25th April, 1995
St. Columban’s College, Dalgan Park, Navan
Marian Donnelly (President, Workers’ Party)
Cllr. Bill Ramsay (Alliance Party, Craigavon Borough Council)
Chaired by John Clancy (Meath Peace Group)
Editor’s note: There was a very good attendance at the talk, which included local councillors and people coming not only from Meath but also from adjoining counties. The talk was recorded – however the report is not a full transcript but contains main points and extracts from speeches
Main points and extracts from speeches
Questions (brief summary)
1. Marian Donnelly (President of the Workers’ Party
“It will take a long time to break down the barriers – there have been so many victims, and so many scars”, said Marian Donnelly (Derry), President of the Workers Party at a Meath Peace Group talk in Dalgan Park, Navan, on Tuesday 25th April. The meeting was also addressed by Dr. Bill Ramsay, an Alliance Party councillor on Craigavon Borough Council. Both speakers outlined their respective party policies and hopes for the future. (The D.U.P. speaker failed to appear).
Ceasefires: Marian Donnelly described the great changes that had come about since the ceasefires: “After the ceasefires there was euphoria, there was rejoicing and relaxation. That may have subsided somewhat but the sense of relief is still evident in the pattern of life of the people as they tentatively re-discover, reconcile, seek normality, savouring this new found peace”.
Peace, she said, meant many things: “a stanching of the blood, an end to investment in destruction and in counter violence by the state; it means freedom from fear – to be able to speak your mind without fearing the midnight knock on your door; it means the opportunity to meet the man or woman down the street and exchange views, the chance to work, to play, to shop, to travel in security; it means to hope that there will never be a return to the murderous sectarian campaign which brought so much tragedy to so many and diminished the quality of all our lives.”
Workers’ Party objective: Ms Donnelly set out the long-term objective of the Workers Party – “A democratic, secular, socialist, unitary state in the island of Ireland – a Republic. This can only be achieved by the majority in each state demanding and voting such a transformation.” “Our support for the democratic process and for the rule of law is absolute and unequivocal“, she said. “The central pillar of our platform for Northern Ireland is the creation of a united integrated democratic community”, she continued. “We are firmly rooted in the tradition of Tone and the United Irishmen in that we believe in the unity of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter – or to put it in modern terms – the unity of the Shankill and the Falls. This is not romantic nostalgia nor political naivety – but a principle that has informed the best political action for 200 years. Unless such a principle permeates all Irish political thought then we run the risk of sinking deeper into the morass of sectarian division and hatred“, she said. “We insist on the primacy of this unity as the basis for political, social and economic progress, in particular for the most deprived and exploited. Anything which intensifies the divisions must be seen as anti-democratic, anti-freedom and must be resisted; for that reason we have consistently declared ourselves hostile to all forms of sectarianism – in politics, in education, in employment, in housing, in sport – wherever it has reared its ugly head.”
Resumption of violence: Ms Donnelly deplored a recent interview by Albert Reynolds when, in criticising British tardiness in arranging talks with Sinn Fein, he practically justified a resumption of violence. “No one can blame them”, he said. “This is wrong – everyone will blame them”, she said.
On the talks issue, she said “Failure to talk may hold up the political process, but it should not interfere with the peace process – it should not be used as an excuse.”
“There is no justification for violence now – just as there was no need for it 25 years ago,” she said. Every other option was open as the successes of NICRA demonstrated. Subsequent negation of those gains was due to the outbreak of violence as well as the heavy-handed reaction of the state. “We cannot accept that abiding fully by the democratic principle in any way militates against the pursuit of either Unionist or Nationalist objectives.”
Guarantee for peace: The best guarantee of the extension and deepening of peace is the will and total determination of the people to resist any and every effort to persuade them that carnage has a place in our political life, she said, and “this will is being forged and this determination is being secured in every section of the community”.
“Peace is no longer a demand it is a reality, no matter how fragile”, she said, “and the people will deal harshly with anyone who seeks to turn back the clock. “
Framework Document: Ms Donnelly outlined 3 continuing obstacles to lasting peace:
(i) The sectarian nature of N.I. society
(ii) The democratic deficit
(iii) Social and economic deprivation.
While welcoming the Framework Document, she said it had only addressed the second obstacle and had other limitations. “We have the opportunity of making real progress with peace the necessary context in which to create new political and economic structures. A crucial weapon against a return to violence is democratic politics. The most enduring guarantee of peace would be agreement among political parties that the basis for progress is total and unconditional acceptance of the democratic principle.” People have been deprived of power for nearly a quarter of a century, she said. “We must take on responsibility and accountability for our lives, problems, decisions, actions. We must establish institutions which will enable us to do that – to deal with difficulties of economic, social and environmental nature which have escalated rapidly while violence and prejudice diverted our energies and resources down blind alleys.” The WP welcomed the Framework Document, she said, while recognising its limitations. “Our position over the past 20 years has been support for a democratic devolved government underpinned by a Bill of Rights.”
Bill of Rights: A Bill of Rights could be implemented immediately and would be important in gaining acceptance for a political settlement, she said. “The Workers Party argued for years for a Bill of Rights, a cornerstone of democracy, asserting fundamental rights and liberties of all citizens and groups, guaranteeing inalienable rights of freedom and equality before the law. … A Bill of Rights would lay down democratic parameters within which political progress can be made and at the same time perform an important social, psychological function in relation to the exercise of state power and vital for maintenance of confidence within the community. It would offer people a constructive, constitutional way of redressing wrongs, challenging prejudices and achieving change.”
Sectarian divisions: The Workers Party reject the conventional description that NI is composed of two disparate politico-religious communities, she said: “this is politically and historically inaccurate; the Workers Party belongs to an anti-sectarian, radical tradition which has played a major role in combatting armed conflict and in promoting issues to unite rather than divide.”
It is within the two main power blocks that sectarian attitudes and practices are entrenched and nurtured, she said. “The sectarian divisions in our community are deeper now than at virtually any other modern period and are reflected right across the socio-economic, cultural, educational and geographical dimensions of the state, perpetuating a violence mentality and strangling any chance of success. A whole generation has grown up knowing only a divided society dominated by gunmen and inept politicians who are motivated by sectarian bitterness and inbred prejudices, who maintain support by exploitation of real or imaginary fears and grievances. In the moral and mental as well as geographical ghettoism bigotry thrives and violence is accepted as the logical way to settle disputes. Tribal instincts are strong and people feel obliged to explain and excuse atrocities which are perpetrated by their “side”.”
Ms Donnelly said that those in positions of responsibility must actively seek the breaking down of sectarian barriers to get rid of outdated antagonisms and prejudices. “There is no point in preaching peace while banging the same old sectarian drum at every turn around and scaring people into separate camps. There are still enough twisted individuals, enough warped minds to keep the campaign of squalid murder for another quarter century …The vast majority of people want peace and democracy – the right to a job, to a house; they do not want to bequeath a legacy of bitterness or violence born of these last two decades to their children.
They do not want to tell them that we can’t solve our problems or that they must live in a society increasingly ghettoised, deprived of political culture, torn asunder by medieval hatreds. People want mutuality of help rather than strife, acceptance rather than destruction, compassion and peace rather than confrontation and blood letting.”
“We can have no victors, for that would mean vanquished”, she said, and “terrorism and suffering thrive in the vacuum caused by political intransigence”. The problem must be tackled without any trace of triumphalism or point scoring. “There must be compromise.”
New agenda: “We are entering a new political era, a new political arena, we need a new agenda which will reflect the needs and interests of the people. The sectarian system must be dismantled – in all its structures, attitudes, values; the apartheid mentality must be challenged where ever it surfaces – politics, education, employment, culture, recreation, housing patterns.”
Education: One area to begin is in the field of education, she said. “There is no moral, economic, social or ethical reason to maintain a segregated system of education where children at best are building life long friendships and forming attitudes based on one part of the community only; at most they are developing a sense of fear, mistrust and even hatred of the other side. … If peace is to be lasting you must set about changing society now. It means confronting substantial barriers but steps to resolve this destructive chasm must be a major priority if life in NI is to be raised beyond its present level. We must cultivate a climate of tolerance, of respect for diversity, as a source of enrichment rather than confrontation.”
Poverty and unemployment: Ms Donnelly then spoke of the “horizontal” division reinforced by the critical unemployment situation – widespread structural and cyclical unemployment plus extensive low paid, part time, low esteem jobs. “Despite millions of pounds and projects there are still unacceptable levels of poverty and deprivation. Obviously no coherent plan, no real strategy – each small agency looking after its own patch and competing with each other.” She pointed to the 100,000 unemployed, 375,000 living below poverty line, education system which treats 80% of children as rejects, and a deteriorating health service.
The Worker Party proposed a “Central Commission for Social Reconstruction, an All Party Jobs Forum, and a coherent imaginative, forward looking plan to combat unemployment and poverty. “Our slogan Peace, Work, Democracy is not a mere catch call to be trotted out at elections – it has concrete meaning woven into the fabric of the struggle for political and economic power. Freedom means freedom from poverty, from inadequate housing and from an economic system which allows such poverty to exist alongside extravagant wealth.”
Ms Donnelly concluded: “We are about changing society, about creating the climate and conditions where the vast majority can live in dignity… This is not a task for small-minded people with only an eye for today. It is a task for people with a vision of tomorrow.”
2. Dr. Bill Ramsay (Alliance Party; filling in for Mary Clarke-Glass)
Dr. Ramsay outlined the historical development of the Alliance Party which he said had equal Protestant and Catholic membership. On Craigavon Council the Alliance members had a good working relationship with the Workers Party, he said. Being a small party, devoted to non-violence, it was very difficult to get media attention he said, and he commented on the saturation coverage given to Sinn Fein which had 51 local councillors, while his party had 45. In such circumstances it was difficult to promote peace, he said. The media seemed interested only in bad news.
Dr Ramsay said that the Alliance also called for a Bill of Rights, but they did not believe in forcing people into integrated education. His party welcomed the Framework Document as a basis for negotiation, and believed in equality of treatment for all. He looked forward to a society where people would be at ease among themselves and would be able to feel free to discuss religion and politics openly.
Questions: After the talk, questions were asked on a wide range of issues including Integrated education, Housing, Community relations, De-commissioning of arms, Funding for jobs, Devolved government.
Asked about ways of improving North-South relations, Marian Donnelly called for more people from the Republic to make friendships with people from Northern Ireland, to travel North and to invite people down and she praised the work of the Meath Peace Group. Isobel Hylands (Lurgan) was commended for the talks which her group Interaction had organised in Craigavon Co. Armagh, bringing speakers from political parties in the Republic and Northern Ireland to talk on issues in her area.
Biographical notes on speakers:
Dr. Bill Ramsay, Portadown. Member of Alliance Party since foundation 25 years ago. Member of Craigavon Borough Council, 1973-1981 and 1985 to date, and parliamentary candidate in several elections; retired G.P.
Marian Donnelly: School teacher; interested in political and social activity since childhood. Joined Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association in late ’60s and founder member of County Derry branch. Active member of the Workers Party (formerly Republican Clubs) since 1969; President of the party since 1992. Also belongs to GAA and local drama group and various community and women’s groups.
Meath Peace Group report – May 1995 – compiled by Julitta Clancy