Wednesday, March 22, 2006


Words on Wednesday...with Seán Farren

Seán FarrenWelcome to this week's edition of Words on Wednesday which sees me interview various figures from all walks of Irish political life.

Coming under scrutiny this week is the SDLP's MLA for North Antrim Seán Farren.

I'd like to thank Mr Farren for taking the time to answer my questions. With that being said, let's begin:

What initially attracted you to political life?

I was always interested in politics. In my father’s family his father and an uncle had been labour activists in Dublin in the early decades of the 20th century. Both served as Dublin city councillors and his uncle Tom also served as a Labour Party senator until 1936. Coming North to take a lecturing post at the university in Coleraine I met people active in establishing the SDLP and was invited to join which I did in 1973.

You are an SDLP MLA for North Antrim. Talk us through a typical day in your life.

No day is typical but most consist of either party meetings, meetings with various groups and organisations, from time to time with British and Irish ministers, with other parties, with constituency groups, dealing with constituents’ problems etc. The absence of the Assembly takes a whole area of work out of current Assembly members’ workload and casts an air of frustration over what we do to the point where I almost resent being asked what do I do!

You were born in Dublin and moved to the North in 1970. Have you found yourself treated differently due to the fact you are a Dubliner?

I can honestly say not that I aware of. First of all I got my university post in an open and fair competition and there was never any barrier placed in my way to deter me from being involved in politics. The fact that I have been elected for the North Antrim constituency in assembly type elections on several occasions shows that constituents don’t hold my southern origins against me. Only once was public and negative comment ever made about my origins and that from, almost unbelievably, an Alliance Party representative.

If you could change three things about Irish society, north or south, what would you change and why?

There is one thing above all others that I would want to change, indeed want to eliminate. It is sectarianism. Sectarian attitudes are very deepset and these exist South as well as North and act as a poison in our relationships. Politicians have a serious obligation to work towards their elimination. These attitudes are not the preserve of any one social class, one religious denomination or one political party but are to found throughout our society. Since sectarianism is another version of racism it shares all the characteristics of that disease.

Secondly there must be a concerted campaign to eliminate social disadvantage that affects many in our society and is no respecter of party or religion.

Third, and following the second, is to see a more integrated economy develop on the island which harnesses the human potential of both parts of the island to mutual advantage.

What are your thoughts on a United Ireland?

The Good Friday Agreement has given us the best template upon which to create the conditions that will lead to a united Ireland. Unity cannot be forced by violence and will not happen because of demographic change. It has to be worked for by democratically persuading a sufficient number of people to support it. It is not therefore inevitable since if it was all we would have to do is to wait for it to happen.

What should be done to improve the situation in NI?

Restore our political institutions and let the healing effects of working together in those democratic institutions in the best interests of all, give more hope of a better future in which there is real respect for our different traditions, for human rights and for the rule of law.

What are your thoughts on the European Union?

I am in favour of more democratically accountable integration and viewed the recent proposals for a new constitution as broadly the best compromise possible at the present time for achieving that. I also favour the widening of membership.

What are your thoughts on the Easter Rising and how do you intend to mark the occasion?

From a youth when I was immersed in admiration for the leaders of the Rising and became familiar with much of their writings I have moved to a more ambivalent attitude. We have to acknowledge that the Rising took place without any sense of what its consequences would be for achieving both an independent and united country. From my reading of Pearse and Connolly in particular there is no evidence that they had any real understanding of Northern unionist attitudes or of how unionists might react to a rising. In effect they ignored the consequences of the Rising for relationships with Unionists. So, in my view, while the 1916 Rising played a seminal role in determining the direction of Irish nationalist politics over the following five years, as far as the North was concerned it helped cement the partition of Ireland already virtually agreed in the 1914 Home Rule Act. It was not, then, until 1998 when the Good Friday Agreement was endorsed in referenda North and South that the whole of Ireland was eventually able to reach agreement on how both major traditions on the island could work together in shared political institutions. I believe therefore that the next decade leading to the centenary of the Rising should be dedicated not simply to commemorating 1916 but to the unfinished tasks of national reconciliation and of how to ensure that Ireland is inclusive in a comfortable and respectful way of all its people, our recent arrivals as well as our natives.

Can Sinn Féin and the DUP work together effectively?

Of course they can provided they can satisfy each other that the basic conditions for doing so are being met. Sinn Féin has to stop prevaricating over involvement in and support for the new policing arrangements and the DUP has got to show that it embraces the need for partnership within the North and between North and South. However, current attitudes as revealed in how these two parties address each other do not give much ground for hope that early progress will be made.

Do you think people north of the border should be able to vote in Irish presidential elections?

In principle I support this suggestion provided that practical and non-divisive ways can be found of implementing it.

What are your thoughts on the current conflict in Iraq right now and Ireland's position?

I have always been opposed to the war and was in the US when it broke out and gave several tv and radio interviews to that effect. I feared the kind of regional conflict that now all but exists. Ireland should be to the fore in making this view known to what are referred to as ‘friendly’ governments in London and Washington.

Where should Ireland be twenty years from now?

I hope we have the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement operating in a very healthy way and both parts of country are working ever more closely together in the mutual interests of all of the people of the island. Where that may take us constitutionally will be for leaders and people then to decide.

How do you think the British government feels about NI?

The British government has a responsibility for Northern Ireland which I believe it will not simply or easily abandon. It will not oppose constitutional change in favour of Irish unity if that is the wish of a majority and I think we should accept that position and work within the scope it provides. The fact that successive British governments since 1985 when the Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed have held this position shows that it is unlikely to alter in the immediate future.

You yourself are a fluent Irish speaker and keen on promoting the Irish language. What do you think should be done to improve the state of the national language and do you personally think Irish should be a required subject for Leaving Cert students?

As someone who acquired Irish in a very natural way through attendance at an all-Irish school I do not believe that coercion works. The fact that hundreds of leaving certificate students find ways of not taking Irish and others effectively abandon the language, take it in name but not in fact, must have a demoralising effect on those who do and on their teachers and must create a cynical and unhealthy attitude towards Irish generally. The success of Gaelscoileanna both North and South shows what can be achieved by those with a love and real interest in the language. A close and honest examination of the facts about Irish at leaving certificate level is required and then bold and challenging choices offered.

What would you say to someone reading now who isn't sure who to vote for in the next general election?

I opt out of this question since as a member of a party that seeks to work with all parties in the South I will not publicly take sides whatever about my own preferences were I living in the South.

Finally, I'd like to play a small round of word association. I'm sure you know what it entails. Basically just outline what word comes into your head when you hear the following names:

Bertie Ahern -
Tony Blair -
George W. Bush -
Mary McAleese -
Ian Paisley -
Gerry Adams -
Mark Durkan -
Padraig Pearse -
John Hume -
Sean Farren -

I pass on this as well because one word cannot capture what comes into my mind when I think of these people and that includes myself.

Next week, Green Party TD and Spokesperson for Justice Ciarán Cuffe takes my questions.


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