Making the difference in Dublin South Central
Originally published on or about January 4, 2001
Sinn Fein's hotly-tipped candidate to win a parliament seat in
Dublin South Central, Aengus O Snodaigh discusses how he got into
politics and his vision for the future.
Q: How did you first come into Sinn Fein?
Aengus O Snodaigh: I suppose it's in the blood. My family are native Irish speakers and always were out there campaigning for rights, campaigning against the destruction of Dublin at Frascati, at Wood Quay, a motorway across Sandymount Strand, for Irish language rights, against internment and many more. I first joined Sinn Fein in UCD in1983. We had a great Sinn Fein Cumann, just coming out of the Hunger Strike. Brilliant people, people who've given years to the struggle since, like Ella O'Dwyer, Liam O Duibhir, Sean Hicks, Micheal McDonncha and many more. It was a hotbed of discussion and ideas.
We took a decision to engage with different political views, to challenge the different politicians who would come to the college, who thought, with censorship that they had a free run. We set about challenging their revisionism of history in this country, we wanted to overcome censorship.
And we had the chance in college to meet and debate with all kinds of leadership figures. Big meetings of 700 or 800, with diverse figures from Garrett Fitzgerald to Arthur Scargill, who led the miners' strike against Thatcher, and prominent republicans. We tried to open up debate in an atmosphere of censorship.
We also got involved in other issues impacting on our life in college and outside, the Contract Cleaners' strike for instance. We realised that we couldn't fight for rights, even the rights of the cleaners, or students themselves, in college alone; we had to get out of college. In 1983 we all got involved helping Christy Burke's by-election campaign in November, and it went on from there. In 1984, I was first elected onto the Dublin Comhairle Limistear Officerboard and began working full-time for An Phoblacht/Republican News in the summer of 1985. I spent 11 years in An Phoblacht and have been on the officerboard nearly every year since 1985.
While much has changed since then, many of the issues we worked on in the 1980s are still with us. Much of the demands we made then are still relevant today and in fact must be delivered to ensure the new Ireland we deserve is delivered.
Q: Many of the papers are tipping you to become another Sinn Fein TD at the next election. What possible difference is that going to make to the people of this area - of the Liberties, of Ballyfermot, Cherry Orchard, Bluebell, Crumlin?
AOS: These areas of Dublin South Central have suffered the worst ravages of inequality. This has been one of the most neglected areas in the state, and the TDs here have failed us. If you look around the Liberties, there is much building work going on, but it is not for the people of the area. Apartments and the planned e-hub around Guinness's is not aimed at bettering the lot of the historical communities of the area.
The long-awaited redevelopment of Cork Street has begun, yet it seems to be no more than a throughfare for a traffic jam. The road will be built and we could well be left with the derelict sites. What is needed are job opportunities aimed at the local people, schools and youth facilities to cater for the present and future needs of the huge youth population in the area. What good is 2% off the top rate of tax? If the kids are still going to the same schools, living in the same overcrowded housing they did 20 years ago? When their parents are still on the housing lists or queuing for hours down the road at James Hospital, Cherry Orchard or at Our Lady's, Crumlin, for an X-ray? What good is all the new-found wealth in this country when there are over 200 children sleeping rough in Dublin, some from this area here?
Ballyfermot, Crumlin, and the South Inner City have been ravaged by the drugs scourge for over 20 years now. The Liberties has the highest concentration of heroin addicts in Europe. This has got to change. Now I am not going to be able to change all this overnight as a representative of the people here. But I'm part of a team, Sinn Fein, which has after 30 years of struggle brought about the possibility of a new dispensation in the country, of respect for human rights, of a commitment to equality, not just for the nationalist people in the North, but for all the people of Ireland.
This area of the South Inner City, well it has its history. Robert Emmet, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, and Thomas Russell were looked after by the people of the area while they were on the run. Connolly lived just down the road from here. It was the people of the Liberties who elected Countess Markievicz to the First Dail. Jack Murphy was elected to Leinster House in the 1950s when he stood for the Unemployed Alliance. Now with the Peace Process, the Good Friday Agreement we have the opportunity to put things back on track, and to start to build an Ireland without 'disadvantaged areas' ravaged by inequality. That's our project and the people of this area are a part of that project.
Those parties that claimed the republican mantle, who forgot about injustice and inequality in their anxiety to get to the brown envelopes, the gombeen men, they have forgotten what republicanism is about.
After 30 years of struggle, the ending of censorship has allowed people at last to hear Sinn Fein people talking. Sinn Fein offers the hope to begin to make a difference to the lives of the people in these areas you mention.
Q: How can people be confident that you won't get into the suits and the cars and turn out like all the rest?
AOS: After the Civil War, what remained of the radical and revolutionary republican leadership were in exile or locked up. The state was now back in the hands of the conservative element of society, those who sat on the fence during the Tan War, those who opposed republicanism or socialism from the start. The new state was in the hands of the businessmen, the Catholic Church and many of those who took part in the struggle for other reasons other than from a republican ideological standpoint. Remember that nearly 80% of the civil servants who ran the British administration in Ireland prior to partition , prior to the setting up of the state, were retained as civil servants, some even being promoted.
To change the status quo, you have to empower the community. And you have to think where our Sinn Fein party is coming from. Our people are coming out of hard won struggle, hard years of repression, of sectarian killing, of internment, Bloody Sunday. Think, it was only 20 years ago that ten men died on hunger strike in the H-Blocks, to beat the British attempt to break the prisoners, and with them the whole Republican struggle. Only two years later, the prisoners organised the greatest prison escape, perhaps ever, in Ireland. And then our party is different too. We're on the streets, where we live, all the time. We're elected to represent, not to substitute for the people. Take Caoighmhin O Caolain - when he was elected councillor in Monaghan, all the time, he went back to the people to ask them what they wanted brought up, how they felt about the issues on the council agenda.
That is democracy. It's about listening to people, empowering people to take charge of their area, of their lives, of their country. Other political party people just come around at election times with little cards saying 'sorry I missed you.'
Q: Is the peace process working?
AOS: Well, I was sceptical, like a lot of people, about the process, where it was leading us, could it deliver for republicans, would we be closer to our goals. Like many republicans the few years prior to the Good Friday Agreement were a time of soul-searching, re-evaluation and a profound analysis of Ireland's past and present. Now, as I look back on what has happened since, especially in the South, I am convinced that it is the way forward. The GFA sets the seeds. We can use it to build our society. Dublin has been forced to bring the Human Rights Convention into law and it has begun to impact on the equality agenda, and hopefully we can use it to end the two-tier society that we have here.
Apart from anything else, it has begun to break down the censorship mentality. That's empowerment. People have to be allowed to hear what is going on and it's not just in relation to the national question that censorship was imposed. Anything radical, revolutionary or often community-based was censored, marginalised or ignored. With the Good Friday Agreement, people can see the British edging their way towards accepting the inevitable change, edging towards the inevitability of a united Ireland. Inch by little inch, it's a battle. You need patience. And unionism and loyalism too are being exposed, the laager mentality, the mentality that doesn't want to move forward. The parallels with South Africa are close. The siege mentality that wanted to keep Apartheid, that wanted to stop change, that used Inkatha to beat down, kill, frighten the people of the ANC (African National Congress).
Divide and rule - it was always the British strategy. It hasn't been any different here. We're just in another stage, and I just think it will help things forward a lot if Sinn Fein people get elected in the South too.
Q: Is it all just a dream? Is there really some hope that things will change?
AOS: It would be a sorry existence if we couldn't hold onto our dreams. But I do see the seeds of change. For starters, I'd like the people Cherry Orchard, Gallanstown, Ballyfermot as well as the Liberties itself to have our own representative. It's been nearly half a century since we had that with Jack Murphy, who was elected TD for the Unemployed Alliance back in 1955. But on the main issues, like education, unemployment, health, housing, there is hope.
Housing has to be affordable if we are to preserve these areas. New housing is not there for the local community. But we have got a start with the refurbishment of Bridgefoot Street, Marrowbone Lane and other complexes. There's a major development with the St. Catherine sports centre; the #1 million School Street childcare centre; the community demanding a say in any planned redevelopment of Fatima Mansions; the demolition of St Michael's Estate; the building of the Equine Centre in Cherry Orchard; the upgrading of the canals. It's all the beginnings of change.
The Corporation is having to recognise that disadvantage and inequality in our areas have to be addressed. People won't accept bureaucrats telling us what to do any more. The people themselves have to be a part of decisions that affect our future as much as our past.
Slowly but surely, the seeds are there to address the injustice that our area has suffered down the years, to build a new society which measures up to the dreams of republicans down through the centuries.
I am involved in politics to play my part in effecting that change, and we in Sinn Fein will be doing our level best at the next general election to advance that agenda of justice, democracy and equality for all sections of our society by increasing our strength in Leinster House.
Articles may be reprinted with credit.
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