Gerry Adams is the pre-eminent republican activist of our times. A former President of Sinn Féin, he served as MP for West Belfast and as a TD in the Dáil over a four-decade period of frontline elected politics.
He is the author of several books including Before the Dawn, The Street and Other Stories and Falls Memories. His latest collection of short stories The Witness Trees will be published in the autumn.
He describes himself as "an optimistic and hopeful activist" and publishes a famed Twitter account.
LAST week the family of Loughlin Maginn settled a case against the British Ministry of Defence and the PSNI over his murder by the UDA in August 1989. While it had been widely accepted for the previous 20 years that collusion between the British Army, RUC and unionist paramilitaries was an integral part of Britain’s dirty war in Ireland it was the murder of Pat Finucane in February 1989 and then of Loughlin Maginn in August that year which focused significant attention on this practice and confirmed that collusion was a matter of administrative practice.
FOR those of us living in the north of Ireland the English Queen Elizabeth has been omnipresent in our lives for a long time. From our postage stamps, coins and bank notes to the names of our public buildings. In Belfast there are two bridges named after English queens. The Queen’s Bridge was opened in 1849 and is named after Victoria. The Queen Elizabeth Bridge is named after the woman who has just died. It was opened in 1966. Interestingly, there was a row among unionists in Belfast City Council who wanted to name it after unionist leader Edward Carson whose statue stands in front of Parliament Buildings at Stormont. There is also Royal Avenue and the Royal Victoria Hospital and countless other thoroughfares named after British Royals. There is Queen’s University and the Albert Clock, named after Victoria’s other half.
LIZ Truss is now the leader of the Conservative Party and British Prime Minister. No real surprise there. She is the fourth leader of the Tories in six years. And as each has tried and failed to reshape Britain to a post-Brexit world Tory government policy – especially under Johnson – has shifted further and further to the right. If Truss’s rhetoric during the election contest is to be believed this trend will increase on her watch. The challenges facing Truss are huge. While some arise from the war in Ukraine, most are a consequence of the Brexit referendum in 2016 and of policies she promoted while in government. The devastating impact of Brexit on the British economy has been enormous. There is a shortage of essential workers in agriculture, in the health service and elsewhere in the British economy. The trade deals with non-EU countries that Truss has trumpeted as compensating for Brexit have had little effect. The NHS is unable to meet the demands being placed upon it. The miles-long lorry queues in Kent are evidence of Brexit’s failure. And there is now the cost of living crisis pushing oil and gas and food prices up to unimaginable levels and driving many citizens deeper into poverty. So far Truss has refused to outline her policies to meet these challenges. We know that she is for a tougher stance against refugees and is an advocate of the Rwanda policy of sending them to Africa. We know that she wants to scrap Britain’s link with the European Convention on Human Rights, a key element of the Good Friday Agreement. We know that she is for tax cuts that will only benefit the wealthy. In essence, we know that she is from the Boris Johnson mould of incompetent politics and is set on continuing these.
ON my occasional vacations at her majesty’s pleasure many of my comrades made mementos of their incarcerations from wood or leather as gifts for family or friends or for the Green Cross and An Cumann Cabhrach, the prisoners’ dependents support groups. I rarely did any handicraft work. I lacked the skill sets required. In the beginning my artistic endeavours were limited to the production of handkerchiefs suitably adorned with pledges of everlasting love with appropriate symbols. All brightly coloured with markers. Some were for birthdays, or anniversaries. Some were for children and were replete with cartoon characters. Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck were favourites. Other prisoners painted illustrated and defiant statements of revolutionary intent. Armalites featured alongside tricolours and Starry Ploughs. Or drawings of our patriot dead. Leatherwork was also popular. Purses and wallets. Belts. Handbags. Celtic artwork adorned these. And the name of the recipient. I never did any leatherwork, but by way of bribery or barter I did manage to gift Colette some lovely and fashionable accoutrements. Some fine craftsmen emerged, particularly from the cages of Long Kesh. The late Tom Cahill, despite injuries inflicted on him in a gun attack, was a particularly accomplished leather worker.
COMHGHAIRDEAS to all of those who organised and participated in Sunday’s Belfast march to remember the hunger strikers of this and previous phases of struggle. Thousands came from all over Ireland to take part. I met comrades from Meath and Mayo and Dublin and Derry. The families of the hunger strikers had pride of place and many former blanketmen – wearing their grey blankets – and Armagh Women POWs helped lead the event. At the Republican Plot in Milltown Cemetery former hunger striker Pat Sheehan gave a moving personal account of his time on the blanket, of his decision to go on hunger strike and he reflected on the courage of the hunger strikers who died and of the enormous political impact of the hunger strike. He reminded us that the criminalisation policy of the British was to defeat Irish republicanism. “So how has that worked out?” he asked.
ON Saturday several thousand people turned out at Belfast City Hall in a demonstration of solidarity and support for the family of Noah Donohoe. The 14-year-old was found in a storm drain in North Belfast in June 2020 after being missing for six days. The PSNI handling of the case has brought widespread criticism. In particular, its request for information to be withheld under a Public Interest Immunity (PII) application has caused outrage. At the weekend the NIO attempted to distance Shailesh Vara MP, the recently appointed British Secretary of State, from the application. It claimed that the PII was made by the PSNI but it was Vara’s signing of the order which pushed the responsibility for deciding what can and cannot be made public over to the Coroner’s Office. North Belfast MP John Finucane, whose family have been fighting a long campaign for the truth about the murder of their father, human rights lawyer Pat Finucane, addressed Saturday’s protest. Expressing his solidarity with Noah’s mother Fiona and her family, John told the family that they do not stand alone. “When she fights for the answers she deserves through our legal system, she knows, everyone knows, that there are so many who stand with her and support her.” While he had never met Noah, John said that since his death “it’s hard not to feel that we have all got to know something about this incredibly special boy who lived in Belfast, who went to St Malachy’s College in North Belfast. A good student, a good friend, a basketball fan and someone who had their life ahead of them.” The inquest into Noah’s death takes place on November 28. The family’s legal team is currently preparing for the inquest as it has the potential to examine all of the issues, all of the questions that need to be answered, in a fair and transparent manner. And there are many questions around Noah’s disappearance. The manner in which the search was conducted. And the introduction of the Public Interest Immunity certificate. The key to getting to the truth is openness and transparency. No hiding of any of the facts. The family seek justice. That is their right. And that is why so many support them.
THE cost of living crisis is taking a terrible toll on families. Food and energy bills are increasing at a phenomenal rate, pushing more and more people into debt and poverty. The ready excuse trotted out by governments and most of the media to explain this dire situation is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing war. While this is clearly having an impact, it cannot explain the monstrous profits being made by the oil and gas industry and by energy companies worldwide. The dramatic increase in fuel and energy costs have pushed up production costs, transport costs and the price paid by the consumer for food and petrol and heating. It is all interconnected. Strip away the propaganda and the underlying cause is easily explained. Capitalism places profit over and above all other considerations. Its goal is to extract oil and gas and sell them at a price that will maximise their profit. They are feeding the fires of the climate crisis and destroying the planet and pushing millions into poverty. Corporate greed and the ability of multi-nationals to influence political parties and governments, manage media reporting and shape public opinion are all part of this equation. Oil and gas profits for the most recent economic quarter tell their own story. Shell and Chevron each made $12bn profit. BP revealed that it had tripled its profits in the same three month period to a staggering £7bn. Exxon Mobil made $18bn in the same period. The United Nations secretary general António Guterres recently described the “grotesque greed” of the fossil fuel companies and their financial backers. In the first quarter of 2022 the largest companies will have racked up almost $100bn profit.
THE Ark wasn't a big public house. Situated at the corner of Broadbent Street on the Old Lodge Road it consisted of a public bar, partitioned from a more discreet backroom and a snug. That was it. A backdrop of shelved whiskey bottles fronted by a no-nonsense wooden counter which separated myself and the only other barman from the clientele. Porter was the staple and non-sectarian drink. Firkins of it were delivered weekly from Guinness’s yard on the Grosvenor Road, manhandled into place behind the counter and dispensed with much care into pint glasses. I will tell you about that some other time. Pints of porter. No Double X or draught beers. Wee Willie Darks, bottles of Red Heart, Carling Black Label and Tennent’s were minority brews. A wee Mundie’s or the cheaper Drawbridge wine was a more popular tipple. A bottle and a half ’un were strictly Friday or Saturday night treats. Sales of spirits were minimal. An occasional gin for the women to augment their more economical small sherries or port. No vodkas. No liqueurs. And no Pope. The customers were mostly Protestant, mainly male and totally working class. They all lived beside the Ark or in neighbouring streets. These streets lay between the Old Lodge Road and the Shankill on one side and the Crumlin Road on the other side. It was a loyalist area. Working class to its core but with little collective consciousness of this or of their reduced place in society. Belfast’s shipyard was the main source of employment. Many of the Ark's male customers worked there. St Patrick's Night in the Ark provided more entertainment . ‘When Irish Eyes are Smiling’ and ‘The Green Glens of Antrim’ vied with ‘The Boys of the County Armagh’ and ‘Danny Boy’. On one occasion I was moved to render a verse of The Sash – in Irish. A Somme Veteran followed me with a rendition of Kevin Barry. At the end of the night everyone stood for a collective voicing of God Save the Queen. I absented myself from that by clearing away glasses and empty bottles from the back room. Nobody minded. The Twelfth was a public holiday. Not for bartenders, of course. But for almost everyone else. Most of the Ark's clientele didn't go to the Field. Many of the men weren't in the Orange Order. None of the women were. They weren't allowed. We all watched the big parade and they crowded around the bonfires on the Eleventh Night. They enjoyed themselves. It was 1965. They felt under no threat. That would come in its own time. They and we have only their leaders to thank for that.
THERE was a sweetie shop across from Saint Finian’s School, just above Leeson Street on the Falls Road. It had a large advertisement for Blue Bird toffees as part of its frontage. It was an attractive feature boasting an iconic blue bird in full flight. I call this fine establishment a sweetie shop because my recollection, which may be flawed, is that this shop sold only sweeties. They were there in large glass jars with big screw-on lids. Shelves upon shelves of them. Confections of all descriptions. Penny chews. Black Jacks. Rainbow Drops. Whoppers. Kali suckers. Love Hearts. Gubstoppers. Bull’s-eyes. Brandy balls. Walkers toffees. Sweetie lollies. Other toffees. Refreshers. Bubblegum. Honeycomb. Chewing gum. Chocolate peanuts. Chocolate raisins. Dolly Mixtures. Liquorice Allsorts. Spangles. Fruit gums. Fruit Pastilles. Fudge. Chocolate Buttons. Aniseed balls. Smarties. Lozenges. Cinnamon drops. Maltesers. Snowballs.
CONTROVERSY, sectarian threats and violence have long been associated with the 11th of July bonfires and the marching season. ‘Kick the Pope’ bands and sectarian hate music and songs are a regular feature of many loyal order parades. This year yet again election posters of Sinn Féin, the SDLP and Alliance representatives competed with each other for space on bonfires. Effigies of Mary Lou McDonald, Michelle O’Neill and Naoimi Long were hung from makeshift gallows. Sectarian, misogynistic and abusive slogans were nailed to bonfires. Among them ‘KAT’ – Kill all Taigs; ‘All Taigs are Targets.’ This year also a young man in Larne fell to his death as the bonfire builders competed with each other over who could build the biggest and the highest. This aspect of what unionism euphemistically describes as ‘culture’ can be traced back at least 200 years. The Orange Order was established to defend British interests and British domination in Ireland. Andrew Boyd’s seminal book – ‘Holy War in Belfast’ – and Michael Farrell’s ‘The Orange State’ are among those which record the use of sectarianism by the British state and the unionist political elite to maintain their supremacy in the 19th and 20th centuries. Sectarian riots and pogroms were a familiar pattern in Belfast during this period. Effigies also played their part. Lundy, or rather an effigy of him, is burned every year in Derry as part of the Lundy’s Day parade to mark the 1688 Siege of Derry. Lundy was the Governor of Derry who offered to surrender but was thwarted when the apprentice boys locked the city gates. One of the worst examples of prolonged sectarian violence occurred in August 1864 when loyalists burned an effigy of Daniel O’Connell on the Boyne Bridge between Durham Street and Sandy Row and then attacked the Catholic Pound area in the Falls area. In the days of violence across Belfast that followed 11 died and hundreds were injured. Over 800 families were forced to flee their homes and 247 dwellings were destroyed. Despite the sectarianism that surrounds the July bonfires there are those in the media and within political unionism who insist it’s not threatening but part of the cultural tradition of unionism. If similar effigies and slogans against people of colour or Muslims or Jews were to appear in any other state within the European Union or in the USA or indeed in Britain they would immediately be labelled as hate crime and action taken to remove them and to hold those responsible legally accountable. Not here. Instead we have the PSNI and Prosecution Service failing to stand up to this behaviour. No action taken to remove the offending material. No action taken to dismantle bonfires that carry this material. And little prospect of charges for hate crime being taken in the time ahead. I have personal experience of this. In the past I have made complaints about sectarian threats made against me. I understand the frustration that many now feel following another July bonfire period. It is unacceptable. Let the Twelfth be celebrated. The Orange tradition is part of what we are. But the unacceptable excesses around the bonfires, the sectarian chants or songs, and some of the locations and size of the bonfires cannot be tolerated. If we are to build a better future there can be no place for sectarianism – no matter who is responsible. The Good Friday Agreement clearly states that citizens have the right to ‘freedom from sectarian harassment’. We have to make this core principle a reality by enshrining into law an effective legal definition of sectarianism with legal sanctions and robust incitement to hatred provisions. Those who use effigies and slogans and posters as symbols of hate must know without a doubt that they will be prosecuted. And if anyone wants to build a bonfire there should be rules and regulations governing where and when and how high. In the new Ireland there will be a place for the Orange. Marches and bonfires will be part of that. But there can be no tolerance of sectarianism and hate, from wherever it comes.
THE Government of Scotland has moved decisively by setting the date for a referendum on sovereignty and independence. October 19 2023 is that date. Its decision has already won support among Scottish voters. A poll published recently in The Times showed that those for and against independence are neck and neck. 48 per cent of those surveyed were in favour of independence while 47 per cent were against. In June the Scottish Government began publishing a series of detailed documents spelling out the advantages of ending the Union. A crucial part of this is reversing the Brexit disaster by rejoining the European Union.
THIS Saturday will mark 50 years from the horrific events of the summer evening of July 9, 1972, when British soldiers shot and killed two adults and three children in the Springhill/Westrock area. Those killed included 38-year-Old Paddy Butler, who died after he was hit by the bullet that killed Father Noel Fitzpatrick,who was trying to help the wounded and dying. Martin Dudley (19) was shot in the back of the head by a second British Army sniper and seriously wounded as he got out of a car. 17-year-old John Dougal was shot dead and his friend Brian Pettigrew was seriously injured as they tried to assist Martin Dudley. 13-year-old Margaret Gargan was shot dead by another British Army sniper. And 15-year-old David McCaffrey was shot dead as he tried to pull Fr Fitzpatrick and Paddy Butler out of the line of fire. As in the case of the Ballymurphy Massacre case and that of Bloody Sunday just six months earlier, the British lied about the circumstances surrounding the Springhill/Westrock Massacre. They sought to present the victims as ‘gunmen’ and ‘gunwomen’ justifiably and legitimately killed as they attacked British troops. This lie and its perpetuation in the decades that followed caused huge distress to the families and to their neighbours, friends and community. These British Army operations, and the long list of disputed killings, cover-ups and state collusion carried out by the RUC and British forces, are of a pattern to be found in countless British military actions in former British colonies. Whether in India or Kenya, Palestine or Ireland in the early part of the 20th century, those who protested for and demanded their freedom were met by violence. The inquiry into Bloody Sunday and the inquest into the Ballymurphy Massacre revealed the truth. Last week the inquest into the killing fifty years ago of mother-of-six Kathleen Thompson from Derry concluded that she was an innocent victim. On the same day the Belfast High Court ordered the scrapping in its entirety of the review by the Historical Enquiries Team’s (HET) into the bombing of McGurk’s Bar in December 1971. 15 people were killed by the UVF. Brigid Irvine, whose mother Kathleen was one of the victims, had challenged the conclusion of the HET that there was no evidence bias by the RUC in its investigation. Justice Humphrey described the HET conclusion as “irrational”. These are just a few of the many examples of killings carried out directly by or in collusion between British state forces and loyalist death squads. In an effort to prevent further damaging revelations the British Government has introduced a Legacy and Reconciliation Bill. This Bill has now passed its second reading in the British Parliament. Its aim is to close down the rights of victims by banning all investigations, inquests, and future civil actions. Relatives for Justice said: “The so-called Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery will hold secret reviews and then determine what will be disclosed. It will not involve, in any way, the next-of-kin of those murdered. It is completely absent of legal norms and standards. It is, clearly, not independent, despite the title. It will hollow out the fundamental rights and freedoms enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement and thus seriously undermines and threatens the Agreement.” All of this is a breach of previous agreements reached on legacy. It does not have the support of any of the North’s political parties or of the Irish Government and the Biden administration. This Saturday the Springhill/Westrock families will assembly in Springhill Drive at 1pm and walk to the Westrock Memorial Garden to highlight their case and demand justice. Join them if you can.
MY recollections last week of my successful battle against the dreaded nicotine sparked, pardon the pun, similar recollections from some of my friends. Richard, who never smoked, reminded me of our old comrade Joe ‘Bingo’ Campbell. Bingo used to work in the old Sinn Féin office at the corner of Sevastopol Street. In those days the office was little more than a slum. It housed a number of projects including the Republican Press Centre, the POW Department, An Phoblacht/Republican News and the transport hub for buses taking prisoners’ families to visits in Long Kesh, Armagh and Portlaoise and other jails. The building was regularly raided. The British Army would wait outside stopping people going in and out, harassing and abusing everyone. It was the target for bomb and gun attacks, including one by a death squad using an RPG rocket launcher. In one attack in 1992 three folks in the advice centre were killed: Pat McBride, Paddy Loughran and Michael O’Dwyer. Pat Wilson and Nora Larkin were injured. During these turbulent years Bingo did all the odd jobs about the building. He collected and posted mail, emptied the bins, went for messages, kept an eye on British Army patrols. He was a big man with a ruddy complexion. He was also a very good singer. He used to do a fine rendition of The Bonny Boy in the old Felons in Milltown. Anyway, as I mention above, Bingo would do messages for the rest of us. One day during one of my efforts to stop smoking I had a horrific urge for a cigarette. At that time for no good reason I would smoke an occasional cigar instead of cigarettes. I suppose in my nuttiness I thought one cigar was better than a few cigarettes. On the day in question I had stubbornly resisted the temptation to have a smoke but eventually I could stick it no longer. I was relieved when Bingo made his way up the stairs to where I was working to tell me he was going to the shop. He asked me if I wanted anything. “Thanks, Joe,” I said to him, giving him some money, “would you get me a Hamlet?”“No bother,” Bingo told me cheerfully, and away he went while I went back to my desk to do whatever I was doing.
I HAVE known Tom Hartley for 55 years. During that time he has given decades of service to the republican cause. He has been an organiser, a writer, a propagandist, a leader. During the anti-internment protests of the early 1970s, and then the H-Block/ Armagh campaign, he was in the front line. He was Chair of Sinn Féin in Belfast and then during the hunger strikes in 1980 and 1981 he was responsible for the Sinn Féin Prisoner of War department, ensuring that we had a line of communication with the prisons. In the 1980s Tom was Ard Runaí of the party. With the development of the Sinn Féin peace strategy Tom, along with Jim Gibney, led our effort to engage with political and civic unionism and the Protestant churches. Later Tom became a popular Belfast City Councillor and Mayor of the City. Among Tom’s many talents – a bodhrán maker and player par excellence with a fine taste for good food and fine wine – he is also an historian who has written about the people and history of Belfast through his fascinating books on the City Cemetery, Milltown Cemetery and Balmoral Cemetery. Tom decided many years ago that the republican history of the city – often ignored by the more established institutions – needed to be told and preserved. So Tom became a collector. Posters, leaflets, badges, publications, books, speeches, in fact anything that wasn’t nailed down would find its way into the Linen Hall library for the perusal and preservation of this and future generations. Mostly republican, but his collection also reflects the differences of opinion and politics within our society. In 2016 the Ulster Museum began its ‘Collecting the Troubles and Beyond’ project to which Tom has donated over 2,000 objects. Last week Tom opened his own unique collection: A Collector’s Story. At the well attended event he said: “If you’re not seen – you’re not heard. When you’re not heard someone else will steal your voice, either distort or silence your narrative.” So, take the time to go to the Ulster Museum. You won’t be disappointed. Tom has made an invaluable and innovative contribution to the story telling of Ireland. Well done, a chara.
I THOUGHT it would be a good idea to dedicate an occasional column to books. We can return to Brexit, the Protocol and other such matters at another time. They are political books, which may not surprise any of you. I am also conscious that these three are written by men. So lest I give you the wrong impression, let me make it clear that my reading activity is not limited to political books or to male authors. I binge-read, so Sebastian Barry’s ‘The Sacred Scripture’, and Billy Connolly’s ‘Windswept and Interesting’ are also on the go along with Sylvie Simmons ‘I’m Your Man’ about Leonard Cohen. I dip in and out of them when I get the chance. I also prefer real books to Kindle or other electronic models. Richard is a Kindle man. But a book is a book and for me there is no substitute. I am also always taken by a nicely presented tome. Imelda May’s ‘A Lick And A Promise’ is a great example of that. And her poetry is wonderful. I wholeheartedly recommend A Lick And A Promise.