Friday, November 17, 2017

Unity in our Time

I went to my first Sinn Féin Ard Fheis about fifty years ago. I say about fifty years ago because I don’t recall if it was in 1967 or 1968 and I haven’t the time to check out the dates. Suffice to say it was a long time ago. I was the youngest in a small delegation of Belfast comrades including the late Seán McCormack. We stayed in The Castle Hotel in Gardiner Street. Local legend has it that Micheál Collins used to stay there. The Castle certainly has a chequered republican history from 1916 through the Tan and Civil War onwards. That Ard Fheis weekend was also the first time I stayed in a hotel.

Sinn Féin Ard Fheiseanna have frequently been the scene for the most important decisions affecting the direction of republican politics on this island. It is the Ard Fheis, not the Party President or Ard Chomhairle (National Executive), which is the supreme authority of Sinn Féin and this year’s Ard Fheis which takes place at the weekend in the RDS in Dublin promises to be another of these.

Ard Fheiseanna are an opportunity to debate party policy, shape the political direction of the party for the year ahead and a social opportunity to meet old friends and make new ones. While I always enjoy them some have been more memorable and historic that others.

The 1970 Ard Fheis was one of these. It was a turbulent time within Irish republicanism, as well as in the northern state. The violent response of the unionist government to the civil rights movement and the demand for change led to significant disagreements among republicans over how we should respond. When I travelled to Dublin to participate in the Ard Fheis in the Intercontinental Hotel (later Jury’s) in January I was refused entry on the spurious grounds that I was not properly accredited. Locked out I went off and joined a protest against the apartheid South African Springboks who were to play at Lansdowne Road rugby football grounds. Behind me in the Intercontinental Hotel republicans divided into a bitter split. Official Sinn Féin mar dhea was born. So too was Provisional Sinn Féin. I have never been comfortable with the term Provisional affixed to either Sinn Féin or the Army.

Over the following years I attended every Ard Fheis, apart from those years when I was imprisoned. During the 70s Sinn Féin was largely a protest organisation campaigning against internment, British repression, torture, British state collusion with unionist death squads, and in support of the men and women on protest in the H-Block and Armagh Women’s prisons or in gaols in Britain.

I was elected Uachtarán Shinn Féin in 1983. In 1986 the Ard Chomhairle put a proposal to the Ard Fheis for an end to abstentionism in the South. This was a huge step to take. It was a fundamental political departure and with it came threats of another split.

Thirty one years ago this month the Mansion House was packed for that historic debate. Rumours of splits and walkabouts abounded. In my presidential speech I told the conference that as political conditions change so too must republican strategy. I warned that the removal of abstentionism would not provide a magic wand solution to our problems. In the south it would only clear the decks. I told the delegates and visitors to our Ard Fheis that they had to cease being spectators of a struggle in the six counties and become pioneers of republicanism in the 26 counties, putting our policies before the people.

I vividly remember during the lunch break meeting with Ruairí, Daithí O'Connell and others who were against changing the constitution. I appealed to them to stay within the party and within the struggle, and not to walkout. Regrettably, when the necessary two-thirds majority was achieved Ruairí and his colleagues, about 40 in all, walked out of the hall.

One response to that decision, and to the fear that Sinn Féin could provide an alternative to the establishment parties, was an entrenchment of public hostility by the southern political and media establishment toward Sinn Féin. As a result we were refused the use of the Mansion House to hold the Ard Fheis. Other public buildings were denied to us as Fianna Fail, the Labour Party and Fine Gael abused their municipal authority to bar us.

Eventually in 1992 the Ballyfermot Residents Association offered us the use of their community centre. Danny Devenny and his friends painted murals on the walls and the organizing committee ensured that the Ard Fheis ran smoothly and was hugely enjoyable, despite the cramped conditions.

We launched a new discussion documents ‘Towards a Lasting Peace in Ireland.’ At its core it advocated, inclusive dialogue and talks as the means of resolving the conflict; a new arrangement between London and Dublin to end partition; international assistance to help break the deadlock; and, a programme for national reconciliation. The document marked a major shift in Sinn Fein thinking. It was overwhelmingly endorsed by the Ard Fheis.

Following the conclusion of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement negotiations we had one week to prepare for our Ard Fheis. It took place on April 18th. The Ulster Unionist Party was holding a meeting of its ruling Council that day also. About mid-afternoon on the Saturday news came through that the Ulster Unionist Council had endorsed by 540 votes to 210 support for David Trimble and the agreement. When I got this news I told the Ard Fheis and said 'well done David'. And then, probably for the first time in the history of our party, the conference spontaneously applauded a unionist leader.

At the end of that Ard Fheis the Ard Chomhairle proposed that we hold a special reconvened one-day session for May 10th to take a formal decision on the Good Friday Agreement. We needed that time for party activists and republicans generally to discuss and debate the many issues raised by the Agreement.

On Sunday May 10th we returned to the RDS. As before, the hall was packed. Unbeknownst to the delegates and visitors we had persuaded the Irish government to release the recently transferred Balcombe Street prisoners for their first parole in twenty-three years. When the Balcombe Street men entered the hall there was sustained and wild applause for over ten minutes. Tears flowed freely down many faces. They came onto the stage and the RDS shook with the sound of clapping and the rhythmic stamping of feet.

In the end, after five hours of debate the delegates changed the party’s Constitution to allow successful candidates to sit in a northern Assembly. Of all the moments that have been described as historic this truly deserved that description. That Ard Fheis really did make history.

In the years since then there have been other Ard Fheiseanna that have been historic, including the Ard Fheis in January 2007 which saw Sinn Féin agree to the new policing dispensation that we had negotiated in the preceding years.
So, this weekend we are back in the RDS for the Ard Fheis. There are many important matters on the clár for discussion, including the impasse in the North, the eighth amendment, homelessness, the crisis in health and international affairs. We will also be discussing our ten-year strategy for growth and regeneration – Unity in our Time.
If you can’t come take the time to watch the live slot on RTE on Saturday morning. You will see a party with the vision and leadership to achieve government North and South and committed to Irish unity and reconciliation. 

Friday, October 27, 2017

The connection between climate change and conflict

Our ability as human beings to dramatically and adversely impact on our environment, and consequently on the lives of millions of people, has grown enormously in recent decades. This is usually depicted as the reason for devastating floods, the threat to our eco system and other grave environmental issues. The knock-on effect of this in terms of the relationship between climate change, hunger, disease and conflict is not always appreciated.
Last year the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) set by World Leaders at a special UN conference in 2015 officially came into force. Their objective is to end all forms of poverty, inequality and to tackle climate change. It also includes the objective of eradicating hunger and preventing malnutrition worldwide by 2030. While these goals are not legally binding governments are expected to establish policies to achieve them.
Last month the United Nations produced its first report on the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals. Entitled, ‘Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2017’ it makes for depressing and distressing reading. It reveals that following 15 years of less people experiencing hunger the numbers jumped dramatically between 2015 and 2016. It went up by 38 million from 777 million to 815 million people going hungry. That’s 11% of the world’s population.
There are a variety of reasons for this increase, including the desire to secure new resources, especially energy (oil, coal, and gas) and water. This has often precipitated invasion and war. That was evident in the recent wars in Libya and Iraq, and is especially evident in the ongoing Israeli occupation and theft of Palestinian water from the River Jordan valley.
However, the effects of climate change, largely created by the burning of fossil fuels like oil and coal, and the results of drought, flooding and storm damage are also now playing an increasing role in the growing number of conflicts around the world. The UN report concludes that; ‘conflict is a key driver of situations of severe food crisis and recently re-emerged famines while hunger and undernutrition are significantly worse where conflicts are prolonged and institutional capacities weak.’
In the last seven years conflicts between states worldwide has increased by 60%. Violent conflicts within states have jumped by 125%. The UN report states that over half of those experiencing hunger – 489 million people – live in states where there is violence. A study carried out in Africa and Asia and covering the 25 years between 1989 to 2014, found that the “risk of conflict increases for each year of growing season drought … With climate change, the risk of extreme weather-related events increases as does the variability in rainfall. If left unaddressed, climate change should therefore be expected to have an increasing impact on the risk of conflict outbreaks.”
Currently, there are 64 million citizens displaced as a consequence of conflict and suffering from food insecurity, famine and disease. Many of these are in the band of countries across sub-Saharan Africa, Syria and Yemen. In the latter country it is expected that up to a million people will have cholera by the end of this year and a quarter of these will be children.
Last week a further example of the detrimental impact of human activity was highlighted in a scientific study from Germany, published in the journal PLOS One. It revealed that between 1989 and 2016 the numbers of insects in protected nature reserves had decreased alarmingly by a seasonal average of 76%. Scientists are concerned because insects are key pollinators in the food chain, as well as providing food for other animals. The implication of this is enormous.
The increasing use of pesticides is considered a probable reason for this and climate change has also been cited as impacting on insect numbers.
Dave Goulson, who is a professor of life sciences and the study’s co-author, said: “Insects make up about two-thirds of all life on Earth but there has been some kind of horrific decline. We appear to be making vast tracts of land inhospitable to most forms of life, and are currently on course for ecological Armageddon. If we lose the insects then everything is going to collapse.”
A key weapon in our line of defence against climate change is the Paris climate agreement which was signed in late 2015 by 194 countries. The agreement seeks to limit any increase in global average temperatures to “well below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels” It also says that it aims to “pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change”. This means limiting and then reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
However, the Paris agreement is now under threat as a result of a decision by President Trump to withdraw the USA from the accord. The United States is the second largest polluter behind China. President Trump’s decision was recently described by the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda, whose country was devastated by Hurricane Irma in September as “the most backward step” that the US government “has ever taken.” Regrettably it reflects President Trump’s hostility to climate change which he has described as a ‘Chinese hoax’.
Further evidence of this governmental shift against climate change by the US government was highlighted earlier this month when the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency produced its’ strategic plan for the next four years. The plan doesn’t mention climate change, or greenhouse gas emissions, or carbon dioxide - the major cause of global warming. And as if to reinforce the US administration’s rejection of climate change the Republican party successfully cleared the way in the US Senate earlier this month, to overturn a ban on oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.
The impact of climate change on our society and our environment is the gravest threat to life on our planet. The recent Hurricanes in the Caribbean and USA, and Storm Ophelia which caused huge disruption across this island and led to three deaths, are evidence of the impact of climate change. Urgent action is needed. Without it we will exhaust our natural resources and undermine the biodiversity needed for all life to exist. Collectively we risk a human tragedy in the 21st century unparalleled in the thousands of years of human experience. 

Friday, October 20, 2017

Serpents Tales of Forked Tongued Politics

What have the DUP, the Fianna Fáil leadership and the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) got in common? At the start of this year the DUP described Sinn Féin, and those who vote for our party, as ‘crocidiles’. Last Friday evening one Fianna Fáil TD, who was arguing against any future coalition arrangement with Sinn Féin, tried to go one better by telling an enraptured FF audience ‘you don’t deal with the serpent by inviting it into your bed.’ 
He obviously doesn't believe that Saint Patrick got rid of snakes from our wee island. Or else he speaks with a forked tongue. At any rate the Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis almost unanimously backed this position.  And then to round matters off the leader of the TUV, Jim Allister, welcomed the Fianna Fáil vote and commended it to the DUP as the way forward. He said: ‘That’s sound advice for parties south of the border and all the more so for Unionist parties.’ In fairness to Wee Jim he did acknowledge 'there is hypocrisy in the Fianna Fáil stance’. Wee Jim is like that. Observant.  

So the Fianna Fáil Leader's stance fools no one. Micheál Martin, looking over his shoulder at the increasing electoral strength of Sinn Féin, north and south, is desperate to stymie the growth of Sinn Féin. We are an electoral threat to the status quo. That cannot be tolerated. In the search for wayward Fine Gael votes Teachta Martin cannot be seen to be soft on the Shinners. Heaven forbid. 

For that reason and no other, whether at his Ard Fheis or in the Dáil chamber or wherever he has an audience, Martin keeps beating the drum about the unfitness of Sinn Féin for government in Dublin. He does this while berating us for not going into government in Belfast on DUP terms. That's Fianna Fail for ya!  

So, let’s look briefly at their track record. Just before the general election last year Teachta Martin ruled out coalition with Fine Gael. After the election he negotiated a ‘supply and confidence agreement’ – not unlike the DUP and Tories in Westminster – which has Fianna Fáil keeping a minority Fine Gael government in power. That means that the appalling decisions of Fine Gael in last week’s budget on health and housing, on the provision of mental health services and respite care, on stamp duty and on women pensioners, are all supported by Fianna Fáil.

This Fine Gael government, which Martin condemns, wouldn't be in power if he didn't support it. He is trying to cover his options for the next general election. For that reason a few months ago he refused to rule out a so-called ‘grand coalition’ with Fine Gael in the future. When asked by The Examiner in the summer about this he said he ‘hasn’t ruled anything in or out.’  That's fair enough. But since then he has ruled out government with Fine Gael. He has ruled out government with Sinn Féin. He says he accepts that Fianna Fáil can't form a government on their own. Figure all that out? In the meantime Micheál presents himself as being against the Fine Gael minority government. 

That is nonsense. The two conservative parties are natural bed fellows with policies that are essentially the same. So the rí rá between them is a sham. It’s not about what might be good for society or for citizens, or the people of the island of Ireland. Nope. It's about what will best serve the narrow self-interests of the Fianna Fáil party leadership. Or the Fine Gael leadership for that matter. Recent history shows it has always placed themselves first and the people second.
But politics north and south is in flux. The civil war politics of the 1920’s, which determined the shape of southern Irish politics for decades is over – gone. The history remains and for some it may be personal but since last year’s general election Fianna Fáil has elected two Fine Gael Taoisigh. It has helped to pass two Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil budgets. In the Dáil chamber it regularly votes with the government or abstains to ensure that government motions pass or other motions are defeated. By the way that has been the case in local councils for decades.

All of this puts a spotlight on the issue of coalition as a means of advancing party political objectives and implementing policies. In the north Sinn Féin is currently engaged in intense negotiations with the DUP to try and restore an Executive which is essentially a ‘grand coalition’. The difficulties involved in putting together an Executive and a Programme for Government by parties which are so fundamentally different and have such opposite political philosophies, highlights the problems involved.
At the next general election in the south Sinn Féin will be seeking a mandate to go into government in that part of the island also. Fianna Fáil has said no. Fine Gael say the same. But neither party has a divine right to be in government. Or to decide who might be in that government. That's the people's prerogative. It will be the vote of the electorate that will determine the shape of the next government. Political parties can only decide who they might or might not go into government with. If they have a mandate. 
Many people within Sinn Féin and our electorate detest the tweedledee – tweedledum politics of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. Quite rightly. The very thought that our party might put either of them into government is abhorrent to many activists and republican voters. And that dislike is well founded. The Fianna Fáil leadership is linked to corruption and the wrecking of the economy. Fine Gael forced ordinary citizens to bail out the banks and imposed a debt that our grandchildren will still be paying off decades from now. None of these parties have a strategy to end partition or the Union. On the contrary their leaderships are about upholding the status quo. Both have depended on emigration as a policy option. That’s why generations of young Irish people are scattered across the world. So Sinn Féin is against these parties being in government. We want to replace them, not to endorse them. We need a mandate to do this. That is our focus. To change the system. Not to join it. 
Will Sinn Féin talk to these parties? Of course we will. And others as well. We are the party of and for dialogue. It is Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil who ruled out talking to us after the last election.  As well as their innate conservatism both of these parties agree on keeping Sinn Féin out. The reason for this is obvious. Between them they have governed and dominated southern politics since the state was established. They are fiercely opposed to the practical democratic core values of Sinn Féin. They are against a rights based citizens’ centred society. So there is no right to a public health system. No right to a home. Or to education. No real effort to unite the people of Ireland. No real republican vision for fairness and equality. 
So, what Sinn Féin has to do in the next election is to get the biggest mandate possible. Our aim has to be to lead the next government. The size of our vote will determine this. It also will determine the size of the other parties' mandates. But our only purpose in going into government will be to effect real change – on housing and health and public services and also on the issue of Irish unity.

If we get an appropriate mandate a decision to go into government will be determined by a special Ard Fheis of the party. It will be a collective decision taken by all. One thing you can be very sure of. Sinn Féin will not do what the Progressive Democrats or Labour or the Green Party did in their time. We are not about bolstering Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael. Serpents may have forked tongues. Sinn Féin don't. 

Friday, October 13, 2017

The Hills

In my years as a political activist I have had the unique opportunity to travel to many far flung places around the world.
I once flew in a tiny plane up the coast of Maine in the USA with its hundreds of off-shore islands. It was a bumpy, scary, white knuckle journey in a small two propeller machine. The scenery was reminiscent of the west of Ireland.
I have watched the colours change on the lakes of upper New York State, in the deserts and hills of Texas and Arizona, on the Rockies of Canada, the mountains of the Basque country, and the veldt of South Africa.
On one memorable visit to the outback of Australia I persuaded our hosts to let me walk alone some distance into the trees and scrub of the outback outside of Perth. The intensity of different smells from the flowers and trees and the sounds of birds and insects was truly amazing. And the snakes left me alone.  
But if truth be told I love West Donegal. That’s not to say that I don’t love west Belfast. Or Louth. The Belfast Hills are terrific. So is Sliabh Foy in the Cooley Mountains  
But there is nowhere quite like West Donegal. The hills and the mountains of that part of our island, from Muckish to Errigal, are among the most stunning in the world. The  glens and rivers and lakes, the seascapes of Bloody Foreland, the islands, the long walks along Donegal beaches, and the music, the Gaeilge and the people, all combine to make Donegal as close to perfect, as perfect can be, in this imperfect world.
As some of you may know last Friday was my birthday. Go raibh maith agaibh to all of you who sent best wishes. Or presents. Or if you didnt dont worry I wont refuse late offerings. Now that  I have reached the age of soixante-neuf- 69 - I intend to have a birth month so you still have time.
I remember Martin McGuinness saying once that he never thought he would live beyond his 25th year. I was the same. Most of our peer group were probably like that. Now I am in my 70th year. Poor Martin is gone. It’s a funny old world.
So at the weekend I escaped to Donegal for two days of gardening, singing, cooking, reading and walking. The autumn colours were everywhere. The heather clad highlands were resplendent with the textures of tweed. The big skyscape kept changing its shades from light to lighter and back to light again. OThere was a nip in the wind and the occasional rain – it is Donegal – but the weather for me was perfect.

The beauty and peace of Donegal is unrivalled. The history of Donegal can be found in every town and village, castle and big house, and in the ruins of homes long deserted, and thatched cottages from another time that have been preserved for this generation. 
My first recollection of Donegal is travelling there with my Saint Mary's class mates to stay for a month with the Boyle family in the Gaoth Dore Gaeltacht. We went there to practice our Gaeilge. I am still practicing over five decades later. And like so many others I keep returning to Donegal.
I wouldn’t care if I never saw another plane for the rest of my life. I have no wish to travel outside of our little island ever again. But travel I will. God spares me I know that. If you sign up you have to march.
But wherever my political wanderings take me the Hills are the place I want to be. I enjoyed my birthday. It was great craic. I am very lucky. For many reasons. But especially because I got to begin this week and my 69th year in the place I love. 
'I just dropped in to see you all.
I'll only stay awhile.
I want to see how you're getting on
I want to see you smile
I’m happy to be here again
I’ve missed you one and all
For there is no place else on earth

Just like the homes of Donegal'. 

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Votarem – We will vote

Today Thursday, October 5th, is the anniversary of the RUC attack on a Civil Rights March at Duke Street in Derry in 1968. The image of RUC officers batoning peaceful protestors, and of one senior officer using a blackthorn stick to viciously beat a protestor to the ground, are now part of the televisual history of that period. It was for many the moment in which the northern Unionist state decided that state violence was the appropriate response to the peaceful and non-violent protests for civil rights.
In the years that followed rubber bullets, plastic bullets, CS and CR gas, along with batons, and then lead bullets, became part of the armoury of the British Army and RUC. Baton wielding riot clad RUC men beating citizens to the ground was a familiar image. Protest marches and funerals were regularly the target for such state assaults. Rubber and plastic bullets were used extensively. Up to 1981 almost 100,000 such bullets were fired. 17 people, 8 of whom were children, and a mother of three young children, were killed and hundreds of people continue to bear the scars of those attacks.
The television news images last Sunday of Spanish Civil Guards firing plastic bullets at Catalan citizens trying to vote, and the violent scenes of heavily armoured police batoning defenceless and peaceful citizens – some of them lying on the ground, many of them women, some elderly – were a stark reminder of that northern experience. 
A Sinn Féin delegation of Senators, TDs and MEPs, including Martina Anderson, were in Catalonia acting as international observers to the referendum. They witnessed at first hand the beatings and assaults on ordinary citizens and the efforts of the Spanish government to prevent the referendum vote from taking place. Civil Guards were filmed smashing their way into polling stations, beating the young and the old, and violently seizing ballot boxes. Over 800 people were injured in what Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy described as an ‘appropriate response’.
The extraordinary courage of thousands of Catalans refusing to be intimidated from voting; many of them standing defiantly in front of Civil Guards singing and peacefully demanding their right to independence, was truly inspiring and moving. Families occupied polling stations to keep them open. Hundreds sat outside each of the two and a half thousand polling stations to peacefully prevent any attempt by the Spanish government to close the stations or steal ballot boxes. Catalan firefighters and police officers stood between the Civil Guard and the people. They acted as human shields to protect their Catalan neighbours. Older citizens, some of whom remembered the dark days of the Civil War and the decades of Franco, were applauded as they made their way to polling stations. In Sant Jiliá de Ramis, Girona, hundreds locked arms as the Spanish Police dragged voters away. The crowd chanted ‘Votarem’ which means ‘We will vote.’
The response of the people of Catalonia to the violence of the Spanish state was astonishing and I want to commend their bravery.
Sunday’s referendum was the culmination of almost two decades of Catalonian efforts to achieve greater autonomy within Spain. Catalan leaders have tried to engage successive Spanish governments in a dialogue on this but their efforts have been largely spurned. They have been frustrated at every turn by an intransigent central government and the courts.
Evidence of that can be found in the prosecution of the Speaker of the Catalan Parliament for allowing a debate and vote in the Catalan Parliament on holding the independence referendum. And a former President and two former Ministers are also being prosecuted for organising a non-binding referendum on independence in 2014.
Despite the intimidation and violence of the Civil Guard, which saw almost a thousand people injured, over 2.2 million people braved the batons and plastic bullets and voted out of an electorate of 5.3 million. More than three quarters of a million votes could not be counted because polling stations were forcibly closed and ballot boxes lifted by the Spanish police. At its conclusion 90% of those who voted had backed independence.
On Tuesday tens of thousands of workers brought Catalonia to a standstill in a general strike called to protest against the violence of the Spanish police, the intransigence of the Spanish government, and the demand for independence.
I raised the Catalan situation with the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in the Dáil on Tuesday. The Fine Gael party is a sister party of the Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy’s Peoples Party. On that basis I urged the Taoiseach to use his influence and connections with the Peoples Party to encourage dialogue as a way of finding a resolution to the current crisis. I also believe that the international community, especially the European Union, has an obligation to ensure that Catalonia can pursue the course of self-determination without fear of suppression.
Not surprisingly the Spanish government is hiding its inflexibility and refusal to talk behind the claim that Catalonia is an internal matter for Spain. This is exactly the same excuse which British governments employed to refuse international interest or involvement in resolving the conflict in the North. It was only when these matters were internationalised that remedies and solutions were found and progress was made.
The key to resolving this significant constitutional crisis is for the Spanish government to agree to sit down and talk with the leaders of Catalonia. President Puigdemont of Catalan has already stated his willingness to enter negotiations. Regrettably, thus far Prime Minister Rajoy appears determined to deepen the crisis by remaining stubbornly uncompromising. If he chooses to arrest senior Catalan politicians or to introduce direct rule by Madrid these moves will only deepen the crisis.
In the next few days the Catalan Parliament will meet to discuss the results of the referendum and its next steps.
Sinn Féin supports the right of the people of Catalonia to self-determination and we will continue to support them as they seek to advance their goal.
Visca Catalunya

Thursday, September 28, 2017

The Battle of Ideas

The battle of ideas
Thirty years ago last Saturday in an interview in Woman's Own, the late British Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher spelt out her own narrow view of society and the role of government. Thatcher said: “I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand “I have a problem, it is the Government's job to cope with it!” or “I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!” “I am homeless, the Government must house me!” and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing!”
The policies of Thatcher fractured British society. Her right wing model of government increased poverty and stripped families of the means of a decent quality of life. Thatcherism promoted the individual and minimised society's support for those less able to defend themselves. It was about less state involvement, so-called smaller government, less taxation on business and the elites. It was about reducing the ability of workers to defend themselves against exploitation. And if this meant using the law and the police to smash workers then so be it.
Last week, in a speech in Dublin to the business organisation Ibec, An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar set out his Fine Gael version of this same Tory vision. He said: “This government believes in hope and aspiration, a better life as something to aspire to … it is not something that can be handed down by someone else. The government can’t solve everyone’s problems for them …”
The language may be different but behind the rhetoric the underlying philosophy of conservatism, whether in Ireland or Britain, is essentially the same. Leo’s vision is Irish Thatcherism with a fresh coat of paint. In Taoiseach Varadkar’s state if you fall behind you are on your own. If your homeless don’t expect much help from the state. When he talks about a ‘culture of aspiration’ or a ‘better life’ he is speaking to those who are already well off. His focus is also on a section of voters who he hopes to persuade to come over to Fine Gael. That's legitimate enough. That's politics. 
But Taoiseach Varadkar's Republic of Opportunity is a narrow minded vision of a 26 County state rooted in a conservative Mé Féin philosophy. It is a million miles away from the vision and progressive principles set out in the 1916 Proclamation.
He ignores the reality that citizens caught at the sharp end of the crises in housing and health also have their aspirations, their hopes. They also have personal ambitions. However, the society shaped by the establishment parties in the southern state means that the odds are always tilted against them. These citizens are not only the homeless or the poor, or older citizens or folks denied proper health care. They include the majority of people whose lives are consumed with the effort to rear their families. People struggling to rear their families.
A genuine republic would not allow homelessness to reach emergency proportions. It would long ago have taken action to prevent 3000 of its children being homeless. It would not tolerate the scandal and indignities in our hospital A&E wards. It would support those citizens with intellectual difficulties denied respite care or other supports. It would not facilitate the huge levels of disadvantage and inequality which exist in society in the 26 counties.
What differentiates Sinn Féin from Fine Gael and Fianna Fail is not just our determination to achieve a united, independent Ireland. Sinn Féin also believes that citizens have rights and entitlements and that society must be shaped to help them to achieve their full potential. In the here and now we believe people have the right to a decent home, to a job and a decent wage, to the highest quality of public services, especially in health, housing and education, and a safer, cleaner environment. In 2016 Sinn Féin published a clear costed plan to deliver a public health service, free at the point of delivery, which provides for citizens from the cradle to the grave, funded by direct taxation.
In our alternative budget next month we will unveil costed proposals to build houses. 
These are all the responsibility of government and cannot be abdicated to the market as championed by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.
One key role of government is to help shape a society that is tolerant and that reflects and embraces the entirety of its people, not part of them. Why should gender be the basis for the exclusion of anyone? Or disability? Why should race or class or skin colour or creed give one group of human beings the ability to deny other human beings their full rights or entitlements as citizens? And if citizens have rights, why are they not all-encompassing rights, including economic rights? Genuine republicans in keeping with the vision of those who signed the Proclamation in 1916, believe that all human beings have the right, as a birthright, to be treated equally. 

Society needs shaped to  deliver this. A real Republic of Opportunity needs to be citizen centred and rights based. During the successful campaign for Marriage Equality I noted that some of those who were rightly in favour of equality on this issue might be not so fair minded on other equally important rights issues. They might be liberal on some matters but extremely conservative on others.  Leo Varadkar is one of those conservatives.  

Friday, September 22, 2017

What next for the Middle East?

24 years ago this month, on September 13th 1993, the Oslo Accord was signed on the lawn of the White House in the presence of Yasser Arafat for the PLO, Yitzhak Rabin for Israel and US President Bill Clinton. It was another stage in a process of secret and public negotiations that had begun under the aegis of the Norwegians. The accord provided for the creation of a limited form of self-government for the Palestinian people and the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank by April 1994 and a final agreement by February 1999.
President Clinton proclaimed: "The peace of the brave is within our reach. Throughout the Middle East there is a great yearning for the quiet miracle of a normal life.”
Almost a quarter of a century later and the hoped for miracle of a normal life seems as far away as ever, certainly for the Palestinian people. Thousands have died in the low intensity violence that has marked much of the intervening years, occasionally broken by deadly and intense Israeli assaults on the Gaza Strip.
At the same time the issue of illegal settlements has become a huge concern. In 1978 it was estimated that there were seven and a half thousand Israelis living in the west Bank. By 1997 that number had grown to 150,000. Today that figure is closer to half a million. An estimated 170,000 of them live outside of the settlements.
Last month, at an event to mark the 50th anniversary of Israel’s occupation of the west Bank Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that he would not evacuate Israeli settlements in the west Bank; “We are here to stay, forever … we will deepen our roots, build, strengthen and settle …” This week the Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman  described the occupied territories as “the State of Israel’s true defensive wall.”
I have visited the region three times in the last eleven years. During those visits I met Israeli and Palestinian representatives and witnessed for myself the tragedy and the trauma of the Palestinian people living under a permanent state of siege in the Gaza Strip. In the west Bank I spoke to Palestinian people of all ages who are desperately trying to survive in the hostile environment created by an oppressive military occupation. Their lands and water have been stolen and the monstrous separation wall cuts them off from friends and family.
In truth the peace process that was so full of hope 24 years ago seems like just a distant memory. There is no real engagement by the international community – so essential for breaking the deadlock. There is a longstanding unwillingness by the great and the good to take a stand against the countless Israeli breaches of International Law and of United Nations resolutions - even when Israeli forces deliberately destroy community, agricultural, educational or economic projects established as a result of funding from the EU and individual European states. It is estimated that over seventy million euro worth of such projects have been destroyed.
Last month Israeli forces sealed off the Jubbetal-Dib area and dismantled six prefabricated school buildings that had been largely funded by the European Union. The 80 children were due to start school the following day. Tear gas and stun grenades were used to keep residents away. This was not an isolated incident. In 2016, according to the United Nations, one thousand and sixty five Palestinian homes were demolished by Israel. So far this year 330 Palestinian structures have been destroyed. The response of the European Union and of the international community to this aggression has been muted. It is little wonder that among Palestinians there is little room for optimism.

This week the possibility of progress was given a boost with the news that Hamas has said that it is ready to open a dialogue with the Palestinian government of President Mahmoud Abbas without preconditions. Hamas also announced that it has dissolved the Gaza Administrative Committee, by which it has run the Gaza area and that it will agree to a general election. This is potentially a critical initiative by Hamas. Both it and Fatah have been at loggerheads for decades. At the weekend a senior Fatah official Mahmoud Aloul described this as a “positive sign” and acknowledged that Fatah “are ready to implement reconciliation.”

A few days later it was confirmed that a Fatah delegation, in Cairo for talks with the Egyptian government, met with Hamas. This initiative opens up new possibilities at a time when the economic, energy and environmental crisis for the two million residents of the Gaza Strip has significantly worsened. It needs to be grasped and encouraged, especially by the international community.

However, with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu pledging no withdrawal of Israeli settlements in contravention of international law, and the international community looking away and prioritising other concerns over the Palestinian/Israeli issue; it is little wonder that many are depressed about the prospects of meaningful progress toward the two state solution.