Dilluns  30.06.2014  09:37

Autor/s: Liz Castro i Pere Cardús

Paul Maskey: "If we win, Ireland will be the first to recognize an independent Catalonia"

Interview with the Sinn Féin MP · He was in Barcelona recently to introduce a collections of James Connolly's writings


Paul Maskey (Sinn Féin) is an Irish Republican from Belfast involved in the struggle to reunite Ireland. As he explains in this interview, he understood that the struggle to improve the living conditions of the people could not be separated from the struggle for national liberty. A few weeks ago, Maskey joined David Fernández in Barcelona to present an anthology of texts of James Connolly, one of the leaders of the Irish Republican Movement at the beginning of the 20th century. Maskey is currently a member of the Parliament of Northern Ireland and since 2011 holds the seat that Gerry Adams left in the British Parliament—although it is Sinn Féin's policy to leave the chairs empty. In this interview, he explains that Sinn Féin may win the elections that will be held in both the north and south of the island in 2016. And he says if that happens, Ireland will be one of the first states to recognize an independent Catalonia.

(Traducció al català)

What lessons from James Connolly can we take advantage of today?

Well, I think that the austerity measures throughout Europe prove that James Connolly was right. I know that the party that I represent, Sinn Féin, we still look to James Connolly and some of his initiatives that he took part in almost one hundred years ago and we replicate that to this day. We think that his ethos was absolutely correct and if more and more political parties were more like James Connolly than I think that we'd be living in a more fair and better society for each and everyone of us. James Connolly to me was an individual who looked out for people who were vulnerable. He spoke up for workers' rights. And he certainly was against austerity. When he came to Ireland—he was born in Scotland and then he moved to Ireland—he saw the injustices that Britain were imposing at that particular time. But he also came to an Ireland which was full of poverty. A lot of poor, a lot of deprivation. A lot of people starving on the streets, poor working conditions. But James Connolly set about to change that. And I think that we all, ourselves, to this day have it in us to make people's lives as comfortable as possible and make sure that people can live together but also live on an equal basis because James Connolly was about equality for everyone.

Ireland was able to achieve the national part of that question but not so much the social question. What's missing?
Actually, we haven't sorted all of our national question as yet. Britain still owns, or runs, or certainly occupies six counties of the thirty-two. Certainly I would be a party that would like to see the removal of Britain from Ireland right away. So we still have the national problem to resolve.

But in the recent elections, the European elections (we had the council elections, local government elections in the north and the south just over two weeks ago) we, as a party, have tripled our mandate, our councilors in the south of Ireland. And we have come from 1MP up to 4MPs. But that's about ensuring that people see that and see us and see that we're a party who are going to be protecting workers and our going to be fighting against the dirty measures that are being brought in in the south of Ireland and also what Britain are imposing in the north of Ireland.

They identify you as a force for social change?
What we're ensuring is opposed to now, the current government in the south of Ireland, for example, they are introducing austerity like never before but yet the rich are getting richer and certainly the poor are getting poorer. I don't think that's a good society for anyone. And I do believe that's why our own party and other parties are much more successful in the recent elections than the government party because in another two years time when there's elections in 2016—which is one hundred years from when James Connolly was killed—I think that the people of Ireland will speak again, like they did in 1916.

You think they'll speak at the polls?
I think they'll speak very much at the polls. And I think that, because of the memory of James Connolly and others who died at the Easter Rising, people will realize and look back to a hundred years ago and say, "Well, we must do better to improve the lives of our comrades and obviously our neighbors and the people who are working together.” I think it's a big step for Ireland in another two years time.

If Sinn Féin won the elections and formed a government in the south of Ireland, what would be the effect on Northern Ireland?

Obviously we want to build an Ireland of equals. So we have to set about doing that. And we're not for making anybody into second-class citizens. The nationalists, for example, were treated in the north for generations like second-class citizens. We wouldn't do that to anyone. We want to build that Ireland of equals where everyone has an equal say. It's about building a good Ireland, a proper Ireland, an Ireland that everyone can cherish. So yes, if for example, Sinn Féin became the largest party in the south of Ireland, and was in the government, certainly we want to be resolving the problem of the issues that are facing people on a daily basis but we also want Ireland united. That means we would have to go and meet again, renegotiating with the British government, but also bringing our unionist colleagues and friends in the North of Ireland along with us and making sure that they see that the united Ireland isn't a bad place. It's a place where everyone can live together and prosper together, more so than we are doing now in a divided country.

What role has language played and what advice would you give Catalans about protecting their language?
Ireland is quite similar to Catalonia in many aspects with regard to language. The language was stolen from us. The language was taken away from us. We weren't allowed to use our language, but we are seeing very much over the last number of years, I suppose many years in the south of Ireland, where the language is coming back, in fact we have areas now that are designated Irish-speaking, called Gaeltalk areas. First of all, they know that they will find other Irish speakers there but also many people who live in that general vicinity will speak nothing else but Irish. So Irish will be their first language. The schools in the area, the children will be taught in the medium of Irish. Shop signs will all be in Irish, in Gaelic.

In the north of Ireland, because it's a bit different because it is still under British rule—although now we have our own assembly and we're working together as well, we've seen a great improvement. Belfast, for example, is the fastest growing area for people learning Irish anywhere across Ireland. So, and that's in the north, and that shows that we're changing. My own constituency in West Belfast, there's well over twenty schools where children are being taught in the medium of Irish, and I think that's very powerful. So our own government minister, Carál Ní Chuilín, who runs the culture, arts, and leisure department, she has put an initiative, for example, which is Líofa 2015 which is fluent Irish language for fluent 2015, where civil servants are learning the Irish language, so police are learning the Irish language and it's about trying to attract as many people to learn Irish and become fluent by 2015. She's created an initiative which is very successful. In a short period of time, just over a year, 5000 people joined up and signed up for it. So I think that's very powerful. That's not counting the young people who are going through schools, right across the island but more importantly for me, certainly because it was banned in many schools in the north of Ireland as well, so it's about ensuring that the language is respected. It's about ensuring that the signs on our shops are either bilingual or in Irish. It's ensuring that the bus that's going up the Falls Road, for example, in my constituency, is in bilingual as well. And it's also ensuring that we are not embarrassed to use our language out in the street, that we are very much proud of our language because I think of our own language is important as well. And it's our own culture. And I think that we're using it more and more but it's about being sure it's proactive.

We have lobbied throughout the Good Friday agreement that there would be an Irish Language Act for the North of Ireland. That's been opposed. We haven't been allowed to get that. So that's one of the aspects that's not done yet from the Good Friday agreement and we are fighting to try to get that established. To me, neither the British government nor our unionist colleagues should be afraid of an Irish Language Act because it's about embracing your language, it's about embracing your culture. And nobody should be afraid of that. As long as it's not being driven in a bad way. And I can't see that happening. But we're still arguing very strongly for an act which makes sure that our road signs are in Irish, that all the other signs and books or whatever are all printed, either bilingual but certainly in Irish. So that's still a fight that we're involved in at the moment to try and ensure it.

One of the strengths of the Catalan independence movement is that it's amazingly broad-based, from pretty far-left to pretty far-right. How do you see prioritizing the national issues over social ones, even in the short term.

I suppose I can relate it to my own situation and draw some comparisons. The reason that I got involved with Sinn Féin back many, many years ago was about reuniting our country. I mean, I have been elected on the Belfast City Council in 2001, I was elected to the Assembly in 2007 and then again in 2011, and then I got elected to Westminister in 2011 also. But I don't count myself as a politician, I count myself as a community activist. I had joined our party back many, many years ago and my sole instinct was that I wanted to see the removal of Britain from Ireland. And again, back all them years ago you were thinking, yes, this could happen tomorrow, this could happen next week, you wanted it to see this happen sooner rather than later. But I guess the mature and the more older you become the realization is that nothing ever happens so quick. And you have to have different ways of trying to achieve your goal.

So certainly I set about it by joining residents' associations to make, hopefully, to lobby for better housing for people who were living in very poor housing and accommodations. I got involved in the community sector. I was working on a volunteer basis with people from our own community. And that's about the social issues as well, and we were making sure as well that the quality of peoples' lives was being improved, or trying to do it. I think that why it's our aspiration and why it's our goal. I suppose it's the same as for the Catalans' goal is for independence, but you have to stay with all the social problems as well. Because if you forget about your social problems what's the point in having a united Ireland? If the country is a mess, if people don't respect each other, if there's a difference of classes, well, there always will be, but if the gap even is wider? So you have to make sure that you always have the goal. When I go to work, I'm fighting different issues, social issues, but for me, I'm doing that because my goal is a united Ireland.

Do you feel you have to choose between fighting social injustices and working on uniting Ireland?

I'm not sure about people making you choose. You have to have it in your own psyche and be sure that that's what you want to do. I know a lot of people back home who would be afraid of a united Ireland because it's so unsure. They don't know what that means really. So it's our job to explain to them and to convince them, "there is the benefits that you will have". And I know people who think nothing else and don't care about anything else but they want to have a united Ireland. But then there's other people there who will fight for the workers who are getting badly paid and don't care whether they belong to Britain or whether they belong to Ireland. There's a mixture and it's about bringing people together, because the experience of all that together. That's why I said earlier, from our perspective it's about building a new Ireland. Because the Ireland we have now is far from perfect. It's not good. Where you have people who are living out in the streets, people who are homeless, people who have to pay for their medication in some parts of Ireland and people who can't afford that. So that's not the Ireland that I want to belong to. I want to belong to an Ireland where people can have health treatment for example, have jobs, and certainly have access to jobs and to employment and education as well. So there's a mixture of people there, for example, and I'm sure it's the exact same here and it's about getting people together and working out what is the best for us all. And what I mean is that I want an Irish Republic now. And I want to make sure that we work proud for that to make sure that the conditions are right and the conditions are perfect for it. Because people, like James Connolly for example, who is the reason why I'm here, he died for that Ireland and it would be a shame if I were to lose sight that many people, like also James Connolly also died for that Ireland as well throughout the struggle and throughout the conflict and throughout the war so certainly I would always be thinking of James Connolly and others when dealing with any issues.

How do you see, after having spent so many years struggling for a United Ireland, Scotland coming along and getting a referendum?

Well done, Scotland! [Laughs] I think it's amazing that Scotland have got their referendum and I hope the ones that want the Yes to have the breakaway succeed. Whether that happens or not, I don't know, but we'll find out soon enough. But coming back to our own situation, the British government is getting very worried about it. Because they brought President Obama to intervene. The American administration has always said, "we'll stay out of this, we don't have any say in it". I see it as a sign that the British Government has called on Obama to say there must be a No vote. Because that what he says and I was actually surprised about it to be honest. But Scotland is just fair play, they worked the system, they got it right and they are having their poll certainly more quickly than we are, we're still arguing for our poll, but well done, and hopefully they get it.

When will you have yours?
That's part of the Good Friday agreement which many of the parties, plus the British government and the Irish government and the political parties in the north of Ireland negotiated together. Part of the problem is that it is the British that we have to call for the Border Poll. The British Government. Now they're reneging on it. They won't do it anytime soon because of the current government in place. There’s a technical area within the Good Friday agreement that says when it's the will of a majority of the people in the North want to have a poll, that's when it will be. According to the British Government, they're not convinced as yet.

Would you win?
Well, I hope so. I would like to think we could win. If you don't win the first time, what's the odds that you'll win the second time? Certainly we like to see a border poll, possibly in another two or three years and we would like to make sure that the conditions are right as well, and obviously as a political party and as a pro-Yes for United Ireland and you would think you'd be lobbying and working hard to make sure that the vote was going to be the right one. So, I would like to think we would win. Again that's down to the people. I don't take people for granted. I can't take people for granted so people themselves have to make up their own mind. Hopefully with a little bit of gentle persuasion, from ourselves, and encouragement that they would make the right decision.

Who would vote, just the people in Northern Ireland?
Yes. Just in the north. It will just be current people who are living there who are registered to vote. So, the demographics are changing. The reason why the north of Ireland was divided from the south of Ireland was because the Unionist/Protestant population would always be in the majority. That's no longer the case. There's sitting at about 40% now, this is unionists, and 46% nationalists and with other people who have moved in who are non-religious, or whatever. So it's changing. We have now got positive numbers in our own party. After the conflict was over and people got to know each other and people got to work with each other, things change, people realize, "he hasn't got horns, he's just as normal as me or as normal as anybody else" so you start to work that out. So demographics change and who knows? But they haven't got the majority any longer. And I mean the recent election votes, Sinn Féin, for example, is now the largest party in the north of Ireland, in number of votes. And I'm looking forward to 2016 so much because you can look back from 100 years ago until currently, that's when the elections are, north and south of the border again.

Suppose Sinn Féin wins the election, and forms a government, do you think Ireland would be one of the first countries to recognize an independent Catalonia?
Of course. Without a shadow of doubt. We're very much supportive of an independent Catalonia. Again, we would like to see, well now in November there's going to be, we hope the consultation goes well. 80% of the parties what were elected would be in favor of those consultations. That's massive. To me, the people have already spoken. And I think that needs to go the right way and I do believe that Madrid needs to recognize that fact, that they need to be pushing that forward and they need to be listening to the Catalan people. So yes, if Sinn Féin was in power in Ireland, we would be very much in support of it.

Our referendum in November will take place 300 years after losing Catalan privileges, the Catalan courts, the Catalan language, in 1714, and Sinn Féin may win the elections in Ireland on the centennial of 1916’s Easter Rising. Poetic justice?

I just hope that provokes people into doing the right thing when it comes down to putting their mark down besides the ballot paper. I just wish the Catalan people well and wish them luck. For me the important thing while I am here and when I was in the Basque Country also is that Madrid needs to listen the majority of the people coming from these areas and these communities and to me it's clear that they are not. And I think it's very unfair of them. I mean the British Government tried that in Ireland themselves for many years. But they came to the realization, they realized that they had to talk, they had to get into discussions because the reality was that people were dead—and it's a different situation here in Catalonia—but the reality was that people were suffering and we set out about internationalizing are own struggle. And I was about getting Irish-Americans aboard and I was about getting anybody who we could talk to to listen to what our story was. And I was all to put the pressure onto the British Government to do the right thing. For me, it costs absolutely nothing to talk and get into negotiations and have that conversation. So I think that Madrid needs to step up its mark and do the right thing and certainly enter into meaningful conversations and negotiations being Catalonia or in the Basque area. I think that needs to happen. Hopefully it does be recognized in November, and hopefully the vote goes well. We'll wait and see on that one. But good luck with it.

Thanks. They're exciting times.
I just think politics in Europe at the moment is probably some of the most exciting times that we've had in many, many years. When you look, and there are some dark sides of politics, some places at the moment, not going well too, but I just think that if you look at Scotland, you look at Catalonia yourselves, you look at the Basque Country, the peace process there, the peace process in Ireland, and you look all around, there's massive changes being made. And I think building all of our countries together, I think that if we get it right and if we do it, I think Europe will be a far better place for it.