Thursday, April 19, 2018

The desperate cry of a people calling out for help

Young Gaza footballers in Galway in 2016. 

They feel as though the wider world has forgotten about them.
They live in what has been described as the world’s biggest open-air prison camp, 1.8 million of them crammed into a tiny strip of just 140 square miles, and they want the world to remember that they exist – and that they are finding it almost impossible to breathe.
For 11 years now, they have been blocked into an area which is smaller than County Louth by fences, bullets, and occasional bombs.
Travel is an impossible dream for most of them, a life-saving hospital visit can become a logistical nightmare, and even the fishermen risk being murdered if they dare to venture just a few miles offshore.
Gaza is a humanitarian catastrophe in the making and yet when the local people protest, as they have done in their thousands over the past three weeks, they are demonised, dehumanised, and gunned down.
Shot at by snipers located behind a fortified fence, murdered, or hospitalised, for daring just to protest, even if they are unarmed.
If it happened closer to home, there would be an international outrage. The perpetrators would be hauled before the International Criminal Court for shooting unarmed protesters but, in Gaza, life just goes on.
Irish people can relate to the slaughter surrounding the Great Return March because the shooting of protesters at the border fence has been described as Gaza’s ‘Bloody Sunday’, the terrible day in Derry when the murder of 14 people by occupying soldiers traumatised a city and prolonged a terrible conflict for decades.
The Great Return March is a desperate plea by a desperate people to be heard, it’s also a courageous declaration that refugees who were run out of their homes and villages have a right to freedom, a right to return, and to forge out some sort of a life for themselves.
The vast majority of those crammed in behind the fence in Gaza are refugees from what is now the south of Israel. Some of them even have the keys of the houses their family members fled in terror seven decades ago.

An old Palestinian man holds the keys to
his former family home in what is now Israel

The Gaza Strip was designated as a place to imprison them after they were forced to flee their homes. Israeli soldiers and ‘settlers’ may have withdrawn from the tiny enclave 11 years ago, but every movement in and out of the strip by land, air, or sea is controlled by Egypt and Israel.
If you need life-changing treatment in Israel, you face harassment and humiliation at the Erez crossing, if you are even allowed through at all. You might have family members just a few miles away in Jerusalem or the West Bank, but visiting them has become an impossible dream.
And yet the tendency among many members of the Western media is to demonise and dehumanise these people who are crying out for some sort of a shot at having normal lives.
When unarmed protesters are shot by armed snipers, and hundreds end up in hospitals, the shootings are described as “clashes” as though they were some sort of exchange between equals.
In the first three weeks of the Great Return March, 34 people were killed and at least 1,500 were injured, rushed to hospitals which are already struggling to cope in the face of the 11 year siege.
In Gaza, life is anything but normal.                                        

When the talented young footballers from a soccer academy in Gaza came to Ireland in 2016, the complications surrounding the trip brought home to Irish people just how horrible life is for ordinary Palestinians on the strip.
The trip was delayed by three weeks, forcing a raft of cancellations of flights, accommodations, and games. The Israeli authorities decided at the last minute that the boys and their mentors from the Al-Helal academy were not allowed out of Gaza.
Irish activists, who had been planning the trip for three years, were crushed. A lot of organisation had gone into sourcing host families, clubs to play ‘friendly’ matches, and a schedule which would allow them to make the most of their ten days in Ireland.
Then, suddenly, almost three weeks after the trip was called off, the Israeli authorities allowed 14 of the 15 boys on the squad to travel, along with two of the seven adults who were supposed to accompany them to Ireland.
The only talented young footballer who was refused permission to travel, Karam Zaidan, was badly injured when Israel bombed Gaza in 2009.
The only reason anyone could come up with for his omission from the squad was concern among the Israeli authorities that his visible facial injuries would upset Irish people or cause them to ask too many questions.
Only two of the seven adults who were supposed to travel were allowed through the militarized Erez checkpoint which blocks Palestinians in Gaza off from the international airport at Tel Aviv and any connection with the outside world.
The two adults who did travel with the boys were visibly stressed by the trials and tribulations of having to look after the youngsters whose lives have been scarred by bombing attacks and the deprivation caused by the relentless 11 year siege.
No explanation was given when exit permits were denied to five of the coaches and child psychologists from the academy, which attracts the best young footballers from throughout Gaza.
And yet the boys represented Gaza, and Palestine, with so much pride. They won all six games on their Irish tour, outplaying Irish boys of the same age who were in some cases twice their size.

The Al-Helal boys represented Palestine with such pride
Photo courtesy of John Kelly, Co Clare

Footballers in Gaza are subjected to controls and restrictions which would be unthinkable to their counterparts in any country in Europe.
They are regularly harassed at checkpoints, prevented from travelling, and forced to cancel games. The Al-Helal ground in northern Gaza, where the boys play their home games, was bombed by Israel in 2012 and again in 2014.
And yet the children from Gaza have delighted Irish people when they were allowed to visit Ireland over the past two summers.
Those of us who met the boys were struck by how serious and proud they were about representing Palestine, how courteous they were to their hosts, and how keen they were to present a positive image to the world.
The children appreciated the trips all the more because they were acutely aware of how rare it is for a team from Gaza to represent the enclave in any part of the world.
Children in Gaza are among the most traumatised in the world. Many of the Al-Helal boys were emotionally scarred by the 2014 Israeli military assault on the Gaza Strip, in which more than 2,250 Palestinians, including 551 children, were killed.

Although the world has quickly moved on from that atrocity, most of us can remember the image of the four little boys playing on a beach – aged nine to 11 – who were killed by an Israeli missile that year.
Innocence and all hope for the future are lost when the simple act of playing hide ‘n’ seek on a beach is punishable by death.
And yet, repeatedly, we hear that the people of Gaza deserve their terrible fate, that they must be punished for voting for the appalling ‘terrorists’ of Hamas.
Two days after 30 unarmed people, including a journalist, were shot dead by his troops the Israeli Defence Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said there were “no innocent people” in the entire Gaza strip.
“There are no innocent people in the Gaza Strip,” Lieberman told Israel’s public radio. “Everyone’s connected to Hamas, everyone gets a salary from Hamas, and all the activists trying to challenge us and breach the border are Hamas military wing activists.”
Presumably, his comments include even the little 10 to 14 year old boys – much smaller and yet more skilful than their Irish counterparts – who captured the hearts and minds of Irish people with their skills, dignity, and innocence over the past two summers.
So when Dublin City Council votes to support the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, to pressurise Israel to end the occupation and obey international law, the councillors are not being racist or prejudiced.
They are supporting a people who are living under a horrible occupation.
When Galway City Council votes to call on the Irish Government to recognise the state of Palestine, they are not neglecting their duties to the people of their own city. Rather, they are trying to give a tiny glimmer of hope to desperate people living under occupation who are inspired by Ireland’s own struggle for self-determination.
The people of Gaza only want to remind us that they exist and, like everyone else, they are entitled to some sort of a decent life.
·         The gifted young footballers from the Al-Helal Football Academy are due to return to Ireland from July 28 to August. To find out more, to raise funds or awareness for the trip, or to help out in any way you can find details at

Thanks to Sean Ryan, John Kelly (Clare), and Andrew Downes ( for the photos. 

Ciaran Tierney is a journalist, blogger, and digital storyteller based in Galway, Ireland. Find him on Facebook at http;//

Marching in solidarity with the people of Gaza
on the streets of Galway. Photo by Ciaran Tierney.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Rallying the troops for a divisive campaign

Campaigners launch the 'Together for Yes' campaign in Galway
Photo courtesy of Andrew Downes at

Two meetings in the same city, but they felt like different worlds. As campaigning begins in earnest ahead of Ireland’s abortion referendum on May 25, the battle lines were drawn this week when both sides of the debate launched their respective campaigns at a series of regional events and rallies throughout the country.

Two very different events took place in Galway within 48 hours of each other which underlined the strong feelings in both camps and the intense battle expected to win the hearts and minds of undecided voters over the next seven weeks of canvassing.

Ireland has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe and the legislation, known as the Eighth Amendment, which acknowledges the equal right to life of the mother and unborn child was passed by referendum after a bitter, divisive debate in 1983.

Most of those who will vote on the issue next month would not have been around or entitled to vote 35 years ago.

It was notable at the launch of the ‘Together For Yes’ campaign in Galway on Tuesday night that many young women in their 20s and 30s were hugely engaged in a political issue for the first time.

Young women made up the majority of the 200-strong attendance at the Harbour Hotel in Galway city centre where a range of seekers called for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment in order to legalise abortion in Ireland for the first time.

For Orla O’Connor, Co-Director of Together for Yes, the key issue is to show people that abortion already is a reality in Ireland, but that women are being forced to travel to the UK or Europe for terminations or take illegal pills in secret at home.

Although canvassing had only just begun, she said that those who were in favour of change were receiving a very positive reception at the doorsteps.

“A really important part of our campaign is making sure that people know that women are already travelling to the UK every day or taking abortion pills at home, in secret, but they feel they cannot go to a doctor. It’s already a reality here,” she said.                     
Orla O'Connor speaking in Galway last week

“Our experience being out leafleting or canvassing is that a lot of people have changed their minds on this issue. People have seen that the Eighth Amendment did not work. It did not stop people from having abortions overseas and it also had devastating consequences when we think of, for example, the death of Savita Halappanavar here in Galway.”

Six years ago, Savita’s death at University Hospital Galway (UHG) made headlines all across the world and galvanised activists in the West of Ireland to seek a change in the law. The young Indian dentist is remembered at a candlelight vigil in the city on her anniversary every year.

Savita (31) died from blood poisoning at UHG after doctors refused to terminate her 17-week long pregnancy. When the distressed young woman requested a termination in the hospital, she was told: “This is a Catholic country.”

She had presented to the hospital with back pain in October 2012, was found to be miscarrying, and died of septicaemia a week later. The resultant outpouring of anger revived Ireland’s abortion debate.

“It’s important for us to make sure that people come out to vote. Our feeling is that people want change. This is affecting thousands of women each year and people have changed their minds about this issue. They see that this is necessary. We are confident, but we are not complacent,” said Ms O’Connor.

“We can see that this is an issue which has really captured young women, but it’s an issue that affects everyone. It affects men, it affects couples. It’s about making sure there is proper health care here in Ireland and about making sure that people don’t have to go through the trauma of having to travel.”

She said that the Marriage Equality referendum in 2015, when Ireland became the first country in the world to introduce same-sex marriage via a popular vote, showed how much Irish society had changed over the past 35 years.

Ms O’Connor said that the issue had galvanised young Irish people abroad so much that many were planning to fly home just to vote on May 25. 

Posing for a group photo at the 'Vote No' launch
Photo courtesy of Darius Ivan

Less than 48 hours after the Together for Yes launch, the Pro Life Campaign and Love Both project came together for a rally to mobilise support for a ‘no’ vote at the Leisureland conference hall across the city in Salthill.

Bus-loads of supporters from throughout the West of Ireland attended the event. It was notable that there were far more elderly people and families with young children in attendance at the ‘Stand Up for Life’ event.

There was also far more merchandise on show in the vast hall, including graphic images, posters, and sweatshirts, calling on people to vote no on May 25.

During an extremely well-choreographed event, everyone was asked to move to the front of the hall to take a large group photo to mark the launch of the ‘Vote No’ campaign in the West of Ireland.

There is a widespread perception out there that there is far more financial backing available to those who oppose repealing the Eighth Amendment, including funds from the United States, and this was very much in evidence at Leisureland.

One of the organisers, Katie Ascough, defined next month’s referendum as an “absolutely defining moment” in Irish history.

“I want you to think about the thousands of lives that will be protected when we win this referendum,” she said, to a huge round of applause. “There won’t be any second chances to save the Eighth Amendment. We must stand united.”

Another speaker, Bernadette Goulding, claimed the Irish Government had “awakened a sleeping giant” by attempting to repeal the country’s abortion ban.

“Women don’t talk about abortions, it doesn’t lend itself to conversation,” said Ms Goulding, who runs Rachel’s Vineyard retreats for women who have experienced painful post-abortion emotions.

“Those who are pro-abortion don’t acknowledge the grief women experience after having an abortion,” she claimed. “No country is perfect but we all need to be proud of Ireland’s abortion laws.

“Those who are ‘pro-choice’ believe that ‘pro-life’ people only care about the baby, but ‘pro-life’ people care about the mother and the baby. Many people are alive today because of the Eighth Amendment.”

She claimed that the birth of a child “heals the effect of rape” and called on people to stop rape from happening rather than kill an unborn child.

One of the organisers of the launch, Eilis Mulroy of Galway for Life, said anti-abortion campaigners were incredibly encouraged by the huge number of people who were enthusiastic about protecting Ireland’s ban on abortion.

“We want to encourage people to get out and canvass, to tell their families, their friends, their neighbours about the preciousness of the Eighth Amendment, to explain to them how many lives have been saved by the Eighth Amendment. There are people in this hall tonight who are alive because of the Eighth Amendment,” she said.

“Certainly, Ireland has changed since the 1980s, and there’s a lot of positive change, but not on this topic. I’m very encouraged that recent opinion polls have shown there is no majority in favour of repealing the Eighth Amendment. If you look at the numbers here tonight, you couldn’t but be confident about a ‘no’ vote on ballot day.”

Ms Mulroy said it was too easy to “stereotype” people, but it was clear from the huge gathering in the hall that a huge cross-section of Irish society was concerned by the prospect of having legalised abortion.

“I know many people who have been through an abortion and, for many of them, it wasn’t their own choice. It was the people around them. The challenge for us is to be the type of society that supports women,” she said.                                                      
A section of the crowd at the 'Vote No' launch

“Our view is that people should get online and inform themselves. People should inform themselves of what’s involved in this legislation, unrestricted abortion, which is a horrendous proposal of ‘social’ abortion.”

When it was put to her that many people would have a difficulty with the term ‘social’ abortion, given the trauma involved, she said that every abortion was a tragedy and claimed that one in five pregnancies in Britain ends in a termination.

“Once you introduce a liberal or unrestricted regime, it becomes socially acceptable in the same way as the smoking ban. You can probably remember being able to smoke on an airplane, but now it’s socially not acceptable, because laws change behaviour. If you say that some people have less of a right to live than others, of course it’s going to make an impact,” she said.

“This proposal is for unrestricted abortion up to eight weeks. I think it’s really important that people are straight and that the facts are out there. We would encourage everyone to be respectful of each other. It’s important that the science and the truth about ‘abortion culture’ and how it harms babies needs to be articulated, and given fair treatment in the media debates.”

An intense period of campaigning is now underway to win over undecided voters ahead of the referendum on May 25.

Ultimately, the real life testimonies of women across Ireland could be pivotal in terms of deciding the outcome of the vote.
Arlette Lyons, of TFMR, spoke movingly of having to go
to the UK after a traumatic diagnosis. Photo by Andrew Downes

On Tuesday night, Arlette Lyons of a group called Terminations For Medical Reasons (TFMR) spoke of her personal trauma when she was forced to travel to England for an abortion after being diagnosed with a case of fatal foetal abnormality six years ago.

“We were expecting our third baby when we found out she had a fatal condition at 12 weeks,” said Ms Lyons. “I expected something to be done there and then, but I was told that there was nothing that could be done for me and my family here in Ireland.

“To be given the news that my baby was going to die and then to be told that the only options were to go to the UK or to go full term, I actually thought I was the only one this had ever happened to. The staff at Liverpool Women’s Hospital were so understanding, they had seen Irish couples in this situation so many times.

“I travelled back home by boat, because I could not face the ‘plane. I did not want to fly after having my termination. I felt travelling by boat was less public. When I got back to Ireland, an anger just came over me. That’s why I just went public. It was unjust, what happened to me. Since then, I came together with other women to form TFMR and at least 400 families have been in contact over the past six years.

“The only way women and couples with fatal foetal abnormalities can receive the help they need is to repeal the Eighth Amendment. My story could be anybody’s story, even though I hope it does not happen to anyone else. We need to stop punishing tragedy.”

Ciaran Tierney is a journalist, blogger, and digital storyteller, based in Galway, Ireland. Find him on Facebook at