6 August 2009 Edition
'Proud and indebted'
Chair of Tyrone
H-Blocks Committee, 1981
During the Hunger Strikes of 1980/81, the people of Tyrone turned out in their thousands to try and save the lives of those on hunger strike. At the funeral of Martin Hurson, Tyrone stood still in tribute to a young man who gave his all for the freedom of future generations.
On Sunday 16 August those future generations will stand with those who protested, marched and voted in 1981. This is your opportunity to say to the families of the Hunger Strikers:
‘We remember with pride, the sacrifice, commitment and dedication of those who took up the fight for freedom and justice and denied the British Government their attempt to criminalise the struggle for Irish freedom.’
The years from 1976 to 1981 were lean years in republican politics. Roy Mason, the then Labour Government Secretary of State, attempted to criminalise the republican struggle by ending political status for prisoners convicted of political offences. This led to years of brutality, the savage beatings of prisoners, abuse, hardship and worry for the families.
The British Labour Party leaders like Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have never apologised for those actions.
The people of Tyrone rallied in support of the prisoners’ protests. Relatives’ Action Committees were set up in an attempt to raise awareness of what was happening just off the M1 in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh.
I was honoured by being asked to chair the Tyrone H-Blocks Committee. The H-Blocks Committee met weekly in Carrickmore. We planned a campaign when it became clear that the prisoners could endure no more and were left with no option but to go on hunger strike. The first Hunger Strike ended in confusion with broken promises from the British Government and a lack of will on their behalf to deal with the five demands of the Hunger Strikers.
The 1st of March 1981 was to see Bobby Sands lead a second hunger strike to try and secure the five demands and defeat the British policy of criminalisation. It was clear from the start that Thatcher, the then British Prime Minister, was not going to acknowledge the rights of the prisoners or the wrongs of British occupation in the Six Counties.
Tyrone mobilised like never before. Nightly protests, torchlight processions, rosaries being said on street corners – Tyrone was on the move and you could sense the urgency in the air. Things were tense, fear was rife as loyalists took advantage and continued to murder Catholics at the behest of British masters. Collusion was obvious.
Things were at a very low ebb. Frank Maguire, MP for Fermanagh/South Tyrone, died suddenly. He had been a strong voice for the prisoners.
It was suggested that Bobby Sands should stand for the by-election but there were fears that he may not get a clear run as Austin Currie of the SDLP threatened to stand and block his election. It is to the credit to so many people in Tyrone and Fermanagh that Bobby got a clear run and, despite attempts by Currie, the people of Fermanagh/South Tyrone returned Bobby Sands as their MP.
The Hunger Strike and the prisoners had the endorsement and the mandate. Surely the Brits would have to listen to the voice of the people? But, like so many times in Irish history, the Brits failed to learn their lesson and another opportunity was missed. It must be pointed out that Fermanagh/South Tyrone was probably the only constituency that could at that time ensure the election of Bobby Sands. This was because of the work done in the elections of Frank McManus and Frank Maguire. They had kept the seat nationalist and Bobby Sands had been returned as a prisoner candidate, like Phil Clarke who held the seat for Sinn Féin in the 1950s.
Bobby’s election did give the campaign some hope and other electoral interventions would follow, Louth, and Cavan/Monaghan returning TDs and other Hunger Strikers securing strong mandates, like Martin Hurson in Longford/Westmeath.
During this time, Hunger Strikers were dying and funerals seemed to be unending. It is hard to believe now but there wasn’t time to grieve. From a funeral it was on to a protest. The urgency of the situation was taking its toll on the families and supporters alike as the Free State Government stood idly by. The Hunger Strikers had united republicans as never before and broadened that support throughout Ireland and across the seas.
There is no doubt that the Hunger Strikes were a major turning point in Irish history and led the struggle in a new direction in which everyone, as Bobby Sands said, had a part to play, no matter how small.
We owe a tremendous debt to those ten men who gave their lives so that others may be free.
On Sunday 16 August, thousands will return to Galbally Graveyard to pay tribute at the grave of Martin Hurson and take part in the Hunger Strike Commemoration to Galbally Community Centre in memory of Martin and his nine comrades. Please be there and remember them.
HUNGER STRIKERS: We owe a tremendous debt to those ten men who gave their lives so that others may be free