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Voting with your head

Ireland goes to the polls North and South almost as this newssheet is produced; EU elections in both parts of the island, and local elections and a referendum on citizenship in the Republic.  As John Hume and Ian Paisley bow out of the EU/European Parliament, it will certainly be a new era in the North, and the contests in all the southern constituencies indicate nail-biting conclusions for both some sitting and new candidates.

Membership of the EU has transformed the Irish economy and from being one of the very poorest in the EU, the Republic is now one of the wealthiest – though it is the country with probably the largest repatriation of profits to multinationals to take into account when analysing economic figures.  Much of the economic change has been good; young people no longer have to emigrate to get work.  But the fact that control of much of the economy rests elsewhere, especially the USA, makes Ireland susceptible both economically and politically (cf Bertie Ahern and Fianna Fail’s refusal to even say ‘boo’ to US policies on Iraq).  Ecologically it has been somewhat disastrous as greenhouse emissions have rocketed and the government has been slow to move to alternatives despite Ireland being  ideal for wind and wave power.

The enlargement of the EU to 25 has made it a much more ‘European’ institution than heretofore. But it is still deplorably lax and false to label the EU-area as ‘Europe’ or to talk about ‘Europe’ as only the EU.  Almost all those who live in Europe are Europeans, by birth or by adoption.  And the term ‘Europe’ should not be reduced to a economic and political institution, even with 25 nation state members or even if the whole of Europe belonged; as Europeans we have an existence aside from the EU but the sequestration of the term by the EU makes other claims to it seem petty. The EU is not ‘Europe’ and never will be. Europe is both greater and smaller than that. But EU policies do matter and citizens have the opportunity to record a vote for peace and progress in these elections.

The referendum change proposed by the Irish government removing the automatic right of citizenship to all children born on the island of Ireland is a profound change. It is ironic that this is being introduced at a time when the numbers of asylum seekers coming to the Republic is currently at just under half the level of a year or two  ago. And it is doubly ironic that this is being introduced when those of Irish descent (if you’ve got an Irish granny or granddad then you’re in) can continue to get Irish citizenship even if they have never been near the island of Ireland and don’t intend to start coming here now.

There are anomalies in the current citizenship system. But the numbers of ‘maternity tourists’ are actually low and the proposed changes have been inadequately explained by the government, and lost in the EU and local elections. It looks like a rushed job, and one which would seem to play into the hand of racists. Perhaps Irish citizenship laws do need overhauling but it should have been done in a more thought out and comprehensive way. If the Irish government does not like the result it will come back again, as it did with the Nice Treaty, but maybe with some more thought next time. Polls predict a ‘yes’ vote in the referendum but the appropriate humanitarian response is ‘no’. And is the Irish electorate not sufficiently politically literate to be trusted with a preferendum where various options are put to the people? We have had enough ‘Yes’/’No’ politics (i.e. where there are only two options and not of our choosing), thank you very much, North and South.

Voting and the legislative cum governance systems in place at local, national and international levels are an important part of the political framework which we ignore at our peril. However political change takes place in many ways, not least through public pressure on such legislatures and politicians to get their act together on particular issues. Democracy is about much, much more than voting and politicians, and if we ignore those other parts of a vibrant democracy then we are bound for trouble. Unfortunately Northern Ireland, which has a vibrant and on occasions very successful civil society, has not yet successfully made the leap to internal self government; that needs work at both party political and civil society levels to reach an eventual conclusion of some kind.

Niall O’Brien – an obituary

We mentioned the death of Niall O’Brien in the last issue. Here is an obituary written by Pat Raleigh ssc:

Fr. Niall O’Brien
Columban Missionary
Called to Eternal Rest – 27th April 2004

With the death of Fr. Niall O’Brien the Society of St. Columban has lost one of its most talented missionaries. He was a native of Blackrock, Co. Dublin. Ordained on December 22nd 1963 at St. Columban’s, Dalgan Park, Navan, he was assigned to the island of Negros in the Philippines and has worked there for the last forty years. His death occurred in Pisa, Italy where he was receiving treatment for a bone marrow deficiency. 

Though remembered for his defence of human rights and the promotion of social justice, Fr. Niall was never just a one-issue man. Prior to getting involved in education for justice, he had already established a very successful in-service training for Christian community leaders. He also set up a model community based on the Kibbutz system development. He was an innovator, someone with great imagination and flair for new approaches to pastoral issues. He excelled in the local language of Negros and was at the forefront of providing translations of the church liturgy in the vernacular. Moreover his work for justice emphasized active non-violence. He was one of the founder members of Pax Christi in the Philippines and received a peace award for Peace through advocacy and conflict resolution.

Niall is probably best remembered for the “Negros nine” murder trial. He was accused along with Fr. Brian Gore, an Australian Columban and seven Filipinos of the murder of Pablo Sola, Mayor of Kabankalan. The trial took place over a period of 17 months from February 1983 to July 1984. After 50 court appearances the charges were finally dismissed when the chief witness for the prosecution admitted to fabricating the evidence. The trumped up charges were an attempt to silence the prophetic voice of Niall and his companions who were engaged in a campaign of social justice for sugar workers. International pressure soon grew on the Martial Law government of President Marcos who ordered their release.

After his release in 1984 Niall wrote two books about his missionary experience. These were Seeds of Injustice, an account of the social volcano erupting and Revolution from the Heart, his philosophy of active non-violence as the most effective means of social reform. On his return to the Philippines in 1987, once again to the island of Negros, he put to good use his considerable writing and communication skills to establish a mission magazine similar to the Far East magazine we have in Ireland. He wished to provide a platform for the 2000 Filipino missionaries, priests, sisters and lay people to tell their story to a local audience. He served as editor of Misyon for the next thirteen years bringing the magazine to a circulation of over 40,000. About three years ago he was diagnosed as having a serious deficiency of the bone marrow, which necessitated his return to Ireland for treatment. Undaunted he continued to edit the magazine for a further eighteen months until a new editor was appointed.

Despite his illness Niall insisted on returning to the Philippines and threw himself into a new publishing venture. This time it was to be a review for diocesan priests, something like the original concept of The Furrow. He had completed the first issue of this new project when his health began to deteriorate. For the last few months he had been receiving treatment at the medical faculty of the University of Pisa, in Italy where a new procedure for the illness offered hope for recovery. Regrettably, this was not to be. For others, however, Niall has left a legacy of inspiration, integrity and courage. The Columban Society and the church in the Philippines are greatly indebted to him. He will be sadly missed.

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