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27 September 2001 Edition

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National culmination of Hunger Strike events

JOAN BYRNE of the Dublin '81 Committee urges everyone to participate in the national march and rally in Dublin on Saturday 6 October marking the 20th anniversary of the end of the 1981 hunger strike.


Next week marks the culmination of the year of events throughout Ireland and overseas commemorating and celebrating the legacy of the 1981 hunger strikers. On 3 October that year, the 217-day fast was ended after the deaths of ten young republicans at the hands of an unyielding British government. The prisoners' five demands had not been won but the British policy of criminalisation of political prisoners was in tatters and the political conditions which made possible such a policy had been changed irrevocably.

     
At a time when all forms of political struggle are being branded 'terrorist' by some people, it is important to assert the legitimacy, moral and political, of the Irish struggle for freedom from Terence MacSwiney TD to Kieran Doherty TD, from young Kevin Barry to young Tom McElwee, from Constance Markievicz to Máiréad Farrell
For republicans, October 1981 was a time of mental and physical exhaustion. The events of the summer and autumn had been cataclysmic and it was difficult to comprehend their full implications. There was a huge sense of loss at the death of the prisoners and a burning anger at the British government and its Irish allies, who had either supported Thatcher or stood on the sidelines, ignoring appeals to back the prisoners' five just demands. There was a sense of awe at the scale of the commitment and sacrifice by the prisoners.

Announcing the end of the hunger strike, the H-Block prisoners issued a detailed statement setting out the events of the year since they commenced the first hunger strike in 1980, through the end of that strike, the start of the second in March 1981, the abortive settlement efforts, elections North and South, the agonising deaths of their comrades and the decision to end the protest. They explained that "faced with the reality of sustained family intervention" they were "forced by this circumstance over which we have little control" to end the hunger strike.

As well as outlining the facts, the statement set out what the prisoners called the "political revelations, lessons and consequences" of the hunger strike. Thatcher had ignored the election of Bobby Sands in Fermanagh/South Tyrone, changed the law to prevent other prisoners standing and then ignored the mandate of prisoners' candidate Owen Carron, who won the by-election. "When they are defeated even by their new rules, they ignore the democratically expressed voice of the electorate and thus undermine the entire principle and purpose of using their 'democratic' processes to effect social or political change," said the statement.

But it was for the "present Irish establishment" the prisoners reserved their strongest words. They pointed out that when on 6 August the H-Block men had clarified their five demands and stated that they should apply to all prisoners, political and non-political, the Catholic hierarchy was asked to respond but remained silent. The bishops refused to back the reasonable demands of the prisoners because this would have meant opposing the British government. The prisoners concluded that the hierarchy was "intricately immersed in the field of politics and deceit". Instead of putting pressure on the British government, Catholic clerics "were involved in the back door and public pressure of families to get them to intervene".

"Accessories to murder" was the prisoners' blunt description of the "Dublin bloc of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour". They were accessories "by virtue of the fact that they sat idly by and thus encouraged the British to continue with the death policy".

The prisoners slammed the refusal of the SDLP to withdraw from council chambers in the North in order to help isolate the British administration: "Their whole leadership combined do not possess a fraction of the moral fibre demonstrated so valiantly by our comrades."

It is important to note that the prisoners in no way blamed the families who intervened. They said: "We give special mention to the families who could not bear to watch their loved ones die in pain and agony. We prisoners understand the pressure you were under and stand by you."

Above and beyond the five demands, the prisoners stated their belief that the protests in Long Kesh and Armagh Women's Prison were to "advance the Irish people's right to liberty" and "had politicised a very substantial section of the Irish nation".

The truth of those words was borne out in the months and years that followed. The initial legacy of the hunger strikers was the defeat of criminalisation and a widening and deepening of republican politics. As for their long term legacy - we are still living through it.

The hunger strikers continue to inspire people on a personal level. I am sometimes amazed at the knowledge of many young people about these men and the deep respect they have for them.

On a political level, the hunger strikes demonstrate, more than any other event, the integrity of the republican struggle and its broad support beyond the circle of political activists. Terence MacSwiney, TD and hunger striker, said: "This contest of ours is not, on our side, a rivalry of vengeance, but one of endurance - it is not they who can inflict most, but they who can suffer most, who will conquer." At a time when all forms of political struggle are being branded 'terrorist' by some people, it is important to assert the legitimacy, moral and political, of the Irish struggle for freedom from Terence MacSwiney TD to Kieran Doherty TD, from young Kevin Barry to young Tom McElwee, from Constance Markievicz to Máiréad Farrell.

In Dublin on Saturday 6 October we reach the culmination of the many events which have been held up and down the country and all over the world to honour the hunger strikers. Now more than ever it is important for people to come onto the streets in huge numbers to show our determination to "advance the Irish people's right to liberty" as our hunger strikers did 20 years ago.

 

London hunger strike march postponed



A decision was taken on Wednesday night, 19 September, to postpone the Hunger Strike Commemoration march and rally planned for London on Sunday 23 September.

The Organising Committee in London took the decision following representations from the ``National H Block/Armagh Hunger Strike Commemoration Committee'' based in Ireland. It was felt that the issue of the Ten Hunger Strikers and the reasons for their sacrifice would be lost in the current political climate.

The decision of the organising committee was also based on the police insistence that they would have a massive presence of over 1,000 officers. The committee believed that such an overwhelming police presence would also detract from the memory of the Ten Men.

A rally planned for 7.30 on Tue 23 October in Central Hall, Westminster will go ahead with Tony Benn and Gerry Adams.

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An Phoblacht
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