Freedom For All Ireland

Members of the AOH and LAOH traveled to the North of Ireland in late January to attend the annual Bloody Sunday Commemoration march and spent a week meeting with the organizations that we support through our annual Christmas Appeal.  Our members were able to see first hand the great work that is done by the groups we support and personally experience the sincere appreciation that each group has for the support of our Order. It was an exciting time to be in the North as the Hillsborough Castle Agreement was being debated and eventually agreed upon.   Participating in the this year’s Freedom for All Ireland trip were from New York: Freedom for Ireland NY state chair Tim Myles, Tom Wright and Keith Swingle; from Massachusetts: LAOH National President Mary Ryan, National LAOH FFAI chair Kathleen Savage and National LAOH Immigration chair Ann-Marie Doherty; from New Jersey State President Jere Cole, Bob Bergen, Bill Becker, and Doug Pfluger; from Ohio National director Danny O’Connell l and from Florida Katrina Hopkins and Gerry Moss.

Our trip started with a very special visit to the Irish speaking grade school Scoil Na Fuiseoige, (School of the Lark) in Twinbrook West Belfast.  Bobby Sands was from the Twinbrook section of Belfast.  His writings used the lark as symbol of freedom and that is what the school is named for.  This school is basically housed in temporary trailers and has been for over a decade but the work that is done in these very humble surroundings is nothing short of spectacular.  The students, teachers and parents are to be commended for their dedication to promoting the Irish language.  In an example of the continued subtle nature of discrimination of the native Irish language, the school continues to wait for the release of funds so that a new school can be built.  The children of Scoil Na Fuiseoige welcomed us with an Irish language version of a Christmas Carol, tunes on tin whistles and songs in Irish from their award winning choir.  Although the language may not have been familiar to many on the trip there wasn’t a person there that didn’t appreciate the efforts of the children and the beauty of their voices.  It was a truly memorable stop that those who were there will not soon forget.  Throughout 2009 I sold raffle tickets for the Gerry Adams autographed hurling stick and One Island – One Ireland t-shirts and the $5000 profit that was raised from these efforts was presented to the school in memory of Dave Burke.  The principal let us know the money would allow the school to purchase two brand new electronic chalkboards, which will greatly help the teachers and students in their studies.  The school will be a placing plaque on site in memory of Dave Burke that will read David R. Burke 1940 – 2009 Member of Division 8 AOH Lawrence, Massachusetts USA.  Recipient of the 2007 Sean MacBride Award.  A lifelong advocate of Economic and Social Justice, Human Rights and a United Ireland. Dave’s family offered the wording for the plaque and I am sure that they and Dave are very proud of the work that is now being done with his help.

Before heading to Derry for the march our group visited the St. Patrick Centre in Downpatrick.  There we were greeted and hosted to a personal tour by education director Andrew Gibson. We learned of the life and legacy of St. Patrick and how that legacy is helping to support peace and reconciliation in today’s North.  We visited the gravesite of St. Patrick and the location of his first teachings in Ireland.  The centre is a tremendous place to visit so full of the history of Ireland, St. Patrick and of such relevance to all Hibernians.  It is strongly recommended.  The Christmas appeal donation to the centre went to help the cross community school work that Andrew in his role as education director completes.

The Derry AOH once again hosted all AOH and LAOH members for the weekend.  In addition to those on the trip there were many more AOH and LAOH members from New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland and other locations that made the trip to Derry.  Mass was celebrated by the Derry AOH chaplain and afterward we made our Christmas appeal donations to representatives of many of the organizations that we support in the Derry area.  Spokespersons from the Pat Finucane Center, Cairde, the Bogside Artists, the Omagh Basketball Club, and the Bloody Sunday families addressed the large gathering and were grateful for our support.  The groups were able to give specific examples of where the money that we donate goes and why it is so vitally important.  In upcoming issues of the Hibernian Digest I will highlight the organizations that we support, the work that they do and how our donations help that work.  Representatives of divisions and boards who donated more than $1000 to the appeal were presented with customized Irish hurling sticks to recognize their efforts.

On Sunday morning at the memorial service NJ State AOH President and LAOH National President placed a wreath at the Bloody Sunday victim’s monument.  The families are very appreciative of our efforts and support throughout the years.  The march later that day was somber as we retraced the steps of the march of 1972.  At the end of the March representatives of each family, SDLP President Paul Durkan and Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuiness addressed the crowd. During our time in Derry I delivered to the Bloody Sunday families a letter signed by Congressmen Richard Neal, Chris Smith, Eliot Engel and Joseph Crowley.  The letter expressed the Congressmen’s support of the family’s efforts to receive the often delayed findings of the Saville Inquiry at the same time that the British government receives it.  The inquiry is set to be released the week of March 22nd and the British government plans to hold it for at least two weeks before releasing to the families.  This of course is totally unacceptable to the families; they have waited 38 years for the truth and should not have to wait one minute more than they have to.  Since my return I have been in touch with the families to offer further assistance.  Preliminary discussions regarding a contingent of Bloody Sunday family members visiting the US during St. Patrick’s to lobby for further support have taken place.  The families have verified that Judge Saville would not have a problem releasing the findings to the families at the same time they are presented to the British government but since Saville was charged by the British government to complete the Inquiry he must submit the findings first to the government.  The families have launched a campaign entitled Set the Truth Free. Details can be found at www.setthetruthfree.org It is my sincere hope that as you read this article in the early days of April, that the families of those murdered and injured have the findings of the inquiry and may have finally experienced some sort of justice.  If on the other hand the British government has once again used the cruel tactics of delaying justice for these families we will increase our efforts to get the report to the families without further delay.

Leaving Derry our tour stopped in Dungannon and Cappagh in County Tyrone.   Sponsored by Relatives for Justice we met with families whose loved ones were killed in acts of state sponsored murder and collusion.  We met Martin Mallon the nephew of one of those killed, 70 year old Roseanne Mallon from near Dungannon, County Tyrone; she was shot dead in her sister’s home on May 8th 1994. Martin told us of his family’s 15 year struggle for justice and the work and support that Relatives for Justice has provided.  We spent two nights in beautiful South Armagh at the Ti Chulainn centre where we enjoyed two great nights of Irish music at the centre and at the Welcome Inn in nearby Forkhill.  During our time in Armagh we received briefings from the Pat Finucane Center’s Newry office, an overview of the oral history project that Christmas Appeal recipient Cuimhneamih does, and learned of the relationship of the area to Irish mythology.

Returning to Belfast for our last couple of days we had a full schedule.  We met with a representative of the David Ervine Trust, and made a donation to help fund the cross community education project the trust sponsors.   We met with Sinn Finn MLA Raymond McCartney at Stormont the seat of The Northern Ireland government and received a comprehensive briefing on the political landscape in the North and the on going policing and devolution talks.  Our group also toured Stormont, which at one time was described as a “Protestant Parliament for a Protestant People”.  Thankfully it now is more representative of the entire population of the North.  Bik McFarlane former OC in Long Kesh during the 1981 Hunger Strikes served as tour guide for the group as we toured North Belfast and Ardoyne.  Fr Gary Donegan of Holy Cross Parish and School and Michael Hanna of the Holy Cross Trust hosted our entire group to a tremendous dinner at the church. They updated us on the work of the Trust and thanked the AOH and LAOH for all of our support since 2001.  We visited the Falls Road office of Relatives for Justice (RFJ) another recipient of Christmas appeal donations to learn about the work they do relating to truth and justice initiatives.  At RFJ we heard from family members of those that were killed at the Ballymurphy massacre of 1971. These victims were killed by the same troops who were not held accountable for their actions in Ballymurphy and instead sent to Derry in January 1972 and were part of Bloody Sunday.  At the Felons Club in West Belfast we were hosted by old friend Liam Shannon, we meet with the organizations that we support in the Belfast area: Coiste, Green Cross, An Cumann Cabhrach, National Graves Association of Belfast and TarNall.  Once again our members learned first hand of the work of these organizations and the importance of our donations.

National Director Danny O’Connell and I were able to attend a meeting of the Northern Ireland Policing Board.  We were the guests of Sinn Fein Policing board members Martina Anderson and Alex Maskey.  After the meeting we had lunch with Martina, Alex, DUP member Ian Paisley Jr., PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott and Chairman of the NI Policing Board Barry Gilligan.  Danny and I conveyed to Constable Baggott our condemnation of the recent acts of dissident violence in the attack of PSNI officer Peadar Heffron.  (Heffron is the Catholic nine year veteran of the PSNI who is a fluent Irish speaker and an avid participant of GAA sports.  He was attacked and almost killed in a bombing of his car, by dissident republicans.  As a result of the attack his leg was amputated.)  We reaffirmed the statements of AOH president Seamus Boyle who in 2009 said “There would be no support among the Ancient Order of Hibernians for any of these splinter groups” and that there is no support among Irish-Americans for this terrible attack.” We asked that Chief constable Baggot pass along our best wishes to Officer Heffron and his family and asked to be notified if there was any way that we could assist in efforts to support the Heffron family.  We also discussed with Constable Baggot our belief that the devolution of policing and justice would be beneficial to the people of the North and he agreed, he was hopeful that the negotiations going on at that time would yield that result.

All in all it must be said that this year’s trip like this years Christmas appeal was a great success. It was a busy and full seven days of travel.  Luckily we were able to balance the time we spent learning and being educated with time for fun, camaraderie and social activities.  All that took the trip had an opportunity to learn about that past, present and future of the North of Ireland by meeting with those that lived thorough the past are working in the present and those that will shape its future.  The families of Bloody Sunday hope that 2010 and the release of the Saville inquiry will final offer them some truth, justice and peace.  If, please God, that happens, the final commemoration march should take place in Derry in 2011.  Let us pray that truth and justice happens and the 14 who died on Bloody Sunday, those that were injured on that day and all of those families members that have passed away in the 38 plus years since that day may finally rest in peace.

Final thoughts: On Thursday night February 4th the Hillsborough Castle Agreement (HCA) was finalized, it would be announced the next morning. I had the great fortune to be invited to the review of the agreement by Sinn Fein to its constituents in North Belfast on Thursday night. I found the review to be an incredible event that allowed me to see first hand a very democratic grass root review of a strategy that has persevered in the face of great adversity; a strategy whose long term goal is a free and united 32 county Ireland with justice for all.  It is a strategy that we can help support by gathering United Ireland resolutions from our local, county and State governments. Full details are available at:

http://www.aoh.com/pages/national_programs/freedom_for_all_ireland/freedom_for_all_ireland.html

The major component of the HCA was the devolution of policing and justice from London to the people of the North.  It is an agreement that supports equality and a basic democratic precept that those that are governed and policed should control those that govern and police.  As I spend more time in the North it becomes more and more obvious that the concept of equality and the idea that all are created equal is not an ideal that is shared by all.  It is evident that many in conservative Unionism, many members of the DUP and the Orange order do not want equality and will fight it every step of the way.  The thought of equality to some of these people was best summed up by a republican I met at the Thursday night meeting he said that “it was hard to believe that Republicans could under estimate the absolute toxic nature that many in unionism view equality with”.  It was a strong statement but I watched the announcement on TV the next morning and watched DUP First Minister Peter Robinson fail to extend his hand to Deputy First Minister Martin McGuiness to recognize the agreement; actions sometimes speak louder than words.