Monday, 22 January 2018

Wicklow Gaol – 300 years of history

Wicklow Gaol with gallows still visible above the main entrance

THE IMPOSING BASTION of the historic Wicklow Gaol dominates the picturesque coastal settlement of Wicklow town. 
Before the 1700s, the British considered the ‘The Garden County’ to be one of the safest places in Ireland, so heavily was it planted with their settlers. But the town itself and the surrounding countryside have a history of rebellion and resistance to foreign invasions. 
A short distance away from the gaol, partially crumbling into the ocean, stand the remnants of the Normans’ Black Castle. The building and its defences, which controlled the north Wicklow coast, was overrun and destroyed by local Gaelic chiefs from the O’Toole and O’Byrne clans in 1301.
A prison has stood on the site of Wicklow Gaol since the early 1700s, but it was the 1798 Rebellion which forced the British Government to hugely upgrade the site into the extensive stone building that sits there today. 
During the 1798 Rebellion, Wicklow was a stronghold of the rebels. 
Even after the major defeat at the Battle of Vinegar Hill, the rebels continued to hold out in the hills, forests and valleys of Wicklow with the support of a sympathetic local population. Leading a guerrilla campaign, Michael ‘The Wicklow Chief’ Dwyer and his men harried the British Army, conducting devastating ambushes and even forced them to begin construction on the now famous Military Road to allow British troops based in Dublin access to the mountains. 
Dwyer would eventually become one of the most famous of the 1798 rebels to be held in Wicklow Gaol after his forces negotiated surrender in December 1803 and before his deportation to Australia. His surrender came following the defeat of Robert Emmet’s rebellion in Dublin. 
Emmet’s confidante, Anne Devlin, who faced brutal torture at the hand of British forces, was also imprisoned in the gaol, as was James ‘Napper’ Tandy. Tandy was held there reportedly out of fear that holding him in a major city could lead to large protests in the locality, such was his popularity.
Other rebels were not as lucky as Dwyer and Tandy.
On the street outside the prison stands a monument to rebel leader Billy Byrne. Originally a member of the pro-British loyalist yeomanry, Byrne was expelled from the organisation for refusing to swear a blatantly anti-Catholic oath. He went on to join the United Irishmen and played a leading role in the Battle of Arklow and the Battle of Vinegar Hill.
Betrayed by an informer, Byrne was arrested in Dublin in 1799 and conveyed to Wicklow Gaol for trial. 
It turned out that the evidence used to convict the 24-year-old of treason came from a British prisoner whose life he had saved on the slopes of Mount Pleasant. The prisoner, Thomas Dowse, believed his testimony recalling how Byrne ensured no prisoners of war were executed would be viewed favourably. The British court, however, stated that if Byrne could exercise such authority on the treatment of prisoners then “he must have been one of the leaders”. 
The decision to execute him sparked revulsion across Wicklow. He was dragged from Wicklow Gaol shortly after the sentence and, with his comrade Patrick Grant, he was hanged on nearby Gallows Lane, now Friar’s Hill.
During An Gorta Mór, the number of prisoners in the 77 cells of Wicklow Gaol swelled to almost 800 people (many imprisoned for stealing food for their starving families), resulting in a spread of disease and deaths. Many bodies were buried in quicklime within the prison walls.
There were multiple executions during the 1800s using the still-visible gallows above the main entrance. 
The last person to be executed in Wicklow Gaol was James Askins, convicted of murder in 1843. 
The prison closed in 1900 but, a few years later, it was back in use during the Tan War. The heavily-fortified prison served a new purpose – as a stronghold for British forces in the county and a place to hold suspected republicans. Most of the nearby RIC barracks had been wiped out in an effective IRA guerrilla campaign, forcing British troops and RIC into the larger towns like Wicklow. Wicklow Gaol itself became the headquarters for the Cheshire Regiment, whose graffiti is still visible around the prison.
During the Civil War it served as a base for the Free State forces. There were several successful escape attempts by IRA prisoners. In February 1923, seven IRA prisoners escaped custody by using bedding to scale the walls into the prison exercise yard from where a hole was blown in the wall and you can still see the scorch marks. Two more successfully escaped that July by breaking down the door of the official underground tunnel that leads to the adjacent courthouse.
The most famous prisoner of this time was Erskine Childers. 
The man who had landed weapons for the Irish Volunteers in 1913 and had been a leading member of the Republican Movement throughout the Tan War, Childers was arrested at his Glendalough home in November 1923 and held in Wicklow Gaol before his execution at Beggar’s Bush barracks in Dublin.
Wicklow Gaol closed its doors for the final time in 1924 and was partially demolished 20 years later. It sat idle until the 1990s, when renovation took place and it opened to visitors at the turn of the century.

Wicklow Gaol is open every day from 10:30am to 4:30pm. Kilmantin Hill, Wicklow Town, County Wicklow. Phone +353 (0) 404 61599. Email:
  • This article first appeared in the December 2018 edition of An Phoblacht

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

The privatisation of the Irish state’s social welfare system

SINCE the winding-down of the discredited JobBridge programme – which saw unemployed people being exploited to work full-time for a paltry €50 on top of their dole – a new ‘job activation’ scheme has slowly been rolled out across the state.

There hasn’t been as much media coverage but the scheme has come in for major criticism from those forced to take part in it, even the staff at the private companies who are tasked with implementing it, and groups in the Community Employment sector.

“It’s a crock of shit; it is definitely not randomly selected,” ‘David’ tells me over the phone. He worked for one of the private companies contracted by the Department of Social Protection to deliver their JobPath programme for several months. 

He is contesting claims by the department that long-term unemployed people are selected at random to go onto the job activation scheme.

Instead, he says, the Department of Social Protection’s own case workers are picking and choosing who to send on it. He has anecdotal evidence to suggest it is almost being used as a punishment so the department can wash their hands of individuals they do not like dealing with.

“The referrals are the ones that are pissing the case officers off or are a nuisance. It’s like putting out the rubbish,” he says. 

The JobPath scheme is supposedly only targeted at long-term unemployed. After being piloted in Bray and Longford, it was implemented across the state in mid-2016. The two companies who received the tender are Seetec and Turas Nua.

Both companies receive an initial fee for every jobseeker with whom a “personal progression plan” is prepared. They also receive “job sustainment fees” for the length of time a person who has found a job via JobPath stays in that position. These fees are paid at 13, 26, 39 and 52 weeks. Attempts to find out what these fees are have hit a brick wall as the department cites “commercial sensitivity” and refuses to answer the question. 

Our contact ‘David’ says he believes the initial fee is worth approximately €300 per person and that staff were essentially told to not let anybody out of the building without signing that contract. Once this contract is signed, jobseekers are locked into JobPath for 12 months. They cannot transfer to Community Employment or other training schemes.

After their first group meeting, at which the contract is signed, jobseekers then meet with their personal adviser where they are subjected to a 90-question profile known as “The Catalyst”.

“Some of these questions are highly personal, and shouldn’t be asked,” says David. “They deal with things like mental state, financial situation and general health. If a Garda asked me I wouldn’t answer them. 

“From those, they derive a chart that is supposed to tell the person in what areas they are lacking – this could be in confidence or even their appearance. After this meeting, however, this chart is put away and may never be seriously referred to again.”

There are concerns about the retention of personal data from such forms and also the transfer of personal data between the Department of Social Protection and private companies running the scheme.

From here on out, the jobseekers receive little training or support. Many jobseekers explained how they may have been required to travel for upwards of 90 minutes to their local office only to sit in front of a computer sending out CVs for an hour. 

David explained that the huge pressure local office staff are under to meet ‘targets’ (upwards of 100 clients a week) means they have no ability to dedicate adequate support or training to individual jobseekers.

One of the easiest ways to “get your numbers up” is to invite all your clients in on a certain afternoon and have them sit at the computer bank firing off CVs. If the client has no experience in using computers or limited literacy skills, well that’s just tough – the staff don’t have time to engage.

The Department of Social Protection's focus on hitting targets and getting people into a job, no matter what type it is, means that the best interests of jobseekers are not at the heart of the scheme. Part-time or substitute teachers find themselves being pressured to take jobs in the services industry; tradespeople are in a similar boat. The entire focus seems to be pushing people into employment whatever their skills-set.

Jobseekers who miss meetings are often warned about cuts in their dole. 

Many jobseekers have expressed frustration that JobPath does not take into account that some of those on the course are working part-time and find themselves unable to attend meetings due to work commitments. In one case a man explained how he was threatened with having his benefits cut because he failed to make a meeting – he was with his wife as she gave birth to their child.

In a response to Denise Mitchell TD in July, Social Protection Minister Regina Doherty said there were “approximately 22,000 cases of customer non-engagement” in the JobPath scheme out of a total of 105,000. (“Non-engagement” includes those people who often cannot make meetings due to legitimate reasons.)

Of these a “reduced payment rate has only been applied in approximately 5,000 cases”. ‘David’ explains that there is no set criteria for staff on how to deal with non-engagement cases.

The Department of Social Protection is quick to point to its own surveys which claim satisfaction levels of 81% as opposed to dissatisfaction levels of a mere 8%. However, many claim that the fear of benefit cuts means a reluctance to openly criticise the scheme.

Even jobseekers who find employment on their own initiative aren’t free of JobPath. They explain how they were hounded for months afterwards by former personal advisers (themselves under pressure) looking for details of the employment they had gained themselves. Companies can claim “employment sustainment fees” from the department for the next year.

Sinn Féin TDs John Brady and Denise Mitchell have been leading the charge against the scheme. 
In July, they launched the “JobPath Exposed” campaign which aims to highlight the deficiencies in JobPath and is calling for a full review of the scheme with an aim to ultimately end it.

“Over 105,000 jobseekers have been referred onto JobPath so far,” John Brady tells An Phoblacht. “We’ve been overwhelmed by damning stories from participants on JobPath as to how they have been treated on these schemes. We want the Minister for Social Protection to initiate an immediate review of the scheme with the view to abolishing it outright. 

“It’s a disgraceful privatisation of the job activation area.”

Denise Mitchell adds:

“It’s not just about the unemployed people on these schemes either. The people who are actually working in the companies who are delivering these schemes have contacted us to say how they feel jobseekers are being insulted by the standard of support they are receiving. 

“The people who are employed to help others get a job are questioning their own training to deliver the scheme – that should raise serious concerns.”

‘David’ agrees.

He describes the initial four days of training for staff as “an absolute joke”, adding that most staff only stay for a few months:

He also criticises the lack of knowledge amongst Department of Social Protection staff as to how the JobPath scheme operates. Individuals over the age of 62 are being referred despite the fact that people of that age are exempt from job-activation schemes. In other cases, teachers are being referred to the scheme during summer holidays despite the scheme supposedly only catering to the long-term unemployed.

JobPath is not just a source of frustration for jobseekers and staff in the companies tasked with delivering it. The Community Employment sector is finding its referrals dwindling.

Eoghan Brunkard of the Campaign for Community Employment Reform says JobPath represents a “huge threat” to the viability of Community Employment (CE) schemes.

“The companies’ profit is derived from outcomes. Therefore, for the company to achieve the most profit from a client, it is obviously in their interest to source employment of any kind. 

"The participant becomes a product that must be sold. This mechanism creates an immediate disconnect between the participant’s best interests and that of the company,” he says.

“By contrast, Community Employment Schemes – which are not-for-profit by nature – source specific training to the needs of the participant. 

“CE recognises the problems in confidence, ability and experience that long-term unemployed people face. Onsite supervisors provide support for people who are becoming adjusted to the labour force. CE schemes bring long-term unemployed back into the culture of work while providing a public good, such as community crèches, sports clubs and youth projects.”

The outlook for many such projects is bleak. 

With unemployment rates dropping, it seems more and more jobseekers are being forced into JobPath so as to keep it profitable for the companies involved. In turn, referrals to CE schemes are drying up.
Summing up the situation, ‘David’ says:

“JobPath could have been the answer to our long-term unemployment problem. However, I have yet to come across a private company who were in it solely for the good of the service user.

  • This article first appeared in the August 2017 edition of An Phoblacht

Monday, 19 June 2017

New Taoiseach, same old Fine Gael

MAY was a month in Leinster House that saw an enormous shift in the political landscape with the resignation of Enda Kenny as leader of Fine Gael and as Taoiseach from the beginning of June.
Since then, the media coverage has been dominated with fawning Fine Gael backbenchers and outpourings of reverence from political commentators who really should know better.
Much of the commentary of newspaper editors, CEOs, bankers and admirers of Fine Gael’s politics is decidedly at odds with public opinion.
Two days before Enda Kenny’s announcement, the Simon Communities held a meeting with TDs and senators at Buswells Hotel where they outlined how the increasing gap between Housing Assistance Payments and the spiraling costs of rent meant that many people are simply being forced into homelessness. Of course, the Fine Gael/Independent Government will be keen to ignore this issue and, indeed, I couldn’t see any Government representatives at the briefing.
Another ‘crowning glory’ for the departing Enda in May came with the announcement that hospital waiting lists hit a record high of 666,000. He will not like to be reminded of the 2007 general election when Fine Gael slammed Fianna Fáil for allowing the numbers to hit 29,000.
To top it all off, we saw yet more scandals erode public confidence in An Garda Síochána. Questions were being asked of Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan after an internal audit raised serious issues about the questionable use of taxpayers' money in the Garda budget, including the transfer of €100,000 from the Garda Training College to the private Garda Boat Club. 
Another report in a Sunday newspaper revealed how An Garda Síochána tapped the phone of an opposition party worker. This particular activist was based in a constituency where he rivaled an important Government minister. An Phoblacht understands that it is highly probable that the person whose phone was bugged is a Sinn Féin activist. 
The swirling controversies were summed up by Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams. He noted that it has been “crisis and chaos” that has dominated Kenny’s reign as Taoiseach.
One of the best rebuttals to the fawning over Enda Kenny’s time in office came from satirist and impressionist Oliver Callan (Scrap Saturday and Callan’s Kicks), who hit out at journalists within the political bubble in Leinster House for becoming “teary-eyed at moments like these that their vision is splintered into emotional memories and fond anecdotes for radio panels”.
His sobering analysis of a man he described as “The Accidental Taoiseach” was more incisive and accurate than much of the unctuous praise from more mainstream hacks.
“The truth is he had a majority so large he could have achieved anything but chose to squander a chance that may not fall into the hands of one person quite so spectacularly ever again,” Callan wrote in the Irish Times
“Kenny’s Ireland today is a haven for tax avoiders, vultures, the unaccountable and cronyism. He was a details dodger, someone who shrewdly outsourced failure to his ministers but adopted and cuddled any success as his own.”
It was a theme also taken up by Sinn Féin deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald TD who, speaking on the floor of the Dáil on the day his resignation as leader of Fine Gael took effect, said:
“The truth is that he has been a very bad Taoiseach for ordinary people. He is a Taoiseach who has implemented policies which benefited the most-well-off in society to the detriment of everyone else. 
“In 2011, Deputy Kenny came to power with the largest majority in the history of the state and, to great fanfare, he promised a democratic revolution. However, what he actually delivered during his six years as Taoiseach was crisis after crisis.”
This analysis didn’t go down well with the serried ranks of the Blueshirts who shouted and screamed from the Government benches with a level of outrage that had previously only been seen when it was suggested that the Dáil bar should be closed during votes. 
The two contenders for Enda Kenny’s job wasted little time in getting their campaigns off the ground. 
Such has been the focus on faction fighting and declarations of support for the contenders to be Kenny’s successor – Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar and Housing Minister Simon Coveney – Fine Gael were so dizzy they forgot to vote during a motion on the sale of AIB shares, much to the bemusement of Opposition TDs. 
Summing up the possible outcome from the Fine Gael leadership contest, Mary Lou McDonald said the new Taoiseach will either be “the Great Demoniser of the Unemployed and Poor – Leo Varadkar” or “the Minister for Chronic Homelessness and Hotel Rooms – Simon Coveney”.
Plus ça change.
  • This article first appeared in the June 2016 edition of An Phoblacht

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Killer of Garda Tony Golden was ‘protected Garda agent’

Why did senior gardaí and DPP – who knew the unstable Crevan Mackin had access to guns – release him from prison on reduced bail?

ON 11 OCTOBER 2015, Adrian Crevan Mackin shot dead Garda Tony Golden and seriously wounded Siobhán Phillips before taking his own life near Omeath, County Louth. New evidence shows that Adrian Crevan Mackin was a Garda agent and informer, tasked with infiltrating so-called dissident republican groupings. He was out on bail at the time of the murder even though he had admitted possessing weapons and explosives.
Nine months before the killing of Garda Golden, Crevan Mackin had admitted to possession of firearms and even led gardaí to an arms dump near the Border where they recovered two pistols. Incredibly, despite this, Mackin was not charged with any firearms offences.
The series of events leading up to the killing of Garda Golden and the wounding of Mackin's partner, Siobhán Phillips, paints a murky picture where An Garda Síochána used a highly dangerous, volatile and abusive individual with serious mental health issues as an agent of the state working for the police.
Mackin had for years been on the fringes of so-called dissident republican organisations. 
He went to school in Warrenpoint, County Down. In 2012, he was arrested by the PSNI for possession of extreme pornographic material. After this, he moved to north Louth where, according to his sister, he began to supply pipe-bombs and guns to dissident republican groupings opposed to the Peace Process.
On 16 January 2015, following a tip-off from the FBI in the United States, at least 16 armed gardaí from the Special Detective Unit in Dublin raided Mackin’s home in Omeath. 
The FBI had provided a list of weapons which Mackin had purchased over a two-year period. Gardaí had obtained the warrant to raid Mackin’s home stating that they believed he had six firearms in his possession. During the raid they found threaded and capped pipes (which can be used for making pipe-bombs) along with gallons of sulphuric and nitric acid which are used in the mixing of explosives. 
Mackin was arrested and interviewed by gardaí.
The FBI also claimed they had information that Mackin was intending to import the highly-toxic poison ricin with intent to kill a Social Services officer in the North
The transcripts of interviews with gardaí show that Mackin denied membership of any organisation styling itself the IRA before simply answering 27 further questions with the words “no comment”.
During a fifth round of questioning, Mackin did admit to weapons possession and importing components parts for six firearms after a list of his PayPal transactions were shown to him.
Around this time, Mackin told detectives he had access to guns, including two Glock pistols – the type he would use to kill Garda Golden. 

He also led gardaí to an arms dump at a derelict cottage in Edentubber where they recovered two Beretta 9mm pistols. Mackin said he brought the gardaí to this arms dump in exchange for not being charged with firearms offences, and instead to only be charged with IRA membership – something he had not admitted to.
Mackin’s sister said he informed her that there was a deal with the gardaí.
“‘We’ll keep you out of prison but you’ll have to do this [or that] for us’. Why did they think Crevan was a good candidate to be a grass, or a tout, or whatever word you want to put on it?” she said. 
On 18 January 2015, the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions instructed gardaí to charge Mackin with IRA membership, the very offence he had not admitted.
Crevan Mackin’s solicitor, Paul Tiernan, told an RTÉ Investigates programme detailing the incredible story that he finds it “very strange” and “highly unusual” that “someone who had admitted possession of firearms and the importation of component parts for firearms, should have been treated in this way” and not charged with possession of those firearms. “In the vast majority of cases, the strongest evidence against people is their own admissions,” the solicitor said on TV. 
While awaiting a bail hearing, Mackin was sent to Portlaoise Prison. There he attempted to have himself placed on wings which housed prisoners of various so-called dissident republican groups. These prisoners refused to allow Mackin on their wings, suspecting him of being a spy.
Mackin’s solicitor said in an interview on RTÉ: 
“He told me that he was advised to infiltrate the Real IRA in Portlaoise. He confirmed that he was brought onto the political wing but, very soon after arriving on the political wing in Portlaoise Prison, he was expelled.”
Mackin’s bail was originally posted at €20,000 but, strangely, this was quickly reduced to €5,000. He was released 10 days after his arrest. 
His sister says he had confided in her that he believed he was going to be shot dead by dissident republicans for his role as a Garda informer, describing himself as “a marked man” and saying it was “only a matter of time” before they would kill him. 
His sister and solicitor say he started to deteriorate mentally and became increasingly anxious and was prone to violent outbursts. He also began to regularly assault and beat his partner, Siobhán Phillips. 
Two days before the killing of Garda Golden, Siobhán Phillips (21) had been subjected to a horrific and prolonged assault at the hands of the 24-year-old Mackin. 
Over the course of 12 hours he punched Siobhán in the head, kicked her in the stomach, and slashed her a number of times on the arm and legs with a bread knife. Siobhán told work colleagues what happened and then contacted her father and stepmother, telling them she was terrified Mackin was going to kill her.
Mackin had also threatened to kill other members of her family, including her brothers. 
Her stepmother told her that the only way anything would come of it was if she went to the Garda and made a statement. 
On the morning of 10 October, a visibly frightened and injured Siobhán Phillips – accompanied by her father and stepmother – attempted to register complaints of domestic violence and assault against Mackin at Dundalk Garda station. This is the same Garda station at which Mackin signed  on as part of his bail conditions. 
Siobhán’s father, Seán, says the garda they dealt with in Dundalk refused to take a statement, telling them “that girl [Siobhán] could have a brain injury or anything. I’m not going to take a statement from somebody with injuries like that”, before instructing them to go to Omeath as it was in that jurisdiction where the assault happened. 
The family met Garda Tony Golden at the Omeath station the next day. 
After taking the statement, Garda Tony Golden accompanied Siobhán and her father to the home she shared with Crevan Mackin to collect her things. Garda Golden and Siobhán Phillips went inside while Siobhán’s father waited outside. Mackin aggressively demanded to know why the garda was there before opening fire on the pair, killing Garda Golden and horrifically wounding Siobhán Phillips with a gunshot in the head. He then turned the gun on himself.
Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams TD asked for the recall of the Dáil from its Easter recess to allow the Minister for Justice to make a statement on the matter and to answer questions.
The Louth TD has written to Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald eight times since October 2015, to the Taoiseach four times and GSOC on three occasions to raise concerns about the case.
“Given the information I provided, I would have expected Minister Fitzgerald and the Taoiseach, after a reasonable period of time, to ensure a proper investigation into the circumstances which led to the shooting of Garda Golden and Siobhán Phillips took place,” he said.
The Dáil deputy described the responses from An Taoiseach and the Minister for Justice as “unsatisfactory”:
“I have never received any indication that the Government was taking this matter seriously. Given that it was known by some senior figures in An Garda Síochána that Crevan Mackin had access to weapons, Siobhán Phillips and Garda Golden should not have been placed in this perilous situation.”
Gerry Adams described the arrest, interrogation and subsequent treatment of Crevan Mackin as “entirely inappropriate”:
“All of the families affected by this need to have truth about the circumstances of Crevan Mackin’s arrest, questioning, charging and relationship with An Garda Síochána.
“Those responsible must be held accountable and, if necessary, they must face a criminal investigation and possibly charges.”
Meanwhile, the family of Siobhán Phillips have announced that they are to sue An Garda Síochána. In a statement following the airing of the RTÉ Investigates programme on 20 April, their solicitors, Madden & Finucane, said:
“These revelations raise issues of significant public importance and require an investigation at the highest level. 
“We have been instructed today to issue proceedings in the High Court in Dublin and we will be writing to Frances Fitzgerald, the Minister for Justice, requesting that she immediately establish a public inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the shooting of Siobhán and the murder of Garda Golden.” 
  • This article first appeared in the May 2017 edition of An Phoblacht

Monday, 20 March 2017

Future Taoiseach’s policies being hidden by tittle-tattle

SCANNING the front pages of the daily newspapers or listening to the morning talk-shows, your ‘average’ listener may be surprised to learn about some serious issues going on around them and their nearest and dearest.
For example, that, in January, one child became homeless in Dublin every five hours; one in eight people are now on a hospital waiting list; and even An Garda Síochána are facing extremely serious allegations of corruption and cover-up by the police and their political masters. 
Despite all this, the mainstream media has become obsessed with gossip and rumour over the leadership of Fine Gael.
The plight of homeless citizens or those waiting a disproportionate amount of time for necessary surgeries can wait, it seems, because the media establishment want to focus on whether Tweedle Dum or Tweedle Dee will take over from Enda Kenny as leader of Fine Gael and be appointed Taoiseach by that party.
Even with their declining readership, newspapers still maintain the key role in influencing the daily news agenda on radio and television. Bright and early, our radio programmes give us the “morning headlines” from the main tabloids and broadsheets – picking out the key articles they think you and I should have on our radar. With the exception of an occasional inclusion of or, it’s usually an all-dead-tree affair.
And, unfortunately for those of a non-vacuous disposition, a Fine Gael leadership contest is a very alluring subject for flagging mainstream newspapers to gush about. 
The typical investigative reporting or time-consuming research required for hard-hitting pieces can be bypassed. All that’s needed is a Fine Gael backbencher who is happy to spill their guts to reporters while quaffing cappuccinos in the Leinster House coffee dock in the vain hope of some fresh airtime, a few column inches or having their back scratched or ego massaged in return.
New technology makes it even easier for hacks and politicians alike. 
An Irish Times journalist turned the supposed tight confidentiality surrounding one Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting into a complete joke as he effectively managed to live tweet the entire event from a remote location, clearly thanks to a source within.

Personalities are now more important than actual policies. 
The Irish Independent thought it appropriate to run a almost an entire two-page spread focusing on the private lives of Fine Gael leadership contenders Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney.
In the piece, entitled “Image Matters: Why a spouse in the picture is seen as important for world political leaders”, the Indo noted how both men attended a Fine Gael colleague’s wedding in Dublin.
“But what really stood out,” in the eyes of the Indo, “was the fact that Simon Coveney was pictured with his attractive wife Ruth, his arm protectively draped around her. A happy, glamorous, glowing couple. And Leo was pictured on his own.”
The base subtext about ‘family man’ Coveney versus the openly gay Varadkar was clear.
Rather than producing this type of low-quality, tawdry journalism, the Indo’s time would be better spent examining Fine Gael’s record in Government (which is underwhelming to say the least and the responsibility of Coveney and Varadkar as well as the man they want to replace). They could examine whether either of these contenders for Taoiseach and erstwhile loyal lieutenants have any plans to do anything differently. Or is it just more of the same but with someone else in charge?
It was a point raised by Sinn Féin Finance spokesperson Pearse Doherty TD who told reporters at Leinster House that the saturation coverage of internal Fine Gael wranglings needs to stop. 
“We cannot allow a six-week distraction on who will lead Fine Gael. They need to get their house in order. They need to do it very, very quickly and they need to be focused on the issues that matter,” the Donegal deputy said.
An Phoblacht columnist Eoin Ó Murchú took similar issue with the ability of the media to boot scandals into touch. Speaking on TV3’s Tonight with Vincent Browne, he raised the pertinent issue of policy difference between the two Fine Gael contenders – noting that the only difference he could see was in terms of their position on the Irish language. 
“The actual issues of the housing crisis, the health crisis, Brexit crisis, the Northern crisis – none of that seems to be occupying the attention of either politicians or journalists compared to adding up the numbers of who says which one of these two people they want, when no one can find any actual difference of policy between them,” Ó Murchú said with a degree of exasperation.
“There may be [differences] but none of that has been discussed by the media and none of that has been advanced by themselves.”
The Fine Gael leadership contest won’t really hot up until after St Patrick’s Day. Let’s hope journalists worth their salt will run the rule over the policies, ambitions and visions of the two contenders for Taoiseach and give the citizens of Ireland a real picture of what they stand for rather than who they’re going out with.
  • This article first appeared in the February 2017 edition of An Phoblacht

Monday, 13 February 2017

Spike Island – a microcosm of modern Irish history

FOR tens of thousands of Irish people, a small rocky island in Cork Harbour was the last piece of Irish soil on which they set foot before being herded like cattle onto ships bound for far-flung British penal colonies.
One of those held on Spike briefly before his deportation was Young Irelander John Mitchel – after whom the fortress there is now named. Writing in his Jail Journal in 1848 after being convicted of sedition and treason felony for articles he wrote in The United Irishman newspaper, he described Spike Island as a “rueful-looking place”:
“In this court[yard] nothing is to be seen but the high walls and the blue sky. And beyond these walls I know is the beautiful bay lying in the bosom of its soft green hills. If they keep me here for many years I will forget what the fair outer world is like. Gazing on grey stones, my eyes will grow stony.”
Stepping off the small ferry that today services Spike Island, the first thing a visitor is struck by is just how physically close it is to the nearby bustling town of Cobh – the narrow streets, cars and people are easily discernible yet completely uncontactable. 

People have called Spike Island, or Inis Píc, ‘home’ for well over a thousand years. It was originally the site of an ancient monastic settlement founded in 635AD by Saint Mochuda. Skip forward 1,000 years and the monastic site is just ruins, yet from the 1600s to 1938 Spike was one of the most important British military bases in Ireland. Even after the Anglo-Irish Treaty the British insisted on maintaining their presence on this small but strategically important little island – it was the keystone of one of the three “Treaty Ports”. 
Spike’s life as a military base owes its beginnings to the American and French revolutions. 
Jittery at the prospect of Ireland being used as a soft underbelly to attack England, the British began to fortify the island with artillery and guns to command the entrance to Cork Harbour. An attempted landing of French soldiers at Bantry Bay to help the United Irishmen in 1796 convinced the British of the need to garrison and defend one of the British Empire’s most important ports. 
By 1804, work had begun on the formidable fortress dug into the island, consisting of six bastions surrounded by a dry moat and artificial slopes. It is almost invisible to approaching vessels.

The Great Hunger of 1845 would dramatically change the history of this place. 
On the most remote edge of the windswept south-west of the island, beyond a crumbling former ammunition storage building and across the old prison football field, is a small walled cemetery. The single Celtic cross and dozen smashed and badly-eroded headstones (their lettering illegible due to the elements) belie the reality that beneath the soil are the graves of more than 250 mostly unknown prisoners.
As a reaction to the Hunger, Britain began a policy of deportation of people they deemed to be criminals. Many of those thousands of Irish people herded onto boats from Spike had done nothing more than steal food or livestock in desperate bids to feed their starving families. The surviving records on display are filled with the words “burglary, theft, larceny and cattle rustling”. Others were ‘guilty’ of being homeless at a time when vagrancy was criminalised.
During An Gorta Mór, Britain had converted Spike into the largest prison in Britain or Ireland. With over 2,300 prisoners it was arguably the largest such facility in the world.
Between 1847 and 1883, more than 1,200 prisoners perished on the island. Overcrowding, poor sanitation and a shortage of medical care turned the prison into a death camp. 
Newspaper reports from the time show inquests into deaths of prisoners due to allegations of “harsh treatment” generally absolved the prison authorities of any responsibility, instead attributing the deaths to the starving prisoners’ “delicate” health. Most of the dead were buried in another graveyard on the east of the island. This graveyard was later buried by the British military, officially during the upgrading of fortifications. Along with further protecting the island the upgrading also hid the horrific and brutal legacy for over a century.
Spike continued as a mainly military base for the next few decades. It was briefly used to hold the captured crew of The Aud, who scuttled their ship after being captured attempting to land guns for the Easter Rising in 1916.
During the Tan War, Britain was again in need of somewhere secure to hold hundreds of Irish people. Around 600 were on Spike at any time during the Tan War.
In April 1921 a dramatic rescue took place when three senior IRA prisoners, including Seán MacSwiney – brother of Sinn Féin Mayor of Cork Terence MacSwiney, who died on hunger strike – managed to break free from the fortress that was considered unescapable.

Captain Michael J. Burke, who led the rescue effort, recalled how his IRA unit  “commandeered” a motorboat in Cobh, raised the Union Jack to mislead British Royal Navy vessels and headed for the island. The three prisoners they wanted to rescue were being used to build a golf course for the British officers and they had managed to smuggle word in to them that they would be arriving near the shore at 10am. One of the prisoners, Thomas Malone, took a hammer he was using to mend a lawnmower and charged at a soldier who was armed with a rifle:
“I grabbed the rifle just above the muzzle and hit him in the temple with the hammer. He fell forward and I hit him a second time to make sure.” 
Seeing this, two other guards quickly surrendered.
The attack unnerved the man piloting the boat. “He thought this was going a bit too far,” recalled Malone. “The boatman thought that killing a soldier with a hammer was involving him in something he was not prepared to get mixed up in.” It fell to ASU commander Seán Hyde to remind the boatman that he and his boat had technically been commandeered in the name of the Irish Republic and therefore, if arrested, he was to tell the British he was forced to take part in the events.
The Volunteers on the boat were just off the coast of Ringaskiddy when the engine gave out. Paddling towards the shore, they came under rifle fire from the top of Spike but managed to make it to shore with Thomas Malone occasionally returning fire using the rifle he had confiscated from the knocked-out soldier. Arriving on dry land, the Volunteers found that the getaway transport promised by the IRA was less than adequate:
“To my horror, I discovered that our transport consisted of a pony and trap!” said Burke. The three prisoners and Seán Hyde took off in the trap – making it to the mountains and managing to evade a military cordon. The four other Volunteers hitched a lift on a boat with a young boy to Monkstown. Miraculously, all managed to make it to safety.

At this time, prisoners were still dying on Spike.  Shortly before the Truce in June 1921, prisoner Paddy White was murdered by a British sentry during a hurling match in the camp square. Two memorials to him (one unveiled in the 1950s and another more recently) mark the spot where he was killed. 
Recounting the incident, Limerick IRA Volunteer Richard O’Connell said:
“We were out hurling and the ball went into the wire. Paddy White rushed over to pull the ball out with the hurley. If he got through that wire it would have been into his own hut, which had nothing to do with escaping from the place.”
The next thing was the soldier on sentry duty put up his rifle and shot White dead.
“We went over, knelt down and said a prayer for Paddy while he was dying. He died within a minute. We took him in then. The soldiers started mocking us while we were praying over White,” he said. 
The prisoners maintained a guard of honour over their comrade before his body was transported to Cobh, and from there by train to his native Clare for burial. 
Richard said he later learned how the soldiers on the island that day were from the Essex Regiment, which had recently suffered seven deaths in an IRA ambush at Crossbarry. The Volunteer says he believes the shooting of Paddy and subsequent taunting of the Volunteers was their way of exacting revenge.
The British finally handed back Spike Island to the Irish Government in July 1938. 
A military outpost during “The Emergency” (the state of emergency during the Second World War), the island later reverted back to prison usage and remained in operation until 2004. In popular memory it is associated with joyriders, pickpockets and young offenders. 
The prison and military garrison ensured the survival of a small village on the north of the island – mainly consisting of families of those employed there – until 1985, when prisoners took control of the fort. The Defence Forces were even deployed to quell the chaos. The small community disappeared overnight as the state informed them that they could no longer guarantee their safety. Today their homes along with their church, school and community buildings are slowly being reclaimed by nature.
With its last civilian residents departing in 1985, and its convict residents gone by 2004, Spike is today a national monument. Throughout its 1,400-year history, Spike Island has been a religious sanctuary, a place of learning, a place of immense suffering, an impenetrable fortress, an internment camp, a prison, and throughout it all inextricably intertwined with the history of modern Ireland. 

  • This article first appeared in the September 2016 edition of An Phoblacht

Fake News: Seeking truth or reasserting Establishment media as gatekeepers?

THE PROLIFERATION of “fake news” could be coming to an end now that social media giant Facebook has unveiled its plan to tackle a problem which many commentators are blaming for having a large part in Donald Trump winning the election to become President, the most powerful (and dangerous?) man in the West.
Closer to home, in Europe, the German Government says it is considering measures – including serious financial penalties – to censure social media sites which allow fake news to remain after receiving takedown requests.
There is still a major sticking point: What is the universally-accepted definition of “fake news”? 
Many fake news websites are easy to spot: sensationalist clickbait headlines and purely fictional reports are used to generate advertising revenue by making their “stories” go viral across social networks. 
The most notorious example came during the US Presidential election. A group of teenagers from the largely-unknown small Macedonian city of Veles (population 44,000) are said to have raked in thousands of euro via Google’s AdSense online advertising and monetisation tool by posting fake news stories catering to Trump supporters. Headlines included “Pope Francis forbids Catholics from voting for Hillary!” on sites masquerading as American news websites.
What worries some people is that this latest attempt to clamp down on fake news is actually a form of censorship aimed at restricting the ability of users to access information and to ensure the mainstream media retains its position at the top of a drastically altered media food chain. 
The treatment of partisan media outlets such as Russia’s RT or South America’s TeleSUR should be monitored closely and compared with that of US-based partisan outlets such as Fox News
RT and TeleSUR have come in for criticism from the Western mainstream media (even the British press!) for what they claim is bias and propaganda in their reporting. In their defence, these channels say they simply give a voice to the views of audiences largely absent or ignored in Western reporting.
When Barack Obama reminisced about ‘the good old days’ when three TV channels delivered news that most people trusted (“We are going to have to rebuild within this wild, wild west of information flow some sort of curating function that people agree to”), Facebook’s Adam Mosseri announced that the social media network has “started a programme to work with third-party fact-checking organisations” and that false news will be flagged as such.” 
And this is where the problems begin.
Such moves will worry citizens here in Ireland who remember a time when “curators” here decided that nationalist opinions on the conflict in the North were too dangerous for the general public to hear and decided that Sinn Féin and other voices and views should be banned from the airwaves. The British Army, RUC/UDR, SAS and MI5/MI6 – protagonists in the conflict – however, suffered no such restrictions and their viewpoints reported as fact, not even possibly fake.
The British 'Sun' newspaper's famous fake front-page story on the Hillsborough disaster

New York Post columnist Karol Markowicz argues that the war on fake news is in fact about censoring real news:
“The more ‘curated’ the media becomes, the less likely we are to hear opposing viewpoints and to have ours challenged. That’s a bug, not a feature.”
Instead of moving to restrict free speech and clamp-down on yellow journalism, the real solution to tackling fake news is for newspapers and media outlets to get back to the basics and cease giving airtime to “unverified reports” (rumours) and celebrity Twitter spats.
Dr Eileen Culloty of Dublin City University’s Institute for Future Media and Journalism maintains that fake news is only part of a much bigger problem. Identifying a range of issues from confirmation bias to media literacy, Dr Culloty says the credibility of traditional news media has played its part in allowing fake news to flourish through the use of sensationalist headlines to drive sales and influence elections:
“The public in general is accustomed to dubious reporting – whether as a result of phone hacking scandals in Britain, the publication of PR and spin as news, or blatant bias on key issues. 
“Of course, not all journalists are guilty but each scandal damages the reputation of the whole profession. This is a problem because building public trust in legitimate news sources is a significant corrective for online fake news.
“For all the criticism of online misinformation, it is worth remembering that the free flow of information is one of the great achievements of our age. The downside is that a much greater burden is placed on people’s capacity to assess the credibility of the information they come across. Balancing information freedom and the credibility burden is the big challenge for society.”
  • This article first appeared in the January 2017 edition of An Phoblacht