Suzanne Breen RFÉ 11 March 2017

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John McDonagh and Martin Galvin speak to award winning journalist Suzanne Breen via telephone from Belfast about the reaction of the Unionist and Loyalist communities to the results of the recent snap election in The North of Ireland. (begins time stamp ~ 18:45)

Martin:  With us on the line – we’re very fortunate we have two of the best known, prize winning journalists and commentators on the Irish situation. The first of them is Belfast-based Suzanne Breen. Suzanne, welcome back to Radio Free Éireann.

Suzanne:   Thank you, Martin.

Martin:  Suzanne, the last time we talked to you we were talking about ‘roll-over Republicanism’, we were talking about a situation where Arlene Foster, who’s the head of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), seemed to be unassailable. She had a big majority in Stormont. It seemed like she was a new beginning to the Democratic Unionist Party – a departure – somebody more moderate, more liberal, more open to the views of Nationalists and Catholics than certainly than the founding member of the party had been in his early days, Ian Paisley, or Peter Robinson had been in the early founding of the DUP. We’re now in a completely different situation. I just want to read a quote from an MLA, Members of the Legislative Assembly, a Unionist who lost her seat – Jo-Anne Dobson, she said this:

Arlene Foster has done more, in my living memory, against unionism by not stepping aside. The cost has been sixteen unionist seats. One woman has been responsible for five hard-working, good women losing their seats. She weakened unionism and helped the Irish nationalist cause. She projected an atmosphere of fear during the election. The election was a hammer-blow for Unionists. Why couldn’t Arlene Foster have just stepped aside?

How representative is that view – that somebody from a different party, but it’s an official Unionist party, who lost her seat – how representative is that comment of the attitude now within Unionism as to the election and how did things change so fast and so dramatically?

Suzanne:   Well Arlene Foster has turned from being her party’s greatest asset to being its greatest liability. She was asked by Sinn Féin to stand aside for what would have been three weeks and she refused. I think her party and herself made a call that Sinn Féin was so addicted to holding power at Stormont and to the institutions that it would capitulate on this demand as it had given into the DUP before and been exceedingly tolerant and always climbed down and Sinn Féin didn’t do that. And Arlene Foster’s behaviour during the election campaign was so obnoxious to Nationalists that even the most moderate voters came out to oppose her. She talked about Republicans and Nationalists being ‘crocodiles’ that had an insatiable appetite and she used language that really belonged to the last century – language that wouldn’t have been expected to her and language that was interpreted as arrogant, patronising and sectarian. So while the DUP’s number of first preference votes in the election actually went up Sinn Féin’s votes rocketed and they came within just a thousand votes of being the main political party in Northern Ireland. The DUP won two hundred and twenty-five thousand four hundred and thirteen. Sinn Féin won two hundred and twenty-four thousand two hundred and forty-five. And also, very importantly, while the DUP won twenty-eight seats in the new Assembly Sinn Féin won twenty-seven and if you add in the left-wing People Before Profit, who believe in a united Ireland even though they don’t class themselves as Nationalists, the two parties are virtually tied. The DUP lost ten seats in this election. Sinn Féin lost only one which was quite an achievement given that the number of seats were decreasing from a hundred and eight to ninety.

So Sinn Fein is now neck-and-neck with the DUP and Nationalists, when you add in the SDLP (Social Democratic and Labour Party) are neck-and-neck with Unionists, which is the DUP and the more moderate Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). So really Arlene Foster has brought her party and Unionism from a position of great strength, just ten months ago, to a position now of huge weakness. The election result has been a huge psychological blow for Unionists. There is talk now of Unionist pacts, Unionist coalitions and Unionism is really under pressure and feels much, much weaker than it has at any point in the past two decades. And what a lot of Unionists are saying is this all could have been avoided, this election needn’t have happened had Arlene Foster stood aside before Christmas for three short weeks – this really wouldn’t have happened and had she not angered the Nationalist community so much during the election campaign. Yes, her own party’s vote held up but she drove so many Nationalists into voting for Sinn Féin and she has been described as Gerry Adams’ and Sinn Féin’s greatest recruiting sergeant either. So her message of loathing against Sinn Féin brought out her own supporters but it brought out far, far more Nationalists. It was a double-edged sword.

Martin:  Suzanne, they are now in talks. I believe the first week is just about finished. They have three weeks to convene a new government wherein Sinn Féin would agree to nominate a Deputy First Minister, the DUP would nominate the First Minister and that must be done in order to convene a government. Sinn Féin has said so far that they will not go in and will not do that unless Arlene Foster stands aside while the RHI, the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal, is dealt with. They’re in talks right now. How does Arlene Foster – during the campaign she portrayed Gerry Adams as some kind of bogeyman, she was there to stop his agenda. She said Michelle O’Neill, who would be the candidate or the leader of Sinn Féin in The North, was merely somebody that Gerry Adams had installed and would instruct and was not an independent person. How does Arlene Foster, having campaigned on the basis of: A vote for me is a vote to stop them and block them – how does she now go into negotiations and try to form a government with Sinn Féin within a couple of more weeks?

Suzanne:   Well there’s always this game that is played between the DUP and Sinn Féin and there’s a big amount of hypocrisy in it. It was played ten months ago when the DUP election campaign was run on the grounds of ‘vote for Arlene because you might get Martin McGuinness as First Minister’. And yet after the election the parties settled down very happily in government together. In some ways they really need each other because all the fear they instill – if you don’t vote for me you get ‘them’ – that’s the game that encourages their voters to come out in large numbers but they do settle down and do do business after the election. The key question is here is whether Sinn Féin will do a u-turn on its demand that Arlene Foster step aside? The party is saying that she still does have to step aside until an inquiry into RHI is over. Now that inquiry could take between six months and probably actually a year and Sinn Féin has said that this is a red line for it. Now many people have heard of Sinn Féin red lines before and they do shift but it would be very, very hard for the party to surrender on this one. It has just won an election; it has a huge vote and there is a lot of anger in Nationalist areas against Arlene Foster and it would seem to be a pretty poor strategy if the party threw that away and alienated the voters that it is so happy to have won back because until now the whole drift in recent elections had been for a decreasing vote for Sinn Féin. It was very much losing touch with its grassroots, its voters were disillusioned and they have now been energised back into supporting the party and it would seem quite strange for Sinn Fein to throw this away and to immediately go into government with Arlene Foster.

What Sinn Féin is saying as a possible compromise is that Arlene Foster could be a minister in the new government but not First Minister, not having the top job but that she would get that job if and when she was exonerated by the public inquiry that is taking place. Now on the other hand, some people think that Sinn Féin is so wedded again to power at Stormont and will so much want to get the institutions up and running again that this will, this demand that Arlene step aside, will be brushed side. I think that’s pretty unlikely. I think Sinn Féin will, so to speak, hold onto its guns on this one and Arlene will make some kind of announcement that if an overall, if a big deal with Sinn Féin can be done for the sake of Northern Ireland she will step out of the limelight, out of being First Minister, for a period of months until the whole RHI issue is resolved.

John:   (station identification) And with us on the line from Belfast is Suzanne Breen who writes for the Belfast Telegraph. Suzanne, this has been an earthquake within the Loyalist community and you read some of the reactions – can you tell us: Why is it that the Loyalist paramilitaries, say like the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), gets no support. And I read an article that there’s anger within the Loyalist paramilitaries, particularly the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), that they’re getting jittery and they’re thinking about going back to the guns and all this other stuff but there’s just sheer panic within the Loyalist community and that Gerry Adams might overplay his hand for a united Ireland but maybe describe for our audience: Why is there such a panic, and even in particularly with the Loyalist paramilitaries, about this vote?

Suzanne:  Well it just – Unionist have been used to having quite a numerical lead over Nationalists in elections and you know – they’re used to ruling the roost and this really has put fear in them. As I said before it is a major psychological issue. They now see this on the march and this on the rise – Nationalist community – its commentators widely said that Arlene wakened the sleeping giant of Nationalist voters so you know they have a lot to get used to. I don’t believe for one second that it is going to lead to Loyalist paramilitaries restarting their campaign again. I think they were ultimately controlled, at some type of central level, by elements of the British state and I don’t think that that British state wants to destabilise Northern Ireland which is ticking away quite nicely at the minute. In terms of Unionist voters they have never really supported the Loyalist paramilitary parties. Even people who would support the Loyalist paramilitaries they tend to vote DUP at elections. The Loyalist paramilitary parties, the Progressive Unionist Party, which would be seen as the political wing of the UVF, it manages to get a few councillors elected but even gone are the days where it would get someone elected to the Assembly. Even when it was getting people elected to the Assembly it was only one or two members. It really didn’t catch on within the Unionist community and it’s not going to do that now but I think certain people sense fear that Loyalists back on the streets with their guns. I think that’s wrong. Loyalist paramilitaries are still active but it’s mainly in terms of extorting money from within their own community and intimidation. They’re not really active in terms of targeting Catholics.

Martin:  Alright Suzanne, just we’re coming towards the end – I want to get off the sixty-four thousand dollar question: Mike Nesbitt, the leader of the official Ulster Unionist (Party), has resigned. How safe is Arlene Foster? Is there any movement within her party that she should stand aside permanently? And what happens next? We have a couple of weeks, if there is no deal there’s a possibility of a prospect of new elections or it could be an extension of time – what are your predictions as to Arlene Foster and what will happen next in terms of re-convening Stormont?

Suzanne:  Well the Ulster Unionist leader, Mike Nesbitt, was actually very gracious, very dignified. He fell on his sword, took responsibility for his poor election result. Arlene Foster isn’t going to do that and she will not be shifted as DUP leader but the key question is: Will she step aside as First Minister of Northern Ireland while remaining DUP leader? Personally, I think she will. There are certainly senior people in the party who are briefing against her, who think that she has seriously damaged the party but she maintains the support of people like deputy leader, Nigel Dodds, and if the DUP moves against her it won’t be in the face of a very aggressive Sinn Féin because it just wouldn’t do that. It will be in the months ahead that she may be sidelined. She may find it difficult to get back the First Minister position but the DUP is not going to dump Arlene Foster just because Gerry Adams is asking – so that would look disastrous. There are three weeks for Sinn Féin and the DUP to reach a deal. Most observers believe that that is probably a very, very difficult task. No one would think that Northern Ireland is going to go back to direct rule. Probably the Secretary of State, James Brokenshire, will fiddle with the rules to allow devolution to somehow be suspended to give the parties maybe extra weeks or months to reach a deal. Another question is whether Sinn Féin actually does want a deal or does it think that, in reality, Stormont rule isn’t working for it and actually the fact that the DUP just won’t compromise enough means that Sinn Féin’s involvement in the Executive, which is very unpopular, or whether Sinn Féin – the Executive offers massive powers of patronage, it offers salaries for Sinn Féin MLAs, it’s money going into the party’s coffers – whether it’s actually prepared to jeopardise that for political and ideological goals? Those are the key questions.

Martin:   Alright, Suzanne, we want to thank you. We’re then going to try and get the Nationalist perspective in a moment from Ed Moloney. Thank you for a tremendous amount of information and condensing it in a very short period of time.

Suzanne:   Okay. Thanks. (ends time stamp ~ 35:02)

Suzanne Breen RFÉ 14 January 2017

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John McDonagh (JM) and Martin Galvin (MG) speak to award-winning Belfast journalist Suzanne Breen (SB) via telephone from Belfast who delivers insightful commentary on the future of government in The North of Ireland in the wake of the collapse of Stormont. (begins time stamp ~ 33:50)

JM:   Well right now we’re going to head back to Belfast and speak with Suzanne Breen who writes for many publications north and south of the border and maybe she can give us an overall view of what’s going on. And I just want to remind our audience that: Here in New York City our population is eight point five million. We have fifty-one Council members to distribute the budget and to run the City of New York. Over in the Six Counties they are at one point six million. They have a hundred and eight MLAs at the moment; they’re going to reduce it to ninety people. So they have probably one of the greatest representations of the people living in a small area and for that little area it certainly causes a lot of problems. And Suzanne, are you on the line?

SB:   I am indeed, John. Hi!

JM:   Yeah I just wanted to go – when we have people over from Belfast and I take them down to City Hall and around they can’t believe how small our City Hall is and they’re comparing it to something like Stormont, which is this great edifice outside of Belfast. But it’s so grandiose – the people over there with the huge buildings and then the titles of ‘Lord Mayor’ and everything and then how many representatives are from just that small area of the island.

SB:  Yes well, I mean Stormont is a stunningly beautiful building – gorgeous marble, corridors inside, chandeliers – it really looks the part. The problem is that what transpires inside is more like the end of a Christmas pantomime than serious politics so its inhabitants have very much let their surroundings down.

MG:  Suzanne, this is Martin Galvin. I just was going through some of our old interviews and on November 21st there was joint piece, it was put together by Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness, it was printed in the Irish News and it said: ‘this is what delivery looks like’, ‘no gimmicks’, ‘no grandstanding’ just the ministers ‘getting on with the work’ and everything looked like the government would last for five years, they couldn’t have been working together more happily according to that piece, which was only about six weeks ago. And now we’re in a position where it looks like a British minister may be calling an election, where the government has completely collapsed, where Martin McGuinness has resigned. What happened in those few weeks?

SB:  Well basically when Sinn Féin and the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) were saying everything was hunky dory they weren’t completely telling the truth because the DUP was not willing to share power in any meaningful, generous way with Sinn Féin but Sinn Féin seemed to be prepared to accept that kind of ‘back of the bus’ treatment just in order to ride the gravy train in Stormont which provides a whole heap of jobs, access to funding, patronage, pet projects that can be financed. But on key issues, like for example an Irish language act, like progressing equal rights for people regardless of their sexuality, the DUP were saying ‘no’ and it was able to employ what is called a Petition of Concern (PoC) whereby if they have the signatures of thirty of its members it could stop the wishes of the other seventy-eight members of the Assembly from having their say in a democratic vote. Basically what happened was there was this whole ‘cash for ash’ scandal. It was a botched energy project from beginning in 2012. It happened under Arlene Foster’s watch and in the latter part of last year details of this started drifting out into the media and it became a colossally big story and the DUP handled it very, very badly. They made what was a problem into a crisis. Sinn Féin asked for Arlene Foster to stand aside for four weeks to allow for an independent investigation and this was in many ways a very minor request…

MG:   …Suzanne, that was compared – it just seemed like they were asking her to do what Peter Robinson had designed for himself as his rehabilitation from the ‘Irisgate’ scandal in 2010: He stepped aside, he said he was going to step aside for six weeks, he was back within three. Arlene Foster had that open to her. She could have come back and said: Now we’re past this, let’s move on and the scandal is over with.

SB:   Well Sinn Féin was suggesting this just as Stormont closed naturally for the Christmas holidays. If Arlene had taken that up she would be back now in office. I mean it would be common procedure in other parliaments, in Westminster for example, for a minister who presided over the equivalent of this to step aside but Arlene Foster said that she wasn’t doing that. And she went to address the Assembly to give a personal statement even though she needed the approval of Martin McGuinness, who holds – even though he’s Deputy First Minister and she’s First Minister it’s meant to be a joint office – and then really something that inflamed and angered a lot of Nationalists was that on the eve of Christmas Eve the DUP cut fifty thousand pounds in funding to a project to send children from deprived, poor areas to the Gaeltacht. So given that the DUP had just effectively lost five hundred million pounds of public money this pulling fifty thousand pounds looked very, very petty and very nasty from a party that was facing its own crisis and it really seemed that this was another occasion for the DUP to poke Sinn Féin in the eye.

MG:   Now Suzanne, you’ve written in a number of articles that this was – that Martin McGuinness’ decision to resign – Sinn Féin is very much a top-ordered, they pretty much set the agenda, they’re viewed as very successful in bringing along the grassroots – you’ve written in both the Belfast Telegraph and the Irish Independent that the decision to resign came from the grassroots or was driven by the grassroots. Why do you say that?

SB:   Well just before Christmas, even after Arlene Foster had done all this, the SDLP (Social Democratic and Labour Party) has a Motion of No Confidence before the chamber in Stormont and Sinn Féin refused to support it. Sinn Féin’s words were very tolerant, very mild and they were really attempting to give Arlene Foster a way out. Sinn Féin alone hasn’t called for a public inquiry into RHI (Renewable Heat Incentive) and it calls for public inquiries all the time into all sorts of things – RHI is this botched energy scheme that is at the heart of the ‘cash for ash’ scandal. So while the likes of parties such as Alliance, the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP, regarded as far less radical than Sinn Féin, were demanding a public inquiry Sinn Féin wasn’t. Sinn Féin was very much trying to let the DUP off the hook. But over the Christmas period they got a lot of abuse from their grassroots who said that this was just a further example of them accepting second-class treatment from the DUP. So Sinn Féin returned to Stormont very much needing to take a much stronger line with the DUP and with Arlene Foster. Again, the DUP refused any attempt to compromise so Sinn Féin said that Martin McGuinness was resigning as Deputy First Minister and that effectively pulled the Executive down. Now that’s something that the DUP had calculated Sinn Féin would never do because they thought that Sinn Féin enjoyed riding the gravy train too much and also that Martin McGuinness, unlike Gerry Adams, wasn’t a very egotistical man and that he was prepared to take kind of the put downs and not getting his way and you know Martin would stay regardless. So the DUP thought they had the measure of Sinn Féin – these guys will never pull out – and Sinn Féin called their bluff.

JM:  Well Suzanne, you talk about the gravy train – it looks like it’s going to be getting a lot shorter in the next election. There’s a hundred and eight MLAs to represent the one point six million. They’re reducing it down to ninety. What will the in-fighting be like within the Loyalist political parties, within Sinn Féin? Certain people are going to have to lose their seats within these political parties and will they go for younger people to be representatives? Or will they just try to keep in the old guard? I mean, how is that going to play out?

SB:   Well, one in six Assembly members aren’t coming back so, for example, I know that there are people, for example in the DUP, who are just elected – basically elected a handful of months who have maybe given up other careers to pursue this in Stormont, who have young families, who have mortgages to pay and who now face the prospect of unemployment and they’re not happy. And some of these people in the DUP, they’re saying: Look, this isn’t our mess. We didn’t create this. It’s our leadership who took these decisions that has brought Northern Ireland to political crisis. Why should we be paying the price? But as all the parties decide that they’re running fewer candidates and select certain people and if certain people aren’t selected that will cause bad feeling and that will cause resentment. Now I think that’s very much more the case with the DUP than with Sinn Féin. The opposite is true at the moment with Sinn Fein. Even though logically I don’t think Sinn Féin can defend the switch from a very moderate position to an apparently hard line position now their grassroots really are buying it – people are returning to their ranks, that were disillusioned, they’re energised and they’re saying: There’s an election. Bring it on! Let’s get out there! And they’re very much looking forward to an election where the DUP now, for all its bluster and bravado in the past, is really, really on the back foot and it’s very worried about facing the electorate – a very angry electorate, not just in Nationalist areas but in Unionist areas at the loss of public money and at the apparent arrogance of Arlene Foster. What the DUP will try to do in coming weeks is to sectarianise the election and to try and push the old buttons that bring the Unionist voters back into their ranks.

MG:   Alright Suzanne, what effect do you think this will have on the fact that Arlene Foster is the person who’s viewed as responsible for the RHI scandal? Do you think that that will have an impact in terms of the Democratic Unionist Party within the Unionist community? Do you think it’s going to cause a shift in favour of, say, Jim Allister or in favour of the Ulster Unionists or do you think their voters are going to come back to them in terms of the election results?

SB:  Well I think what’s going on is huge. The DUP had been saying they weren’t worried about an election at all you know and they had done the maths. They were so far ahead because they are twice as big as their nearest Unionist rival, the Ulster Unionists, and they have I think it’s two hundred and six thousand votes compared I think, off the top of my head, to eighty-six thousand votes for Mike Nesbitt of the Ulster Unionist Party – so that’s a colossal lead and it’s very, very hard for the smaller Unionist parties – who I think actually will do well – but it’s very, very hard for them to catch up with the DUP.

The Ulster Unionists have some very strong candidates running in constituencies but there would be a feeling that Mike Nesbitt, their leader, while he’s a very good media performer just really hasn’t managed to touch the hearts of ordinary Unionists. That they don’t see him as ‘one of us’ – that he somehow just seems to be a little detached or perhaps lives in another class. Jim Allister of the TUV (Traditional Unionist Voice) is very much the opposite. He would be in tune with many ordinary Unionists’ thinking. He would be by far and away the best political performer at Stormont, very much on the ball, shoots from the hip. The problem he has is that he hasn’t been able to build a credible party and that he doesn’t have credible candidates to run and basically the organisational structures locally to fight a good election. But the DUP will also have to challenge the apathy that there’ll be – a lot of Unionists might say: Do you know what? I’m not coming out to vote for any of you boys and girls. And this election will take place in the heart of winter, I mean most likely in February – you know, a very, very different feeling to a February election than to a May or June one. Now I think the Alliance centre-ground moderate party – it’s leader says she’s neither Unionist or Nationalist, Naomi Long, I think they’ll have a very good election but they mightn’t pick up any more seats because the gap between them and the larger parties is just too huge. I think the SDLP are in trouble in this election. They have a team of very young and talented MLAs but with Sinn Féin taking a much more militant line, and that going down well with Nationalist grassroots, the SDLP will very much be up against it.

MG:   Alright, Suzanne, just what happens if we get basically the same results: That the DUP is still the leading Unionist party, Sinn Féin is still the leading Nationalist party. You get two parties, Arlene Foster is still the head of the DUP will come together and Arlene Foster says she’s not going to stand aside for any investigation which is the position that she has taken, what happens then in terms of the legalities of forming a government in The North?

SB:  Well both are probably still going to emerge as the largest party but it does depend on the number of seats that they win, Martin. For example, the DUP at the moment is at thirty-eight and Sinn Féin’s at twenty-eight. The DUP is still ahead but not that much ahead. Then it really does have to adopt a more conciliatory approach to Sinn Féin and the number we should all be focusing on is ‘thirty’. Thirty is the number – if the DUP gets thirty or more it’s able to use the Petition of Concern which is a very strong weapon in the Assembly. If the DUP falls behind thirty then it can’t use that weapon. Certainly after any election, I don’t think it’s just going to be a few weeks of negotiations between Sinn Féin, the DUP and the two governments. I think this could go on for months and months if not years and years and we are in for quite a long period of direct rule. Sinn Féin are saying at the moment that they want to negotiate – the whole structure and all the agreements – they want a re-negotiation, they want to go back to the start and they want to ensure the protections and promises that were made to them at the Good Friday Agreement are actually finally delivered. So at the moment everything is up in the air but this will be a very, very interesting election. And as well there will be groups like People Before Profit in Doire and in Belfast attempting to say: Look, a plague on all your houses and pointing out to Sinn Féin’s own record in government and saying to working-class communities, you know: Give us a chance. People Before Profit may well run two candidates, as opposed to just one, in West Belfast and that would put them in a very powerful position if it is successful – they would have won two of the five seats in West Belfast, the jewel in Sinn Féin’s crown.

MG:   Alright, Suzanne, we’re going to have to leave it there with the programme. We want to thank you and hopefully we’ll be reading you in the Belfast Telegraph and the Irish Independent and some of the other papers that you write for just to keep us up-to-date on this. Thank you very much, Suzanne Breen, the noted, award-winning Belfast-based journalist. Thank you, Suzanne.

SB:   Thanks, Martin. (ends time stamp ~ 50:37)

Suzanne Breen RFÉ 3 September 2016

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Martin Galvin (MG) speaks to award-winning journalist Suzanne Breen (SB) via telephone from Belfast and gets updates on ‘Brysongate’ and the recent 18 resignations from Sinn Féin over the party’s treatment of Daithí McKay.  (begins time stamp ~ 14:50)

MG: And with us on the line we have Suzanne Breen. Suzanne Breen is one of the leading journalists – she’s been an award-winning journalist in Ireland. She has been with the Sunday Tribune, with the Irish Times and lately she’s been doing a number of reports for the Irish Independent, for the Belfast Telegraph and other papers in The North of Ireland. Welcome back to Radio Free Éireann, Suzanne.

SB:  Hello.

MG:  Suzanne, two weeks ago we covered the initial story: There was a crash in 2008-2009 in the United States, a world-wide crash with banks and mortgages. As a result of that the Irish government in the Twenty-Six Counties sold off a great many assets including assets that they owned in the Six Counties – mortgages, properties, etc. They formed an agency, the National Asset Management Association (NAMA), to sell those properties. Properties, more than a billion pounds worth were sold and a member of the Irish Parliament, Mick Wallace, in the Dáil as it’s called, stood up later and said that people, politicians in The North of Ireland had gotten backhanders, had gotten money, as a result of those sales. Now there was an inquiry in Stormont. It was led by Daithí McKay. One of the witnesses was an individual named Jamie Bryson who describes himself as a hardline Loyalist. He’s with a number of Protestant bands in The North of Ireland. He was one of the people who led the flag protests against not having a British flag flown over Stormont each and every day, three hundred and sixty-five days a year. He came before that committee and he named Peter Robinson, the head of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and later it was revealed or there was correspondence – Daithí McKay resigned from Sinn Féin as an MLA and now this past week eighteen members of the party have resigned. Have I sort of summarised that for you leading up to what happened during the past week?

SB:  You have indeed. You have summarised it very well. Jamie Bryson appeared before the Stormont Committee in September last year. There was a lot of controversy in Northern Ireland about whether he should be allowed to appear. Some people, including the DUP, thought he shouldn’t – that he was going to be making unsubstantiated allegations. As it turned out he did make a very stark allegation. He alleged that of the millions, seven point five million, that were transferred into an Isle of Mann bank that some of that money had been for Peter Robinson – that was Jamie Bryson’s allegation and he named Peter Robinson in his evidence to the Stormont Finance Committee. Jamie Bryson had been making all sorts of allegations on his own blog but once an allegation is made in Stormont at the committee it carries ‘privilege’ which means that the media can report on it whereas if they had been to report on allegations in Jamie Bryson’s blog they would have found themselves likely to be sued so giving his evidence at Stormont provided Jamie Bryson with legal protection.

MG:  Alright and then it was subsequently revealed that prior to his appearance, Jamie Bryson, who in his blog he writes:

I’m opposed to Sinn Féin as I ever was. My enemy’s enemy was never my friend but rather a useful tool in my pursuit of a public interest story. If Sinn Féin were manipulated as what is in the public domain appears to suggest then that is a matter for Sinn Féin.

And it turned out that he had been coached or there had been written communications between him and Daithí McKay as to how he should testify and wait to hold Peter Robinson’s name until the very end. Is that correct, Suzanne?

SB:  Daithí McKay was basically advising Jamie Bryson on procedures, on the best way to get his evidence to the Finance Committee so that other members of the Finance Committee couldn’t interrupt or actually end Jamie Bryson’s evidence. It was important that Jamie Bryson was able to give it without interruption, without being challenged so Daithí McKay basically off-the-record, privately, secretly – he advised Jamie Bryson on the best way to do this. Now this was in conflict with Daithí McKay’s role in the committee of being objective, of being impartial, of not effectively helping witnesses. Had Daithí McKay met Jamie Bryson in public with a civil servant and given him advice that would have actually been okay but because he set up a back-channel, because there were messages through social media that was regarded as not acceptable – it wasn’t transparent – and in his advice Daithí McKay appears to cross the line from giving sort of cold clinical advice to basically schooling Jamie Bryson.

MG:  Alright and Peter Robinson, of course, denied Bryson’s allegations but he did subsequently resign as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, the largest Unionist party in The North of Ireland and a party which is in coalition with Sinn Féin in government and Daithí McKay, when this became public, he immediately, or very quickly, resigned – admitted that it was wrong – what he had done and people thought that that would be the end of it – the Democratic Unionist Party did not pursue it. But last week there were further ramifications. What happened last week?

SB:  Well Daithí McKay was replaced as a Assembly Member in Stormont by a man called Philip McGuigan who had been a previous Assembly Member for Sinn Féin in the North Antrim area and Daithí McKay had actually replaced him as the party’s representative so Philip McGuigan was brought back in. There already were a lot of divisions in Sinn Féin in North Antrim and Daithí McKay and Philip McGuigan and their relative supporters, to put it politely, wouldn’t see eye to eye , they wouldn’t get on very well – Philip McGuigan would maybe not be the most popular character in Sinn Féin in the area. So this week eighteen members of Sinn Féin announced that they were resigning in support of Daithí McKay and against Sinn Féin’s decision to parachute Philip McGuigan into the constituency. They said that Sinn Féin had done this without proper consultation. And there was also reference to Daithí McKay effectively having been a sacrificial lamb for Sinn Féin. They talked about how some people were hung out to dry in the party when others were protected and the insinuations there would be that there were people more senior than Daithí McKay in Sinn Féin who were involved in this project with Jamie Bryson, helping Jamie Bryson, but that they were regarded as too important to have resigned so that Daithí McKay was offered up there on a plate to the DUP to ensure the power-sharing government at Stormont is maintained.

MG:  Alright. Now Suzanne, you had written a story for the Irish Independent – ‘Ex Sinn Féin Man at Centre of NAMA Storm is Urged to Reveal All’- and you quoted a number of former Sinn Féin MLAs who said that Daithí McKay should reveal what has happened and that you also had previous stories in which you said that people were very sceptical that Daithí McKay would have acted on his own without conferring and consulting with members above him in Sinn Féin – that that is not the way that Sinn Féin operates. Is that correct?

SB:  Yes. I mean people, observers, generally don’t believe that Daithí McKay was a lone wolf. Sinn Féin is a party in which there is very centralised control, there is an awful lot of discipline it really is not the norm for political parties in Ireland to behave in the way that Sinn Féin does. I mean people joke that if a Sinn Féin cumann is ordering paper clips they have to consult the leadership so the idea of this free-lance activity of Daithí McKay taking this on himself to do such a controversial thing as help a Loyalist blogger to bring down, effectively, Peter Robinson, the leader of the party Sinn Féin was in government with – people are very, very sceptical that he acted alone. The belief when he resigned – when he resigned he accepted responsibility, he admitted what he did – the belief would have been among journalists that he was taking a bullet for the party and that further down the line he would be rewarded. We would see Daithí McKay appear maybe at some stage next year in some job, an important job in his constituency in the community sector – something like that, that he would be, to put it in Irish terms that he would be ‘boxed off’ that he had made the sacrifice, he laid down his career for the sake of his party and that when a decent interval of time had passed DaithÍ McKay would be back in some lower-profile role and we believe therefore he wouldn’t be talking now, he wouldn’t be saying anything, he wouldn’t be spilling the beans, he wouldn’t be disclosing who else in Sinn Féin was involved with him that he had agreed to be a part of this game. The eighteen people resigning in North Antrim changes that totally because it would be inconceivable that they would have resigned without Daithí McKay’s blessing. I mean, undoubtedly these members have been very close to him, they would have been in communication to him over recent weeks and they would have told them what they are going to do and at the very least Daithí McKay didn’t say: No. Don’t do this – and that is what leads us to believe that Daithí McKay is very much not a happy camper and some former Sinn Féin MLAs have said: Look, the party sacrificed you, they didn’t care less about you and it is up to you now to come forward, name the names, tell the truth because at the moment your reputation is in the gutter. You’re regarded as this silly little boy who colluded with a Loyalist – you really need to come out here and explain what had happened and try and regain your public image and your reputation.

MG:  Alright now, some of the people who resigned from Sinn Féin they include councillors, former councillors, people who have been party activists for many, many years – what is going to be the impact of those eighteen people resigning on Sinn Féin in that area?

SB:  Well North Antrim isn’t a Sinn Féin stronghold. It is an area where the party has been trying to build its profile and to win votes. I know a lot of the people who resigned will be the people at election time who put up posters, who knocked doors, who were the workers on the ground so they will be missed. We had greater numbers – we had seventy people in Cork last year resign in protest of the treatment of two local councillors down there but it is in The North that the leadership’s iron grip really has been well-known so this is just unprecedented. The eighteen didn’t just resign privately they resigned in a blaze of publicity.

They wrote a very scathing letter, scathing about Sinn Féin, to a local newspaper, the Ballymena Guardian and one of their members, Monica Digney, who had been the first Sinn Féin Councillor on the very staunchly loyalist Ballymena Council – she had taken a lot of grief and there had been a lot of harassment and intimidation when she was first elected so she would be known as a fairly steely woman – she took to the airwaves and in interviews for UTV and BBC Northern Ireland she made some very strong statements against Sinn Féin. She said that she loved the party with all of her heart – she’d given a hundred and ten percent to it. She said she’d been a lifelong Republican – she would die a Republican but she just didn’t have to die a Sinn Féin Republican. And she added she would not be selling herself short because she had what was commonly known as integrity. And when she was asked did Sinn Féin have integrity she said no, she didn’t think that it did and it had lost the run of themselves so this was very strong and emotional language and also suggested that perhaps there are issues at play here that are bigger than Daithí McKay and bigger than it being just a local dispute. It seems to me to be another example of Sinn Féin really losing touch with its grassroots.

MG:  Alright Suzanne, we want to thank you for that. We’re looking forward seeing whether Daithí McKay does say anything or take any further actions in response to these people who were loyalists or supporters of his resigning and whatever the next step is going to be we’ll hope to read your stories about them.

SB:  It’s one to watch. They key here is is Daithí McKay going to speak out himself now or is he going to continue maintaining his silence? The spotlight really now is on Daithí McKay.

MG:  Well it would seem strange if he had other people resign on his behalf or supporting him but then did nothing further himself after they resigned but we’ll wait to see. Thank you, Suzanne.

SB:  Thank you. (ends time stamp ~ 29:20)

Suzanne Breen RFÉ 18 June 2016

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

Martin Galvin (MG) interviews journalist Suzanne Breen (SB) via telephone from Belfast about the upcoming Brexit referendum, the Police Ombudsman’s report on Loughinisland and a threat allegedly made to Ballymurphy Republican Seán Cahill.        (begins time stamp ~ 16:09)

MG: And with us on the line we have an award-winning journalist from Belfast, Suzanne Breen. Suzanne has been with the Irish Times, she’s been with the Sunday Tribune. She now writes for a number of papers including the Belfast Telegraph and others. Her work is seen very frequently on nuzhound. Suzanne, welcome back to Radio Free Éireann.

SB: Hello, Martin.

MG: Suzanne, this week there is a referendum. A vote is going to be heard. It’s a very simple question: Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union (EU) or leave the European Union and one of the people who has spoken out at great length on the results of this referendum because it’s going to have a major impact in Ireland is the head of the Twenty-Six County government, Enda Kenny. Who actually will vote and make the decision in this referendum as to whether Britain should remain in the European Union, where they’ve been since the 1970’s, or leave the European Union?

SB: Well the people making the decision are voters in the UK; that’s voters in Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland. At the moment it’s neck-and-neck. Some opinions polls show that the ‘leave campaign’ are leading by fifty-three percent to forty-seven percent. Other opinion polls show that the ‘remain campaign’ are ahead fifty-two percent to forty-eight percent. It really, really is tight and every vote will count next Thursday. The arguments are mainly economic and they’re mainly about immigration as well. The people who want to leave say that Britain is a net contributor to the EU that has cost people within Britain two hundred and fifty million pounds a week to belong. They say that the EU is bureaucratic, it’s undemocratic, that it’s unfair that rules from Brussels dictate what happens to citizens in the UK. Now these aren’t specifically British arguments. You would hear similar arguments about the undemocratic nature of the EU made in the Irish Republic by people on the left there. On the other hand, people who want to remain within the EU say that there will be a nightmare scenario if Britain withdraws – house prices will go up, wages will fall – there has been a lot of scaremongering on both sides.

MG: Suzanne, one of the people who’s spoken to me about it, a friend of mine who listens to the programme on computer, John Crawley, he lives in Clones which is right on the border of Co. Monaghan with Fermanagh and there used to be nightmare scenarios of how would you get into The North – back into Co. Monaghan – there could be border patrols, there could be checks on customs, there could be travel restrictions back and forth and no one seems to know whether there will be hard border controls, custom controls, etc or not. In fact, the European Union may be making the decision in terms of the Twenty-Six Counties. What’s the latest that you hear on that?

SB: Well, nobody knows. We are in totally uncharted waters if Britain votes to leave the EU. I mean it’s just – I think both sides play things up so it’s very, very hard to know what the facts will be but the reality will be that we have two parts of Ireland will be on different sides of an EU land border and I would say some type of increased border controls, customs checks, would be inevitable. That I think maybe is one of the reasons why Nationalists/Catholics in Northern Ireland increasingly support staying within the EU. Unionists are generally pro-Brexit. Nationalists will say that it could be disastrous for businesses along the border; Britain is one of Ireland’s largest trading partners. I think Nationalists generally just like to feel that they don’t belong simply to the UK – that they are part of a wider European community. It basically softens the idea of Britain’s continuing role in Northern Ireland. But interestingly, I would have spoken to some militant Republicans and they are voting in favour of Brexit because they believe that at the moment the border is largely invisible but it does exist and in many ways a Brexit would show that it exists and it would be more likely to concentrate peoples’ minds in saying that they wanted to leave the UK and join the Irish Republic so there’s all sorts of arguments going on and there’s all sorts of divisions in places that you wouldn’t expect.

MG: Suzanne – we’re talking with Suzanne Breen who’s an award-winning journalist in Belfast, talking about the upcoming referendum on Brexit, or Britain leaving the European Union – one of the interesting divisions is within the Conservative Party itself. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, had promised that there would be a referendum but he is suggesting or recommending a stay vote – that Britain stay within the European community. Theresa Villiers, the person who he appointed to be his Secretary for The North of Ireland, she is a very vocal and loud voice in favour of leaving the European community. What effect is this going to have within the Conservation Party?

SB: Well there are deep divisions within the Tory Party and I think if Britain does vote for Brexit David Cameron’s position is untenable and there would be a belief that Boris Johnson, who is one of the leaders of the Brexit campaign, the leave campaign, former Lord Mayor of London, would be the next leader of the Tory Party so there’s all sorts of divisions. For a lot of ordinary people it looks like this is really just the rich Conservatives arguing among themselves in terms of who’s leading the campaign but for people at a grass-roots level membership of the EU is very, very important particularly regarding immigration in Britain. In working-class communities, people, even if they welcome immigrants, feel that it’s placing a huge strain on public services – people are waiting for much longer for GP, doctors, appointments to access prenatal clinics, pregnant women – there are all sorts of pressures at a time when public funds are already very, very stretched. Of course, there are many, many people in business who are just deeply concerned that leaving the EU would have a catastrophic effect in terms of jobs. We’re told that house prices would fall dramatically so there are all sorts of competing arguments and you will have the most right-wing people for Brexit and you will also have leading left-wing politicians, like Eamonn McCann, on the same side – there are all types of alliances going on here.

MG: Okay. Suzanne, we wanted to talk to you about two other articles that you’ve written, just for your comments on two other issues that you’ve written about very recently. First of all: Last week we covered Loughinisland, the incident where people had gathered to watch a football match or a soccer match as we would call it in the United States and Loyalists entered, opened fire, killed six people and how a British Crown Ombudsman has acknowledged that there was collusion, that members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) had played a role in supplying the weapons. One of the people involved was an informer. The people who did it were known within a number of hours within the first day but nobody was arrested for quite some time. You’d written about that at length and you’re saying that truth alone is not enough. Somebody must be held accountable for monstrous outrage. Are there any indications that anyone will ever be held accountable or whether the British will even acknowledge and accept that more should be done about those who were involved with collusion in these murders?

SB: There has been some speculation that perhaps several of the Special Branch officers who were involved in the Loughinisland case could be prosecuted for, amongst other things, protecting their agents, for lying. The problem really is, well one: does the will exist to do that? – but as well, with the passage of time witnesses aren’t available, they are dead. The very act of collusion means that there will be important documentation missing so whether the evidential test would be met remains to be seen. I think what I would increasingly feel is that there is all this evidence of gross inadequacies in police investigations of collusion and that is on both sides of the political divide in Northern Ireland and yet nothing ever happens. We get reports, we get some element of the truth and the families feel vindicated – what they have been saying for years and years when people swept aside what they said – didn’t believe them – said they were conspiracy theorists – it’s all proved true but in terms of justice that remains very, very elusive.

MG: Alright. And one final story that we wanted to report that you made for the Belfast Telegraph and wanted to ask you about: A member of the Cahill Family, now that’s somebody related to Joe Cahill who, of course, was very well known in the United States. Seán Cahill had reported to you that he had been actually threatened by fellow Republicans. They had tried to discourage him from being allowed to work – they come to his home. Could you tell us why Seán Cahill, he lives in Ardoyne, a very Republican area within Belfast, why he was threatened and what the implications of this story are?

SB: Well, Seán Cahill is a fifty-two year old electrician. He’s from Ballymurphy and he claims that he had been informed that Sinn Féin members were telling employers that he shouldn’t be given work because he was a dissident Republican. He said he outlined these attempts to destroy his livelihood on social media last Wednesday and that later that day he was visited by a senior member of the Provisional IRA. He said that this person threatened his life in front of everyone who was in the house and he said his wife was very distressed. The person that he alleges threatened his life was a key player in the 2004 Northern Bank robbery and he’s the brother-in-law of a prominent Sinn Féin figure. He would be a fairly well-known name in working-class Nationalist areas of Belfast. He is a career criminal. He became involved with the IRA in the early 1990’s and he now works for their Finance Department. He would have been in the past regularly seen in the company of veteran Provisional Bobby Storey. So Mr. Cahill and his family are concerned. They would like the threat lifted and they would like clarification made as to whether this individual was acting on a solo run or whether he had the weight of his organisation behind him when he made the threat.

MG: Alright. We hope that publicity such as you gave him in the Belfast Telegraph and publicising this in programmes like Radio Free Éireann will encourage those, if there is such a threat, to withdraw it and to make it known to Mr. Cahill that he’s not under threat simply because he disagrees about the best way to get a united Ireland. Suzanne, we want to thank you for being back on Radio Free Éireann again and we’ll be reading you on nuzhound and in the Belfast Telegraph and we hope to have you again when you come to break stories like this in future.

SB: Indeed. Thank you, Martin. (ends time stamp ~ 29:00)