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25 February 2010 Edition

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2010 Sinn Féin Ard Fheis: International Le Chéile Honouree

Redmond O’Neill: Lifelong socialist and internationalist


The Le Chéile award for International Contribution will this year be a particularly poignant and moving occasion, as it is being awarded to the late Redmond O’Neill, my long-time friend and comrade, who died on 21 October last year after a three-year battle against cancer.
The Irish Post summed up the feelings of many when they said it was the ‘loss of an Irish great’. That Redmond will receive the award, to be presented to his long-term partner, Kate Hudson, represents a recognition of Redmond’s immense contribution, and with his family, friends and comrades present, it will be a proud and fitting occasion.
Indeed, upon his death last year, the breadth of tributes paid to Redmond and those present at his funeral in London’s Highgate cemetery, appropriately near the grave of Karl Marx, reflected the immeasurable role he played on many issues.
He earned the distinction of being mourned by people across the world – in Ireland, Venezuela, the Middle East and in almost all of London’s diverse communities whose rights, particularly during his time working for London Mayor Ken Livingstone, he championed.
Sinn Féin’s Pat Doherty, Ken Livingstone, Diane Abbott MP, Anas Altikriti from the British Muslim Initiative, and Venezuelan Ambassador Samuel Moncada joined Kate and his sisters to reflect on Redmond’s life and political work.
Tributes came from far and wide, including Venezuela’s Foreign Minister, Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams, the Cuban Ambassador, the Deputy Director General of the International Department of the Chinese Communist Party, campaigns such as Unite Against Fascism and Stop the War Coalition, senior members of London’s government, many MPs such as Jeremy Corbyn, and many Irish organisations and publications such as the Labour Party Irish Society, Irish Post and Irish World newspapers and others.
In recent years, Redmond was particularly known as a special adviser to Ken Livingstone during his time as Mayor of London, where he was responsible for many key areas. His work pioneered the deal between London and Venezuela, and bringing President Chavez to the city. His title of Deputy Chief of Staff understated the critical role he played in shaping progressive policies whose legacy will continue.
Among his proudest achievements was his role in transforming the St Patrick’s Parade into one of London’s largest festivals, giving it London’s official backing. As Ken Livingstone points out, Redmond was so incredibly proud of the unprecedented crowds who filled the streets, with Tricolours flying in Trafalgar Square – a venue where Irish events were previously banned.
Born in London in 1954, the second of five children, Redmond’s parents, like many in Ireland at the time, had left their home in Tipperary to make a life in the city. Indeed, Redmond’s entire life’s politics were deeply shaped by his Irish heritage.
A lifelong socialist and internationalist, at the core of his socialist beliefs was a fundamental understanding of colonialism and racism. This is why Redmond not only played a role in support for Irish reunification over many decades but also on every other international question in opposing the consequences and offensiveness of imperialism. He was active in many anti-war campaigns, most recently opposing the war on Iraq and the assault on Gaza.
His strong opposition to the racism which accompanied many of these right-wing offensives is reflected in the warm tributes, notably from the Muslim community, who regarded him as their brother.
Diane Abbott drew out these points, explaining how Redmond’s definition of class politics was not narrow – he rightly saw that the issue of racism and colonialism were central, and that the working class in Britain had to recognise this in order to succeed in terms of their own struggle because, like the divisions with the Irish working class a century ago, failure to confront bigotry, backwardness and racism would absolutely result in failure and defeat.
On Ireland, as Gerry Adams said, Redmond had throughout his life played a pivotal role in many campaigns. Redmond was absolutely clear that, for the Left and progressive people in Britain, one’s attitude to the Irish national liberation struggle was an absolutely key and fundamental issue. Ireland’s right to self-determination Redmond understood as an ongoing and irreducible demand. He spent a lot of time working out the best way to campaign and explain in order to win the maximum support for that in Britain.
Redmond also understood, and strongly agreed with, the development of Sinn Féin’s strategy, most recently seeing the party’s electoral support soar, grow into a mass all-Ireland party, develop the Peace Process and bring about the Good Friday Agreement.
Up until the days before his death Redmond was centrally involved in developing the strategy for the campaign in Britain, to open up a debate on Irish unity. Redmond was a key part of the team organising last week’s conference in London. In dedicating the conference to Redmond’s memory, Pat Doherty said that Redmond had always argued that Irish unity was ‘inevitable’.
It is hard to understate the value of Redmond’s contribution in many tactical discussions, practical advice and political insight on this and many other issues.
Redmond’s great virtue was to see that the road to socialism and a better political future would be very long and hard, and so it was important to welcome any person who walked along the road with you, even if only part of the way. In other words, many people will not share every aspect of one’s politics but on some issues their support will be invaluable. Redmond totally understood this, respecting and valuing all views, which made him extremely effective in working with others, ensuring broad alliances and maximum capacity on specific issues. That is why he was so respected and why the tributes following his death have been so wide. It is an important lesson to heed.
As Redmond’s friend, having known and worked with him politically for more than 25 years, it is hard to put into words how deeply his loss is felt. My memories of Redmond are of a razor-sharp political insight, enthusiasm and generosity, a loyal friend with immense integrity and principles. He worked harder than most people ever do, even when he was very sick, but in reality he did not consider this to be work because working to change society was to him the most valuable and enjoyable thing he believed he could ever do with his life.
The dedication to him reads, ‘You dedicated your life to the cause of humanity,’ and he did so with enthusiasm. He always said that he considered this a privilege, as many are forced to spend their lives as just another cog in the wheel.
He loved life and lived it to the full. He was a wonderful, funny person to spend time with, a great cook and an enthusiastic singer – particularly on the stage during the London St Patrick’s Day finale.
He often said that he may only have a grain of sand to throw in, but he wanted to make sure he threw it in on the right side – and in reality he did much, much more than that.
He would have felt immensely honoured to receive the award, and he always said to me it was a privilege to work with and support the Sinn Féin leadership and to do anything possible to support the cause of Ireland. In the company of Kate, and Redmond’s family, including his uncle Albert Henchy and sister Ann Martin, and with friends and comrades, it will be a privilege to honour Redmond at the Le Chéile. We were all very lucky to know and spend time with Redmond. He is irreplaceable but his example and irrepressible spirit remain an inspiration for the future.
Redmond O’Neill 1954-2009

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