8 May 2008 Edition
Bobby Sands Memorial Lecture
Linking our struggle
BOBBY STOREY, chairperson of Belfast Sinn Féin, and former Armagh POW Briege Brownlee addressed the 26th Bobby Sands memorial lecture in Belfast last Sunday night, 4 May.
The lecture, which took place on the eve of the 27th anniversary of Bobby Sands’s death, saw up to 200 people pack into the Andersonstown Social club.
Among the crowd in attendance at the lecture was Sinn Féin Junior Minister Gerry Kelly and many former political prisoners such as Séanna Walsh, a close friend of Bobby Sands. Many women prisoners who spent time in Armagh during the protest years were also there.
Briege Brownlee, who was imprisoned in Armagh Jail, spoke in harrowing terms of the brutality meted out to republican women prisoners by prison warders.
She recounted the experiences of the women POWs in Armagh in the aftermath of the British Government’s decision to categorise republicans prisoners as criminals.
As with their male comrades in Long Kesh, republican women who were captured after 1 March 1976 were treated as criminals while their comrades, imprisoned just yards away, were recognised as political prisoners.
Brownlee remembered the difficulties that many women faced while in Armagh and reflected on how the prison authorities forced the women onto a ‘no wash’ protest.
“After one wing search, in 1980, we were locked up with no toilet facilities. We didn’t embark on the protest lightly but we had to be up to the challenge – and we were.
“It was a terrible time but in a strange way it was a brilliant time. As a group of prisoners we had nothing but each other and the friendships and comradeships that were forged in that period will last a lifetime.”
At the end of 1980, three women – Mairéad Farrell, Mary Doyle and Mairéad Nugent – joined their comrades on the first hunger strike on their own fast. After 19 days the women ended their hunger strike as the H-Block Hunger Strike ended and the confusion that followed was replaced by the knowledge that, once again, the British Government had reneged on its commitments to end the prison protests honourably.
Speaking of 1981 and the effects of the hunger strike on the women, Brownlee talked of how difficult it was for the women as they felt frustrated and powerless.
“Dolores O’Neill, from south Derry, was engaged to Tom McElwee. She visited Tom while he was near death.
“When she returned, her cell was packed. We realised Tom didn’t have long to live and wanted to be close to Dolores and through her to him.
“What Bobby and the others who died gained is what has led us to where we are today.
“The criminalisation policy did not succeed and the prisoners came out heartbroken for lost comrades but unbroken as republicans.”
Briege Brownlee also spoke in harrowing terms about what she described as “the most vicious weapon in the prison arsenal” – strip searching. She said:
“Strip searching was used to degrade, control and humiliate women. At no time was there a security reason for these searches.
“These searches have always been likened to rape.
“Strip searches did not break the Armagh and Maghaberry prisoners; nor did having to leave their children behind; nor did the beatings or living in filth break them. These only made us stronger and the memory of our comrades only served to motivate us”.
Bobby Storey linked the strategies used by the POWs in the H-Blocks to the approach that republicans are using in today’s conditions as they tackle important issues such as policing.
Storey had been imprisoned on a number of occasions during the 1970s, including a period of internment in the early 1970s. He was also on remand in 1976 but was released when the charges he faced were dropped.
In 1981, at the height of the Hunger Strike, Storey and two others, Dermot Finucane and Brendy Shannon, were captured and charged with attempting to kill a British soldier. The following year, the trio were sentenced to 18 years’ imprisonment and were sent to the H Blocks.
Storey recounted how, in the immediate aftermath of the Hunger Strike, the H-Blocks were still a site of struggle.
“If the British Government believed they had delivered a fatal blow to the moral of the republican POWs incarcerated in Long Kesh they were wrong. Even though ten men had died on hunger strike the prisoners were not defeated.
“The POWs decided to end the Blanket Protest but continued their No Work Protest and with the ability to organise themselves they came up with strategies devised to achieve the outstanding demands of the hunger strikers”.
Storey outlined how republican POWs infiltrated the so-called ‘working Blocks’, which housed mostly loyalists, undermined their structures and forced them onto a protest.
“This effectively brought about segregation. Once segregation was achieved we were able to organise ourselves and plan activities that reflected our outlook as republican political prisoners.
“We recognised that the prison regime wanted to keep us boxed in but we knew that we could go into the system and wreck it from within.
“So we planned for the 1983 escape knowing that we would deliver the biggest body-blow ever to the British attempt at criminalising Irish republicanism.
“The prison authorities believed that our decision to ‘comply with prison rules’ was a victory for them but we exploited the weaknesses in the system.
“The 1983 escape represented the victory of Irish republican prisoners over the brutality of the H-Block system.
“Bobby Sands wrote that the British saw the H-Blocks as the breaker’s yard for republicans but the prisoners turned their arrogance on its head.
“The courage of the hunger strikers, the strategies we used to undermine authority, and the ingenuity of our planning and execution of the escape not only destroyed criminalisation but put the struggle onto the international stage, where the British didn’t want it.
“And the lessons we learned in those days are similar to the lessons we applied in our political negotiations with the British over the years since the 1994 cessation. They thought that once we went into the political arena we would be at a disadvantage but our negotiators were equal to the challenges.
“Even at present, when we deal with the PSNI we bring our experience from the jails to bear. We know they are uncomfortable with the fact that republicans are setting the agenda on policing. We are in their space and they don’t like it.”
Bobby Storey concluded by telling the audience that republicans are in a stronger position now because of our history of struggle and our revolutionary ability to move through difficult situations and come out the other side in a better position.
“That was the lesson of the H-Block and Armagh struggle and that is what frames our thinking as we approach future obstacles.”
An Phoblacht Magazine
AN PHOBLACHT MAGAZINE:
- The first edition of this new magazine will feature a 10 page special on the life and legacy of our leader Martin McGuinness to mark the first anniversary of his untimely passing.
- It will include a personal reminiscence by Gerry Adams and contributions from the McGuinness family.
- There will also be an exclusive interview with our new Uachtarán Mary Lou McDonald.