Friday, December 14, 2018

A letter from America

Irish Current Affairs Blog of the Year 2018

Senator Frances Black with supporters in Dublin.

Dear --------------,

I understand that in recent days the Fianna Fail party has stated its intention to support the Control of Economic Activity (Occupied Territories) Bill 2018 when it comes up for a vote in the Seanad. I would urge you and your party to reconsider your support for the bill and work to prevent this bill from passing.

In today’s uncertain times it is critical that countries and leaders interested in facilitating a lasting peace amongst Israelis and Palestinians not serve to empower the most radical, who have no interest in seeking peace.

Senator Frances Black’s legislation does just that by undercutting Palestinians truly interested in peace and empowering Hamas terrorists and recalcitrant Palestinians who refuse even to approach negotiations.

If you and the members of Fianna Fail truly want to see lasting peace in the Middle East I would urge you to withdraw your support for this bill and call for a return to the negotiating table.

Thank you for your consideration of this important matter.

Congressman Peter King. 

Senator Frances Black with the Palestinian Ambassdor to Ireland
during a talk in Co Galway earlier this year. 

It’s the arrogance that’s most striking.

This idea that a US Congressman knows better than an Irish politician about the measures required to bring lasting peace to the Middle East.

Even though the Irish politician who received this letter may actually have visited Israel and Palestine, and witnessed a terrible injustice with his own eyes.

Sometimes, when you look at the issues creating the headlines, it’s just as informative to examine those which aren’t.

Two weeks ago, a source within the Fianna Fail party provided me with an exact transcript of the above letter.

It was sent by a senior Irish-American Congressman, with a huge profile here in Ireland, in a bid to persuade his party to withdraw its support for the Control of Economic Activity (Occupied Territories) Bill.

To their credit, Fianna Fail supported Senator Frances Black’s bill last week, despite pressure from US Republicans and ‘informal’ visits from members of staff at the US Embassy in Dublin.

In many ways, they surprised us all.

But senior party figures visited the West Bank last July and saw for themselves the devastating impact the occupation and the settlements have had on Palestinian lives.

I expected the letter from Congressman Peter King, even though it was five months old, to cause a bit of a scandal.

Congressman Peter King wrote a letter to Fianna Fail

Here we had evidence of US interference in Irish politics, from a Congressman who is closely linked to US President Donald Trump and his controversial executive order to ban people from seven mainly Muslim countries from travelling to the US last year.

Imagine the controversy, for example, if a Russian member of parliament had lobbied a senior American politician in such a fashion in relation to US foreign policy.

Apart from extensive coverage in one Sunday newspaper, this letter was largely ignored by the media in Ireland.

I wrote about it for both Electronic Intifada, the leading Palestinian website in English in the world, and Irish Central, which mainly caters for an Irish-American readership in the United States.

But it hardly merited a paragraph of coverage here in Ireland.

Senators in Dublin passed the legislation to ban the sale of goods or services from the settlements last week, with little or no coverage of this international dimension to the story.

If anything, Congressman King’s letter is just ludicrous.

The idea that Trocaire or Christain Aid Ireland, who support Senator Black’s bill, would “empower Hamas terrorists” is quite simply bizarre to anyone who knows anything about these respected NGOs who operate in a number of countries.

With Shawan Jabarin from the West Bank earlier this year.
He won the Human Rights Prize of the French Republic this week.

There is absolutely no connection to Hamas in Senator Black’s bill.

Does it even need to be said?

It would ban trade with goods and services from beyond the internationally recognised 1967 border, where more than 500,000 Israelis live in settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The letter underlines the hypocrisy and double standards of Congressman King himself, who faced intense criticism in the 1990s for his attempts to bring Sinn Fein in from the cold.

Although he suggests that Hamas should be isolated, King encouraged dialogue with Irish republicans at a time when the British government was refusing to deal with them.

Senator Black told me last week that she condemned all violence.

It felt ridiculous even having to ask her. This is a woman who has dedicated her life to helping others, to entertaining people through music and song, through working as a counsellor, and inspiring people to deal with addiction issues.

In her short time in politics, she has been a shining example to others, by bringing varied groups together to find common cause. People are genuinely shocked that she received the cross-party support required to get her bill through the Seanad, bringing the likes of Sinn Fein, Fianna Fail, and the Labour Party together.

Indeed, the progress of this bill through the upper house could set a template for others.

No wonder politicians in Israel and the US are uncomfortable, because other countries are watching what's happening in Ireland - just as we led the way in the global campaign against Apartheid South Africa.

Senator Black pressed ahead with this bill because she wanted to respond to the call of civil society in Palestine for international solidarity, for measures to bring hope in the face of a brutal occupation which has now gone on for 51 years.

Both the UN and the EU consider the settlements to be illegal, but what exactly have they done in solidarity with the people who have had their land stolen by force over the past five decades?

What have they done for the villagers of the West Bank whose children have been terrorised by dawn raids for so long? For those who face degrading military checkpoints if they want to go to work or who are told they can only walk on one side of a street in Hebron?

In the last two days, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that the Government will authorise thousands of settler homes, built illegally on the stolen Palestinian land. So much for moving on with a "peace process" which has been a pipe dream for the past four years, as the settlements prevent any real chance of a "two state" solution ever occurring.

This Irish bill can and will set a precedent for other countries across the globe and is due before the Dail in the New Year.

Because of the current make-up of the Dail, it will pass if it continues to attract the support of Fianna Fail.

So it is disappointing, but perhaps not surprising, that pressure from a US Congressman for Fianna Fail to change its stance did not merit more coverage in the Irish media.

Aren’t we all guilty of hypocrisy, though?                             

Ireland is supposedly a ‘neutral’ country and yet we have allowed hundreds of thousands of US troops to pass through Shannon Airport over the past 17 years.

Perhaps our politicians are less forthcoming with the truth than US President Donald Trump, at least when it comes to prioritising jobs and the economy over justice and human rights.

When pressed over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Trump said he would not allow Saudi involvement in a brutal murder interfere with €110 billion worth of arms sales.

Who cares about the killings of thousands of children in Yemen, or the hacking to death of a columnist for the Washington Post, when there are billions worth of deals to be made?

Unlike Trump, who makes it clear that arms deals with Riyadh are more important than human lives, our Irish politicians would prefer if these kinds of awkward questions were never even asked in the first place.

* Ciaran Tierney won the Irish Current Affairs and Politics Blog of the Year award at the Tramline, Dublin, last month. Find him on Facebook  or Twitter here. Visit his website here -

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Thursday, December 6, 2018

How could the Irish forget their own history?

Irish Current Affairs Blog of the Year 2018

The Great Famine: an appalling period in Irish history

How can we learn from history if we never even studied it in the first place?

How can we understand where we are today without reference points which will help us to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past?

With Brexit and the rise of populism, old animosities, mistrusts, and misunderstandings have risen again. And some people have shown an astounding ignorance of the troubled history between Ireland and its nearest neighbour.

Just over a year ago, Irish people were shocked by the reaction of TV viewers in the United Kingdom who showed that they really did not have a clue about the devastation the British Empire caused in Ireland.

British TV viewers jammed switchboards, and took to Twitter, to express dismay at the depiction of starving Irish people during the Great Famine. A period drama called ‘Victoria’, beamed into their sitting rooms on a Sunday night, was the first they ever heard of a disaster which claimed a million Irish lives and saw another two million emigrate to North America.

Many British TV viewers had never heard
of the Famine which took a million Irish lives

They were horrified to hear the Great Famine described as “the judgement of God” and an "effective mechanism for reducing surplus population” by the British civil servant whose job was to provide relief to the starving Irish.

Irish people need no introduction to the callousness of Lord Charles Trevelyan, because we teach our children history and he’s immortalised through the words of sports anthem ‘The Fields of Athenry’.

As hundreds of thousands died of starvation, Trevelyan persuaded the British Government to do nothing to halt mass evictions. As corn left the Irish ports for the ‘mainland’, he preferred to leave the fate of the dying peasants to the free market.

Most people in Britain had never heard of him, because Irish history is not taught in British schools.

And, just to prove that history can repeat itself, Tory MP Priti Patel said this week that warnings of food shortages in Ireland should have been seized upon by the British. She said her Government should been more firm, to force the Irish to drop the 'backstop' which has caused so much controversy during the Brexit debate in Britain.

She sees the possibility of food shortages in Ireland, a smaller country with a much more open economy than Britain's, as an opportunity for our former colonisers.

Such wilful - or deliberate - ignorance.

But let's not forget there are huge concerns that the same level of ignorance could spread to the Irish, as it is planned to remove History as a core subject in our secondary schools.

By making History optional, is it possible that Irish children will not even learn about the horror of the Great Famine and the impact it had on the psyche of our people?

In generations to come, could be we become as ignorant of our past as many people in the UK?

Here’s a few other things our young people need to be mindful of, while arrogant Tory Brexiteers are so quick dismiss concerns over a ‘hard’ Irish border and a potential return to ‘The Troubles’: 

The decline of the Irish language since 1800. Source:

Why don’t we speak Irish anymore? 

Imagine an Irish child growing up without any awareness of the Penal Laws and the impact they had on our native language and culture. Would they even question why we speak English and why Irish is largely confined to the remote western fringes of our island? Would they know about the ‘hedge’ schools which sprung up when Catholic people did not have a vote and their own language was banned from schools in Ireland?

Would they learn that the number of Irish speakers fell from four million in 1841 to just 680,000 in 1891? This shocking decline was all part of the process of colonisation. People were taught to mock and taunt native speakers, to see them as backwards, and they forget that hundreds of thousands of the impoverished Irish who landed on the east coast of America did not even speak English until they arrived in New York or Boston.

A mural in West Belfast recalls the fight for Irish freedom
Photo by Ciaran Tierney Digital Storyteller

Why is Ireland partitioned? 

It is almost hilarious to hear Unionists and British Tories proclaiming that the UK could never be divided, given that the partition of Ireland in 1922 led to a bloody Civil War and has led to bitter divides on both sides of the border to this day. Ask anyone in Derry or Tyrone if they are “less Irish” than people in Galway, and yet many of them faced discrimination in a sectarian state for decades.

Thankfully, the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) of 1998 brought an end to decades of conflict and discrimination against the Catholic minority. How could any Irish teenager understand the divisions which run through the island without some knowledge of 1609 and the Plantation of Ulster? 

The arrival of planters from Scotland and England changed the face, culture, and language of the northern province. The descendants of those settlers still consider themselves to be British today and the GFA respects that.

What ‘terrible beauty’ was born? 

The Easter Rising of 1916 was just one of a long litany of heroic failures as generations of Irish people struggled to break free of the British Empire. It was also seen as a stab in the back of the Empire, given that thousands upon thousands of Irish men were fighting on the same side as the British in World War One at the time.

It’s important to remember that the Irish rebels who rose up against their colonisers had little support from the ordinary people of Dublin in 1916. The city centre was destroyed and people were angry at the destruction. They abused the rebels as they were being taken away by their British captors.

But the execution of ten rebel leaders at Kilmainham Gaol showed ordinary Irish people the ruthlessness of the British justice system. They rose up against the colonisers. The rebels may have failed in the short-term, but, in the words of poet W.B. Yeats, a “terrible beauty” was born.

A cheeky depiction of modern Ireland

Who were the Black and Tans?

In 1919, Irish nationalists began a violent campaign against the British forces but, unlike three years earlier, they used guerrilla tactics such as ambushes and assassinations. Instead of taking over city centres, they would attack and disappear.  With the republican leaders such as Michael Collins and Eamon De Valera, who later fought against each other in a bloody Civil War, in hiding, the British decided to send in reinforcements.

The hated Black and Tans became known for their violence and vengeance, sometimes against innocent civilians, throughout the island. In 1920, they opened fire on the crowd at a football match in Croke Park, in what became known as the first Bloody Sunday. The gunfire was in response to Irish terrorist attacks. In one day, 32 people were killed, including 13 members of the British forces, 16 Irish civilians and three Irish republican prisoners. 

Without any knowledge of history, people would not understand what a monumental event it was when the Irish rugby team hosted England at Croke Park in 2007. The respectful silence during ‘God Save The Queen’ showed that time really can heal old divisions and animosities. Respect can grow from a knowledge of our shared history.

Bloody Sunday: scarred the city of Derry and
boosted recruitment for the IRA

What caused ‘The Troubles’

After partition, Northern Ireland – which stayed part of the UK – became a “Protestant Sate for a Protestant people” and the Catholic minority, who made up a third of the population, found it difficult if not impossible to get a house or a job. The province was made up of six of the nine counties in Ulster and partition was introduced to maintain this “artificial” Unionist majority.

Strangely enough, the wider availability of televisions in the 1960s played a huge part in bringing about change. Catholics in Northern Ireland saw images of African-Americans marching for Civil Rights in the United States and felt that they, too, were entitled to be treated as equals.

Heavy-handed policing turned their peaceful protests into riots and led to the British Army being deployed onto the streets in 1969. One particularly appalling atrocity, when soldiers fired on peaceful protesters in Derry, killing 14, became known as the second Bloody Sunday. 

The horror inflicted on civilians boosted recruitment to the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and prolonged the conflict for decades. It’s impossible to understand ‘The Troubles’ without understanding the atrocities and humiliations which alienated and angered the nationalist people of Northern Ireland.

Our fragile peace has vastly improved
life across Ireland over the past 20 years.

Why is the Good Friday Agreement so important? 

In 1998, there were celebrations all across Ireland when people on both sides of the border voted in favour of a hard-won peace agreement. People were sick of violence and the old tribal hatreds. The document guaranteed that Northern Ireland would stay part of the UK as long as the majority wanted to do so, but it also gave the Republic some say in the governing of the North and guaranteed  equal rights for the minority.

It brought an end to three decades of violence and, indeed, centuries of tribal hatreds. Anyone who understands Irish history recognises what a monumental agreement this was and how appalling it is to hear anyone talk about a return to a hard border and our ancient divisions.

Thankfully, the Minister for Education, Joe McHugh, announced this week that he is set to review the decision to remove History as a compulsory subject in Irish schools.

If we don’t study History in our schools, the Irish too might come to forget how much progress we have made in turning conflict into peace and animosity into a shared sense of respect between our two islands.

Faced with such an uncertain future, the more we know about (and understand) the past, the better.

* Ciaran Tierney won the Irish Current Affairs and Politics Blog of the Year award at the Tramline, Dublin, last month. Find him on Facebook  or Twitter here. Visit his website here -

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