Sinead O'Connor interview: Joining Sinn Fein, building a new Ireland and the important role of the artist in revolution

Following her decision to apply for membership of Sinn Féin, the Irish singer spoke to The Independent about why

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Ever since she tore up a picture of Pope John Paul II while uttering the words "fight the real enemy" on live television in the US, Sinead O'Connor has had to fight against people critical of her outspoken views; either believing the realm of politics beyond a mere singer, or worse, labelling her "crazy".

Yet since she rose to international fame in 1990 with her cover of Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U," O'Connor has never let any outside scepticism hold her back from rallying about topics such as religion, child abuse and war, as well as speaking frankly about her Roman Catholic upbringing.

Sinead O'Connor Calls For Demolition Of Ireland

Thus, it came as no surprise that the singer, who is now 48 and released her latest album "I'm Not Bossy, I'm the Boss" in August to favourable reviews, recently announced that she had applied to join Sinn Féin, calling for a discussion on forming a completely new country and asking the party's leader, Gerry Adams, to stand down.

In an interview with The Independent, O'Connor explained how artists have always had something to say about the state of Ireland in the country's much storied history, and therefore her political stances over the last few decades are not something novel or surprising.

O'Connor has been thinking more and more about the Easter Rising, which celebrates its centenary in 2016. The event saw republicans proclaim Ireland's independence from British rule as they occupied key buildings in Dublin. The rising failed and led to the execution of many of the revolutionaries. It was this event that spurred a wave of republicanism, led to the rise of Sinn Féin and the eventual independence of Ireland from the United Kingdom.

Independent: What got you thinking and reading about the Easter Rising recently?

Sinead O'Connor: It's something I've always been interested in. When you get into senior school in Ireland they start to teach you about the Easter Rising. The first year that they teach you about it, they teach you about the artists of the time and what the artists were up to. Lately, I noticed that our government had been planting articles in the state media which disrespect the leaders of the 1916 rising, referring to them as traitors. This is completely out of the blue and I think it's because they are afraid of the centenary. There's a lot of discussion in the last few years about sovereignty and what that really means.

When you discuss the role of artists, are you inspired by people like Thomas MacDonagh, Patrick Pearse and Joseph Plunkett, poets and playwrights who were members of the Easter Rising?

SOC: Exactly, and there were other people like W. B. Yeats and that who weren’t necessarily involved in 1916 and the actual fighting but they were in the background. Yeats and others started to talk about the idea of a revolution. In the similar manner to the Czech situation (the Velvet Revolution) there was an artistic involvement in 1916 and the proclamation itself was composed in a larger part by James Connolly, who you might argue was not an artist but he really was when it came to the English language.

A Guard stands next to a poster of the Irish Proclamation of Independence during Easter Rising commemorations in 2006 in Dublin, Ireland.

You talk about artists having a political role and we have seen that with people like Bono and Bob Geldof. But there is often a reaction against "political outsiders" having something more meaningful to say, such as Russell Brand.

SOC: It's bollocks. Patrick Pearse was a f***ing poet and a teacher. None of these people were politicians for a living. They weren't born into political parties. Politics is the problem. What we have is a spiritual problem, you can't fix that with politics: politics is the opposite of spirit. It is criminal to not care about your country and if you're an Irish artist I believe you have a duty to be involved with matters of your country. It is criminal in times like these, when Ireland is on its knees, not to talk. 1916 would not have happened if artists had not had ideas alongside politicians.

It's a clever way of keeping people from helping when people slag off musicians for getting involved in this stuff. It's to make us afraid of getting involved because we're very powerful people in some ways, especially when it comes to the young. Musicians are the heroes of the young...  I usually ask myself "What would John Lennon do?" As a musician who comes from a time when musicians were also activists, I'd be letting him down if I didn't try at least, to help, via the any platform I have.

Patrick Pearse, the Irish writer, educator and nationalist politician.

I can't believe I've joined a political party, I never thought I'd see the day come that I would join a political party, but these are revolutionary times, we are on the precipice of a revolution in Ireland and I would like it to be a non-violent one. The artist's job is to create conversation. My job as an artist is to create a conversation and I think it's the most important conversation that could be had at a time when everyone is feeling very revolutionary and angry because you don’t want that spilling into the streets into a violent manner. At the moment there is no plan, so my plan is at least as good as no f***ing plan.

Why do you want to focus on the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic?

SOC: People are focused on the proclamation at the moment because the current condition of the Free State is in breach of paragraphs three and four. Now, on the one hand the government holds up this document as being the most important document in Irish history. On the other hand, our state has abandoned the principles of paragraphs three and four and that really is why there is a lot of discussion about the Easter Rising. If the republic of Ireland were a company you would close it down now and start again.

What concerns you about Ireland at the moment?

SOC: The same things that are concerning the vast majority of people: the contents of paragraphs three and four. The fact that we don't have ownership of the resources of the country, we don't really own the country at all. All of the people of the nation are not being treated equally;there are no civil rights anymore. The people don't own Ireland, they are broken and on their knees. The people who died in 1916 in order to set up what is now the republic of Ireland didn't do so, so that the people could end up in the condition that they are now in. The people of Ireland are starving again. There are children fainting at schools from hunger; there are people who can't buy stuff for their kids for Christmas.

So when do you feel the ideal of the 1916 Proclamation was abandoned?

SOC: To me, Sinn Féin was one thing around 1916 to 1922 and it became something else in the 1970s. What it became made everyone forget what it originally was and forget about the idea of uniting Ireland at all. Because in the Free State, for us to say we were republicans or want to join the movement, meant that we were supporters of terrorism and we never wanted that. We were never consulted in the Free State about this. Part of joining Sinn Féin is to reclaim what Sinn Féin was back in 1916 and finish it. My feeling is that the writing is not finished. We need to finish it; it never ended. All our political parties are still from that time; it's Civil War political parties. Fine Fail, Fine Gael, Sinn Féin; they all have to go ultimately. To understand why we are in the situation we are now in, we need to understand how we got there. I think we haven't understood that we're still living in the fallout of 1916 and that it hasn't finished.

What do you mean when you say you want to create a new country?

SOC: I believe too that there are basic scientific laws as to how the universe operates. Now one of those laws is that nothing can succeed which is born of violence. It doesn't matter whether you say violence was justified or it was self-defence or it was anything else. If the thing was born from violence it cannot succeed. That's one reason why the Republic hasn't worked and why what's happening up north isn't working. So here’s a solution, which is non-violent, which involves getting everyone together: to create a country of a our own. Not a republic of Ireland, which by its nature would be something that excluded the very important contents of the six counties. We in the Free State need those people, we need their help, we need all of the loyalists in those counties to help us in the Free State. They've never been offered that opportunity before. Nobody has come up with an idea that might satisfy everyone where no one loses pride, no one loses face.

But Irish history is so vital to the country's identity; figures like Daniel O’Connell and Michael Collins. Can you really cast aside such a strong sense of history and identity?

SOC: I believe very strongly that if you were to talk to James Connolly or Patrick Pearse or any of the signatories of the proclamation and ask them about 21st century Ireland, they'd be campaigning for the same thing, for a new country. That what has been in the past has to be left in the past. It didn't work, it was violent, it was terrible, and inhumanity was carried out on both sides. I understand what you say about history, but it's the supreme sacrifice. We have to leave that behind, all the old dreams. It's a different time. We have to think of the 21st, 22nd and 23rd centuries. We're leaving a country for our children and grandchildren. I think it's big ask for people to leave behind Ireland, leave it all. It's the supreme sacrifice and it's a brilliant idea.

This new country you envision; what will it be called and how will it be structured?

SOC: A socialist country; the same vision that James Connolly had for Ireland. Everything would change, the name and the constitution, everything. I'm not a political expert so in one way I can't answer that question, I don't know how one does these things. I don't f***ing know as far as the name goes.

Irish socialist leader James Connolly.

How much impact do you think you can have in Sinn Féin?

SOC: I don't necessarily expect my application for membership to be accepted, because I'm saying the things that I'm saying. But look, it's just pure cold business, whether we like it or not, those faces remind people of violence. When you see the faces of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness and all of these people, they remind people of violence. In the same way that Pope Ratzinger's face reminded people of child abuse. The second that Ratzinger stepped down the Catholic church became a receptacle place again and they had bums on seats. What I'm trying to say, long term down the line, if these guys were to step down, Sinn Féin membership would quadruple overnight and people would be on board for changing the country, changing what it means to be a republican. The implication that me wishing to join the republican movement means I support hideous things is an appalling accusation.

I wanted to also show my respect for the republican movement. My generation only saw Sinn Féin through the Seventies as children: it was terrifying, we didn't want to watch it. But I'm declaring my respect for the Republican movement, what originally it was, what it originally stood for. I respect it. I respect the hunger strikers enormously. I respect self-defence enormously. I don't respect terrorism.

Have you been inspired at all by the referendum in Scotland?

SOC: I guess I felt disappointed that Scotland didn't get their independence. To me the thing was fixed beforehand, let's face it. We in Ireland were like, " Yeah right, there's no point having that f***ing referendum." I think if you put a referendum to the English and the Irish people as to "Would you be okay with Ireland becoming a new country", they would be alright with that because they would see it's a compassionate loving solution to all sides of a problem that has been unfixable except by violence. A new country, from top to bottom, for every person from every nationality.

Do you think the anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising, in 2016, will be important?

SOC: Yes, and I think the state are terrified. Which is why they have set about disrespecting the leaders of 1916 it because they can sense a revolution is coming. They know that there I such a revolutionary moment in Ireland at the moment and as we get closer to the anniversary it has the potential to spill out into the streets violently. We want change, we want revolution. But the Irish people don’t like violence, we don't want violence and we don't like the imagery of violence. We have suffered so much from violence. You have got a lot of very angry people and they need a positive way of channelling it. We haven't known a nonviolent way which is why we have been frozen for so long. It's important to start these conversations now.