Monday, October 31, 2011
Martin McGuinness is a trail blazer. That much must be clear. Even to his detractors. A life devoted to struggle has seen many examples of this. Martin, in good times and bad, has had many opportunities and occasions to draw on these pioneering qualities. The net outcome has generally benefitted the people he struggled alongside. It has also, particularly in this time of peace, assisted those, in time of war, who would have been or seen themselves as his enemies or opponents.
Rarely has this been acknowledged by the great and the good. But no matter. None of this is done to win favour with them. They know that. They have their values. We have ours.
The Presidential election brought all this to the surface.
Martin is the first Sinn Féin person ever to contest a presidential election. He fought a six week campaign. And as a result of this, despite the short time involved, many of the issues he argued for are now firmly on the public agenda.
These include voting rights for Irish citizens.
The need for a new Republic based on genuine core republican values.
The fact that there is an alternative to greed and corruption and austerity. The need for and merits of Irish unity. The imperative of an ongoing process of reconciliation. For reunification through reconciliation.
The issue of victims was also raised. Legitimately by relatives of some victims. This is a matter which needs to be dealt with. Properly and in a manner acceptable to all victims.
There has also been huge attention and comment on the Frontline debate and Martin’s outing of Sean Gallagher’s involvement with Fianna Fáil leaders and with its former leaderships’ corrupt practices, fundraising activities and with policies that have brought the Irish people into the awful economic and social mess that is the cause of so much distress and hardship.
Sean Gallagher’s problem wasn’t that he was involved in this. It was that he was denying such involvement and presenting himself as a casual and occasional volunteer from the Fianna Fáil grass roots – alongside many other good and decent people who undoubtedly work for that party.
At the time of the Frontline debate opinion polls indicated that this stroke might work and that the premature rehabilitation of this type of unacceptable politics was almost upon us.
Hugh Morgan had contacted our campaign office and given us a break down on Sean Gallagher’s approaches to him. He had already spoken to the media about this. He turned to us when this failed to get traction and we decided to ask Mr Morgan to brief Martin in advance of the Frontline programme.
We also decided that Martin should challenge Sean Gallagher on this. We did so – and Martin challenged Sean Gallagher- in the knowledge at that stage in the campaign, depending on how Sean Gallagher responded, that Michael D Higgins would be the main beneficiary of any such challenge. Martin was and is entirely satisfied that this was the right thing to do. So am I.
Michael D Higgins will be a very good President. I wish him and Sabina and their family well. I gave Michael D my second preference vote. The tally people tell me that many of his voters returned the favour to Martin a thousand fold.
Martin McGuinness’ entry into the Presidential election was bound to lead to a reaction from the Dublin establishment. Our campaign team knew that. A small cadre of the usual media suspects, particularly, although not exclusively, in the Independent Newspaper group led the charge. Some of these at least have been consistent over the years. Revisionists, two-nationists, supporters of Section 31, the odd hard boiled old fashioned partitionist and opponents of the peace process, were provoked into action once again. Nothing but the same old story.
We should not tar all the media with the same brush or rail against robust scrutiny even if we suspect the motivation. Good, fair and balanced interrogative or investigative journalism is to be applauded. And RTE should be especially encouraged to provide such a public service. After all the tax payer foots that particular bill.
There was a certain hysteria within the wider political establishment. This hysteria was led by Fine Gael, best personified by Gay Mitchell’s strident negativity, and most memorably represented by the attack on Martin by Fine Gael ministers and Chief Whip Paul Keogh a month or so ago. Their contribution was entirely self-serving and cynical. And arrogant. That is an emerging and growing trait of that party.
Especially in Leinster House.
Little wonder Fine Gael did so badly. In the bi-election. The referendum. And particularly the Presidential election.
Well hard cheese!
Every doggie has its day and on this issue their day has come and gone. It has passed. That much is clear.
They obviously need to be given time to come to the new dispensation which now exists across this island. Like the unionist leaderships most of them, though maybe not all of them, will come around. Until then this infuriating and self-serving negativity is just something they have to go through. Thankfully we don’t have to wait for them to play catch up. The rest of us can get on with narrowing the political gap between north and south. That gap was considerably closed in the course of this presidential election campaign.
For that and for many other achievements thank you Martin.
Tuesday, October 25, 2011
In June this blog commented on the worsening state of the health service in the south. It made grim reading. The critique arose mainly as a result of several visits I had made to the Emergency Department of Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda. This blog witnessed many patients, some of them very elderly, lying on hospital trolleys, or sitting on chairs or the floor waiting to be treated by an overstretched and overworked medical staff.
This blog had also visited Louth County Hospital which was and is being slowly strangled by the withdrawal of key health services, including the closure of its emergency department.
And these two hospitals are the rule not the exception. Last Saturday I joined local Sinn Féin representative Paul Donnelly in Dublin West along with scores of local people who were protesting at the 20% cuts in funding for James Connolly hospital and the adverse impact this is having on services in that hospital.
But it was the news out of Drogheda that caused greatest concern. Last Friday it was revealed that a patient, who had been on a trolley in the Emergency Department for five days, had TB. Three other patients are now being screened for this dangerous disease and an undisclosed number of staff are also being checked.
The deterioration in the situation in Drogheda hospital was not unexpected. Three weeks ago this blog joined with party colleague Peadar Tóibín TD from Meath and Dr Ruairi Hanley from the Save Navan Hospital campaign, to write a letter to the Health Information and Quality Authority asking that it urgently and immediately “launch a full, public investigation of the Emergency Department in Our Lady of Lourdes, Drogheda and publish the findings.”
We did so because Our Lady of Lourdes in Drogheda was consistently ranking as the hospital with the worst waiting list in the state in its Emergency Department; a clear pattern which has been exacerbated since the closure of Louth County Hospital’s Emergency Department.
With Paul Donnelly in Dublin West protesting at cuts to Connolly Hospital
This level of overcrowding is not an anomaly. Nor is it simply a matter of inconvenience for patients. This is a matter of life and death. For months now the numbers of patients on trolleys in Drogheda has consistently exceeded 30. This has resulted in enormous pressure on the Emergency Department and represents a clear threat to patient safety and welfare.
Overcrowded EDs result in patients having their treatment delayed. Niall Hunter, who is the editor of Irish Health.com wrote recently that ‘experts now agree that hundreds of unnecessary deaths may occur in Irish hospitals each year that can be attributed to excessive Emergency Department pressure.’
The Irish Association of Emergency Medicine, representing consultants, said earlier this year - “It is now well-established that boarding hospital inpatients in emergency departments results in increased numbers of deaths among this group of ill patients, compared to similar patients who are admitted to a hospital ward in a timely fashion.”
The management in Lourdes responded to this crisis by putting into effect the ‘Full Capacity Protocol’. This essentially means that hospitals identify spaces on wards. Patients are put into those spaces even if the wards are not be appropriate for their health needs.
David Hughes, Deputy General Secretary of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation explained: ‘When hospitals are operating in excess of 90% capacity (Irish hospitals with Emergency Department overcrowding are generally operating at 100% capacity) admitted patients are transferred to available beds which are not necessarily the appropriate beds.
Patients with heart problems should be cared for on a cardiac ward, while patients with lung disease should be admitted to a respiratory ward. This ensures that patients benefit from the experience of an appropriate specialist consultant and nurses with the right set of skills. The admitted patients and if additional trolleys are put up on wards, those additional patients will invariably be in the wrong ward. This leads to the movement of patients.
Patients may be moved two, three, or four times in the course of a week’s stay at a hospital. Excessive movement of patients increases the risk of transmission of infections and, although these practices are condemned in reports from Britain’s Healthcare Commission, they are now regular occurrences in Irish hospitals with Emergency Department difficulties.’
Moreover, hospitals across the state are daily breaking the target set by the HSE of a maximum of six hours from the time a patient presents at admission to the point at which they are admitted.
Regrettably, despite the clear evidence that Drogheda hospital is in serious trouble, HIQA declined to order an investigation. It said that it is ‘currently actively engaging’ with the HSE on the issue of quality and safety in the Louth Meath Hospital Group but didn’t specify what this meant.
The Health Act 2007 clearly states that HIQA has the power to carry out an investigation if it believes that there are reasonable grounds and that there is a serious risk to the health or welfare of a patient.
This blog believes that the safety, quality and standards in the Emergency Department of Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, Drogheda are such that a statutory investigation is the only reasonable response.
If HIQA continues to refuse to implement this then the responsibility falls to the Minister for Health James Reilly. His party, Fine Gael, in its five point plan for the general election at the start of the year pledged to reform the health service and cut waiting lists.
Thus far they have perpetuated the mess created by their Fianna Fáil and Progressive Democrat predecessors.
Yesterday, Monday October 25th, there were 294 patients on trolleys in emergency departments across the state and Drogheda as ever was the worst in the state. This is a daily crisis confronting front line health staff and it exists even before the inevitable increase in demand that the onset of winter will bring.
Not only are waiting lists in Emergency Departments long but the waiting list for hospital treatment has increased by nearly 40% since the start of 2011. According to the most recent HSE statistics the number of patients waiting for over three months for operations and other hospital procedures at the end of August stood at 28,657. At the end of December last year the figure was 20,634.
In his first six months in office the Minister has had the distinction of increasing the waiting list by just over 8,000. That’s an increase of 39% of patients on the waiting list.
The Health service needs to be properly funded. That much is obvious to the health professionals and patients but not the government. It claims the money is not there. Not true! Next Wednesday November the 2nd the government will give €700 million of the people’s money to unguaranteed bondholders in Anglo-Irish bank.
€2 billion will be paid over by January next year. The government is under no legal or moral obligation to do this. And Anglo-Irish is a dead bank.
The government is making a political choice when it uses taxpayers money to pay off unguaranteed bondholders instead of fixing the health service.
These are short sighted and uneconomic policies which will make it more difficult to repair the damage done by the economic crisis. A public and popular campaign is needed on health issues to persuade the government to change its policy.
Visiting Our Lady of Lourdes with Cllr Imelda Munster
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
The International Group
left to right: Jonathan Powell, mise, Bertie, Kofi Annan, Gro Harland Bruntland, Pierre Joxe.
Monday was a busy day and hopefully a significant one for the people of the Basque country and Spain. It started with a plane flight to Bilbao from Dublin. This blog and a Sinn Féin delegation met up with Bertie Ahern and his colleagues in Dublin Airport, and joined Jonathan Powell, former Chief of Staff to Tony Blair, on board a small plane bound for the Basque country.
We were on our way to a conference in San Sebastian in Euskadi entitled; ‘International conference to promote the resolution of the conflict in the Basque County’. The event had been organised by a range of groups, including the Basque Citizen Network for Agreement and Consultation, Lokarri, the International Contact Group (GIC) led by South African lawyer Brian Currin, and four other international foundations.
We were due to join up with former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan; Pierre Joxe, former French Defense and Interior Minister; and Gro Harland Bruntland, a former Norwegian Prime Minister.
The flight took about two hours and provided Bertie, Jonathan and this blog with an opportunity to talk about the conference.
The format was straightforward. Each of the six international participants would make a contribution on the issue of conflict resolution, its difficulties and hopes.
A range of trade union, business, community and political representatives from the Basque country would then make short presentations. After which the international guests would retire to discuss and agree a ‘Declaration’ which would set out our view of how the process of peace in the Basque country could be advanced.
This blog has been in the Basque country many times in recent years. There is a long affinity between Irish people and the people of France and Spain and the Basque country.
Sinn Féin’s efforts to assist in building a peace process there go back to the Good Friday Agreement. In that time there have been moments of great hope but also of despair as the opportunity for peace suffered setbacks.
I was in the Basque country in June 2006 after ETA called a cessation. There was great excitement and anticipation. The collapse of the cessation at the end of that year was a disappointment to many.
Since then Sinn Féin has continued to work closely with our Basque friends in Batasuna – which is currently banned – and others, in an effort to inject new momentum into a peace process that is stalled.
In the last two years we have seen the formation of Abertzale Left, which includes Batasuna, and the adoption in February 2010 of a new political strategy for progress.
The example of the Irish peace process is clear in this strategy which commits Abertzale Left to using ‘exclusively political and democratic means’ to advance its political objectives. It seeks to advance political change ‘in a complete absence of violence and without interference’ and ‘conducted in accordance with the Mitchell Principles.’ And its political goal is achieve a ‘stable and lasting peace in the Basque country’.
Subsequently, ETA called a ceasefire in September 2010 and last month saw the establishment of the ‘International Commission of Verification of Ceasefire in the Basque County’- CIV.
So, Monday’s initiative in San Sebastian is rooted in a lot of hard work and effort and some progress. There was and is an expectation that Monday’s conference could see a step change in the situation.
That was certainly the expectation among those taking part in the conference in the Ghandi room, in the San Sebastian Peace House, and among the ranks of journalists who were covering it.
In my contribution to the conference I recalled that for many the conflict in Ireland, rooted in centuries of war and division and violence, had seemed intractable. Every generation had known war – and between the cycles of violence there was the despair of oppression and discrimination, of instability and institutional violence. The cycle seemed destined to continue into a depressing future.
But the Irish peace process demonstrated that with imagination and dialogue and a commitment to achieve peace it is possible to rewrite the script.
This blog said: “Violence usually occurs when people believe that there is no alternative. Transforming a situation from conflict to peace requires therefore that an alternative is created.”
Making peace is hugely challenging and enormously difficult. It demands that we seek to understand what motivates, what inspires, what drives their opponent. Ultimately, as Madiba - Nelson Mandela - said, we have to make friends with our enemy.
Each conflict is different but in the course of our efforts Irish republicans have learned that there are general principles of peace making, methods of conflict resolution, that can be applied elsewhere and which can help end conflict if applied properly.
These elements include; dialogue; tackling the causes which lie at the heart of the conflict; a good faith engagement by all sides; an inclusive process – with all parties treated as equals and mandates respected; all issues must be on the agenda; there can be no pre-conditions; no vetoes; and no attempt to pre-determine the outcome, or preclude any outcome and there should be time frames.
Most importantly, participants must stay focused and be prepared to take risks and engage in initiatives and confidence building measures.
But if there is a starting point it must be dialogue. I emphasized this again and again. This is the foundation upon which any progress will be built.
Confidence building measures are also crucial. In Ireland this meant, among other things improving conditions for prisoners, including moving those who were in England closer to their homes in Ireland. It meant demilitarizing the environment and ending the use of emergency laws and repression, a new beginning to policing and the release of political prisoners.
It also meant respecting and acknowledging the democratic rights of all political parties and treating them as equals. At a time when Batasuna is banned and leaders like Arnaldo Otegi, who is totally committed in my view to peace, are imprisoned, the use of confidence building measures by the Spanish state is very important.
Going out to meet the media
At the end of our four hours of deliberation the international delegation presented our ‘Declaration’. We first read it to the conference and then went outside to the grounds of the Peace House where the media were camped.
The ‘Declaration’ said that we believed it is possible to end the last armed confrontation in Europe. We set out a five point proposal, which included calling on ETA to make a definitive declaration to end all armed actions. We urged the French and Spanish governments to respond positively and to agree to talks.
My colleagues and I said that we are willing to form a committee to follow up on our recommendations.
There was applause from the media and with that it was over. We said our goodbyes and got back into our cars for the return high speed journey to Bilbao airport.
I think it was a good days work. As we made our way home there was good news from another front. Tuesday saw the release of 477 Palestinian prisoners and of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, with another 550 Palestinian prisoners due to be released next month. This is a welcome development. It came clearly after talks involving the Netanyahu government and Hamas. It’s wonderful what happens when dialogue begins.
Wednesday, October 12, 2011
Sinn Féin MP Conor Murphy, Fergal Caraher’s parents, Mary and Peter John, and Sinn Féin Councillors Brendan Curran and Colman Burns at the memorial in South Armagh dedicated to Fergal Caraher
It was a fine autumn morning. The South Armagh hilltops, free of British Army forts, were beautiful in the bright morning light as we drove north from Dublin to Cullyhanna to attend the funeral of Peter John Caraher.
This blog has known Peter John and the Caraher family for many years. A few weeks ago his son Miceál contacted me to let me know that Peter John was terminally ill. I told him I would call. It was just before the Ard Fheis.
Miceál explained to me that Peter John had been told he only had a few weeks left but had forgotten this and I needed to be mindful of that in my conversation.
I was therefore a wee bit apprehensive about the visit but I called and I came away uplifted and very happy.
Peter John was in great form. We spent a couple of hours craicing away, telling yarns and in his case engaging in a little bit of loose. As I left there were 40 people crowded into the kitchen and Peter John followed me out and left me to the door. I think that this was his way of saying slán in his own quiet country gentleman’s way.
In my view Peter John hadn’t forgotten how ill he was. Like the kind, loving husband and father he is he didn’t want it to be sore on his family.
Peter John died on Monday morning. The family had asked if I would do the oration and I was pleased to have been asked.
So, this morning I headed to Cullyhanna to join with Peter John’s family and friends and neighbours to say slán abhaile to one of the unsung heroes of the republican struggle.
Below is an edited version of my remarks:
I want friends and comrades to welcome all of you here today to Peter John’s graveside and on your behalf to extend our solidarity to Mary, to Peter John and Mary’s daughters, Maria, Therese and Joanne and their sons, Francis, John, Miceál, Phelim, and Cahal, to Peter John’s surviving siblings, his 19 grandchildren and the wider Caraher family, and to Peter John’s friends and neighbours.
I’m sure that many of you have your own stories, your own tales to tell of his humour.
He was a giant in our struggle. He was like a very, very tall tree in very turbulent times in the centre of his own family and the republican community.
He was a quiet big man who held his republicanism close to his heart and who gave 100% in pursuit of the Irish unity and freedom.
He was a very proud Armagh man and a very proud south Armagh man. He was born not far from here on the 9th of May, 1928 on Creenkill Hill, Crossmaglen. He was the eldest of 7 children - 4 boys and 3 girls to John and Catherine Caraher.
His was also a republican family. His father was a member of the 4th Northern Division. Peter John was fiercely proud of this. His father was imprisoned in Newbridge, Co. Kildare in the 1920's. He escaped and was recaptured and received such a severe beating that he died at the early age of 44 leaving Peter John as head of the household at the age of 14.
Peter John went to Kildare to work as a bricklayer and when his brother Francie contracted polio he returned home to help with the farm. Another brother Owen was imprisoned in 1959 during the 50s campaign and Francie died in 2005 at the age of 73,a volunteer of Oglaigh na hÉireann.
Peter John married Mary Carragher on the 4th September 1962 and they had a family of 9 children. And like his father before him Peter John was a volunteer in the Irish Republican Army.
South Armagh in those days was part of the Orange state oppressed and under British military occupation and was a very proud republican heartland. Peter John was rightly proud of the actions of the volunteer soldiers of the IRA.
In the early years of the conflict he was adjutant to Michael McVerry of Culllyhanna, a volunteer who was killed in action while carrying out an attack on Keady Barracks in 1973. Mickey McVerry and Peter John were firm friends and his death had a huge impact on him. There was never a day went by that he didn't speak of or refer to him.
The flag on Peter John's coffin today is the same one that was draped on Mickey McVerry's coffin.
In the aftermath of McVerry's death Peter John took on the role of OC and promised that Mickey’s memory would live on in Cullyhanna. He instigated the building of the monument to his comrade and friend which was opened a year to the day after his death.
Peter John and his other good friend Tom Rooney were founder members of the Cullyhanna band and even though he was approaching 80 years of age he acted as foreman at the building of the band hall.
With the support of his wife Mary he devoted his entire life to the Republican cause and his whole family suffered house raids, arrests, imprisonment and harassment by British Crown Forces.
He was very keen always that people should recognise the central role played by Mary. Not in a supporting role only but in her own right as an indomitable Irish republican woman and a sound patriot. And Peter John always valued her opinion and her advice.
The family suffered a great hurt when in December 1990 Fergal and Miceál were the victim of a shoot to kill action by the British Army. Fergal was killed and Miceál was severely wounded. Peter John refused to be daunted by this huge personal loss.
At Fergal’s graveside, Peter John spoke about the need to hold a public inquiry – that the RUC and British system could not be trusted in any investigation. And in June 1991, just six months after the shooting, with the help of the Irish National Congress, a two-day public inquiry into the murder of Fergal and the wounding of Míceál was held.
People from all over this district and South Armagh and beyond came to assist in the quest for the truth and organised a truly historic event in the local Community Centre. Michael Mansfield QC chaired the proceedings and there was a panel of jurists from America, Germany and France.
The inquiry was recorded and relayed to the crowd that overspilled to a marquee and a reconstruction of the shooting took place on the Tullinaval Road. It was an amazing achievement for such a historic event to be organised by the local community and was a huge source of comfort and pride for the Caraher family.
After careful examination of the events and of witnesses to the shooting on December 30th 1990, they found that there was excess use of lethal force on the day and that:
‘There are sufficient grounds to indict or charge with murder those soldiers who unreasonably fired their weapons with intent to kill Fergal and Miceál Caraher.’
The experience of the Caraher family is not unlike that of the Finucane family this week. Pat was killed by loyalists acting for the British state and in order to cover up that fact the British government told the Finucane family that there would be no inquiry, as agreed at Weston Park 10 years ago, into his murder.
Geraldine Finucane has made it clear that her family will not be daunted.
And Peter John was not daunted by the release of the soldiers who killed their son.
He understood the real nature of the British government’s involvement in Ireland. He also knew that there were hundreds of families, just like his, who were victim of British violence or collusion between British forces and loyalists, and who needed help. He and his family along with others, helped establish the Relatives for Justice Group.
Peter John was involved in the Pioneer Society and in the Lourdes Committee, having gone there for over 25 years to help the sick. He was Honorary President of Cullyhanna GFC and foremost in this community he was an authority figure and a huge influence on the republican struggle.
He took a keen interest in Prisoner Welfare and their families and was a member of South Armagh Green Cross from it's foundation. He was also a founder member of the Michael McVerry Cumann and was very keen on promoting the Irish Language.
Peter John was his own man. He took his own counsel. He was totally unselfish in his commitment. If you want a role model for our time than Peter John is that role model. He personified all that is sound about our struggle.
He was never a war monger, but he had a justifiable sense of pride in his republican comrades, especially here in South Armagh, to take on and fight the British Army to a standstill.
And he understood the need to build Sinn Féin as the vehicle of republican struggle.
So it’s a very, very sad day. There is a lot to reflect on and to be proud of. Peter John lived long enough to see Sinn Féin and republicanism grow. And he was a very central and positive part of that growth.
He also lived long enough to see his family grow. To enjoy his grandchildren, to be with his bellowed Mary in good times and bad.
He’s now with his IRA volunteer father and his IRA volunteer son.
But Peter John’s spirit lives on in the lives of his clan and the onward progress of the struggle which he helped shape.
A last word to the 19 grandchildren.
There are 19 grandchildren so far. To the 19 grandchildren you have a grandfather, a dadó to be proud of and you have a mamó to be proud of. Mind your granny.
Slan Peter John, slan abhaile.
Sunday, October 9, 2011
Mark Guilfoyle, mise agus Rev Fred Shuttlesworth
This blog has had the good fortune to meet many inspirational people over the years, in all parts of Ireland, in the Irish diaspora and beyond.
Often they are very ordinary men and women who despite very real dangers have been prepared to make a stand against injustice and to defend the rights of others.
Some walked the roads and streets and lanes of the north in pursuit of civil rights.
Some confronted and challenged the riot clad brutality of the RUC and British Army and the death squads of loyalism and the British state. And some refused to accept the status of criminal in prisons in Ireland and England.
In all sorts of little and big ways they and others stood tall for what is right. Most are anonymous citizens. Quietly and with dignity and courage, getting on with playing their part. Some, like Bobby Sands, Mairead Farrell and Maire Drumm, and many others took up leadership positions. They are remembered and are role models.
So it is in other struggles. They too have their role models. People like Mandela and Martin Luther King and Steve Biko and many more.
One such was Baptist Minister the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth who died last Wednesday aged 89. This blog met Fred in March 2002. I was in the USA for the St. Patricks week celebrations and had been asked to speak at the Cathedral in Covington, Kentucky. A good friend Mark Guilfoyle was instrumental in organising the event.
It was packed. I spoke from the altar and so too did Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. In the USA Martin Luther King, Rev Ralph Abernathy and Rev Fred Shuttlesworth are still regarded by many as the head, heart and soul respectively of the civil rights struggle in that country in the 1950s and 60s.
At the end of our event in the Cathedral we were in a back room and I was formally introduced to Fred. He was seated in front of a church kneeler. I went over and set on the kneeler and spoke to one of the heroes of the American Civil Rights struggle. He was a quietly spoken man.
Fred was imprisoned countless times, his home was bombed and on at least 8 separate occasions he was close to death.
He was a fearless leader and pioneer of the civil rights movement. He had grown up in rural Alabama, and worked as a labourer and a truck driver. He eventually graduated from a black college in Selma and became a preacher. One newspaper report tells how ‘a friendly college professor gave him a cow. Once he had given some milk to the college, the balance went to feed Shuttlesworth's family.’
He moved to Birmingham Alabama which was at the centre of the struggle against segregation. In the 1950s dozens of homes and churches in the area were attacked. The white police force didn’t care. The KKK (Klu Klux Klan) dominated.
The City was starkly divided. Every aspect of life was segregated – the schools, the buses, the restaurants, the parks and including the waiting room in the train station.
Rev. Shuttlesworth and his wife bought tickets and took their seats in the white section. Like Rosa Parkes who refused to sit at the back of the bus, this was a brave and courageous act. It gave huge encouragement to others.
The response from the white supremacists to the Shuttleworth’s defiance of segregation was to attack Fred and his family. They detonated 16 sticks of dynamite at his home one Christmas day. He described what happened: ‘The floor beneath me was gone, but underneath me was my mattress. I knew God was there. And I felt more peaceful in that moment than I ever have in my entire life.’
Interviewed years later for a documentary, ‘Eyes on the Prize’ he recalled.
‘Instead of running away from the blast, running away from the Klansman, I said to the Klansman police that came – he said, “Reverend, if I were you I would get out of town fast”. I said, ‘Officer you’re not me. You go back and tell your Klan brethren that if God could keep me through this, then I’m here for the duration.’
On another occasion in September 1957 he tried to enrol his daughters in the all white Phillips High School. There was a white mob outside and they attacked him.
Remembering that event he later said: ‘They really thought if they killed me – the Klansmen did – that the movement would stop, because I remember they were saying, “This is the leader. Let’s get the SOB; if we killed him it will all be over.’
Rev. Shuttlesworth was beaten about the head and body with logging chains and whipped. He recalled that the doctor was amazed that his injuries weren’t much worse. ‘I said, “Well doctor, the Lord knew I lived in a hard town, so he gave me a hard head”.’
There can be no doubt that his actions in Birmingham helped create the conditions for the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He also played a key role in the famous march from Birmingham to Selma – that later inspired the Belfast to Derry civil rights march in 1969 – which led to the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
This blog was very pleased to have had the opportunity to meet and speak to Rev. Shuttlesworth. It was men and women like him and Rosa Parkes - who I was also proud to meet- who inspired many in the civil rights movement in Ireland.
We are indebted to their vision and courage and selflessness. The world is a better place for the stand they took.
And in these times of economic difficulty and opportunity for change in our own society let’s remember Fred’s words: ‘Do tomorrow what we did today, and do it the next day, and then the next day we won’t have to do it all.’