Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The really hard stuff

Over the course of the past while I've posted a piece about racist attacks within the loyalist working class and I asked how can Sinn féin reach out to the unionist working class and attempt to get our message over in person.

I was asked to followed that up with the editorial from An phoblacht on the issue of the racist attacks. I personally found the views in that editorial as very weak as they seemed to see no role for Sinn Féin in dealing with the problem and seemed to suggest that unionism must deal with the issue of racist violence.
My post on Sunday was highlighting the main points Gerry Adams made in his report ‘Israel, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, April 2009" following his recent visit to the area.

In reading this report I cannot help but be fully aware that the situation in the North is not truley one of real peace, and the events that occur at this time of year highlight that very clearly. There exists massive underlying tensions and hostilities and these are at there most obvious in working class areas.

This raises an age old question, is there any way to bridge the divides within the working class and can Sinn Féin play a role in that.

In reading the Adams report a number of points stand out for me;

1. Dialogue has to be a central tenet of any attempt to make peace; to achieve justice, stability, security and peace.

2. There are two ways to end conflict. Either one side convincingly beats the other or all of those involved engage in the more difficult and challenging process of peace making.

3. Peace making is conducted by and between enemies not between friends.
4. This required a serious, good faith effort to engage between political opponents.
5. But in the end it is for Palestinians and Israelis to make the peace.

These three posts I mentioned earlier are to me central in looking at how Sinn Féin needs to move forward in the North. For me if we in Sinn Féin are serious about trying to break out of the sectarian divide that exists in the north then we really have to follow the ideas laid out above. Sinn Féin must reach out to the loyalist working class and continuously try to show that republicanism respects them and offers them something of value. Clearly reaching out to the loyalist working class is not going to be an easy thing to do, but it must be done.
It will be very easy for Sinn Féin to accept its role as being that of "Defenders and representatives of the Catholic community". Indeed some people say that is what Sinn Féin has become. However, there are people within the party who show that this is not the case.
Below is a section of a piece written by Niall Ó Donnghaile, the Sinn Féin representative for East Belfast, and it is this type of action and leadership that Sinn Fein must be involved in if we are to attempt to bridge the gap to the loyalist working class.

I return to the issue of leadership; a number of months back I received a phone call very like the one I got yesterday. On that occasion it was from Joe O'Donnell, a friend and comrade, himself a former Sinn féin rep for this area. Joe has been involved in sterling cross community work with countless representatives throughout East Belfast but particularly with the East Belfast Mission.

Joe informed me that morning that the memorial garden on the Newtonards Road in rememberance of the men killed on 27th June 1970 had been attacked and vandalised with paint. There and then Joe and I took the decision that we needed to stand with the people at the bottom of the Newtonards Road, understanding completely we probably wouldn't be very welcome, and tell them very clearly that those attacking the memorial were not Republican, they weren't motivated by Republicanism and they certainly weren't representative of the Short Strand Community.

So we headed off, now joined by well known community stalwart and activist Bernie McCrory of the Short Strand Community Forum. As we headed to the junction of Bryson Street and the Newtonards Road we collectively took a very deep breath; this was unprecedented, no one had ever crossed this particular line in such an open and public way.

I recall seeing the scores of people, many understandably upset, some relatives of the victims openly weeping, I saw numerous TV crews and photographers who immediately began snapping our pictures. I noticed a number of senior political and church representative who I had met with on numerous occasions before, head away from us as opposed to meeting us in the same fashion they had on other occasions; that was particularly disappointing.

I was approach by a young woman and told to 'get the f**k back over to your own side of the road'. I informed her I was here to condemn what had happened and that we needed to maintain the links so tentatively built up over a difficult period, that that was best for everyone.

A number of ordinary residents understood this, they didn't hide their anger though, and to be fair we didn't expect them to. Many of the relatives told us what was on their minds but again, we understood they needed an outlet, and here we were, three faces from the Short Strand right beside the damaged memorial.

The fact remains that the people who carried that attack out have no political, social or even cultural motivation; they most certainly aren't representative of the people in the Short Strand who know very well the pain and suffering that comes with loss and therefore the respect which must be shown to the dead.

Another sad fact which remains is that during that difficult Sunday morning, those same leaders I mentioned earlier disappeared; they faded into the background or they weren't even present. They allowed us to stand alone to explain the process that we have collectively engaged in to try and bring some sort of peace to the people living along the 'interface' in that part of Belfast.
Once again when I took a walk round to Saint Matthews yesterday morning I did so alone, while a very clear opportunity existed for the leaders within Unionism and Loyalism to take the chance and stand against this attack, that chance was missed, for whatever reason I am not sure.
What remains certain throughout is that the work and engagement will continue, we will continue to meet and address our shared issues, we will continue to sit down and secure a better standard of living for the people who live in what is classed as the 9th most socio-economically deprived ward in the north of Ireland.

However we must also lead and stand up to those who would attempt to tarnish our respective communities, stand up to those so called 'leaders' whose word and deed create the space and the mentality for attacks on Catholic Churches.

I look forward to quieter times ahead, as I write I am aware that the day isn't over yet.
Wherever sectarianism or anti community activity rears its ugly head we must all, collectively have the courage to face it down.

Posted by Niall Ó Donnghaile at 05:23


  1. First, in general I like this blog even more now that I read your first post and know that you use the term social-democrat, I think we're basically on the same page with that.

    Sometimes I am amazed at how far SF reaches out to the unionist community. Sometimes they go so far I think they'rre going too far. I mean, the vandalized memorial was for people who were attacking the Short Strand in a pogrom, and yet these senior SF members go out of their way to try to engage in dialogue over. I do almsot wonder if that's going too far, but I figure anything like that is good.

    I think SF would do better to do two things:

    1) Up their class politics. Talk more about economic justice that benefits all workers. As I commented below an earlier post, that might be helped or hindered by taking up the role of opposition in the Assembly, since those working-class unionists who know that the Executive is screwing them will stop associating SF with that; on the other hand, SF being in the executive demonstrates for a lot of unionists that SF can work with unionists. If SF were to go into opposition, maybe they could form some kind of alliance with Dawn Purvis- something a little more solid than simply voting the same way on most issues that come up.

    I've got mixed feelings about them taking up the opposition, but it might help with reaching to those unionists who are probably the most receptive- the progressive/left ones.

    2) As I mentioned earlier, SF could advocate a very gradual end to partition, something that would seem a lot more attractive to unionists than something closer to over-night. My proposal, which is at http://devlin-mcaliskey.blogspot.com/2009/02/joint-sovreignty-assembly.html also includes a part which would help with normalizing politics in the North, which would help advance a left-wing agenda and erode sectarian divisions.


  2. Still, it took a lot of raw courage to cross that road

  3. actually found some photos of the incident on this website


  4. First, since AM is Anthony McIntyre, let me say thanks for The Blanket. Although I found myself disagreeing some very small minority of the time and wondering if you were being too hard on SF another very small minority of the time, it was a great left-republican publication.

    Just to be clear, it would be innacurate to say I was criticising, and you're absolutely right that it took a lot of courage. Although I almost do wonder if it's going too far, the main point I meant to be making was that I can't believe people think SF is sectarian or something like that when they go to such lengths to maintain good community relations.

    Also, I think SF is doing a great job on that, but could be improved by offering a vision of how Ireland will be united that will be more gradual. I mean, even with the GFA, if there's nothing between that and unification, I think it will be less attractive and more traumatic for the Unionists than it would be under my proposal (also, my proposal should be done ASAP, it's not meant to wait until there's a voting majority in favor of a UI, although if it doesn't happen till then it's still a good idea).

    And I'm open-minded about SF and the Executive, but if they have a good relationship with Purvis, going into opposition might help.


  5. A Chara,

    These things surely take time. I think we soon forget we are not long out of the old days. Those who commit these acts against each others communities are small in number thankfully, and usually very young with not much else to do except go get stuck in to defacing property. I don’t believe the majority of these attacks are even politically motivated, as these young people really have no real politics, many would not even know of, nor remember what real oppression there once was.

    Sinn Fein on the ground has done, and continues to do good work in these areas. I think Martina Anderson has advanced things in her post as Director of Unionist Engagement. Our people on the ground involved in the community work hard to stop these attacks from taking place, as do many in the Unionist community. We can’t be everywhere unfortunately. Example, on Monday I attended an event for Palestine in Derry. It was NOT a SF event. But I immediately saw a potential problem. The event organisers had about 30-40 Palestinian flags stuck into the ground and taped to the fence around Free Derry Corner. As the event began to wind down, I noticed young people taking the flags and heading up towards the Diamond where the Orange march was taking place. Obviously to cause trouble. Point being, you can’t be everywhere, you can only do your best.

    This problem is something that will take much more time to resolve. Part of the resolution is to engage young people and create situations where they have better things to do than go up the town, drink, deface property and shout slurs at others.

    For me, the far bigger problem is why are other ethnic groups attacked and un-welcomed here. Like those poor Romanians, that is far more serious and has detrimental effects on all our communities AND our country IMHO

  6. thaught nials post was interesting. the reaction of the community leaders as opposed to the individal protestant working class was very interesting.

    i live in dublin. i accept its very easy to be idealistic from a distance when not faced with the practicalities of every day politics in teh 6 counties but love to hear stuff like this, it's the key in my opinion.

    wolftone said unite catholic protestant and disenter theese where my means.

    if you think about that as a stratagy as opposed to some hart felt piece which it has become confused with it's actualy quite brillient. in the last century for a number of good and not so good reasons we have made uniteing people the far of aim and the means to do it is unite ireland first when it should be the other way around.

    i'd say the community leaders who scorned you on some level recognised this. if you had off stayed away it would have reinforced a concept. that you didn't questioned it. it's not the republic but it's those kind of battles that need to be had and won to get to it. probably some people cringeing at this but its the answer imo. any stratagy military or constitution, need unity of the people behind it if it's to stand a chance of winning. that idea seems mad now but building towards it with actions like theese some day it won't seem so mad.

  7. Thanks anon. I agree with your post.

  8. Tom, just noticed your comment. It is a matter of regret that SF did not submit to the Blanket. The debate would have been much more informative.