Dublin Lockout: The Risen People

Bloody Sunday baton charge

Bloody Sunday baton charge

Published in the CFMEU WA Branch Journal in September 2013

Irish trade unionists are marking the centenary of the 1913 Dublin Lockout, the most significant labour dispute in Irish history. Led by ‘Big Jim’ Larkin, the people of Dublin’s slums fought a five-month battle with the city’s major employers over the right to union recognition. It was a fight that affected 20,000 workers and their 80,000 family members, and included deadly street battles with police.

The Lockout, which began in August 1913, was no spontaneous dispute. It was a conscious attempt by businessman and media magnate William Martin Murphy to nip the growing power of the newly formed ITGWU in the bud. The Irish Transport and General Workers Union was formed by Larkin in 1909 and by 1913 it had won several improvements for members across Ireland.

Ireland in the first two decades of the 20th century was experiencing major political upheaval, with suffragettes, radical nationalists and republicans organising powerful movements for change. With brutal working and living conditions, the radicalisation among working people that took place in Dublin during this period – led by Larkin and fellow socialist and trade unionist James Connolly – was little wonder.

Slum city

Dublin in 1913 was a city of slums – of impoverished people living in squalor in over-crowded tenement housing. Shortly after the Lockout began in August 1913, two overcrowded four-storey tenements on Church Street collapsed, killing seven people.

An inquiry into the disaster reported on housing conditions in the city the following year, stating that of the 400,000 residents of Dublin, almost 90,000 lived in tenements in the city centre, with 80% of these families living in a single room. The Church St disaster inquiry reported that: “We have visited one house that we found to be occupied by 98 persons, another by 74 and a third by 73.”

Overcrowding, malnutrition and poor sanitation meant disease thrived, with the most dreaded being the deadly tuberculosis. A Census in 1911 found that Dublin had a mortality rate as high as Calcutta’s, and that one in five deaths that year was of a child under the age of one.

Larkin forms ‘One Big Union’

Dublin lacked an industrial base and its workers were mainly unskilled and employed on a casual basis. Around 50,000 people depended on work on the docks, in transport, the building trade and a limited number of factories and workshops.

Labourers could be replaced at a moment’s notice from a pool of thousands, many from the countryside, who carried with them the recent memory of the Famine. There was a readiness to work for any wage and in any conditions. Unemployment was 20%, and workers were often paid their wages in pubs.

This was the city into which Larkin arrived in 1909. Born in Liverpool, Larkin joined the National Union of Dock Labourers (NUDL) in England. He led the successful dockers’ and carters’ strike in Belfast in 1907 – during which the display of Protestant and Catholic working-class unity shook the Belfast establishment. Larkin fell out with the NUDL leadership in 1908 and set up the ITGWU in 1909. By 1913, the ITGWU operated out of Liberty Hall in Dublin with a membership of around 10,000, and The Irish Worker, launched in 1911, had a circulation of 90,000.

Larkin was a charismatic and powerful orator who was fiercely loved by Dublin’s working people. A syndicalist, Larkin was especially adept at using the ‘sympathetic strike’ to win better conditions for workers. The sympathetic strike was when workers acted in solidarity with striking workers by refusing to deal with companies whose employees were on strike, and the tactic was effectively used by the ITGWU between 1909 and 1913 in Cork, Derry and Wexford.

One major employer who was paying close attention to the ITGWU’s success was businessman William Martin Murphy. Murphy owned the Irish Independent newspaper, Clery’s Department Store, the Imperial Hotel and the Dublin United Tramways Company, among other interests. In 1911, Murphy formed the Dublin Employers’ Federation which drew together more than 400 bosses into a powerful organisation intent on smashing the ITGWU.

‘Your union or your job’

Murphy fired the first shot in the dispute in 1913 by sacking around 40 workers in the Irish Independent after literally offering them the choice: “Your union or your job”. In July he forbade transport workers in the Tramways Company from being ITGWU members. He warned his staff a strike would fail, saying company leaders would have three meals a day regardless of the outcome, but “I don’t know if the men who go out can count on this”.

In a planned challenge to the ITGWU, on 21 August more than 100 workers at the Tramways Company received a dismissal notice. As large numbers travelled to the Dublin Horse Show on 26 August, drivers and conductors stopped the city’s trams and walked off. Larkin called on workers in other companies owned by Murphy or dealing with him to join the strike in solidarity. James Connolly, then ITGWU secretary in Belfast, was brought to Dublin to help run the strike.

On 31 August, Larkin addressed a banned demonstration on Sackville St – now O’Connell St – from the balcony of Murphy’s Imperial Hotel. Connolly and other leaders had already been arrested, and Larkin too was immediately. The Dublin Metropolitan Police baton-charged the crowd so violently that the day became known as Bloody Sunday – the first of three ‘Bloody Sundays’ in Ireland in the 20th century.

Two men – James Nolan and John Byrne – had their skulls fractured by police batons and later died. An ITGWU representative from Dun Laoghaire, James Byrne, died in November following a hunger strike in Mountjoy jail. Another striker, 16-year-old Alice Brady, was shot dead by a scab as she returned to her home with a donated food box.

Tension between the police and workers rose, with police smashing up the tenements by night. Rioting and street battles with police took place across the city throughout the Lockout, leading Connolly to found the Irish Citizen Army (ICA) as a workers’ self-defence organisation. At a time when women in Ireland were still fighting for the vote, the ICA accepted women as full and equal members.

As thousands of workers were attending the funeral of James Nolan on September 3, the Dublin Employers Federation met and issued the “pledge” document – which employees would be forced to sign or face immediate dismissal – and the strike became a lockout.

The pledge read:

I hereby undertake to carry out all instructions given to me by or on behalf of my employers, and further, I agree to immediately resign my membership of the ITGWU (if a member) and I further undertake that I will not join or in any way support this union.

Thousands of workers refused to sign – including many who were not ITGWU members. Rosie Hackett, a co-founder of the Irish Women Workers Union in 1911 with Delia Larkin, Constance Markievicz and others, organised women in Jacobs’ factory in support of the strike. Other major bosses joined the Lockout and by the end of September, 20,000 workers were locked out for refusing to sign the pledge.

Hunger sets in

The ITGWU paid strike wages but it wasn’t enough and hunger and desperation set in. Soup kitchens were run from Liberty Hall, union headquarters. The British Trade Union Congress voted in September to provide food and material assistance, with more than £150,000 donated from unions in Britain, the US and Australia. On 28 September a ship arrived from Britain with 60,000 ‘family boxes’ of food for the striking workers, which provided a vital morale boost.

James Larkin

James Larkin

Larkin spent several brief periods in jail for sedition and incitement, and between these periods he spent time in England in September and November trying to organise support. Connolly continued the organisation of the strike at home. While sympathetic strikes took place in several English cities, the British trade union leadership failed to call a general strike as advocated by Larkin and Connolly.

Conferences took place between workers, bosses and a union delegation to try to resolve the dispute, but failed as a result of the employers’ refusal to recognise the ITGWU. The workers faced the full force of the police, backed up by the military, as well as a fierce campaign of vilification of “Larkinism” by the clergy and media.

A hollow victory

Hunger spread as winter deepened, and there was simply not enough resources to sustain so many workers and their families, who were beginning to starve. By January the striking workers had lost all hope and began to file back to work, with the ITGWU deciding on 18 January to end the strike. The union advised workers to return to work without signing the document if possible, but in most cases it wasn’t.

But Murphy’s victory was hollow. He believed he had smashed the ITGWU but within a short period workers who had signed the pledge never to join the ITGWU did just that. The union did not have official recognition but employers were not willing to risk another lockout of union members and by 1920 the ITGWU had 100,000 members, 10 times more than in 1913. The attempt to destroy trade unionism in Ireland had clearly failed.

The Lockout was a defining point in Irish history and is rightly commemorated as such 100 years later. Poet Austin Clarke wrote that Larkin’s name endures, “scrawled in rage by Dublin’s poor”. This roar of the city’s impoverished workers meant the brutal conditions they endured could no longer be ignored and began to change.

Crucially, the fight put up by these workers meant that at this turbulent point in Irish history, the working class had a political voice – a voice that influenced middle-class nationalists such as Pádraig Pearse, who together with Connolly led the Easter Rising against British rule in Ireland in 1916. Both were executed within weeks of the Rising.

Unfinished business

In O’Connell St today stands a monument to Larkin with his famous phrase from the Lockout period engraved in the stone: “The great appear great because we are on our knees. Let us rise.”

The question of union recognition remains unresolved in Ireland today, which is one of only three EU states that lacks a legislated right to collective bargaining. Poverty, unemployment and emigration have soared after five years of austerity, and the injustice of the massive public debt undertaken by the government’s bailout of corrupt banks is bitterly felt. Austerity is not working for workers and their families right across Europe, and the Murphys of today should take note.

The centenary commemorations of the Lockout during the current crisis are helping a new generation understand the meaning of the central slogan used by the striking workers in 1913 – that ‘an injury to one is an injury to all’ – as they organise to defend hard-won working and social conditions.

Irish workers facing exploitation in Australia

Pearse Doherty, Sinn Féin TD, visited Australia in 2012 and addressed the issue of Irish workers' rights

Pearse Doherty, Sinn Féin TD, visited Australia in 2012 and addressed the issue of Irish workers’ rights

Published in An Phoblacht in August 2012

The economic crisis in Ireland is of such magnitude that it dominates everybody’s lives.

In the 26 Counties, there are now more than 450,000 people out of work and the unemployment rate has reached 14.6%. The collapse of the building industry has left more than 100,000 construction workers jobless. Youth unemployment has trebled since 2008. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions recently stated that one in three men under the age of 25 is unable to find work.

These figures are actually masked by the soaring level of emigration from this state, with 70,000 Irish citizens now emigrating each year. Rural Ireland and the west of the country have been hardest hit. An entire generation of young people have been driven overseas in scenes reminiscent of the 1950s and 1980s. In County Leitrim, half of those between the ages of 22 and 26 have left.

Earlier this year, Fine Gael Government Minister Michael Noonan added insult to injury by claiming that emigration from Ireland was a “lifestyle choice”. Forced emigration is not a lifestyle choice. It is an indictment of the failure of this government, and the previous Fianna Fáil-led government, to implement a growth agenda that can create and retain jobs.

The fact is that the Fine Gael//Labour Party Coalition Government is happy to see emigration soar because it acts as a pressure valve for them in a situation where they have utterly failed to introduce an effective job-creation strategy.

Destination Australia 

Together with Britain and Canada, one of the main destinations for Irish citizens is Australia. The Australian economy is performing better than any other in the developed world – due in part to a resources boom but also because the Australian Government responded to the global financial crisis of 2008 with an effective stimulus programme instead of austerity.

In the past four years, tens of thousands of Irish citizens have emigrated to Australia in search of work. Most Irish workers are employed in the construction, mining, healthcare and hospitality industries. They are in Australia on two main types of visas: Working Holiday visas and Temporary Skilled Worker visas (‘457 visas’).

Working Holiday visas are granted to people aged between 18 and 30 for one year, and can be extended for a second year if the person meets certain requirements. 457 visas are granted to a skilled worker and his or her dependents for up to four years by employer sponsorship, and may be converted to permanent residency if the employer supports the visa-holder’s application.

Australian Government figures show that in the past year there was a 70% rise in the number of 457 visas granted to Irish citizens on the previous year. Between July 2011 and April this year, more than 8,000 457 visas were granted to Irish nationals, with about a quarter of these in the construction and mining sectors. Ireland is now the third-largest source of temporary skilled migrants through the 457 programme.

More than 22,000 Working Holiday visas were also granted to Irish citizens in 2011, almost double the number granted the previous year.

Migrant workers vulnerable

There is evidence that some Irish workers are being exploited in the workplace in Australia as they are dependent on their employer for their visa to be maintained, extended and possibly converted to permanent residency. Any workers beholden to their employer for their residency rights are naturally going to be vulnerable to exploitation and reluctant to speak up if their rights are being abused.

Australian trade unions have dubbed 457 workers ‘bonded labour’.

There are parallels between the way migrant workers are used in Australia with the way agency workers and posted workers have been abused in Ireland and across the EU. As we know from our own experience, the creation of a group of second-class workers can be used by unscrupulous employers to lower wages, conditions and rights across the board.

In Ireland, Sinn Féin has called for a Government-led job creation strategy and outlined our plan for a 13billion euro stimulus programme that could create 130,000 jobs over three years, based on existing sources of funds available to the Government.

We want to see a fundamental shift from an austerity agenda to a growth agenda so that young Irish citizens have a future in their own country. And the last thing we want to see is Irish workers being underpaid and exploited in a country they have been forced to emigrate to.

Examples of exploitation

Issues facing Irish workers in Australia include underpayment; the denial of entitlements such as leave and workers’ compensation; and diminished safety standards on sites where migrant workers are concentrated.

1) Underpayment

In the past, workers employed under the 457 visa programme were only entitled to be paid a minimum salary. The Australian trade union movement campaigned for guest workers to be paid at the market rate, and in 2008 the Australian Government legislated for this right. Now employers are legally bound to ensure that 457 workers receive the same pay and conditions as Australian workers or permanent residents in the same workplace.

There is mounting evidence gathered by the trade unions that employers continue to pay 457 visa workers less – in some cases dramatically less – than the going rate.

The reasons why temporary workers are vulnerable to exploitation and underpayment were investigated and documented in the 2008 Government-commissioned Deegan Review of the 457 visa system, which pointed to the high degree of power employers wield over guest workers in relation to their residency rights.

2) Sham contracting

‘Sham contracting’ occurs when a company tells a worker to obtain an Australian Business Number (ABN) and then signs them up as an ‘independent contractor’ instead of as an employee. Companies use this practice to evade their responsibilities to their employees and deny them their proper rights and entitlements.

While in reality the worker is an employee of a company, the ABN system allows the employer to avoid paying leave, overtime and redundancy payments, and workers’ compensation insurance.

This is another way of driving down pay and conditions across the board, and temporary workers are especially vulnerable to this practice, which in addition to underpaying these workers provides them with no recourse whatsoever if injured in the work place.

Trade unions have noted that there are a large number of Irish workers on both types of visa in this situation, even though 457 visa-holders are not actually legally entitled to work under the ABN system. The threat of withdrawing sponsorship forces many Irish workers into sham contracting arrangements in which they are being denied their basic entitlements.

3) Unsafe sites

Construction and mining, together with road transport, are the most dangerous industries in Australia.

In the construction industry, on average one worker a week loses their life on site. Figures have shown that restrictions on the right of unions to enter sites for safety reasons between 2004 and 2009 resulted in a corresponding rise in workplace accidents, injuries and deaths in the industry.

The fact is that union sites are safer sites.

Irish workers and other migrant workers in the construction sector are concentrated in non-union sites and have low rates of union membership. Trade unions have pointed out that this low level of union membership among migrant workers is at least partially related to the nature of the visa system and the power relationship between the employer and worker.

Benefits of union membership 

The economic crisis in Ireland is set to continue, and emigration is likely to continue to rise over the next number of years.

There are also moves in Australia to expand mass temporary migration schemes, called Enterprise Migration Agreements, using 457 visa workers, as well as moves to reduce the skill level required to gain a 457 visa under these schemes. As the temporary worker programmes expand they will attract more Irish citizens to Australia.

Sinn Féin TD Pearse Doherty, due to visit Australia in September 2012, told An Phoblacht: “Sinn Féin encourages every Irish worker in Australia, and all those planning to emigrate here, to make sure their rights at work are protected. The best way to do this is to join the union as soon as they arrive in the country.

“Trade unions can provide protection against underpayment, denial of entitlements, unsafe conditions, and threats of deportation by an employer.

“Australian trade unions are campaigning against the abuse of the migrant worker system by employers, and in favour of equal rights, conditions and protections for migrant workers. They are right to do so.

“Sinn Féin has consistently defended the rights of agency workers in Ireland and Europe and demanded equal rights for all workers in order to stop the ‘race to the bottom’ on wages and conditions. Just as we, together with the Irish trade union movement, have campaigned for legislation to combat the exploitation of agency workers in Ireland, Australian trade unionists are trying to prevent the creation of a group of second-class workers.

“The existing protections for temporary workers have only been achieved by union campaigns for equality.

“The trade union movement has made an enormous contribution to improving the lives and wellbeing of working people in Australia, and the Irish community has played a vital role in building and leading that movement.

“We urge Irish workers in Australia to join their union not only to continue this tradition but to ensure that their rights at work are protected.”

Know Your Rights: Download a pamphlet prepared for Irish workers in Australia here.

‘Working people should not pay for bankers’ crisis’

Martin Ferris TD with former Australian PM Paul Keating in Sydney in 2011

Martin Ferris TD with former Australian PM Paul Keating in Sydney in 2011

Interview with Martin Ferris TD on Australian speaking tour

Published in An Phoblacht in August 2011

Martin Ferris, Sinn Féin TD for Kerry, visited Australia in July and August 2011, speaking to hundreds of people at public meetings in Perth, Sydney and Melbourne on the economic crisis in Ireland, and the international campaign for Irish national reunification.

The Irish government responded to Ireland’s severe economic problems linked to the global financial crisis by imposing brutal anti-worker austerity in return for loans from the European Central Bank (ECB) and International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Elected to the Dáil in 2002, Ferris has been the Sinn Féin spokesperson on workers’ rights for several years.

Ferris said the economic crisis that struck the southern Irish state in 2008 has had a huge impact on working people across Ireland, “especially in terms of job losses, and in particular job losses in the construction sector”.

“For around 10-12 years, construction was the fastest growing sector in the economy and thousands of young people left education in order to take up a trade in the industry,” he said.

“The growth was based on an unsustainable speculative boom in the property sector, in league with the main banks and politicians.

“With the collapse of the industry, all of these young people have been laid off. Unemployment and emigration have soared to levels not seen since the 1980s.

“There are now more than 450,000 people looking for work in a state of about five million people. Almost 150,000 people have emigrated from Ireland since 2008.

“There is an enormous level of anger among the Irish people at the bankers and politicians who caused this crisis.”

Ferris said this anger grew as the then Fianna Fail-Green coalition government’s response to the crisis was to accept the terms of the €85 billion ECB-IMF bailout. None of these funds were to be used to support ordinary people, communities or services.

The interest rate on the loan was unaffordable and punitive. The loan was conditional on the government implementing drastic cuts to public spending that would have disastrous social consequences.

“The bailout was not aimed at addressing the state’s deficit problem but at shoring up a corrupt banking system and protecting international financial gamblers,” Ferris said.

“Sinn Féin, together with a majority of people in Ireland, believe these debts should not be paid by the people.

“Investors invest at their own risk. The bondholders should have been told they would not be paid.”

Popular anger was demonstrated dramatically at the February general election, in which the ruling Fianna Fail party lost three-quarters of its seats, dropping from 78 seats to 20. The Greens, which had ruled in a coalition with Fianna Fail, failed to hold a single seat.

Sinn Féin increased its representation from four TDs to 14, and has since won three seats in the Seanad (Senate) in elections in April. The United Left Alliance also won five seats in February.

“Voters viewed Fianna Fail as being responsible in large part for bringing about the economic crisis,” Ferris said.

“But people were also angered by the government’s response of turning the bankers’ debt into ‘sovereign debt’ and implementing a savage austerity program.”

But despite voters rejecting Fianna Fail, the new government — a Fine Gael-Labour Party coalition — has continued to implement the previous government’s budget.

“This includes cutting the minimum wage by about one euro per hour,” Ferris said.

“They have since reversed that cut, after provoking a lot of anger and resistance among people in low-paid industries such as hospitality and retail.”

Ferris said there were ongoing attacks on workers’ rights across the state.

“In July, the High Court made a ruling that a fast-food operator was not under a legal obligation to pay workers higher rates for working Sundays and public holidays, or overtime.”

The High Court ruled that laws that allow minimum pay and conditions are set under Employment Regulation Orders proposed by joint labour committees to be approved by the Labour Court were “unconstitutional”.

The court ruled such laws were an “unlawful interference in the property rights” of the fast-food operator.

“This ruling has serious implications for around 200,000 people working in low-paid industries,” Ferris said.

“It essentially paves the way for the minimum statutory rights and conditions to become the maximum in these industries.

“It shows that there is an urgent need to introduce laws to protect workers’ rights.

“In the absence of any functioning social partnership, it has become abundantly clear that the lowest paid workers and their families have been left in a very vulnerable situation by the Fine Gael-Labour government’s failure to bring forward legislation protecting their rights.”

Ferris said the job creation package unveiled by the Fine Gael-Labour government “cannot possibly address the unemployment crisis adequately”.

“The trade union movement faces a number of challenges in these circumstances,” he said.

“The trade union leadership has traditionally been aligned with the Labour Party, which is in power with Fine Gael.

“For the past two decades they have also been a part of a ‘social partnership’ agreement between the unions, employers and government.

“Many working people viewed the social partnership as beneficial, or at least not opposed to their interests, during the boom years. But the relationship is now being viewed as detrimental to their interests, rights and entitlements.”

In 2009, the social partnership process largely fell apart.

“Yet despite the decline in union membership and increase in inequality that the social partnership process has contributed to, the approach of trade union leaders appears to be to try to rehabilitate the principle and practices of social partnership.

“Many trade union activists are actively opposing this approach.

“In such a crisis for working people, political leadership is sorely needed.

“But the trade union leadership is affiliated with the Labour Party, which is implementing anti-worker policies.

“So this poses a big political challenge to the organised labour movement.”

Ferris outlined an alternative approach to the economic crisis that Sinn Fein and other progressive forces are campaigning for.

“Sinn Fein has consistently argued that the banking debt should not have become sovereign debt.

“We outlined a plan at the beginning of the crisis for the National Pensions Reserve funds to be used to stimulate the economy — including by setting up a state bank that could lend to small businesses and ensure they remained viable and that jobs were protected.

“However, no government has been willing to challenge the bondholders.

“The state debt is approaching €200 billion. It is inevitable that there is going to be a default — likely be disguised as the ‘reconstruction’ of the loans — in Ireland and in other countries in similar situations in the EU.

The Sinn Féin TD said the demands being made on working people in Ireland as part of paying the debt were “unreasonable”.

“They cannot be met, and nor should the people be forced to bear the debt of the bankers.

“This is a banking crisis, a result of greed by bankers and developers and cronyism and corruption in government.

“The Irish people are crying out for honest leadership, for profound change in the political system that has failed them so badly, for a new direction — a new republic.”

Ferris said the new republic that Sinn Fein envisages would be based on “the still-relevant vision of the leaders of the 1916 Rising — that is, to ‘cherish all of the children of the nation equally’, and to use the resources of the country to benefit all of the people, not just the self-appointed elite”.

“A new republic would need to deal with the negative impact of partition, which leaves six counties under British rule. It would need to be an agreed Ireland between all shades of opinion on the island.”

Ferris is a former Irish Republican Army volunteer and prisoner who was part of the Sinn Féin’s negotiating team in talks that lead to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement to end armed conflict in the north.

“For centuries Britain’s involvement in Ireland has been the source of conflict; partition, discord and division,” he said.

“The Irish peace process has delivered an end to conflict and that is to be welcomed.

“But the underlying cause of conflict persists — the British government’s claim of jurisdiction over a part of Ireland.

“The denial of the Irish people’s right to self-determination, freedom and independence is the core issue that must be resolved.”

Sinn Fein is organising a series of large public meetings in Ireland on the topic of a new republic. The meetings involve a broad range of people from different backgrounds — with a particular emphasis on involving “unionists” (supporters of the six counties “union” with Britain).

“The Irish diaspora has a major role to play in this campaign,” he said.

“Sinn Fein has organised a series of successful events over the past two years around the issue of a new republic in the US, Canada and Britain — and now Australia — on how supporters can help create the international environment for the success of this vision.

“There is a long history of Irish activism here in Australia — from republican activism aimed at building support for Irish unity, to Irish involvement in the struggle for workers’ rights and social justice here in Australia, particularly in the trade union movement,” Ferris said.

“We hope to continue working together with the Irish community and supporters here in Australia to organise a series of conferences on Irish unity next year.”

‘Bobby dreamed of a better future’

Séanna Walsh

Séanna Walsh

Friend and former cellmate of Bobby Sands speaks

Published in the West Belfast News & An Phoblacht in May 2011

On the 30th anniversary of the May 5, 1981 death on hunger strike of Irish republican prisoner Bobby Sands MP, the West Belfast News’ Emma Clancy spoke to Sands’ close friend, former prisoner in the Long Kesh H-Blocks along with Sands and leading Belfast Sinn Féin activist Séanna Walsh about the man who has become a revolutionary icon around the world.

Discussing the impact of the 1981 Hunger Strike on the course of recent Irish history, Walsh said: “I believe that people who went through this period and had these experiences have an obligation to tell a new generation about it – to ensure that this crucial period in Irish history isn’t left to be rewritten by the ‘experts’ and academics but is actually recounted by the people who lived it.”

Walsh first met Sands on remand in Cage 8 of Long Kesh before being moved to Crumlin Road jail in January 1973.

“Although I was 16 and should have been sent to a juvenile institution, I was sent to a standard remand jail,” he said.

“Bobby wasn’t in the same hut but he sought me out when I arrived, I suppose because I was so young. Bobby was 18 and had been on remand for around four months.

“He took me for a dander around the yard explaining the daily routine of the jail, the dos and don’ts, filling me in on how to arrange visits from family and generally what was what in the jail.

“He was very much one of ‘us’, an ordinary guy who loved a bit of craic, kicked a football, had a sleg and a laugh.

“Within a week or two I was moved to Long Kesh with the other Crumlin road prisoners on remand or awaiting trial.”

While he was in Crumlin Road jail Bobby got married and his son Gerard was born.

“Bobby was sentenced to five years and sent to Long Kesh in March or April of 1973, while I was soon to follow in May”, Walsh said.

“We met up again in autumn of that year, around September, when I was moved from Cage 18 to Cage 17 in Long Kesh.

“The warders had done away with the open layout of the Nissen huts and had partitioned them on the inside into cell-like structures. We called them cubicles or cubes. I was put into Bobby’s cubicle for around a year until we prisoners burnt the camp in October 1974.

“I was from the Short Strand and there were a lot of Short Strand guys in Cage 17. Bobby was from Rathcoole originally, and then moved to Twinbrook after the summer of 1972. He became part of our circle, those of us who were mainly from the Strand.

“We were all learning Irish together. I would have had around GCSE-level Irish before I was caught. I don’t think Bobby had any Irish when he went in but he very quickly caught up.

“A fellow prisoner was great guitarist and blues musician Rab McCullogh. He taught Bobby how to play guitar around that time. He was always down at our cubicle or else Bobby would be up in his learning how to play different tunes.

“Bobby would sing a lot of Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson and early Rod Stewart stuff during this period, as well as a lot of songs in Irish.

“He read and absorbed books hungrily – political and historical books about British involvement in our country and the resulting resistance to that involvement, as well as the struggles of other oppressed peoples throughout the world, throughout history. But he also read novels.

“When Bobby was released in early 1976 he was coming out determined to reorganise the republican base in his area, Twinbrook.

“He reorganised the army, the auxies [auxiliaries], na Fianna [republican youth group] and Sinn Féin, but then he took things a step further.

“He organised republican involvement in the tenants’ associations and pushed republicans to become involved in the everyday battles with the British Direct Rule administration and unionists on Lisburn Council.

“After six short months, however, he was back inside and I was already there too, waiting on him coming back.

Bobby Sands in Long Kesh before the withdrawal of political status

Bobby Sands in Long Kesh before the withdrawal of political status

“The rules were different this time though, with the denial of political status after March 1976 the prison warders were attempting to impose a punitive regime of criminal status on us.”

Resisting criminalisation

“Bobby was at the forefront of resistance to Britain’s criminalisation policies on remand in Crumlin Road jail and then once sentenced, in the H-Blocks,” Walsh said.

“He had been involved in writing a local weekly news-sheet before recapture and he decided to continue writing for it in jail. After a while he started writing for Republican News, soon to become An Phoblacht/Republican News.

“He was now like a man possessed; it was his job to tell the story of every brutal assault, every sadistic attack on the naked prisoners in the H-Blocks.

“The horrendous conditions in which we suffered meant nothing if the world outside of our immediate families knew nothing about them. Bobby was central to getting the word out, first of all to the republican base and then to the wider community.

“As the crisis in the H-Blocks dragged on from 1979 into 1980 and we went through different avenues to move the British on the political status issue, it became clear that we would be left with one last option – the hunger strike.

“The hunger strike of 1980 ended with British doublespeak and bad faith and it quickly became apparent to a number of us that a second hunger strike was inevitable.

“With Bobby leading the charge in the face of justified concerns and worries from the army leadership outside, we pressed our case. We were successful.

“Bobby organised for himself to be the first man on the strike, the first then to die, the two-week gap before Francie Hughes joined him giving the British space to move, to make concessions once Thatcher had her pound of flesh.”

Election campaign

Walsh recounted the events that led to Bobby Sands being elected as MP for Fermanagh/South Tyrone while on hunger strike.

“When it was announced in 1979 that Bernadette McAliskey was to stand on an Anti H Block/Armagh Platform in the European elections, we discussed the decision in jail and put out a public statement voicing concerns that the election campaign a distraction from the task of mobilising people in the street campaign in support of political status for republican prisoners.

“We viewed it as a distraction from the armed struggle.

“However, when Bobby’s name was put forward for the 1981 by-election in Fermanagh/South Tyrone, we vigorously seized on that notion and weighed in behind it, not as an alternative to the armed struggle at the time, but as a way of mobilising people around the issue of political status.

“It was a means of allowing people to publicly claim their support for the prisoners.

“The media was ignoring or downplaying the street campaign in support of status, so in that context the election campaign seemed like a good way to put it on public record that there was a high level of support for the prisoners and for our demand for political status.

“Once the idea was raised to put Bobby’s name forward for the Fermanagh/South Tyrone by-election, there wasn’t universal support for the move in the jail.

“Some prisoners were concerned that the election campaign would be a distraction from the street campaign in support of political status, or that participating in the electoral system would somehow contaminate our republican credentials.

An Phoblacht/Republican News in 1981

An Phoblacht/Republican News in 1981

“Others were concerned not about the question of participating in the election, but of the prospect that Bobby might not win the seat, which would allow the British to present the outcome as a rejection of our decision to embark on the hunger strike, a rejection of the legitimacy of the protest and the five demands, and a rejection of the wider republican struggle.

“We were very clear about the dangers of the tactic of putting Bobby forward. Overall however, the majority verdict was ‘Yes, let’s go’.

“During the first hunger strike in 1980, and in the lead-up to it, we wrote to everybody we could think of – schools, credit unions, GAA clubs [Gaelic Athletic Association, which organizes tradition Irish sports], residents’ associations, celebrities and sports personalities.

“When the second hunger strike started we began the letter-writing campaign again. Once Bobby allowed his name to go forward for the Fermanagh/South Tyrone by-election, we went into overdrive. There was a huge effort by the prisoners.

“Despite initial reservations about the tactic among some prisoners, there was rapid acceptance and understanding of the value of using this tactic once we had made the decision.

“When Bobby began his hunger strike, I was certain that he was going to die. He was certain of this too.

“But when he was elected as MP, I started to hope the situation had changed – that the British could not allow him to die.

“I don’t believe Bobby was in that frame of mind though. Despite his election, he didn’t allow himself to have heightened expectations about the outcome of the hunger strike.”

Political machine

“We hoped that Bobby’s election, and the clear signal this sent that republicans had significant public support, would put pressure on the British to meet the prisoners’ demands,” Walsh said.

“It’s hard to put yourself back in that mind-frame without viewing events through the prism of the past 30 years. But undoubtedly a major lesson for republicans at the time from Bobby’s election in April 1981 was that the nationalist people in the North were willing to support and vote for republicans.

“That didn’t mean people were at that stage voting to support the armed campaign, or even a United Ireland. But given the right set of circumstances, the nationalist people would vote for republicans and our politics.

“It was, as I said, a major lesson. It indisputably opened up that arena to a generation of republicans who previously had no regard, no expectations, and no aspirations to do anything around electoral politics.

“It hadn’t entered our world, but after Bobby’s election our world had changed.

“During the long, dark days of the blanket protest, we kept up morale by learning Irish and sing-songs and some of the guys even ingeniously fashioned a game of bingo out the door to keep the wing entertained.

“Our other main preoccupation was with politics – discussing, arguing, and debating the politics of the world, and the politics and history of republicanism,” Walsh said.

“It was apparent for us during these discussions in the jail that in 1972, when the IRA had forced the British through force of arms to the negotiating table, we didn’t know what to do when we got there.

“In 1974 and 1975 when the IRA had again forced the British to the negotiating table, we didn’t have the political machine nor the political operation in place that would allow us to move into that space once the IRA had created it.

“There was an acknowledgement of these limitations in the mid to late 1970s, not right throughout the movement but certainly within a section of it.

“Among a section of prisoners in Long Kesh there was an understanding that regardless of what the IRA did in the armed struggle, in the short, medium and long term there was a need to build a political vehicle, an effective political machine, and to build up an alternative political infrastructure in our communities.”

Determination

Walsh described the “blanket protest” that developed after the removal of political status as being “like a political crucible, or a pressure cooker in which all of the politics, the mayhem of that period of the late 1970s and early 1980s was concentrated”.

He said: “This experience created a very strong comradeship and a bond among the prisoners. It created a determination among many of us to see this struggle through to the end – throughout the twists and turns of the struggle, a sense that you would never walk away from it.

“It produced a caucus of politicised, committed, determined lifelong activists.

Bobby Sands' mural on the gable wall of Sinn Féin's Belfast office on the Falls Road

Bobby Sands’ mural on the gable wall of Sinn Féin’s Belfast office on the Falls Road

“The prison protests, and what men and women went through during those days, also caused immense damage to a lot of people in Long Kesh and Armagh jail.

“I believe that the brutality and indignities of that experience left deep scars across the entire republican and nationalist communities. It was not only the prisoners who were suffering but visiting relatives including children who endured the indignities of searches, the taunts of the warders and the sectarianism and petty-mindedness of the whole prison system.

“There is a reservoir of trauma under the surface and this is an aspect of the conflict that is still not recognised and rarely talked about. This needs to change if we are to cope with these problems individually and as a community.”

Bobby’s vision

“I was speaking earlier about Bobby’s love for music. When we were on the blanket protest after political status was removed, of course we had no musical instruments.

“Bobby was one of a couple of guys – him, Bik [Brendan McFarlane] and couple of others – who would get up and sing. They’d have a repertoire of around 30 songs or so and could sing away for an hour easily.

“The rest of the wing would be very quiet during those sing-songs, you’d close your eyes and listen and it’d take you away for awhile.

“Bobby used to sing a lot of Simon and Garfunkel and Leonard Cohen songs during that period, and a guy called Loudon Wainwright III.

“I was talking to Tom Hartley recently about that period – about the period of the hunger strike, Bobby’s election campaign and where we are today – and I was remembering the lines of one of those Loudon Wainwright songs that Bobby sang.

We’ve come a long way since we last shook hands
Still got a long way to go
We couldn’t see the flowers when we last shook hands
Couldn’t see the flowers on account of the snow.

“For me these lines are a metaphor about the distance we’ve come. From where we were when Bobby used to sing those words, to where we are today – it’s just a world of difference,” Séanna said.

“It’s also a reminder of how, despite the fact that things can be so bleak at a given time, they can change, change utterly, for the better.

“That oft-quoted line from Bobby’s writings – ‘Our revenge will be the laughter of our children’ – is in the same spirit as this song, and I think it really does sum up Bobby’s vision – of daring to dream of a better future and of struggling for it with every ounce of his being.

“Building on Bobby’s example, his courage and single-mindedness, how can we fail to create a better Ireland? A better future?”

30 years on – the Armagh women’s hunger strike

A poster of Mary Doyle when she was on hunger strike in Armagh

A poster of Mary Doyle when she was on hunger strike in Armagh

Interview with former hunger striker Mary Doyle: ‘When your back is against the wall, you get the strength from somewhere’

Published in the West Belfast News in December, 2010

North Belfast republican Mary Doyle was first sent to Armagh women’s jail for republican activities in May 1974 when she was 18 years old.

“At that stage we had political status,” she told the West Belfast News.

In 1975, while Doyle was in jail, her mother was murdered by the UVF. She was allowed out for 24 hours on compassionate parole to attend her mother’s funeral, then returned to the jail.

“That was a very dark period for me, but the comradeship of the women got me through,” she said.

“I was released in September 1976 and political status for prisoners had been withdrawn in March that year. I was sent back to jail in September 1977 and the prison screws and governor took great pleasure in telling me that status was gone and that I was an ‘ordinary criminal’. I was on remand and then sentenced in December 1978.”

In 1977 the republican women POWs in Armagh refused to do mandatory prison work in protest at the withdrawal of political status. In response to the no-work protest, the women were kept in their cells all day during work hours and were allowed out between 5.30pm and 8pm in the evening to eat, wash and exercise.

Punishment for the work strike also included the loss of educational opportunities and remission. One visit a week was reduced to one visit a month.

Strip searches were a key weapon used by the prison authorities throughout this period in an attempt to intimidate and humiliate the republican women. This process, condemned as a form of sexual assault by the state, involved women being thrown to the ground and beaten if they resisted.

While the men in the H Blocks of Long Kesh prison had begun the blanket protest in protest at the British government’s criminalisation policy, refusing to wear the prison uniform, Armagh prisoners were allowed to wear their own clothes.

The women wore IRA uniform items such as black polo neck shirts, black skirts and tights as a form of protest against criminalisation.

“We would organise commemorations in the yard wearing our uniforms if a Volunteer was killed,” Doyle said.

“In February 1980 a major raid was carried out on our cells by male and female screws. They moved us into two association rooms while they ransacked our cells. We didn’t have much but what we had – photographs, letters and personal items – they destroyed.

“We then had to walk back to our cells through lines of male screws on either side who came out with all sorts of abuse.

“We were locked up for 24 hours a day and denied access to toilet facilities. This went on for a few days and a small amount of cold food was thrown in now and then. We had a chamber pot in the cell and tried to empty it out under the door when it was full, but the screws brushed the waste back in.

“Mairéad Farrell, who was our OC, was protesting strongly to the prison administration, demanding that we be allowed out of our cells for an hour a day, which was our human and legal right.

“After a few days we were allowed out for an hour’s exercise, four at a time – but the toilet facilities remained locked.

“The no-wash protest was forced on the women in Armagh through the actions of the prison authorities.”

The republican prisoners were moved from B Wing to A Wing where they spent the summer of 1980. The men in the H Blocks had at this point been on the blanket and no wash protest for several years.

“There was great communication between the H Blocks, Armagh and the republican movement outside,” Mary explained.

“There were 30 republican women prisoners and we only got one visit each per month, so we made sure that a woman had a visit from the outside each day to keep up the communication.

“The question of beginning a hunger strike began to be discussed, and was firmly opposed by the leadership on the outside. But for us and for the men in the H Blocks, we felt our situation was intolerable and we needed to try to force a change in our conditions.

“The H Block leadership were opposed to women participating in the hunger strike. This wasn’t for any macho reason – their opposition was based on logistical issues. But the women were determined to participate as we felt we had an equal stake in achieving the five demands.”

p16-main

Doyle explained the process of deciding to volunteer for the hunger strike.

“I thought long and hard about volunteering for the strike before I put my name forward. My main consideration was my family. My mother had been murdered, my father was unwell and I had two younger brothers. I was approaching my 25th birthday.

“After a lot of consideration I took the decision to put my name forward. Seven men in the H Blocks began the hunger strike on October 27. On December 1, Mairéad Farrell, Mairéad Nugent and myself joined the hunger strike.

“Telling my family was very difficult emotionally.

“When there had been talk on the outside of a hunger strike, my father had said to friends and family: ‘Oh, our Mary will definitely put her name forward.’ They supported me – that was amazing, to have the support of family, friends and comrades.

“On the day we started the hunger strike, the three of us were moved to a double cell together, which was great for us in terms of morale. We would spend the days writing letters to anyone and everyone around the world about the plight of the prisoners.”

Doyle noted that “prison food is notoriously bad” and said that Armagh was no exception.

“The food was usually served cold and in small portions. But when we started the hunger strike, the screws would pass in plates overflowing with piping hot food,” she said.

“The cell would never be without food – the uneaten suppers would remain in the cell overnight and be removed only when breakfast was passed in. That was something really petty, really childish and vindictive, on the part of the prison authorities that I remember being disgusted with.”

As the three women entered their second week on hunger strike, they were moved to the so-called hospital wing – a double cell in another part of the prison. They were allowed use the bath facilities, which was a requirement for everyone entering the hospital wing.

“We had been on the no-wash protest since February that year and having a bath had been something we had been looking forward to so much, and talking about eagerly,” Doyle recalled.

“But by that stage we were actually too weak to really appreciate it.

“Communication with the other prisoners remained good as we were still allowed an hour’s exercise in the prison yard. But it was December and we were very conscious of the threat to our health from the cold, with our weakened immune systems. We wrapped up in extra blankets to try to keep warm.

“Despite the physical hardship, our morale was brilliant. Our only concern was the health of our comrades in the H Blocks who had been on hunger strike longer than us. Then we heard that Sean McKenna’s health was rapidly deteriorating.

“We had a small radio that we’d smuggled in to the cell that we listened to only at news time. On December 18 we heard an item on the nine o’clock news that said the hunger strike had ended. We thought we had misheard it but the same news was repeated the following hour.

“Danny Morrison had tried to get in to visit us that evening to inform us of the decision to end the hunger strike but the prison authorities and NIO officials refused to allow him in.

“The Armagh prison governor, George Scott, came in to us saying, ‘So, the hunger strike is over’. But we hadn’t had confirmation, so Mairéad said: ‘No. We’re still on it until we hear directly that it’s over.’

“After a visit by a republican to acting OC Síle Darragh the following day, December 19, we ended the hunger strike. Our immediate reaction was relief that Sean McKenna would live and a sense of happiness or satisfaction that our demands, as we believed, would be met.”

Mary recalled the rapid disillusionment in Armagh and the H Blocks as shortly after Christmas it became clear that the British had reneged on the agreement and had no intention of addressing the five demands.

“In January we began discussing a second hunger strike. I was all for it. I put my name down again as did a few others,” she said.

“My father had visited me after the hunger strike ended, and I will never forget the look of relief in his eyes.

“I thought about what it would mean to put him and the rest of my family through that again. It was a very difficult decision, and something that I felt and still feel truly terrible about, but I felt I had to remove my name.

“There were only 30 prisoners in our wing in Armagh jail, including some women who were not even part of the republican movement but who had been forced into signing confessions in Castlereagh. We made the assessment that we would not have the capacity to sustain a second hunger strike in Armagh.

“When Bobby Sands started the second hunger strike in 1981, the no-wash protest was called off in the H Blocks and Armagh so the POWs could focus on the hunger strike. We were still on the no-work protest so we were still locked in our cells all day but managed to keep up communication in our time out of the cells in the evenings.

“There was a huge buzz among us when Bobby was elected as MP in the Fermanagh/South Tyrone by-election. We were convinced – certain – that there was no way Thatcher could let him die after that.”

She described the morning the Armagh women heard that Bobby had died.

“There aren’t any words to properly describe the way I felt. It was every emotion at once – heartbreak, shock, fury and frustration – and all the time you were locked in a cell all day, not able to take any sort of action like protesting on the streets.

“My heart ached for each of the families – the loss didn’t lessen as each of the 10 men died. The pain just grew and grew.

“But the comradeship sustained us. When we had nothing else, we had each other.

 

Former republican prisoners return to Armagh Women's Jail in December 2010 to mark 30 years since the women's hunger strike

Former republican prisoners return to Armagh Women’s Jail in December 2010 to mark 30 years since the women’s hunger strike

“Armagh jail was an old Victorian building. It was freezing. It wasn’t pleasant. The conditions when we were slopping out were grim and not something you thought you could ever get used to.

“But when your back is against the wall, you get the strength from somewhere. And republicans, we just get on with it. We always have.”

Mary was released from jail in 1983 and has been involved in republican activism since then. She is currently standing as a candidate for Sinn Féin in the upcoming Belfast City Council elections, and works for the party in the Teach Carney constituency centre in North Belfast.

She outlined the historic and current vital role of women in the republican struggle and the importance of acknowledging this contribution.

“I’m very proud of my past and my actions as a Volunteer. I have no regrets – my only regret, if you can call it that, is that I was born into a sectarian Orange state. I’m proud of the progress that has been in dismantling the Orange state and the role that republicans have played in this.

“The role that women have played, and continue to play, in the republican struggle is often not fully acknowledged. And it is not just women Volunteers, POWs or political activists that must be acknowledged, though of course these women have made enormous contributions.

“It is women who have been the backbone of the republican struggle. They kept up the strength and morale of the community in the face of fierce repression. When husbands, fathers and children were arrested, women were left to run homes, to bring up children, to put food on the table, to organise visits to jail and to organise the protest movement in defence of the prisoners’ rights.

“Women opened their homes to Volunteers to rest and eat. It was women, too, who drove the formation of the relatives’ action committees and the H Block/Armagh committees. I have absolute admiration for all of them.

“We need to acknowledge this massive contribution in all its forms not only because it deserves to be acknowledged, but also because it helps to show women today that they have a full and active role to play in building the republican movement.

“Sinn Féin believes there is a vital need for women to be fully involved in public and political life and the decision-making process in order to advance towards a society of equals.”

Urging young people to participate in the series of commemorative events being held over the next year to mark the 30th anniversary of the hunger strikes, Mary said: “It is important that new generations learn about and understand this period in our history.

“We need to keep alive the memory of our comrades who made the ultimate sacrifice for Irish freedom. We also need to reflect on the role of this struggle in advancing our republican goals through ensuring our message was heard, and that our community could not be criminalised, isolated or broken.”

Cuban Five begin 13th year in US jails

cuban5-main

Published in An Phoblacht on October 1, 2010

AS THE Cuban Five enter their 13th year behind bars in US jails, the international campaign for their release marked the anniversary of their imprisonment in September 1998 with demonstrations and vigils around the world, including in Ireland.

René González, Antonio Guerrero, Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labanino and Fernando González were arrested by the FBI 12 years ago on September 12th, after they infiltrated Miami-based right-wing Cuban paramilitary groups engaged in a campaign of violence and sabotage against Cuba.

Since the Cuban Revolution in 1959, more than 3,500 Cubans have been killed in attacks by right-wing groups based in southern Florida, often acting with the active support of the US government.

During the mid-1990s, as a bombing campaign aimed at undermining Cuba’s tourism sector was being carried out by these organisations, the Cuban government deployed intelligence agents to the US to monitor these groups and gather evidence of their involvement in anti-Cuban violence to prevent future attacks.

The Cuban Government supplied this evidence to the US Government in 1998 – but instead of arresting those involved in violent criminal acts against Cuba, the FBI arrested the five men and handed them over to the Miami courts, which charged them with conspiracy to commit espionage against the US.

At a trial held in Miami – the stronghold of virulently anti-Castro organisations, politicians and media – the five men were convicted in 2001 and received sentences ranging from 15 years to a double life sentence.

The five were each held in solitary confinement for the first 17 months of their imprisonment. A UN committee and Amnesty International have condemned the conditions of their imprisonment as contravening human rights.

In a further act of cruelty, the US Government has for the past 12 years cited “national security” grounds to refuse Adriana Perez and Olga Salanueva, the wives of Gerardo Hernández and René González respectively, visas to enter the US to visit their husbands in jail.

The Cuban Government and people have led an extraordinary international campaign for the release of the Cuban Five (also known as ‘The Miami Five’).

More than 300 solidarity organisations have been established around the world to campaign for their release. The trial is the only judicial proceeding in US history to have been singled out for condemnation by the UN Human Rights Commission.

‘Perfect storm’ of bias

After being unjustly imprisoned for seven years, the five won the right to an appeal in 2005. In August that year, a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta described the atmosphere in Miami during their trial in 2000-2001 as “a perfect storm” of bias. The court overturned the convictions of the Cuban Five and ordered a new trial outside of Miami.

But the Bush administration intervened. A full 12-judge session of 11th Circuit Court of Appeals court was convened to overturn the ruling and the original convictions were upheld.

The Cuban Five then tried to appeal to the US Supreme Court. Their lawyers filed 12 global ‘friends of the court’ briefs to the Supreme Court, including a brief from Ireland signed by former President Mary Robinson and 47 TDs and senators. Among other signatories of the briefs were 10 Nobel laureates, hundreds of parliamentarians, and several US and international jurist organisations.

Despite optimism that President Barack Obama would respond to the massive international pressure over the case, the Supreme Court last June refused to hear the case – without offering any explanation.

However, in a victory for the campaign, three of the five had their sentences reduced in 2008 and 2009. Ramón Labanino had his life sentence reduced to 30 years; Fernando González had his 19-year sentence reduced to 17 years and 9 months; and Antonio Guerrero had his life sentence plus 10 years reduced to 21 years and nine months.

In a joint statement after their sentences were reduced, the three noted that “the prosecutor publicly recognised the existence of a strong international movement in support of our immediate freedom that affects the image of the US judicial system”.

“The absolute political character of this process is confirmed,” they said.

Legal farce

The sentence of René González (15 years) was not reviewed, nor was that of Gerardo Hernández – who was sentenced to double life sentences. Hernández’s sentence, the harshest of the five, is based on unfounded allegations linking him to the shooting down of two ‘Brothers to the Rescue’ illegal flights over Cuban airspace in 2006 (while Hernández was in Miami). Brothers to the Rescue is one of the most active right-wing Cuban groups based in southern Florida.

Hernández’s lawyer, Leonard Weinglass, pointed out: “Hernández is the first person in US history to be charged for the shoot-down of an aircraft by the armed forces of another country acting in defence of their airspace.”

In June, Hernández’s lawyers petitioned the Supreme Court for a collateral appeal – a limited form of appeal based on constitutional issues – citing new evidence that emerged in 2006 that the US government was paying journalists in Miami before and during the original trial and sentencing of the Cuban Five to produce stories hostile to Cuba and the Cuban Five.

Solidarity organisations in the US are currently engaged in a legal struggle to have the journalists’ – who were supposedly independent but were on the payroll of the federal government associated with Radio and TV Marti – contracts released to the public.

Yet despite the serious implications of this information – evidence of the US Government illegally propagandising against its own population – there continues to be a virtual media blackout in the US of the case.

As the political nature of the case becomes ever more pronounced, and as the legal avenues for redressing this injustice dwindle, the need for the international campaign to pressure the Obama administration to intervene is vital.

North’s Assembly must have control of local economy

Sinn Féin MLAs launch an anti-austerity billboard at Stormont

Sinn Féin MLAs and trade unionists launch an anti-austerity billboard at Stormont

Published in An Phoblacht on October 1, 2010

The likely impact of the British Government’s public spending cuts on the North’s economy, the need for a united campaign of resistance against these cuts, and the need for control of the economy to be devolved to the Assembly have been outlined to An Phoblacht’s Emma Clancy by Sinn Féin Economy spokesperson Mitchel McLaughlin.

THE BRITISH Conservative/Liberal Democrat Coalition Government is due to announce its austerity Budget on October 20th, following the Emergency Budget in June that made £6billion of cuts to public spending. The October Budget is expected to make unprecedented cuts to spending, with British Government departments’ budgets being slashed by up to 40%.

In the June Budget, the North’s Executive was told to cut a further £128million from spending this year, on top of the £393million savings it already had to make. This has taken half a billion pounds from the block grant to the Executive, which is about £12billion annually. It has been reported that the block grant will be cut by £1.5billion to £2billion in the looming spending review in October.

“The Tories’ agenda of cuts is rooted in the party’s traditional, conservative ideology and will actually threaten, rather than support, the economic recovery,” Mitchel McLaughlin told An Phoblacht.

Devolve powers

“Devolution adds complexity to the impact of – and resistance against – the public spending cuts in the North. Devolution gives ministers in the Six Counties responsibility for many issues but ministers have very little power to affect the economic situation.

“The Assembly and Executive basically have no power to address the recession and its effects, such as the rise in unemployment. The Executive has no power to raise revenue or reprioritise public spending. The spending profile is determined by the British Treasury.”

The Sinn Féin MLA said that the devolution of fiscal autonomy would empower the Executive to alter this situation and to address historic inequalities.

“Westminster has used what’s known as ‘The Barnett Formula’ to determine the block grant, which has proved inappropriate and inadequate. It is a population statistic-based formula rather than an approach based on meeting objective need or addressing legacy issues such as discrimination, conflict and under-investment.

“The Barnett formula is ostensibly aimed at achieving ‘parity’ with other regional economies but this has not been achieved. Real parity would mean that communities and individuals have access to the same quality of life and services as those who pay the same rates of taxation. On average, people in the North have about 80% access to services and quality of life as people in south-east England.

“All of the Executive departments are already functioning at a deficit in terms of their Programme for Government commitments. Now the British Government is going to take more from these already-overstretched budgets in the October Budget.

“The Executive took the decision to ring-fence education and health budgets this year. It is unlikely that these departments will remain immune from spending cuts and there are efficiencies that can be made but it establishes the principle that defending the delivery of vital services such as health and education is the key priority for the Executive.”

Public sector vital

McLaughlin said that decisions are made in Westminster on the basis of what is ‘best’ for London and south-east England – completely detached from the specific needs of the North’s economy.

“So long as economic sovereignty over the Six Counties is exercised by the British Government it will not be possible for the North to reach its full economic and developmental potential,” he said.

The weak private sector in the Six Counties means that the public sector accounts for more than 70% of GDP and employs one-third of the workforce. There is also a higher dependency on benefit payments here than in Britain, another key target of the ConDem coalition.

“So, disproportionately in the North, there are people and whole communities that are absolutely dependent on public services. In challenging the cuts, we need to bear in mind that we are dealing with a government that has always demonstrated a willingness to attack the public service,” McLaughlin said.

Mitchel McLaughlin

Mitchel McLaughlin

He pointed out that both economies in Ireland, North and South, are under-performing as a result of partition.

“The North’s private sector is under-developed in terms of competitiveness and productivity,” he said.

On September 22nd, the Confederation of British Industry released a report calling for the “radical” overhaul of the North’s public sector, including job cuts, a pay freeze and pensions review. It also proposes privatisation and the introduction of water charges. The report has been slammed by trade unions as an attempt by profiteers to use the economic downturn as an excuse to sell off the North’s public infrastructure.

McLaughlin said that some of the other parties in the Assembly share the Tories’ conservative ideological outlook and are happy to push for the privatisation of public services, for the introduction of water charges and other service charges, such as road tolls.

“The British Government has announced it will also be publishing a White Paper on ‘rebalancing the economy’ in the North this autumn – which will inevitably promote the Tory agenda of privatising the public sector and cutting spending,” he said.

“We agree that the weakness in the private sector should be addressed – but using measures that don’t raid the public sector. We agree that there are efficiencies and improvements that can be made to the public sector – but it’s very important to note that the line pushed by the Tories and other parties within the Executive that the public sector here is ‘over-sized and bloated’ is a myth.

“The North’s public sector is not too big. It is only ‘over-sized’ in comparison to the private sector which is under-developed and cuts to the public sector will certainly not lead to growth in the private sector, but rather to its decline.”

Invest in jobs

The Sinn Féin MLA explained that the expansion in private sector employment in the North since 2006-07 was not matched in a rise in wages or living conditions.

“The employment rise was largely driven by an increase in call centres. The North was marketed internationally as a low-wage economy and it still is,” he said.

“These newly-created jobs are forecast to halve over the next period.”

Figures from August show the number of people claiming unemployment benefits in the Six Counties rose to 57,800. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions warned in August that, if implemented, the coalition’s cuts to the public sector might result in up to 40,000 further job losses in the North across the public and private sectors.

Derry has the highest unemployment rate in the North, at 7.6% in August, closely followed by Limavady at 7.1%.

“The legacy of failed economic policy and under-investment by previous administrations is still being felt west of the Bann and needs to be urgently addressed,” McLaughlin said.

“The Coalition’s cuts are a recipe for mass unemployment but there is an alternative – it’s strategic public investment into job retention and creation.

“Our focus in the Executive should be on encouraging local manufacturers, small businesses and social economy enterprises to invest in Research and Development, invest in the growing renewable energy sector and seek export markets.”

Fighting inequality

McLaughlin said Sinn Féin is determined to ensure that fighting inequality is at the top of the Executive’s agenda as well as the key priority of the party’s ministers in the Department of Regional Development (DRD), the Education Department and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

“The regional disparity that has developed and been entrenched over the past 90 years is going to take time to dismantle.

“Our ministers in the departments we run are working daily to break down inequality and to improve the well-being of everyone in the community.

“In the DRD, we have halted the process of the privatisation of our water and sewerage services and begun to reverse it, and we intend to extend public ownership and control over NI Water.

“Agriculture Minister Michelle Gildernew is promoting the rights of small farmers and developing basic services and transport for rural communities – whereas the agriculture department in the past was very much focused on big farmers.

“Our Education Minister, Caitríona Ruane, is battling powerful vested interests on the 11-Plus, which has huge ramifications for equality, having stratified our society and entrenched class inequality for many decades. It’s a difficult project but we are advancing on it and we will deliver it.

“When we talk about the equality agenda, it is not mere rhetoric or aspiration. In the North, the equality agenda is codified in law through the Good Friday Agreement. Sinn Féin is the only party that consistently and seriously addresses this.

“There are those in the senior civil service who view equality in cost terms – when actually it is about us as a society defending and advancing the rights of disadvantaged individuals and communities. So it’s a battle a day to change this approach.

“Sinn Féin ensured that the Executive’s last Comprehensive Spending Review budgetary process was subjected equality screening and the party is determined that this will be built upon in 2011 with a core equality impact assessment procedure central to the process.

“But the current situation is extremely challenging – if the Westminster Coalition Government proceeds with major cuts to public services and a big reduction to the block grant then it may tip the balance and result in a significant crisis,” he said.

“The most rigorous approach must be developed to prioritising frontline delivery of vital public services and ensuring that they suffer as little impact as is possible. This, too, will be a battle a day.”

United resistance

“As a party we are looking to build an alliance with the trade union movement and the community and voluntary sector to resist the cuts and to defend frontline services,” Mitchel said. “The public sector did not create the economic crisis – it was the private sector.

“We should not accept the inevitability of cuts. We should focus our minds on challenging them. All parties should agree a common approach in all of this.

“We need to enter into a negotiation with the British Government to resist cuts and secure proper control of the economic levers which will allow us to map a way out of the current recession and to protect the most vulnerable and those experiencing disadvantage at the same time.

“We need to plan to grow the economy and all options must be on the table. This includes the development and harmonisation of the all-island economy. The existence of two currencies, two different tax and social welfare regimes, two health services, and so on, all restrict our ability to effectively tackle the effects of the recession.

“We need to end needless duplication and develop efficient systems that benefit everyone on this island.