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4 January 2007 Edition

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Policing: Transfer of powers would be advance for struggle

Time to show courage and take risks

Feargal Ó hAnnluain and Seán Sabhat were young men from almost opposite ends of this island.

Both men, and their comrades in the North Fermanagh Resistance Column – generally known as the Pearse Column – were resolutely opposed to British rule in our country.

I remember at a commemoration in Monaghan how Daithí Ó Conaill enthralled us all with his account of the Brookeborough raid.

As he recalled it that day there was snow on the ground and in the hills. 14 IRA Volunteers set out in a lorry from Bunlogher at around 7pm to attack the RUC barracks in Brookeborough village. 11 volunteers lay in the back of the truck. They were armed with a mixture of weapons, including two Bren guns, two Thompsons, and 303 rifles. They also had two mines, six grenades and six Molotov cocktails.

They drove their lorry up to the front of the barracks. The two mines were placed at the front door but both failed to explode. In the gun battle that ensued Feargal Ó hAnnluain and Seán Sabhat were mortally wounded. Four other volunteers were also shot. Sean Garland ordered the column to withdraw. The lorry had been badly damaged. It stopped here at Altawark crossroads and Feargal and Seán were carried into a farm building.

When it was clear that both were dead Daithí Ó Conaill, who now took command from a wounded Seán Garland, ordered all the remaining members of the column to begin the long and exhausting journey across country toward the border.

As they made their way over rough terrain, through deep snow drifts and bog land, carrying their wounded, two more volunteers were injured. All the time they were being pursued. Two helicopters and up to 4,000 RUC, B Specials and others were involved in an intensive search of the area.

After many difficult hours they reached Mulligan’s house in County Monaghan. The injured were taken initially to Monaghan hospital before being moved to Dublin. The others were arrested and spent six months in prison. Thousands turned out in Monaghan, Dublin and Limerick at the funerals of Feargal Ó hAnnluain and Seán Sabhat.

At Feargal Ó hAnnluain’s graveside Noel Kavanagh said: “If you wish to erect a monument to this Volunteer I ask you to erect a monument which can be seen all over the world. I have in mind a monument that Fergal would like and that monument is the Irish Republic.”

Diarmaid Ó Donnchadha giving the oration for Seán Sabhat said: “Ba mhór aige prionsabhail, ba mhór aige saoirse, ba mhor aige Gaelachas. He died for my freedom; for my sake, for your sake, for the sake of the generations that are to come ... let his life and his death be a lesson and a guide to all of us. Ní hamháin gur lean sé lorg Mhic Piarias agus Emmet agus Tone, ach dhein sé staidéar ar dhúchas agus stair Gael ó thosach ré na staire - agus dhein sé beart dá réir.”

The Taoiseach John A Costello was praised by the Unionist regime in the north when he condemned the attack. Costello was supported in his stand by Fianna Fáil leader Eamon De Valera. Three months later Fianna Fáil came to power. Immediately it embarked on a vigorous policy of repression, including the widespread use of internment. De Valera invoked the Offences against the State Act. Five years later Operation Harvest was formally brought to an end.

The IRA were entirely right to embark on the Border Campaign in 1956. In 1962 when they called an end to that campaign that was also their right and judgement.

Just as it was the right and the judgement of the IRA in more recent times to bring an end to its armed campaign. And I also think it is worth recalling the IRA statement issued in February 1962.

The IRA ended its campaign because in their own words the Irish people had been ‘deliberately distracted from the supreme issue facing the Irish people, the unity and freedom of Ireland’. Compare that situation with the situation today.

When the IRA ended its armed campaign in more recent times it did so to advance the peace process and the republican struggle. In 1962 the IRA statement called upon Irish people to support and mobilise around republican objectives and expressed confidence for the future of our struggle if that happened.

This generation of republicans has risen to that challenge. People nowadays are mobilising around republican objectives like never before. Today there are more republicans on this island than at any time since the 1920s.

The British and the unionists are challenged by a republican party – Sinn Féin – stronger than at any time in living memory - and growing. We know that with hard work and clear strategies we will continue to make advances.

But to make further advances we need to build our struggle; build our party and build our political strength. But all of us need to remain focused on what this struggle is about and what we are seeking to achieve. We need always to remember the huge sacrifices made by those like Seán Sabhat and Feargal Ó hAnnluain and their families.

The struggle is about breaking the connection with Britain. It’s about uniting orange and green in a new united Ireland. It’s about building a genuinely egalitarian national republic.

It’s about equality and social justice for all our people. It’s about making the Proclamation of 1916 a reality. It’s about ensuring the continuation of the process of change which will achieve these goals.

All of which brings me to the current situation. I am very aware of the irony that this is my first public engagement since the Sinn Féin Ard Chomhairle decided last Friday to call a special Ard Fheis to decide our party’s attitude to the PSNI.

I see no contradiction in honouring the sacrifices of Feargal Ó hAnnluain and Seán Sabhat and the other IRA volunteers who went out to attack the RUC at Brookeborough and half a century later in commending Sinn Féin’s policing proposals to the republican people of this island. I do not for one minute underestimate the difficulties republicans have in addressing this issue.

We have all lived through the days of sectarian and political policing. The violent excesses of the RUC and their surrogates in the unionist death squads have touched every person here. Our approach has to be about ending all of that. Ignoring policing is simply not an option.

Sinn Féin brought the issue of policing into the heart of the negotiations which led to the Good Friday Agreement. We did that because it was clear that peace could never be underpinned while the RUC remained intact – directing policy, directing death squads and oppressing our people.

The transfer of powers on policing and justice away from London and into Irish hands will be an advance for the democratic struggle on this island. That is why it has met so much resistance within the British and unionist establishment.

So for many reasons republicans need to come at this issue strategically. The big question we all need to ask ourselves is  – are our republican objectives more achievable if we secure the level playing field set out in the Good Friday Agreement? The answer to this question and others like it is yes.

Be sure of this, getting our strategy right on this is inevitably bound up with how we move forward beyond partition to the Republic. Despite major advances in recent years Sinn Féin does not yet command sufficient political strength to realise our primary and ultimate aims. We do well to remember that struggles cannot be won without the support of people, and a huge battle for hearts and minds has still to be waged, to mobilise greater levels of popular support behind republican aims and objectives. There are no short cuts to independence and a new Ireland.

Republican strategy today is about building political strength; popularising republican ideas and mobilising, organising and strategising how we achieve a free, united Ireland.

As part of this we have to secure a new peaceful accord with our unionist neighbours based upon equality. The new Ireland cannot be built solely on our terms. This is the context in which we must approach the issues of policing and justice.

Our strategic focus has been to break the grip of the unionist elite, the NIO, and British securocrats, whose efforts are about keeping political policing.

Our efforts have been to end political policing. Consequently, Sinn Féin has pursued a relentless negotiation strategy since 1999. Significant progress has been made on key policing and justice issues in this period.

The party leadership believe this represents a sustainable basis to deliver a new beginning to policing in the context of our strategic objectives; the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement; and, moving the struggle closer to our primary aim of Irish independence, self determination, and sovereignty.

This strategic initiative presents a massive challenge for republicans. But like all republican initiatives, it is risky. The Brookeborough raid was risky. Struggle of any kind is risky. We should remember that those who want to maximise change, must be prepared to take the greatest risks.

In turn, activists must bring a long term and national perspective to what we do next. We all need to be clear sighted about how we advance the outcome of this negotiation towards where we want to be:

  • Beyond the assembly election in March 07;
  • Beyond the full restoration of the assembly, executive and all-Ireland institutions;
  • Beyond the general election in the south in May/June 07;
  • And, in relation to the overall balance of political forces nationally.

 

In the weeks ahead we will debate all these issues. The Sinn Féin leadership will continue to set out what we believe has been achieved. We will set out what we believe are the necessary next steps in advancing our struggle. That is our responsibility.

It is your responsibility to engage and to bring to this debate your knowledge and experience as activists grounded in struggle.

We also need to ensure that there is room for everyone to express their views, that we talk to those who have been victims of collusion and state murder, the families of our patriot dead and republican veterans. Let us have our debate, take our decision and move forward united.

Republicans have never lacked courage. The courage to take up arms like Seán and Feargal in their time, and countless other men and women in our own time. The courage to confront injustice and discrimination. The courage to seize an opportunity for peace. The courage to take risks and at all times to move forward.

For years we stayed outside policing structures because that was the best way to bring about change. Now we want to move into those structures because that is now the best way to maximise that change.

Our intention, if the Ard Fheis agrees with the Ard Chomhairle, is to ensure that no police officer ever again does what was done on our people without being held to account.

If the Ard Fheis accepts our proposal Sinn Féin representatives will work to ensure that political policing, collusion and “the force within a force” is a thing of the past and oppose any involvement by the British Security Service/MI5 in civic policing.

And Sinn Féin representatives will robustly support the demands for:

  • Equality of treatment for all victims,
  • Effective truth recovery mechanisms,
  • Acknowledgement by the British State of its involvement in wrongdoing including collusion with loyalist paramilitaries,
  • To ensure that there is no place in the PSNI for human rights abusers.

 

By building political strength we can build the capacity to move our entire struggle forward. By building political strength we can build the capacity to move both the British government and the unionists and influence directly the political agenda in the 26 counties.

I believe if we advance together, united behind our republican goals, we will win our freedom and build the united Ireland for which Seán Sabhat and Feargal Ó hAnnluain gave their lives. That is our duty.

Tá a lan obair le deanamh again. Leanagai ar aghaigh ó an ait stairuil seo agus deanagai an obair seo.

 

 

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