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1 August 2016 Edition

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‘We don’t want to commemorate a Republic – we want to live in one’

Owen Carron sets minds ablaze at the 7th annual Sinn Féin Summer School in Baile Bhúirne, County Cork

• Owen Carron. Bobby Sands's election agent, speaks to a packed Mills Inn

The Summer School blends together a rich mix of views and insights

THE annual Sinn Féin Summer School is regularly referred to as “one of the most popular events on the republican calendar”. Take into consideration of the idyllic surroundings of Baile Bhúirne in west Cork, especially when streams of a golden July sun pour through the skylight in the Mills Inn and cast shadows across the timber floors, it’s not difficult to see why. 

From culture to economics, theoretical pondering to interpretations of hard data, poetic articulation of aspirations to incisive analysis of our history, the Summer School blends together a rich mix of views and insights to cultivate pathways to gaining understanding and fresh perspectives on how we achieve a more progressive society. 

There is always an air of relaxation and reflection, as though attendees are taking stock of a year that has already lumbered across its midway point. And with a general election, the ongoing campaign against water charges, the crises in housing and healthcare, there is perhaps more of need for some respite than in previous years.

Throw in the fall-out from Brexit in the wake of the Westminster EU referendum and the Chilcot Report on the Iraq War, crossed with the constant barrage of the serious and pantomime aspects of the United States Presidential election campaign, and the Summer School nestling between hills and glens where the IRA overwhelmed the Black & Tans isn’t a bad place for a political activist, journo or current affairs enthusiast to catch a breath, sup on a pint or two, and take part in open debates in between.

A simple culture of wanting to talk, wanting to be heard but also wanting to listen is something that fills the Mills Inn with a special atmosphere for the Summer School. You won’t agree with everything that you hear, not everybody will agree with you either, but that is what makes for an absorbing couple of days.

This year was no different. 

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• Republicans travelled from all across Ireland to take part in the Sinn Féin Summer School Photo: Finbarr MacGabhann

From the cutting, and often hilarious satire of Paddy Cullivan to the no-nonsense incisiveness of author Frankie Gaffney, right through to the quite remarkable insight of journalist Kitty Holland, the theme of  “Democracy, Equality and the Nation State – 100 years of struggle” was rigorously explored through a variety of lenses.

I arrived early on the Friday evening and by the time Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire TD stood up to open proceedings, there was already a bit of a buzz in the air. I have heard a few people refer the to Ard Fheis as “Shinner Christmas”. If the Ard Fheis conjures up feelings resembling yuletide cheer then the Summer School replicates the freedom and abandon of a day-off from work spent in company with a good book – one that challenges you and makes you ponder: ‘I’ve never thought about it like that.’

Donnchadh set the exploratory tone of the weekend by suggesting that many of today’s challenges for republicans are ones on which the 1916 Proclamation is silent. His opening comments were like a straight piece of string that was tied in a loop the following evening by the words of Matt Carthy MEP who, during his discussion on Brexit with Fianna Fáil’s Martin Mansergh (a former adviser to taoisigh and a previously a minister of state), asked:

“If now is not the time for a debate on a united Ireland then when is the time?”

Inside that loop, encircling the belief that a better Ireland is possible, panelists, from inside the republican family and from far more distant pastures wrestled with the condition of youth politics on the island, how the media portrays working-class communities, and the impact of neoliberalism on our democracy.

It also important to note that the Summer School (brilliantly masterminded every year by Caoilfhinn Ní Dhonnabháin) is also a platform from which republicans are challenged to engage with topics that often get squeezed out of the day-to-day hustle and bustle of modern politics. In previous years, the bolts of electricity came from the likes of award-winning investigative journalist Gemma O’Doherty and internationally-renowned disability rights campaigner Joanne O’Riordan.

As somebody who grew up on a council estate, I could certainly relate to the sharp critique made by Kitty Holland of “poverty porn” in the media coverage of working-class communities. 

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I began to think about how the media like to bundle up these articles as “human interest” – a term used to sanitise stories, cleansing the issues of any political origin and government responsibility.  It is clear that the mainstream media has a vested interest in the problems affecting working-class communities because the subjects fill column inches and can be more easily sensationalised.

This year’s lightning rod came from somebody whose life has been entwined with political struggle and sacrifice.

On the Friday night, when Owen Carron – Bobby Sands’s election agent who would succeed the H-Blocks Hunger Striker to become MP for Fermanagh & South Tyrone – uttered the words “We don’t want to commemorate a republic – we want to live in one”, we were hearing one the most important contributions to the narrative of our contemporary history. 

Owen was reflecting on the topic “What the 1916 Centenary means to me”.

We want to live in a republic. People have died for that ideal. Now we have to display the necessary strength to live for it.

Outside, a light evening mist fell on beautiful Baile Bhúirne while, inside, the Sinn Féin Summer School, brought to a hush by Owen’s emotion, experiences and intellect, wrestled with the past, contended with the present, and embraced the future.

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• Pearse Doherty TD listens to debates before addessing the annual event Photo: Finbarr MacGabhann

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