3 March 2005 Edition
Our man in Meath
BY JOANNE CORCORAN
It would be easier to get Ian Paisley to a Sinn Féin Céad Bliain event than it is to get Joe Reilly for an interview these days. With all the canvassing, leafleting, travelling around the country and press conferences he's been doing in the run-up to the Meath by-election on 11 March, Reilly proved a difficult man to pin down.
I got my chance to talk to him at last week's launch in Dublin of the Sinn Féin campaign for a Green Paper on Irish Unity, which, fortunately, Joe was down to chair. But even getting him from the launch room upstairs in the Writers' Museum to the coffee shop one floor below proved more difficult than you'd imagine. Everybody wanted to talk to him — to ask how the campaign in Meath was going, to offer support, to promise they'd make their way to the county to help out in the next few days.
Twenty minutes later I sat down with him, watching out warily for any more well-wishers, and turned on the tape.
For a man obviously in the thick of things, Reilly is remarkably relaxed about polling day.
The election has, unsurprisingly, become a major focus point for Sinn Féin. It's seen as a way in which to show the watching world that the party is weathering the recent vicious attacks on it and that its support base is standing strong.
But weathering storms is not a new phenomenon for Reilly. His first contact with Sinn Féin was back in 1966, and over the last four decades he's witnessed all the party's ups and downs.
"I remember exactly how I came into contact with Sinn Féin," he reminiscences over a very strong black coffee, which will keep him going for the next few hours or so.
"I must have been about 14. I was walking home from school and I saw all these leaflets on the road that must have fallen from someone's bag or something. They were leaflets for the local Sinn Féin party and they were all about commemorating the 1916 Rising and asking people to join. I carried on home and stuck them on the thorn bushes as I went, so other people would read them. I'd always been interested in history, and these leaflets really appealed to me."
Reilly eventually joined the party in 1970 and became involved in its many campaigns, the first being against Ireland joining the EEC.
Reilly soon became part of a group responsible for bringing children down to the South from both sides of the conflict in the North.
"We'd take kids to Mosney holiday resort during the summer," he says. "It was about getting the kids together from either side of the divide and letting them get to know each other and make friends. And it worked.
"One time we had this problem, where a group that was due to go home didn't and the next group was descending upon us. A missionary house in Navan said it would take the new bunch of kids for the night and we drove them out there. "That night some of the parents were ringing Mosney to check on the kids and they were given the number of the house. Well we had this kid called Sam from the Shankill Road and his parents rang up, furious that their kid was there. It was around the time that Ian Paisley would have been mouthing off about priests trying to convert Protestant kids and so on.
"But Sam told them he wasn't going home. He's made pals with some of the other lads and he was staying put. I'll always remember that."
Reilly was imprisoned in 1975 for arms possession and sentenced to four years. In 1976 he and several other republicans attempted to escape from Green Street Courthouse, but were re-captured.
Three weeks before he was due for release in 1978, he was charged with the escape attempt, and on the morning he should have got out, he was sentenced to ten more years in prison.
His incarceration didn't spell the end of his political involvement.
"Portlaoise was a fairly severe place at the time, but we created an education system to keeps ourselves busy," he says.
"Somebody once said that in jails, republicans expand their minds, and loyalists expand their muscles. When I was there I learned Irish and participated in the political debates that would have been going on. One of these was on the issue of abstentionism.
"I became convinced that abstentionism was a protective shield that we had put up around ourselves and I argued strongly for it to be dropped. This was hugely contentious then, because it had been a policy of ours since the '20s. Many of those who opposed my view would have been sound republicans, but in the end I think it was a straitjacket we needed to throw off."
Shortly after his release in 1985, Reilly became General Secretary of Sinn Féin.
"It was a difficult time because we were under sustained attack from censorship and the Thatcher government," he recalls. "As well as that, there was mass emigration from Ireland, because of the economic hardship. We built three cumainn in Kells at the time and they all fell apart. It wasn't a time of expansion. We were just trying to hold onto what we had."
Reilly became a member of the Sinn Féin Ard Chomhairle in 1986, a position he has held ever since. In addition, he served as treasurer of the party for several years.
Electorally, Reilly became busy almost from the moment he left jail.
"I got out of prison in May 1985, and three weeks later there was an election," he remembers.
"I began working on the campaign and our candidate got 88 votes in Navan town. After that I had to decide if I wanted to get a 'normal' job, or work full time for the party. I decided on the latter, and started contesting elections in Meath."
In 1994, Reilly was elected to Navan Town Council, the first Sinn Féin councillor in the town since the '20s.
By 1999, he was topping the poll in Navan and got elected to Meath County Council.
"We've come a long way since 88 votes in 1985," he says. "Last June I was joined on the county council by my colleague, Anne Gibney, and we narrowly missed taking a third seat.
"We now have representation on councils in Trim, Navan and Kells. We actually hold 25% of the vote in Navan."
Given his history, it was an obvious choice for Reilly to contest the upcoming by-election. But in the current climate, the event has become much more important than an ordinary by-election. I ask Reilly if he agrees with this.
"Well, I'd actually argue that every election is important to Sinn Féin," he answers. "They're a chance to get our message out to the electorate, to get Sinn Féin representatives in government, and of course, every gain we make sees the struggle pushed forward.
"This election, however, is particularly important because the party has been under sustained attack since the collapse of the talks in December.
"Republicans are angry," he says. "And I'm not just talking about Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and myself. I'm talking about the ordinary cumann members and supporters, the ones who aren't photographed or interviewed by the media. They're really angry at how this party is being treated. Especially when we came so close to such a colossal advance in December."
Reilly says this anger has meant there have been no problems motivating party supporters to get out and help with the election.
"People want to show the world that the Sinn Féin vote has increased, that our supporters are unaffected by the propaganda war that's been waged against us," he says.
And he says he has met no hostility on the doorsteps, despite the media trying to portray otherwise.
"The media would have you believe that people are giving us the third degree," he says.
"That's simply not the case. I met a guy the other day who is a Fianna Fáil supporter and he said he was giving me a number two. His wife is voting Sinn Féin number one.
"Even Fianna Fáil supporters know what Gerry Adams and the rest of the party leadership have done, how they have dedicated their life's work to the Peace Process. They don't like what's happening at the moment.
"I met another guy who was a Fianna Fáil supporter and he said he wouldn't be voting for them this time. He said he had politician-itis. The way he described it to me is that the Progressive Democrats are sitting in the back of his party's car, but they're driving it. He said he was pissed off with the tail wagging the dog, and Michael McDowell dictating his party's policies."
Reilly says that 97% of people he meets are concerned about local issues, like the lack of facilities in areas, or the absence of vital departments at Our Lady's Hospital in Navan.
"The other 3% are asking what's happening, did the IRA do this and so on," he says. "I try to engage with these people as much as I can. Not all of them accept what you're telling them, but at least they have an explanation, they're hearing our side. And I think there is sufficient trust in the Sinn Féin leadership to keep our vote solid."
Reilly wanted to finish the interview by thanking everyone who is helping out with the election campaign.
"I might not get this opportunity again, so make sure you print this," he says, leaning forward to the tape. "I want to thank everyone who has come to Meath. They have been amazing. I'm not going to name one county, I can't. They've come from everywhere. The MLAs are coming down today. It's a great thing about this party, the way people rally around."
When I ask him what he thinks will happen on 11 March, his answer is to the point.
"Who knows with elections?"
"What I do know," he adds, "is that we are going to try and show all the voters in Meath over the remaining days that a vote for Sinn Féin is a vote for progress. And we are going to show our critics that neither we, nor our voters, are going to take their attacks lying down."
An Phoblacht Magazine
AN PHOBLACHT MAGAZINE:
- The first edition of this new magazine will feature a 10 page special on the life and legacy of our leader Martin McGuinness to mark the first anniversary of his untimely passing.
- It will include a personal reminiscence by Gerry Adams and contributions from the McGuinness family.
- There will also be an exclusive interview with our new Uachtarán Mary Lou McDonald.