Hunger Strike Commemoration in Louth 2019

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.

Lee Hamill reads The Rhythm of Time

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.

        Ruairí Ó Murchú lays a wreath

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.

      Imelda Munster TD

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.

    Danny Morrison – Legend

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.

The amazing Rising Phoenix Flute Band

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

        A small portion of the crowd

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!

Book available from Dundalk Sinn Féin

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.”

              Some of the Sinn Fein team in Louth with Danny Morrison

Munster Slams Latest Attack on Disabilities

A ‘brutal and futile’ decision by the HSE to cut a training allowance for young people with disabilities, starting a course in Dundalk this week shows that ‘decency and humanity has been stripped from the system’, according to TD Imelda Munster.

The Sinn Féin representative slammed the HSE’s announcement cutting the Rehabilitative Training Allowance for attendees of the National Learning Network’s courses across the State, including at facilities at the Ramparts, Carroll Village and Wilton House.

Participants on the course, which teaches living and social skills to school leavers with disabilities, were due to be given an additional €31.80 per week.

But a decision by the HSE to cut the funding to new participants, including around six in Dundalk, was made earlier this month in order, the health service says to ‘reinvest in day services for people with disabilities.

It means that those already on the course, like Naoise Johnston, will continue to get the allowance, but those due to start, like Eileen Meenan’s son, Kevin, will not.

Naoise said she was ‘disappointed and angry’ that her friends will have to do without the money she receives, even though they are on the same course. She said: ‘I know those who are going to start this week and they will not be getting the same money as me. That’s extremely unfair and I don’t understand why the decision was made.

‘You need to have the extra money for the course, because we use it for social outings, lunches etc. Last week, we went to the planetarium in Armagh and I used the money for that trip and the others we have done throughout the year’.

Eileen said her older son, James, had received the training allowance for the course, but her 18-year-old son Kevin, who is due to start this week, will not. She said she is appalled that the government had ‘targeted the most vulnerable, again’ and pointed out that this is the second decision in as many months that the HSE has ‘tried to cut the help it gives to those with disabilities in the Northeast’, citing the now deferred decision to close Sruthán House.

Eileen said: ‘People with disabilities get little enough help as it is, without cutting this small, but vital allowance. When Kevin knew he was getting on the course, he said he would use some of the money to pay for a new phone. He was looking forward to using the money for the social events and trips that are part of teaching people how to look after their cash, how to budget, how to socialise and make plans’.

Ms Munster said the HSE’s decision is ‘brutal and futile’, with the HSE’s own figures putting the savings at less than €13,000 a week.

She said: ‘This is yet another attack on people with disabilities and is a tiny, tiny fraction of the €16 billion of the annual health budget. Yet again, we see penny pinching from the HSE when it comes to making cuts and they have the vulnerable in their crosshairs as usual.

‘Instead of tackling the cost overruns and waste in other areas of the health service, such as the National Children’s Hospital, they decide to take this small, but much-needed tranche of cash away from those who need it. There was no warning, no consultation with those affected.

‘It appears to me that all decency and humanity has been stripped from the system’.

 

Human cost of government’s cost cutting of home care packages becoming increasingly visible – Munster

Sinn Féin TD for Louth and East Meath Imelda Munster has hit out at the HSE’s decision to stop funding new home care packages, as the number of patients languishing for weeks on end in hospital beds increases.

Deputy Munster said:

“The HSE and the government are a disgrace. There is no other word for what is going on here.

“The government have closed down public nursing homes and are attempting to close down respite facilities, including in Co. Louth. When they were closing public long stay and respite beds from the Cottage Hospital in Co. Louth they claimed that this is to allow for people to live independently in the community.

“Well that’s clearly not what’s happening.

“What’s happening is that people are now being left to languish in hospital beds right across the state, when they should be at home, because the HSE has pulled funding for home care packages.

“This is the entirely foreseeable outcome of Fine Gael’s policy of closing nursing homes and cutting funding for home care packages. This government doesn’t give a damn about independent living.

“Some weeks ago I raised the case of the 50 year old man who had, at that time, spent nine weeks in a step down facility as there was no funding for the home care package he needed.

“Since that time several other families have been in touch with me with similar stories. The situation appears to be worsening, with more people spending far too long in hospital settings because of the funding cut.

“The family of a patient who is over eighty years of age contacted me this week. This patient has already spent almost two months in hospital and is now being sent to a step down facility and will have to remain in that facility for the foreseeable future, and their homecare package has been refused.

“Here is a perfect example of the human cost of the cost-cutting measures imposed by Fine Gael. It shows that they have absolutely no respect for those who require a little bit of help to live at home.

“The government can’t manage budgets, and their response is to cut home care packages, despite the fact that they are one of the most cost effectives types of care available to the health service. A day in a hospital bed is 10 times more expensive than a day’s home help in terms of financial cost.

“It costs €5,964 per week to care for someone in a hospital bed whereas the cost of a 26 hours a week home care package would cost approximately €546 per week.

“To keep people in hospital unnecessarily is cruel, it’s poor medical practice and it is completely illogical from a financial point of view.

“This comes down to choice. In order to balance a budget, Fine Gael chose to cut home supports to older, vulnerable and disabled people. It says a lot about their priorities.

“If their talk of encouraging independent living isn’t just spin, then they need to get their act together and focus on funding these homecare packages to allow for independent living which will benefit patients as well as the taxpayer in terms of cost.”

Excessive use charge is backdoor introduction of water charges – Munster

Sinn Féin TD for Louth and East Meath Imelda Munster has criticised the decision of the Commission for Regulation of Utilities to introduce a charging regime for domestic water users for so-called excessive use, calling it “the introduction of water charges through the back door”.

Deputy Munster said:

“This is the introduction of water charges through the back door.

“It is a cosy deal made by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in 2017 to introduce water charges by stealth.

“Sinn Féin is in favour of measures that will reduce water wastage – these charges will not do that that.

“The proposed water allowance will be 146 litres a day. The average person uses 133 litres of water a day.

“People will be liable for bills of up to €500 under this proposal.

“The government is ignoring the real problem here – which is that 43% of treated water is leaking from our pipes.

“There is no credible evidence that people wilfully waste water. People don’t want to be wasteful.

“Either way, this charge won’t help people to conserve water. The fact of the matter is that most people cannot afford to find and fix leaks. The state and Irish Water should be doing that – not punishing those who can’t.

“The government and Irish Water should be working to detect and fix those leaks before they go charging average householders water charges for excessive use that it beyond their control.

“This government always charges ordinary people as a way of shirking their responsibilities. We’re seeing the same lazy, regressive approach with the carbon tax.

“There is nothing stopping the government from reducing how many litres of water a day constitute ‘excessive use’ in the future. I fear that this is the government, in their usual underhand way, sneakily introducing domestic water charges, despite the loud and clear message given to them by the people during the water protests several years ago.

“Fine Gael and Labour did their best to force water charges onto the people, and they failed. Now Fianna Fáil are joining in to sell out the people in a backroom deal with Fine Gael to pave the way for the reintroduction of water charges by a future government.”

50 year old man remains in step-down facility awaiting home care package 9 weeks on

Sinn Féin TD for Louth and Meath East Imelda Munster has slammed the HSE for its penny-wise and pound-foolish policy in targeting Home Care Packages in an effort to cut costs.

Deputy Munster raised the case of a 50 year old man in Co Louth who has been waiting for 9 weeks in the step-down facility at Louth County Hospital in Dundalk having been hospitalised originally in March.

Deputy Munster said:

“I first raised this case with the Minister for Health and the HSE two weeks ago and the response I have today received from the HSE is that, ‘[a] business case totalling 26 care hours per week was submitted for approval. Regrettably the HSE is not in a position to fund the business case at this time.’

“Here is a perfect example of the human cost of the cost-cutting measures imposed by Fine Gael. It is an awful indictment on the government and the so called service providers and it certainly doesn’t follow best practice. The shocking response from the HSE and lack of response from the government in this case is beyond belief.

“This 50 year old man who has been languishing in a completely inappropriate setting in a unit with mainly elderly patients suffering from dementia for the last 9 weeks desperately wants to go home. He is in a fragile mental state as well as having picked up several hospital infections but was told over a month ago by his HSE social worker that a Home Care Package would be arranged for him but that it would take a couple of weeks.

However, as the weeks have dragged on he has become more and more depressed and has been seen by a psychiatrist because he is feeling hopeless at this stage. Despite the fact that his house has already been fitted out with all the necessary equipment by the HSE they will not now give him the 26 hour per week home care that he needs so that he can recover in the peace of his own home, because they cannot fund it.

“It is further evidence of this government’s inability to manage budgets, between the lack of funding arising in the first instance, and also because keeping someone in a hospital bed costs is much more expensive than paying for home help.

“It costs €5964 per week to care for someone in a hospital bed whereas to grant this man the 26 hours home care package that he needs would come in at approximately €546 per week.

“The decision to leave this 50 year old man in hospital is both illogical and irresponsible. Put simply, care delivered in the home allows vulnerable people to live with dignity and respect and it is widely known that this has significant mental and physical health benefits.

Balancing a budget by cutting home supports to older, vulnerable and disabled people is not acceptable. I will be raising this case once again with the Minister and the HSE.”