It’s time Sinn Fein took Westminster seats

Sean Donlon: former Irish diplomat

By any measure the Irish diplomat Sean Donlon is a man to be reckoned with.

One of the pivotal figures in Irish Foreign affairs over the past generation, he served successive Irish governments. He played a key role securing the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985, a precursor to the peace process that emerged from John Hume’s engagement with Sinn Fein.

As Irish Ambassador to the United States, he helped cement American support for peace in Ireland, and his advice to the Irish government was crucial as it sought an end to the use of violence for political ends.

He knows his history, and has an intimate understanding of the complicated relationships within this island, and between these islands. He has tangled with the British often enough to have a good understanding of what makes them tick.

So when he speaks, it is worth listening.

This week he was one of the guests at the MacGill Summer School. Now in its 37th year, the summer school’s theme was almost apocalyptic – Global Turbulence and Uncertainty: Ireland and Europe must prepare for a new era.

The backdrop to the school’s deliberations is Britain’s exit from the European Union – a political catastrophe made greater by the inept and incoherent behaviour of a crippled British government. In committing this act of national self-harm, Britain threatens the very safety and security of Ireland, north and south.

For Ireland, never mind the UK, Brexit is an existential crisis. It is perhaps the single biggest challenge to Ireland’s future in the history of the state – and I include the demise of the Celtic Tiger in that.

In his address, Donlon turned his attention to the outcome of last month’s British general election resulting in a minority Conservative government – propped up by the DUP.

Sinn Fein’s electoral success was a gift for the Conservatives because its long-standing policy of abstention effectively gives the Tories a cushion of seven votes. Sinn Fein’s success also means that, for the first time in living memory, there is no Irish nationalist voice in the House of Commons.

On the face of it, that is not Sinn Fein’s problem. The party position on abstention is clear, and has been since it first contested Westminster seats in 1917. Immediately following the June election, Gerry Adams confirmed there would be no shift in policy. Given the growing discontent with politicians, the party’s commitment to principle is to be applauded.

But if a week is a long time in politics, I do not know how you would describe100 years. We now live in a very different age, with a different political dispensation to that which existed in the heady years between the Easter Rising and the War of Independence.

Republicans have committed themselves to change through peaceful means. Sinn Fein sits comfortably in the post-partition Dail, and in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

In calling on them to take their seats, Donlon said Sinn Fein’s mandate was strong enough for it to “brave and generous”. Generosity has little to do with it. Sinn Fein need not kow-tow at the bar of the house, or play the arcane games demanded of this antiquated parliament. By attending it would not be doing Britain a favour.

But it could use its power and influence in the best interest – short and long term – of its electorate, and voice the expressed wish of the Irish people to remain within the European Union.

Abstention was a tactical choice in 1917, it may have been right for its time. It is not right now.

Frank Maguire, who helped bring down the Callaghan government by abstaining in person, demonstrated it is possible to be a republican and a sitting MP without compromising integrity.

Quoting Gerry Adams’ recent call for a “new approach, one which unlocks unionist opposition to a new Ireland by reminding them of their historic place here and of the positive contribution they have made to society on this island”, Donlon said a decision to take their seats would help “translate those very fine words into action”.

The current Oath of Allegiance to the Queen is anathema to republicans and must be challenged and replaced. And it is difficult to see how Sinn Fein could take their seats on their current mandate.

But another election cannot be far off. The party should use this time to reconsider and revoke this policy. Each generation must make its own choices for its own time.

As Donlon said: ”This is their moment and I hope they use it.”

  • This article appeared in The Irish News on July 21

 

 

Founded on a lie: Trump’s debt to George Washington

The finger of history: Donald Trump

Every nation needs its foundation myths. They are a way of communicating core values to succeeding generations.

The story of George Washington and his father’s cherry tree is revered in the United States. As the story goes, the six-year-old future president was given a hatchet as a present by his father.

Young George promptly took the axe to his father’s favourite cherry tree. When asked what had happened, George said: “I cannot tell a lie, I did cut it with my hatchet.” Rather than beat the boy, his father hugged him and told him that telling the truth was worth more than a mighty forest.

As the world prepares itself to witness the inauguration of Donald Trump as 45th President, we would do well to ponder the importance we place on truth in the modern age.

Trump plays fast and loose with it.

Some believe the grandstanding showman will present a new face to the world when he swears the oath of office next week.

Leopards don’t change their spots. As president-elect, Trump has behaved no differently to the obnoxious foul-mouthed carpet-bagger he was on the campaign. He will be the same in the Oval Office.

This will be a government driven by whim. Yes most politicians are self-seeking. But few take it to the level of Mr Trump.

Sigmund Freud, the celebrated psychoanalyst, believed our minds were controlled by three forces. The ego, the super ego and the id.

The id is untamed and instinctive, it is the wild child that sees the world only through its own eyes; the super ego is driven by convention and rules, it is the voice of our parents telling us to go to the naughty step. The ego is the bit that tries to find a course between the two extremes.

Mr Trump’s personality transcends ego and super ego.

Anyone who has spent time with a three-year-old child will recognize the signs of arrested development evidenced by the president-elect’s stream of invective on twitter, his abuse of vulnerable individuals who cross him, and his knee-jerk responses to perceived slights.

In his totemic Gettysberg Address, Abraham Lincoln talked about “government of the people, by the people, for the people” and he promised that it “would not perish from the earth”.

This weekend we stand on a precipice. The people have handed the keys of the free world to a man clearly unfit to hold office.

Trump’s term will be one of government by the id, for the id. The rest of us will not get a look-in.

The people who elected him will come to regret their ill-judged vote. But in the meantime, the American political system will need to find a way of minimizing his impact, and the world will have to work round him until the voters come to their senses and elect a president fit for office.

As for George Washington and his hatchet … well, the story was made up by his biographer Mason Locke Weems who knew what his public, hungry for information about Washington, wanted to read.

If anything was an omen of what was to come, the cherry tree myth (for myth it is) prefigured the post-truth society by a couple of centuries.

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Apparently I once told Martin McGuinness that he looked cute. He had phoned the Irish News to complain that a picture – used to illustrate a story about him – was deliberately chosen to make him look like an idiot.

It is a common complaint of politicians, and truth be told journalists sometimes take pleasure in using a particularly unflattering photograph.

Telling him he looked cute in the picture was a feeble excuse, and disrespectful. (Disrespect is another journalistic trait.) And I apologize now. Given this was the early nineties, and the job he had then, it was also somewhat fool-hardly on my part. The then editor thought I was both brave and stupid.

Whatever you think of Mr McGuinness’s politics and his past, there can be no question that he has served the people of this island – nationalist and unionist – well. He was a distinguished Minister for Education, and he has performed the role of deputy First Minister to the best of his ability in very difficult circumstances.

Nationalists are well used to slights. But in refusing to work with him, the DUP has done its own people and its country an enormous disservice. So much could have been achieved with good will. Ten years on, all the DUP has to show for its tenure is a pile of ash.

The article first appeared in The Irish News on January 13 2017

Friends in common troubles: lessons of the Somme

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‘War is not a personal affair, else there would be no war’: The Battle of the Somme

Few years in Irish history are more potent than 1916. So deeply is that year ingrained in our collective psyche that the number alone is enough to describe it. It needs no elaboration.

Like many aspects of our bi-polar society, 1916 means strikingly different things to this island’s two main traditions.

We have come through the commemorations of the Easter Rising more or less with our dignity intact. Now Easter yields to July 1 and the 100th anniversary of the beginning of one of the bloodiest episodes in European history: the Battle of the Somme.

It would be a mistake to see the two events as separate. The Easter Rising and the Somme are part of the same narrative – a convulsion in world history as it grappled with the transition from autocracy to democracy, and from empire to self-determination.

Unionists have nurtured the Ulster Division’s blood sacrifice on the Somme. It is part of their narrative. History has been crueller to the nationalists who died in the war. Lost in the melee, their deaths were seen as individual acts rather than a collective sacrifice for a common cause. And crueller still, their own people – stunned by the aftermath of the Rising – shunned them.

Private Arthur Baxter, writing of an Irish comrade at the time, said: “When he had his leave from France, he daren’t go home, you know. There was a place in London where the like of him went. He told us he’d be killed if he went home, being in the British Army, you see.”

The new Ireland that rose from the ashes of Easter 1916 wrote these soldiers out of history. Only in recent years has there been a coming to terms with their lives and loss.

Many Irishmen on the front had torn loyalties. Wearing a British uniform, their cause was Irish home rule. Among them was the poet Francis Ledwidge who died in Passchendaele. His lament for Thomas MacDonagh is one of the most powerful poems of the Rising. “He shall not hear the bittern cry/in the wild sky, where he is lain.”

Like the Rising commemoration, it is important that the Somme anniversary is treated with respect and marked with dignity. It must be used as an opportunity for healing rather than further division.

In that context, the decision by deputy first minister Martin McGuinness to accept an invitation to visit Flanders and the Somme next week is a welcome one.

For too long we have been trapped by history, this visit represents an opportunity to be liberated by it; to reach an understanding of the enormity of the Somme and its impact on the lives of those who fought and died there, those who survived, and their families.

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Martin McGuinness: Deputy First Minister

At a most basic human level the Somme is a story of loss and man’s inhumanity to man. On the first day 19,240 allied forces soldiers died, and more than 35,000 were wounded; 141 days later more than a million allied and German troops had been injured, and over 300,000 lay dead.

But at another level the Somme is part of our common history – unionist and nationalist, loyalist and republican, militarist and pacifist. By understanding the past, we gain insights that give us a better understanding of today. If we are to take full advantage of that, we need leaders who are brave enough to take risks and who are willing to face up to the past.

The Queen demonstrated that eloquently during her historic visit to the Republic. In the Garden of Remembrance she set the bar high when she had reason enough to demure. Her own family has faced tragedy in Ireland. Mr McGuiness too has reason enough to turn the other way. That he has taken the more difficult course is to his credit.

In conclusion, I’d like to leave you with the words of a private who fought at the Somme. Arthur Wrench wrote these words in November 1916. “Coming through Mailly, I saw a wounded kilty of the Argylls walking arm in arm with a wounded German and passing the coffee stall there. One man ran out with a cup of coffee which he handed to the Argyll. He in turn handed it to his stricken companion after which they limped on their way together, smiling. Enemies an hour ago, but friends in their common troubles. After all, this war is not a personal affair, else there would be no war.”

“Friends in their common troubles.” I can think of no better description of us today.

  • This article appeared in The Irish News on May 27 2016

Now’s the time to start swearing at Westminster

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Tony Benn: committed republican

Politics is a dirty business at the best of times, and it’s about to get dirtier. General elections bring out the worst in people and, in case you have missed the hoo-hah, there’s one in May.

For most of the past 100 years there has been a cosy compact between the left and the right, and Conservatives and Labour have carved power up between them.

The government governs and the ‘loyal’ opposition challenges. It has all the appearances of being an adversarial process – but like professional wrestling it’s a fix.

The British electoral system is designed to sustain the carve-up. It gives the illusion of democracy but, in reality, not all votes have the same currency, and the number of MPs in the Commons is not a fair reflection of the popular vote.

Governments elected by this ancient and corrupt system each claim a mandate for what they do in office. But the so-called mandate is a fiction.

No post-war British government has been elected with more than 50 per cent of the vote. The highest Maggie Thatcher achieved was 43.87per cent in 1979. Blair’s 1997 landslide was no revolution. He secured only 43.21 per cent of the popular vote.

Does the outcome matter? In look and feel yes, but in policy terms? The truth is it doesn’t matter who wins the election – the government always gets in.

The only real difference between the two main British parties is that Cameron scores more highly on the charisma stakes than Milliband.

If Labour were to be returned to power, it would follow Tory policies in much the same way the Tories followed Labour’s. The leaders hurl abuse at one another and they claim they offer different visions. But in reality, there is a free market, soft right consensus. They are opposite sides of the same coin.

That is how it has been for decades, and that is how they hope it will remain.

This time around the electorate may have other ideas. The fragmentation we have seen over recent years – the election of independents, the Greens and now UKIP – is gathering pace.

Labour is not yet electable, and won’t be until it jettisons Milliband. The cruel caricature of him as Mr Bean is grossly unfair (to Mr Bean). As a consequence, the result of this election is too close to call.

The Scottish Nationalists – and the Ulster Nationalists (aka the DUP, for that is what they are) have muscles to flex.

Last week Nigel Dodds set out some of the things on the DUP shopping list if it were to sustain one or other of the UK parties in power. As one would expect of a statesman of Mr Dodds’ calibre he reassured people that the DUP “would not seek to exploit for narrow and selfish reasons any leverage at Westminster over devolved matters”. (Give that man a knighthood.)

Of course it would – as indeed would the wizened remnants of the SDLP.

One party unable to trade its support – explicit or tacit – for political advantage is Sinn Fein. They have been refused entry to the Commons by the British insistence that they swear an oath to the Crown, and by their own unwillingness to see the oath for what it is – a meaningless irrelevance.

The United Kingdom’s claim to democratic credibility is undermined by this naked protectionism. Whatever one thinks of the party – those who have been elected should not be disbarred from representing their constituents because of an archaic tradition.

Tony Benn and Kevin McNamara each twice tried – and failed – to have the oath overturned. In 1997, Benn himself began his oath with the words: “As a committed republican, under protest, I take the oath required of me by law, under the Parliamentary Oaths Act of 1866, to allow me to represent my constituency…”

It’s time Sinn Fein called Westminster’s bluff and turned up. Some left wing MPs have slurred their words, others have crossed their fingers behind their backs, some – it is claimed – have resorted to jibberish. Gaelic is acceptable, apparently; that opens up a whole host of possibilities.

Working together – as they do so well now in Stormont – there’s no end to what Sinn Fein and the DUP might be able to extract from a government keen to stay in power.

And you never know – depending on the outcome of the next Irish election – we might have the tantalizing prospect of Sinn Fein in government in the Dail, the Northern Ireland Assembly and at Westminster. Somebody’s day will have come.

* A version of this article was published in The Irish News on Monday March 16 2015.

Arts deserve a minister who will fight for them

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Culture minister Carál Ní Chuilín

I’ve never met Carál Ní Chuilín, so I shouldn’t make too many assumptions about her. She has a Masters degree in management, and a track record as a ‘political activist’. A euphemism, I know. But at least she wasn’t a banker, and times have moved on. “The hand of history…” and all that.

This clever lady with a colourful past is currently Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure. And she sure knows how to put the wind up people. Last week she warned arts organisations might go to the wall because of cuts.

She would “endeavour to ensure that frontline services are protected as far as possible” – a pledge fast becoming a cliché through overuse by cost-cutting Ministers.

In tortured corporate-speak, her department said it was “highly likely” some arts organisations “will cease to receive funding and this may put their viability into question”.

No-one in the arts is safe. Across Northern Ireland, organisations large and small are quivering in their boots.

Other than her status as a card-carrying member of Sinn Fein, it’s difficult to comprehend quite why Carál has ended up as head honcho (or should that be honcha) of Culture.

Sinn Fein is not bereft of individuals who are interested in the arts and who understand the positive impact they can have on people. But Carál isn’t one of them it seems.

A carefully crafted mini-biography on her departmental website: “In addition to being a life-long political activist, Carál has a particular interest in human rights, housing, community development and the Irish language.”

OK, I’ll grant you the Irish language is a cornerstone of our national culture. (Indeed, where would English literature be without the influence if Irish on Swift, Joyce, Wilde, O’Casey, Friel, Heaney and any other group of Irish writers in English you would care to mention).

But one would have expected to see mention of music, theatre, poetry – any of the arts in fact. But no – not even a hint of delight in the portraiture of Robert Ballagh. I bet predecessor Nelson McCausland would have had the gumption to put down Country and Western music and line dancing as among his interests in life.

Ministers are not appointed to fuel their passions. There’s many a competent finance minister who hasn’t been able to add up. You wouldn’t expect (or want) the health minister to give a helping hand in A&E on a fractious Saturday night.

But you do expect government departments to ‘pass the Ronseal test’ – doing what they say on the tin.

Let’s take another trip to the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure’s website.

Emblazoned across the top is the illiterate legend: “DCAL – a Department for the Economy and of Equality.” Below, DCAL declares: “Our top priority is to promote social and economic equality and tackle poverty and social exclusion.”

It’s a noble aim – but why then are there departments of Social Development; Finance and Personnel; and Enterprise and Investment? Do Mervyn Storey, Simon Hamilton and Arlene Foster know that Carál Ní Chuilín is masquerading as them?

No wonder she has no time to go to concerts or the theatre. The poor woman appears to be running four ministries.

If it’s not about sport, culture and the arts – what exactly is the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure for?

The Executive spends a pitiful 13p a week, per head of population, on the arts. In Wales the figure is 32p. Much is made of the importance of the creative industries for generating wealth.

Commercially successful enterprises such as Game of Thrones do not happen in isolation. They need a strong ‘culture’ in which to flourish, a culture that produces people with skills in writing, directing, acting, composing, designing, lighting, make-up, filming – the list could go on and on.

Many of our cultural icons cut their teeth in subsidised organisations – Liam Neeson at the Lyric, Barry Douglas at the Ulster Orchestra, James Nesbitt at Ulster Youth Theatre, Heaney in the pages of the Honest Ulsterman, to name just a few. Virtually every arts organisation is involved in community outreach, initiatives in schools, nursing homes, hospitals – even prisons.

Ní Chuilín is not the only offender. With a few exceptions, Northern Ireland’s political class has never valued the arts. A society that does not cherish culture will never thrive. Look around you. I rest my case.

The least the arts deserve is a minister prepared to stand up and fight for them. On current form, they have been saddled with one who is inadequate to the task. As an exasperated Niall Sedaka might have sung: “O Carál.”

* A version of this article first appeared in The Irish News