Among those who attended the Easter Sunday commemoration in Belfast two weeks ago was John Montgomery. I haven’t seen John in many years and it was a delight to meet him again. John is originally from St. James’ in West Belfast.
Thirty years ago John was the Chairperson of the Ballyfermot Community Association. Those were different times. Political censorship and the demonization of Republicans was entrenched in government policy North and South. Collusion between British state agencies and their unionist paramilitary surrogates was widespread.
The Irish and British governments were locked into a strategy aimed at defeating the IRA and smashing Sinn Féin. There was no thought of peace with justice or of conflict resolution; of inclusive talks; or of the centrality of dialogue to resolve differences. The establishment was against that.
The Irish political system and sections of the media were in the forefront of this campaign. Opposition to Sinn Féin had reached such a fever pitch in the South that Sinn Féin was refused the use of our usual venue, the Mansion House in Dublin, to hold our annual Ard Fheis.
Other public buildings were denied to us as Fianna Fail, the Labour Party and Fine Gael abused their authority to bar us. The Special Branch was leaning on hotel owners to put them off hiring venues to us. In 1992 we had no place to hold our Ard Fheis.
Eventually, the Ballyfermot Community Association, in the working class area of Ballyfermot, a sprawling Dublin district not unlike its northern urban cousins in Derry or Belfast, offered us the use of their community centre.
The Irish establishment was outraged and threatened to deny funding to the community centre but a defiant John Montgomery rejected this, pointing out that the government hadn’t provided any funding in the previous twenty years.
Turning a community centre into a venue for the Ard Fheis required a lot of hard work and imagination. Lucilita Bhreatnach, who was then the Ard Runaí - General Secretary of the Party - led our head-office team to get the logistical and other political back-up in place while a voluntary team of painters, carpenters and other construction workers moved in. My old friend from Long Kesh, the mural painter Danny Devenney, transformed the community building.
The theme of our 1992 Ard Fheis was "Towards a Lasting Peace in Ireland." The title was taken from the document of the same name that we launched in the Ballyfermot Community Centre. At a time when the idea of a peace process was unimaginable "Towards a Lasting Peace in Ireland" said: “An end to conflict is not of itself peace. In the Irish experience to date it has represented but a pause – a postponement of conflict for a decade or a generation. An end to conflict must of course be an objective. But to have any lasting value it must be in the context of a peace process which eradicates the causes of the conflict.”
In spite of the Irish establishment’s antipathy toward Sinn Féin the years that followed showed that the Ballyfermot Community Association was right in opening its centre up to Sinn Féin and Sinn Féin was right about the need for a peace process. Our efforts, along with those of others, created the opportunity for the Good Friday Agreement. Thank you John Montgomery.
WORKING CLASS HERO
Terry O'Sullivan is the General President of the Laborers' International Union of North American (LIUNA). He has just retired after a quarter of a century as leader of one of the biggest trade unions in North America. I have known Terry O for many years. He is a proud Irish American born in San Francisco and with close ties to Kerry where his paternal grandfather was from. He still has family there.
LiUNA's slogan is "Feel the Power." Terry's mantra is Organize or Die. Anyone who has heard him deliver one of his rousing speeches knows he means every word of that. He brings that same passion and conviction to his support for Irish Unity, for an end to the partition of Ireland, and a new future for all the Irish people.
Terry is a committed united Irelander. He has spoken at several Sinn Féin Ard Fheiseanna over the years. Terry has also addressed Irish Unity conferences in the USA.
In 2013 he was in Dublin to mark the centenary of the Dublin Lockout. In 2016 he headed a big union delegation that came to Ireland for the 100th Anniversary of the Easter Rising. He attended events in Dublin and here in Belfast, including unveiling the statue to James Connolly which now stands outside Áras Uí Chonghaile on the Falls Road.
Terry and LiUNA continue to play a leadership role in making the vision of Áras Uí Chonghaile a reality. He was one of the speakers at its formal opening in April 2019 along with President Michael D Higgins. Last year Áras Uí Chonghaile dedicated its conference space on the top floor of the building to Terry renaming it: “The Terry O’Sullivan LiUNA! Conference and Event Space.”
As well as being a trade union leader Terry is also a dear friend and a comrade. Over the years I had the pleasure of meeting Terry’s father, Terry Sr. and his mother Leona. They too were strong Irish Americans and were enormously proud of their son’s many achievements. So also is the rest of his family and his wife Yvette.
Most recently, Terry O traveled to Dublin to attend the funeral of Rita O’Hare, who he had come to know over many years and to respect. He was one of those who acted as a guard of honor.
Terry has dedicated his life to advancing the cause of labor and improving the conditions of working people in the USA and around the world. Terry totally understands and embraces Connolly’s analysis that the “Cause of Ireland is the cause of Labour and the Cause of Labour is the cause of Ireland.”
He may live thousands of miles away but Terry lives that cause every day and we are forever grateful for it. He may be stepping down from his leadership role in LiUNA, but I know we will continue to advocate for Irish Unity and in defense of the Good Friday Agreement.
MICHELLE GILDERNEW'S MEMORIES OF THE GFA
My memories of the Good Friday Agreement are interspersed with countless trips across the Irish Sea. I was the Sinn Féin representative in London and on the day the Agreement was reached I was in London, where Jimmy and I were staying with Mary Mason, a brilliant London based activist.
In the years preceding that I had been asked by the party to work in the International Department, based in Conway Mill and headed up by Bairbre de Brún. I learned a lot there and really enjoyed it, and when the Sinn Féin rep in London decided he was ready to come home I was asked to consider replacing him.
After talking it over with my family and Jimmy, I decided to relocate, knowing that it was a lot of responsibility but also a great opportunity. As a result, I had been over in London a few times before the first visit to Downing St, and was included in that delegation along with Gerry, Richard, Martin, Lucilita, Siobhan and Martin Ferris in December 1997.
When Gerry posted that photo on Instagram lately it sparked all sorts of conversations with a new generation of Republicans asking “How come you were asked to go?”, “why were you in that delegation?”, quickly followed by “…and what age were you?!”
One of my best memories of that day was being in a taxi en route to the airport the day before and hearing on the news that Liam Averill had escaped out of Long Kesh. The bus nearly left the road with the cheer from everyone inside, yet parts of the media portrayed it as “an embarrassment to the delegation”. We had been joined by the then political editor of the Irish News who can testify that there was no embarrassment, only delight!
Looking back now it was a huge honor to be included. I remember as we sat in the Cabinet room Tony Blair saying in his opening remarks that there wouldn’t be a United Ireland in the lifetime of the young person in the room, and that was me. Gerry’s response in his opening remarks was “If someone had told us ten years ago that we would be in 10 Downing St. sitting with a British Prime Minister and leader of the Labour Party with your majority we would have said “not in our lifetime too.” To which Tony Blair replied “Touché.”
There are all sorts of possibilities if the will is there. And then we got down to what turned out to be a very good meeting.
During those times it was extremely busy and we felt like we were always rushing, to catch planes or to meet deadlines and the frenetic pace didn’t stop after 10th April 1998.
When others felt their work was done, the Sinn Féin leadership brought the ANC over and organized hundreds of meetings, including in the jails in order to bring people with us. We had a special Ard Fheis for the party to take the final decision on the Agreement.
Thinking back, the risks taken by Gerry and Martin are in stark contrast to the leadership of other parties today. We owe Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness a debt of gratitude for the personal and political risks that they took for unity and peace.