29 May 2003 Edition
Demanding our rights
Sinn Féin Assembly members, MPs and TDs have called on people to come out today, Thursday 29 May, to protest the cancellation of the elections and demand the right to vote. Events have been organised in over 30 towns and cities across the island, including: Dublin, Belfast, Derry, Cork, Letterkenny, Galway, Wexford, Kildare, Athlone, Sligo, Limerick, Tralee, Waterford, Omagh, Enniskillen, Lurgan, and Strabane. Events will also take place in Britain and in cities across the United States. Speaking in Dublin on Wednesday afternoon, Sinn Féin Chairperson Mitchel McLaughlin said:
"Tomorrow, hundreds of thousands of people throughout the Six Counties should be going to the polls to elect 108 Assembly members and a new cross-party Executive. Instead, the British government has cancelled the elections, shut down the political institutions and created a dangerous political vacuum.
"The cancelling of the elections is wrong and was taken against the wishes of people across the island of Ireland. It is imperative that the British government reverse this decision and set a date for the Assembly elections. I am calling on people to come out tomorrow and demand the right to vote."
"To make conflict a thing of the past and to allow politics to work there has to be a viable political, democratic and peaceful alternative to war," said Martin McGuinness. "The logic of this was accepted not only in the Good Friday Agreement itself, but also in the recently published Joint Declaration.
"The British government had no right to cancel elections in Ireland and the Irish government and indeed all the parties in Leinster House were right to oppose their decision. But that opposition can't be just token opposition - it must be real and vocal opposition.
"The Irish government's status as a joint and co-equal partner in the Good Friday Agreement has to be restored, recognised and defended. Accepting or meekly going along with the British decision is aiding the subversion of democracy that their actions represent.
"The key to making politics work is democracy. That means that people have the right to vote. It means elections and it means elections immediately."
Anger and frustration on streets
This concerted effort around the country due today shows the anger and frustration felt by party members and supporters, who at this point should have been consumed with election fever, caught up in last minute canvassing and endless handshakes, and asking people to use their vote.
In the last two weeks, Sinn Féin has steadily upped the ante, with activities ranging from occupations, mock auctions of the democratic process, the chaining of members to the British Embassy, an advertising campaign in local newspapers, white-line pickets, photo opportunities with Assembly members, and the distribution of tens of thousands of leaflets and erection of 5,000 posters.
Plans for today are even bigger. At 9.30am, the Assembly election candidates and elected representatives will hand in letters of protest to local electoral offices. At 10.30am there will be protests at polling stations throughout Derry. A press conference will be held in Belfast at 11am after which Gerry Adams will hand in a letter of protest to Castle Buildings. There will be city centre and whitelingprotests across the North during the day, culminating with a major rally at Belfast City Hall at 7.30pm.
In Dublin, at 7.30am, 12ft banners calling for democracy and announcing details of tonight's protest at the British Embassy are to be dropped from all the major bridges on the way into the city centre.
At 11am, a picket is to be held outside Leinster House to highlight the Dublin government's role in the election suspension. Throughout the afternoon, pickets will be held at major points in the city centre. In the evening, whiteline pickets will take place throughout the city, followed by a convergence on the British Embassy for 8pm. At the Embassy there will be numerous speakers and the crowd will be joined by a cavalcade travelling in on main routes from throughout Leinster. Everybody will receive a green ribbon and a mock ballot paper, which they will be asked to hold in the air for a minute's silence. At the end of the night people will be asked to cast their vote.
There will be protests in cities and towns across Munster and Connacht/Ulster, while Leinster Sinn Féin is planning pickets at major roads before heading in to meet up with the Dublin Cuige for the rally at the British Embassy.
Today should have been the day the elections took place, so naturally a large part of the campaign has become focused on it. But after today, protests will have to continue if there is to be any progress made on securing an election date in the near future.
Sinn Féin hasn't forgotten this, and more action has been planned for Saturday and for the coming weeks.
Ógra occupies Belfast electoral office
Up to 20 members of Ógra Shinn Féin staged a sit-in protest at the main Belfast electoral office in Church Lane in Belfast City Centre on Thursday 22 May.
Angry at the British government's decision to postpone Thursday's electon, the Ógra protesters decided to take some direct action.
As the group forced their way into the building, they were confronted by a staff member, who warned them that he would call in the PSNI.
Undeterred, the activists took over the entrance hall of the building, where they staged their peaceful protest. When the PSNI did come on the scene, the protesters told them they would continue the protest but that they would not hinder anyone with business in the electoral office.
The Ógra protesters left after 45 minutes.
They were accompanied by Sinn Féin Councillor Michael Ferguson, who was selected by the party to contest the Assembly electon in West Belfast. He told An Phoblacht that "people are angry that the British government, which on the one hand preaches about democracy, has denied to the electorate in the Six Counties their right to exercise the democratic right by cancelling the Assembly election set for Thursday".
Marching for elections in London
BY FERN LANE
Several hundred people marched through central London on Saturday last to protest the British government's cancellation of the election due to have been held in the Six Counties today. They were joined by Sinn Féin Assembly member Dara O'Hagan, who handed in a letter of protest at 10 Downing Street as the march made its way down Whitehall. The march and the rally that followed, was organised by the Wolfe Tone Society as part of its annual James Connolly/Bobby Sands commemoration. The speakers included a young nurse from Palestine, Ghada Al-Najjar, who gave an emotionally-charged account of the horrors the Palestinian people face under Israeli occupation.
Addressing the rally, Dara O'Hagan expressed solidarity with the Palestinian people, explaining that Irish people have an instinctive sympathy with their plight. She also said that, although she was glad to be able to speak to those present, she should actually have been at home in Ireland working alongside her colleagues on the last week of an election campaign - one that would undoubtedly have brought even greater success for Sinn Féin.
The behaviour of the British government needed to be taken in context of the electoral rise of Sinn Féin she said. She explained that when Tony Blair first came to power there had been some hope within republicanism that, because he did not have the political baggage of his predecessors and because of Labour's large majority, he could make a difference to the political landscape of the north of Ireland. But, she said, he has "played the Orange card, yet again, and he upholds the unionist veto, yet again, by postponing elections at the behest of David Trimble.
"Tony Blair should stop behaving like a 19th century British colonial overlord, whether in Iraq or in Ireland. Elections should be called immediately. Democracy is supposed to be about accepting decisions that you mightn't like."
Also speaking was Labour MP John McDonnell, who urged those present to, in the short term, direct their efforts towards campaigning for the reinstatement of the elections. "The Good Friday Agreement was a breakthrough in the negotiating period of the struggle, but what we mustn't do is allow the gains that we made through negotiation to be lost," he said. "That is why we have to wholeheartedly condemn what Blair has done in denying the Irish people in the Six Counties the right to vote.
"There is no point in being a hypocrite, sending troops around the world to bomb people into subjugation and saying it is in the name of democracy when you undermine democracy 350 miles from here.
"Our focus of struggle in this country at the moment should be about the restoration of those elections. We have got to break the unionist veto. Every time Trimble has pleaded with Blair to save his skin, Blair has jumped. What is the next demand? How many more assurances does the IRA have to give?
"We are in a period of peace which many people in this audience only dreamed of 15 years ago, which was unimaginable 20 years ago. And yet Trimble puts all at risk to save his own position within unionism as it disintegrates. To save his own political skin, he puts peace at risk and lives at risk. And at the same time, he strengthens the hands of the real thugs in unionism; the opportunists who are quite happy to see war break out again to further their own political position."
Cancellation of elections is subversion of democracy
SF Dáil motion on peace process
Sinn Féin this week used its second opportunity for Private Members' time in Leinster House to put forward a motion demanding that the British government fully restores the political institutions established under the Agreement. The motion also demands that the British set a date for Assembly elections to be held before end of June; that the Dublin government provide representation in the Dáil for people from the Six Counties and; promote all-Ireland policies and strategies across the full range of governmental responsibilities.
Speaking on Tuesday during the opening of the debate, which was scheduled for discussion on Wednesday also, Sinn Féin TD Aengus Ó Snodaigh said:
"Elections that were to have taken in two days time in Ireland have been unilaterally cancelled by the British. Approximately one million Irish voters will be disenfranchised by this most undemocratic decision.
"Other countries that have cancelled elections are: Lesotho - 1970; Chile - 1973; Algeria - 1992; Sri Lanka - 1998; Nepal - 2002; Georgia - 2003.
"All parties in this House have expressed concern over this move on 7 May, and most expressed their disappointment with it.
"I believe that it is possible for the House to reach a consensus on this issue that Sinn Féin has selected as the subject of our motion at this critical time.
"The British government has no right to cancel elections in Ireland, which derive directly from the Good Friday Agreement and the endorsement of that Agreement by the overwhelming majority of the Irish people.
"The Irish government opposed this. Indeed every political party in Ireland opposed it. Only UUP leader David Trimble and the British government supported this undemocratic action.
"The cancellation of elections is a subversion of democracy.
"In any normal democratic society, a crisis in the political institutions would lead directly to elections to establish a fresh mandate for the political parties. That is the way of democracy. That is the way of politics.
"The cancellation of elections has created a dangerous political vacuum which those opposed to the peace process will seek to fill.
"The British and Irish governments accepted this logic in their recently published Joint Declaration when they said, " the best way of ensuring that peace remains permanent is by demonstrating that politics work." How does canceling democratic elections demonstrate, in any way, that politics work?
"And the damage is compounded by the failure to implement the Agreement in full.
"The key to making politics work is democracy. That means that people have the right to vote. It means elections. Approximately one million Irish citizens have been disenfranchised. We are now left with a very dangerous political vacuum - one that has been filled all too quickly in the past by unionist paramilitaries.
"What needs to happen now is that an election date needs to be set. The institutions need to be re-established and the Agreement implemented in full. Meetings in the absence of this will go nowhere. Issues of human rights and equality and a proper police service cannot be conditional. They are basic democratic rights and the governments must move on these immediately."
"Republicans have lived up to all of our responsibilities under the terms of the
Good Friday Agreement," said Martin Ferris. "Indeed, we have gone way beyond our responsibilities in the interests of making the Agreement work, while others have been actively engaged in trying to wreck it. We have stretched ourselves to breaking point to ensure that the Agreement doesn't unravel.
"We have reached out to unionism. We have sought to accommodate them where we
could. We have made, to what is to many of our supporters, painful and profound compromises to reassure unionists of our bona fides. But to many nationalists and republicans it seems that this is all one-way traffic. There is no evidence from either the British government or the unionists that they are really interested in bringing about the changes that are necessary to ensure that the Agreement not only survives but also flourishes.
"The recent actions of the British government have compounded the sense of anger and frustration that exists within nationalist and republican communities not only in the Six Counties but throughout the island of Ireland.
"It is not good enough to declare that you are opposed to the activities of the British government. It is not good enough to say that it is wrong. There has to be a vocal and physical manifestation of that opposition. The British government cannot be permitted to continue to just walk over the democratic rights and entitlements of Irish people, living north or south.
"But to force the British government to live up to its responsibilities the Irish government must fulfil its own responsibilities under the Good Friday Agreement.
"They must repeal their draconian and repressive legislation that has been introduced during the course of the conflict. They must also release all qualifying prisoners still detained years after they were supposed to be released.
"For our part in this House we have this evening and tomorrow evening in the course of this debate an opportunity to put some of the wrongs that this State was responsible for right. We can state in unequivocal terms, on an all-party basis, our opposition to the anti-democratic actions of the British Government in unilaterally cancelling the 29 May elections. We can demand that Tony Blair re-enfranchise the people of the Six Counties by re-scheduling the elections for the earliest possible date in June. And we can ensure that those people in the Six Counties who aspire to representation in an Irish elected forum rather than Westminster can speak and take part in debates in this House.
"I would urge deputies of all parties to support the motion before us today."
Closing the debate, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin said: "The Irish government and this Dáil must give leadership. We must stand united in opposition to the decision of the British government to cancel democratic elections in Ireland. I welcome the fact TDs across the parties here have expressed their opposition to that decision. The Irish government must act not as a subordinate party in an unequal relationship but as a co-equal partner, and it must vindicate the rights of all Irish citizens."