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22 January 1998 Edition

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The fast links of solidarity

Saoirse in Coalisland, County Tyrone held a 40 hour fast on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day for the POWs in Ireland, England and America. Mary Kelly from the Caqueta Amazonia Rainforest Campaign joined them.


I went with a young Englishwoman. We brought our own bedding and slept in her van. Neither of us knew anyone in Coalisland, and had never been involved actively in anything ``up North'', so we were both nervous.

We arrived in the town and found the Saoirse caravan, which was parked opposite the evil-looking heavily fortified RUC barracks. There were just a few others, two men and a few lads in their early 20s. We were welcomed in. Not surprisingly, there was a definite air of suspicion about who were and why we'd come.

I myself, having been a mother unjustly separated from one of my sons for several years, was particularly affected by Roisín McAliskey's case. Also, I've been living in Colombia, South America for the past five years in an Irish-English community on our self sufficient farm in the rapidly disappearing rainforest. We are trying to protect the rainforest from the First World's greed for drugs and useless furniture, and the endless sacrifice of trees to produce unnecessary paper and packaging in an already over-materialistic worked.

There, the guerrilla movement has promoted laws against logging and burning of land and forbidden the killing of animals and are fighting for the rights of a very poor people against a corrupt US-backed government. In Colombia, for the first time, I began to think of my own country and wonder why we had lost our language and our land to the British. There, I saw how the Spanish had begun the destruction of tribal life, bringing ``progress'' and bringing their language forbidding the indigenous dialects to be spoken. I saw the results of the Spanish Inquisition, done in the name of Christianity and believing other religions were ``wrong''.

Even though my own grandfather had been a great IRA leader against the Tans in Connaught in 1914-22, it did not penetrate my brain that in my own country people were suffering and being killed, tortured and imprisoned because they wanted a free country.

Over two days of fasting we got beyond the barriers of suspicion with our comrades and formed friendships. It was grim. The RUC called out provocative insults during the long night of Christmas Eve. The caravan was shaken by a hurricane that was hitting England. Fire Brigade sirens screamed off to rescue people trapped under fallen trees.

On Christmas morning, we lit candles for the POWs, and we placed posters that said ``We have our Nelson Mandelas'' on the wire ramparts around the barracks. The RUC inside gave a round of cynical applause. I found myself shaking with violent fear, then I said to myself, ``Hang on. This is my country. Why should I be afraid?'' That thought dispelled the real horrible fear of police, army uniforms, guns and loss of freedom - uniformed men and women who at any moment can use their power to do what they want.

The atmosphere in the town was black and tense, even though it was supposed to be Christmas. Friendly supporters came to chat, give money, have a bit of craic with us. But people live in a constantly wired-up state. Young people looked grim and dress mostly in black. Seven lookout cameras were constantly trained on the Saoirse caravan and the Main Street.

We were all beginning to feel the stress of not eating. But it's nothing to fast for two days. We talked about the hunger strikers who entered it with the possibility that they might be going to die. Just being there together, fasting for those hours, we gave our support to the POWs. With guitar and tin whistle we lifted our own spirits and sang some heartfelt songs.

When the fast finished we said goodbye to our little group. My friend and I had been invited to the house of a sister of a POW where we were treated to a magnificent vegetarian Christmas dinner. We met all the extended family of that household, which included two English people. That helped my English friend feel even more at ease as, being English, she was worried about getting a bad reaction. Quite the opposite! We had a very enjoyable evening, parked the van in their driveway, and slept.

During those two days, my friend and I felt huge amounts of fear at varying times. We helped each other and talked ourselves through the awful paralysing feeling until we got to new strength. How the people in the North live with that adrenalin constantly on hold in their systems is beyond me. I hope all the people in the South who have healing powers will give freely of their talents to help the people who have taken the full brunt of violence for years.

After that fast, violence erupted two days later with the murder of Billy Wright in Long Kesh. Séamus Dillon, a bouncer, was then murdered at a disco in Dungannon. He was the brother of the strong fatherly man who organised our Christmas fast.

I heard a Loyalist politician say on TV that since the peace talks were doomed to fail, he felt like going on a tour of the South. I thought, brilliant! To really involve us comfortable Southerners by going into the clubs, communities, churches and schools and forge good strong links. We can't remain impartial just because the north is ``up there'' and it's not on our doorstep.
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