Uniting Ireland campaign promoted in Australia

From left: Sinn Féin MP Francie Molloy, Australian Congress of Trade Unions President Ged Kearney and Sinn Féin deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald TD in Melbourne in September 2014

From left: Sinn Féin MP Francie Molloy, Australian Congress of Trade Unions President Ged Kearney and Sinn Féin deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald TD in Melbourne in September 2014

Published in An Phoblacht, October 1, 2014

Sinn Féin Vice President Mary Lou McDonald TD and MP for Mid-Ulster Francie Molloy carried out a national speaking tour of Australia from August 30 – September 9 2014 to promote the Australian Uniting Ireland Campaign. The two Sinn Féin representatives were accompanied on the tour by Cairde Sinn Féin’s Emma Clancy, and they visited Perth, Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne and Brisbane to meet with the Irish community, labour movement activists and leaders, and academics.

At a series of public events they addressed more than 1,000 members of the Irish community in Australia. They also met with dozens of Australian political representatives from the Australian Labor Party, the Greens, the Nationals, and the Liberal Party from across the country.

The Sinn Féin representatives outlined the role of the diaspora and Australian labour and political forces in supporting the international campaign for a referendum on Irish reunification.

Molloy and McDonald also raised issues faced by the local Irish emigrant community with political representatives, including the campaign against unaffordable school fees for the children of skilled migrants working in Australia on the 457 visa (which affects Western Australia, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory). Another goal of the tour was to raise awareness among Irish workers in Australia of their workplace rights and entitlements.

Australian MPs support ‘Irish Unity Motion’

During the tour, the Sinn Féin representatives spoke with several Australian MPs and senators in the state and federal parliaments, including federal Shadow Minister for Workplace Relations Brendan O’Connor and Education Minister in the Australian Capital Territory government Joy Burch. A political briefing was held in the Federal, New South Wales and Victorian parliaments. In New South Wales, they met with Labor leader in the NSW Parliament John Robertson as well as Shadow Attorney General and long-time Irish solidarity supporter Paul Lynch, and several MPs. In Western Australia they met with Parliamentary Secretary Vince Catania, while in Victoria they met with a group of MPs including the President of the state Legislative Council Bruce Atkinson at a briefing hosted by MP Bronwyn Halfpenny. The federal parliamentary briefing was hosted by Senator Gavin Marshall.

Altogether they met with 38 MPs and senators across Australia, many of whom had already signed up to the Australian Irish Unity Motion or did so during the tour.

Other highlights of the speaking tour included meeting with Aboriginal activists in Perth and Sydney; visiting the Global Irish Studies Centre at the University of New South Wales; a meeting of women trade unionists with McDonald in Sydney; Molloy meeting with the Australian Tamil Congress; and McDonald addressing a rally against austerity in Perth.

Supporting workplace rights for Irish workers

The tour was warmly received by the Australian trade union movement, whice supported and hosted several of the events. McDonald and Molloy met with Australian Congress of Trade Unions President Ged Kearney in Melbourne, as well as Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) national leaders Dave Noonan and Tony Maher and Maritime Union of Australia assistant national secretary Mick Doleman at a union-hosted event in Sydney on September 2. They also met with several state leaders of the CFMEU including Brian Parker and Mick Buchan, as well as leaders and activists from many other unions throughout the tour.

As well as building links of solidarity between progressive forces in Ireland and Australia with the trade unionists, the Sinn Féin representatives also discussed developing joint efforts to combat the exploitation of Irish workers in Australia on temporary visas and to promote union membership among Irish workers as part of this. Following the speaking tour of Australia by Pearse Doherty TD in 2012, Cairde Sinn Féin worked with Australian and Irish unions to produce a ‘Know Your Rights at Work Down Under’ pamphlet which McDonald and Molloy continued to promote among Irish workers during this tour.

The speaking tour was organised by Cairde Sinn Féin Australia and supported by the Casement Group Melbourne, the Brehon Law Society and the Irish National Association.

For full details of the tour, and to download the ‘Know Your Rights at Work Down Under’ pamphlet, visit cairdesinnfein.com.

For a full list of signatories to the Australian Irish Unity Motion visit irishunity.org.

Easter Rising remembered in Sydney, 2014

Emma Clancy addresses the 1916 Commemoration at Waverly on April 20, 2014

Emma Clancy addresses the 1916 Commemoration at Waverly on April 20, 2014

Below is a speech delivered by Emma Clancy on behalf of Cairde Sinn Féin Australia on April 20, 2014, at Waverly Cemetery, Sydney

I’d like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land we’re meeting on today, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, and pay my respects to their elders past and present. It’s only fitting as we meet to commemorate a rising against injustices perpetrated by British colonial power that we remember the devastating consequences of this same power on the Aboriginal peoples of Australia.

I want to thank the Irish National Association for inviting me to speak today. I want to thank them too for the enormous amount of effort they have put in over many decades to maintain this monument in honour of Michael Dwyer, and all those who fought for full independence and equality in the 1798 rebellion. 1798 marked the birth of the modern Irish republican movement.

Michael Dwyer, who remains were brought here in 1898, was a leader of the United Irishmen during the 1798 rebellion. He was 26 when the rebellion began, and after fighting in Wexford, he led a guerrilla campaign against British forces from the Wicklow mountains for more than five years before being transported to Australia with his wife in 1806.

Sydney’s Irish community built this remarkable monument in 1898, on the centenary of the United Irish rebellion.

Now we are fast approaching another centenary – that of the Easter Rising, which we commemorate today.

Easter Rising

Republicans across Ireland and around the world are gathering this weekend to remember those who gave their lives in pursuit of Irish freedom in 1916. This year is the 98th anniversary of the Rising.

In 1916, Dublin was the city that fought an empire. On Easter Monday, 1200 men and women set out to bring an end to British rule in Ireland during the First World War – in their words, to “strike a blow for freedom”. The leaders, including the seven signatories to the Proclamation, were all executed by the British in the weeks that followed.

The nationalist women’s organisation Cumann na mBan, founded 100 years ago this year, created the Easter lily in 1925 as a tribute to all those who died in the struggle for independence from British rule.

Wearing Easter lilies to honour Ireland’s patriot dead today, we make no distinction between those who died in 1916 and those who died in 1981. We honour equally the Republican men and women who fell in the years of struggle from 1916 to 1923 and those who gave their lives in the recent conflict that broke out in 1969.

And we remember not only the individuals who led the Easter Rising, but also their vision and the ideals they died for. These ideals were best articulated by James Connolly, Pádaric Pearse and the other signatories of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic – of national sovereignty, equality, social justice, and democratic rights for all.

The fact that almost 100 years later we are meeting here today to remember the Rising, halfway across the world in Sydney, is testament to the impact that the vision and action of the men and women of 1916 has had.

Decade of centenaries

Last year marked the beginning of a decade of centenaries of pivotal events in Ireland’s struggle for independence.

Last year we marked the Centenary of the Great Lockout of 1913 when the bosses of Dublin declared war on the workers and their families.

The choice presented to the workers was stark. They could obey the bosses, resign from their union and go back to their tenement slums and their poverty with their heads down. Or they could resist. Thousands chose resistance.

Through the summer and autumn and winter of 1913 and 1914 they faced police brutality, press vilification, Church condemnation and starvation. They seemed defeated but out of their struggle arose a revived trade union movement and a proud working class.

Again and again, in the decades since the Lockout, those whom Wolfe Tone called the people of no property were offered that same choice – resign or resist.

They were told to resign themselves to their fate when Ireland was partitioned and a sectarian Orange state established in the Six Counties. But the followers of Tone and Connolly refused again resisted, and stood by the Proclamation of the Republic.

Half a century after the Proclamation, the Civil Rights movement stepped forward and was met with the same choice – resign yourselves to the reality of this one-party sectarian state or resist.

They chose resistance. RUC brutality was resisted. Internment was resisted. The British Army was resisted. Criminalisation in the H-Blocks and Armagh was resisted. Collusion and censorship and the demonization of whole communities were resisted.

They could not defeat a risen people.

But as we know, the struggle isn’t over. Republicans had always made clear that if a peaceful and democratic path of struggle towards our objectives was opened up then we were morally and politically obliged to take that path.

The peace process opened that new way forward and the IRA, with the same courage they showed during every phase of the struggle, endorsed that new strategy, that new road to our objectives, and set aside armed actions for good.

The peace process must be built upon and this is a work in progress. While the North in particular has been transformed for the better in recent years, the scourge of sectarianism remains. The past threatens to trip up the future.

Dealing with the past

Overcoming sectarianism and taking steps towards reconciliation involves reaching out to the unionist community. A real reconciliation process is essential in order to create trust between unionists and nationalists and between both parts of Ireland.

Those of you who follow Irish politics closely would know it is over three months now since Dr Richard Haass and Professor Meghan O’Sullivan presented compromise proposals to deal with the outstanding issues of flags, parades and the past.

Political unionism has either rejected the Haass proposals or prevaricated. The negative approach of the British government has facilitated this. The British have walked away from their commitments under the Good Friday and subsequent Agreements and this is having the effect of emboldening intransigent unionism.

The Irish Government has already agreed that Haass represents the best way forward. But to achieve progress on implementation of the Haass proposals requires the British Government to take up a clear and unambiguous position in support of Haass.

There is currently an effort on the part of political unionism to roll back on the progress that has been made since the Good Friday Agreement was achieved 16 years ago. This cannot be allowed to happen.

There remain many outstanding justice and legacy issues in the North that need to be addressed. These include ongoing struggles over truth recovery, and ensuring there is transparency, accountability and a rights-based approach to policing and justice. Republicans in Ireland are engaged in political struggles over these issues every day. We here in Australia can play our part in bringing pressure to bear on the British and Irish governments to fulfil their obligations under the Good Friday and other Agreements.

Irish republicans in Australia have added to international pressure to defend the rights of republican communities in the North in the past. During the 1981 hunger strike, the Diaspora mobilised around the world in support of the prisoners’ rights, including here in Australia. Thousands marched through the streets of Australian cities. After Bobby Sands died on hunger strike, shipworkers in Wollongong refused to handle British ships coming through the port in protest. Support like this is very much appreciated from those in Ireland.

Austerity

The Proclamation of 1916 continues to enthuse and motivate Irish republicans struggling for reunification, and for equality. Its message of freedom, and of cherishing all the children of the nation equally, is as relevant today as it was then.

Before his execution in 1916, James Connolly predicted that the Partition of Ireland would lead to a carnival of reaction. And so it did. Partition created two reactionary states in Ireland, which the conservative political, church and business elites shaped to protect their self-interests.

The southern Irish state of today is not a place where the principles of the Proclamation have been lived up to. Far from it.

It is, on the contrary, a state in which a corrupt political elite has brought the economy to its knees in order to prop up and pay their equally corrupt allies in the Irish banking sector. It is not a state of equal opportunities for all citizens; it is instead a state of brown envelopes and golden circles.

Irish people North and South have faced a considerable period of economic hardship. Hundreds of thousands are unemployed. Many more are struggling to survive. Highly educated, intelligent young people are leaving the country as emigration continues to be used by the Irish Government as a safety valve. Many of them are arriving here in Australia.

The Irish people have been forced to witness the spectacle of an Irish government acting as a mere agent for the EU and IMF in Ireland.

The enforced austerity by the Fine Gael/Labour coalition in Dublin and the Tory-led coalition in London is the antithesis of everything the Rising and Proclamation envisaged.  To stand for the ideals of 1916, must mean standing against austerity; and standing up for the vulnerable, those unable to care for themselves, and the working poor, north and south.

There is no middle way between the inequality driven by British and Irish conservatives, and the egalitarian values of our Proclamation.

The Irish people have once again been faced with the choice of resigning to vicious austerity or resisting.

We can take heart in the fact that people are standing up and fighting back. Republican ideas and politics have more popular support today than they have for almost 100 years. More and more people are getting involved in a new political struggle for the Irish people to be able to determine their own affairs and have ownership of the country’s resources.

Young people are increasingly getting involved in the struggle for this New Republic, including taking up challenging leadership roles across Ireland and making republican politics relevant to a new generation.

They are guided by the principles of the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic and putting forward realistic alternative policies based on that vision.

Role of diaspora

Today, the mobilisation of the diaspora in support of Irish unity is a central part of Sinn Féin’s strategy for reunification.

In recent years we launched the Uniting Ireland campaign – a broad national and international campaign to build political support for Irish reunification through a border poll. Large and successful conferences have been held on this theme in the US, Canada and Britain. This year this important campaign is being launched in Australia, and we urge all republicans in Australia to support it.

We’re delighted to be able to announce that Sinn Féin Vp MLM will be visiting Australia to support this campaign in September this year.

In the lead-up to the Centenary events to commemorate the Easter Rising in 2016, we also urge republicans in Australia and around the world to ensure a renewed focus is placed on Easter events in the coming years. The INA, Cairde Sinn Féin Australia, together with others, are now initiating planning for nationally coordinated Easter commemorations across the country in 2016.

The launch of the Uniting Ireland campaign in Australia, and the momentum that will gather in the lead-up to 2016, provide an important opportunity for republicans in Australia to play their part in the struggle for Irish unity.

Bobby Sands once said: “Everyone, republican or otherwise, has their own particular role to play.” Each of us can contribute to achieving the historic task set by the men and women of 1916 – a united Ireland and a New Republic.

Madrid’s Basque stance absurd and untenable

More than 100,000 Basques march for the repatriation of political prisoners in Bilbao in January 2014

More than 100,000 Basques march for the repatriation of political prisoners in Bilbao in January 2014

Published on basquepeaceprocess.info on 11 March, 2014

The Spanish government’s response to the move by armed Basque pro-independence organisation ETA to put its weapons beyond use has demonstrated beyond doubt that it favours the continuation of conflict over peace. On 21 February, ETA (Euskadi ta Askatasuna – Basque Homeland and Freedom) released a video showing two of its members meeting with representatives of the International Verification Commission (IVC) who were inspecting a quantity of weapons that had been put beyond operational use.

The IVC held a press conference in Bilbao in the Basque Country the same day, at which spokesperson Ram Manikkalingam said: “The commission is confident that this step is significant and credible.” The Amsterdam-based IVC is not recognised by the Spanish government. It consists of six high-profile international experts in conflict resolution, and was formed in 2011 with the purpose of monitoring and verifying ETA’s permanent ceasefire. As well as Sri Lankan Manikkalingam, who has worked in conflict resolution in Sri Lanka, Iraq and Ireland, the IVC also includes South Africa’s former deputy defence minister Ronnie Kasrils and former political director of the Northern Ireland Office Chris Maccabe.

The Spanish government’s response to the decommissioning move was to issue subpoenas to the members of the IVC for interrogation, summoning them to the Audiencia Nacional, Spain’s political court in Madrid, for interrogation. There is still a possibility that the IVC members may be charged with “assisting a terrorist organisation”. Chief negotiator for the British government throughout much of the Irish peace process, Jonathan Powell, wrote in the Financial Times on March 4 that the decommissioning move “appears to be unalloyed good news. But the reaction in Spain has been bizarre.” Powell urged the Spanish and French governments to legislate in order to make witnessing the decommissioning process legal. ETA published a statement on 1 March declaring it had begun the process of putting its entire arsenal beyond use.

The other international organisation founded to assist the development of a Basque peace process is the International Contact Group led by South African lawyer Brian Currin, which aims to facilitate dialogue between the main actors. While attending a peace conference in Baiona in the northern Basque Country (within the French state) on 28 February, Currin and other members of the ICG were summoned to Paris by a French court to face questioning over their contacts with ETA.

Four decades of conflict

ETA was formed by a group of Basque students in 1959 under the Franco dictatorship as a response to the regime’s attempt to eradicate the ancient Basque language and culture; the students believed that only an independent state could ensure the survival of the Basque nation. After launching its armed campaign against the Spanish military and the paramilitary police force, the Guardia Civil, in 1968, ETA played a leading role in the anti-Franco resistance.

Its campaign for independence continued following the dictator’s death in 1975 as Spain’s ‘transition to democracy’ failed to allow the Basque people to determine their own political and constitutional arrangements. Only a minority of Basques voted in favour of the 1978 Constitution, which commits the armed forces to ensure the territorial integrity of the Spanish state. The continuing repression of both ETA and the broader Basque pro-independence movement – in particular, the widely documented use of torture by the security forces – after the transition has also fuelled the continuation of the conflict.

ETA attacks have killed 829 people since 1968, and Basque nationalists estimate victims of state violence number 475. The Euskal Memoria Foundation has documented 9,600 cases of torture of Basque prisoners over the past five decades. Attempts to achieve a negotiated solution to the conflict began in the late 1980s. Basque ceasefires and negotiations in 1998 and 2006 broke down and armed actions resumed, but the desire for a negotiated solution has steadily grown among the Basque population.

In 1998, fearful of the closer relationship between the abertzale (patriotic) left and the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), the Spanish judiciary initiated a criminalisation strategy that claimed ‘everything that surrounds ETA is ETA’ – that is, any cultural organisation, political party or media outlet that supported Basque independence was deemed to be part of ETA. Mass trials against political activists began and have continued ever since, while newspapers were shut down and political parties including Batasuna were banned following the Law of Political Parties in 2002, a law which insists all parties must denounce anti-state violence or be banned. Former UN Special Rapportuer Martin Scheinin said in a UN report in December 2008 that this law defined ‘terrorism’ so vaguely that it “might be interpreted to include any political party which through peaceful political means seeks similar political objectives” as those pursued by armed organisations.

The result has been a decade of disenfranchisement for supporters of the abertzale left. A new abertzale left party, Sortu, was founded in February 2011 and rejected violence, but the Spanish Supreme Court still refused to allow it to be legally registered. A challenge in the Constitutional Court, and international pressure on Madrid, resulted in Sortu being legalised conditionally in June 2012. The abertzale left, running in electoral coalitions Bildu and Amaiur in 2011 and 2012, won between 22 and 26% of the vote in the Basque Country, the largest support it has ever achieved.

Unilateralism and provocation

The disarmament move has been the latest in a series of unilateral acts by ETA taken since 2009 that aims to bring about the demilitarisation of the Basque political conflict with Spain and France, and initiate a process of conflict resolution that deals comprehensively with the consequences of the conflict, including disarmament, meeting the needs of victims, ending the exceptional measures used Basque political prisoners, and resolving the status of exiles.

Not only has there been no concessions, but at each stage since the beginning of the peace initiative by the abertzale left in 2009, the Spanish government has reacted with repressive measures that have appeared at times to be unbelievably provocative. The abertzale left has responded to the provocation with an exceptional degree of cohesion, unity and discipline.

On 13 October 2009, as the Abertzale Left leadership met to discuss activating the initiative that would lead to ETA’s permanent ceasefire, 10 leading activists were arrested – five of them in a police raid on the headquarters of the LAB trade union in Donostia/San Sebastian. Pro-independence political leader Arnaldo Otegi, LAB former general secretary Rafa Diez and three others were jailed by Judge Baltasar Garzon for at least six years on charges of attempting to reconstitute the leadership of banned political party Batasuna “on the orders of ETA”. Batasuna released a statement saying: “The aim of these arrests is to stop political initiatives that the Basque pro-independence movement was due to activate, political initiatives to resolve the ongoing conflict and to create a democratic scenario for the Basque Country.”

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Basques and Australian supporters at Sydney Opera House in January 2014. The banner reads, “Basque prisoners and exiles, home”

 

The initiative – the announcement that a strategic debate was to be launched across the movement about a new ceasefire and peace process – took place despite the arrests at a press conference by more than 100 leading members of the Abertzale Left on 14 November 2009 in Altsasu. The Spanish government responded by launching massive raids across the Basque Country 10 days later, arresting 40 alleged members of political youth organisation Segi, 32 of whom later said they were tortured during their five-day incommunicado detention. The trial of the youth activists on terrorism charges began in October 2013 and is ongoing.

ETA announced an end to offensive actions in 2010 as the strategic debate about an alternative strategy for achieving independence took place across the broader movement. On 17 October 2011 several international figures took part in an International Peace Conference, issuing the Declaration of Aiete – five recommendations that called on ETA to implement a definitive cessation of armed activity and request negotiations with the Spanish and French governments; and urged the governments to respond positively to such a request and put in place a process of addressing the consequences of the conflict.

Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams, former Irish Taoiseach (PM) Bertie Ahern, Powell, former Norwegian PM Gro Harlem Brundtland and former French Interior Minister Pierre Joxe issued the declaration, which was endorsed by former US President Jimmy Carter and former British PM Tony Blair. The Declaration of Aiete was later endorsed by many leading Latin American political figures in Mexico in October 2013, including 13 former presidents. Lula de Silva became the latest international figure to endorse Aiete following the IVC announcement in February.

ETA responded to the Declaration of Aiete three days later by declaring a “definitive cessation” of armed actions. The groundswell of support among Basque society for an end to the conflict was demonstrated a few months later in January 2012 when around 100,000 people marched in a demonstration for the repatriation of the Basque prisoners. The number of Basque political prisoners – which include ETA activists but also hundreds of political and cultural activists, trade unionists and journalists as a result of the criminalisation policy – peaked at over 750 in 2010, the highest number since Franco’s death.

Prisoners – key to peace

In the wake of the massive show of support for prisoners’ rights in January 2012, a broad, legally registered, alliance formed the next month called Herrira (Return Home) to campaign for an end to the dispersal policy, an end to the Parot Doctrine and for the release of the seriously ill prisoners. Herrira organised an even bigger demonstration in favour of prisoners’ rights in Donostia in January 2013, which mobilised 115,000 people.

The Spanish government introduced its ‘dispersal’ policy in 1989 whereby it aims to isolate and demoralise Basque prisoners by transferring them to prisons across the state, as far from home as possible. It is a policy that punishes both prisoners and their families and has been condemned by the UN and human rights organisations. The Parot Doctrine introduced in 2006, applied retroactively, meant remission for Basque political prisoners jailed before the introduction of the current penal code in 1995 could be granted on prisoners’ original full sentences instead of the 30-year maximum term, effectively imposing life sentences. It had been applied to 93 prisoners, including 71 who were still in jail when it was ruled illegal by the European Court of Human Rights on 21 October 2013. Spain was forced to release them. There are also 15 terminally or chronically ill prisoners who are denied the medical care they require in jail. After the release of the Parot prisoners, there are currently 521 Basque prisoners held in 82 jails across the Spanish and French states, on average 600kms from their homes.

Just weeks before the ECHR ruling against the Parot Doctrine (which was widely expected to find in favour of the prisoners) the Spanish government struck pre-emptively by launching a major raid against Herrira on 30 September 2013, arresting 18 activists who were charged with terrorism offences and shutting down the organisation.

The EPPK (Basque Political Prisoners Collective) released a statement on 28 December 2013 confirming its support for a peace process, recognising the suffering caused by the conflict, and committing for the first time to aiming for the repatriation of prisoners on an individual basis through engaging with the Spanish legal framework. Spain responded in on 8 January this year by arresting and jailing eight mediators of the EPPK, including two lawyers, on the grounds that the EPPK was an “operational arm of ETA”.

A new organisation, Tantaz Tanta (Drop by Drop), which was established after Herrira was shut down, planned to hold a march for prisoners’ rights in Bilbao in January but the demonstration was banned by Judge Eloy Velasco from the Audiencia Nacional on the grounds that Tantaz Tanta had “links” to Herrira. Tantaz Tanta cancelled the march but Sortu and the LAB joined with the PNV and its affiliated union the ELA to call for a new march on 11 January, which drew 130,000 people out on to the streets of Bilbao in the largest protest in the history of the Basque Country, under the slogan ‘Human Rights, Resolution, Peace’. It was the first time since 1998 that the PNV and abertzale left held such a joint demonstration.

The Spanish government’s response to the IVC press conference demonstrates its growing sense of panic at ETA’s decision to exit the stage. In an interview from jail on 18 December with Mexico’s La Jornada, Arnaldo Otegi said: “The disappearance of ETA’s armed violence creates a serious problem for it, to the extent that there’s now no excuse not to tackle the real political debate, which is none other than respect for the Basque people’s right of self-determination.” The process could be immediately deepened and made irreversible by the repatriation of the prisoners to the Basque Country; yet instead it is likely that the Spanish government will step up its attempts to ban Sortu once again. Yet the unique opportunity to bring a four-decade armed conflict to an end has not gone unnoticed internationally, and Madrid’s active obstructionism to ETA decommissioning can be seen clearly as the deeply cynical move it is. Its stance is becoming increasingly hard to justify on the international stage.

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?”