Eamon Sweeney RFÉ 2 July 2016

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Martin Galvin (MG) interviews journalist Eamon Sweeney (ES) via telephone from Doire about current topics related to Doire and the effects Brexit may have on the Doire area.  (begins time stamp ~ 16:25)

MG: Yes, we have Eamon Sweeney on the line. Eamon, this is Martin Galvin. We’re to you a few minutes early. We had a problem with the other number on the line so I hope you don’t mind doing the interview now. And just we’re moving you up to the top of the programme.

ES: Okay.

MG: Alright. Eamon, you’re a journalist with the Derry Journal and that’s one area where the effects of Brexit are going to be more deeply felt than anywhere else. I did want to ask you about one other issue before we get to Brexit: I met you, I spoke to you covering the demonstration for George McBrearty in Doire a few weeks back. Now this week Theresa Villiers, the Secretary appointed by Cameron to run the North of Ireland for him, made a speech and she patted people in Ireland on the head because of their dignified and inclusive way they commemorated Easter 1916 – and they brought in British soldiers, and they brought in people who had been trying to put down The Rising and execute the patriots and they hadn’t said anything about the North of Ireland in those – the Irish government said nothing about the North of Ireland or the unfulfilled right of those people in Doire, in Tom Clarke’s county of Tyrone and in the Six Counties, to freedom.

And I mentioned that when I spoke at the commemoration for George McBrearty. And I can’t tell you how many people came up to me afterwards and said that that is a theme that they deeply resent, that that is not mentioned more, that they seem to be forgotten by the Dublin government, they seem to be forgotten in all of these commemorations and that is something they felt very strongly about and very angry about. Could you tell me about that feeling? Do you recognise that same feeling in the North of Ireland?

ES: Well in the round I think that it’s why – Easter 1916 was obviously one hundred years ago and it’s at a safe, historical distance – now for commemorations to take place in Dublin and in other places around world including Australia and they were marked in many countries including the US, in your own country – the intervening years, for the past forty years, in the North of Ireland where the conflict raged and various shades of Republicanism take their sort of cue from the lineages of 1916 and their inspiration and claim legitimacy through that for their actions, whether that be right or wrong, I think it’s still a very thorny issue in the North of Ireland. It’s too soon, perhaps, to recognise in the round what the patriots of 1916 did in terms of taking on the British Empire and eventually succeeding a few years later in getting them to leave a portion of the country. So I think it’s generally glossed over to a certain extent; not by the people in Doire or the Nationalist people in The North, but in terms of there’s still a prickliness, an uncomfortable sort of attitude or recognition from Britain about Nationalists in Northern Ireland because it’s still ascribed to be a political territory belonging to Britain and that’s what I think it is. That has, in recent months, had a knock-on effect in electoral terms for Nationalist parties I think where you saw in the Assembly elections that Nationalists didn’t come out to vote in the numbers they used to come out and vote, and that’s votes for Sinn Féin and the SDLP (Social Democratic and Labour Party), because I think they feel that they’re not getting anything out of the Good Friday Agreement almost twenty years after it was signed. They see that the aspiration that was granted to legitimately look for a united Ireland some time in the future isn’t being spoken about to a great extent by Nationalists and political representation and therefore they feel: Why should we bother going out and vote? We don’t seem to be getting anywhere with this at all.

MG: Alright, Eamon. We’re talking with Eamon Sweeney who’s a journalist with the Derry Journal, with other papers in The North of Ireland – Eamon, your area, Doire City, will be one of the areas most affected by Brexit when that, Britain’s withdrawal from the European Community, when that actually comes. Could you just tell the audience, an American audience, where Doire City is in terms of the border, such as it is, with the Twenty-Six Counties?

ES: Well, the outer western side of Doire City is approximately about three miles from the border with the Republic of Ireland and Inishowen in Co. Donegal. So I mean at certain points it’s walking distance. From my house – twenty minutes will walk you across the border from here to where I stand.

MG: I’m just laughing when you say that. When I was banned from the North of Ireland I did have occasion to walk that a couple of times some evenings and it is certainly walking distance. So they’re now talking about having a border and the decisions about that border – they won’t be made by people in Doire, they won’t be made by people in Ireland even. The decisions are going to be made by two parties. Number One: You have a Tory government – they, in campaigning for Brexit, had ads about Syrian refugees fleeing or getting into the European Community and coming across the border. They are the majority party – they constitute Parliament in London – they’re going to make the decisions on one side. And the other side is going to be the European Community – that if they decide there has to be a hard border – there has to be some sort of customs check, there have to be checks on immigration – they are going to be the ones who will tell the Twenty-Six County government how and what must be done. Now what does this have the potential to mean for Doire where you’re right, literally, on the border with Donegal?

ES: Well, the wider northwestern region can take the border out of the equation, that includes Doire City and portions of Inishowen, which since partition have been largely isolated in many ways. We don’t really as a people, a Nationalist people in Doire, believe we belong inside the British state but neither do the Dublin government want us attached to them for purely economic reasons. The upside of that was that the Articles 2 and 3 in the Irish Constitution that made a territorial claim at least on all Irish territory, including Doire, were abandoned during the signing of that particular agreement almost twenty years ago. So obviously, in terms of the Irish Constitution, the government no longer have the ability to assert a territorial claim, albeit theoretically, as it stood for all those years. That no longer exists. The more practical side of it would be that there’s an economic hinterland that runs from Doire City right into Inishowen. And you know, if you draw a physical line again across that border point  then what the ramifications are for trade, both north and south of that border, are going to be disastrous. I’ve spoken to the president of the Chamber of Commerce in the nearest Donegal Inishowen town closest to Doire City recently and he said that the whole debate on and around Brexit was it was characterised by nothing more than uncertainty. The Inishowen region was benefiting, getting a boost, for the first time in many years simply because of the strength of the pound sterling against the euro, which is used in the Republic of Ireland, and people moving freely in either direction across the border to spend their money.

So the re-imposition of a physical border, whilst it won’t be militaristic in tone as it was during The Troubles, will put people off. You also have a lot of Doire people and, on the other side of the coin a lot of Donegal people, who live in either area and work in either area. So having to cross the border every morning and the spectre of having to produce your passport at a border on the island of Ireland simply to get to work every day, in practical terms, is going to be intensely annoying for a start, time consuming and its going to cost people money in the long run.

MG: Alright. Another thing that you pointed out to me when we were speaking about this interview – and we’re talking with Eamon Sweeney who’s a journalist with the Derry Journal and other papers in the North of Ireland – the European Community gives a great deal of money to all of Ireland, North and South. For example, you were saying farmers, almost all farmers, or a large majority of farmers in the Six Counties would get a subsidy from the European Community. Now if you take away European funding you’re giving that there may be money coming but you’re talking about a Parliament – and you used this phrase when we were speaking about preparing for this interview – where it’s run by the people you call ‘Thatcher’s children’ and who are not likely – who support austerity, who have pushed through austerity throughout poor Ireland as through well as everywhere else under their jurisdiction and who are very loathe to give support, prop up, give benefits to people who may need them, particularly in the Six Counties. What effect do you think that that’s going to have, the withdrawal of European funding, and is it going to be replaced from London?

ES: Well, my take on it is that the only streams of funding that have kept portions of the North of Ireland going over the last forty years through community development and industrial development has majorly come from the European Parliament in Brussels. You know, that was spearheaded by both John Hume and Ian Paisley whilst they were MEPs (Member of the European Parliament) and both of those guys, you know, they’d harness the European mechanisms to bring and attract inward investment to the North of Ireland. Once there’s withdrawal from Europe by Britain I mean that, by necessity of the fact that that they don’t want to participate, why should the European Union (EU) therefore keep pumping money in? And on a very practical level within Doire City all those community programmes that were basically born out of the peace process and linchpinned into the Good Friday Agreement are funded by the European Community. Those are things that in a place where there’s still high levels of unemployment, no opportunities for youth, that gives them a bit of hope, a bit of aspiration for training and development and so on and so forth – if that’s gone what replaces it? What comes into that vacuum? Certainly the money won’t come from London because they’re telling us that they’re not only not able to fund community programmes but they’re cutting peoples’ welfare benefits. So what happens next? We really don’t know. It’s a massive period of uncertainty. The advertisements for the next batch of peace funding from Europe are actually appearing in local papers north and south of the border at the minute.

The Peace IV programme, which is an inter-regional programme based on not only cross-community aspects but also on cross-border aspects. So if that’s gone, I mean even something as simple as providing programmes for older people, educational programmes for people who are unemployed, for youth programmes, for sports programmes, that’s going to end. You know, this city, and Inishowen as well, have largely been forgotten about by both the British and the Dublin governments for a long, long time. So it’s going to be a disaster if this follows through and there is a full-blown withdrawal. I mean, Britain can’t cherry-pick anymore about wanting access to the single European market without having to pay in. The whole thing for me was, as you said, a grubby little power grab by the children of Margaret Thatcher to try and wrest the keys of Number 10 Downing Street from David Cameron. This guy foolishly, in my estimation, agreed to an EU referendum and when it backfired it’s gone spectacularly out of control. What it also has shown, also in my estimation, is that the whole concept of a United Kingdom is faltering greatly. I don’t see how it can survive another ten or fifteen years. So where does that leave Northern Ireland in terms of being a political entity? Scotland have already said they wish to remain in the European Union and if that means searching for their own independence from the UK in order to maintain that they will do so.

The Welsh result, in terms of their choice to withdraw from Europe and back the English vote, is still baffling to many people out there. As somebody who is supposed to know about these things I can’t for the life of me fathom why the Welsh, a Celtic nation, decided that they wanted to break away from the European Union. The English devolutionary programme has been one which has been running for many years. Blair, Tony Blair, actually started this in the mid-90’s as the peace process in Northern Ireland actually built up – that’s the origins of it while the culmination of it now is being played out in the Tory Party. The devolutionary project to give a degree of power to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales as separate from England was started by Tony Blair for no other reason, in my estimation, than this guy wanted an England that was able to compete in a global market – and by ‘England’ I mean the confines of a square mile in London where he wanted to create an economic powerhouse and this is coming full circle now where you’re seeing the cracks appear in the United Kingdom political project.

MG: Eamon – and we’re talking again with Eamon Sweeney, journalist in the North of Ireland with the Derry Journal and other papers. Eamon, one of the things, the immediate reactions that happened, was that Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin asked for a border poll and that was immediately refused by Arlene Foster and by Theresa Villiers, the British Secretary for the North of Ireland. So it won’t happen. They’re now talking about having some kind of common approach to what’s going to happen with Brexit. How do Martin McGuinness and Arlene Foster, who are on opposite ends of this issue – Arlene Foster, the First Minister, wanted to leave, they wanted Britain to leave and Martin McGuinness of course wanted The North to remain as part of the European Community – how do they now form a common approach to protect Irish interests at Stormont?

ES: Okay and it’s part of the political project at Stormont; the rules say that there must be a cross-community leadership approach in terms of the First and Deputy First Ministers’ offices. However, they are diametrically opposed in terms of ideology. Martin McGuinness is a Republican who wants to take Northern Ireland out of Britain. Arlene Foster wants to retain it. How do they come about in forming a joint approach in terms of dealing with Brexit is beyond my capability to explain. I don’t see how it’s possible. Martin MCGuinness is well within his rights, as is laid down in the legislation in terms of the Good Friday Agreement, to ask for a border poll. Why wouldn’t that not be allowed? I mean there are other societies out there, in terms of broad Nationalism and Republicanism in Ireland, including organisations like the 1916 Societies who are formulating a campaign for an all-Ireland referendum on a withdrawal from the UK. So while this legislation in ingrained in the Good Friday Agreement that the vast majority of people North and South signed up to almost twenty years ago the flat refusal by a Unionist leader in the form of Arlene Foster and then the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is flabbergasting. Theresa Villiers words were, basically, that there aren’t enough people out there wishing to sign up to a united Ireland. How does she know that without a poll being actually held? It’s impossible. She has no legitimate right to say that so it probably will be an argument that continues on. You may well see a wider Nationalist campaign to demand a border poll. I’m told this afternoon, after I spoke to you earlier, that there’s a huge cross-political, party political meeting being organised in our community being organised for the city in Doire next Wednesday specifically to thrash out what we do about Brexit next. But the one thing that the Unionists and Theresa Villiers can be assured of is that there will not be a ‘quieting down’ of the demands or an aspiration for a border poll; they simply do not have the power or the authority to say ‘no’ and to leave it at that. There has to be a rational explanation behind why they are refusing a border poll. That’s just nonsense.

MG: Well do you think, at this point, there’s been a strategy that Sinn Féin had of going into Stormont, working with the Unionists, trying to whittle away at any injustices and meeting the Queen for example this past week, do you think that that is achieving, growing, any Unionists coming forward who would now vote for a united Ireland or do you think it’s more likely that they’re seeing, that Nationalists seeing Martin McGuinness at Stormont, working with the British government, shaking hands with the Queen, that there are now more Nationalists who would not come out and vote for a united Ireland if there was such a border poll?

ES: You know, the symbolism that’s involved with Martin McGuinness as a Republican leader going to shake hands with the Queen of England I mean it’s becoming a recurrent thing. That’s part of his job. He signed up to take part in the Stormont Assembly. It’s part of a strategy to convince Unionists that Nationalists are not only their equals but appreciate their culture and respect their traditions. And that’s fine. It’s nothing more than symbolism. On the wider view what I would ask is: Why have Nationalists in general, those who would vote either for Sinn Féin or the SDLP or anybody else who ascribes to a Nationalist ideology, why aren’t voters coming out and backing them in the same manner that they used to? Is it because, for example, that Nationalists feel they’re not getting any benefit out of what they signed up to twenty years ago in terms of practical economics on the ground, in terms of jobs and investment, or in terms of the aspiration to someday seek a vote or a referendum, in a peaceful manner, for a united Ireland?

There’s something wrong there. Why are people not backing this anymore? Do they feel that the Nationalist political representatives have let them down in this matter? In Doire, for example, in May you had two candidates who were not in the mainstream parties in terms of Sinn Féin or the SDLP. Eamonn McCann, who stood for the People Before Profit Alliance – you know Eamonn a long time, he’s been a veteran campaigner, I think he’s been on your radio station many times – he came through and got himself elected. Now that was at the cost of a seat for the SDLP. Another independent, Dr. Anne McCloskey, who almost made it over the line as well. Now that tells me that there wouldn’t have been a lot of people from the Unionist direction voting for either Anne McCloskey or Eamonn McCann so it was a protest vote, perhaps to a certain extent within Nationalism, who decided to give somebody else, in the form of Eamonn McCann, a chance and let’s see if he could change anything in Belfast.

So there are problems within the wider Nationalist family. I think there’s a wider desire within the public, that I sense anyway, that the Nationalist parties need to talk a lot more about how, in the long term, they plan to reunify the island of Ireland. It’s something that has disappeared largely from the political agenda. And while there is an aspiration there for it the outlet or mechanism for it has been strangulated at every opportunity both in London and in Belfast. So that’s something that isn’t going to go away. It’s been centuries long in coming and it’ll come back again.

The crazy thing about it is that while Nationalists want to withdraw from the UK they want to remain within the European Union. And a lot of Nationalists want to remain within the European Union for very valid reasons, primarily because European courts of human rights provide us a lot of legal protection in terms of the injustices faced by Nationalists and Nationalism in the North of Ireland. It also provides workers’ rights that – you know the Tory government is nakedly capitalistic in London and don’t care about the working class in any shape or sense – want to destroy it.

If they withdraw from the European Union and those legal routes are blocked off in Europe in terms of investigating the past, holding the British state to account then what’s the political landscape in the North of Ireland going to look like for Nationalists come two years time when they eventually withdraw if the UK from the EU happens? It’s not a pretty picture.

MG: Eamon, we want to talk just on that one further issue before we let you go: There is a campaign right now for Tony Taylor. Tony Taylor is somebody from Doire who was, served a term of imprisonment for a Republican offence and then all of a sudden one day he is then brought back in, he’s held on licence, he’s not told what the charge is, what specific allegations are against him. His solicitor can’t be told about what is happening. Can you tell us what’s happening right now with Tony Taylor? Is there any campaign for his release?

ES: There is, yes. There is an on-the-ground campaign to try and get the guy back out of jail. I mean he was taken from his home, subsequently imprisoned at the will or the discretion of the Northern Ireland Secretary of State because she felt that he was involved in some non-specific, in some activity which has been non-specified without the right to trial, without the right to have a jury or have the accusations from the Secretary of State and it is her, in her person, that actually ascribes this power. If they were confident, for example, that Tony Taylor had committed what would be described as a criminal offence then put the man in court and give him access to the system of British justice that the British are very proud of. But no, it seems to be that, despite the political advances overS the last years in Northern Ireland, there are mechanisms by which people can still be taken from their homes and interned without trial.

Now this was one of the fulcrums of the civil rights campaign, one of the root sources of the conflict in Northern Ireland. It was the reason why people went marching on Bloody Sunday in January 1972 – to protest against people being taken without trial and imprisoned for whatever reason that the British saw fit. So are we coming full circle again here? Are people just going to be taken at will because they upset the British state? The British state seems to have the right to imprison people without accusing them of anything, to revoke a prison licence and put people back in jail. There is a campaign and I’m sure it’s being backed by both the Nationalist parties in Doire at least and the wider community. How far that will go because Ms Villiers seems to be very fond of the use of the word ‘no’ in the wider sense of all issues.

I may add as well, in my opinion, her behaviour during the Brexit campaign in terms of being a minister of state for Northern Ireland and supposed to demonstrate some aspects of impartiality as a minister of state was absolutely disgraceful. Her whole outlook was to campaign for a Brexit when she held a ministerial post, and a very sensitive one in the form of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. You know, she negated the entire wishes of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland who wanted and voted to remain in the European Union. She should have been censured for that.

MG: Well, we’ve been talking – Eamon, I want to thank you. We’ve covered a lot of ground – you spent more time with us than I had asked you to and we’ve covered a lot of issues and we’re looking forward to having you again in future. This has been Eamon Sweeney, a journalist with the Derry Journal and other newspapers in the North of Ireland. (ends time stamp ~ 42:27)