Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Brexit border implications never even entered some minds

Reviving memories of troubled times at the Irish border last year

In recent weeks, as Britain has hurtled towards a seemingly uncertain Brexit, many politicians in the United Kingdom have shown little or no interest in recent Irish history - or memory of the anguish of those who lived through 30 years of conflict.

Unlike those living along the 300 mile Irish border, who are waking up with increasing alarm as to the reality of what a “hard Brexit” actually means with every passing day.

People remember Bloody Sunday.

They might not have been in Derry on that terrible January afternoon, but they remember the black flags flying from houses all across the country, the sense of hopelessness, anger, and despair.

Bad enough that 14 innocent people were gunned down, but when the atrocity was committed by the State – the very forces who were supposed to protect ordinary people – the sense of isolation, of a city under siege, was palpable throughout the nationalist areas of Northern Ireland.

And the IRA described the atrocity as the greatest recruitment drive they could have hoped for in the province’s second city. Young men were queuing up to join.

Atrocities such as Bloody Sunday prolonged The Troubles

People remember Ballymurphy in Belfast, 1971.

Even though they may not have been told about it at the time.

Six months before the slaughter of innocents in Derry, British soldiers ran amok and massacred 11 people in two days.

Only nobody knew the full extent of the massacre, until a brave British TV crew put all the pieces together for a Channel 4 documentary 47 years later.

The inquests into those shootings, set to take place this coming November, will open up old wounds. How in the late 20th century the slaying of innocent people in their own housing estate could be spun into a grotesque parody of the truth.

The devastation of the Miami Showband Massacre.
Photo courtesy of Stephen Travers. 

People remember the Miami Showband massacre.

Talented young musicians, Catholic and Protestant, travelling home across the border after a wonderful gig in Co Down. Their music brought communities together at a time of too much polarisation and division.

Three men were hauled out of a van, gunned down at the side of a lonely road, after an attempt to frame them with a bomb. Their band mates left to die.

Collusion? That attack was all about the Irish border. It would have been so much easier to persuade the Irish Gardai to ramp up security at the 300 mile long border if people believed young musicians were driving around with bombs in the dead of night.

To this day, the survivors of that 1975 atrocity have never got justice or the sense of peace which comes with finding out the truth.

People of a certain vintage remember . . . and this week they have been choking on their breakfasts as Tory Brexiteers tell them that Ireland would be better off rejoining the United Kingdom and leaving the European Union.

“Re-joining the UK is the only way to reunite Ireland and the British Isles. Brexit makes Irish EU membership less logical,” tweeted one of them this week.

Irish people may have reservations about the growing power and bureaucracy of the European Union, but you would be hard pressed to find too many people who would countenance a new political union with the country which colonised our island from 1169 to 1921.

Talk of rejoining the old colonial power would be hilarious if it was not such a tragedy, if people did not worry that the Brexit drama was playing with people’s lives.

A mural in Belfast recalling one of the worst atrocities of 'The Troubles'
15 people - including two children - were killed at McGurk's Bar

Many British Brexiteers have no idea regarding the impact their words and deeds are having or the impact the return of border posts and checkpoints would have on people all along the 300 mile frontier.

In less than six months, Britain is due to have left the European Union and, already, the Irish Government has begun recruiting 450 customs and veterinary inspectors.

British politicians like Jacob Rees Mogg, Boris Johnson, and Nigel Farage do not seem to give a damn about the impact a “hard border” will have on ordinary people.

Instead, they rail against the EU for daring to contemplate splitting up the UK, seemingly with no memories of the damage caused to communities along the 300 mile long Irish border by the partition of Ireland.

Try telling a person who lives in Newry and works in Dundalk about what life will be like if he or she had to face border checkpoints every day.

Try telling young people living in Inishowen in Co Donegal that a trip to the cinema or a night club in Derry is set to become a logistical late night nightmare. After all, the border was never a ‘”real” border – it cut places such as Derry and Strabane off from much of their natural hinterlands.

Northern Ireland was created from six of Ulster’s nine counties in order to have an artificial two-thirds Unionist majority and the experience of being treated as second class citizens led the nationalist minority to rise up in search of civil rights in the late 1960s.

Of course, the British were not solely responsible for three decades of ‘The Troubles’. Far from it, in fact.

You only have to list the names of places – Omagh, Enniskillen, Manchester, Warrigton, Guildford, Mullaghmore, Kingsmill – to recall some of the terrible atrocities committed by the IRA in the name of Irish “freedom”.

Belfast's famous murals are now seen as a tourist attraction

But the British state played a huge part in creating the conditions which led to The Troubles and prolonged the violence by committing atrocities of its own.

Without Bloody Sunday, Ballymurphy, and the internment of young Catholic men, would so many young people have joined the IRA?

Would the conflict have gone on for so long?

And how can the concerns of people who have genuine fears of a return to violence, the hated border posts giving dissident republicans the motive they require, be dismissed so lightly?

People remember border checkpoints, watchtowers, and aggressive searches from gun-toting soldiers every time they popped across the road to a neighbouring town or village.

And they wonder if those awful scenes will return.

Belfast is now a fantastic place to visit, thanks to a fragile peace process.
The Titanic Quarter is now a 'must see' for tourists from all over the world

They remember the sense of elation which followed the Good Friday Agreement, the first sightings of tourists on the streets of Belfast, and how deserted those streets used to be after 7pm in the bad old days.

Not only did that historic vote bring about peace, it gave the unionists of the north a cast iron guarantee that they will never be steamrolled into a United Ireland against their will. It showed that, for all our differences, ordinary Irish people value peace and compromise over ancient tribal divisions.

Now the murals on the Belfast walls teach tourists about a bygone era.

Now people flock to the wonderful Titanic Belfast, because it's one of the most amazing attractions in Europe. Tourists in Belfast . . . what a strange concept that would have been three decades ago!

People have had 20 years of a fragile peace now and they cannot believe how quick jingoistic politicians in London are to dismiss their concerns.

Such as Jacob Rees Mogg MP, who said there was no need for him to visit the Irish border in order for him to understand it (although he was shamed into finally doing so in July).

Or his Conservative party colleague Boris Johnson, who pointed out that there was no border between two suburbs of London as some sort of a valid contribution to the “hard Brexit” debate.

Or Nigel Farage, of UKIP, who called on the Irish people to leave Europe when he visited Dublin in February of this year. He accused the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, of “taking Brussels’ side against Britain”, which was not “in the best interest of his country”.

Not for them concerns that 56% of the people of Northern Ireland voted against leaving the EU, that 3,600 people died in the conflict, or that peace remains fragile in a place in which two communities largely live their lives apart from each other, in terms of schooling, housing, or even where they socialise or work.

Twenty years after the Good Friday Agreement brought a welcome peace, transforming life in the North completely, 90% of the housing estates are still segregated; and nationalist and loyalist communities are divided by 90 “peace walls”.

The European Union underpinned the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which is tied into 142 areas of north-south co-operation, and yet blustering Brexiteers are claiming that the EU should have no role in the future of Northern Ireland.

It’s not nice to realise that you are seen as peripheral, that your concerns don’t matter in the corridors of power in London.

People in Northern Ireland look around now and see a place brimful of hope, of normal life, with tourists enjoying themselves from all over the world, and wonder how anyone could even countenance a return to a “hard border” and the hated signs of division they were sure they had left behind.

And all because some people in Britain were so keen to break their ties with Europe that the implications for Ireland’s border communities never even entered their minds when they voted for Brexit two years ago.

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

Monday, September 17, 2018

Call off the blimp!

The Donald Trump 'blimp' is not coming to Ireland after all 

Let’s call off the blimp, because Mr President is not coming after all.

Well, not yet, at any rate!

It has been amazing to hear so many people in Ireland express regret that President Trump has postponed (or cancelled) his Irish visit this coming November.

They were so fired up that many said they were looking forward to joining a political protest for the first time.

Irish protesters had to reach out to their counterparts in the UK, who turned out in their thousands to make the President feel so unwelcome when he visited London back in July.

Sorry, they said, we won’t need to ship the giant orange “baby blimp” to Ireland after all!

People in Dublin were really looking forward to the sight of a giant baby Donald in a nappy floating across the skyline.

And a hugely successful crowdfunding campaign had already covered the cost of bringing over the six metre high blimp within days of being set up.

Everyone, it seemed, wanted to be part of mass protests against the US President. The sense of anti-climax was palpable as soon as the White House announced that he had postponed his travel plans.

The leaders of two opposition parties, Labour and the Greens, had come  together to announce plans for a joint rally for “democracy, decency, and international solidarity” in Dublin.

As though such concepts, so alien to Mr Trump, were plentiful across the political spectrum here in Ireland.

Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin went as far as to say that President Trump was “no friend of democracy or human rights”.

Mr Howlin said it was important to stand up to Trump on issues such as climate change, the treatment of migrant and asylum-seekers, spending on arms, and the slashing of aid budgets.

In Galway, the local anti-racism group wanted hundreds of people to gather to spell out the words “Feck off Trump” (with a little Irish humour, from the ‘Father Ted’ TV series) on a beach.

In much different times, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy addressed 50,000 people in Eyre Square and the city authorities renamed it as Kennedy Park in his honour.

We are unlikely to see a ‘Trump Park’ in Galway any time in this millennium.

So many Irish people wanted to protest against Trump in November

So many people are disappointed that the street protests are off. They wanted to convey a firm message that Trump’s policies have no place in a modern, prosperous, outward-looking Ireland.

They want to reject the anti-immigrant rhetoric on an island where emigration provided the only refuge for the afflicted through much of the 19th and 20th centuries.

The street protests are off . . . as though there was nothing to protest about closer to home.

The economy might be in recovery, but the recovery does not seem to have reached so many Irish people who are struggling to keep a roof over their heads.

Last week, masked thugs – protected by masked Gardai – used heavy-handed tactics to evict homelessness campaigners from an empty building in Dublin.

Marcing in solidarity with homelessness campaigners
in Galway city centre last week

The sight of masked policemen with no identification on their uniforms caused consternation at a time when there are almost 10,000 people living in emergency accommodation across Ireland.

And now our Minister for Justice says he would support moves to criminalise the photographing of Gardai as they carry out their duties.

Such a move would be an attack on press freedom and should lead to questions as to what the Gardai have to hide.

Would that mean banning photos of public events such as GAA games or the annual Macnas Parade?

The last time I checked such measures were only being considered in states such as Israel, where an oppressive occupation force has a vested interest in covering up its crimes in the West Bank.

Given recent Irish history, we don’t have to cross the Atlantic in search of police forces who abuse their power. In fact the filming of protests has helped to prevent injustice from occurring.

So, instead of worrying about Trump, perhaps we should be looking at how power is being abused much closer to home.

Children sleeping in a Garda Station in Dublin

Last month, a photo of homeless children sleeping in a Garda Station went viral. The youngsters had to sleep on hard chairs in the police station because there was nowhere else for them to go.

The distraught mother who took that photo could soon be guilty of a crime.

Last week, a photo of a sick and distressed 92-year old woman sitting on a chair in a public hospital Emergency Department went viral.

Gladys Cummins posted the photo on Facebook out of frustration and despair. Her mother did not even have a trolley, as she spent 25 hours sitting on that chair.

Two months ago, I saw a 93-year old family member spent 48 hours on a trolley in the ED Department in Galway. The unacceptable has become acceptable and lengthy waiting lists in our public hospitals have become the new norm.

In a supposedly “socialised” health service – compared to the US at any rate – the old and the weak are being forced to spend days lying in corridors in overcrowded facilities.

But Irish people are not taking to the streets to protest about our health crisis.

In June, Irish people became outraged by the images of child migrants on the US-Mexico border crying in distress after being separated from their families. They were outraged by Trump.

Yet few of them have much awareness of the hardships endured by those who spend up to seven or eight years in Ireland’s own Direct Provision system.

A protest against Direct Provision in Dublin

About 5,000 asylum-seekers are detained at 31 accommodation centres without permission to work, or even to cook for their children. Among them are 2,000 children, growing up in highly inappropriate shared spaces with adults from a variety of countries.

Direct Provision centres have been described as the Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes of our times. Some even see them as a "time bomb" for future problems to come.

We have British politicians steamrolling headlong towards Brexit, with little or no awareness that their dangerous language is threatening the peace process which transformed life in Northern Ireland over the past 20 years.

We have the families of victims of loyalist collusion who are shocked that a former member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary is now at the helm of the Irish Gardai.

They believe he has questions to ask about their long search for justice for atrocities such as the Miami Showband Massacre and the Dublin and Monaghan bombings.

We rant against Trump for his sexism, at a time when Irish society has been convulsed by a cervical smear test scandal in which the Irish Government treated Irish women appallingly this year.

A lot of Irish people are disappointed that they won’t get a chance to protest against President Trump, but let’s not pretend that we don’t have some pressing problems much closer to home.

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Ciaran Tierney is a journalist, blogger, and digital storyteller, based in Galway, Ireland. Find him at http://ciarantierney.com/

Monday, September 10, 2018

Just another Sunday afternoon at Shannon

The monthly peace vigil at Shannon Airport 

It’s just an ordinary Sunday afternoon at Shannon Airport.

Funny how, in an upside-down world, the small group of peace activists waving flags at a roundabout are made to feel like criminals while the police force ‘protects’ members of the most powerful military in the world . . .  just a few metres down the road.

It’s almost a pantomime at this stage, as everyone knows his or her role.

On the first Sunday of every month, the peace activists descend upon the roundabout on the fringes of the civilian airport.

They unfurl their banners and flags, and commuters, bus-drivers, or cars containing families honk their horns in support as they drive by in sunshine, hail, wind, rain or snow.

It’s some record. They haven’t missed a first Sunday of the month for over a decade now and, indeed, the protests have been going on for a lot longer.

They wish they didn’t have to meet at the roundabout, that they could find something better to do on a Sunday afternoon. But every month they feel a need to return.

One man makes the round trip from Donegal, it takes him ten hours by bus. Another comes all the way from Dundalk. He feels he has to make the effort.

Others have less of a journey. Former Irish Army man Edward Horgan and academic John Lannon, who never seem to miss a monthly Sunday gathering, make the short trip out from Limerick City.
Quite a few drive down from Galway.

Horgan and Lannon are the two main men behind Shannonwatch, the group of peace activists who protest at the airport every month.

Their mission is simple, to highlight the fact that a ‘neutral’ country is continuing to support the US war machine, to raise awareness, and to remind the Irish Government and international community that this civilian airport on the west coast of Ireland could be facilitating war crimes.

For them, Irish neutrality actually means something. With talk of a European ‘super army’ on the horizon and President Donald Trump set to visit in November, their monthly protest seems as timely and relevant as when they began to assemble outside Shannon over ten years ago.

Even today, as I write this, the National Security Advisor to Donald Trump has attempted to discredit the International Criminal Court. He has described the internationally recognised court as "illegitimate" and "dead" in the eyes of the superpower which uses Shannon every day.

It's pretty easy to discredit a court if you feel you have something to hide or you are in breach of international law.

A cargo plane contracted to the US military at Shannon

They know the routine.

The activists stand at the roundabout. A young lady sees the irony when she pops into the new Starbucks nearby to pick up a coffee. Drivers and their families honk their cars in support. And the Gardai maintain a safe distance, sometimes driving up close, though, to monitor the activists and their parked cars.

There are rarely confrontations, but the Gardai maintain a visible presence. After all, some of these activists have undertaken direct action – breaking through the airport’s perimeter fence in order to try to inspect the US military or chartered civilian planes. The protest starts at 2pm and finishes within an hour.

It’s a small but clear reminder that not every Irish person is happy with the fact that US troops land in Shannon on their way to and from their wars in the Middle East.

This month’s protest could not have been more timely. During the one hour vigil at the airport, two Omni Air planes on contract to the US military landed at Shannon.

Shannonwatch activists, who track the military flights in and out of the airport, told me that one of the planes was coming from a NATO base in the north of Norway. The other was on its way to the US from Kuwait.

They said they had no idea whether there were up to 600 troops or cargo on board, and they were pretty sure that the Irish authorities had no idea either.

Horgan, who has a camera with a powerful lens, invited me to join him at the perimeter fence. He focused his camera on the two planes, under the watchful eyes of plain clothes Gardai who pulled up alongside him as he took his photos.

The peace vigils at Shannon have gone on for over ten years

Now in his late 70s, with a respected military background, he told me he was banned from flying from Shannon. It’s a bit of an inconvenience, given that he lives just down the road in Limerick.

But he made headlines across the globe when he decided to inspect a US military plane as he was about to board a Ryanair flight to London. Ed does not believe in mellowing with old age as he is disgusted that nobody in Ireland has a clue about who or what is being carried on the military planes at Shannon.

Horgan took legal action against the Irish state in 2003, on the basis that the US military’s use of Shannon violated Ireland’s status as a neutral country.

He finds it strange to be under scrutiny from the Gardai every time he brings his camera along to his local airport, but he’s determined to continue annoying those in power.

To him, the criminals are inside the airport fence, not those trying to document their movements from the outside.

As the wind howled around us, Lannon told me that the Shannonwatch people had no intention of giving up their monthly protests.

They will be back at Shannon next month and they hope to organise a huge demonstration if, as expected, President Trump used the airport when he visits Ireland, and nearby Doonbeg in particular, in November.

“Two planes arrived here today which have been contracted out to the US military. One of them has just arrived in from a military base in northern Norway. We believe it may have been involved in some NATO exercises,” he tells me.

“We track these planes as best we can on websites. We photograph them. These are military planes. We have our own way of tracking these planes. It’s not just with cameras, we use software to track them. We believe they are involved in NATO exercises even though Leo Varadkar and all our Ministers promise us that the planes that land here have nothing to do with NATO.”

Shannon has served as a refuelling stop for warplanes and protests have taken place there ever since President George W. Bush began his ‘war on terror’ with the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

Most of the military flights since then have been to or from countries in the Middle East, including Iraq and Syria.

Ed Horgan holding a photo of a Syrian girl murdered in
a US bombing last year

A decade ago, concerns were raised that Shannon was used for rendition or torture flights by the CIA.

In 2006, the Irish Independent reported that a cargo playing carrying Apache helicopters had landed in Shannon on its way to Israel.

In 2008, Irish activists became suspicious about a C-130 Hercules plane, normally based in Little Rock, Arkansas. They linked it to white phosphorous, a weapon known to cause horrific burns, which originated in Arkansas and was used in the bombing of Gaza.

Given Irish people’s traditional support for and empathy with the people of Palestine, such claims would alarm many Irish people in a supposedly ‘neutral’ country.

Few Irish people want to be associated in any way with war crimes.

But of course the peace activists have no proof.

Nobody does, because no inspections have ever been carried out on US military or contracted planes during their stopovers at Shannon.

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Ciaran Tierney is a journalist, blogger, and digital storyteller, based in Galway, Ireland. He's available for hire!

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