seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Sinn Féin Holds First Formal Talks with the British Government in Over 70 Years

On December 9, 1994, Sinn Féin, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), holds its first formal talks with the British Government in over 70 years. The negotiations take place in Belfast, almost one year after Britain and Ireland began an uncertain program to try to resolve the conflict in Northern Ireland. The first session is held at Stormont, a gigantic, columned edifice on top of a hill on the outskirts of Belfast that houses the old Northern Ireland parliament.

Although the announcement of the negotiations is not a surprise, it still sets off an exciting ripple that history is in the making. British officials have conducted secret talks with Sinn Féin leaders in the past, but never before have they sat down openly at the same table with them.

In both a letter to the Sinn Féin leader, Gerry Adams, and in a three-paragraph statement, Downing Street pointedly refers to the meeting as “exploratory dialogue.” This is in keeping with London‘s position that it is simply joining in “talks about talks,” not a full negotiating session, which must involve all parties to the conflict.

For 25 years the IRA has been fighting in the name of the Roman Catholic minority of 650,000 in Northern Ireland. It wants to link Ulster, the six counties of Northern Ireland that remain British after partition, to the Irish Republic, a move opposed by most of the province’s 950,000 Protestants.

The announcement of talks evoke a predictable pattern of responses across Northern Ireland’s political spectrum. Adams, who works to persuade the IRA to go along with a unilateral cease-fire that was declared on September 1, welcomes it. “The opportunity to realize a lasting peace, which will benefit all of the people of Ireland, has never been greater,” he says in a statement. Adams had been accusing London of foot-dragging on the peace effort. Now, he says, it is time to move on to “the next phase of dialogue — multilateral talks led by both Governments.”

The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), the main Protestant political group in Northern Ireland, is skeptically accepting, as it has been all along. John Taylor, a Unionist Member of Parliament, says the talks will at least establish whether “Sinn Féin really is to become a normal political party.”

The Rev. Ian Paisley, a Member of Parliament whose Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has become a rejectionist front, continues to oppose talks or any move smacking of compromise. He tells the House of Commons that “a vast majority of people” resent the decision to talk to “the men of blood.”

Sinn Féin is represented at the talks by Martin McGuinness, a veteran IRA political leader who took part in secret contacts that broke up the previous year. In 1972, together with Adams, he was flown to London for a meeting with William Whitelaw, who was then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Those talks eventually failed.

Adams is in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, December 7. He attends a meeting at the White House, his first one there, with Anthony Lake, President Bill Clinton‘s National Security Advisor. Seven weeks earlier, Britain protests vigorously at the thought of Adams visiting the White House. But events moved so swiftly that he gains a kind of legitimacy that is hard for Whitehall to deny. His visa to the United States, good for three months, allows several visits.

The Government team of civil servants, in contrast to higher-level ministers, are led by Quentin Thomas, deputy secretary of the British administration called the Northern Ireland Office.

Going into the negotiations, the key question is what will be discussed. On the British side, the top of the agenda is how to get the IRA to turn over its considerable stash of 100 tons of arms and explosives. There is nothing, of course, that Sinn Féin is less likely to agree to at the outset. So should the British make this a condition for multilateral talks to begin, the two sides will meet an obstacle right away.

McGuinness says that the issue of IRA weapons has to be considered “in the context of us removing the causes of conflict, the reason why people use armed force in our society.”

From its side, Adams says Sinn Féin wants to discuss being treated with “a parity of esteem” with the other parties, and “the release of all political prisoners.”

The British Government says that it will soon hold talks with the so-called loyalist paramilitaries on the Protestant side. And it indicates it will have no objection if elected Sinn Féin councillors attend a major international investment conference in Belfast on December 13 and 14.

(From: “Britain and I.R.A. Group to Begin Talks in Northern Ireland” by John Darnton, The New York Times, December 2, 1994 | Pictured: Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness lead a Republican parade in Belfast, commemorating 25 years of British troops on the streets of Northern Ireland in 1994)


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The Beginning of the 1980 Hunger Strike

Irish political prisoners confined in the infamous H-Blocks of Long Kesh Detention Centre commence a hunger strike on October 27, 1980. The hunger strike is to continue until their demands for political status and for an end to British torture are met, or until death.

It begins with seven republican volunteers: Brendan Hughes, the IRA commanding officer in the prison, Sean McKenna, Tommy McKearney, Tommy McFeely, Leo Green, and Raymond McCartney, all of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and John Nixon of the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA).

On December 1, three female prisoners, Mary Doyle, Mairéad Farrell and Mairéad Nugent, join the strike in Armagh Prison. Thirty more republican prisoners join later.

Despite being deceived into ending prematurely after 53 days, it sets the scene for a second hunger strike the following March, led by Bobby Sands. The first hunger strike announcement is made in a statement which is reprinted in full below.

“We the Republican POWs in the H-Blocks, Long Kesh, demand the right of political recognition and that we be accorded the status of political prisoners. We claim this right as captured combatants in the continuing struggle for national liberation and self determination. We refute most strongly the tag of criminal with which the British have attempted to label us and our struggle, and we point to the devisive, partitionist institution of the six county state as the sole criminal aspect of the present conflict.

“All of us were arrested under repressive laws, interrogated and often tortured in RUC barracks, and processed through special non-jury courts, where we were sentenced to lengthy terms of imprisonment. After this we were put in the H-Blocks and were expected to bow the knee before the British administration and wear their criminal uniform. Attempts to criminalise us were designed to depoliticise the Irish national struggle.

“We don’t have to recite again the widespread, almost total forms of punishment, degradations and deprivations we have been subjected to. All have failed to break our resistance.

“For the past four years we have endured this brutality in deplorable conditions. We have been stripped naked and robbed of our individuality, yet we refuse to be broken. Further repression only serves to strengthen our resolve and that of our gallant female comrades’ enduring the same hardships in Armagh jail.

“During this period many individuals, religious figures and political organisations and sections of the media have condemned the way we have been treated. Yet despite appeals for a resolution of the H-Block protest, the British government has remained intransigent and has displayed vindictive arrogance in dealing with the problem. They refuse to treat this issue in a realistic manner which is just another reflection of their attitude to the entire Irish question.

“Bearing in mind the serious implications of our final step, not only for us but for our people, we wish to make it clear that every channel has now been exhausted, and not wishing to break faith with those from whom we have inherited our principles, we now commit ourselves to a hunger strike.

“We call on the Irish people to lend us their support for our just demands and we are confident that this support will be very much in evidence in the coming days.

“We call on all solidarity and support groups to intensify their efforts and we also look forward with full confidence to the support of our exiled countrymen in America and Australia.

“We declare that political status is ours of right and we declare that from Monday, October 27th, 1980, a hunger strike by a number of men representing H- Blocks 3, 4, and 5 will commence.

“Our widely recognised resistance has carried us through four years of immense suffering and it shall carry us through to the bitter climax of death, if necessary.”

Signed: PRO, H-Block blanket men, Long Kesh camp

(From: “The 1980 H-Block hunger strike,” Irish Republican News, http://www.republican-news.org, October 31, 2020)


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Final Republican & Loyalist Prisoners Released from Maze Prison

maze-prison-releaseThe final seventy-eight republican and loyalist prisoners are released from the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland on July 28, 2000 as the final phase of the Good Friday peace accord scheme to release 428 inmates early.

Some of the most prolific bombers and gunmen involved in the Troubles have been imprisoned in the Maze, originally called Long Kesh, since it opened in 1971.

One of the freed republicans, Seán Lynch, describes what he saw as the real and symbolic importance of the Maze. “We had achieved the status of political prisoners even if the British Government never admitted it. The prison struggle was a microcosm of the larger struggle.”

Founder member of the Ulster Defence Association, Thomas McKeown, released in 1990 is one of over 10,000 loyalists sent to the prison. He reflects, “We had it pretty easy. We made replica weapons and instruments from wood and conducted military parades and drill every morning. There were also political classes and other sorts of education.”

After the H-block hunger strikes of the 1980s there are numerous escape attempts and by 1994 the authorities have given in to many of the prisoners’ demands for freedom of association and high levels of autonomy. A total of 2,700 incidents of officers being threatened or attacked are reported. A granite memorial outside the gates bears the names of the 29 prison guards murdered since the prison opened in 1971.

On September 29, 2000, the remaining four prisoners at the Maze are transferred to other prisons in Northern Ireland and the Maze Prison is closed. Redundancy packages are arranged for staff. These are accepted by 300 who left in June 2000.

The future of the buildings is uncertain, but some republicans want it to be turned into a museum to commemorate their struggle.

A monitoring group is set up on January 14, 2003 to debate the future of the 360-acre site. There are many proposals, including a museum, a multi-purpose sports stadium and an office, hotel and leisure village. In January 2006, the government unveils a masterplan for the site incorporating many of these proposals, including a 45,000 seat national multi-sport stadium for association football, rugby and Gaelic games. In October 2006, demolition work begins in preparation for construction on the site, however, in January 2009 plans to build the new multi-purpose stadium are cancelled, with Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure Gregory Campbell citing a lack of support and concerns for a net loss to the economy.

Discussion is still ongoing as to the listed status of sections of the old prison. The hospital and part of the H-Blocks are currently listed buildings, and will remain as part of the proposed site redevelopment as a “conflict transformation centre” with support from republicans such as Martin McGuinness and opposition from unionists, who consider that this risks creating “a shrine to the IRA.”

In January 2013, plans are approved by the Northern Ireland Minister of the Environment, Alex Attwood, for the site to be redeveloped as showgrounds as the result of an application by the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society with the objective of relocating Balmoral Show from its current location in Belfast. The site is now known as Balmoral Park.

In October 2019, the European Union withdraws £18m that had been approved to develop a peace centre, due to disagreements between Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party.

(Pictured: IRA prisoners walk out through the Maze turnstile, BBC News Online, July 28, 2000)


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Official Irish Republican Army Declares Ceasefire

official-ira-ceasefire-1972The Official Irish Republican Army (IRA) announces a ceasefire on May 29, 1972. This marks the end of the Official IRA’s paramilitary campaign. The organization, however, reserves the right of self-defence against attacks by the British Army and sectarian groups. The Provisional Irish Republican Army dismisses the truce as having “little effect” on the situation.

Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, William Whitelaw, welcomes the move and a spokesperson says it is “a step in the right direction.”

A statement is read out from Dublin after the previous night’s meeting of the executive of the Northern Republican Clubs, a political movement allied to the IRA. It states, “The overwhelming desire of the great majority of all the people of the north is for an end to military actions by all sides.”

It goes on to say that a suspension of activities will be a chance to prevent all-out civil war in Ulster. The group insists it will continue a campaign of civil disobedience and the political struggle until its demands are met, namely:

The Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and British Army are the first to benefit from such a ceasefire as they have been the primary targets of the IRA. Residents of Belfast in particular have been worn down by the four-year campaign of violence and this news is very welcome there.

Father Hugh O’Neill, who leads a Londonderry peace movement, says, “Please God, everyone will now sit down and begin to talk.”


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Death of IRA Blanket Protester Kieran Nugent

kieran-nugentKieran Nugent, volunteer in the Provisional Irish Republican Army, dies from a heart attack on May 4, 2000. He is best known for being the first person to start the blanket protest against the British Government’s treatment of republican prisoners.

Born in 1958, Nugent’s adolescence comes at a time when Northern Ireland is exploding into turmoil. On March 20, 1973, at the age of 15, he is standing with a friend on the corner of Merrion Street and Grosvenor Road when a car pulls up beside them and one of the occupants asks them for directions. Another occupant of the vehicle then opens fire with a submachine gun. Nugent is seriously wounded after being shot eight times in the chest, arms and back by the Ulster loyalists in the car. His friend, Bernard McErlean, aged 16, is killed.

At some point afterwards, Nugent joins the Provisional IRA. At the age of sixteen he is arrested by the British Army and spends five months on remand in Crumlin Road Gaol. When he is eventually tried, the case against him is withdrawn and he is released. He becomes an active volunteer until his arrest and internment, without trial, on February 9, 1975.

Nugent spends nine months in Cage 4 at the Long Kesh Detention Centre until November 12, 1975. He is arrested and imprisoned again on May 12, 1976, following the hijacking of a bus. On September 14, 1976 he is sentenced to three years and becomes the first Republican prisoner convicted since the withdrawal of Special Category Status for those convicted through juryless courts, due to the new British policy of ‘criminalisation’ introduced that March. Among other things, this change in policy means convicted paramilitaries can no longer wear their own clothes. Viewing himself as a political prisoner and not a criminal, he refuses to wear the uniform saying the prison guards would have to “…nail it to my back.” This begins the blanket protest.

Nugent is soon joined by Jackie McMullan, the next prisoner to don the blanket, followed by six more Irish republican prisoners from the Beechmount area of Belfast. By Christmas 1976 the number of participants has risen to over forty prisoners. Most incoming republican prisoners emulate Nugent and this starts five years of prison protests in pursuit of political status, which culminates in the 1981 Irish hunger strike and the death of eleven, including seven IRA and three Irish National Liberation Army prisoners.

Nugent, the father of four, is found dead of a heart attack at his home in Anderstown, Belfast on May 4, 2000.


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Birth of Margaret “Gretta” Cousins, Educationist & Suffragist

Margaret Elizabeth Cousins (née Gillespie), also known as Gretta Cousins, Irish-Indian educationist, suffragist and Theosophist, is born into an Irish Protestant family in Boyle, County Roscommon, on October 7, 1878.

Gillespie is educated locally and in Derry. She studies music at the Royal University of Ireland in Dublin, graduating in 1902, and becomes a teacher. As a student she meets the poet and literary critic James Cousins. They are married in 1903. The pair explore socialism, vegetarianism, and parapsychology together. In 1906, after attending a National Conference of Women (NCW) meeting in Manchester, Cousins joins the Irish branch of the NCW. In 1907 she and her husband attend the London convention of the Theosophical Society, and she makes contact with suffragettes, vegetarians, anti-vivisectionists, and occultists in London.

Cousins co-founds the Irish Women’s Franchise League with Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington in 1908, serving as its first treasurer. In 1910 she is one of six Dublin women attending the Parliament of Women, which attempt to march to the House of Commons to hand a resolution to the Prime Minister. After 119 women marching to the House of Commons have been arrested, fifty requiring medical treatment, the women decide to break the windows of the houses of Cabinet Ministers. Cousins is arrested and sentenced to a month in Holloway Prison.

Vacationing with William Butler Yeats in 1912, Cousins and her husband hear Yeats read translations of poems by Rabindranath Tagore. In 1913, breaking the windows of Dublin Castle on the reading of the Second Home Rule Bill, Cousins and other suffragists are arrested and sentenced to one month in Tullamore Jail. The women demand to be treated as political prisoners, and go on hunger strike to achieve release.

In 1913, she and her husband move to Liverpool, where James Cousins works in a vegetarian food factory. In 1915 they move to India. James Cousins initially works for New India, the newspaper founded by Annie Besant. After Besant is forced to dismiss him for an article praising the 1916 Easter Rising, she appoints him Vice-Principal of the new Besant Theosophical College, where Margaret teaches English.

In 1916, Cousins becomes the first non-Indian member of the SNDT Women’s University at Poona. In 1917, Cousins co-founds the Women’s Indian Association (WIA) with Annie Besant and Dorothy Jinarajadasa. She edits the WIA’s journal, Stri Dharma. In 1919 Cousins becomes the first Head of the National Girls’ School at Mangalore. She is credited with composing the tune for the Indian national anthem Jana Gana Mana in February 1919, during Rabindranath Tagore’s visit to Besant Theosophical College. In 1922, she becomes the first woman magistrate in India. In 1927, she co-founds the All India Women’s Conference, serving as its President in 1936.

In 1932, she is arrested and jailed for speaking against the Emergency Measures. By the late 1930s she feels conscious of the need to give way to indigenous Indian feminists:

“I longed to be in the struggle, but I had the feeling that direct participation by me was no longer required, or even desired by the leaders of India womanhood who were now coming to the front.”

A stroke leaves Cousins paralysed from 1944 onwards. She receives financial support from the Madras government, and later Jawaharlal Nehru, in recognition of her services to India. She dies on March 11, 1954. Her manuscripts are dispersed in various collections across the world.