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

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Cutting through the nonsense: RTÉ's report on Syria

“In Aleppo alone 2002 people have been killed... and that's with a truce in place”. 

That was the introduction to an extremely sub-par piece of journalism we were subjected to on RTÉ's Drivetime on Wednesday afternoon as the state broadcaster bombarded rush hour listeners with a half-truths, bias and blatant falsehoods in what was supposed to be a report on how Donald Trump's election as US President will affect the ongoing Syrian Civi War.

Despite what RTÉ claims, there is no truce in Aleppo. There was a unilateral ceasefire by the Syrian Military and Russian Air Force to allow humanitarian aid into the jihadist-occupied parts of the city.[1] In response, the so-called “rebels” launched what was described as a “new offensive” on Government districts “unleashing a series of deadly car bombings and mortar attacks”.[2]

RTÉ's then quotes the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) who it says have “documented 733 civilians... being killed by Russian and Assad air strikes” adding “41 civilians have been killed by Assad's artillery shells in that time”.

Aside from such blatantly biased terminology (can we expect reports from Mosul to refer to “Obama air strikes” or “Obama artillery strikes”?) what RTÉ doesn't tell us is that the loftily-named Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is in fact just one individual, Rami Abdel Rahman, a pro-Opposition former prisoner who runs SOHR out of his home in Coventry, England, and claims he relies on an anonymous network of sources across Syria for his reports. [3][4] Russia has described the information from SOHR as “fake” adding that the “group” is “no more reliable than a waiter in a pizzeria”[5] while the UN has stopped using reports from SOHR as they cannot be verified.

Next, the listener hears a snippet of an interviewee, whom RTÉ identifies as “Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – who appears to have resumed dropping chlorine on the population of Aleppo.”

Again, when will we hear US President Obama accused of “dropping white phosphorus on the population of Mosul?”

Earlier this year the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) confirmed its latest disposal operation “completes [the] destruction of all chemical weapons declared by the Syrian Arab Republic.” [6] In fact, the only suggestion in recent days of chemical weapons use has been on the part of the Al-Qaeda aligned rebel fighters.

On Tuesday the Syrian Foreign Ministry requested the OPCW investigate the use of chemical weapons by armed groups in Aleppo.[7] Meanwhile, the Russian Ministry of Defence also accused rebels of using chemical weapons in Aleppo and said it had uncovered a chemical weapons factory in the 1070 Apartment Complex in south-west Aleppo, which was recently retaken by the Syrian Army [8][9].

No reference is made to either of these allegations by RTÉ.

RTÉ then continues from perpetuating bias and half-truths into a full scale misinformation campaign:

“He [Trump] must have been briefed that Russia is in fact, not targeting ISIS”, we are told.  

This is untrue. The Russian Air Force is currently supporting Syrian ground forces in Homs Province – around the city of Palmyra which was retaken from ISIS in March – and also east of Salamiyah in northern Homs and southern Hama Provinces. The Russians have also been aiding in the defence of the city of Deir Ezzor, which has been surrounded by ISIS for several years.[10]

This same myth has been peddled by other mainstream media outlets. In October, The Associated Press made a similar claim which it was forced to retract and clarify when it was shown its own reporting directly contradicted the claim. One AP story spoke of how: “The [Syrian Army] push into the town of Qaryatain took place under the cover of Russian airstrikes and dealt another setback to the IS extremists in Syria”. [11]

So, why is Ireland's state broadcaster peddling blatant mistruths?

We are then treated to an unnamed spokesperson for the so-called “Syrian Opposition” who accuses Trump of being misinformed, and goes on to claim “the US has been helping the Syrian people and at the end of the day the US respects international law, Russia does not”. 

At no point is this unnamed individual challenged on these assertions.

The idea that the US respects international law in Syria is certainly not based in fact. It must be recognised that Russia is the only foreign actor operating within the law in Syria. 

“Forcible action at the request of a government is permissible in international law. States can use force within the territory of another state if the government of that state has agreed to it”. [12] Whether RTÉ likes it or not, the United Nations recognises the Syrian Government of Bashar al-Assad as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people.[13] Therefore, only actions permitted by that Government are considered legal.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem told the United Nations Assembly in New York in September: “Without such coordination [with the Syrian Government], any action [by external forces] would be considered a breach of sovereignty, a flagrant interference, and a violation of the principles and purposes of the [UN] Charter. [14]

The report then goes on to claim that 32 people were killed when Russia “bombed a hospital and a blood bank” in Aleppo. 

There's two issues here. First, this claim is again made by the Coventry-based SOHR with zero supporting evidence. Secondly, Russia is not conducting operations in Aleppo – the Syrian Arab Air Force is.[15] 

Thirdly, even Reuters – whom RTÉ claims its report was fact-checked with [16] – notes that the hospital itself was not bombed, instead it reports how a “bombing struck next to a children's hospital and blood bank in the Shaar district”. [17] 

This would imply the airstrikes were targeting something or someone in the vicinity of hospital, but not the medical facility itself. 

It should be noted that Médecins Sans Frontieres admits to withholding the locations of its facilities from Syria and Russia, making it impossible for either air force to differentiate between medical facilities and other buildings.[18] 

Families who have fled eastern Aleppo have confirmed to reporters, including renowned British Journalist Robert Fisk (whose dedication to human rights in journalism won him numerous awards including Best Print Journalist at the Amnesty International Media Awards) that “all these hospitals are also bases for militias and their weapons. The hospitals have some patients, but lots of rockets are on the top of hospitals where they use them to rocket the west of the city”. [19]

Regardless of RTÉ's position on the horrific conflict in Syria, listeners are entitled to unbiased and non-partisan coverage. The Drivetime piece might as well have come directly from the press office of  the US State Department.

Friday, 4 November 2016

St Enda's and the Hermitage

NESTLED in the foothills of Dublin’s Kilmashogue Mountains, in the village of Rathfarnham, sits ‘The Hermitage’, a grand 18th century house and gardens with a history deeply intertwined with Ireland’s freedom struggle. In the late 1790s, as the finishing touches were being placed on the house which would become home and practice to dentist Edward Hudson, a short distance away the British military was embarking on a construction project of its own. 
Despite the defeat of most of the United Irishmen forces following the Battle of Vinegar Hill, the Wicklow Mountains remained a hotbed of Irish rebel resistance. Michael Dwyer, known as “The Wicklow Chief”, and his forces struck repeatedly against isolated British garrisons, local loyalists and allied yeomanry before melting away in a formidable guerrilla campaign that caused deep concern in Britain and tied down thousands of troops. Other rebel leaders (such as Joseph Holt) had taken an amnesty offer from the British. Dwyer’s men included many Irishmen who had deserted from the British Army. They faced execution for treason if they were captured or surrendered, and therefore formed the strong backbone of his fighters.
British military leaders sitting in Dublin Castle were said to stare out in trepidation at the mountains overlooking the capital, which they believed to be swarming with rebels ready to descend upon the city. This fear prompted the construction of the Military Road in 1800 – which would run along the spine of the Dublin and Wicklow Mountains and allow the British forces to flush out the rebels from the inaccessible interior. 
At this time, “The Wicklow Chief” made contact with young revolutionary Robert Emmet – a wealthy Anglo-Irish Protestant who deeply sympathised with the Irish Catholic population. He had worked in France to secure support during the 1798 Rebellion and returned to Ireland after the defeat, despite being wanted by authorities, to reorganise the United Irishmen and launch another uprising. 
During this time he frequently visited the Hermitage, staying in a fortified lodge on the outer perimeter wall which is now known as “Emmet’s Fort”. From here he would rendezvous with his sweetheart and fiancée, Sarah Curran, who lived nearby in The Priory. 
Emmet and Curran had been engaged in secret as her father (John Philpot Curran, a liberal nationalist) deeply disapproved of Emmet’s political views. Emmet was executed just months later for his leadership of the rebellion of 1803. Sarah Curran was disowned by her father and had to move to Cork with relatives and later to Sicily, where she died five years later. Her final request was that she be buried in the garden of The Priory, next to the small grave of her sister Gertrude who had died in a falling accident as a child. Her last wish was refused by her father. 
The resting place of Robert Emmet has long been a source of speculation. Local rumours have it that his body was smuggled to Rathfarnham shortly after his beheading on Thomas Street and buried beside the body of little Gertrude. The story of Robert and Sarah inspired Thomas Moore’s poem, ‘Sarah Curran’:
She is far from the land where her young hero sleeps, 
And lovers around her are sighing: 
But coldly she turns from their gaze and weeps, 
For her heart in his grave is lying.
Emmet's Fort on the perimeter of The Hermitage, where Robert Emmet would stay during his secret visits to his fiancée, Sarah Curran

It was this connection to Irish history and its idyllic location that prompted Pádraig Pearse to relocate his St Enda’s School (Scoil Éanna) – opened in 1908 in the Dublin suburb of Ranelagh – to The Hermitage in 1910. 
Speaking of his new home, Pearse said:
“I live in a place that is very full of heroic memories. In the room in which I work at St Enda’s College, Robert Emmet is said often to have sat; in our garden is a vine which they call Emmet’s Vine and from which he is said to have plucked grapes; through our wood runs a path which is called Emmet’s Walk – they say that he and Sarah Curran walked there; at an angle of our boundary wall is a little fortified lodge called Emmet’s Fort . . . It is easy to imagine his figure coming out along Harold’s Cross Road to Rathfarnham, tapping the ground with his cane, as they say was his habit; a young, slight figure, with how noble a head bent a little upon the breast, with how high a heroism sleeping underneath that quietness and gravity!”
Inside the lobby of the old schoolhouse, beneath a painting of the crucified Jesus Christ, sits a block with a small brass plate bearing the inscription: “Robert Emmet was beheaded on this block – 20th Sept 1803.” 
If the block and the old facade and steps of the former schoolhouse are familiar it is because some of the only film footage that exists of Michael Collins was recorded on the steps of the building. In 1919, the Dáil began selling Republican Loan Bonds to support Ireland’s struggle for independence. The launch of this event took place on the steps of St Enda’s and Collins, as Minister for Finance, signed the Bonds on Emmet’s block.
Pádraig Pearse was an educational pioneer. His desire for a new education system was expressed in his 1913 essay ‘The Murder Machine’, in which he eviscerated the English system as “the most grotesque and horrible of their English inventions for the debasement of Ireland”.
Pearse’s school was firmly rooted in the Gaelic tradition, the Irish language and the promotion of Irish nationalist thought.
“The story of Joan of Arc or the story of young Napoleon means more for boys and girls than all the algebra in all the books. What the modern world wants more than anything else, what Ireland wants beyond all other modern countries, is a new birth of the heroic spirit,” wrote Pearse.
Inside, the rooms are kept much as they were during Pearse’s time. An impressive collection of weapons from previous rebellions was purchased by the school and put on display. Portraits of Irish patriots and martyrs adorn the walls, while beautiful sculptures by Pádraig’s brother, Willie, are on display.
St Enda’s School won praise from across nationalist Ireland, including from W. B. Yeats, Roger Casement and Constance Markievicz. It even prompted Indian nationalist Rabindranath Tangore to open a similar institution in Bengal.
Speaking at the school in 1914, Douglas Hyde (the first President of Ireland from 1938 to 1945) said: 
“Pearse’s philosophy is the philosophy of all who are concerned with the creation of what might be called an Irish Ireland, as distinct from an imitation English Ireland.” He said schools like St Enda’s are “bringing back again the consciousness of belonging to a nation”.
Pearse fostered a love of everything Irish in his students. He was also a nature-lover, and The Hermitage, set amidst woods, fields and streams, allowed the boys to explore nature with emphasis placed on classes such as horticulture. Old display cases contain small animals, seeds and plant specimens collected by the students, while Pearse’s notes alongside them explain how students were under “geasa” not to kill wild things and any specimens captured for study were to be released unharmed. Sports, Irish dancing, and drama were core subjects and St Enda’s provided a beautiful backdrop for plays such as ‘Fionn: A Dramatic Spectacle’ – the performance wonderfully captured in photographs at the time.
A group of former St Enda's students known as 'The Dogs' pose for a photo on Easter Sunday 1916 before heading into battle alongside the Irish Volunteers and Citizen Army
The Irish Volunteers would frequently drill in the grounds of St Enda’s and, in the lead-up to the 1916 Rising, a group of former students known as “The Dogs” continued to lodge in the building while attending university. In the evenings they would meet in secret in the school basement, which they had transformed into a bomb factory. Fifteen of “The Dogs” would go out to fight during the Easter Rising.
As the dust settled after the Easter Rising, five of St Enda’s teachers – Pádraig Pearse, Willie Pearse, Joseph Plunkett, Thomas MacDonagh and Con Colbert – were executed by British Army firing squads. The school closed and was occupied by British forces. It was reopened at its old home in Cullenswood House before returning to the Hermitage in 1920.
Pádraig Pearse
Margaret Pearse never recovered from the execution of her two sons. Committed to keeping the memory of her sons alive, she and her daughter, Margaret Mary, continued to run the school. In 1921, Margaret Pearse was elected to the Dáil as a Sinn Féin TD for Dublin County. She opposed the Treaty that partitioned Ireland, telling the Dáil:
“It has been said here on several occasions that Patrick Pearse would have accepted this Treaty. I deny it. As his mother, I deny it, and on his account I will not accept it.”
She added that if she voted to support it:
“I feel in my heart – and I would not say it only I feel it – that the ghosts of my sons would haunt me.”
Mrs Pearse died in 1932 and St Enda’s closed three years later. In 1968, in accordance with her mother’s wishes, Margaret Mary left it to the state to be used as a memorial to the Pearse brothers on condition that it opened every day and entry be free.
In contrast to the carefully-maintained house and grounds in what is now St Enda’s Park and the Pearse Museum, Sarah Curran’s home at The Priory suffered a very different fate.
The deaths of his two daughters left John Philpot Curran a broken man. A news report recounted how the once well-maintained grounds deteriorated and locals would observe “a lonely grave over which an old man lies sobbing . . . every day the same sad sight would have met our gaze: the broken figure of John Curran crying like a child for his youngest and favourite daughter”.
The ruins of The Priory now sit overgrown in a small green at the centre of a nearby housing estate with no markers or plaque to remember its historic importance. Gertrude’s (and if rumour is to be believed, Robert Emmet’s) grave has been lost to time and in the construction of the housing estate in the 1970s.
• The Pearse Museum and St Enda’s Park are now managed by the Office of Public Works. They are open every day and entry is free.
  • This article first appeared in the October 2016 edition of An Phoblacht