Monday, April 29, 2019

Is this the Ireland we really want?

Irish Current Affairs Blog of the Year 2018

The number of homeless people in Ireland has passed the 10,000 mark for the first time

A friend of mine is a volunteer coach with his local hurling club.

Like many parents all across Ireland, he only got involved with the GAA once his son began to play our national games, as he grew up many miles away, in another county.

He finds that he loves helping out at the sprawling rural club just outside the city, even though the early morning sessions can curtail his social life at the weekends.

On Saturday, I met him at a 50th birthday party.

He was bothered. He wanted to talk politics. He asked me why I wasn’t running for the local elections. And he voiced a question which I hear many people asking these days, in the midst of a so-called boom.

“Is this the kind of Ireland we really want?”

In recent weeks, he has discovered that a huge proportion of the families in his parish cannot afford helmets for their kids.

Faced with crippling mortgages, high rents, or insecure and low-paying jobs, many of the parents are living ‘hand to mouth’ every week and month. They hate to admit it publicly, but they confide in the coaches, privately, that they simply cannot afford new jerseys, helmets, or hurls.

An unexpected expense of €60 or €70 is simply beyond their means. And this is in a relatively affluent rural parish, just outside one of Ireland’s major cities.

It’s the kind of thing you would never hear An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, mention when he boasts about the Republic’s remarkable “recovery”. Most of these people are working, but they are the new working poor.

So many of them have confided in my friend and the other coaches that helmets and hurls are beyond them that the club has been forced to change its policy in relation to equipment for the youngsters.

Now, after a fundraising drive, each child is provided with a helmet.

Otherwise, their embarrassed parents would be unable to send them to the training sessions.

A child's hurling helmet is now too expensive for many struggling parents

Perhaps it’s a small thing.

But it has left my friend and the other coaches in shock.

In this “booming” Ireland, with such a low unemployment rate, how come so many people have so little money to spend every month?

How come an expense of €60 could cause a family emergency? Or force parents to withdraw their children from participating in the sport they love?

It’s a theme which seems to be popping up more and more. If this country really is in "recovery" how come so many people I meet every day are struggling to survive?

Campaigning is well underway for both the European and local elections and my friend is adamant that people like me (and him, I retort!) should get more involved in local or national politics.

The candidates we haven’t seen for half a decade are suddenly knocking on our doors, making promises, and calling on us to give them our votes.

Isn’t it time we asked them some pertinent questions?

Such as why so many working people are paying so much in rent or on their mortgages that they are literally broke by the end of every month.

Or why are so many of us working in insecure jobs, not knowing if we will earn enough to pay the bills next month?

The true level of poverty in our thriving cities is hidden away from view

Since taking voluntary redundancy from an industry which is in crisis, I have been shocked by how many people I have met who have next to no security in their jobs. A boss can tell them, at just a week’s notice, that there is no work for them and leave them short of money for the rent.

When populist European Parliament candidate Peter Casey generates front page headlines by criticising “freeloader immigrants” how come nobody asks him to direct his ire at “freeloader landlords” who hike the monthly rents up at every opportunity?

We should ask the candidates why so many people in their 20s and 30s are now in despair that they will never be able to own a home.

As rents spiral out of control, how come so many of us are earning so much less than we were a decade ago in the middle of this so-called “boom”?

How come so many people are sleeping on our streets or spending months on end in facilities provided by our homelessness charities?

How come a national emergency wasn’t declared when the number of homeless people in Ireland crossed the 10,000 mark for the first time?

Why is homelessness not a national emergency? 

A sober walk through Galway’s streets, where you can see desperate people lying in doorways on the coldest and wettest nights, would make anyone question how much this economy really is booming in 2019.

We should ask why poor people can be sent to jail for not paying their €160 TV licences while huge multinational corporations can avoid paying billions in taxes.

We should ask why the well-connected at the top of Irish society are still getting lucrative contracts from their friends in Government, even when some of them have cost us millions in tribunals and investigations.

We should ask why properties are being sold off to vulture funds while those of us scraping by on tiny incomes are forced to pay the deeply unpopular Universal Social Charge.

Financial struggles are causing unprecedented levels of stress

Of course, those on “zero hour contracts” or insecure, part-time jobs are still working, and off the live register, so our unemployment rate should be the envy of the world – if only it told the full story.

We should ask why old people like my father, in his 90s, have had to spend 48 hours lying on a trolley in one of our main public hospitals. Or why the Government funds a two-tier health system which allows the richest in our society to live longer, healthier lives.

Our ruling politicians never squirm with embarrassment when they write pleading letters to pop stars or turn up for the opening of private clinics which are built for a tiny fragment of the population.

As former Tanaiste Mary Harney once said, the Irish are “closer to Boston than Berlin” – that’s certainly true when you see how ordinary people suffer when they are forced to attend any of our overcrowded Emergency Departments.

This is the time to ask politicians if they are happy to live in a country, or support a Government party, where people stuck on trolleys for 24 or 48 hours are too afraid of the consequences to complain or speak out.

A candidate for the local or European elections might argue that they have nothing to do with our scandalous health service, but their parties are deliberately running down a broken system and forcing those who can barely afford it to cling on to private health care.

This is the right time to ask sitting City Councillors why some buildings lie empty while our homelessness crisis has spiralled out of control since they last knocked on our doors.

Or why they are threatening to spoil one of the most beautiful parts of my city in order to make way for a new road, at a time when a pending climate catastrophe and a growing obesity epidemic should be forcing all of us to abandon our over-reliance on cars.

In Galway and other Irish cities, it's all about the cars. 

Leave it to the charities?

They might tell us why our most senior city officials “sleep out” for charity every December when it’s actually their job - not that of the charity - to tackle the out of control rate of homelessness in our city.

But they smile for the cameras with the rich businessmen, because they have no concept of shame.

So many working people I know are fed up, living week-to-week, and literally unable to afford a child’s hurling helmet or a meal out at the weekend.

So many are afraid that they are just one month away from being made homeless by a greedy landlord or in terror of falling ill because our public hospitals are substandard.

Too many are struggling, too few are thriving or living off their backs, and yet if you were to believe these politicians Ireland is in the midst of a remarkable recovery after taking on so much of Europe's banking debt.

Ireland may be “booming” again, but only for the vultures, the bankers, the landlords, and the well-connected businessmen who, funnily enough, seem to be very close to the right wing parties who have divided up the ruling of this country since the foundation of the state.

As my friend put it so succinctly at the weekend . . . is this the Ireland we really want?

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--  * Ciaran Tierney won the Irish Current Affairs and Politics Blog of the Year award at the Tramline, Dublin, in October 2018. Find him on Facebook  or Twitter here. Visit his website here - A former newspaper journalist, he is seeking new opportuniities in a digital world. 

Irish Current Affairs Blogger of the Year 2018

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Irish politicians warned of 'retaliation' for settlement goods ban

Irish Current Affairs Blog of the Year

Senator Frances Black celebrating with supporters after the Seanad
voted in favour of the Occupied Territories Bill in July of last year

Corporate lobbyists have issued a strong warning about the potential for “retaliation” by the United States if Irish politicians press ahead with a bill to outlaw goods and services from the illegal Israeli settlements in Palestine.

In a document which was “leaked” to me last week, the lobbyists warn that there could be significant consequences for the Irish economy if the Occupied Territories Bill becomes enacted into Irish law.

Although strong majorities in both houses of the Irish parliament have already voted in favour of the bill, members of the Foreign Affairs Committee were warned that there could be severe implications for the Irish economy when they discussed the bill on Thursday afternoon.

The briefing paper, commissioned by members of the Irish parliament, warns that the proposed ban could undermine diplomatic links between Ireland and both the US and Israel.

“Passing the Bill could remove Ireland’s objectivity in discussions on the peace process in the Middle East, as well as undermine the influence of the Irish Government in direct interaction with the Israeli Government,” warn the authors of the document.

“The Bill could undermine economic and diplomatic links to both the US and Israel. Israel has been outspoken in its criticism of any measures taken against the occupied territories. Some form of response by Israel or the US is a possibility.”

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu

The document points out that more than 155,000 people are directly employed by over 700 US-owned businesses in Ireland, while these companies support a further 100,000 jobs – accounting for approximately 20% of all employment in Ireland.

Three of Ireland’s ten largest companies, in terms of annual turnover, are US businesses (Apple, Google and Microsoft) and any form of sanction by the US Government would have a serious impact on the Irish economy, they warn.

However, Gerry Liston of Sadaka Ireland, who drafted the Occupied Territories Bill, told me that it was an “absurd assertion” that the legislation could bring about the withdrawal of US foreign direct investment in Ireland.

He pointed out that the bill only relates to the illegal settlements beyond the internationally recognised 1967 border.

“The authors refer to the presence in Ireland of companies such as Apple, Google and Microsoft but omit to note the critical point that these companies have no dealings whatsoever with Israeli settlements and that the Occupied Territories Bill would therefore be of no concern to them,” he said.

Mr Liston said he was surprised that there was no reference at all to three separate legal opinions, obtained by Sadaka Ireland, which have found that the bill is compatible with EU law.

Indeed, Sadaka strongly assert that Ireland is fully entitled to press ahead with the bill to ban goods from the settlements which are deemed to be illegal according to international law. 

A talk about the Occupied Territories Bill in Galway last year

Israeli Government officials have condemned the legislation and it has attracted lobbying from a group of ten US Congressmen, the German-Israel Parliamentary Friendship Group, the Jewish Agency in Israel, and the Israeli Ambassador to Ireland.

Indeed, the briefing document presented to the Irish Foreign Affairs Committee this week echoes claims made by the group of ten US Congressmen, led by Peter King (Republican, New York) in a letter to Irish parliamentarians earlier this year.

The minority Irish Government, led by Fine Gael, has consistently opposed the bill in both the Dail and Seanad, but it has passed through both houses of the Irish Parliament thanks to the support of the main opposition Fianna Fail party, who are keeping the Government in power via a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement.

It was first moved by Independent Senator Frances Black in July 2018 and has received support from a wide range of groups, including Fianna Fail, Sinn Fein, Labour, Independents, plus NGOs Trocaire and Christian Aid Ireland.

The Irish parliament hired consultants John Spicer and Abdul Malik, of Europe Economics; and Mirja Gutheil, Quentin Liger and Harry Heyburn, of Optimity Advisors, to summarise the positives and negatives of the bill before it is scrutinised by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade.

They point out that the immediate economic impact would be quite small, but that the bill could have a “domino effect” and that backers of the bill were inspired by the international boycott campaign which helped to bring about the downfall of the Apartheid regime in South Africa in the 1980s.

“It is likely that the State of Israel would impose retaliatory measures which would have a larger impact,” says the briefing document. “The largest potential negative impact of the Bill would be retaliation by the US. It is unclear whether this would materialise, but if they were to, the impact on the Irish economy would be important.”

Congressman Peter King has warned the Irish not to go ahead with the bill

The Fianna Fail spokesman on Foreign Affairs, Niall Collins TD, accused the authors of the policy document of using “inappropriate language” by claiming that “retaliation” to the Occupied Territories Bill would damage the Irish economy.

“The threats which have already been articulated by US Congressman Peter King and Richard Neal, in terms of how corporate America would act in the future towards Ireland, are overstating it in my opinion. I think they are out of touch with the moral and social responsibilities of corporations, their ethics, and how they have to act,” said Mr Collins.

He said that, despite being the Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesman for Ireland’s biggest opposition party, he had not received any correspondence from US multinationals based in Ireland.

“As public representatives, we get lobbied about all sorts of stuff, but nobody from Google, Facebook, or anybody else has contacted me to make their views known.”

With Palestinian cartoonist Mohammad Sabaaneh last week.
He spent five months in prison for his art.

An edited, and shortened, version of this article was published by Electronic Intifada, the largest Palestinian news site (in English) in the world, last week. The article has been shared 950 times on Facebook at the time of publication. The Occupied Territories Bill is due to be discussed again in May. You can find the link to my article at

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* Ciaran Tierney won the Irish Current Affairs and Politics Blog of the Year award at the Tramline, Dublin, in October 2018. Find him on Facebook  or Twitter here. Visit his website here - A former newspaper journalist, he is seeking new opportunities in a digital world.  

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Expressing the rage of a denigrated people

Irish Current Affairs Blog of the Year (personal) 2018

What kind of country jails a cartoonist?

Is it the kind of place we should be sending Irish artists to for a celebration of diversity and European pop culture next month?

Those thoughts struck me last week when I hosted a cartoonist in my home for a night during his week-long tour of Ireland.

Mohammad Sabaaneh is no ordinary cartoonist.

He’s a man who spent five months in jail for his art and a household name across the Arab world, particularly in Palestine where he has a cartoon published daily in a national newspaper, al-Hayat al-Jadida. He has more than 500,000 Facebook followers.

Mohammad taught me a lot about the power of art last week and also how a man can use his gifts to highlight the terrible suffering and injustice which has been inflicted upon his people for decades.

He is regularly invited to cartoon festivals and arts events throughout the world and faces a logistical nightmare trying to get to them if and when he travels.

It was returning from one of those work trips six years ago that Mohammad found himself being interrogated about his art by Israeli soldiers.

He spent two months being interrogated about his work, when he was forbidden from drawing or writing. He then spent a further three months in prison, including some time in solitary confinement; time he used to document his experiences in smuggled or hidden drawings which he put together after returning home to Ramallah.

Mohammad spent five months in prison because he had collaborated with his brother on a book about political prisoners, a project which angered those in power.

This terrible experience provided Sabaaneh with inspiration. He vowed to document his feelings about what he witnessed in Israeli prisons and managed to get fellow prisoners to smuggle out his works of art whenever he had the opportunity.

He left blank spaces in all of the drawings, so that the prison authorities could not examine his strong views about life in Israeli prisons if they came across or confiscated them.

“They investigated me about everything, about my activity, about my participation in international exhibitions, and about my opinions,” he recalled.

The irony was that the charges against Mohammad were baseless – his accusers and interrogators did not seem to know or care that his cartoons have also angered the various political factions in Palestine.

He embodies the true role of an artist who holds the most powerful to account and ridicules those who abuse their power.

Before a packed house in Galway last week, he wanted to talk about the Palestinian prisoners as real people, with mothers, wives, brothers and sisters; with feelings of loneliness and despair.

He wanted to challenge the way in which his people are dehumanised so often in the Irish, European, and American media.

As we listened to him, it was impossible not to understand his rage.

His people have had their land stolen, been treated as second class citizens in their own country, and endure daily harassment at checkpoints where they are faced down by angry, hostile soldiers.

More than 200 of their children (yes, children) are in Israeli prisons, and many of the prisoners are incarcerated in places where their loved-ones can never visit them.

In prison, Mohammad was not allowed to speak to relatives on the telephone or receive visits from family members. His experience awakened him to the gross injustice which is being inflicted on so many men, women and children from his country.

“Everyone deals with Palestinian prisoners as heroes, but I wanted my drawings to show them as real human beings,” he told the captive audience at the Black Gate Cultural Centre in Galway.

“No-one talks about the Palestinian prisoner’s mother, or wife, or kids; or how they try to pass the time, by listening to a football game.”

With Mohammad in Galway last week

Sabaneeh’s work is disturbing, but how else could it be for a man whose people have spent more than half a century being treated as second class citizens under military occupation in their own land?

How can they not be angry, when they see their fate being played out in an election in which they have no say in their own future.

His art work is also brilliant.

It provides a timely reminder of the real motivation behind the staging of this year’s Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv.

It’s all about whitewashing an Apartheid regime which gave the people of the West Bank no voice at all in terms of the military occupation in this week’s General Election.

During the campaign, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged to annex the Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank if he was returned to power.

He promised to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state by “controlling the entire area”, continuing to dominate the lives of more than 2.5 million people who have lived under a brutal occupation for so long.

Where Mohammad lives, there is no peace process.

Hundreds of thousands of people now live in illegal settlements on land which was captured in a war more than half a century ago.

World powers consider those settlements to be illegal under international law and Mohammad’s cartoons capture the daily humiliations faced by his people, at checkpoints, on segregated roads, or through dawn raids by armed soldiers in their homes.

When you hear him talk about the reality of life as an artist in occupied Palestine, you can only be filled with admiration for his bravery in expressing his rage.

How else could he be, as a wonderfully talented artist, when he sees so much suffering and anger around him every day?

A packed house in Galway for Mohammad's talk

Remember Mohammad and his amazing work when artists and TV crews from all across Europe congregate in Tel Aviv next month – or when Madonna turns up to play two songs.

Eurovision 2019 is not a celebration of music and culture – it’s a clear and protracted effort to “normalise” a regime which puts talented artists like Mohammad in prison, just for speaking out about the terrible injustices he sees around him in the West Bank.

Mohammad, like so many artists all across Palestine, wants Ireland and the rest of Europe to boycott Eurovision 2019.

How pathetic it seems to celebrate European pop culture in a place which has so little interest in granting artists anything approaching freedom, justice, or human rights.

The estimated 180 million viewers who watch the Eurovision next month will feast on tourism promotion clips from Israel, but they won’t see images of peaceful protesters being murdered by snipers at the Gaza border fence, families being evicted from their homes in East Jerusalem, or little children being terrorised on their way home from school in Hebron.

The brilliant cartoons of Mohammad Sabaaneh tell the world some bitter home truths about life in Palestine, home truths that won’t be screened on our TV screens on May 18, even though they are considered so subversive they result in artists like him being thrown in prison.

Shame on the Eurovision for white-washing an illegal occupation on behalf of a regime which locks up artists and tramples on human rights.

Mohammad with local artists and activists in Galway 

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My latest for Electronic Intifada: 
Business groups pressure Ireland in relation to settlement goods

At the Irish Blog of the Year awards in October 2018

Monday, April 1, 2019

A shame Ireland should never forget

Irish Current Affairs Blog of the Year 2018

Peter Mulryan at the grave his mother shares with other
women from the Magdalene Laundry in Galway City

For eight years now, they have gathered in a Galway graveyard.
They meet at the gates, exchange warm greetings, and then walk silently past the rows of graves to an area which has become familiar over recent years.

It used to be nigh on impossible to locate these particular graves. They bore no headstones and the women buried in these plots were the forgotten, “fallen” ones. They weren’t even given the dignity of having their names put on the headstones.

Hardly anybody knew they were even there and the casual observer walking through Bohermore would not have had a clue.

The Magdalene Laundry was very much part of the fabric of my native city from 1824 until it closed as a business in 1984. Older colleagues at work used to recall the vans circling the city, collecting the dirty laundry from the great and the good.

Nobody ever talked about the women who worked there or that this asylum, as it was also called, benefited from slave labour. It closed for good in 1996 and some of the inmates were too institutionalised to leave Forster Street and form out independent lives.

It was just minutes from the heart of the city. We used to walk past it on our way to Connacht rugby games at the Sportsground or appointments at City Hall and nobody ever seemed to ask about the women who were locked up inside.

Or why their lives were deemed so insignificant, so worthless, that they were buried together in unmarked graves.

A simple ceremony with flowers to honour the Magdalenes

Until 2012. Then a small group of women came together to determine that the lives of the women of the Magdalene Laundry were worthy of being remembered and honoured.

And so began a beautiful annual event which is remarkable because of its simplicity. Caroline Stanley sings a poignant song, a poem is offered, and those who survived the laundry or whose mothers were locked up inside are invited to say a few words.

It’s a pity more journalists don’t attend. If they did, they would witness the remarkable growing confidence of the survivors, the children of these women who are coming to terms with the horrors of their youthful lives.

Two years ago, the discovery of the bodies of babies just up the road in the Tuam Mother and Baby Home brought an added poignancy to the ceremony. The Magdalene Laundry in Galway, which locked up unmarried mothers and forced them to wash clothes for the great and the good, was the nearest one to Tuam.

Some of the mothers had given birth to the ‘Tuam Babies’ before being transferred into slave labour in the city.

Two years ago, on a cold, windy day, a man called Peter Mulryan brought us all to tears. His mother was locked up in that asylum and was so institutionalised that she did not want to leave after he tracked her down and introduced her to his new wife, Kathleen, in 1975.

Years later, Peter’s life was turned upside down again when he was told that he had a younger sister he never realised he had. That sister is one of the 796 ‘Tuam Babies’ and she could be buried in a septic tank in Tuam – or she could be walking around the streets of Boston or New York, totally oblivious to where she came from.

Because the bodies in Tuam have yet to be examined or identified, Peter hasn’t a clue. It would not be a huge shock to him or other family members if their siblings were adopted, illegally, to America at a time of great hardship in Ireland.

For Peter, the annual Flowers for Magdalenes ceremony in Galway is a hugely significant event. It has allowed him to find his voice and banished the shame which used to be associated with being the child of a single mum.

He is so grateful to the women who invited him, and others, to the simple ceremony and told them that their voices were worth listening to and that they were entitled to justice and the truth about what happened to their family members.

The terrible sense of shame which hung over women like his mother should never be forgotten, he says.

This year he was the guest speaker at the event and they had a microphone at the graveyard so that everyone could hear his words.

He recalled how survivors and their families used to “hang their heads in shame” because of the stigma attached to the 41 laundries across Ireland where at least 10,000 women and girls were held against their will.

“What the mothers went through in those places, it was horrible and unbelievable,” Mr Mulryan told the eighth annual Flowers for the Magdalenes event at Bohermore Cemetery.

“When I managed to get to meet my mother there in 1975, a woman who was 65 years old, she looked like she was 80 from all the years of working so hard, washing clothes. I’ll never forget how she had blisters all over her hands and how she was so shabbily dressed.

“Those women were forced to work for nothing, for whatever ‘sins’ they had committed. I will never forget how badly they were fed and how little respect they were shown in that institution.”

Mr Mulryan said that events such as the annual memorial in Galway, a simple ceremony featuring poetry and song, had given survivors and the children of the Magdalene Laundry women self-respect and allowed them to speak out for the first time.

He first spoke publicly about his own experience of finding out he had a younger sister he had never met, who is now known as one of the 796 ‘Tuam Babies’, at the Galway event two years ago.

Calling out the names of the Magdalenes in Galway

“Events like this have given us survivors a new lease of life and we can now hold our heads high,” he said. “The Church and State looked down on us for decades, but it’s great to see that the wheel has turned, that ceremonies like this can show us and our mothers the respect they were denied during their lifetimes.”

Mr Mulryan said that he recently began speaking about the Tuam Mother and Baby Home in schools throughout Co Galway and felt it was important to educate the younger generation about Ireland’s shameful past in terms of how it treated its women.

One of the organisers, Ann Irwin, said it was great that the event in the graveyard gave the survivors a voice and noted that they have only had the confidence to speak out over the past two to three years.

“The idea is to remember the women with the respect which was denied to them when they were alive. There are people who come here every year who have a direct connection with the Magdalene Laundry. It gives them a great sense of solidarity to put flowers on the shared graves,” she told The Irish Times. 

“We have been doing this since 2012. The survivors did not speak in the first few years, because of the sense of shame. We really encourage people to speak. They can feel the solidarity. The faces are becoming familiar now, because the same people come here every year.”

Afterwards, Mr Mulryan called on the Irish Government to respect the wishes of the survivors of the Tuam Home by carrying out a full exhumation of the site, analysing DNA samples, and giving the children dignified burials.

“The State and the Church still have not come out with an apology to us. We are entitled to a full public apology. They are making no effort whatsoever to offer us an apology,” he said.

“They are holding up everything that should be done. They need to do a proper investigation, get a DNA done, and give those children a dignified burial. In my opinion, they are afraid of taking DNA samples because it will show up so much stuff, that the children died of starvation, neglect, or stress. They are continuing to put obstacles in our way.”

--  * Ciaran Tierney won the Irish Current Affairs and Politics Blog of the Year award in October. Find him on Facebook  or Twitter here. Visit his website here - A former newspaper journalist, he is seeking new opportunities in a digital world.