THIS week Uachtarán Shinn Féin Mary Lou McDonald and Leas Uachtarán Michelle O’Neill will be in the USA for the St Patrick’s Day events. St. Patrick’s Day – or week – is a regular part of the annual calendar for the Irish diaspora everywhere, but especially in the USA.
Mary Lou and Michelle and Conor Murphy will engage in an extensive round of diplomatic talks with senior political leaders on Capitol Hill. They will brief them on the current situation and attend events with business leaders to promote investment. They will also meet with representatives of Irish America, without whom none of this would be possible.
This year is particularly special because it marks the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. Irish America and the Clinton Administration played a crucial role in helping all of us to achieve that historic event in April 1998 and, critically, Irish America and successive US administrations have maintained that commitment in all of the years since.
I haven’t travelled to the USA in recent years. However, seven of the most important Irish American organisations have come together to mark 25 years of the Good Friday Agreement and to host an event in New York on April 3 to "reflect on twenty-five years of peace and progress on the island of Ireland".
President Bill Clinton will join with me and our hosts in looking back on those momentous events, as well as looking forward to a future in which the promise of the Good Friday Agreement will be fully implemented.
Further evidence of Irish America’s commitment to Irish reunification is also evident this week in a major advert that has been taken out by those same Irish American organisations in the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Irish Voice and the Irish Echo and Examiner and online in the San Francisco Chronicle and LA Times.
Bono tells a fascinating story
I'VE just finished reading Bono’s book, Surrender. It's a good read and the U2 singer is a very good writer. He knows how to tell a story. But perhaps we should not be surprised at this. Bono has penned a long string of very good songs.
This is an impressive book. Made up of forty short stories. Each based on a U2 song. But it works well also as unit, as a narrative. I like autobiographies. If they are written well. And this one is. It is particularly insightful about the origins of U2, Bono’s relationships with the other band members and with Paul McGuinness, their former manager. So too about the influence of other lifelong friends. And his youthful religious experiences.
We all need people in our lives who sustain us in good times and also more importantly when times are not so good. Bono acknowledges this and his own occasional testing of the patience of those closest to him.
Ali, Bono’s wife, is a constant in his life. And a good influence. He acknowledges this also. And with some humility. You don’t get to be married as long as he's been without appreciation of your other half. Ali is undoubtedly a mighty woman. Bono makes this clear. He is lucky to have her. He makes this clear also.
He also writes of his mother Iris, who died when he was fourteen, and of the enduring personal effect this had on him, even when he didn’t always understand it when he was younger. Now in his sixties he can look back with a clearer sense of self-awareness. So too with his relationship with his father. And how he himself adjusted to parenthood. For me, these personal elements of the book are the most moving, not least because of the candid, fluent way they are written.
I enjoyed the passages where he takes us into the music and song-writing experiences. I am fascinated by how people can create memorable songs, music and poetry to uplift and to take us out of ourselves. Work of the imagination is the essence of art. Music-making is a magical process. U2 are wizards at it.
Bono’s work as an activist is also chronicled in great detail. He asks questions of himself and of decisions made by him along the way. I can appreciate the contradictions of some of the choices he made, particularly in efforts to broaden support among world leaders for much-needed measures to help others in the developing world. Surrender sets out the rationale behind some of these decisions, not always with the support of his friends or other activists. His answers on other issues, for example on U2 moving one of its companies abroad to avoid tax, aren’t always as clear. So too with some of his perceptions about militant Irish republicans. But in this new era we will forgive him for that.
Surrender is well worth reading. Writing it is no mean achievement. Fair play, Bono.
Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story. Published By Hutchinson Heinmann.
Gerry Kelly: Unionist reluctance on the road to the GFA
AS part of my reflection on the Good Friday Agreement I have asked comrades who were part of that process to write about their memories. Last week it was Bairbre de Brún. This week it is Gerry Kelly
I WAS released from prison in 1989, after serving a total of 16 years in various jails and jurisdictions. I joined Sinn Féin on release and was, soon after, part of the discussions that were going on at that time in pursuit of a peaceful way forward. An intermittent line of communication between Sinn Féin and the British Government had existed over many years and had become active again.
My first step into negotiations was when I was asked to accompany Martin McGuinness to an exploratory meeting with a British Government representative on March 23, 1993.
During this exchange, the British representative stated, amongst other things: "The final solution is union. It is going to happen anyway... Unionists will have to change. This island will be as one."
To me, it was a meeting of considerable significance, but I wasn’t thinking of it as a seminal moment – though in hindsight I believe it was.
After discussion, the leadership’s view was to engage, but cautiously, as our historical experience with Perfidious Albion was not encouraging. If there was to be a negotiation then there had to be a public manifestation of this and that it had to include all the protagonists.
The IRA declared a cessation of military activity on August 31, 1994, to create a peaceful atmosphere for talks to take place.
A few months later, in December 1994, Martin McGuinness led myself, Lucilita Bhreatnach, Siobhan O’Hanlon and Sean McManus into Stormont to face the permanent under-secretary, Quentin Thomas.
Fairly quickly we suspected that the British were using the meetings to slow things down. Presumably this was because PM John Major depended on unionist votes to remain in power and unionism was against talks with republicans.
However, when Labour came to power with a huge majority under Tony Blair in May 1997, things changed. The negotiations which led to the GFA really began.
Ironically, the exact same civil servants who sat across the table in 1994 filibustering now began to engage on the real issues.
Unionists led by David Trimble stubbornly refused to talk directly to Sinn Féin. The epitome of this manifested itself when all the parties were invited to South Africa to allow for relationship-building away from the public eye. The unionists refused to travel on the same transport as Sinn Féin so they all piled on to a military Hercules jet while we were given a small and very comfortable executive jet for the same journey.
This continued when a picnic was organised for all delegates. While the others travelled in a large coach we travelled in a minibus with a couple of South African ministers. The Women’s Coalition members came with us. We arrived first. The coach carrying everyone else passed by on the upper road a number of times because David Trimble refused to come down while we were there.
To cap it all, the unionist delegation demanded a separate meeting with the President. This appalled the South African hosts. However, Nelson Mandela, in his own inimitable way, accepted their request but said to the unionist delegations that they would not achieve anything by simply talking to their friends.
Despite all of the difficulties, the Good Friday Agreement was signed. It was indeed an historical breakthrough, which was massively endorsed by the people across Ireland, North and South.