Martin Galvin, hosting on US radio show Radio Free Éireann, interviews Sean Bresnahan, National PRO 1916 Societies, about the recent Hungerstrike commemoration in Galbally, Co. Tyrone and about the likely impact of Brexit on Ireland and prospects for Irish Unity.
Radio Free Éireann (interview begins 28.56)
WBAI 99.5FM Pacifica Radio
New York City
8th October 2016
MG: We now have Sean Bresnahan on the airwaves from Co. Tyrone. Sean, welcome back to Radio Free Éireann.
SB: Hello, Martin. How’s it going?
MG: Doing the best. Sean, I was reading today’s Irish News. I don’t know if you’ve seen the article but there was – one of the columnists, Patrick Murphy, writing about what you did last week in Galbally. It’s a column – Stormont needs to deliver – not look good – and what he wrote is that:
For many nationalists, Stormont symbolises a failure to deliver on Irish Unity. While unionists are happy at having won the battle over partition, many on the nationalist side are increasingly disillusioned. For example, speaking in Tyrone’s traditional republican heartland of Galbally last week, former Hungerstriker, Tommy McKearney, described Stormont as ‘venial, futile, powerless’.
And Patrick Murphy had talked about the new British Press Secretary and he said:
‘It will take more than a press secretary to change that sentiment or to offset the reaction of some to Sinn Féin’s attendance at the Ulster (Six County?) Fry at the Conservative Party Conference.’
Alright Sean, could you tell us what happened at that demonstration in Galbally, the Hungerstrike demonstration and why that was deemed so important that Patrick Murphy, the columnist, would take up the meaning of the demonstration in his column this week, almost a week later?
SB: Well I haven’t actually seen the article you’re referring to but obviously I would agree with Tommy’s assertions at the parade and think he called that right, where he criticised Stormont but also the Free State government as well. And the basic argument that Tommy would be making, and which we would support, is that both of those states are basically failed entities – they don’t serve the people of Ireland.
They’re serving private interests. They’re serving the British interest in the North and in the South they’re serving the interests of the Germans and the French – anybody but the Irish people. And what we call for, and what Tommy’s calling for, is the establishment of a democratic republic that will instead work for the people of Ireland.
The commemoration itself was a huge success. There were thousands there – very honoured to be there and to be part of it – and as I said, there were thousands of people at it and those numbers are a testament that this project that Sinn Féin have been on for the last twenty years – whatever it might be – twenty-thirty years – has not got the support of the republican people and what I would say is that they’ve been making up for the shortfall in republican support because they’ve been attracting votes from what traditionally would have been the constitutional nationalist constituency, the SDLP, those type of votes.
So they’ve eclipsed that party, they’ve took that party’s votes, and all of that has served to disguise that the republican people of Tyrone and in other areas – the likes of South Derry, the likes of Ardoyne, Lurgan and these places – are not with this analysis and not with this project. And the proof of that is there to be seen when you look at the thousands of people on the streets at these commemorations.
MG: Alright now Sean, the commemoration last week was a Hungerstrike commemoration and it was near the area where Martin Hurson, the Hungerstriker from Tyrone, grew up – his family was a bedrock of the republican struggle in that area – and it was a Hungerstrike commemoration and one of the things about the Hungerstrike: These prisoners could have certainly worn a British uniform, gotten better conditions, they would have had parody of esteem with anybody else, the other prisoners who were held in Long Kesh.
They could have ended the brutal treatment, or a lot of the brutal treatment that they faced, because a lot of the brutality that was inflicted upon them, a lot of the beatings that they took, was to make them conform, wear a criminal uniform, simply dress up as criminals so that they could say that the whole struggle for Irish Freedom was a criminal enterprise – that those who fought against British rule in 1916 or 1981 – or at any time – that they were criminals because British rule was normal, British rule is legitimate, British rule was the proper entity to support and that those who were fighting against it were in fact criminals.
Now it seems as if in Stormont today – Gerry McGeough was sent to prison for something that happened in 1981 by a regime which Sinn Féin was a part of, in which they had endorsed the RUC, sorry the PSNI, the re-named RUC, and the forces of British law and order. There were others. Seamus Kearney was sent to a British prison for the same thing. Ivor Bell is facing political proceeding for opposing that same regime in 1972. And it seems to me that what Stormont is doing is criminalising that struggle, criminalising Martin Hurson, criminalising the Hungerstrikers.
If they’re sending them to prison for things that happened as part of that struggle in 1981 or 1980, like Seamus Kearney, or 1972, as with the charges they have against Ivor Bell – if that’s criminal then surely Bobby Sands was a criminal under the terms of that regime and the people who showed up and supported Martin Hurson, who supported the Hungerstrikers, who support Bobby Sands and all of the Hungerstrikers, knew that these prisoners were not criminals, they were political prisoners, and it seems as if Stormont is working against everything that those prisoners resisted and died for.
SB: Well there wouldn’t be much in that that I’d disagree with. But the thing about it is – as it was at the time and it remains the same – the only criminal in Ireland is the British government and the British presence in our country – and that’s where the criminality lies.
MG: Alright now Sean, your main proposal with the 1916 Societies – to revive feelings of patriotism and nationalism within the 26-Counties – to get a fair chance with the national unit of Ireland voting as a whole – is a proposal – One Ireland One Vote – where people in Donegal and in Dublin could vote along side people in Derry and Down and have their votes count. It is based on petitions and debates and all those efforts to revive feelings that people in the South, people in the 26-Counties, should be standing with people in the North in one vote that will lead to an end to the British presence. How is that working out?
SB: Well our campaign is ongoing and I suppose if you look at the wider picture – you were talking earlier about Brexit – and I suppose that is a big change in what’s going on over here. It’s introduced a new dynamic and our hope would be that that dynamic could lead to our initiative, maybe more people rowing in behind it. And the way that we would see things is that at the moment what’s required is a national dialogue – it probably needs to be inclusive of all sections of society here – but we also believe that the like of yourselves in Irish America – people in the overseas Diaspora – they have a role to play in this as well.
It’s a very important role, perhaps to an extent that, because of your distance from the thing, you’ve probably got a more independent look at things, you know. But basically what we would like to see is some kind of initiative that brings forward an All-Ireland Republic and for us the way to do that is through asking the Irish people in a national referendum.
MG: A few months ago at the national Ancient Order of Hibernians’ Convention in New Jersey there was a resolution which commended One Ireland One Vote – that said that that’s something Hibernians should use to try and support freedom for all Ireland. You’ve seen the resolution, a copy was sent to you and I think it was delivered by Jim Sullivan, or should have been delivered by him when he was over in Ireland, but you’ve now read the resolution. How important was that resolution and similar resolutions by other groups in the United States? How much encouragement does that give you and weight does that give you in your campaign in Ireland?
SB: Absolutely and as I said to you before previously it was a brilliant initiative by those who took it on board – great work and we’re very thankful for it, to the Ancient Order of Hibernians for passing the resolution in the first place. And what we would hope is that it will open the door now for other like-minded groups in Irish America to follow that course. So great work by all concerned and we welcome that one hundred percent.
MG: Alright and hopefully that can be emulated not just by the Ancient Order of Hibernians but by other groups, county societies, legal societies, even the GAA – other groups like that that might think about the idea there was a One Ireland One Vote in 1918 – that’s what lead to the First Dáil – that led to an overwhelming majority or ended in an overwhelming majority for 32-Counties’ independence and that was met with British partition, it was met with the War of Independence.
And ironically the best argument for your proposal came from Arlene Foster. When they had the vote on Brexit she said that a region within a country should not be able to exercise a veto on the will of the entire country. So if we apply that to Ireland, if we apply that to Ireland’s 32 Counties, then surely One Ireland One Vote should be adopted.
SB: Yeah, well the thing about it is, Martin, we already know what the will of the people of Ireland is and even in the Good Friday Agreement it alludes to this because it acknowledges that the will of the Irish people is to live in a United Ireland, to live in a sovereign Irish republic. So for me, what really needs to happen here is that Britain should leave Ireland and allow our people to freely exercise our right to national freedom and independence.
I spoke about the Good Friday Agreement there. For me, regardless of that agreement – which is really a surrender treaty foisted upon our people by duplicity and deceit – the right of our people to self-determination remains intact regardless – and that has to be allowed to proceed.
MG: Okay. Now Sean, you were recently in a debate for the Seán Heuston Society on Brexit. During recent days Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, has said that they’re going to trigger, take the first step – Article 50 – they’re going to do that at the beginning of next year – which should be some time before March of 2017 – and that is going to be the process which starts to get Britain out of the European Community.
The 26-Counties is still in the European Community. It will divide Ireland and could lead to a hard border. It will lead to controls on immigration between the Six Counties and the 26-Counties. It will lead to tariffs. It will lead to other economic controls between the 26-Counties in Ireland and the Six Counties in the North. What are some of the things that you’re doing, your group is doing, to oppose this, to take this back to the point where Ireland’s economy and national border should be united?
SB: Ah well the day after the referendum, the day the result came out, we got together and we discussed the whole implications of the thing and what we thought would go forward from there. And we took the decision to write to all the elected parties in Ireland here, putting forward our proposals as to what should happen. And as I mentioned earlier, those proposals were that there needs to be a national dialogue, there needs to be an inclusive dialogue – inclusive of all sections of the society here in Ireland and including, as I said as well, yourselves and the Diaspora.
And what we think should happen is that – you know Enda Kenny and these people are talking about a forum and that but what they really want to discuss is managing the impact of Brexit within the existing order. But what we would be saying is that that order needs to go and if there’s going to be some kind of a national dialogue or a national forum what the discussion needs to centre on is on proposals for an all-Ireland republic. Because that, as far as we’re concerned – and realistically – that’s the only thing that can resolve the situation as it stands.
The way the thing is: Brexit has unleashed a new dynamic – nobody knows how to control it – people living here in the North are probably going to be the worst affected but as you were talking about earlier on it’s going to have an adverse effect on people living in the South of Ireland too. We don’t like to divide the thing up between the people of the North and South – we see the whole thing as the people of Ireland – but it’s going to affect all the people of Ireland, obviously negatively.
But for us the simple solution is: Let’s see a United Ireland. Let’s see an independent sovereign republic and from there the matter should be be able to be resolved – that’s where we’re at anyway, Martin.
MG: The last time I was in Ireland we met just inside Co. Monaghan, I was staying there and you came down. You live in Tyrone – if there was a hard border between Tyrone and Monaghan just what are some of the ways that that would that effect you and other people on either side of that border?
SB: Well I suppose that all remains to be seen, what way that’s going to end up. I would imagine when they talk about a hard border it’s probably relating more to the movement of goods and services than it is to actual people – I don’t know. There’s a lot of talk about this Common Travel Area. A lot of people, like Jim Allister and these people, say the hard border won’t come into effect. Other people who were on the side of ‘Remain’ are arguing that it will. It remains to be seen.
But what I would stress is that the reality is – whether it’s a hard border or whatever – there is a border. There is a border in our country. And that border in our country has been put there by someone who has no right to put a border in our country and they should leave. That to me is the bottom line. It seems very simplistic, I know, but that’s where it’s at.
MG: Alright. Now one of the things that is asked very frequently here is: Well, we have a border poll, it’s six counties and maybe we should go with that – that’s preferable. Why is the 1916 Societies – their demand is for One Ireland One Vote – they don’t think a border poll, a six-county vote, will ever lead to a United Ireland. Could you explain the difference and why you’re so convinced that a ‘One Ireland One Vote’ is the only way to achieve a united Ireland?
SB: Well see the thing about it is, we believe in the inalienable right to self-determination. We believe the Irish people have that right and a border poll infringes on that right. What it does is it empowers what you’d call an artificial gerrymander – the six-county state – that’s what it is – it’s an artificial gerrymander. It’s a part of our country carved out of our country and attached to another state for reasons of political expediency on the part of Britain.
So it has no democratic legitimacy and no right of its own to self-determination. And we say the people of Ireland have the right to self-determination and we say that right should go forward. We see our initiative as one of the ways in which that can go forward and what we would hope is that an all-Ireland referendum, where one to take place, can bring forward an independent and free Ireland and we don’t think a border poll can do that.
I don’t know if you read some of the stuff I wrote on it lately – and I know John Crawley has been on your show in recent times and spoke about the same thing – is that we’re hearing now this talk about an Agreed Ireland and we’re also hearing now noises coming from the Establishment in the Free State and they’re talking about ‘weighted majorities’ and they don’t think that a majority decision would be fair. So we’re already seeing it shaping up that they won’t allow a United Ireland to go forward even from a border poll. But I don’t even think there’ll ever be a border poll to begin with.
MG: And one of the things about a border poll: It’s said that there is a provision about the border polls under the Good Friday deal, the Stormont deal, that you can have a second one – if you have a border poll and it fails you will not have another one for at least seven years. People somehow are making the argument that that means automatically every seven years it happens and then sooner or later…
SB: No, it doesn’t mean that…
MG: If we’re lucky… That’s absolutely untrue.
SB: It doesn’t actually mean that. That’s not in the terms of the Northern Ireland Act, which is what all this stuff goes on. It doesn’t go on the Good Friday Agreement, it goes on the British legislation passed at Westminster in 1998, or subsequent to that, and there’s no such provision that if there’s a border poll there has to be one every seven years. It just means that there can’t be another one inside that period but there might not be another one for twenty years.
But as I said a minute ago, there won’t be a border poll and it’s plain to be seen. You can see it from the reaction the day of the Brexit. You can see it in the attitude of the unionists, you can see it in the attitude of the British Secretary of State that said: ‘Why would there be a border poll when there’s no appetite for constitutional change?’
So the reality of it is here – all they have to do to say ‘we’re not holding a border poll’ is for the British Secretary to say w’e don’t think there’s any appetite for constitutional change so we’re not going to hold this exercise’. So really what you’re talking about here is a ‘British Government Veto’. You know people talk about the Unionist Veto but there’s also that British government veto – the British government has a veto on Irish Unity.
MG: Well the Unionist Veto is there whenever the British give it to them and they would take it back if it didn’t suit them to give them that veto. But I want to talk about something: I noticed on your website – I just usually hit up ‘Tyrone 1916 Societies’ and it comes up – you put in the articles every week – there was a great article about the Hungerstrike march in Galbally last week, your debate about Brexit is featured, there are other materials.
But in the 26-Counties, in many areas there is not as much movement, activity, support shown for around the issue of a United Ireland as there is in many areas in the North. But one area, which I was very pleasantly surprised, I have relatives in Offaly and in Westmeath, you have a Spirit of Freedom Society which works in that area. They have organised quite a number of activities. They seem to be very active in that area – in Westmeath, in Meath, in Offaly – throughout that area, the Midlands, in organising debates, in organising commemorations, in keeping that whole issue of One Ireland One Vote alive. What’s your reaction to them?
SB: Ah! The group you’re talking about is the Spirit of Irish Freedom Society. They’re actually from Westmeath but it’s in that same area you’re talking about and I have to say they are great people. They’ve recently come onboard with ourselves in the last couple of years and in many ways they’re leading the way forward. So as you say, they’re holding plenty of debates, they’re holding music sessions and they’re rallying away for the One Ireland One Vote – they’re standing in the streets lifting the petitions every Saturday afternoon in Mullingar. So yeah, they’re definitely doing a mountain of work – and it’s great to see it happening.
I just want to pick up on one thing that you said there, which was that there isn’t the same appetite as there is in the North – we don’t necessarily know that that’s true. A lot of that I would contend would be propaganda. And really the reason for that is because what the Establishment needs to do is maintain this narrative that the people of Ireland don’t want Irish Unity – that the people of Ireland don’t want to live in a United Ireland or they’re afraid of a United Ireland – they’re afraid of the consequences.
I don’t believe that for a second and for me personally, I would trust the Irish people one hundred percent that if it comes to it – if they’re asked what they want – that’s what they’ll support.
MG: Alright Sean, I think what the problem is is that they’re told all the time by the government that they can’t do anything until this border poll comes up and there’s a nationalist majority and so they have no say until that happens. And in fact, they could vote unanimously for a United Ireland – the 26-Counties could vote unanimously for a United Ireland – and if there’s a small majority in the North against it, under the Agreement, if that’s what’s followed, you don’t get it. That’s one of the problems.
SB: Well this is the problem. And that is a real problem and that’s why, just knowing that there’s people listening in Irish America, I would like to draw their attention to some of the stuff that’s coming out from other parties where they’re talking about a national referendum and they’re talking about a referendum on Irish Unity. But what they are really looking for is not an all-Ireland referendum.
What they’re talking about is two referendums but they want them to be on the same day. But, as you were just explaining, that is the case: That no matter if one hundred percent of the people in the 26-county state voted for Irish Unity and one percent was down in the North – it doesn’t happen. So it’s the Unionist Veto – that’s exactly what it is.
MG: Alright, Sean, we are coming up to the end. I did want to ask you: John and I have said over and over again that this station – it’s not just important to people in the United States but the fact that, for example, you can be heard, that Kevin Martin was in these studios, that other groups can be heard on these airwaves airing issues like Tony Taylor – that that’s very important to you in Tyrone – it’s very important to people in the North – those people who support a United Ireland. I’ll just ask you just what your reaction is to that?
SB: Well, I’ve been listening to this show this afternoon and I suppose like the previous speakers I’d just echoed their sentiment and call for people to support today’s fundraising venture. And definitely, Radio Free Éireann is a great asset for ourselves here in Ireland, keeping us in touch with what’s going on on your side of the water and long may it continue.
MG: Alright, thank you. That was Sean Bresnahan from the 1916 Societies. I know on his website he’s put up quite a number of events – John Crawley’s interview, other interviews about the show and supported it, as has Anthony McIntyre on The Pensive Quill and as have other websites. Because people in Ireland look forward to this radio station, for these interviews, for these voices to be heard.
And the fact that they’re heard from America in America, they know the British pay attention to that, they know the British government listens to our show, they know (and monitors the show) that it has twice the impact as if they could be heard at all – which they’re not in many cases in Ireland – within Ireland, North or South.