‘Working people should not pay for bankers’ crisis’

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

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

Interview with Martin Ferris TD on Australian speaking tour

Published in An Phoblacht in August 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In 2009, the social partnership process largely fell apart.

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

“Many trade union activists are actively opposing this approach.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Bobby dreamed of a better future’

Séanna Walsh

Séanna Walsh

Friend and former cellmate of Bobby Sands speaks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bobby Sands in Long Kesh before the withdrawal of political status

Bobby Sands in Long Kesh before the withdrawal of political status

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

Resisting criminalisation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Election campaign

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Phoblacht/Republican News in 1981

An Phoblacht/Republican News in 1981

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Political machine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Determination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bobby’s vision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

30 years on – the Armagh women’s hunger strike

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

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

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

Published in the West Belfast News in December, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

p16-main

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

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

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

“Telling my family was very difficult emotionally.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

Bobby Storey

Bobby Storey

Published in the West Belfast News in July 2011

 

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.”

Legacy of apartheid poses serious challenges – ANC chair

Baleka Mbete in Dublin

Baleka Mbete in Dublin

Published in An Phoblacht on 25 March 2010

Speaking to An Phoblacht‘s Emma Clancy during the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis held in Dublin in early March, international guest Baleka Mbete, a National Chairperson for the ANC and former Deputy President of South Africa, said that important steps forward had been made in the country since 1994 but that huge challenges remain.

“Successive ANC governments have made a lot of positive changes to South Africa since we came to power 16 years ago. Of course, we have extended democratic rights to all citizens and dismantled the formal structure of apartheid,” Mbete said.

“But overcoming the structural legacy of apartheid – poverty and inequality – remains our biggest challenge,” she said.

“For so long our movement was in opposition and we could not have anticipated the complexities of being in government. But we are enthusiastic about being in this position. We believe we are up to meeting the challenges, and we are confident in the renewed mandate given to us by the people in last April’s general election in which the ANC alliance won almost 70% of the vote.

Mbete said that last year the ANC had completed a comprehensive 15-year review of their achievements and areas that needed to be improved.

“Fifteen years is long enough to have gained the knowledge and experience of operating the state structures and we wanted to have an honest appraisal of our work. We want to launch a concerted push to really improve the quality of life of the people, who are still suffering from poverty,” she said.

“We have five key priorities for the next five years – creating decent jobs, developing education and health services, reducing crime and developing rural areas.

“We have tried to reform government structures to best meet these needs. For example, we have now set up an equality ministry to address the needs of women, children and people with disabilities. This is one area that needs much more attention.

“The majority of women lived in the so-called reserves in rural areas while their partners went to work in the towns or cities, a pattern that developed in the framework of colonialism but which still exists today.

“We have also set up a ministry of rural development and land affairs. Because, despite progress, many people have been left behind in these rural areas. They are lacking basic services and sending their children to school in mud huts.”

The ANC chairperson said that the legacy of apartheid and meeting immediate needs “will mean a bigger bill for the government”.

“But we believe this is something we must do,” she said.

“The global economic recession exacerbates our existing problems by fuelling unemployment, particularly in South Africa’s mining industry, where there has been large numbers of workers laid off.

“We want to mitigate the effects of the recession through the process of all the social partners working together, to make sure the unions and workers’ representatives have a say – and that workers can be retrained for different industries, for example.”

Mbete told the Ard Fheis that the ANC would be marking its centenary in 2012, and urged Irish republicans to participate in events in South Africa and internationally to celebrate a century of struggle against apartheid and oppression.

Critical moment in Basque conflict resolution

Kattalina Madriagia speaking at the Sinn Féin are fheis

Kattalina Madriagia speaking at the Sinn Féin are fheis

Published in An Phoblacht on 5 April 2010

At the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis held last month in Dublin, Kattalina Madriagia, a pro-independence left former MP from the Basque Country, spoke to An Phoblacht’s Emma Clancy about the significance of the Basque Abertzale Left’s proposal for a democratic and peaceful process of political dialogue to begin.

Madriagia explained that for several years, a process has been unfolding among the Basque Abertzale Left of trying to break through the barriers put up by the Spanish and French states that have frustrated the development of the movement for Basque independence.

“In the past decade, the Abertzale Left movement, and Basque society in general, has experienced a surge in repression against us, in particular from the Spanish state forces,” Madriagia said.

“Successive Spanish governments have stepped up their efforts to criminalise and isolate the pro-independence movement within Basque society, and internationally.

“Today there are more than 750 Basque political prisoners, the highest number since the death of the fascist dictator General Franco in 1975. Torture in the prisons is widespread and well-documented. There is a wide array of repressive legislation in place that criminalises political parties, media outlets and cultural organisations.

“We face a major challenge of changing the current scenario and that is what the Abertzale Left’s proposal aims to do.”

Following months of discussion and debate, a large conference of Abertzale Left representatives, including from Batasuna, made a public statement in February stating their commitment to using “exclusively political and democratic means” to advance their political objectives – in which the democratic will of the Basque people would be respected “in a complete absence of violence and interference”.

Response

Madriagia told An Phoblacht that this proposal was highly significant and needed the active support of all sections of Basque society and international involvement to succeed.

“The proposal was received very well by the Basque people,” she said. “It was understood by Basque society, and supported by all the political parties and trade unions.

“But this need for active support for the proposal from the Basque people and the international community is all the more urgent since we have now seen the Spanish state’s response to the proposal, which is to opt for repression.”

Madriagia explained that the attacks on the leaders of the discussion process began before the document was even published. Eight high-profile left-wing political and labour leaders, including Batasuna leader Arnaldo Otegi, were arrested in October as a discussion paper was about to be published and charged with “trying to re-organise the leadership of Batasuna”.

“[In March] Arnaldo Otegi was sentenced to two years in jail for ‘glorifying terrorism’  –  on the basis of a speech he made at a rally in 2005 in which he compared a Basque political prisoner, who had been held in jail for 25 years, to Nelson Mandela. Otegi has also been banned from holding public office for 16 years.

“The Spanish state is clearly targeting those who are actively seeking a peaceful resolution to the conflict. ‘Securocrats’ fear a changed scenario and are determined to resist such change through repression. They want to avoid a united position developing among the Abertzale Left.”

International role

“We want to create a situation in which multi-party talks can take place, on the basis of the Mitchell Principles,” Madriagia said.

“International support for this process is crucial. After the process broke down in 2006, we maintained our relationship with the international actors. We hope that we can create a scenario whereby the international actors will facilitate a process of political dialogue.”

Madriagia said that she welcomed the response of solidarity from the Irish people to Basque ex-prisoner Inaki de Juana, who is fighting extradition to Spain from Belfast.

“Every time we are at the doors of a new process, the repression intensifies, and the extradition attempts against Basques around the world are part of this. These actions do not help the development of a peace process – they help maintain conflict.

“All international actors should take a pro-active position on this question of an opportunity for a peaceful process of conflict resolution, and not help put up obstacles.”

Madriagia said that there was a vital need for other EU countries to now put pressure on the Spanish government to end its strategy of trying to strangle and silence the Basque call for engagement.

“This is an important opportunity for progress that should not be wasted but we need to mobilise support internationally to achieve the construction of the new scenario envisioned in the Abertzale Left’s statement,” she said.

“We want to thank the Irish people and Sinn Féin for their historic and ongoing solidarity with our people and our struggle. We look to Ireland as a positive example of what dialogue can achieve and such a process can be built.”

‘Time for leadership’

On 16 March, ETA killed a French police officer in a shootout near Paris that resulted from a chance encounter between ETA members and police. The fatal shooting came days after the body of ex-prisoner and ETA member Jon Anza was found in a morgue in Toulouse. Anza’s disappearance in France last April is believed to have been caused by Spanish security forces, with the collaboration of the French security forces.

In a statement, the Abertzale Left said both cases showed the urgent need to build a new scenario in the Basque Country based on its initiative launched in February. The pro-independence left expressed sorrow for the policeman’s death and called on ETA and the Spanish and French states to make clear commitments to reviving the democratic process.

On 30 March a statement by international leaders, including former President of South Africa Frederick de Klerk, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds and former Irish President Mary Robinson, was presented in the European Parliament commending the public commitment from the Basque Abertzale Left to using “exclusively political and democratic” means to attain its political goals.

The statement called on ETA to support a permanent ceasefire and for the Spanish government to respond positively to such a declaration.

Commenting on the publication of this statement, Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams said: “The conflict in the Basque country can only be resolved through political dialogue. It is clear from this statement that the international community want to help to create such a process.

“The Irish Peace Process has shown the world that previously intractable conflicts can be resolved. Sinn Féin actively supports an inclusive process in the Basque Country.

“It is now important that the opportunity presented by the political initiative taken by Abertzale Left and the positive statement from international leaders is grasped by both ETA and the Spanish government.

“Now is the time for decisive political leadership. It is the time for the rights of the Basque people to be recognised and for a genuine conflict resolution process to be put in place.”

‘International community must act to keep Palestinian statehood alive’

PLO Executive Member Professor As'ad Abdul Rahman

PLO Executive Member Professor As’ad Abdul Rahman

Published in An Phoblacht on 8 March 2010

Professor As’ad Abdul Rahman, an independent member of the PLO’s Executive Committee and a founding member of the PFLP, was a keynote international speaker at the recent Sinn Féin Ard Fheis. He spoke to An Phoblacht’s Emma Clancy about the need for the international community to act urgently to stop the colonisation of further swathes of Palestinian land in the West Bank and East Jerusalem if a two-state solution is to have any prospect of being achieved.

The criminal siege of Gaza is continuing to cause the deaths of Palestinians each day, and the world must take action immediately to lift the blockade, Abdul Rahman told An Phoblacht.

“Not only has there been no rebuilding of Gaza permitted since the bombardment reduced much of the territory to rubble, but more than a year later, Palestinians are still waiting desperately on an uncertain trickle of basic vital food and medical supplies to be allowed in,” he said.

“Resolving the humanitarian catastrophe in the Gaza Strip by lifting the blockade is the most urgent priority. At the same time we need to bring to the world’s attention what is going on in the West Bank, because each day the colonial actions of the Israeli government are moving the prospect of Palestinian statehood further and further away.”

Rogue state

Abdul Rahman spoke about the refusal by Israel to abide by existing agreements and of the role of the U.S. in tolerating Israeli aggression.

“Palestinians have had a very bitter experience of agreements entered into which have not been implemented,” he said.

“We thought 20 years ago that the discussions and process we began would deliver peace with justice in the Middle East. But this so-called peace process began an era of a new apartheid in Palestine, as Israel chose to go down the path of a rogue state.

“The consistent failure of world leaders to respond effectively to Israel’s violations have given the state the confidence to proceed on this course. The situation is worsening as the behaviour of Israel, now led by an extreme right-wing government, has become increasingly brutal and, frankly, crazy.

“This reckless brutality has manifested itself in many ways – the slaughter in Lebanon in 2006 and in Gaza in 2008/09, the ongoing siege of the territory, and the Israeli response to the United Nations’ Goldstone Report into the Gaza attack.

“The official response to the Goldstone report which asserted that Israel had committed war crimes in Gaza was to call Justice Richard Goldstone a ‘self-hating Jew’ who was irrationally ‘biased against Israel’.”

Abdul Rahman pointed out that although the Goldstone report was adopted by the UN General Assembly, there will be no ‘independent inquiry’ set up by Israel to investigate violations of the laws of war, as the report recommended.

Goldstone’s report says that if Israel failed to do this, justice for the Gaza victims should be pursued through other mechanisms, in particular the International Criminal Court and the use of universal jurisdiction by other countries against states that breach the Geneva Conventions.

Abdul Rahman continued: “Of course, the most recent demonstration that Israel operates as a rogue state can be seen in the transnational killing of a Hamas leader (Mahmoud al Mamdouh) in a hotel room in Dubai by a large team of Israeli intelligence operatives who moved around using forged passports from several countries, including Ireland.

“Everybody, even Israel’s staunchest allies, recognises that Mossad was behind this transnational murder, just as Mossad was behind the assassination of (Hezbollah member) Imad Mughniyeh in Syria in 2008.

“How long can the U.S., and the rest of the world, stand back silently and watch as Israel violates not only the rights of the Palestinian people, but the basic laws and standards of interacting with other countries, including its western allies?” Abdul Rahman asked.

U.S. role

“Israel’s confidence in its impunity has been reinforced by the failure of the U.S. and the international community to take action as it violates agreements and continues its relentless colonial expansion,” the PLO representative said.

“When Barack Obama was elected U.S. president, he initially made strong statements and moves in favour of creating conditions conducive to negotiations resuming between us and the Israelis. But he has since then backed down and is now trying to insist that the Palestinians resume ‘negotiations without preconditions’.

“What this means is that Israel is allowed by the U.S. to continue its colonial settlement expansion and annexation across the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, in a flagrant breach of its commitments under the 2003 Road Map. In recent years Israel has dramatically intensified its colonisation of Jerusalem, evicting Palestinian families from their homes.

“Under the Road Map agreement Israel is obliged to cease all expansion of its colonies, including that of so-called natural growth. But this extreme-right Israeli government insists that Jerusalem is exempt from the settlement freeze and continues to seize Palestinian land, destroying the potential for East Jerusalem to be a viable capital of a future Palestinian state.

“It is impossible for any Palestinian leadership to negotiate directly with Israel under such conditions.”

Abdul Rahman said that U.S. envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, was working towards facilitating ‘proximity talks’ where direct negotiations would not take place but whereby he would travel between Israelis and Palestinians.

“Successive U.S. governments have also tried to sideline the UN from the Palestinian question – the Middle East Quartet (the U.S., UN, EU and Russia) has the UN only as one partner when by international law it should be the key body dealing with the issue,” he said.

“While the U.S. has repeatedly publicly stated that it views the ongoing colonial expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as being against international law, it has failed to exert the necessary pressure on Israel to cease this expansionism.

“Palestinian representatives, the Palestinian people, the Arab masses, and supporters of the Palestinian cause worldwide are fed up with nice talk and no deeds.”

Unexpected rift

Since carrying out this interview a major diplomatic rift between the U.S. and Israel has developed, with the Israeli announcement during a visit to the state by U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden last week that the government was to build 1,600 new homes in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighbourhood in East Jerusalem.

Palestinian negotiators said there would be no talks, direct or indirect, unless Israel shelved the plans; Biden reportedly said the plans “would set the Middle East on fire”. Obama has demanded that Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu act to halt the planned construction and commit to re-entering negotiations on core issues with Palestinians.

Netanyahu apologised for the “unfortunate timing” of the announcement and, under intense pressure, said that the construction would not begin for at least a year, but he has stated that Israel’s ongoing colonisation of East Jerusalem is “not negotiable”.

It remains to be seen if the Obama administration will back up its unprecedented harsh words to Israel with actions.

Demand for unity

Abdul Rahman also discussed the division between the different factions of the Palestinian national movement, saying the longer the siege of Gaza and the restriction of movement between the two territories continued, the harder it will be to break down the barriers between Fatah and Hamas.

“There is a lot of work going on to pressure the different forces into working for unity, for a quick rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas, despite the ideological and political schisms that have riven the national movement,” he told An Phoblacht.

“The strongest pressure, of course, comes from Israeli brutality and oppression, which fosters the demand for unity from the ordinary Palestinian people.

“If they fail to resolve these differences and work together in the interest of the Palestinian people, they are both becoming increasingly aware that they are moving toward their own destruction as political forces, because the Palestinian people view the factional fight as basically committing suicide – suicide of the nation. It is my deep hope that the two sides will come together soon to try to resolve their differences.”

ITGWU Centenary : SIPTU’s Jack O’Connor interviewed

Jack O'Connor

Published in An Phoblacht on 8 December 2008

NEXT year will mark the centenary of the foundation of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, the forerunner of SIPTU, Ireland’s largest trade union with more than 200,000 members. SIPTU’s general president Jack O’Connor spoke to An Phoblacht’s Emma Clancy this week about the union’s plans to celebrate 100 years of fighting for workers’ rights and the key challenges facing the trade union movement today.

JACK O’Connor explained that the foundation of the ITGWU by Jim Larkin in 1909 will be marked by SIPTU through a series of events throughout the year that, as well as marking the establishment of the union, will also commemorate key events including the Dublin Lockout and the execution of James Connolly.

“We want to celebrate a century of working for the rights and interests of working people and we invite all trade unionists, republicans and progressive-minded people to join us in doing so,” he said.

“The struggle launched by the ITGWU 100 years ago – to insist on democracy and equality in society by asserting the rights of labour – remains as important as ever. The rights and achievements won through generations of struggle by working people in Ireland are coming under a sustained and severe assault by business and government today. The best way we can commemorate the ITGWU is by defending the rights, working conditions and living standards we’ve won and ensuring we continue to move forward.”

Exacerbating crisis

O’Connor told An Phoblacht that the wealth generated during the Celtic Tiger years was squandered by Fianna Fáil-led governments instead of being strategically invested in order to achieve sustainable growth.

“With the global crash of the debt-ridden, unregulated financial market, we’re seeing the collapse of the neo-liberal model that the Irish governments and business have given slavish adherence to over the past 10 to 11 years,” he said.

“Economic expansion in Ireland as in other states was based on an increasing reliance on property-driven speculation as opposed to building a real economy and of course the folly of that approach is now painfully clear. The economy is set to contract by four per cent over the next year. We’ve never had an economic reduction of that abruptness and scale happen in this state. It is widely predicted that 10 per cent of the population will face unemployment next year.”

O’Connor said that the Irish Government is facing something of a collapse in the public finances and a deficit of €8 billion in projected income. “But the road it has chosen to go down in the Budget 2009 not only tries to shift the burden of paying for the crisis onto those least able to bear it, it is directly exacerbating the economic downturn,” he said.

SIPTU has pointed out that there has already been a reduction in the wages of workers across both the public and private sectors since 2005 in real terms, after inflation is taken into account. O’Connor explained that consumption in Ireland accounts for 48 per cent of the GDP and that the Budget 2009, by imposing a one per cent income tax levy on low and average-paid workers and raising VAT, has reduced the amount of money ordinary people can spend. He said this dampens the economy when demand needs to be stimulated and will cause the further loss of jobs.

Pay deal threatened

As part of the latest social partnership negotiations a statewide Transitional Pay Agreement was reached in September between the government, employers’ groups and most trade unions, including SIPTU. For the majority of workers covered the agreement provides for pay increases of six per cent over 21 months, with a 0.5 per cent additional increase for the low-paid. It also allows for a three-month pay pause in the private sector and an 11-month pause in the public sector.

Following the announcement of the deal, Sinn Féin slammed the government for its failure to deal with the issue of low pay, pointing out that the 0.5 per cent increase would amount to about an extra five cents per hour for low-paid workers. Unite members voted to reject the pay deal.

Describing the pay deal as “modest”, O’Connor said: “We respect that some view the agreement as unsatisfactory. Obviously we would have preferred to win higher pay increases for workers, particularly for low-paid workers, but in my opinion the terms negotiated were the best available in this specific context.”

Responding to the recent call by Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny for a suspension of the pay deal, O’Connor warned: “Given the severity of the crisis and the need for stability to regenerate the economy and given the modest nature of the pay deal, the government should be loath to touch the agreement.

“SIPTU utterly rejects the reactionary call by Fine Gael and by some within the governing coalition to renege on the Transitional Pay Agreement. First and foremost because public service workers have a right to receive a pay increase in line with inflation to maintain living standards but also because the suspension of the pay deal would exacerbate the economic recession and collapse consumption by seriously undermining workers’ ability and confidence to spend.

“The government should immediately, as a confidence-building measure, publicly affirm its commitment to fully implementing the pay deal.”

Construction

The Construction Industry Federation (CIF), one of the sectors that profited most through the social partnership during the boom, has rejected the Transitional Pay Agreement and has sought a 10 per cent pay cut across the board for building workers.

“For the CIF to reject the agreement is short-sighted in the extreme,” O’Connor said.

SIPTU and other trade unions covering workers in the construction sector have called on the government to refuse to award public contracts to builders that refuse to adhere to the pay deal.

“We will be insisting that the government honours its obligations under the agreement to ensure that only those employers who adhere to national pay policy qualify for publicly-funded contracts,” O’Connor said.

SIPTU is working with the other construction unions to develop a campaign to protect workers’ pay and conditions independently of the social partnership process.

Making the poor pay

Discussing the latest budget, O’Connor told An Phoblacht: “The government has ham-fistedly tried to rectify the gap in the public finances in the Budget 2009 through shifting the burden onto those least able to bear it – sectors it viewed as easy targets. Those who have done best through the boom years have not been asked to bear a fair share of tax.”

O’Connor said that the one per cent income tax levy essentially cancels out the 0.5 per cent additional pay increase for low-paid workers and acts as a brake on consumption.

“The government has stated its aim to cut public expenditure next year in order to balance the budget,” he said. “But we already have among the lowest level of public spending in western Europe.

“I think the tough question for the government is – can we continue to afford the luxury of having the lowest level of tax for the top tax rate in western Europe?”

O’Connor said: “The government should raise the top rate tax from its current 41 per cent back to 42 per cent and increase tax on non-residential property. In my view there is definitely a public willingness to accept that those who are better off as a result of the boom ought to pay higher tax on their wealth.

“It would have been far more acceptable to the majority of people for the government to do this than to make the attacks on vulnerable groups that it did in the budget. It wouldn’t have affected the government’s standing in the same way.”

Recovery

O’Connor outlined the strategy that SIPTU is advocating the government pursue in order to prevent further job losses and facilitate economic recovery. In addition to reversing the disastrous budget cuts on social services, and progressive taxation reform, SIPTU proposes that the government borrow strategically and expand its capital expenditure programme to ensure employment and stimulate growth.

O’Connor pointed out that the Dublin government is in a better position than most to engage in short-term borrowing with a net debt to GDP ratio of under 40 per cent, in comparison to an average Eurozone debt to GDP ratio of about 65 per cent.

“The government needs to restore confidence to the point where money is circulating in the economy in order to prevent massive job losses,” O’Connor said.

As well as public borrowing, SIPTU and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions are advocating the recapitalisation of the banks under public control, with protection for homeowners against repossession.

SIPTU has reported that following the massive government guarantee for the banks, Irish banks have now cut back drastically on lending to individuals and small and medium-sized enterprises in an attempt to improve their loan to deposit ratio.

O’Connor told An Phoblacht, “SIPTU is advocating the recapitalisation of the banking sector through a process of nationalisation and/or partial nationalisation of the Irish banks. We are opposed to recapitalisation happening through private equity funds. The €440 billion state guarantee has socialised the banking risks – and a process now of private capitalisation would result in privatised profits.”

Specifically, SIPTU is proposing that recapitalisation happen through a preference share issue by the state from the National Pension Reserve Fund.

“We want transparency and public control together with a guarantee for mortgage holders that their homes will not be repossessed,” O’Connor said. “With the possibility of 10 per cent of the workforce being unemployed next year, we believe the government must introduce a two-year moratorium on mortgage repayments for those who’ve lost their jobs and face eviction.”

Lisbon Treaty

Discussing the announcement by Taoiseach Brian Cowen last week at the EU summit that he would rerun the Lisbon Treaty referendum in the 26 counties by next October, O’Connor explained SIPTU’s position on the treaty.

“Irish workers have and will endorse ‘Social Europe’ but they will not support the savagery of the unfettered free-marketeerism and the ‘race to the bottom’ in the workplace which has become pre-eminent in recent years,” he said.

“When the Lisbon Treaty went to a referendum in June, SIPTU refused to call on its members to support it unless the Irish Government committed to domestic legislation enshrining the right to collectively bargain.

“The Charter of Fundamental Rights did not contain any significant shift or step forward for workers’ rights as some on the left claimed. Recent rulings by the European Court of Justice, combined with the fact that Ireland has no domestic legislation in place protecting the right of workers’ to collectively bargain or to protect workers from being targeted for their membership or activity in a trade union, gave working people little confidence in the government’s call for a yes vote.

“We won’t be departing from our insistence that legislation must be passed here before SIPTU would agree to support Lisbon. And we don’t believe the same proposition should be put to referendum again as it’s a rejection of the democratic will of the public who just voted in June to reject it.

Capital offensive

The SIPTU general president said, “What we are seeing internationally is global capital attempting to make working people pay for a crisis not of our making.

“In Ireland, we have these past five years been living through the most savage and sustained attack on the rights, wages and living standards of working people we’ve seen in at least 30 years.

“The attack has been two-pronged – based on the one hand on the exploitation by corporations of vulnerable migrant workers through employment agencies, which has seen a drive towards casualisation and a race to the bottom.

“The other key aspect of the attack has come from the government in the form of cutbacks on social services and an ideological campaign against public sector workers – paving the way for open attacks on the public sector.

“There is no doubt that the recession is prompting the intensification of these attacks and we can see that in the budget, in the response to the pay deal by the CIF, in the suggestion from Brian Lenihan that the public sector workers’ pay increase needs to be revisited.

“We are bound to see the intensification of the exploitation of agency workers Irish Ferries-style by the likes of the CIF and its head Tom Parlon.”

O’Connor explained that “SIPTU has been leading a progressive campaign for legislation that will combat and prevent the exploitation of these workers in and of itself and as a means to undermine established wages and conditions in this state.

“As for public sector workers – let us be clear about this. Average earnings in the public sector increased by only 1.7 per cent in the year to June 2008, while inflation was five per cent. Public servants have already taken a pay cut in real terms each year since 2005. These workers deserve to maintain a decent standard of living and have their pay keep in line with inflation.”

Organising

O’Connor described the key challenges facing the trade union movement in Ireland as being to secure legislation on a range of workers’ issues including the right to collective bargaining and industrial action, trade union recognition and further legislation to combat exploitation and social dumping.

“The social partnership has the potential to deliver a sustainable, democratic economy where workers’ rights are protected,” he said. “But this is dependent on our negotiating position which is determined by our ability to increase union membership and strength.”

O’Connor described the effort by SIPTU since 2004 to transform from a service-based union to one based on the organising model of trade unionism, which aims to overcome the steady decline in union membership that has taken place in most countries since the 1970s.

“In July we had a conference that tried to bring together the past five years of analysis and preparation to examine how to move forward with the necessary restructuring,” he said.

“The organising model is aimed at rectifying the absurd situation where more than 95 per cent of our resources are concentrated on the employers of the 35 per cent of workers who are organised in trade unions.”

He said that SIPTU has made slow but steady progress in moving towards the organising model, which aims to make joining and participating in union campaigns easier for workers who are not in unionised workplaces.

“Our strength is in our level of organisation,” he said. “We need to put in place mechanisms that can help us make this transition, increase the participation and input into the campaigns and activities of the union by as many workers as possible.”

Policing challenges must be met head-on

Alex Maskey

Interview with Alex Maskey: A year of Sinn Féin on the North’s Policing Board

Published in An Phoblacht on 23 October, 2008

FOLLOWING the historic decision by the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis in January 2007 to critically engage with the policing structures in the Six Counties, MLAs Alex Maskey, Martina Anderson and Daithí McKay took up their seats on the Policing Board just over a year ago. Speaking to An Phoblacht’s Emma Clancy this week, Alex Maskey said that there has been both progress achieved and serious challenges encountered in the effort to transform policing through this engagement.

“As we know all too well, the police in the North of Ireland have historically acted as the paramilitary arm of the British state and the force’s primary role was the suppression of nationalist and republican dissent. Over the past decade, Sinn Féin has achieved crucial reforms and legislation which have opened a framework for us to begin to change this.”

The ‘new beginning for policing’ outlined in the Good Friday Agreement and then the hard-won legislation for the human rights-based reforms called for by the Patten Report were two key developments in the struggle to change a partisan, repressive force into an acceptable civic policing service. Maskey said that a key challenge is to ensure that the progress in legislation must now be implemented on the ground.

He outlined to An Phoblacht the work that Sinn Féin members have been doing on the Policing Board in order to try to achieve the goals set out collectively out by the party at the 2007 Extraordinary Ard Fheis, the challenges they face and the necessity of devolution of policing and justice powers from Westminster.

Policing Board

“During the past year, we’ve had to try to take stock of the Policing Board and to familiarise ourselves with its role and the way it functions. Now we are entering the next phase where we can focus on our specific priorities.”

The key role of the Policing Board is to monitor the service and hold it to account, as well as negotiating the PSNI’s plans and budgets. It also comprises several sub-committees which oversee various aspects of the functioning of the police.

Alex Maskey is the chair of the Community Engagement Committee and is leading the effort to build a new policing model where communities are consulted, have input into shaping policing and monitor the implementation of PSNI/neighbourhood goals.

He explained that among the range of the key issues Sinn Féin is playing a leading role in are community engagement, human rights, personnel, delivery of service – ie crime prevention and detection rates – and estate management.

Foyle MLA Martina Anderson has been working on the board’s Human Rights Committee which aims to ensure that all aspects of policing are compliant with human rights legislation. North Antrim MLA Daithí McKay is part of the Personnel Committee and a key issue he is involved in is trying to ensure that all communities have proper representation in each area of the PSNI.

Gerry O’Hara is serving on the board as an independent member and, among other issues, he has been campaigning on Irish-language rights.

Community Engagement

Maskey described the role of the Community Engagement Committee as being to oversee the development of the board’s engagement with the public and to target particular communities and groups with specific needs.

A crucial plank in the democratisation of policing is the district policing partnerships (DPPs) and the committee Maskey heads is overseeing their development.

The DPPs mirror the district councils across the North and they are the key forum for community involvement – through public meetings and other mechanisms – in developing local and board policing plans and in monitoring the implementation of these plans and performance of the police.

Maskey said the DPPs have become much more representative since Sinn Féin’s decision to enter policing structures and that people are now asking the tough questions never raised previously.

“As the committee chair, part of my role is to ensure that the DPPs receive proper resourcing. Part of this is training and providing education for DPP members in human rights legislation and standards in order that the DPPs may be better equipped to monitor the police in a more robust and informed way.

“In this way, we’re pushing an agenda of enabling the DPPs to become more assertive and efficient.

“Sinn Féin is pushing for a less formal format for the DPP meetings,” he said. “To ask a question, it must be submitted in writing seven days before the meeting. This obviously restricts the ability of communities and the police to have an actual discussion in the DPP.”

He said Sinn Féin has successfully improved the accountability of Chief Constable Hugh Orde and other senior officers by organising special public meetings with an open format where people can directly raise questions from the floor.

Priorities

“Our focus in the next period, including in the next policing budget and policing plan, is to significantly develop the neighbourhood policing model,” Maskey said. “We view this democratic input as essential for transforming the police into a fair public service for all, as well as for practically solving the problems plaguing many communities.

“We also aim to ensure that the PSNI becomes more effective and efficient in actually carrying out its work. We want to see a significant increase in the prevention and detection of crime and we view the targets set last year as baseline minimum.”

He said Sinn Féin also wants to see the PSNI use its resources more efficiently.

“As part of the process of demilitarisation, we want to see up to 40 redundant, barrack-like police stations shut down. They are not only a drain on resources but are essentially a barrier to the development of a constructive relationship between the PSNI and local communities. Who wants to approach one of these intimidatory forts to report a crime?

“Our position as we go into the discussions around the next budget, due in January, is that all of these redundant stations should be closed.”

Maskey also said this question relates to the concept of policing in partnership with the community: “People don’t want to be ‘policed’ – they want a policing service.”

Community safety

A key issue for local communities across the North that has been raised consistently on the DPPs is community safety and anti-social behaviour.

“Anti-social behaviour can be totally disempowering for a community, especially when the problem and perpetrators are identified to police by the community and no action is taken. It can grow from being an annoyance into serious crime,” Maskey said.

He explained that Sinn Féin takes a holistic approach to anti-social behaviour.

“We realise that a large proportion of anti-social crime is carried out by alienated young people who have no hope and feel alienated from their communities.

“So we take the approach where we aim to combine an effective community-led policing service with a very progressive social and economic agenda which aims to overcome the poverty and marginalisation which is the major cause of such problems. We work to do everything we can to provide youth services, decent housing and employment for people.

“At the same time, people have a right to feel safe in their neighbourhoods. Sinn Féin is determined to ensure that communities will get the security they are entitled to.”

Maskey pointed to the successful initiatives taken by activists in west Belfast such as the Safer Neighbourhood Forums which have effectively reduced crime and anti-social behaviour through a focused working relationship with the PSNI and statutory agencies.

He said that these neighbourhood-led initiatives showed the way forward for community-based policing, where organised communities have the capacity to identify the problems in the area and with the policing service and to communicate these to the PSNI in an ongoing way.

“Not every neighbourhood has this capacity but republicans need to lead the way in developing and generalising successful models of democratic policing. We need to know what we want to demand when we go into negotiations in the Policing Board and we have to be leading on the ground in order to know the needs of the people.

“We need to approach it as we do all our other campaign work: the same way we would struggle for decent housing rights and public services, we need to struggle for an acceptable public police service.”

Truth recovery

According to Maskey, community engagement structures are crucial not only for shaping the direction and policies of the PSNI. Bodies such as the DPP can also provide communities with the space where they can voice demands for truth on the role of police in Britain’s dirty war against Irish republicans.

Collusion and state murder have been consistently raised at DPP meetings and by Sinn Féin members on the Policing Board. Maskey said:

“The PSNI is hoping that these cases will just quietly go away but we will ensure that they stay at the top of the agenda until victims and families receive the truth.”

The 1992 RUC assassination of unarmed IRA Volunteer Pearse Jordan in west Belfast has consistently been raised in the Belfast DPP and on the Policing Board in support of the Jordan family’s battle for the truth about the state murder of their son.

In the Lisburn DPP, Marian Walsh, mother of teenager Damien Walsh – who was killed in a UDA sectarian attack in 1993 – recently confronted senior police officers about the vast amount of evidence of RUC collusion in her son’s murder.

Maskey said: “It is essential for the PSNI to face up to the ugly past of policing in the Six Counties so that the families of victims may know the truth, so that those responsible for these crimes be held accountable and these elements be removed from the PSNI, and so that a new relationship can be built between the police and the nationalist people.

“At the moment too many within the PSNI are continuing to play an obstructive role on these issues, which shows the need for a serious change of culture at all levels of the organisation.

“We have used our position in the policing structures to build public awareness and pressure for truth and justice and we will continue to do so.”

Maskey said that Sinn Féin is campaigning strongly against the use of lethal weapons by the PSNI. Sinn Féin has been the only party on the Policing Board to vote against the motion endorsing the use of 50,000-volt Taser guns in the North and Martina Anderson has voiced the party’s rejection of the deadly weapon, pointing out that while they are classified as ‘non-lethal’, they are responsible for the deaths of 300 people worldwide.

The United Nations has recently described the use of Taser guns as a form of torture that can be lethal.

The PSNI has already used the weapon against a man in Derry who had to be immediately hospitalised. Anderson described the board’s decision to endorse the deployment as “shameful” and said it was an attempt to undermine the judicial process as there is currently a judicial review of the deployment of the weapons underway.

Transfer of powers

Discussing the question of the significance of the transfer of policing and justice powers from Britain to the North, Maskey said:

“Over the past year on the Policing Board, I’ve become even more aware just how inefficient the system is in terms of different bodies not even communicating with each other.

“As the chair of the Community Engagement Committee I’ve convened meetings between the PSNI and other sections and agencies of the Criminal Justice System and it’s been very illuminating as to why, in a practical sense, we need the transfer of powers: we need the system to be joined up.

“With a transfer of powers to local democratic authority we can actually have a ‘home’ or somewhere to go that can be responsible for the overall provision of the policing service, which is a place for all the relevant organisations and bodies to be able to come under one roof.”

He said that the vast majority of people involved in policing realise this.

“Devolution will be a concrete step forward for our ability to develop a coherent and effective service capable of communicating with each other and with the community and delivering the collectively agreed goals.”

Democratic accountability

“Even the unionist politicians who are stalling on delivering their commitments from St Andrew’s acknowledge that devolution has to happen and that it will be beneficial to the entire population of the Six Counties,” Maskey said.

“Their opposition has absolutely nothing to do with the development of the policing and justice system but with a narrow political agenda of resisting change and democracy.

“The most important aspect of devolution of policing and justice is, of course, the question of democracy and accountability.

“This would be a significant step forward in that it would be the first time that people in the North could actually be empowered to democratically oversee the provision of the policing service in a meaningful way.

Local, elected officials would be accountable to the public.”

Maskey continued: “If you compare the justice system in some countries where they actually elect senior judges, for instance, you realise just how little say people in the North have over what is a major part of governance.

“But devolution will just be the first step. It’s not going to solve the numerous and serious problems we face in building an accountable civic policing and justice system but it will remove a barrier to progress in doing so.”

Mandate

“Sinn Féin won a mandate from the nationalist community for a strategy of critical engagement with the policing structures,” Maskey explained.

“But as I’ve said to Hugh Orde, the nationalist people didn’t vote for the PSNI: they voted for Sinn Féin’s ability to change it.

“This really should not be taken for granted by the PSNI. I’m not confident that this fact has sunk in at the top management levels or that it has been translated through the ranks.

“We’re talking about a history of the brutalisation and intimidation of the nationalist people in the North – the police have to earn our acceptance and trust. And they’ll have to work much harder to do this.

“As a party, Sinn Féin is acutely conscious that our mandate is one for delivering deep-going change that makes a meaningful difference to communities across the North and consigns partisan, political policing to history.

“We’re approaching this work with the utmost seriousness and we are committed to meeting the challenges head-on.”