Tuesday, 7th February, 1995
St. Columban’s College, Dalgan Park, Navan
Cllr. Francie Molloy (Sinn Féin, Dungannon)
Joan O’Connor (Director, Sinn Fein’s Women’s Department)
Liz Groves (Chairperson, Falls Community Council, Belfast)
Chaired by John Clancy (Meath Peace Group)
Editor’s note: There was a very good attendance at the talk which was the first talk addressed by Sinn Fein representatives. This was also the first talk to be audio-recorded. The report is not a complete transcript but contains main points and extracts from the speeches and the questions and answers section.
1. Cllr. Francie Molloy (Sinn Fein, Dungannon)
Francie Molloy thanked the Meath Peace Group for the invitation to speak and said he would like to speak on the theme “After the Ceasefires – the situation on the ground”. He would like to be able to say that everything has changed dramatically and that everything was “rosy in the garden” but this is not so. “Peace hasn’t suddenly broken out. Though the ceasefire has now lasted for over 150 days, we still haven’t got the response of the British Government to the new situation”. There is still no big change in the security policy of the British Government, he said. “We haven’t seen any change whatsoever in the actions of the R.U.C. – we haven’t seen the disbandment of the R.I.R. …so a lot of those things have still to change.”
Need for agreement: On the ground, there is a groundswell of opinion across the 2 communities, of the need for an agreement, a need to move forward. He lived in a very loyalist/unionist comunity, located in the area known as the “murder triangle” of the 70s. Even in his area, the opinion is that things have changed, that “we need to move to a new agreement between the Irish people”.
Unionist politicians: Cllr. Molloy said he believed the Unionist politicians were lagging behind the people. Instead of reflecting what their supporters were saying, the politicians, he said, “are actually trying to guide their supporters into reflecting what they’re saying,” and there was a danger in this.
Frustration on the ground: “On the ground in the nationalist community, there is a lot of frustration with the lack of progress since 1st September, he said. He is involved with the Peace Action Monitor – which gets reports from their own political representatives and supporters, but also from a wider section of the nationalist community as to what is happening on the ground. There is resentment from the RUC towards republicans in particular and a lot of activity is going on which seems to be trying to goad people into reacting, into feeling that nothing has changed. The feeling is growing that there have been no benefits. “That I see as one of the danger aspects of the present situation”.
One encouraging aspect of his community work is that roughly 30% of the people whose cases he represents in Dungannon come from the Unionist/Loyalist community. Unionist politicians have basically been saying to their people – “You’re getting what you’re entitled to from the British Government and to look for anything more is sponging from the State” – but at “grass-roots” level, they have the same problems as nationalists. The SF advice centres are open to all sections, he said. In the past they were afraid to come to SF advice centres. “There is a feeling within the community of moving forward”.
British Government: Cllr. Molloy said there must be a better response from the British Government – a response on the security level on the ground, because “otherwise the frustration starts to build up in people”. One of the areas he represents is East Tyrone and also South Armagh, and those two communities, he said, are “saturated with British Army and R.U.C.” People are now being stopped – “petty harassment in relation to motoring offences…all the normal bits and pieces which you can’t actually label as harassment, but in a community that hasn’t actually seen this type of thing happen for so long, then it…has a big effect on them and leads them into that frustration stage again.”
RUC: He believes the RUC [Royal Ulster Constabulary] must be disbanded – “there must be movement before people can actually feel comfortable or feel part of building a new society.”
Dialogue with Sinn Fein: The level of goodwill in both communities is not reflected in the level of activity on the ground, he said. “The next step should be that the British Government should recognise SF’s electoral mandate and speak to the SF leadership in the same way as it represents the SDLP and recognises Unionists’ mandates.”
Unionist veto: While the British Government are refusing to do this, why should the Unionist community feel that they should engage in dialogue, he asked. As long as that continues, the “Unionist veto”, or, the “British veto” to change, is going to continue. He said that the British have been saying to the Unionists for years, “You don’t have to go up the road; you don’t have to engage in dialogue; you don’t have to do anything if you don’t want to; and we will support you in that situation.” The Unionists have been saying “no” for too long, he concluded. “We want to move to a new situation but I feel that the one major stumbling block to that is that the British Government are now saying “no” to dialogue”.
2. Joan O’Connor (Director of SF’s Women’s Department and a member of the Ard Chomhairle):
“It is important for all political parties to discuss what sort of Ireland we want, she said. There have been 25 years of pain and suffering. No one wants to go back to it. The onus is now on the British Government to move things forward.
Learning from the past: “Sinn Fein is a democratic socialist party, she explained. “We must look to the future but we must also look to the past. Only by learning from our past we can ensure the pain and suffering will never happen again”.
Partition: “We must look to partition which had a devastating effect on both parts of the island. It set back social progress by decades.” She referred particularly to the position of women in both states and the clerical influences.
Sinn Fein vision: She outlined the SF vision of a new united Ireland – democratic, open, tolerant, based on the exercise of national self-determination.
“The media often look at Sinn Fein as having only a “Brits Out” policy. Yes, the British must go, with all their trappings … but Sinn Fein doesn’t want another 26 counties-type State. Sinn Fein wants accountability and trust …We need a new Ireland…we need to replace the corrupt Church-State”.
Constitution of Ireland: She pointed to the Irish Constitution – the current debate for reform is only aimed at placating unionists, she said. Part of the Constitution was an insult to women. SF upholds women’s issues, and in their vision of Ireland the Constitution would enshrine the equality of women. We have seen the failed policies of both governments – now is the time to put it right. Unionist grievances are very similar to nationalist grievances, and these are very much the same grievances as in Dublin, Limerick etc. Vast sections of the community in the 26 counties are disenfranchised and excluded.”
Unionists: Ms O’Connor said that the Ulster Unionist Party keeps the Tory Government in power, supported them in vetoing the Social Charter, rights for workers etc. She pointed to the Fisheries debate in Westminster as another example – Unionists do not represent working-class interests, they just “prop up” the Tory Government, she said. She knew there were wide gulfs between Sinn Fein and the unionist community. “The British Government must remove the unionist veto. There is an opportunity now to build peace. ”
“In an all-Ireland settlement there will be a place for all .. We can build the new Ireland together. It requires confidence and dialogue. We can’t return to Stormont as an internal solution“.
3. Liz Groves (Chairperson, Falls Community Council, Belfast).
Liz Groves thanked the Meath Peace Group for the invitation to speak. She explained she was not a member of a political party but over 30 years has worked in 2 deprived areas in Belfast. In North Belfast, she made many Protestant friends. When she moved to West Belfast, she got a shock. “Masses of people living on the breadline”. No access to education, to housing, to jobs. No economic base. “These were the children and the women, the young unemployed, coming from families of generations of unemployment, who took up stones and eventually turned, unfortunately, to arms and took up arms as well”, she said.
How the violence started: We have to look to the past and understand the motives of the people who took to violence, she said. Many people ask – Could the ceasefire have come earlier? Couldn’t the 25 years of murder and mayhem have been avoided? But they never ask the question – “How did the violence start? Who was the cause of it and who kept it going?”
“It was started by partitioning this country .. It was started because both governments refused to recognise the list of human rights abuses which were being carried on since the inception of the State.”
She referred to gerrymandering etc. after partition. “People grew up in atmosphere of no jobs, and no housing. Their whole lives were ruined by the “Orange veto” the British and Irish Governments sat back … they allowed a list of human rights abuses to continue.”
Liz Groves said that it was very important that residents of the 26 counties listen to all this as “you are now part of this process …and we want you to be part of it, we need you to be part of it”.
“Over the last few months, many unionists have said that they would have given the nationalists many things. Yet they never gave the nationalists anything that we didn’t forcibly go out and work for and take by whatever means – by educating ourselves, by creating our own businesses, and keeping our communities vibrant and going … They ruled their Protestant Parliament for their Protestant people; and they were true Ulstermen, what they had, they held – they gave none of it away.”
Civil rights: Ms Groves spoke of the civil rights movement – people wanted a vote in the local council elections, basic civil rights, decent houses, decent standard of education, the right to a job. She said that Protestant/loyalist people are now working with Catholics for these same issues. “Prior to 1969 they didn’t have to go out and work for those things. Their housing standards might not have been that much better than ours, but there was one family in every house, the heads of those households all had votes, and if they owned a wee shop at the corner, it meant they had two votes.”
“The system was loaded against nationalists from the beginning. Then came the Civil Rights movement – the RUC and B Specials batonned people off the streets. Over the last few months, the people that enacted all those things against the nationalists are now standing up and saying they’re the ones that want peace and the ones that want to move forward.”
Loyalist working class: “On the ground, the ordinary Loyalist, Protestant person does want to move forward. They are beginning to realise that they were conned more so than us. They no longer have the advantage in education, health and transport facilities. Their political masters all made sure their money wasn’t planted in the 6 counties. … The ordinary Protestant is beginning to feel frightened and his back’s to the wall. His political leaders are trying to cause division within the ordinary working class community. They put the blame on the Catholics for the conditions they are suffering.
Education and Housing: “The unionists say: “we allowed them the vote”, “we allowed them education”, “we allowed them housing”. This is a ridiculous thing to say in a democracy; nationalists had to fight for education, the vote and housing.” She described the funding of education in N.I. – Catholic schools still don’t get full funding. In housing she said there had been only some improvements. “In Poleglass which backs onto what was predominately the loyalist area of Lisburn – 3800 houses were built where 7, 500 were promised. The waiting list in West Belfast is 5, 200. Couples or single parents with more than 2 children .. The houses are not being built as they would upset the electoral balance in the local council and would be seen as a threat to the loyalist estate.”
Judicial system – Private Lee Clegg: Ms Groves said we need to look at all matters, but the big issue, she said, is the judicial system. She referred to the Private Clegg affair. “They don’t mind trying us in non-jury courts, they don’t mind giving us internment, but now they’ve tried one of their own, a member of a Regiment …responsible for untold injuries and maiming…responsible for forty unexplained deaths. Because one of their own got caught up in their judicial system, suddenly it’s wrong”, she said. It was wrong for him, she said, but it was not wrong for all the people who were caught up in the Casement Trials.”
Her area returns the highest number of SF councillors on a first preference vote. None of them sit on the crucial committees of Belfast City Council. They are disenfranchised.
“To move forward they are going to have to look at all those policies and they’re going to have to change them. … They’re going to have to stop demonising my community …they’re going to have to allow my community to be able to stand up and state their case very, very clearly, and they’re going to have to admit that their policies over the last 25 years were wrong. … On the ground, soldiers are off the streets by day in West Belfast, but many police patrols, and army at night. There are still special units that drive around at night in unmarked cars, and they army protect them while they’re harassing and hammering our children into the ground”.
Social issues: Many social issues could be helped by the 26 counties, she said – policing and prisoners – “both communities have these problems and want to solve them together but the doorway is not being put open for them – it’s being shut by Constitutional politicians and by Britain’s inability to deal with the Irish peace process”. She said the British Government were forced into a position of taking part – they were forced into signing the Declaration. “Now the republicans have called their bluff and they’ve got themselves backed into a corner with loyalist politicians.”
But the loyalist community are anxious for social issues and policing issues to be sorted out, “because at times they suffer as much as we do”, she said. They are anxious also that the prisoner issue be sorted out, “because every prisoner is a victim”, she said.
British Government: “The only thing stopping the peace process from moving forward is the British Government’s inability to stand up and be counted, to say “we made a mistake when partition came in; we’ve done nothing to rectify it in 75 years…we now have to sit down with all the people on this island…everybody who’s interested in the future of this country in the ever-widening Europe …to stand up and be counted … It’s time that Ireland went forward into Europe and the ever-widening world as a very united, caring socialist people”, she concluded.
QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS:
Q1. Nuala McGuinness [Nobber resident, from Co. Down]: The problems of Ireland started a long time before partition. “With the emergence of the 2 new Loyalist parties – can Liz envisage trying to establish rapport? …You are looking at Britain, but the problem is in your back yard”. She remembers Gerry Fitt trying to unite the Catholic and Protestant working class.
Liz Groves: She maintained that partition was the cause of the present Troubles. As for working together, the ordinary working class Protestant has no problem working with her community. The problem is not always with the ordinary working class on the street, she said. “The working class have been constantly divided by politics – politics which didn’t suit them but which suited people’s careers… …Now they’ve come into the Catholic community and we go into their’s, they’ve attended all of our recent police conferences, both in Belfast and in Derry”. She mentioned the recent leak of the Framework document – the Unionist politicians were “screaming hysteria”, got fears going – and the UDP vote collapsed in the by-election. Career politicians are keeping working classes separate, she said.
Joan O’Connor: Wouldn’t agree entirely that problem was in “our own back yard”. SF were told British Govt would respond with imagination – yet one party to the conflict has no ceasefire, i.e. the British army. The issue at the end of the day is not between unionist and nationalist – the issue is the British Government, she said. No initiative has come from the British Government, she said – initiatives always came from nationalist Ireland. “The Unionists are a block, and a bigger block because of the unionist veto.”
“Where is the commitment to peace? There have been some changes, but not enough. For example, the prisoners – the British Govt has hardened its stance. There is no imagination or generosity … If the peace process fails, it will be quite clear that the single factor is the British Government.”
Q. 2 Anne Nolan (Slane) She had lived some time in England – no church school is fully funded in England either, she said.
Re: Punishment beatings: Wonders if SF would like to condemn punishment beatings. “There have been 42 in nationalist areas since September. We hear SF talk about the RUC and army, but it is hard to take that people are doing this to their own. Would SF condemn this publicly? This would help.”
She mentioned the case of Malachy Clarke (16), who committed suicide after punishment beating and subsequent harassment. [The father of Malachy Clarke was interviewed on the local radio that morning]
Liz: She knew the family in question. He was the son of a good friend of hers in the Irish language movement. The media made a lot out of it – and “it has been twisted by the media. The father tried to retract his story, but was unable to do it. ” She said the boy was part of a gang who had terrorised the community for 3 years under the influence of drugs. The beating came as a result of his beating up a woman – it was an inter-family beating, she said, and it suited his father to give the story to the media. “When the father tried to contact the media to retract the story, none of them would carry it.”
Liz said she can’t answer for SF, but she lives in an area where 2% of the population of young people get involved in drugs and joy-riding and hold the community to ransom. She said the community can’t get funding because it’s seen as a high-risk area. “We must understand about policing in N.I. – it was not so simple. When people in my community ring the police to report, say, a stolen car, they don’t react, and … there grew up a lot of hype, so much hype that the young boy’s father was again on the radio this morning talking about the punishment beatings. It still hasn’t sunk through to him that it wasn’t SF or the IRA who beat him; it was people from within his own circle who beat him and the wee boy was high on drugs, according to his friends.”
She said that sometimes communities get frustrated with it – sometimes on Friday and Saturday nights there could be 17 or 18 cars being driven up and down the Glen Road like Le Mans race track and being smashed and the RUC don’t react, she said.
Francie Molloy: Re punishment beatings – he said that anti-social behaviour is not confined to Belfast. Every time these young people have been lifted by the RUC, the RUC are more interested in getting them to inform. We must look at the broader issue, he said. “Republicans are always labelled as carrying out these activities. Many are family feuds. What alternatives had the nationalist community got? ”
Questioner: Offenders are surely entitled to justice. These beatings are barbaric. Are you saying they were all family feuds?
Liz Groves: She admits the beatings are barbaric and wrong. Done by community when frustrated. High-risk area – “many people are angry and try and take the law into their own hands”.
Questioner: She is living in an area where there is quite a lot of “anti-social” activity, yet her community don’t believe they have the right to go and beat up the young people involved.
Q. 3. A major initiative had been made by nationalists – people can sit down in atmosphere where no one is being killed. We are much more likely to sit down without violence. The principal people whose minds must be changed are the people in the North, he said. Most people in the South are nationalists but are a different form of nationalists. “They want peaceful co-existence.” Chief people who must discuss their differences are unionists and nationalists in the North.
Q. 4.: [Policing and accommodation with unionists]: What would SF believe is proper policing in N.I.? About 1 m people want to be British. Over 0.5m want links with 26 counties. How to accommodate both of these? How do SF envision accommodating the unionists?
Joan O’Connor: “I Would like to go back to the question on punishment beatings first – Sinn Fein do not support punishment beatings, but I understand why they are happening. The reason they are continuing is because the majority have no faith in the police force .. If you really want to see an end to them, as we all do, then you must write to the British Govt and say you want the RUC disbanded.”
“SF are looking for the disbandment of the RUC. There must be an unarmed community police force – accountable, “brought from the community to police the community.”
Re 1m unionists – She doesn’t argue that unionists don’t have a major part to play, but the British Govt. claims jurisdiction. What is needed is all-party talks. “This involves the British and Dublin Governments and all the parties sitting down and engaging in dialogue.”
The Unionist veto keeps the position in place …John Major reassured the unionists. “We will keep you in power”.
“SF believe we can come to an all-Ireland settlement – involving all parties to the conflict, where rights of all must be enshrined. One minority in Irish society cannot veto political progress on this island”
Q 5: Is the bottom line the withdrawal of Britain?
Francie Molloy: “Yes, this is the bottom line. We want to see the British Govt. saying to the unionist community – “you have to look at the day when you will sit down with the rest of Ireland”. Sinn Fein will come up with proposals. There could be an assembly in the 6 counties. linked to the 26 counties. There must be an Irish link or dimension. We need to set in plan the all-Ireland institutions.”
Q. 6: British identity: Sinn Fein still do not seem to understand the question of British identity. “For too long, nationalists were not allowed to express their Irish identity and aspirations. If there is to be parity of esteem, how would SF envisage accommodating the British dimension, the British link, aspired to by Unionists, in the SF vision of a new Ireland? By pushing too fast on political matters, by demanding British withdrawal, isn’t there a danger that politicians like SF may themselves be jeopardising the peace process and the chances of achieving lasting peace on this island? ”
Francie Molloy: He would envisage that the Unionist people, who feel British at the moment, might continue on some form of identification with the British Government, for as long as they wish – “You know, the like of people holding a British Passport” etc. He said the questioner ignores the fact that the peace process to date has been pushed by SF. The IRA ceasefire was the key point that brought it all to position – the importance of this cannot be underestimated. “I’m Irish – I live in Co. Tyrone ..one of the counties that voted to be part of the Republic of Ireland. That right was denied us by a British Government…So I think to actually start to turn back that the blame now rests with us…that we should accept what the British imposed on us…I have every right to be Irish and I intend to be so, and if that means me fighting for my rights as an Irish citizen, then, by all means that’s what people have to do.”
“The reasons why violence started was that the British Government, the Stormont administration, couldn’t respond to very simple basic rights…which nobody else was being denied except one section of the community in the North.”
“So, yes, I believe you can have various aspects and aspirations within an all-Ireland, and I do believe that if the people of Ireland as a whole, sat down, then we can recognise the Unionist tradition…we can guarantee their rights, their culture and their values. ….We all have to move into the situation where we can all actually sit down at the same table, because it has to be fear of change that stops people sitting down with other people, because talking doesn’t harm anybody.”
Joan O’Connor: “I find it very difficult, as a Sinn Fein representative, being called a politician at this stage, after so many years of being excluded.” From the very beginning, SF stressed first of all that they don’t “own” the struggle in the 6 counties or the 26 counties “that it isn’t ours and we don’t have all the answers to solve it”.
“..Sinn Fein stress the need for community involvement in all levels of the peace process.. we don’t want the situation, whatever happens down the road, of politicians, and mainly male politicians, sitting down deciding whatever type of future for the new Ireland.”
Re the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation, she said that SF had proposed that it would have sittings across the 32 counties where ordinary communities could give their views on the peace process. Also, the money and the aid that is promised “must go to the communities who are affected by 25 years, North and South, of economic discrimination.”
Q. 7: “There must be compromise on both sides. What will nationalists give? If the Tories fall, who would SF prefer to deal with – Conservative or Labour?”
Francie Molloy: – “We have very little to give, because we haven’t got anything. We can guarantee to recognise the feelings and rights of unionists. The 26 county state didn’t guarantee the religious rights of minority – it was not a glowing example.”
Re the Government that SF would like to deal with in Britain – it has often been said that “it will only be a strong Conservative government that will actually make a decision on Ireland…for too long, Labour governments have been looking over their shoulders to see what the Generals are going to say before they actually make a decision. In my dealings…I would have to say that I have found the Conservative MPs…much more constructive in the process”.
At the moment, Labour is “simply courting the Unionist votes and is prepared to jeopardise the Peace Process in order to actually get a majority in Westminster…they’re playing with people’s lives.”
Q. 8: “What kind of Ireland would you like?”
F. Molloy: He would like to see a 32-county Ireland. “But we also recognise there may be other mechanisms that would be brought into being to govern the island of Ireland, and provided it is the Irish people as a whole that are deciding what the future structure of government is, then I would be quite prepared to go along with that – provided it’s not being imposed from outside by anyone, whether it be the British or the Americans of anyone else.”
Q.9: (N.I. resident): Comments re partition – “Nationalist politicians also sat back – they were elected to Stormont but boycotted it. SF also boycotted both parliaments.”
As for the Civil rights campaign – “this was not strictly a nationalist campaign and was supported by many Unionists. The demands of the campaign were all met, in some way, before 1972.”
SF claims that the peace process was initiatied by Hume and Adams – Would they not agree that the initiative started in the community when ordinary people stood up and demanded an end to violence – “that it was this demand from people, North and South, and in Britain, which sparked off the peace process?”
Policing: Re the RUC – “why do SF insist on disbandment and not on reform? At the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation, which is actually a Nationalist forum, only Sinn Fein, which commands about 5% of the Irish vote, demanded disbandment, while the others called for reform.”
Joan O’Connor: Re the RUC – “How can you reform what is irreformable?” How to reform a police force that is 93% Protestant, based on the ethos of ensuring the second-class status of the nationalist community. She believed it would be possible to have a new police force, representative of both communities.
Re politicians boycotting the Stormont Assembly – “ the Sinn Fein position is that you cannot take part in what is basically a form of internal solution….The kind of talks we want to be involved in involve no pre-conditions …we believe it should be in the context of an all-Ireland agreement – all parties, all communities, being involved in discussion … The type of new Ireland we want is a democratic, socialist, feminist, pluralist, Ireland…….We are confident in our argument, and we’re confident in our politics and our beliefs. … Where is that confidence in the Unionist community? At the end of the day the only way we’ll move forward is by being involved in these all-Party talks and maybe then we can build an agreement. The alternative to that is a return to what we’ve had – a conflict for 25 years. I don’t think any of us want that.”
Liz Groves: Policing will be a major issue. Reform didn’t make the B Specials or the UDR more acceptable to the nationalist community. “Policing in the future, like government in the future, should be from the people and by the people, ” she said. The new force has got to be acceptable to both sides of the community. “It’s got to be seen as a police service and not as an armed force”.
Q.10: If there is procrastination, would you return to violence?
Francie Molloy: “No, I believe in fighting for rights – demonstrating and demanding rights. We must remove the issues that have caused the conflict. … If the situation resorts to violence, then it will be at the making of the British Government. If the British Government refuse, then the nationalist community, or the unionist community, if they feel betrayed, will return to conflict.” SF don’t want to see anyone more being killed.
Re the civil rights campaign, he recognised and appreciated the involvement of many Protestants, and right through to the present day, unfortunately, he said, they were isolated and were in a lot of danger sometimes.
Re republicans boycotting Stormont etc. – it would have been a massive contradiction for republicans to take the oath of allegiance to the Queen, he said.
John Clancy drew the proceedings to a close, and thanked the speakers:
“Tonight has been an introspective look – in looking back at the hurt that is very much alive in Northern Ireland and seeing how we can move forward in terms of a new view, a new vision, a new coming together…It was good tonight that we visited these areas and these hurts, because there are hurts, and there are the dead.”
He agreed with Sinn Fein suggestions about having local fora – this was one of the points made by the Meath Peace Group in their submission to the Forum [for Peace and Reconciliation]- there is a great determination within the “plain people of Ireland” to “sort out this legacy that we’ve inherited”, he said. “We have our gods and our martyrs…but we must look beyond that now – we must look to the future…where communities can live and co-exist and enhance the island of Ireland”, he concluded.
Meath Peace Group Report: March 1995
Compiled and edited by Julitta Clancy
Recorded by Anne Nolan
©Meath Peace Group
Contact names 1995: Julitta Clancy, Parsonstown, Batterstown, Co. Meath; Anne Nolan, Gernonstown, Slane, Co. Meath , Pauline Ryan, Woodlands, Navan, Philomena Boylan-Stewart, Longwood, Co. Meath, Felicity Cuthbert, Kilcloon, Co. Meath, Michael Kane, An Tobar, Ardbraccan, Navan, Co. Meath