22 February 2001 Edition
Stagg's sacrifice honoured
Several hundred people attended the 25th anniversary Volunteer Frank Stagg commemoration in Ballina, County Mayo, last Sunday, 18 February. Frank Stagg died after 62 days on hunger strike in Wakefield Prison, England, on 12 February 1976. The parade was led by a band and colour party from Newry, County Down.
The march wound its way from Ballina town centre to the republican plot at Leigue Cemetery, where Stagg and his comrade Michael Gaughan, who died due to force feeding while on hunger strike in England in 1974, are both buried.
Vincent Wood, Sinn Féin candidate for Mayo, addressed the crowd.
``We are here at this republican plot to reflect on the sacrifice that Frank Stagg made for the principle that we all hold dear,'' he said, ``those of the breaking of the connection with England, of equality and liberty and the realisation of the republic that we have been working for since it was declared on the steps of the GPO in 1916.
``We are also remembering that this year we are commemorating the 20th anniversary of the 1981 hunger strike. Those men and women who bravely took the decision to go on hunger strike in 1980 and 1981 did so knowing that just four years or so previously, Frank Stagg had died after a fast of 62 days. The conditions he was kept in, the trauma surrounding his burial and the disgraceful actions of the 26 County government in refusing him the right to a republican funeral would have been fresh in their minds.
``Republicans in Mayo gave Frank Stagg the burial he deserved. They had to wait until the opportunity presented itself, but they did what Mayo republicans are known for. They delivered.
``Frank Stagg and his contempories in those English jails fought that system and when I came to prison in 1992, I have to say that my time in English jails was made more tolerable because of the actions of those republican prisoners who had endured the regime of the 1970s and 1980s. They had won the respect of the ordinary non-political prisoners there and the awe of the prison establishment.
``People like Sean Kinsella from Clones, Vincent Donnelly from Tyrone, the Balcombe Street Four and many others had a profound influence on me and I consider myself very lucky to have been in their company during my imprisonment.
``Those struggles in English prisons, the deaths of Frank Stagg and Michael Gaughan, the 1981 martyrs and all of the struggles inside and outside of prison are part of a continuous and determined progression of struggle that has influenced the direction that this fight for freedom has subsequently taken. We are continually having to progress the struggle - to change and adopt tactics, to engage with political foes in negotiations or at elections or through the media. Whatever the medium, we have the collective experience of all the forms of struggle we have used and we continue to take a strategic approach to achieve our objectives.
``Frank Stagg was a man of principle. He was prepared to die for those principles and at a time when there is evidence of corruption and bad practice in Irish politics, it is fitting to reflect there are those who have taken and continue to take a political stand without expecting personal gain.
``Here in Mayo, we are building Sinn Féin and working to influence political life here. We are making steady progress and I believe that we are impacting on political life here. There will be a 26-County election sometime within the next year or so, perhaps as early as the summer.
``We know that Fianna Fáil are in disarray here. North Mayo in particular remains underdeveloped and badly represented and the fifth seat in Mayo is likely to be hotly contested and could be picked up for a relatively small number of first preferences. I believe that there is a seat up for grabs. More and more people are expressing disillusionment with the two-party system that has returned representatives from this county for over 70 years. Our challenge here is to offer the alternative. I am very proud to have been selected to stand for Sinn Féin here in Mayo and it important that republicans here today know that with hard, focused work, we can actually take that seat. The impact of a Sinn Féin TD in Mayo would be enormous.''
Sinn Féin TD Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin delivered the Frank Stagg memorial lecture, held afterwards at the Deanwood Hotel.
Fighting all the way
The prison struggle in England recalled
In an interview with An Phoblacht's ROISIN DE ROSA, republican former prisoner Billy Armstrong talks about his experience of jail in the 1970s in England. He tells of the hostility of other prisoners and screws, of atrocious conditions, hunger strike and forced feeding, efforts to escape, rooftop protest. He also shares his memories of his comrade Frank Stagg, who died on hunger strike in England 25 years ago.
``What was jail like in England in the `70s? Conditions were really rough. We had nothing. Absolutely nothing.
We all got arrested on 8 March, 1973. We went from Ealing Police Station to Brixton. It was a showpiece every week going to the Horseferry Road Court. Motorcade, sirens, just a show piece.
They decided we wouldn't get a fair trial in London, which of course was nonsense. So they took us to be tried in Winchester. Here the jury goosestepped. They were all ex-Brits. They found us guilty of everything: conspiracy to cause explosions; actually causing explosions; bringing explosives into the country. They weren't taking any chances. The judge wanted a couple of days to think about the sentence.
In fact he didn't think about it at all, it was just so that Princess Anne and Mark Phillips could get married on the front pages. When he came back to sentence us, he gave us two life sentences and then 30 years on the importing explosives charge. In fact, he hadn't bothered to find out that he could only give us a maximum of 20 years on this.
We all went on hunger strike. Me and Paul Holmes were sent to Bristol. There was a German woman doctor. I got infectious sores on my back, from the hunger strike. She squeezed them. `There is the evil coming out of you,' she said.
I was sent to Parkhurst after several weeks on hunger strike. It was to force feed us. They put us over a low table. They had a tool like scissors back to back. When they got your lips open, they rammed it into your mouth and prized your jaws apart. Then they got a rubber plug in through which they got the tube in. They rammed that down your throat. It must have been for a foot or so.
They were supposed to put glycerine on the end, or something to get the tube to go down easy. But they didn't. Instead, they had the tube cut at an angle, so it was sharp. When they took it out it would come back with a lot of blood. After a few weeks I went on thirst strike as well. Then I heard the hunger strike was over. I came off the hunger strike only to find out that it wasn't over at all. I went back on. I went from 12 stone to eight and a half stone.
They resumed force feeding me. I spewed it all up again, and they wanted to feed this back down the tube. I felt as though I might as well die killing them bastards. At least if I died, I'd have killed one of them first. I was later moved to Long Lartin. Frank Stagg was there too, though he was on a different wing. We only met for exercise. We'd walk around the yard together.
He was a very serious minded person, a republican to the core. No deviations. He was very vociferous in his arguments. We'd talk about the political situation, and then about prison conditions. We discovered not only were they strip-searching us before visits, but they were doing the same to our visitors. It was only to humiliate us. The screws were on top of you during the visits anyway.
We told the prison governor that we weren't going to be stripping and our visitors weren't to be touched. He sent for us, and proposed we could have a locker, and only we would have the key to it, where we could leave a suit of clean clothes for visits, and we could get into these to go on visits.
He must have thought we were stupid or something. Frank suggested a hunger strike. He was a very very tough wee man.
Frank was a few weeks into a hunger strike and me and a Dublin man, Tony Keegan, had plans to escape. A lot of pickets and protests started, people coming to the jail in support of Frank. It drew a lot of extra security round the jail. It was hard. I couldn't tell Frank about the escape, but in the end I had to, and I asked him to come off it. He did.
In the end we didn't get away. After nights of pouring rain and no patrols in the yard, the night we were to go was a lovely fine night. The dog patrols were out. I had to scramble up over a pile of coal. The dog caught the scent and we were discovered. I was moved to Albany, and Frank and I lost touch. Our only contact then was through visitors.
I was in Gartree when I learned that Frank Stagg had died on hunger strike. A couple of screws made a laugh in front of another English prisoner, Adrian Brown. He chinned one of the screws straight out. Another two screws had laughed too. I went for them while the other cons held the other screws back. There was a lot of solidarity amongst the cons. But the times of hunger strike were very hard for people in other jails.
I remember in Brixton, when we were all on remand, the screws were messing about on how they let us out for exercise, so we ended up with much less than the full hour. We told them to give us the full hour, and we went on a no clean-up protest. They hated that because they had to bring other prisoners onto our wing to do it, and that put us in touch with messages and so on. The governor was passing down the landing to go down the stairs. There was a mop bucket left at the top. I threw the bucket over him. I was sent down for seven days `punishment', but it was worth it.
You had to fight all the way. I survived because they knew I would do what I said I would do. After all, we had nothing to lose. At the end of the day there were two sorts of screws: the ones who were frightened of you, and the ones that pretended to like you. But at the end of the day they bottled out from fear that you would kill one of them before they got to you. The screws often set us up for other prisoners, but at the end of the day they hadn't really the bottle for it.
At the time of the Hunger Strike in Long Kesh, me and Martin Coughlan and Paul Norney got up on the roof of Parkhurst and did £4 million-worth of damage. We wrecked the roof and flooded a brand new laundry they had put in. We were up there for a couple of days. The roof was really slippery. You had to take your boots off to get a grip. It was freezing.
The governor wanted to come up to us on the roof. He had thrown a con off the roof, breaking his legs, in another jail protest elsewhere. He was welcome to come onto the roof. We had nothing to lose, after all. As it was, he didn't. We were throwing bricks, scaffolding, everything down on them. We got six months in the blocks. I was still able to help Martin Coughlan get his Open University maths degree - that was easy.''
Frank Stagg's memorial will be peace with justice
Sinn Féin TD for Cavan/Monaghan Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin delivered the Volunteer Frank Stagg 25th Anniversary Memorial Lecture in Ballina, County Mayo, last Sunday, 18 February. The following is an edited version of that address.
Frank Stagg's lonely death in an English prison cell 25 years ago this week is part of the yet-to-be-written history of an epic struggle. Prisoners were in the front line of that struggle and there was no more dangerous and lonely prison for an Irish republican than one in England in the 1970s and 1980s. The story of that time is a catalogue of torture, hunger strike, force-feeding, isolation, repeated moving from prison to prison.
For the relatives of the prisoners it was an equally agonising ordeal. I want to pay tribute on this occasion to all those throughout Ireland who supported the political prisoners and provided vital assistance and comfort to their families.
Frank Stagg and his comrades could expect no quarter from the British authorities but history must record the shameful role of members of the medical profession and of the Catholic clergy. Just before Frank began his hunger strike he was placed in the punishment cell in Wakefield Prison and had to lie without mattress or bedclothes. He complained to the Chief Medical Officer Doctor Taylor. Frank later wrote to his mother: ``I was told that I could rest quite well on the bed, which is a steel wire mesh. The good doctor informed me that his little daughter sleeps on the floor when she is tired.''
During Frank's earlier hunger strike, doctors had participated in forcibly feeding him, as they did in the fatal forced feeding of Michael Gaughan.
On the 51st day of Frank's final hunger strike he was denied Sunday Mass by the prison chaplain Fr. William Byrne on the orders of the Bishop of Leeds, Dr. Wheeler.
It is a remarkable fact that Frank Stagg was the third Irish republican from County Mayo to die on hunger strike. He followed Seán McNeela from Ballycroy, who died under the De Valera government in Mountjoy Prison in 1940, and Frank's friend and comrade Michael Gaughan from this town of Ballina, who died in Parkhurst Prison in June 1974.
The names of Michael Gaughan and Frank Stagg will be forever linked and they are as much part of the proud history of this county as the United Irish forces who joined General Humbert in 1798 or the Mayo flying columns who fought against the Black and Tans.
Thomas Ashe, who died from force-feeding by the British in Mountjoy in 1917 was a Volunteer in the same Republican Army as Michael Gaughan who died from force-feeding in 1974 and Frank Stagg, who died after 62 days on hunger strike in 1976. Attempts to portray those who participated in an earlier phase of struggle as heroes and those who participated since 1969 as terrorists are false and futile. History will judge them so, and these men and women will continue to hold equal place in the affections of Irish people.
Frank Stagg and Michael Gaughan were motivated by the most selfless of motives. They saw what the division of Ireland and the unjust political and economic systems in both states had done to our people. Frank made the decision to act in accordance with his conscience and his political beliefs and saw in Irish Republicanism the path to freedom for all the Irish people.
Contrast the motivation and the selflessness of men and women like Frank Stagg with the self-serving attitude of successive Dublin governments. At a time when the British were imposing internment without trial the Dublin government was reactivating its draconian legislation to imprison republicans. It used media censorship, garda harassment and victimisation of individuals in their workplaces and homes. Republicans were non-people in the eyes of many in the political establishment here.
Anyone who doubts that this was the case need only recall the role of the Dublin government after the death of Frank Stagg. The British tried to demonise him in life. The Fine Gael/Labour Coalition government tried to demonise him in death. In the catalogue of shame which was the record of successive Dublin governments with regard to the national question there is no grimmer chapter than that which tells of the hijacking of the body of Frank Stagg and his burial under concrete by gardaí on the orders of the Cabinet.
Fighting for status
Less than a month after the death of Frank Stagg the British government began a new attempt to criminalise all republican prisoners. They ended political status on 1 March 1976 and opened the H-Blocks of Long Kesh. As the Dublin government buried Frank Stagg in a concrete grave the British government hoped to bury Irish republicanism in the concrete tomb of the H-Blocks. This would lead ultimately to the second H-Block hunger strike, the 20th anniversary of which we commemorate this year. The spirit and the resolve of Gaughan and Stagg and of the ten men who died in 1981 were expressed in the words of Bobby Sands in his prison diary:
``Ní bhrisfidh said mé mar tá fonn saoirse, agus saoirse mhuintir na hÉireann i mo chroí.''
``They won't break me because the desire for freedom, and the freedom of the Irish people, is in my heart.''
This is where we, as republicans, come from. This is what still motivates us. The hunger strikes were a time of political change comparable to 1916. For many people, myself included, they also marked a personal watershed, after which nothing would be the same again. I was privileged to be Director of Elections for Kieran Doherty in the campaign which saw Kieran elected TD for Cavan/Monaghan and Paddy Agnew in Louth. I delivered the oration at Kieran's funeral and will never forget the sorrow and dignity of his parents Alfie and Margaret. Nor will I forget the support we received from people in every town, village and townland throughout Cavan/Monaghan. That support was replicated all around the country and among the Irish and friends of Ireland throughout the world.
The anniversaries we mark in 2001 are important in the process of political education of young people. Despite the greed and cynicism we see about us in our `mé féin' society, there are many people, young and old, who seek the idealism and the ideas which Irish republicanism has to offer. They in turn can bring their own contribution to our struggle.
The growth and development of Sinn Féin in County Mayo, formerly not a strong county for Sinn Féin, is most encouraging and I pay tribute in particular to Vincent Wood for the work he is doing. In this County as elsewhere throughout this state Sinn Féin is offering a real alternative to the two stale conservative parties who have dominated political life for far too long. Vincent will be the standard bearer for Sinn Féin in the Mayo constituency in the next general election.
No issue better demonstrates the need for a real political alternative in County Mayo than the way in which our natural resources have been squandered by the Dublin government. The enormous supply of natural gas found in the Corrib field off the west coast belongs by right to the Irish people. Yet a private consortium, led by Enterprise Oil and Gas, has been allowed by this government and its predecessors to reap the benefit with the lowest taxes and with no royalties from this massive bonanza accruing to the State. And to add insult to injury the company wishes to pump the gas straight to Dublin for speedy export to the most profitable markets. This is intolerable and the very least that must be required of the private consortium is that the gas supply is made available on a grid serving North Connacht and Ulster.
Just as our natural resources have been mismanaged so also has the economic prosperity which sections of this island now enjoy. I say sections because the reality is that we still live in a divided country. Economic development is not fairly distributed among the regions. Prosperity is most certainly not distributed fairly among our people as a whole. Sinn Féin social and economic policy is about Sharing the Wealth and on that basis we will contest the forthcoming general election.
The political division of our country remains in place. To end that division, to unite Ireland and to achieve complete freedom remains the fundamental aim of Irish republicans. Frank Stagg asked in his last message that his memorial should be ``Peace with Justice''. And there cannot be real peace without justice. At every stage in our building of the peace process we in Sinn Fein have made clear that rights, equality and justice must be the cornerstones of peace. That theme is repeated in our ongoing negotiations to have the Good Friday Agreement implemented. There cannot be real peace without demilitarisation, without a new non-sectarian and politically neutral police service and without equal respect for all electoral mandates.
For too long in this process republicans have been taken for granted. The very difficult compromises which we made have been disregarded. Much political and media attention has been paid to the difficulties of David Trimble and the Unionist Party. The entire Agreement and the process of its implementation have been warped to accommodate unionist opposition to the Agreement. It is totally unacceptable to republicans that almost three years after Good Friday 1998 we have an Agreement that is only partially implemented and a process which is limping from crisis to crisis. Many republicans feel a deep sense of frustration. I share their disquiet.
Throughout the struggle there have been efforts to lower the expectations of republicans. Our enemies have attempted to demoralise and divide us. Their most earnest wish is that we would walk away from the struggle for freedom, justice and peace. There are still many who harbour that wish. They are in for a disappointment. No matter how great the difficulties of the peace process we are in this for the long haul. We are committed to this process because it is a process of change and we are a party of change. We will not allow the hope and the promise and the potential of this process to be whittled away. We will not allow those who resist change - be they within unionism, the British establishment or sections of the Irish establishment - to lower our expectations.
Our destination is freedom and we are guided by those like Frank Stagg whose sacrifice was a milestone on our long journey. We will build his memorial of peace with justice.''