Monday, August 24, 2015

1981 Hunger Strike - inflicted a historic defeat on the Thatcher government

A section of the huge crowd

For a brief period the rain eased as we walked through Dundalk on Sunday but for most of the time it lashed. Thousands of brave souls, many soaked to the skin despite all kinds and sizes of umbrellas and coats, and led by relatives of the hunger strikers, walked the two miles from the assembly point to the centre of Dundalk where this year’s National Hunger Strike march and rally where held.
The talk of many was of similar marches in the past, often in similar cold and inclement weather, during the long years of the blanket protest in the H-Blocks and in Armagh Women’s prison.
Along the route the County Louth organisers of the event had arranged for some street theatre to remind us of other days. At one place there were women holding posters shouting slogans in support of the blanket men and the Armagh women prisoners; at another spot a group was shouting slogans against strip searching; at yet another a group of women were vigorously bashing the footpath with the cleanest bin-lids I have ever seen; others were dressed as Brits and RUC; and there were  still others holding posters in support of Paddy Agnew from Dundalk who famously won a Dáil seat along with Ciaran Doherty in the summer of 1981.

The Louth Sinn Féin team did a brilliant job of planning and organising and participating in all aspects of the event – although Flash McVeigh failed to arrange better weather. Well done to everyone who played their part.
Councillor Imelda Munster agus mise

Councillor Tómas Sharkey welcomed everyone to the car park where the event was being held and Councillor Imelda Munster was an excellent chair for the proceedings. Laments were played by Patrick Martin and the last post by Harry Bellew Jr echoed across Dundalk. The Roll of Honour of all of those who died on hunger strike in the last century was read out by Shauna McKee and Niamh Morrow and Donna Lawless and Aoife Archibald read two poems by Bobby Sands.
Ellen Maguire’s haunting voice carried across the huge space as she sang ‘Forever in my mind’ a song written by Christy Moore and based on a poem by Pierce McLoughlin. Ellen closed the proceedings with Amhrán na bhFiann.
When I stepped forward to speak I was looking down on a sea of umbrellas. This year there were more media than usual because of the controversy around the murders of Jock Davison and Kevin McGuigan and claims by the PSNI about the IRA.
Below is a transcript of my speech. While it had to address other matters it is primarily about the hunger strikers, their courage and legacy.

Remembering the Hunger Strikers:
“I want to commend and to thank the organisers of today’s event.
I also want to welcome all of you here to county Louth for this very special celebration of the lives of Bobby, Francie, Raymond, Patsy, Joe, Martin, Kevin, Kieran, Tom and Mickey.
Déanann muid cuimhneachán ar Frank Stagg agus Michael Gaughan fosta.
The men and women of Armagh Women’s Prison and the H Blocks, and especially the 10 men who died, hold a special place in the hearts and minds of Irish republicans.
Many of us today have known other friends and comrades who were killed during the course of the conflict.
Brave men and women who gave their lives in the pursuit of freedom and justice and independence.
We remember them all.
Déanann muid cuimhneachán orthu uilig inniu. 
We are proud of them all.
Tá muid bródúil astu ar fad.
But the 10 hunger strikers are exceptional.
Perhaps it is because of the very public manner of their deaths.
Perhaps it’s because as human beings we are inevitably drawn to and inspired by those who are willing to sacrifice their lives, often in desperate circumstances, to save the lives of others and in pursuit of a noble goal.
Perhaps it is because we shared in the trauma and grief of the families who demonstrated enormous endurance and tenacity during those long difficult months.
Their indomitable spirit and selflessness stand out as an inspiration to us all.
The generosity and self-sacrifice of the hunger strikers, and the hard work and support of thousands of people across this island, inflicted a historic defeat on the Thatcher government.
Like the Easter Rising of 1916, it was a watershed in Ireland’s long struggle for freedom and against British rule.
The momentous election of Bobby Sands in Fermanagh South Tyrone gave the lie to the claim that the political prisoners did not enjoy popular support.
Several months later in June 1981 the criminalisation policy of the British government, enthusiastically supported and implemented by successive Irish governments, suffered another body blow with the election to the Dáil of Kieran Doherty in Cavan Monaghan and the election of Paddy Agnew here in Louth.
As well as the election of Kieran and Paddy, Joe McDonnell came close to taking a seat in Sligo and Mairead Farrell and others won credible votes.
All of this was achieved with little real organisation and no great electoral experience.
I remember the first poster I saw in Dundalk during that election.
It said: “Support the Prisoners, Vote Paddy Agnew No 1.” 
In every town and small village and sraid bhaile across Louth, there was Paddy’s face smiling down from telegraph poles, hoardings and tree trunks.
I have to say he hasn’t changed a bit.
Fianna Fáil and Charlie Haughey, who had thought they were on their way to another election victory, and who had treated the hunger strikers and their families so appallingly, were punished by the electorate.
No party has been able to form a majority single government in this state since then.
On Thursday we remembered Mickey Devine who died on that date in 1981 after 60 days on hunger strike. 
Mickey was the last of the ten to die.
Three decades later it is clear that the 1981 hunger strike, and its electoral successes transformed the struggle.
It is our responsibility to finish the work commenced by previous generations, and by the men and women of 1916 and the men and women of 1981.

Several weeks ago Sinn Féin’s hugely successful and popular re-enactment of the funeral of O’Donovan Rossa showed what can be achieved to further popularise the struggle for freedom, as well as to celebrate the lives of national heroes.
The Sinn Féin event also exposed the shallowness of the approach of Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fáil and of their policies.
Léirigh ócáid Shinn Féin nach bhfuil Fine Gael Páirtí an Lucht Oibre nó Fianna Fáil dáiríre faoi seo.
Fine Gael and Labour can rightly be blamed for the implementation of austerity policies and the dire social and economic consequences they have created.
But there is no difference in policy between Fine Gael and Labour, and Fianna Fail.
They will not deliver a fair recovery but more of the same old cronyism and clientelism. 
A general election is only months, perhaps weeks away.
The Government says that a recovery is underway. 
If it is, it isn’t a fair recovery.
It is a two tier recovery that benefits them and their friends at the top, not the majority of hard-working, fair-minded Irish citizens.
Fine Gael and Labour will make one last desperate effort in October to buy the next election.
We cannot and should never take the electorate for granted but I am confident that citizens will not be fooled.
Sinn Féin offers a different way – a better way – to build a fair recovery.
It is our responsibility to win the largest mandate possible for our party and for a fair recovery.
The reality is that the leaderships of Fine Gael and Labour and Fianna Fáil long ago abandoned any real belief in the principles of equality and of rights contained in the Proclamation, or any commitment to a united, free and independent Ireland. 
Partitionism dominates and defines their politics. 
For them the struggle for Irish freedom ended with the Treaty and the Civil War. 
It ended with partition.
But Ireland divided never can be free.
So for us the struggle continues.
And Sinn Féin is in the vanguard.
Inniu tá an streachailt ag leanúint ar aghaidh agus tá Sinn Féin chun tosaigh.
For that reason our enemies seek at every opportunity to attack our mandate, to undermine the rights and entitlements of our electorate, and to undermine the peace process.
Like the men and women of Armagh and the H Blocks they seek to criminalise us.
They didn’t succeed in 1981 and they won’t succeed today.
The recent killings of Jock Davison and Kevin McGuigan have been opportunistically and cynically seized upon for this purpose.
Let me be very clear.
The killings of Jock Davison and of Kevin McGuigan were wrong.
Those involved do not represent republicanism. 
They are not the IRA.
The IRA has gone away.
That organisation, undefeated, took the momentous step in 2005 and ordered an end to its armed campaign.
It instructed its representatives to “engage with the IICD to complete the process to verifiably put its arms beyond use” and ordered its volunteers to take part only in “purely political and democratic programmes” and no “other activities whatsoever”.
None of the many alphabet groups that now claim the proud name of the Irish Republican Army have a right to that title. 
They have no connection whatsoever with the men and women who bravely resisted British militarism in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s and who defeated Thatcher in Armagh women’s prison and the H Blocks of Long Kesh.
As we approach the centenary of 1916 there is no need, rationale, or reason for any armed groups whatsoever.
It’s time they called an end to their sham campaigns.
I have a similar blunt message for those who engage in a sham fight at Stormont on this issue in order to slow down or dilute the necessary process of change.
Those who threaten to take action against Sinn Féin in the political institutions have no basis whatsoever for this.
Sinn Féin’s mandate and the rights and entitlements of our electorate deserve exactly the same respect and protection as anyone else’s’.
And Sinn Féin will defend that assertively and robustly.
We will not be lectured to by those who have failed to honour their obligations time and again.
For our part Sinn Féin has kept every commitment we have made.
But today is about the hunger strikers.
On July 29th 1981 along with Owen Carron and Seamus Ruddy of the IRSP I visited the H Block Hospital in Long Kesh.
By this time Bobby, Francie, Raymond, Patsy, Martin and Joe were dead.
We met Thomas McElwee, Laurence McKeown, Matt Devlin, Pat McGeown, Paddy Quinn and Mickey Devine and Bik McFarlane in the prison hospital.
They all looked rough, prison-pale skin stretched across young skull-like faces, legs and arms indescribably thin, eyes with that penetrating look that I had often noticed among fellow prisoners in the past, and that Bobby Sands had described as "that awful stare, of the pierced or glazed eyes, the tell-tale sign of the rigours of torture."
As they smiled across the table at us we relaxed and were soon deep on conversation about the stailc, the campaign, the BGs position and the well-being of their friends and families.
After this meeting Bik arranged for us to go and see Kieran Doherty.
Doc was propped up on one elbow on his prison bed: his eyes, unseeing, scanned the cell as he heard us entering.
I sat on the side of the bed. Doc, whom I hadn’t seen in years, looked massive in his gauntness, as his eyes, fierce in their quiet defiance, scanned my face.
I spoke to him quietly and slowly, somewhat awed by the man’s dignity and resolve.
"You know the score yourself," he said. "I’ve a week in me yet"
He paused momentarily and reflected: "We haven’t got our five demands and that’s the only way I’m coming off. Too much suffered for too long, too many good men dead. Thatcher can’t break us. Lean ar aghaidh. I’m not a criminal."
"For too long our people have been broken. The Free Staters, the church, the SDLP. We won't be broken. We'll get our five demands. If I’m dead well, the others will have them.
I don't want to die, but that's up to the Brits. They think they can break us. Well they can’t."
"Tiocfaidh ár lá."
I never saw Thomas McElwee, Mickey Devine, Kevin Lynch or Big Doc alive again.
How do you explain the Hunger strikes? 
How do you come to terms with what happened? 
It can be understood only if we appreciate the incorruptibility and generosity of the human spirit when that spirit is motivated by an ideal or an objective which is greater than itself.
People are not born as heroes. 
The hunger strikers were ordinary people who in extraordinary circumstances brought our struggle to a moral platform which became a battle between them and the entire might of the British state.
We Irish, all 70 million of us across this globe are no petty people.
If our opponents, if our detractors, if our enemies want to understand us, if they want to understand our struggle, if they want to understand our commitment and our vision for the future, then let them come to understand the hunger strikers.
For the rest of us there is peace to be made, elections to be fought and freedom to be won.
As Brendan McFarlane sings in his song:
We're stronger now.
You showed us how.
Freedom's fight can be won.
If we all stand as one.
Comrades, let us always remember the Armagh Woman and the Blanket men and especially the hunger strikers with pride.
And let us move forward together as one. 
Ar aghaigh linn
Councillor Tómas Sharkey addressing the huge crowd
Former Hunger Striker Pat Sheehan with Paddy Agnew

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