28 May 2009 Edition
Kevin Lynch, the H-Block Hunger Strike and the seeds of change
TWENTY-EIGHT years ago, on 1 August 1981, Kevin Lynch died on hunger strike in the H-Blocks, Long Kesh. Kevin had been on hunger strike for 71 days. He was just 25 years of age. Last Monday would have been Kevin’s 53rd birthday.
Joint First Minister Martin McGuinness was in Park, County Derry, on Sunday night to pay tribute to the young sportsman and heroic republican and the onus on us to fulfill the legacy that Kevin and his fellow Hunger Strikers left us.
KEVIN LYNCH was the seventh Hunger Striker to die.
The 1981 Hunger Strike was the culmination of a battle that had begun many years earlier, a political battle during which the hundreds of republican POWs in Armagh Prison and the H-Blocks who refused to accept the badge of criminalisation had to endure indescribable torture and brutality.
The Hunger strike was a republican response to the British Government’s attempt to criminalise our struggle and to criminalise our objectives.
When the Hunger Strike ended, British criminalisation policy was in shreds, albeit at enormous cost to the prisoners, their families and the entire republican community.
At that point it was British rule in Ireland that was exposed as a criminal act. Maggie Thatcher and her government were reviled, while Kevin Lynch and his comrades were revered.
Kevin Lynch could have been any one of the young people gathered here this evening.
In his own words, Kevin was “mad about sport and liked history a lot”. And those two words – sport and history – seem to best sum up the way that many of us think about Kevin.
In life, he excelled at Gaelic games, both locally and for County Derry, and he had the medals to prove it. His most treasured win came when he captained the county to victory in the All-Ireland Under-16 Hurling Final at Croke Park.
Yet his death, and the deaths of his comrades in 1981, was indeed a watershed moment in Irish history like no other.
The sacrifice of Kevin Lynch and his comrades – their determination and their spirit – has been printed indelibly on our history like no other event. For the impact of the Hunger Strike went beyond what they had set out to do.
The Hunger Strikers had sown the seeds of significant change in the republican struggle. The election of political prisoners sent shockwaves through the political establishment in Ireland and Britain. And it injected a political momentum into republicanism that would, in the years ahead, transform the nature of republican resistance and the liberation struggle.
It began a process which eventually opened up a new road for republicans in pursuit of our objectives: a road that led to the creation of an entirely new set of political systems on this island designed to provide for peaceful and democratic change, and underpinned by a binding commitment to equality and human rights – including the all-Ireland Ministerial Council and the inclusive power-sharing Assembly.
Sometimes when people like me talk about institutions like the Assembly or the all-Ireland Ministerial Council it all seems very remote from the lives of grassroots republicans. So let me give you a flavour of how the Assembly works.
Every Monday morning our entire Assembly team gathers for a weekly meeting – MLAs, political advisers, press officers, political management, cúige officers, ministers, local area managers and others. We update each other on developments, discuss the direction of issues and negotiations, and plan and prepare the approach to the week’s work.
It’s all tied into the cúige and Assembly workplans, and our party’s overall strategic objectives.
And every Monday morning, without fail, I look around that room and I see former Hunger-Strikers and freedom fighters staring back at me. People like Leo Green or Raymond McCartney or Jackie McMullan who were, like Kevin Lynch, literally prepared to give up their lives on hunger strike for justice in the jails.
People like Seán Lynch or Alex Maskey or Gerry Adams who carried the burden of the freedom struggle and who still bear the scars of the battle. People like Martina Anderson or Sinead Walsh; people like Carál Ní Chuilín or Jennifer McCann or Mary McArdle, all of whom endured the brutality of state-approved strip-searching in prison and yet who maintained their republican dignity – and their good humour.
People like Gerry Kelly or Bobby Storey. People like Conor Murphy or Padraic Wilson or Seán Murray, who helped lead the Long Kesh prisoners and who took the entire system apart – block by block – from the inside out.
People like Francie Brolly, a civil rights veteran and former internee, or Francie Molloy, a veteran of Caledon and the civil rights struggle.
And there are dozens of other equally brilliant comrades in our team – older and younger, men and women alike.
So when you see the Assembly on TV, or look at Gerry Adams or Bairbre de Brún or myself in the media, always remember this: standing at our shoulders are the women and the men who stood at the front of the struggle when there was no alternative option but war, and who – when the time was right – had the courage and commitment and skills to create the new phase of peaceful and democratic change into which we have successfully led this society.
These are the comrades – along with all of you and thousands of other comrades across the rest of the island – who are collectively driving forward the Irish republican struggle today in the Six Counties – both inside, and outside, of the power-sharing Assembly at Stormont.
I recognise that there are a small number on the fringe of republicanism who feel disaffected from the current phase of the freedom struggle. None of this is easy, and we understand and appreciate that this new phase has brought difficult challenges for everyone.
There are other wreckers who are seeking to exploit tiny pockets of disaffection by promoting destructive attacks on the Peace Process, and in particular physical attacks against Sinn Féin representatives.
Such wreckers are counter-revolutionary and they merely feed the out-dated and unwanted agenda of rejectionist unionists and old guard British securocrats.
Sinn Féin will not accept – nor will we tolerate – anyone seeking to destroy or destabilise the growing momentum towards Irish unity and national equality which we have developed through the Peace Process. But that message doesn’t merely go out to those small factions on the edge of republicanism.
It also goes out – more importantly – to those in the leadership of the unionist political class and their ideological counterparts in the British system who have yet to fully embrace the equality agenda.
We need to remember that the unionist political class described the emergence of the Peace Process and the IRA cessation of August 1994 as the most destabilising development since partition for the Six-County status quo.
That was the Ulster Unionist Party, 15 years ago. The Democratic Unionist Party are now the leaders of that unionist political class.
And it is a fact that they too have found the demands of the Peace Process to be a challenging experience.
In particular, the last two years have witnessed the DUP:–
• Being brought into an inclusive power-sharing Executive – with Sinn Féin;
• Being brought into the daily operations of the all-Ireland Ministerial Council – with Sinn Féin; and,
• Being brought into the joint First Ministers’ office – with Sinn Féin.
And the foundation for all of this has been the political arrangements, based on absolute equality, which were negotiated by Sinn Féin over a decade ago in the Good Friday Agreement. Until two years ago, the DUP told everyone they would never accept such an outcome and that they would bury the Good Friday Agreement. So the DUP have found out a big lesson in the last two years: when Sinn Féin negotiate, we deliver.
And, what’s more, we’re prepared to play a long hand – we don’t do short-termism and we’re not into ‘stroke’ politics. Our agenda is too serious and our objectives are too important for any of that.
Some within unionism see developments as negative. They fear the promotion of partnership and equality. But they are wrong. The developments of the last two decades, and the potential of the next two decades, are taking this society on a journey towards the Ireland of equals which was aspired to by the Presbyterian republican idealists of the United Irishmen over two centuries ago. This is the political reality for unionism.
In the time ahead the best option for unionists is, I believe, to join – as equal and influential participants – in the onward march towards all-Ireland unity and national reconciliation.
Yes, some within unionism are working to slow up progress. Some may veto certain short-term issues.
There are clearly some senior members of the DUP – and some in the Civil Service and British system – who miss playing the ‘Orange Card’. Others think that they can start to reverse the template of the Good Friday Agreement, with its all-inclusive power-sharing structures, its accountable political institutions, and its bedrock of equality and human rights for all. My message to them is clear: the old ways are gone – never to return.
The dice are no longer loaded in favour of ‘big house unionism’. Clearly, some senior unionists don’t like that fact.
But the hard lesson of the Peace Process is that – some day soon – even the Afrikaner wing of unionism will be brought to a place it never wanted to be. My strong preference, and that of the Sinn Féin leadership, is that all sections of the DUP – and indeed unionism – will now embark fully on the pathway to equal partnership, and a future of national unity and national reconciliation in Ireland.
For unionists, that pathway starts in recognising and embracing the equality agenda in Stormont and the other Good Friday Agreement institutions. The alternative to partnership and equality with Sinn Féin is deadlock and stasis.
All of our people deserve better than that.
They deserve the transfer of policing and justice powers.
They deserve to have full confidence in the partnership approach of those leading the political institutions.
I understand that this process presents enormous challenges for unionists, particularly their political leadership.
Together with the collective republican leadership, I have been at the forefront of the process of change on this island for over 20 years. I know what it means to take political risks and embrace political transformation.
Some unionists may be concerned about their political reputations. But the republican leadership has risked far more than reputation to bring about the Peace Process and provide the opportunity for peaceful political progress which has now opened up. Many of us have in the past – and continue in the present – to put our lives on the line because we are determined to ensure that all of our children will never again have to face the indignity of institutionalised inequality and the terrible outcomes of armed conflict. The long-term benefits of such a step forward by the DUP – for this entire society – would far outweigh the short-term risks that make them lose their nerve.
I am appealing to unionism to stand with us and work with us in building a society of equals. It’s now time for the leaders of political unionism – currently the DUP – to join with Sinn Féin in hammering home the keystone of equality and cementing the bridge of hope to tomorrow’s new dawn of national reconciliation and national unity. We are currently in the middle of an important European election, with Bairbre de Brún as an outstanding Sinn Féin representative once again seeking election.
All republicans, democrats and progressive elements need to be backing Bairbre’s campaign with their votes on 4 June.
However, in less than a fortnight, it will be back to basics at the Assembly. Our Monday morning team meetings will once again be dominated by pushing Sinn Féin’s all-Ireland and equality agendas, and overcoming the obstacles created by the approach of other parties.
And as I look around the room, I will think about this tremendous occasion today - how far we’ve all come in the blink of a lifetime, and what will be achieved in the next few years. I’ll recall Kevin Lynch, his huge struggle and sacrifice – and that of his family. I’ll fill myself with pride at the calibre and the courage of the republican people – people like all of you. And I’ll have absolute confidence that the road we’re on will take us to the Republic.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh. Beirigí bua.
FLORAL TRIBUTE: Johnny Donaghy – brother of Sinn Féin activist Tom Donaghy, shot dead by loyalists – carries a wreath