs to be persuaded that reunification is in their collective best interests. At the heart of this would be the recognition that a genuine all-island economy would produce significant economic benefits for Northern Ireland, with more jobs and higher incomes generated… unionists would need to be convinced that their chosen identity would be respected and their relationship with Britain would be protected”.
All of this makes common sense. Paul Gosling’s report; “The Economic Effects of an All Island Economy 2018” is a useful, informative contribution to the growing debate around a new and agreed Ireland. 
If you have the time check out his website at where this report and much more is available.

Friday, April 27, 2018

The SDLP – masters of their own misfortune

An emerging narrative in recent weeks as the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement was celebrated is the spurious notion that the SDLP’s electoral decline is because it set aside its own political self-interest in the interests of the peace process. This has long been the refrain from some southern commentators. The truth is much simpler. Apart from John Hume the SDLP leadership has repeatedly demonstrated an inability to think strategically or to plan for the long term. It thinks in the here and now, in the short term.
In the beginning the SDLP was an amalgamation of a number of political personalities led by Gerry Fitt. They included Eddie McGrady, Austin Curry, Paddy Devlin, Ivan Cooper, Seamus Mallon, John Hume and Bríd Rodgers. They replaced the old Nationalist Party. The strongest of these personalities ran independent fiefdoms with little effort outside of their own constituencies to build a political party. So there was very little political or ideological cohesion.  The SDLP were to become the political alternative to the IRA for those nationalists, as was their right, who were opposed to the armed struggle. They also had very little electoral competition. In those days Sinn Féin did not contest elections.
John Hume became the leading voice of anti-unionist opinion. His leadership of the SDLP was unchallenged but without doubt there was political tension between him and Mr Mallon. This was very clear during Sinn Féin/SDLP talks and my subsequent talks with John in the 1980s and in the 1990s. Many in the SDLP leadership were vehemently opposed to this initiative. They weren’t on their own. Both governments had the same position.
Last week I wrote about the debt of gratitude that is owed to the community and voluntary sector for their crucial contribution to the Good Friday Agreement. I recalled the hostility of the governments, the Catholic Hierarchy and of sections of the media, to the visit to west Belfast of President Mary Robinson in 1993. Foremost among those who opposed the visit and lobbied against it was the SDLP in west Belfast. 
So, when the British introduced political vetting against community and voluntary groups, it was actively supported by the SDLP in Belfast. When Irish America and progressive voices in Ireland called for stronger anti-discrimination laws to challenge job discrimination against Catholics, and supported the MacBride Principles campaign in the USA, the SDLP refused to support the campaign and joined the British and Irish governments to travel to the United States to speak against the MacBride Principles.
When Sinn Féin accused the British government of running state sponsored death squads  SDLP spokespersons rubbished our claims and denied there was collusion.
In 1985 the Anglo-Irish Agreement was sold by the SDLP and Irish government on the basis that the “nationalist nightmare is now over” and that we would see an end to the UDR and reform of the RUC. It did none of these things.
At the same time as British intelligence was smuggling hundreds of weapons from the apartheid South African regime to the UDA, UVF and Ulster Resistance, the SDLP leadership claimed the British government was neutral and that the conflict derives from the attitudes held by nationalists and unionists. For increasing numbers of nationalists the SDLP position was increasingly out of line with their own assessment.
After the Good Friday Agreement was achieved the future of policing emerged as one of the big issues to be negotiated and resolved. In August 2001, the SDLP told nationalists that nothing more could be got from the British government on policing and it was time to sign up to the Policing Board. It did so.
Sinn Fein didn’t. We refused to acquiesce to any of this and between 2001 and 2007 our negotiations delivered substantially new policing and criminal justice legislation - including overturning the ban on ex-POWs from holding the PSNI to account; gaining increased powers for the Police Ombudsman; winning increased inquisitorial powers for the Policing Board; cementing community policing as a core function of the PSNI; and securing a new judicial composition more reflective of this society.
It is obvious that there is a vast difference in policy, ideology, philosophy and objectives between Sinn Féin and the SDLP. Sinn Féin is an Irish Republican party with progressive social and economic policies and is for a United Ireland. We have a strategy to bring that about.  Republicans believe that British government involvement in Ireland is at the heart of centuries of conflict and division and reject the view that the British are neutral. No one believes this – not even, despite their protestations, the SDLP.
The SDLP hold an aspiration for a United Ireland, but has no strategy and no methodology to achieve it. And finally, the SDLP take the Oath of Allegiance to the British Monarch and sit in that Parliament when they have MPs to send there. But last year the electorate in seven nationalist seats voted for Sinn Féin candidates. They turned their backs on Westminster and the SDLP.
In 2001 John Hume stood down as party leader. No one of his stature has emerged since as SDLP leader. I have no doubt that over the years many SDLP stalwarts were motivated by a desire to serve the public good. But unless you are relevant you will fail. Nothing is surer in politics.
So, despite efforts by some of its loyal and dedicated members there is little evidence of any serious attempts to regenerate the party or to find a real role in the changing politics of recent time.  But let’s be clear. The electorate that the SDLP represents will not go away. The anti-Sinn Féin core of its support is diminishing and aging but like Seamus Mallon it is as trenchant as ever. It does have a small cadre of young and likeable MLAs. But they are but a few and are unlikely to change the fortunes of their party. Its leaders are now contemplating being absorbed by Fianna Fáil. This explicit acknowledgement that the party has no future of its own ignores the role it could play with Sinn Féin and others in building a progressive Consensus for Change and Rights for everyone.
Far from sacrificing itself for the peace process the SDLP, particularly in the absence of John Hume, simply became less relevant, especially to younger voters. They failed to plan for the future.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Community sector is owed a debt of gratitude

The event on Tuesday last week, at Queens University, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, was an opportunity to reminisce about the difficulties we all faced at that time, and the lessons for today.
An earlier event organised by Féile an Phobail at St. Mary’s College on the Falls Road put the spotlight on the positive and constructive role of the community and voluntary sector in the peace process. This aspect of the Good Friday Agreement and of the peace process has never been properly examined or appreciated. It was also particularly appropriate that Féile organised the event given that this year Féile celebrates its 30th birthday.
For those of you too young to remember west Belfast in 1988 was a militarised war zone. Heavily armed British troops and RUC officers occupied our streets. British Army and RUC forts like Jericho, Henry Taggart, Silver City, Pegasus, dominated the streetscape and main roads.
As part of their efforts at control the British constantly monitored the movement of people. The military bases on top of Divis Tower and the Nurses flats at Broadway, along with cameras on every fort and barracks, constantly observed people. House and street searches, military roadblocks and stop and search operations were a regular feature of life. And everything was noted for intelligence purposes. I remember the Brits boasting on one occasion of stopping three quarters of a million vehicles in one two-week period!
There was also the ever present threat of sectarian attack by unionist death squads, often operating in collusion with British state forces and the IRA was active. Conflict was a constant in the life of this community.
The catalyst for Féile was the killing in Gibraltar of three young IRA Volunteers from this area; Mairead Farrell, Seán Savage and Dan McCann.In the two weeks that followed nine more people died - another four from this constituency. The people of this proud community were demonised and labelled by some as savages and animals. Féile an Phobail was our response to this. It was our way of demonstrating to the world that the people of west Belfast are a generous, humorous, talented, gifted and inclusive community.
We were lucky in one respect. The system of discrimination and inequality employed for decades by Unionists and the British had forced nationalist communities to fall back on our own resourcefulness, ingenuity and determination.
For example, after the pogroms of 1969, and the introduction of internment by the British, we witnessed the largest movement of a civilian population within Europe since the end of World War 2. Thousands of families were forced to flee their homes. I remember many being rehoused by us in half-finished homes in Twinbrook, Andersonstown, Moyard and other places. There were no windows, floors, doors or heating. These houses were literally built around these families. Incidentally the unionist parties campaigned against the building of Poleglass which was intended to ease the housing crisis.
In the midst of riots and street fighting the bus services often collapsed. Out of that shambles emerged the Black Taxi service. Political vetting too was an integral part of the British state’s efforts to marginalise and isolate republicans and anyone else deemed disloyal by them. Community groups suffered cuts in funding, and jobs were lost as a result of this policy, which was supported by the SDLP and the local Catholic Bishop. Despite all of this wonderful projects like Conway Mill survived and are now flourishing.
This is because the people and the community groups of west Belfast refused to acquiesce to any of this. In 1993 their strength and resilience helped break the demonization policy of two governments. On that occasion President Mary Robinson visited Belfast. She was invited by community leaders in west Belfast to attend “A Celebration of Culture and Creativity”. I was on the list of attendees. The late Inez McCormack and Eileen Howell, and others still active today, played a central role in this initiative.
The British were outraged. West Belfast was the so-called ‘terrorist community’. They refused to allow the visit. Then when the President insisted that she was going to come she was refused diplomatic security protection.
The response of the Irish establishment wasn’t much better. Labour leader Dick Spring made several efforts to persuade Mary Robinson to pull out of the visit. When that failed Irish government officials tried to ensure that I wasn’t invited and when that didn’t work, that I would not meet the President, and most definitely we would not shake hands.
In the face of this official hostility by two governments the west Belfast community remained rock solid. To her credit so did President Robinson. But the visit unleashed a torrent of abuse against her. The Sunday Independent, which at that time was consistently attacking John Hume for just talking to me, called on her to resign.
Later the antagonism of officialdom toward west Belfast again reared its ugly head when I organised a meeting between the Board of the Bunscoil from the Shaws Road Gaeltacht and British Secretary of State Mo Mowlam. For years the west Belfast community had financially supported a Naiscoil and Bunscoil with no state backing and against the opposition of an antagonistic Department of Education.
Mo told me before the meeting that her intention was to give the Shaws Road Bunscoil funding for the first time. She said she had not told her officials. When the meeting ended, and we left her office having been told funding was to be granted, one of the Department officials whispered to one of the Bunscoil delegation; “We’ll get you in the long grass”. I brought the delegation and the culprit straight back into Mo Mowlam again and we faced him down in front of his boss.
In September 1997 when Sinn Féin finally entered into talks we were inundated with messages of support from local community groups which faxed, posted or hand delivered messages of solidarity. I know that the Sinn Féin negotiating team was encouraged and sustained by that support. More importantly I am convinced that without the courage and steadfastness of community leaders and activists during the decades of discrimination and violence the search for peace would have been much more difficult.
The community and voluntary sector of west Belfast sector is owed a great debt of gratitude. Without their resilience and commitment to equality, respect and inclusivity there would be no Good Friday Agreement.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Equal rights and dignity for Palestinians

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

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

Friday, April 6, 2018

We’re on the road to freedom

We’re on the road to freedom

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

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

We shall overcome
We shall overcome
We shall overcome, someday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The struggle goes on.