Cross-Community Labour Candidate for Fermanagh and South Tyrone Donal O’Cofaigh has condemned recent attacks on the right to politically campaign.
“The 2022 Assembly Election campaign has been marred by attacks on the democratic right to campaign and seek the support of the voters. There have been dozens of reports of posters being torn down, across every constituency and affecting every party. Candidates have been intimidated on-line and on the streets. Candidates have faced state interference in their campaigns. On more than one occasion candidates and their campaign teams have suffered violent attacks.
“We all know that elections are a reflection of society at large. The sectarianism, repression and intimidation that mar everyday life in many working-class communities remains a massive problem during elections.
“The right to free speech, the right to political organisation and the right to vote were hard won, with the labour and trade union movement leading the way. We will continue to defend the right to democratic expression now and in future elections”.
The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) held vigils in Belfast and Derry on Tuesday September 28th to mark the 20th anniversary of the murder of journalist Martin O’Hagan. The vigils also demanded justice for Martin.
Twenty years on, nobody has been convicted. Nobody has even faced trial. This is despite the names of the killers being well-known. Even the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (as conservative as its name suggests) has raised concerns. “It is unacceptable that all this time has passed and not one person has been held responsible for what was a public execution,” a representative said. “The failure to prosecute can create an environment of impunity for those who might attack journalists.”
Martin was a courageous journalist. He had particularly worked on stories about collusion. He was shot to stop him shining light into dark places.
Several members of the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) gang who killed him are known to be security force agents. At the time he was murdered, Martin was investigating links between the LVF and persons in the security forces. That was why he was killed.
Martin was also the most senior trade unionist killed in the Troubles. At the time of his death he was Secretary of the Belfast and District Branch of the NUJ. He was also a socialist, who hated injustice and sectarianism.
Martin was the first journalist murdered in Northern Ireland. It was fitting that the Derry vigil was addressed by Sara Canning, partner of Lyra McKee. Lyra was the second journalist murdered, two years ago.
Both were killed during the ‘Peace Process’, mis-sold throughout the world as a perfect political solution. In recent years, Northern Ireland has become more dangerous for journalists. Threats have become more frequent, and more sinister.
The government of Boris Johnson is playing a dangerous game of high wire diplomacy with the EU. The threat the British Prime Minister seeks to employ is the threat of a return to violence on the streets of Northern Ireland with the aim of forcing the EU to retreat from requiring hard sea border checks. Such checks being necessary to avoid the need for a hard land border between north and south as a result of the hard Brexit the Tory party under Johnson pursued.
In doing so he is attempting to repeat what his political opponents in Dublin and Brussels did to great effect when they raised the threat of Republican violence attendant on the imposition of a hard land border in Brexit negotiations over previous years. As part of the EU’s effort to use Northern Ireland to better tie in the UK into their trading area, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Tánaiste Simon Coveney developed a sudden and profound concern for northern Catholics and an unheard of awareness – for Fine Gael politicians – of the impact of partition on the north.
Playing the Orange card
Of course, for his part, Johnson is not the first Conservative leader to seek to ‘play the Orange card’. Randolph Churchill, the father of Winston, of whom Johnson is a biographer, used the tactic in opposing Gladstone’s second Home Rule bill in the 1890s, coining the phrase that continues to echo today that ‘Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right’. The risk then as now, with deploying the ‘orange card’ is that it involves playing upon deep-seated divisions which remain unresolved, and indeed unresolvable under capitalism.
Johnson’s forays, talking up the threat of civil unrest, only make such unrest a more likely prospect. The fact that he set the ‘Twelfth of July’, the central date in the Loyalist marching calendar, as the target date for resolving the Northern Ireland Protocol appears another move to only further exacerbate tensions.
Riots on the streets
In early April, the mounting tensions over the Northern Ireland protocol which came into force but has not been fully implemented to date became visible on the streets as Loyalist rioters torched buses and threatened port workers. The potential for the riots to roll out of control was exhibited as rioters gathered from both sides of the Belfast peace walls to attack each other. While the leaders of Unionism and Loyalism used the death of British Royal Prince Philip to cut across that upsurge and reassert their control, the potential is there for it to return – a fact exhibited by periodic and illegal mobilisations of loyalists in unionist strongholds such as Portadown.
Removal of Arlene Foster and the hand of Loyalism
Apparent DUP complicity with the erection of a hard sea border was the main driver for the removal of party leader and First Minister, Arlene Foster, who despite her record as a hard-line unionist leader, was deemed to be out of step with the grassroots. Her ousting as leader was only part of a wider cull of the broader leadership of the DUP, replaced with a new and even more hard-line generation built around the leadership of the highly conservative Edwin Poots.
It was also significant that Edwin Poots’ opponent in the close DUP leadership run-off which followed the vote of no confidence in Arlene Foster, Jeffrey Donaldson, alleged at the party meeting to confirm her successor that his team had been threatened by Loyalist paramilitaries of the UDA in the course of the election process.
It goes without saying that this exemplifies the extent to which Northern Ireland is neither a stable or normal bourgeois democratic society.
Unfortunately the approach to the second anniversay of the killing of journalist Lyra McKee was marked by a potentially deadly attack on another journalist. Two masked men jumped photographer Kevin Scott from behind when he was working covering rioting at Lanark Way in Belfast. He was knocked to the ground, kicked, and his cameras were damaged. The attackers also called him a F***** c***.
The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) at local and national level immediately came out in support of Kevin.
By the nature of journalists’ work, we must go to riots. Photographers like Kevin are particularly visible because they carry camera equipment. Attacks on journalists are more than attacks on inviduals: they are attacks on the public’s right to know.
At time of writing, the attack on Kevin was the most recent physical attack on a journalist in Northern Ireland. In recent months police have warned several journalists they were under threat. Women journalists have been particularly targeted. Some Co Antrim UDA members have threatened Patricia Devlin. A faction of the East Belfast UVF has painted threats against her on walls. More recently, she has also been viciously trolled on social media. A threat against Allison Morris has been painted on a wall in a Catholic area of North Belfast.
In December, Northern Ireland NUJ members held very effective socially-distanced protests in Belfast and Derry against threats to journalists. These were very important. They showed those under threat that they were not alone.
Over the past couple of years, the union locally and centrally has also successfuly campaigned for journalists Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey. The two made a film about the Loughinisland Massacre of 1994, when the UVF killed six Catholic civilians watching a football match in a pub. The journalists were the only arrests in connection with the killing. Police were more interested in finding out who leaked material documenting collusing than in arresting the alleged killers.
All these threats against journalists endanger the public’s right to know, because they can mean certain issues cannot be covered.
Until now, two journalists have been killed in Northern Ireland. The Loyalist Volunteer force killed Martin O’Hagan in September 2001. The New IRA shot Lyra two years ago.
Our motto is simple. No more Martin O’Hagans. No More Lyra McKees.
Images of young people rioting in Belfast and elsewhere, countered by police using water cannon, conjured up scenes from the period of the ‘Troubles’. From the point of view of international audiences, Northern Ireland appears to have moved overnight from stability to imminent disintegration.
Of course, this is not a true reflection of reality on the ground. But the very fact of an appearance of such a rapid transition from one extreme to another belies the truth that political arrangements established under the Good Friday Agreement, and subsequently, have not resolved and cannot resolve the national question.
Tensions in Northern Ireland reflect the underlying change in demography that appears to be moving to a tipping point when Protestants will become a minority, and therefore threatens Northern Ireland’s position in the UK. Alongside this, the continued failure of the Northern Ireland Assembly to deliver any real improvements in the economic and social conditions of the population has created an explosive mix. Social deprivation among the working class in both unionist and nationalist areas remains stubbornly high.
Hard sea border
While demographic changes underpin the latest crisis, the imposition of the ‘hard sea border’ and the Northern Ireland (NI) Protocol, which in effect separates Northern Ireland from the UK, is the trigger for the latest street confrontations.
To avoid an immediate ‘sea border’ crisis, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnston negotiated a delay of three months on the imposition of ‘sanitary and phytosanitary controls’ (public health inspections) and a six-month delay on extensive customs declarations. But even these were not enough to avoid a political crisis.
Hard-line voices within unionism put pressure on the Tory government to suspend the protocol unilaterally. But the Tory government was not for turning. However, it was the AstraZeneca vaccine shortage which led to the European Union (EU) threatening to prevent EU-produced vaccines entering Northern Ireland. While EU ministers quickly retreated, the threat raised tensions further and exposed the duplicity of EU concerns for the region.
Tensions continued to mount. Posters, murals and graffiti went up across unionist areas against the hard sea border. Scrambling to recover authority the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP, the main unionist political party led by Arlene Foster), which had initially welcomed the NI Protocol as an opportunity for business – met with the Loyalist Community Council, representing Loyalist paramilitaries, to agree a common campaign against the protocol.
The spark for riots was the investigation by the Police Service of Northern Ireland into the attendance of senior Sinn Féin politicians, including deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill and executive ministers, at the funeral of IRA leader Bobby Storey, during Covid lockdown restrictions. The announcement that the Public Prosecution Service would not prosecute these politicians deepened unionist anger.
The event became totemic among unionists as exposing the willingness of the police to turn a blind eye to Republicans breaking Covid safety laws that were strictly enforced on everyone else.
The reality is that Covid has become a sectarian football with both sides feeling aggrieved; nationalists demanded action when hundreds of Glasgow Rangers football supporters celebrated on the streets of Belfast earlier this year, apparently breaching Covid restrictions, while unionists were largely silent.
The initial riots were restricted to areas controlled by Loyalist paramilitary groups more openly associated with criminality and drug-dealing but quickly spread. Riots reached a height on 7 April as rioters exchanged stones and petrol bombs over ‘peace walls’ in West Belfast.
As the situation began to spin out of control the nationalist and unionist political parties and paramilitary organisations sought to put a cap on the riots. Unionists used the death of Prince Philip to call for people to come off the streets. Their appeals clearly impacted, and while there were still some riots, they were markedly less extensive.
For socialists, the recent events should act as a warning. Neither capitalist nationalism or unionism offer a way forward to workers. On the contrary, both camps threaten a return to division, violence and even the prospect of repartition.
An alternative must be built. A glimpse of what is possible has been shown by the action taken by Metro bus drivers and port workers who, united across sectarian lines, walked off the job when they and their colleagues were threatened.
The fact that attacks had targeted essential workers who had worked throughout the lockdown, increased wider working-class support against sectarianism and cut through the tensions, striking a chord for class unity with many across the board.
Yet again, recent events have confirmed that, even with small forces, principled socialists putting forward a platform of workers’ unity can rally workers and cut across the rise of reaction.
To profoundly change the situation would require action from the trade union movement and the building of a mass party for socialist change.
In recent months, sharp debate was sparked in Fermanagh and Omagh District Council around controversial court action to extradite the well-known Republican Liam Campbell, to Lithuania. The hearings are being held in the Dublin courts, but such is the controversial nature of the issues involved that there has been widespread awareness north of the border.
Fermanagh and Omagh Councillor, Donal O’Cofaigh, had an opportunity to speak during the key debate in the Council. As always, Donal outlined a principled cross community labour position that challenged repression, paramilitarism and attempts to create sectarian division in the working class. Donal’s brief speech is carried below. Given the limited time available when he spoke at the Council meeting, he could not develop a more detailed view on state repression, sectarian division and paramilitary campaigns. We intend producing a longer article to address those issues.
“A proposal was passed by the July 8th meeting of a committee of Fermanagh-Omagh District Council regarding extradition proceedings against Liam Campbell. This recommended that the Council write to the offices of An Taoiseach and the Department of Justice and Equality in Dublin in support of Liam Campbell and against his extradition to Lithuania on charges relating to the purchase of arms.
“The original proposal has been followed by a related motion from the UUP, and this motion has attracted several amendments which are now both before us at this full council meeting. The media has covered all of these developments and many people in our council area are following our discussions intensely, especially the families of those who died in the Omagh bomb.