As Fridays General Election approaches this blog was reflecting on other elections and in particular on next Tuesday’s, March 1st, 30th anniversary of the commencement of the 1981 hunger strike in which ten Irish republican prisoners died.
That year was a defining one in recent Irish history for all sorts of reasons, and elections north and south played a major part in the campaign in support of the prisoners and had huge implications for the future.
This blogs first experience of elections was shoving election literature into envelopes for the republican candidate Billy McMillan in 1964 when this blog was still at school.
However the first election in which I had an organisational and leadership role was when my friend and comrade Bobby Sands, who had begun his hunger strike on March 1st, was nominated at the end of that month to fight the Fermanagh South Tyrone seat after the sudden death of Frank Maguire.
For the duration of that campaign this blog and other activists criss-crossed Fermanagh South Tyrone urging the electorate to make a stand in support of the political prisoners.
For the last few weeks I have been criss crossing helter skelter across the south asking people once again to make a stand – but this time for themselves. The results of this election will be clear by Sunday next.
The results of the Bobby Sands election in April 1981 and the subsequent general election in the south a month later, were destined to change the shape of modern Irish politics.
Bobby was elected with a larger vote than the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher whose intransigent stance led to the hunger strike. The success of that election and a subsequent by-election victory accelerated a significant debate within Sinn Féin on the benefits of fighting elections.
This was given added weight by other successful electoral interventions in the south. Kieran Doherty was elected as a TD for Cavan Monaghan and Paddy Agnew was elected for the Louth constituency in the June 81 general election. The intervention of H Block and Armagh women candidates, in these and other constituencies, contributed to the worst result for Fianna Fáil in 20 years.
Following the election the formation of a Fine Gael/Labour coalition spelt the end of single party government in the south and saw the start of the slow decline in Fianna Fáil’s popular support.
But 30 years ago we knew none of this. We were all very mindful of the first hunger strike which had ended just before Christmas 1980 and the failure of the British to use that opportunity to resolve the prison issues.
We were conscious of the history of hunger strike in Ireland and of the names of Thomas Ashe… Terence MacSwiney… Sean McCaughey... Michael Gaughan... Frank Stagg and others who had died on hunger strike.
In his prison diary on the first day of his hunger strike Bobby set the context for it all. He wrote about his ‘deeply rooted and unquenchable desire for freedom.’ And he added; ‘I am dying not just to attempt to end the barbarity of H Block, or to gain the rightful recognition of a political prisoner, but primarily because what is lost in here is lost for the republic ...’
Over a gruelling seven-month period, ten courageous Irish men - Bobby, Francis, Raymond, Patsy, Joe, Martin, Kevin, Kieran, Thomas and Mickey - laid down their lives, one after the other, attesting to the world the strength of their convictions in a battle of wills with the powerful British state, epitomised in the shrill voice of Thatcher.
Though the prisoners lost their lives, the British government lost the battle of criminalisation. Indeed it lost much more because the hunger strike catapulted a whole new generation of men and women into the struggle for freedom.
It has been remarked that three decades after their deaths far from fading, the memories of ‘the ten’ continue to grow in stature, continue to have an impact and continue to inspire republicans throughout Ireland.
The hunger strike of 1981 now takes its place in our annals alongside Easter Week 1916, such is the power of its legacy, such is the emotion it generates, and such is the vision which it inspires.
And among the many words which emerged from that time of repression and resistance none are more powerful or lasting or relevant to today than those of Bobby’s poem, The Rhythm of Time.
The Rhythm Of Time
There’s an inner thing in every man,
Do you know this thing my friend?
It has withstood the blows of a million years,
And will do so to the end.
It was born when time did not exist,
And it grew up out of life,
It cut down evil’s strangling vines,
Like a slashing searing knife.
It lit fires when fires were not,
And burnt the mind of man,
Tempering leadened hearts to steel,
From the time that time began.
It wept by the waters of Babylon,
And when all men were a loss,
It screeched in writhing agony,
And it hung bleeding from the Cross.
It died in Rome by lion and sword,
And in defiant cruel array,
When the deathly word was ‘Spartacus’
Along the Appian Way.
It marched with Wat the Tyler’s poor,
And frightened lord and king,
And it was emblazoned in their deathly stare,
As e’er a living thing.
It smiled in holy innocence,
Before conquistadors of old,
So meek and tame and unaware,
Of the deathly power of gold.
It burst forth through pitiful Paris streets,
And stormed the old Bastille,
And marched upon the serpent’s head,
And crushed it ‘neath its heel.
It died in blood on Buffalo Plains,
And starved by moons of rain,
Its heart was buried in Wounded Knee,
But it will come to rise again.
It screamed aloud by Kerry lakes,
As it was knelt upon the ground,
And it died in great defiance,
As they coldly shot it down.
It is found in every light of hope,
It knows no bounds nor space
It has risen in red and black and white,
It is there in every race.
It lies in the hearts of heroes dead,
It screams in tyrants’ eyes,
It has reached the peak of mountains high,
It comes searing ‘cross the skies.
It lights the dark of this prison cell,
It thunders forth its might,
It is ‘the undauntable thought’, my friend,
That thought that says ‘I’m right!’