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26 August 2004 Edition

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Not one to Crowe about success

BY JOANNE CORCORAN

Just over two years ago, I was given my first assignment as an An Phoblacht journalist. My mission, as I chose to accept it, was to go over to Dawson Street and get some comments from the five newly elected Sinn Féin TDs as they prepared to make their historic entrance into Leinster House.

It was no mean task. I'd only been in Sinn Féin for a year and I didn't know that many people in the party, let alone the TDs. I wondered if I would even be able to see them when I got to the street that runs parallel with Leinster House.

I needn't have worried. Crowds of people, all brandishing Tricolours, were gathered just outside the Mansion House. Spotting the couple of people I did know, I asked them to introduce me to the TDs.

The first I was directed to was Seán Crowe.

"Seán, this lass is from An Phoblacht," my mediator informed him. "She wants to do an interview with you."

Notebook shaking, and trying to look like I knew what I was doing, I asked Seán how he was going to represent the people of Ballyfermot.

Somewhat puzzled, he explained that he was elected for Tallaght.

Very embarrassed, I explained this was my first day on the job.

To his credit, he immediately put this idiot at ease, and took me to one side to give me some quotes that I knew would go down well with my editor.

Yesterday, I sat down to have a chat with Seán again, this time with me playing the role of hardened hack and him that of the worldly wise TD. I asked him did he remember me that day.

"Well, it's all a bit of a blur," he said, possibly protecting me from further humiliation.

What were his memories of the occasion? I asked.

"There were mixed feelings," he replied. "I was coming from a background of abstentionism. A lot of young republicans who joined with me thought we'd never be going into Leinster House. That was the slippery slope to becoming institutionalised. So I was conscious of the responsibility I was carrying to show that wouldn't happen.

"It was a great honour to be going in, but it was nerve-racking too. Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin had been there for five years, but that was my first time to even see the inside. And then straight away we got our portfolios and that was overwhelming, because you knew something about the topics, but suddenly you had to become an expert on them."

Highs and lows

With two years experience under his belt, I wanted to know what the highs have been for Seán since that day.

"Actually, people always assume that the day we went in was a high, but I don't think that it was for me," he said. "I suppose I was going in a bit cynical. I didn't think we were going to change the place overnight, and we didn't.

"I think the highs for me have been the personal cases I've dealt with. You'd have a lot of casework as a councillor, but you get a better response when you're a TD. Recently, a man came to me who had cancer and he'd been waiting two and a half years to get an appointment somewhere. We got on the case, faxed a letter to the health board and got him an appointment in three quarters of an hour. Another case I remember is that of a man who had been cut off from the social welfare, even though he had this debilitating illness. He was going blind and his illness meant he didn't have long to live, but the social welfare told him he was fit to work. We got his payments backdated for three years. That meant a lot."

At this point I realised that Seán has a lot of time for people, a sure sign he hasn't become institutionalised.

"Well, these are the things that keep you going," he told me. "There are many lows. I thought that we'd be able to do a lot more, especially through committee work and that, but there's never enough time. I remember I was raising the issue of autism and I'd five minutes to talk - that's just soul-destroying."

I asked him did he think, as the public are always saying, that TDs get too much time off, a relevant question, given the Dáil is on its usual lengthy summer break, the likes of which I haven't seen since school.

"I'm not off," he answered. "I haven't had a break yet. But that's my choice. The Sinn Féin TDs work all year round, whether the Dáil is sitting or not.

"It would be good if the committee work in particular could be extended," he said.

"That usually involves outreach work and increasingly groups are aware that Sinn Féin is good at this. It means so much to those groups as well. A few months ago I was at the AGM for the Irish Deaf Society and they told me that I was the first TD to attend.

"I couldn't believe it. It meant so much to them and their families, particularly so because it wasn't election time."

I asked him if he thought all the hard work that's done by the TDs gets the coverage it should in the media.

"No," he replied, "but that's the nature of the beast. Our job in the end is to ask the questions that nobody else is asking and put an all-Ireland spin on them. What happens after that is out of our control."

A brief encounter

Seán has the most briefs of all the TDs. I asked him which he found the most challenging.

"It has to be education," he said. "Purely because it's such a huge area. I left school when I was very young and I didn't go on to third level. It just wasn't an area I'd have selected for myself. But if we talk about building an egalitarian society, education is so important. And there isn't the access to it that there should be."

I asked him what brief he'd like if there was a reshuffle.

"I'd say housing. Being a Dubliner and having a councillor background contributes to that. It's such a massive issue in this city and it's something I come up against every day."

Campaigns

Two of the main campaigns that Seán has become known for have been the Colombia Three Bring Them Home campaign and the campaign for an inquiry into the 1974 Dublin and Monaghan bombings.

I asked him to tell me a little about these campaigns.

"I got involved with the Colombia Three because I knew Jim Monaghan," he said. "He lived in my constituency. And I would have known Niall Connolly's family. The relatives approached us and asked us for support. It was difficult at the time, because people just weren't available to go out to Colombia. I was asked if I would and I said yes.

"I suppose I was conscious of the fact going out that if anyone was going to get shot it would be me, because I was the Sinn Féin representative. So I can't say I wasn't nervous. But it was very important to the families that there was an international delegation out there to bring some balance to the trial.

"And I think we did. Everything was against the men, you had all sorts of people speaking out against them, but they got a fair result. Of course, the prosecution has appealed and the men are still in danger, from the state and from right-wing paramilitaries, while they are forced to remain in Colombia. They should be allowed home now.

"Personally, it was a real eye-opener to me. I suppose all republicans my age would have grown up hearing about the different conflicts in Latin America and so on, but it was unbelievable to see the conditions over there and to see what that sort of society was like. And then, of course, seeing the men in the jail had a huge impact on me. I was out there six or seven times, a week at a time."

Bombings

Seán said that being a Dubliner meant he was always going to have a special interest in the Dublin and Monaghan bombings.

"I was young then, but I remember that period vividly. It was heart-breaking the way the state just pushed the whole thing aside. For years, the families were like voices crying in the wilderness. I don't think they'll ever get closure until they get a full public inquiry."

I asked him did he think this would happen.

"It's hard to tell," he said. "It was the worst civilian atrocity of the conflict, but I don't think the two governments can handle everything being raked up in an inquiry like the one the families want.

"Every person on the street knows the British were behind it and I don't think those families will rest until they admit it."

Back for more?

With his third year in the Dáil looming, I asked Seán what he has planned for the coming months.

"We had a review a short time ago and looked at what we needed to be doing," he answered. "Actually, one of the main things that came out of that is that there are going to be support structures set up for the TDs which will help us increase and manage our work better. I'm looking forward to that."

Finally, I wanted to know if Seán could see himself running again in three years time, and if he thinks the current government would even last that long.

"Well, I suppose I'm stuck with the job," he said (his humour is so dry, it's hard to tell if he's joking or not).

"There is more to life than Leinster House, but it means so much to the people you represent that you're there and to the people who helped you get there. It's a lot of responsibility.

"I think the party will grow and I think we're just laying the path for future TDs. I suppose the next big challenge for the party is getting into government, which could be sooner rather than later.

"As for the government going full term, the short answer is, yes, it will. It would be political suicide for it to go to an election now. Neither Fianna Fáil nor the PDs are rising in the polls and I suppose it's political expediency for them to stay together."

All about Seán

An Phoblacht: When did you join Sinn Féin?

Séan Crowe: I was always interested. In fact I was in the Fianna when I was seven years old. But I went up to Derry a few years after Bloody Sunday and I stayed with a woman who had seen her son shot outside her house. She had agoraphobia. I remember talking to a lot of people and getting more and more interested and when I came back to Dublin I joined Sinn Féin.

An Phoblacht: What is your most memorable experience as a Sinn Féin activist?

Séan Crowe: For most people my age it's the hunger strikes. I was a southern republican in 1981, so I didn't know the men involved. But when they died it was like losing a brother or a friend. It transformed everyone. I read Todd Andrews' book about the Tan War recently and he had a line "we felt rather than thought". That summed it up. You were operating on emotions.

We did everything we could in Dublin, but we couldn't prevent it. For a long time, you were living with the guilt and the anger.

I suppose it was a coming of age for us politically as well, because we were lobbying politicians to get stuff done, and we started to think, "what if we had our own politicians?"

That whole generation of republicans grew up together as great comrades, because we shared that experience.

An Phoblacht: When you look at the young people coming in, do you ever worry because they missed experiences like that?

Séan Crowe: People from my era find it hard to imagine that some of these new members weren't even born when the hunger strikes took place. But that doesn't take away from them. If anything, I've gone around the country meeting the young people coming in and I've been very impressed. They're bright, full of ideas and enthusiasm. I don't think there's any difference in commitment.

An Phoblacht: Next week is the tenth anniversary of the cessation. What went through your mind when you heard about it?

Séan Crowe: Everyone was worried, I was worried. We were thinking, "is this right?" There's always a risk in making a massive gesture like that. I think some of us are still worried, but then we see the potential of the Good Friday Agreement, if it's properly implemented. You're always concerned you'll stretch your support base, or make a mistake. But I think the current leadership strategy of sharing information really works. Long may it continue.

An Phoblacht: Has Sinn Féin become too focused on elections?

Séan Crowe: No. Unfortunately, there have been a lot in recent years, but the party is working for change. People are looking for leadership and we are ready and willing to provide it.

But ultimately, we are always trying to bring about an equal society and a united Ireland.

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