8 November 2007 Edition
Martin Meehan True to the end
Martin Meehan True to the end
MARTIN MEEHAN was buried at Milltown Cemetery in Belfast on Tuesday, 6 November. The graveside oration was delivered by Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams, the MP for West Belfast. He said:
This oration is in solidarity with Briege and Bronagh, Kevin, Martin Óg, Mary and Jacqueline.
It is in solidarity with their 12 grandchildren and the wider Meehan family circle.
I also want to express our condolences and sympathy to another family, of another republican and old friend, Fra Coogan. To Marie and her clan we extend our sympathy and solidarity.
I never thought I would be standing here today speaking at the grave of Martin Meehan.
When we got the news at the Ard Chomhairle meeting last Saturday that Martin was dead, everyone who knew him was deeply shocked.
Martin Meehan has been a constant in the republican struggle the last 40 years or so.
I met him first when I was 16. I was a wee lad; he was one of the big boys.
How do you describe him? It’s virtually impossible. He was a very, very sincere republican. Deeply convinced about the righteousness of the republican cause.
He had a very generous disposition. He was very proudly working-class and a life-long member of the Deep Sea Dockers’ Branch of the ITGWU, like his father and grandfather before him.
He was extremely proud of his family and of his role in republicanism.
He was also in many ways larger than life, colourful, always in trouble of one sort or another. And not just with his enemies!
Some of you may know of the old song I Was There – that was Martin. On the famous 5 October 1968 march in Derry, he was injured in the baton charges by the RUC, which threw this place for the first time into the media spotlight and exposed the rottenness of the Orange statelet.
He was in Divis Street in ‘69 and in Ardoyne in the pogroms of that time. Martin was imprisoned for the first time, that year, for two months on a charge of riotous behaviour. He was so badly beaten at the time of his arrest that he was given the Last Rites.
In all, he was to receive the Last Rites four times over the next 30 years and all as a result of beatings.
On the last occasion he was badly assaulted I went to see him afterwards. Martin had been viciously beaten, again, and again, and again, by a much younger RUC officer. Every time he was knocked down, Martin got up again. Being a much more squeamish individual, I asked him why he kept getting up. ‘I couldn’t let him beat me,’ he said. In the end, the Peelers had to walk away, while Martin stood bloody but unbroken and unbowed. Martin was in his 50s when this happened – imagine what he was like in his 20s!
Then, he was an IRA Volunteer. If he could speak now he would tell us he is still an IRA Volunteer. He was interned towards the end of 1971 and escaped in December of that year, along with two other prisoners.
In 1972, he was sentenced to three years in Long Kesh for IRA membership, rearrested and interned on his release, and held until the end of internment.
Martin was back again in prison in 1979 and was on hunger strike for 66 days, protesting his innocence. He was released in 1985 – and was back in prison again in 1988 for a 15-year sentence. On his release, Martin campaigned with Saoirse for the release of republican prisoners.
So, even from this brief sketch of Martin’s life it is obvious that his life was a hard one. Yet, in my opinion, he would have chosen no other.
He was also touched by personal tragedy. He and his first wife, Mary, lost one of their children, Seamus, who died when he was six months old. Then, in October 1977, Mary died, leaving Martin with a young family.
But the light came back into his life when, in 1985, he married Briege and found his anam chara. They went on to have Bronagh. Together, Briege and Martin weathered many storms and were standard bearers for Sinn Féin in more than one election. Martin was elected as a local councillor in Antrim Council. And Briege continues to represent us on Newtownabbey Council. These were pioneering electoral initiatives in constituencies dominated by unionism.
Martin was a resolute advocate of Sinn Féin’s peace strategy. He spoke forcefully and passionately at the special Ard Fheis earlier this year in support of our position on engaging with the police.
He was election agent for Mitchel McLaughlin when Sinn Féin won a historic victory in South Antrim a few months later. Martin only narrowly missed winning that seat in a previous election. When we asked him to stand aside in favour of Mitchel, he did so with great generosity.
Both he and Briege were stalwarts of our struggle. Just days before Martin died, I had occasion to phone Briege. She had just been told by the PSNI that she was under death threat. In the week before he died Martin was told of threats from those purporting to be republicans. On the night before his death he was outside his home looking for bombs after a number of bomb threats. I certainly don’t want to raise the temperature on this issue but I think it’s a disgrace that this family should be victimised by those who have no popular support whatsoever and not even the pretence of Martin’s and Briege’s records of activism.
Martin was also heavily involved in writing and producing dramatic pieces. He started this in his last stint in the Blocks and then developed it into street theatre during the many protests of the 1990s.
He was also engrained in local history projects in North Belfast and was especially concerned to raise the profile of working-class struggles.
He was a driving force behind the Shared History Interpretative Project (SHIP), which was and is about maintaining grassroots trade union and community activity to tell the proud history of the deep sea dockers in Belfast port.
Many of you will know that Larkin and Connolly helped organise the Belfast dockers and that Winifred Carney was a pivotal activist in this city. Martin was conscious of all this history.
He was one of the prime movers behind the erection of a marble plaque in recognition of Belfast dockers killed at work or who suffered ill health because of unsafe working conditions.
At the time of his death he was part of the preparation of a cross-community event to be staged next Sunday to commemorate Belfast dockers. This will include poetry, story-telling, songs and ballads about dockers and their families.
When it was a time to wage war, Martin waged war; when it was a time to build peace, Martin built the peace. He was part of the Sinn Féin unionist outreach group. He knew that our engagement with unionism must deepen and broaden in the time ahead. This is especially true here in Belfast.
At community level, in the councils, on voluntary and statutory bodies, in the Assembly, and in many other places, republican activists are meeting unionists every day. Martin Meehan knew that many of them are good people who care deeply and passionately about their community. People who want to see stability, peace and prosperity.
Listening to the news this morning and to parents from Tiger’s Bay, following the death by suicide of a young man from that area, is a stark reminder of what we need to do to ensure our young people have a decent future. Martin Meehan cared deeply about our young people and about working-class communities.
Martin, who was vilified as a terrorist, was a thinking human being who tried to find ways in which we, and unionists, can work together to overcome problems. He was eager to persuade them that their future, their best interests, are better served in a united Ireland.
If you want one sentence to describe Martin’s politics: he was about a united Ireland; he was about a republic; he was about the unity of Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter.
But none of what I have told you takes us to the truth of who Martin Meehan was: father, grandfather, husband, brother, comrade, friend, escapee, political prisoner, IRA freedom fighter, Sinn Féin representative, member of the Belfast National Graves Association, playwright, and local historian.
He also had a great sense of humour. He was a messer and a mixer who loved practical jokes and winding people up. But he himself was as often as much the victim of wind-ups and mixes. He could always tell a story against himself and his humour was childlike in many ways and innocent.
His friends and comrades all have their own stories to tell, and there are lots.
Like many of us, Martin had two families: his republican family and his birth family. And like many of us, the lines between these clans become blurred. In the period ahead we have a duty to stay close to Briege in these difficult times.
For me, and there is a certain irony in this, Martin Meehan is described most accurately by a phrase used by an English writer who was being interviewed about him on the radio over recent days. This man would be no supporter of the republican cause. ‘Martin Meehan,’ he said, ‘remained true to the end’.
A republican legend
THE death occurred on Saturday 3 November at his home in Ardoyne, Belfast, of well-known republican Martin Meehan. He was 62.
Sinn Féin’s Gerry Kelly said on hearing of Martin’s death:
“Republicans everywhere will be saddened by this shocking news. Martin was a republican legend, particularly in Belfast. He will be sadly missed by all of his comrades in Belfast and beyond. On their behalf, I extend heartfelt condolences to Briege and the Meehan family.”
Meehan’s contribution to the republican struggle spanned 45 years. He became a household name following his courageous role in the defence of nationalist areas in Belfast during the pogroms of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Born in 1945, in Ardoyne, Meehan’s father had been imprisoned for republican activities in the 1940s. He left school aged 15 and began working at Belfast Docks. In 1966, Martin joined the Irish Republican Army. During the August 1969 riots in Belfast he was one of a handful of IRA Volunteers who tried to defend nationalist homes from attack.
Arrested in August 1969, he was badly beaten before being imprisoned. The beating was so severe that Meehan was given the last rites. He was released after spending two months in prison.
Following the introduction of internment in August 1971, and with the IRA hitting the British Army hard in North Belfast, Martin Meehan became one of the ‘most wanted’ republicans in the area.
When he was arrested he was viciously beaten by soldiers and needed more than 47 stitches to the back of his head alone. Meehan was imprisoned without charge under the Special Powers Act in Crumlin Road Jail. He and two other IRA Volunteers escaped from prison on 2 December 1971. The men covered themselves in butter in order to keep warm, then hid inside a manhole for six-and-a-half hours before scaling the prison walls, using ropes made from knotted blankets and sheets.
Meehan escaped across the border to Dundalk. On 27 January 1972, he was arrested by the Garda along with seven other republicans following a four-hour cross-border gun battle between the IRA and the British Army. The republicans were arrested in possession of an anti-tank gun and rifles but were acquitted at their trial.
Martin Meehan returned to the Six Counties, where he was arrested on 9 August 1972 and became the first person in the latest phase of conflict in Ireland to be convicted of membership of the IRA. Sentenced to three years’ imprisonment in Long Kesh, he was released on 4 October 1974. Following his release he was again interned without trial and, on 5 December 1975, he was the last to be released after internment had been abolished.
In March 1980, Meehan was sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment, convicted largely on uncorroborated informer evidence that was described even by the judge as “poor quality”. Meehan protested his innocence and began a hunger strike that lasted 66 days, culminating in a thirst strike. His protest ended following the intervention of Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich. In September 1985, Meehan was released from prison.
Sentenced to a further 15 years in March 1988, he was brutally assaulted by prison officers, for which he later received compensation. He was released on 20 January 1994.
Martin Meehan served as a chairperson of Saoirse, the organisation that campaigned for the release of republican prisoners.
He stood in the 1998 Assembly elections in South Antrim, receiving 3,226 votes, and also stood unsuccessfully as a candidate for the South Antrim constituency in the Westminster by-election of 2000 and in the 2001 general election.
On 7 June 2001, Meehan was elected to Antrim Borough Council.
In the 2003 Assembly elections in South Antrim, Martin Meehan lost out by just 181 votes on the final count.
A strong believer in workers’ rights
By Liam McBrinn
Sinn Féin Trade Union Dept.
AS A SOCIALIST, weaned in the policies and objectives of James Connolly, Martin Meehan carried on his family’s formal membership of the ITGWU by following his grandfather, father, uncles and cousins into the Deep Sea Dockers’ Branch in Belfast in 1960.
With a strong belief in workers’ rights and working-class dignity, honed by his republican values, Martin was a natural leader and refused to accept discrimination, exploitation or unfair treatment at work. His full potential as a trade unionist at that time was not fully expressed as other injustices beckoned Martin to another battlefield.
In recent years, Martin was involved with the Sinn Féin Trade Union Department and was the driving force behind the Shared History Interpretative Project (SHIP) in Belfast. Amongst his achievements was the creation of a large commemorative mural at the Dockers’ Social Club in Belfast, literally yards away from the spot where Larkin and Connolly addressed the needs of the Belfast dockers and their families.
Martin took part in many recent engagements between Sinn Féin and trade union representatives. On Martin’s passing, condolences were received from many trade unions, including ICTU, Unite, the National Firefighters’ Committee of SIPTU, the Fire Brigades Union, Belfast Trades Council and the Spanish Civil War Commemoration Committee.
The enthusiasm which Martin brought to the work of the Sinn Féin Trade Union Department and to the cause of workers’ rights will not be forgotten. He was an inspiration to us all.