Louth Sinn Féin held its annual Hunger Strike commemoration in Drogheda on Saturday 7th September. The event was chaired by Imelda Munster TD and we heard the beautiful poem The Rhythm of Time, written by Bobby Sands, read out by Lee Hamill. A wreath on behalf of Sinn Féin was laid by Cllr Ruairí Ó Murchú.
The main speaker was a stalwart of Irish Republicanism, a man who was a friend of Bobby Sands and played a pivotal role in the 1980 & 1981 hunger strikes.
Danny is the secretary of the Bobby Sands Trust which was set up to protect Bobby Sands’ writings and to ensure they would always be in print in perpetuity.
We have printed his speech below but bear in mind, the words do not do justice to the passion with which they were delivered.
Over to Danny….
“In two years’ time we will be commemorating the 40th anniversary of the hunger strike. It seems incredible because to me and many of the older ones here, it seems like only yesterday. From where we stand today, the way we live our lives and enjoy our lives, what went on back then seems incomprehensible – the way our prisoners in the H-Blocks and Armagh Prison were forced to live, the conditions and brutality they endured.
But let’s go back even before that to understand what happened. It is a lesson in why you cannot trust the British government and is a lesson for us today when they try to tell people they don’t want a hard border and won’t implement a hard border.
In 1971, Britain introduced internment and the republican prisoners incarcerated, without charge or trial, had political status. In 1972, sentenced republican prisoners then went on a hunger strike for the same status. Before anyone died the British agreed to recognise the political status of the prisoners.
The agreement didn’t bring total peace to the jails – we in the Cages of Long Kesh were still subject to violent military searches every couple of weeks; prisoners died of medical neglect when warders would not answer the emergency bell; and an internee, Hugh Coney, was shot dead trying to escape. However, the agreement brought relative peace to the jails and no prison officer lost his life or was attacked – until, that is, the beatings began in the H-Blocks.
But, the British government reneged on this agreement. Beginning in 1976 it planned to humiliate and subjugate sentenced prisoners in the belief that if it could demoralise and criminalise the prisoners then it could demoralise the IRA on the outside, which its repression had failed to defeat.
Don’t imagine that Britain didn’t know what it was doing or what the reaction would be. It knew that the republicans would resist – as Thomas Ashe had resisted in 1917 as Terence MacSwiney had resisted in 1920. So, even if their criminalisation programme failed they would still have the satisfaction of beating republicans, giving them black eyes, busted eardrums and broken fingers, and punishing them for their ongoing resistance and refusal to be cowed, the way Israeli soldiers vent their racism on the Palestinian people with killings and collective punishments.
So appalling were the conditions in the H-Blocks that in August 1978, after visiting the prison, Cardinal Ó Fiaich said: “one would hardly allow an animal to remain in such conditions, let alone a human being. The nearest approach to it that I have seen was the spectacle of hundreds of homeless people living in sewer-pipes in the slums of Calcutta.”
But nothing would move the British, especially Margaret Thatcher who became prime minister in 1979.
The prisoners then began discussing a hunger strike and we on the outside wanted to avoid a hunger strike which we believed would end in deaths. From early 1980 I began visiting the prisoners, including Bobby Sands, Brendan Hughes and Mairead Farrell in Armagh Jail. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I can still recall the smell of the prisoners, the pallor of their skin, their pimpled faces, Mairead Farrell’s greasy hair, because it had been years since they had been allowed out of their cells to wash or to exercise in the open air.
At the same time, Gerry Adams and I began secretly meeting Cardinal Ó Fiaich and he, in turn, was talking to the British Secretary of State, Humphry Atkins. To help the talks the IRA stopped attacking prison warders. At one point, I think it was August 1980, Cardinal Ó Fiaich contacted us with news of a breakthrough after a meeting in Downing Street. He said the British government had conceded the right of the prisoners to wear their own clothes. However, when he was in the air on a flight to Rome, the British government issued a statement saying, “No, no! Not their own clothes, it will be prison-issue, civilian-type clothes” – which to the prisoners was just another uniform.
And so the 1980 hunger strike commenced. When it was in its 40th day we were contacted by the British government who claimed they wanted to find a resolution. The hunger strike ended, with Sean McKenna, seriously ill, and the British supplying a document promising a progressive prison regime. But when the prisoners applied for their clothes, the prison governor said – “Put on your uniform first and begin conforming.” There was no give, no compromise, and so Bobby Sands began the second hunger strike on March 1st, 1981.
Those seven, long, gruelling months when ten young men, two of whom were married, Bobby Sands and Joe McDonnell, died, those seven months of hunger strike made international headlines and exposed the cruelty and intransigence of Britain.
“How can I talk to you,” said Margaret Thatcher, “when you have no mandate.”
So, Bobby stood for election and was elected MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone and got twice the majority that Thatcher got in Finchley. This was the perfect moment for compromise. But what did Thatcher do?
She rushed through a new the law, she amended the Representation of the People Act so that no other hunger striker or political prisoner could stand in an election and embarrass her and contradict her lies.
Her intransigence led not only to the deaths of ten prisoners but to many people on the outside as well, including two children and a mother of three, by plastic bullets where I live in West Belfast. No arrests, no investigations, no charges.
As we know, after the hunger strike, the British conceded the five demands and, as part of the Good Friday Agreement the political prisoners were released from the jails.
The hunger strike was a huge event in Irish history. It was our ‘1916’. It inspired thousands of people to become activists. And, of course, the electoral success of Fermanagh and South Tyrone, and two months later of Kieran Doherty in Cavan-Monaghan and Paddy Agnew, here in Louth, were to provide us with the next phase of our struggle and the electoral rise of Sinn Féin.
How wrong Thatcher was when she described the hunger strike as the IRA’s last card.
Of course, the attempted criminalisation of republicans, the demonization of republicans, that mindset, has continued afoot, and nowhere more so than by politicians in the South and sections of the media. I’ll never forget when, in the by-election after Bobby’s death, Owen Carron, Bobby’s election agent, took Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Under Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act Owen was banned from the airwaves. But RTE interviewed the loser, Ken Maginnis, a former member of the UDR. Again, when Gerry Adams was shot in 1984 RTE could have legally interviewed the organisation that shot him, the UDA, but not interviewed their victim, Gerry Adams.
Governments here simply did not trust the people to make up their own minds about the rights and wrongs of what was going in the North. That direct censorship truly damaged the prospects of dialogue and protracted the conflict, in my opinion.
Today, we have the likes of Micheál Martin attacking Sinn Féin for not breaking its election pledges and going back into Stormont and taking seats on the executive with the DUP. Is it not then hypocritical and a double standard, and partitionist, for the same Micheál Martin to state that Sinn Féin is not fit for government in the South? Okay for the North, but not the South.
We have politicians calling upon Sinn Féin to betray the electorate and its manifesto by taking seats in Westminster. The same politicians whose
parties have had ample opportunity to set up shop in the North and run for elections but are too cowardly to do so. Ever wonder why Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, who had eighty years to do so, never organised in the North? It was because they accepted partition, became comfortable with partition and perfected partition.
Once you take your seats in Westminster and interfere in the affairs of Britain you lose all moral right to complain about Britain interfering in Irish affairs. The TDs, the Sinn Féin men and women elected in December 1918 – whom Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil revere – were right to boycott Westminster then, just as Sinn Féin women and men today are right to boycott that alien parliament and demonstrate to the world our rejection of British rule in Ireland.
Many politicians and many in the media are apoplectic on the occasions when a republican will refer to the Twenty-Six Counties as the ‘Free State’.
I can understand that. It is a pejorative term. But can they understand how insulting it is for us from the six counties when we are excluded by the deliberate use of the term ‘Ireland’ by those same politicians and editorial writers when they know that they are actually referring to the Twenty-Six Counties, to the Republic of Ireland. It is just as easy to say the Republic of Ireland. So, we must ask them, why do you do that? Is it to be offensive? Is it to project the false and repugnant notion that you and you alone are Ireland and that we, in the Six Counties are somehow second-class Irish?
If you think that, you are you mightily mistaken!
I live in Belfast, I live in the North. But the state I live in is not the state I grew up in. Our struggle, our uprising, changed all that. Nationalists and republicans no longer feel vanquished. We are first class citizens and we stand tall. We know what we want and we are not so stupid to think that a New Ireland will work without the support and cooperation of the unionist community. Without reconciliation. Without expressions of the hurt and pain all sides inflicted. Those discussions – about how a New Ireland is configured – are taking place and will continue to take place, and in all likelihood will intensify if the British government crashes out of the European Union, and economic interests, reconciliation and unity prevail over narrow political ideology and sectarianism.
As the fortieth anniversary of the hunger strike approaches, let us take stock of where we are. We have greatly advanced, and many obstacles, none insuperable, are in our way. The sacrifices of the hunger strikers, of the Blanketmen, of the women in Armagh Prison, continue to inspire and motivate me and my generation and the youth of today.
Bobby Sands wrote about every one having their part to play, regardless how small. You are the republican grassroots. The ones who come out and march for Irish independence, for an Ireland where Britain has departed from our shores for good. You are the faithful. The ones who do not forget. And from your ranks will come the leaders of tomorrow.
You are the future.
Our past is a past littered with the names of prisons – Limerick, Portlaoise, Mountjoy, Armagh, the Maidstone, Magilligan, Crumlin Road, Maghaberry, Long Kesh and the H-Blocks.
In our tomorrow there will be no barbed wire, no locks, no borders, but the open air of freedom, the open air of sweet freedom, at last.”