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“I was released in September 1976 and political status for prisoners had been withdrawn in March that year.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.”

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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.

Tory economics are fantasy and fiction

George Osborne

George Osborne

Published in An Phoblacht on August 27, 2010 

“I can best describe our approach as like the methodical turnaround of a failing business. When a company is failing – when spending is rising, sales are falling and debt is mounting – you need someone to come in with energy, ideas and vision and take a series of logical steps.” That’s what British Tory Prime Minister David Cameron told the press in mid-August.

One of Cameron’s ‘visionary’ steps to regenerate the economy is to attack the Winter Fuel Payment for older people. Reports suggesting the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition intends to raise the age of entitlement from 60 to 66, and to cut it by up to £100. The National Pensioners’ Convention says almost 37,000 older people died from cold-related illness last winter across Britain and the Six Counties – 13 pensioners every hour.

The ferocity, speed and scale of the Coalition’s public spending cuts goes well beyond their pre-election promises and post-election warnings. The Coalition leaders don’t bother to make apologies for their actions. They are relying on the debt hysteria fostered by politicians, economists and the media – the mantra that says the state’s deficit must be reduced at all costs to ensure Britain can borrow with a good credit rating.

This explanation is backed up with Chancellor George Osborne’s claims the cuts will be “fair and progressive” and arguments that the cuts to the public sector will stimulate growth in the private sector. Everyone living in the 26-County state has heard this story before and knows how it ends.

So are the Tories stupid or just lying through their teeth?

All of these claims are dishonest and economically unsound.

The key factor in Britain’s tentative emergence from recession in the last quarter of 2009 was the Labour Government’s 2009 stimulus budget. The Coalition government’s cuts have already had a negative impact on ‘market confidence’ in the British economy, with the Bank of England’s August report cutting its 2011 GDP forecast to 2.8% from 3.4% in May as a direct result of the Emergency Austerity Budget in June.

Comparisons with Greece in relation to the deficit are totally inaccurate. The British state has longer to make the repayments and fewer international lenders to repay. The only people making the comparison to Greece are Tory politicians.

Most significant of all the false Tory claims is the assertion that the swingeing cuts to the public sector will stimulate growth and employment in the private sector.

An internal Treasury assessment leaked to the Guardian newspaper in June showed the Coalition is predicting between 500,000 and 600,000 job losses in the public sector and between 600,000 and 700,000 in the private sector over the next five years as a direct result of spending cuts.

Yet, despite their own estimate predicting the private sector will be hit even harder than the public sector, the Coalition claims that 2.5 million jobs will be created in the private sector over the same period. The British Trades Union Congress released a study of previous recessions and recoveries in June, labelling this claim “absurd”.

In the boom years of 2000-2008, 1.6 million jobs were created in the private sector – when public spending was aiding that growth.

The Coalition is claiming that when public spending is reduced, the private sector will automatically grow. But this is the opposite of the general dynamic between the two sectors. Cutting public sector jobs means less spending with a consequent loss of jobs in the private sector. And when such a profound crisis is still ongoing, the private sector is saving, not investing.

Rejecting this claim is especially important when it comes to the Coalition’s proposals to swiftly ‘rebalance’ the North’s economy through spending cuts.

The Coalition is surely aware that its predictions of private-sector growth are wildly optimistic and completely detached from reality. It is pedalling this claim to convince the public that they are on the road to economic recovery when in fact the road leads only to mass unemployment.

It is a concerted, conscious campaign, led by the Tories, to transfer more wealth from the poor to the rich.

Only a sustained campaign of resistance – led by progressive parties, the trade union movement, and the community and voluntary sector – can halt this attack. Its starting point must be rejecting the economic falsehoods pedalled by the Coalition Government and its media mouthpieces. There is an alternative and it’s public investment – targeted stimulus measures.

In the North, the campaign against this attack, which for a myriad of reasons will cut much deeper here, must be directed at securing a sufficient block grant for the Executive that acknowledges the economic conditions of the Six Counties and meets objective needs. It must also demand the democratic control of economic decision-making – that revenue raising and spending powers be devolved to locally-elected, directly accountable institutions.

Regardless of who’s in power in Downing Street, these powers should be devolved. The farcical situation where the Tories – who failed to win a single seat in the North in the May election, and who refuse to acknowledge the reality of the North’s economic circumstances – can impose these outrageous cuts highlights the urgency of this demand.

Climate emergency demands emergency response

Flooding in Pakistan in 2010

Flooding in Pakistan in 2010

Published in An Phoblacht on August 27, 2010

THE deadly extreme weather and natural disasters that have hit Pakistan, China and Russia in the past two months sound an undeniable warning – we’re rapidly losing a safe climate.

In Pakistan, the worst flooding in the state’s history has killed more than 1,200 people, left 20 million homeless and submerged more than one-fifth of the country. The monsoon rains caused flooding and landslides that killed more than 1,400 people in the Chinese province of Gansu on August 8th.

The Russian Meteorological Centre said Russia had not gone through a comparable heatwave as that experienced in July/August in 1,000 years. The wildfires and drought will cut Russia’s wheat harvest by one-third this year, which has caused a sharp rise in world grain prices.

Global temperature records have been smashed repeatedly this year. Seventeen countries – which combined make up one-fifth of the Earth’s land surface – have reported record-high temperatures so far in 2010. The first half of 2010 was the hottest six-month period on record in the hottest year on record in the hottest decade on record.

The human cost of climate change is mounting, with 10million people now affected by hunger as a result of a severe drought in western Africa. The Global Humanitarian Fund estimated in May 2009 that climate change was already causing the deaths of 300,000 people in the global south each year.

These unprecedented extreme weather events are happening when the Earth has warmed on average by 0.75°C on pre-industrial levels.

In September last year, the British Met Office warned that the planet would warm by a catastrophic 4°C by mid-century if carbon emissions were not immediately cut by at least 3% per year – which would cause millions of people to become climate refugees due to rising sea levels, among other effects.

But despite the Kyoto Protocol aiming to achieve an average 5% reduction in global emissions on baseline 1990 levels by 2012, carbon emissions have continued to rise during the 2000s and are now at an all-time high.

The Copenhagen climate summit held in December was supposed to agree a legally binding international climate treaty on carbon emission reductions that would replace Kyoto, due to expire in 2012. It fell dismally short of achieving this due to the appalling role played by the United States at the negotiations.

The most up-to-date climate science tells us that a 40% cut in emissions in industrialised countries is required by 2020, and an 80-95% cut by 2050. But at Copenhagen, the US pledged only a 4% reduction in its emissions by 2020 – just one-tenth of what climate scientists believe is required! The EU pledged a 20% cut by 2020 – half that required by the science.

The US has continued to play the role of climate renegade at the negotiations in Bonn this year in the lead-up to the Cop16 summit in Cancún, Mexico, in November – refusing to up its 4% pledge.

In the recriminations that followed Copenhagen, western politicians denounced China for throwing a spanner in the works. But what actually happened was that the rich countries, led by the US, tried to force the poor into agreeing to abandon the Kyoto Protocol’s key principles – that targets must be legally binding, that rich countries have a greater responsibility to cut emissions, and that developing countries must be provided with adequate finance for adaptation and mitigation.

The outcome of the Copenhagen summit was that 130 countries “took note of” a non-binding accord which contained no actual emission reduction targets.

Analysis commissioned by Bolivia and released through the UN at the Bonn climate talks in June showed that countries’ current pledges amounted to just 12% to 18% reductions below 1990 levels by 2020. When all the loopholes and ‘carbon market mechanisms’ in the text were taken into account, global emissions could actually be allowed to rise by 9%!

Bolivia’s Ambassador Pablo Solón said: “The new data shows a frightening chasm between what the science says, what the people have asked for and Earth needs, and what rich countries are saying they are willing to do.”

At the June talks in Bonn, more than 100 poor countries demanded that the ‘safe climate target’ of 2°C warming be reduced to 1.5°C or lower. A large body of climate science, including reports from the world’s leading climatologist, NASA’s James Hansen, supports the 1.5°C figure as a safe climate target.

The 2°C target is set out in the Copenhagen Accord and arises from the UN’s 2007 IPCC report. The developing countries called for a review of the science, saying the 2007 report has been superseded – but this won’t happen until 2014.

The bloc also stated that the Copenhagen Accord’s goal of providing US$100 billion in climate aid annually by 2020 was insufficient.

The mainstream media pushes the line that any deal is better than none – that the bloc of poor countries should ‘get real’ and accept the terms being pushed on them.

But the laws of physics and chemistry cannot be bargained with, stalled or tricked. The developing alliance between the poor countries, progressive forces in the industrialised states, and the growing global climate justice movement is up against hugely powerful governments and business interests who are determined to prioritise short-term profit over the survival of the planet. Public pressure and mobilisation is clearly the key to changing this balance of forces and ensuring action is taken at Cancún.

British Army/RUC attack on Joe McDonnell’s funeral recalled

Bobby Storey

Bobby Storey

Published in the West Belfast News in July 2010

 

Joe McDonnell died at 5am on Wednesday July 8. He was the fifth man to die on hunger strike in the 1981 protest in the H-blocks. As republicans prepare to commemorate the 29th anniversary of Joe McDonnell’s death with a series of events this week, Sinn Féin Belfast Chairperson Bobby Storey explained that Joe’s death and funeral took place in the context of a national and international outpouring of solidarity with the prisoners.

Bobby, who was involved in organising Joe’s funeral, said: “No doubt the British government and establishment were infuriated by the global media attention on the deaths of the first four hunger strikers. They were very concerned by the fact the funerals showed mass support for the prisoners, as could be seen in the 100,000 people who turned out to Bobby Sands’s funeral.

“They were also angered by the way the funerals were organised, which showed the seamless connection that existed between the prisoners, the vast republican community that supported them, and the IRA.”

Planned attack 

Bobby Storey said the previous funeral in Belfast – Bobby Sands’s – had been a huge embarrassment to the British establishment.

“The British government were determined to prevent a re-run of this. The attack on Joe’s funeral took place in this context. It was a political decision and a pre-planned act of aggression against the mourners by the British army and the RUC,” he said.

“Everyone will remember the courage and dignity shown by Joe’s wife Goretti and their children, the broader McDonnell family, and Joe’s comrades and friends as his remains were brought from the house on Lenadoon Avenue for Mass at Oliver Plunkett’s Church. On top of Joe’s coffin, which was flanked by an IRA Guard of Honour, were the black beret, gloves and tricolour of a Volunteer.

 

IRA Volunteers fire a volley over the coffin of Joe McDonnell

IRA Volunteers fire a volley over the coffin of Joe McDonnell

“Thousands thronged the streets – the people had come out to salute one of their sons who had died courageously resisting the criminalisation of republicans.”

As the cortege left the chapel, it made its way out of Lenadoon down the Shaws Road towards the Andersonstown Road.

“When it reached Sinclair’s Garage an IRA firing party in full uniform and armed with Garrand rifles emerged onto the road from the side of what is now Connolly House and took up a position waiting to salute their fallen comrade,” Bobby said.

“As the firing party waited for the cortege to arrive, republicans had to keep the media back, while three British army helicopters hovered ahead.

“When the cortege reached the firing party it stopped. The firing party fired a three-volley salute to Joe.

“With this accomplished they returned through the side of the house (now Connolly House) and into a house in St Agnes’s Drive.”

Bobby said that as the funeral moved on the British army and the RUC attacked.

“First they launched an attack on the house the firing party had entered but this quickly developed into a wholesale attack on the entire funeral cortege.

“The British soldiers – marine commandoes – smashed down the door of the house where the firing party and other republicans were located. The republicans attempted to escape out the back but the first one out of the house, Micky Brady, was arrested.

“Paddy Adams was shot in the back as he tried to get out the window with a rifle. The next two arrested were Seany Simpson and PB Rooney. PB endured a severe beating and was thrown down the stairs. Then Joe Maguire and Linda Quigley were arrested.

“In the back room upstairs were Geraldine Crawford and two other republicans who had barricaded a bedroom door with a wardrobe. The Brits began to fire live rounds through the door and the wall of the bedroom – between seven and 10 rounds. Geraldine was arrested but two managed to escape out the back.”

‘Firing indiscriminately’ 

“Then began the assault on the funeral itself that is still vivid in people’s memories. The British army and the RUC disregarded the sanctity of the chapel grounds and ran down through St Agnes’s grounds, and down St Agnes’s drive firing plastic bullets indiscriminately at republicans who had bravely come in response to the assault on the house,” Bobby said.

“As one republican put it, the image of the storm-troopers of the British army and RUC sweeping through the chapel grounds firing plastic bullets, and hundreds of people – men, women and children lying flat on the ground on the chapel steps on the Andersonstown Road – evokes scenes of persecution by military dictatorships around the world.

“At the same time we remember the courage and dignity of Joe’s family and friends, who stood by their loved one in the face of this ferocious assault. When the attack had ended, republicans continued on to do what they had set out to -bury their father, husband, friend and comrade with full military honours and with the appreciation of republican Ireland.”

Bobby said the attack on Joe’s funeral was the first of many attacks on republican funerals.

“It potentially shaped policy for the many assaults on republican funerals throughout the 1980s by a British government not prepared to allow such demonstrations of support for republicanism to proceed unhindered.”

Bloody Sunday: the ‘defining story’ of the British army in Ireland

Families celebrate as the Saville Report is published at Derry's Guildhall

Families celebrate as the Saville Report is published at Derry’s Guildhall

Published in the West Belfast News in June 2010

The publication of the Saville Report, the inquiry into the British army massacre of 14 civil rights protestors in Derry in 1972, confirmed what the victims’ families had always known — that those shot had been unarmed and posed no threat to the British Parachute Regiment.

The victims’ families welcomed the report of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, handed down on June 15. The inquiry was chaired by British law lord Mark Saville and launched in 1998. They were joined by thousands of supporters in a march to Derry’s Guildhall — symbolically completing the march route begun by thousands of civil rights activists on January 30, 1972.

The official British line for the past 38 years, repeated by the media and “confirmed” by the inquiry chaired by John Widgery in 1972, was that those shot down — half of them teenagers — had been armed with guns and nail-bombs, and had opened fire on the paratroopers.

The Widgery cover-up said that the paratroopers’ behaviour had “bordered on the reckless”.

In contrast, Saville said there was no justification for opening fire and that all the soldiers who testified, bar one, had lied to the inquiry.

Saville referred to one person who was shot while “crawling away from the soldiers”; another shot “when he was lying mortally wounded on the ground”.

Bloody Sunday was a defining moment in the recent history of Ireland. The civil rights movement that had emerged in 1968 in the sectarian northern Irish statelet and demanded equal rights for the Irish nationalist and Catholic minority communities was literally shot off the streets.

The British military had been deployed in 1969 to support the discredited Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) after the explosion of the civil rights movement and the sectarian pogroms against Catholics that followed.

The British government claimed that its forces were being deployed to “keep the peace” between two warring communities — the mainly Catholic nationalists, supporters of Irish unity, and the mainly Protestant unionists, supporters of British colonial rule. But in reality, troops were sent in to prop up the crumbling statelet and maintain its union with Britain, something that quickly became clear to the nationalist community.

Civil rights activists in Derry on January 30, 1972 were protesting against the army’s introduction of internment without trial in August 1971. By the time of the Bloody Sunday march, more than 2000 people, almost all of them nationalists or republicans, were interned without trial in prison camps. Following the massacre, the British government introduced direct rule from London.

Bloody Sunday is largely regarded as the decisive factor that convinced a generation of young people that the only means to resist the oppressive Unionist state was to fight an armed struggle against the British army and RUC.

The tenacity and determination of the Bloody Sunday victims’ families was applauded as “inspirational” by speakers in Derry as the report, that was supposed to be published in 2006, was finally released. Thousands of supporters from across Ireland and around the world have joined the families each year to march in Derry on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, demanding justice for those killed.

Palestinian flags flew among the crowd outside the Guildhall in Derry. Tony Doherty, who was nine years old when his father was shot dead, said the victory of the Bloody Sunday families should be shared by those who had died struggling for justice everywhere: “Sharpeville. Grozny. Tiananmen Square. Darfur. Fallujah. Gaza. Let our truth stand as their truth too.”

Unionist politicians and British military spokespeople have reacted angrily to calls for the prosecution of the individual soldiers responsible for the Bloody Sunday killings.

But prosecuting the soldiers would not deal with the fundamental issue — that the killings were part of official state policy.

In response to fresh calls by British military officials for the prosecution of Irish Republican Army members and leaders for historic actions, Junior Minister in the Stormont Executive and former IRA prisoner Gerry Kelly pointed out that the British state has until now acted with total impunity.

“The difference is that 15,000 IRA prisoners served more than 100,000 years in jail,” he said.

Speaking from Westminster following the report’s publication, British Tory prime minister David Cameron said the shootings were “indefensible”. His apology on behalf of the British government was welcomed in Derry.

However, he then went on to say: “Bloody Sunday is not the defining story of the service the British Army gave in Northern Ireland from 1969-2007.”

West Belfast MP and president of Irish republican party Sinn Fein Gerry Adams rejected this claim, saying: “The British Army’s actions at that time were part of a deliberate tactical decision designed to intimidate the wider nationalist community by killing citizens.”

One British soldier present on Bloody Sunday, identified as Soldier 027, who has been in a witness protection program for the past decade, testified to the Saville inquiry that his unit was encouraged to “get some kills”.

The significance of the Saville Report is that it challenges the official view of the role of the British military in Ireland and elsewhere. It exposes its real role as a colonial force willing to use brutal force to enforce its will. It adds weight to the campaigns for justice by other victims of British state killings, and to calls for a withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan and Iraq.

In the 36 hours after the introduction of internment in August 1971, 11 people — 10 men, including a mother of eight children and a local priest — were shot dead in Ballymurphy, west Belfast, by the same British Parachute Regiment later to be unleashed in Derry.

British military forces in Ireland and the RUC killed at least 363 people since 1969, most of them civilians. Loyalist death squads killed more than 1000 people — mostly Catholic civilians — often acting with the sanction or aid of British military intelligence and RUC’s Special Branch.

From the open military repression and martial law tactics of the early 1970s to the running of loyalist murder gangs throughout the following decades, the British government’s actions had the same aim throughout the conflict: to terrorise and demoralise the nationalist population and crush their aspirations for democratic rights and a united, independent Ireland.

Speaking at a press conference in west Belfast on June 17 with the Ballymurphy massacre families, Adams said: “All of these families deserve the full support and encouragement of the community, and of the Irish government, in their efforts to secure an independent, international investigation into these deaths.”