RFÉ Discusses Today’s Show & the Passing of Jimmy Breslin 25 March 2017

Radio Free Éireann
WBAI 99.5FM Pacifica Radio
The City of New York
listen on the internet: wbai.org Saturdays Noon EST

John McDonagh and Martin Galvin discuss today’s show, Martin McGuinness’ life and legacy and the passing of Jimmy Breslin. (May he rest in peace.) (begins time stamp 00:00)

Audio:  Portion of Martin McGuinness’ speech at the 1986 Sinn Féin Ard Fheis is played. (audio ends)

Martin:  And welcome to Radio Free Éireann. I’m Martin Galvin, I’m in-studio and will be joined in a few moments by John McDonagh by telephone – he’s in Boston. The voice you heard was that of Martin McGuinness. Martin McGuinness certainly somebody who had a major impact on events in Ireland, particularly in The Six Counties, died during the past week. His funeral was attended by the president of Ireland, was attended by Bill Clinton, former United States President, many Irish political figures, from Unionists as well as Nationalists and Republicans, and it is certainly was a life that did have a major impact on events. Today what we’re going to do, and that speech you heard – and we’re going to play clips from that speech, it was one of the most important speeches that he would give. We’re going to hear in a few minutes from Kathryn Johnston, author of Martin McGuinness’ biography, or co-author, From Guns to Government, and that’s going to be a theme – how he went from somebody, a young man from the streets of Doire, from the Bogside who would come from a very religious family, who would come from a Nationalist family, became a Republican, became the leading figure within the Irish Republican Army and how he would ultimately come to be a Deputy First Minister within Stormont and would preside over the Republican Movement coming into that position. We’re going to hear clips from that – that speech in 1986 was indeed a turning point. At that time there was a discussion, or a debate, on whether Sinn Féin should recognise Leinster House, should go into The Twenty-Six County Parliament. There were some who said that that would lead just to a winding down of the IRA – some who said that it would not. Martin McGuinness obviously said it would not. Ironically, at the time that speech was being made, people that I know, like Liam Ryan from East Tyrone, was telling me that there were going to be major developments in Ireland, that there were major new weapons shipments coming into Ireland, that the war would be escalating and not to break from Sinn Féin, not to break from Republicans. And at that time even my mentor, somebody that I looked up to, I had admired – he would have been opposed to that motion with Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and Dáithí Ó Conaill and others – and I ended up siding with Martin McGuinness’ and Gerry Adams’ side at that time. But you’ll be hearing clips, we’ll be talking to Kathryn Johnston – she is as I said, the co-author of the book, Martin McGuinness: From Guns to Government.

We’re going to go to Anthony McIntyre. He’s going to talking about the legacy – a former IRA Volunteer, a writer, author – who writes about the Good Friday Agreement, who has the blog, The Pensive Quill – he’s going to talk about Martin McGuinness’ legacy. And then we’re going to finish up with Ed Moloney, another historian and author who’s had more articles published this week, and Ed is going to talk about what it will mean today as we go back to negotiations – negotiations reach a climactic point on Monday, the absence of Martin McGuinness by Gerry Adams’ side – what that will mean.

Alright John, we have John on the line. John, during the week, after Jimmy Breslin, the legendary New York Irish-American writer, passed away I said to you we’re going to have to cover Jimmy Breslin, that’ll be a major segment of the show and we should line up people like Pete Hamill and others and you told me to wait until Thursday and Friday because you never know – events may take over and change all that and how right you were with the passing of Martin McGuinness.  John, are you there up in Boston?

John:  Yeah, yeah, no – we would have done more of a tribute.

Jimmy Breslin walks the drab Queens Boulevard strip in 1986. (Nancy Kaye for The Washington Post)

But if you really want to hear a great tribute to Jimmy Breslin: Last Wednesday on a show I host on WBAI called Talk Back We and Thee, with Malachy McCourt and Corey Kilgannon from the New York Times,  we did an hour and a half on the life of Jimmy Breslin with Stephen Murphy, who’s a infamous lawyer there at Queen’s Boulevard, Malachy McCourt, also with Chickie Donohue, from the Sandhogs and Johnny Sexton, one of the Cuba Boys, talking about a story about Jimmy Breslin in Sunnyside. So instead of repeating all of that you can just go to the archives on WBAI.

And it is significant that we opened up with that speech from 1986. I remember I was over in Bundoran at that time, speaking with Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and saying: Listen, don’t walk out. Fight from with inside the movement and he had told me at that stage: It’s all over. McGuinness and Adams were going to go into Leinster House then they were going to Stormont and Westminster. And how true he was when he made the statement and his speech. I also want to thank the New York Times, (they) actually used this video in the obituary of Martin McGuinness how he went – you talk about a rigged election – there was noting more rigged than that 1986 Ard Fheis in Dublin where Martin McGuinness was spewing lie after lie at that time saying that the struggle was going continue. Meanwhile, he was negotiating for the surrender of the IRA which Anthony McIntyre will be talking about in a little while. And just a few observation on the funeral that happened with Martin McGuinness: The Loyalist politicians had stated to Sinn Féin if there was any military trappings for the funeral of Martin McGuinness that they would not show up. So the funeral was devoid of any military trappings because they wanted desperately for the Loyalist politicians to show up at the funeral. And then I talked to many people in Doire who said the height of hypocrisy on Thursday was the turning up of certain groups in Doire to the funeral who would be considered dissidents. And they said one of the groups that turned up was the 1916 Societies who turned up for the funeral in Doire. So it’s very hard to reconcile that you’re year-after-year criticising Martin McGuinness and criticising Sinn Féin and then turning up for the funeral and that didn’t go unnoticed over there in Doire.

Martin:  John, just let me reply. You told me you were going to mention that. I did speak to somebody from the 1916 Societies. What they said is first of all, there’s nothing on their Facebook – they made no statement about Martin McGuinness, did not encourage anybody to go. They were concerned about who had said it but beyond that – there are people, I know people in Doire, like one person who we would be very friendly with, runs commemorations – his son, Martin McGuinness was his godfather and they had family connections back and forth. So people, some people went to the funeral. They said – for example, I’m somebody who has very strong political differences with Martin McGuinness – he went back and forth even just the last few times I was in Ireland and you would still – there are some people who, because of family connections, who because they know his wife, his sons, because of that would go and just show respect for the family connections, while maintaining very strong political differences. I was just asked to say that. People can draw whatever conclusions they want and again, I’m talking as somebody that Martin McGuinness – I mean the last time I was in Ireland there was a documentary that I appeared in and he said: Oh, they brought over ‘someone from America’. I knew him from the 1970’s. I actually got arrested because he had encouraged me to do so and thought it would make a point and that’s how much respect I had for him at one time. And anybody who listens to the show knows there’s strong political differences but again, some people would go to a funeral because of family connections, because of respect for his family and I’ll just put that out that it didn’t necessarily mean that they were taking any kind of political stance.

John:  Well, I know that but Martin, the reason a lot of people showed up there, like you could say President Clinton and various British politicians is because that Martin McGuinness went over to their point of view. It wasn’t as if President Clinton and Tony Blair and all the British politicians that all of a sudden they went over to a Republican point of view. They were honouring Martin McGuinness for having the IRA surrender and for him to meet with the Queen and have tea and for him to administer British rule in Ireland. And that’s what they were honouring on Thursday.

Martin:  And that’s what I think Kathryn Johnston and Anthony McIntyre are both going to talk about: Who actually won the struggle, where Martin McGuinness’ legacy was in terms of that and the fact that they will make the point or make the argument that it couldn’t have ended in that fashion without Martin McGuinness. So we are going to talk about that. I understand that. I just want to say you can go to a funeral sometimes and respect, just remember somebody or out of respect for their family without an endorsement of their political views. Certainly the British and Arlene Foster, when they came, they were not trying to talk or endorse anything to do with Martin McGuinness’ political views. So just I was asked to make that point…

John:  …Well, no. They were there because of his political views…

Martin:  …people can draw their own conclusion and I just wanted, in fairness, to say that.

John:  But, Martin, they were there because of his political views. Because they went there because he administered British rule in Ireland. So they were definitely there because of his political views.

Martin:  John, one of the things I want to ask Kathryn Johnston – she made the point: Could anyone else have brought the IRA to a cessation of violence without an admission of defeat? She made that point in one of her articles. That’s the question I want to ask her. That’s the very point that you’re saying so we’re in, you know… You and I in a debate a long time ago, that’s how I got blacklisted for a long time, and we both made that point: That if you agree that The Six Counties having a say – that they have to agree with ending British rule before there’d be a united Ireland – you’re giving up the Unionist veto, you’re surrendering or acknowledging or giving away or allowing them to have that veto. You’re establishing – they call it the consent principle, we would call it a Unionist veto – and that’s how the struggle ended up – with the Unionist veto in place – call it a consent principle but you’re right. We don’t have a united Ireland. Martin McGuinness a couple of times – I was giving speeches in Ireland talking about how we were not getting to a united Ireland. And I know I was in Doire and the next day he said: Oh, we’re going to have a united Ireland within five years and that was in 2009. Obviously we didn’t get to that point. Much like Joe Cahill had said the same thing in 1998 – that we’d have a united Ireland by 2003. So we’re in agreement on that. But let’s just get into the legacy – what has happened and why is it that we ended up here? What was it about Martin McGuinness that he got involved in armed struggle, that he took up the gun, fought or played a leading role with the IRA and ended up, as you say, sitting in Stormont as a Deputy First Minister of a British administration?

John: Alright. I guess we’ll just get on with the show because we have so many guests that are lined up.

Martin:  Okay. I just want to say one thing about Jimmy Breslin: If you look at our website, rfe123.org, there were two articles, one in June 9th 1979 (page 3) – two issues – and one in October 18th 1980 (page 7) – it’s perfect. It goes through Jimmy talking about the Irish situation. In one of them he talks about people with relatives in South Armagh who were told by the American government: You shouldn’t contribute money to send weapons over to South Armagh to be used against British forces but how the American government was allowing guns to be sold to the people who were shooting their families – just a typical Jimmy Breslin perspective. And another one about Fra McCann, a former blanketman, and Dessie Mackin, who was out here to help with coordinating the blanket protests at the start of 1980 about Jimmy Breslin writing that. So go to those articles. You’ll see exactly the type of thing that Jimmy Breslin used to write. (ends time stamp ~ 14:28)

John McDonagh, RFÉ Co-Host, Reviews the Film, Bobby Sands: 66 Days 19 November 2016

Radio Free Éireann
WBAI 99.5FM Pacifica Radio
New York City
listen on the internet: wbai.org Saturdays Noon EST

John McDonagh (JM) gives us a review of the film, Bobby Sands: 66 Days and discusses the film with Co-Host Martin Galvin (MG). (begins time stamp ~ 7:09)

JM:   And now the rest of the show is going to be about this documentary that’s out. It’s called Bobby Sands: 66 Days. It has a two week engagement from November 30th to December 13th at The Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, just west of 6th Avenue, and the screenings are at 12:30, 2:45, 5:10, 7:30 and 9:45.

I went to see it at a press screening on Thursday and here at Radio Free Éireann we covered the 1981 hunger strike starting in 1981 and really, based on the 1981 hunger strike, that’s how the radio show started here at WBAI. I went with David Rothenberg and when we came out of there, David had said to me – and it was good to talk to someone who wasn’t involved with the Republican struggle – he said that he only thought that Bobby Sands had died; he didn’t realise that nine other people died and he didn’t realise the role that Maggie Thatcher played in the hunger strike. And one of the things that came out in the documentary, because they have some people that worked in her Cabinet, is that Margaret Thatcher was in a tough place. It was the Labour government in 1976, there was what was known as ‘special category status’, which was political status for anyone that was in the IRA caught in the Six Counties they were arrested by the British Army, they went through a Diplock court, a special court, and then they went into special prisons where they actually ran the prisons.

At midnight on a certain date in 1976 doing the exact same, whatever you say, ‘activity’, you were now an ‘ODC’, an ordinary decent criminal as they called it, and Maggie Thatcher had no room to manoeuvre because she would have looked weak on terrorism had she tried to backtrack on what the Labour government brought in – it wasn’t her government that brought it in – she just kept it going so that was a very good historical point of view that they brought up. Also during that time, to show how sectarian the vote was: My aunt and uncle live in Co. Fermanagh. Bobby Sands ran for the office in Fermanagh/South Tyrone. My Uncle Peter and Aunt Julia – I called them up about the vote because then I went shortly over and I ended up living in Donegal with my uncle and I went to at least four of the funerals and wakes of the hunger strikers. My Uncle Peter, who’s more of a Nationalist and a Republican voted for Bobby Sands and I asked Julia: Who did you vote for? She said: I hate the IRA. I hate what Bobby Sands stands for. Well I said: Who’d you vote for? Well, I had to vote for him. I couldn’t vote for the other crowd – which was the Protestant crowd and it just showed how sectarian it was. Also when I was going to see the documentary, I went to the BBC Ulster website and the lead story was part of Long Kesh is now being turned into a heliport for medical reasons. So instead of turning into what Dublin did, Kilmainham, it is now being turned into anything than what Long Kesh was so I thought that was a bit of an irony about what was going on.

And I kept an eye out for artwork during it. And sure enough towards the end they showed a piece of Boston Irish Northern Aid and they went to a table where there was tee shirts and bumper stickers and there it was –

Irish Northern Aid-Irish Prisoners of War Committee, April 1981 Brian Mór Ó Baoigill, artist AIA Dig ID 0010PL02 © 2001 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Irish Northern Aid-Irish Prisoners of War Committee, April 1981
Brian Mór Ó Baoigill, artist
AIA Dig ID 0010PL02
© 2001 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Brian Mór Ó Baoighill’s artwork on the table. And I always think: You cannot do anything about the 1981 hunger strike and not have some of his artwork in it.

What also struck me was everyone carrying the black flags – I remember when I was over there there was black flags literally from Dublin to Donegal on every telephone post – all the way up and it was very ominous when you were over there during the hunger strike on that.

One of the wishes – I wish it could have incorporated, although it’s an hour and fifteen minutes, is what happened outside of the prison – the diaspora of, in America – there’s a little piece on that – in London, in Scotland – but, I understand, you can only get so much in it. They had an interview with the prison guard and it was great to have his point of view because how he hated the men that were in there who were on the hunger strike and dirty protest because now he had to live through it and it was great to see his point of view. Now you can argue about a movie and an interpretation but here it was – a prison guard who actually was there – and his hatred of the IRA in the prison because, at that stage, they had killed ten prison guards and he goes into that – that that was his friends being killed.

Now Fintan O’Toole, who’s a writer for the Irish Times and used to hang out at Rocky Sullivan’s on Lexington Avenue, I met him a couple of times down there, he does the narration and puts it into an historical point of view. That is the one thing you could quibble about because it’s not actual facts – it’s his interpretation – how culturally Bobby Sands is looked at throughout the Irish culture and world culture. There was two people from the United States in there: It was Father Seán McManus, who runs a one-man show down in Washington DC called the Irish National Caucus (or something like that), he was in it and he had a good point of view and he stuck to it: That the people to blame for not getting the word out in the United States was the Irish government, particularly Seán Donlon, and what he kept saying is that anytime that he wanted to bring up something on Capitol Hill it was the Irish, Twenty-six County government blocking him. And then you go to Seán Donlon – and there’s a special place in Hell for him during this time period – he was talking about Irish Northern Aid and what was going on in the United States and he said that their slogan was very simple: Brits Out. And he said from our point of view, and he meant from the Twenty-Six County point of view, that was very difficult to counteract because the problem was ‘more complex than that’ – so that there was good to have. And then an other ‘Irish-American’ was an Italian guy from the Bronx and it was so good to see Mario Biaggi, Congressman Mario Biaggi, during the hunger strike talking about it at a podium in Congress. And if anyone should have been in that documentary, in Congress – and not Tip O’Neill and not Ronald Reagan and not Kennedy but it was our own Mario Biaggi from the Bronx.

The other thing is they put Bobby Sands in a world context of Che Guevara and Mahatma Gandhi and Terence MacSwiney and the effect that the hunger strikes had worldwide and I thought that was very good.

That’s it, basically. On a documentary, I’m going to tell you, it’s very hard to argue with that person who says: ‘I was there’. This is not a movie. And I would recommend it because any time you can get out and have a debate on what happened in 1981 it’s a good day and to have people that were involved actually have the debate – particularly that we’re going to have on later, Dixie Elliott from Doire, about his impressions of the film itself. And I know Martin and Dixie were both filmed for it but, as I say, you didn’t make the final cut.

MG:   John, one of the things that I was disappointed – I haven’t seen the film but just from what you’ve told me and what I’ve heard from others – is that the American dimension and all the work that was done in the United States – all of the people, the thousands who came out day after day was not fully taken into account because at the beginning of the first hunger strike – Brendan Hughes in 1980 – he had actually issued a special appeal to Irish Northern Aid saying that America was England’s weak point – that is something that Richard O’Rawe, who was the PRO (Public Relations Officer) for the hunger strike in 1981, the point that that made and everybody seems to indicate that that’s what the British were concerned about. They didn’t care how many Nationalists in The North of Ireland…

JM:   …And the Irish government. Never mind the British government. And they didn’t even get into what the British were doing because they were saying: That’s an internal problem. It was the Twenty-Six County government.

MG:   They were all concerned – we’ve lost our credibility – we can’t represent them – people are following them – Michael Flannery is going to be elected Grand Marshal in the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade – it’s hard to imagine now but from every day of that hunger strike you would have, literally, thousands of people in New York, in Albany, in Boston, in Philadelphia, in San Francisco, in Detroit, in other cities around the country every single day – they would be out there. The news coverage would start with what was happening in the Irish hunger strike. The Northern Aid office – I would be up there at five or six o’clock in the morning to do press releases. We’d be there for the day. We’d do the newspaper. Brian did everything at night to try and get out/create posters. Mike Costello would deliver the newspapers – I’ll never forget. I thought he lived like a few feet away just over the bridge and it was hours away. Everybody, thousands upon thousands of people – if somebody died there would be people in front of the (British) Consulate hour upon hour until the burial.

JM:   But Martin, that is a separate documentary. It wasn’t about America. It was about Bobby Sands – his sixty-six days. I mean what you’re talking about – that’s a documentary on its own.

MG:   But that was the crucial thing through all that period of time that would have had an impact on the British, that would have had an impact on the government.

JM:   The crucial thing was him being elected into Westminster – now come on. You’re giving what was going on in America – the fight was going on – there’s no fight going on there – if he doesn’t get elected into Parliament, and they get into the strategy – if he lost by one vote Maggie Thatcher would have been on TV saying: See, they have no support. And they get into the strategy that it was very risky because, as we know, you don’t know how elections go. I mean America played a role but the documentary is not about America. It’s about Bobby Sands and Long Kesh.

MG:   I think if you look at this in reality America had a much stronger role than it did and, unfortunately, people like Tip O’Neill, like Ted Kennedy, the Four Horsemen. I remember writing an editorial (on page 4 -Ed.) – it’s in the Irish People – at the end of the first hunger strike – that if they had simply done anything it might have been enough so that there never would have been a hunger strike that Bobby Sands would have been on. It just brings back so many memories – you’re talking about Kieran Nugent as a young man being the first blanketman after being arrested after March 1st 1976. The reason that there was a publicity department I was asked to run, there was a re-organisation within Irish Northern Aid, was because of the appeal by Brendan Hughes and others who were on the blanket protest. So so much would have been different, so much was changed, so much in term of Irish-America in terms of the public reaction to British rule and our slogan at that time was not Brits Out – it was supporting the five demands. They wanted to end the hunger strike to get some kind of recognition or new conditions to stop the beatings, to stop the brutality because what Thatcher was doing, and what people should understand, she was trying to make people who were in jail for political offences, who saw themselves as a continuation of 1916 of the old struggle to be independent and free, she was trying to dress them up in a criminal uniform to say that they were now criminals, that the whole struggle was criminals, that everything was a criminal struggle, that anybody who was against British rule was a criminal. And that’s why Kieran Nugent went on protest. That’s why Bobby Sands and Tom McElwee and Joe McDonnell and the others died – that’s what sustained them throughout the beatings, throughout the protests, throughout everything that was inflicted upon them.

JM:   Yeah so as you can see there was a lot of passion – it was a passionate time. What we want to do now is to go to the trailer to the movie, 66 Days, and when we come out of that we’re going to head over to Doire and speak to someone who was in the prison during the hunger strike and knew Bobby Sands and – oh, one of the other things: The most iconic photo of Bobby Sands is the one with his arms around Denis Donaldson. And they featured that in that and they said that was the photo of his image, although it’s cropped to just show his face, but when they show the actual photograph Bobby Sands went in one direction with the hunger strike and Denis Donaldson ended up being an MI5 agent working here in New York City. And that’s, Martin, when you see it you’re going to be picking out – Oh, look at that photo – Oh, I remember what happened that time – I remember the phone call you got at the office at that time – and that’s where it will bring back all the memories. But to get into what was actually going on in the prison we’re going to speak to Dixie Elliott in about two minutes.

Audio:   Trailer for the film, Bobby Sands: 66 Days, is played. (ends time stamp ~ 22:33)