EFFORTS by the British government and the unionist parties to stymie the conversation on future constitutional change have actually brought a greater focus on the growing momentum around the upcoming unity referendum. The criticism of An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar by the British Secretary of State and a range of unionist voices for daring to suggest that a united Ireland will happen in his lifetime is the latest example of unionist and Tory efforts to delegitimise the goal of Irish unity.

In their view it is not  acceptable to promote Irish unity. This is presented by them as dangerous and destabilising and is criticised and condemned with contempt. The intention is to create a row so that United Irelanders will be quiet and to misrepresent  republican and nationalists aspirations as second class.  Nonsense, bluster and feigned outrage will not stop the conversation about the future. Listening and learning makes more sense. 

Twenty five years ago the Good Friday Agreement acknowledged the “equally legitimate political aspirations” of nationalists and unionists. The talks participants, including the Irish and British governments, and subsequently the majority of citizens in a referendum, accepted that the future had to be one based on partnership, equality and mutual respect. The Agreement recognised the birthright of all the people of the North to identify themselves and to be accepted as Irish or British. A referendum process was agreed to determine the future constitutional shape of the island of Ireland.

The DUP and the Tory government do not accept these principles. That much is clear. They want to delay and dilute the changes that are coming. But in their hearts they know they cannot stop them. That much is clear also. The unity genie is out off the bottle. It is not going in again. 

In recent weeks Sinn Féin’s Commission on the Future of Ireland has held two very successful public events. One was at the Ploughing Championship last week in Laois. This put a focus on the benefits that Irish unity will bring to rural Ireland. The other event was held in Derry where three women from the unionist section of our community participated in an event billed 'Exploring Northern Protestant Identities and Culture in a Shared Future'.  The three participants –– community-based activists Catherine Pollock, Catherine Cooke and Alison Wallace – are from that broad tradition.

The event was very informative and the three women spoke eloquently of the concerns and of the diversity of opinions and traditions that exist within unionism. Speaking afterward, Chairperson of the event, Catherine Pollock, said that she hoped those who attended would begin to understand the “diversity of feeling, traditions and culture among the unionist communities.” The conversation ranged across how people can engage and move forward in civic and political conversations, the environment, a citizens' assembly on education, marching bands and much more. Catherine Cooke hoped that what they said would provide food for thought: “I came in feeling very nervous but leave feeling very good.” Alison Wallace said: “People listened and were very respectful.” She described it as a very positive experience.

We need more of these events, of these conversations. Irish republicans and nationalists must listen carefully and attentively to what our Protestant/unionist neighbours are saying in all of their diversity. And we need to plan for the future.

Thus far the Sinn Féin Commission has held eight public events, as well as sectoral engagements. Two more will be held by the Commission in the coming months. There will be a People's Assembly in Waterford on October 12 and another in Irish in the Galway Gaeltacht in November.

Incidentally, during a recent visit to New York An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar met US President Joe Biden. He said Mr Biden was very well informed on Irish affairs and that he asked if there was any way he could help. Mr Varadkar says: “I told him we had no specific ask at the moment.”

It’s little wonder the British government disrespects the Irish government the way it does. An Taoiseach needs to listen and learn also. And to work with those who are prepared to help. In Ireland. And internationally. 

A unique gift from thoughtful friends 

JIM Donnelly is a Springhallion. His mother, May Donnelly, was one of the indomitable warrior women from the Upper Springfield who faced down hordes of British soldiers and RUC officers for decades while also combating poverty and discrimination and rearing a good family. These mighty women are to be found in communities everywhere. The local ones are too many to name but I remember them all and I am grateful for their friendship and protection and comradeship. And I am always uplifted by the tenacity and good humour of these working class heroines, mostly mothers of large families, including Mrs Donnelly. 

NEW DIRECTION: Jim Donnelly with a copy of his new book

NEW DIRECTION: Jim Donnelly with a copy of his new book

Little wonder then that she has a central role in Jim Donnelly’s book, My Big Toe. Jim is a community activist from Springhill. Like many of his neighbours he is also a former prisoner – he did  nine years hard time. His life as a community activist  is dedicated, again like many others, to tackling inequalities and developing a better society for all with a particular focus on young people, especially through his role as joint CEO with the Active Communities Network.

Jim’s journey through writing was a difficult one. At school he was dismissed as "slow at everything he does".  He says he became like a ghost in the classroom. "I was there but no one really noticed."

In prison he read a lot. With great difficulty. Ditto with his writing. It was a struggle. After his release from prison he endured anxiety, depression and mental health issues. He then went on to do a Higher Professional Diploma in Counselling. As part of this course he had to keep a journal. This enabled him to explore his life and his experiences. Later he studied for a Masters Degree. Again more reading and writing. More challenges. 

Jim almost abandoned this work because it was too hard for him but his tutor got him to talk to an educational psychologist. She told him he was dyslexic. He understood then why he had such a hard time with reading and writing, why school work was so difficult. This gave him the impetus to complete his masters degree – a great accomplishment for a disadvantaged lad  from Springhill. Jim is one of the many men and women who succeeded against the odds. In all kinds of ways. In all sectors. And our children or grandchildren have done even better. 

Jim’s book – consisting of poems and prose – came to be published through the efforts of his friends, especially Danny Barkley. When Jim began writing on his phone he shared his musings on WhatsApp with Danny, Harry Connolly, Conor, Louise and other friends and family. Danny thought Jim’s work should be published. He talked to Harry about this  but didn't tell Jim, probably, as Jim acknowledges, because “I wouldn't have been convinced." My Big Toe was published as a gift to Jim by his friends.  

So well done Danny and company. 

My Big Toe is brutally honest reflection on life growing up  under military occupation in a large, poor working class family in a republican community in the time of conflict. It is frank about the trauma, hardships and indignities. The ups and downs. But it is also funny and full of love. My Big Toe is a tale of redemption.

My Big Toe is  available in limited numbers from the author at Active Communities Network, Twin Spires, Falls Road.

Rostrevor tribute to the Peasant Patriot

GENERATIONS: Former SF MLA for South Down Mick Murphy looking over Tom Dunn's shoulder

GENERATIONS: Former SF MLA for South Down Mick Murphy looking over Tom Dunn's shoulder

Well done to the people of Rostrevor who last week invited former President Mary McAleese to unveil a bronze statue of Tom Dunn – the Peasant Patriot – a local hedge school master and United Irish leader who taught ‘The Rights of Man’ by Tom Paine and the writings of Wolfe Tone to local patriots. In 1797 Tom’s barn was raided by the British and he was captured. He refused to name any of his comrades. He was ordered to be lashed. He died, aged 62, after 260 lashes. Think about that, dear readers. 260 lashes.