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8 May 2003 Edition

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Rain no deterrent as hunger strikers are honoured

McGuinness voices republican frustration


Rain could not dampen the spirits of the many thousands who turned out for the annual Hunger Strike commemoration in West Belfast this past Sunday, 4 May.

People from all over the city and across the country gathered together to mark the 22nd anniversary of the death of Bobby Sands and honour the memories and sacrifices of all ten H-Block hunger strikers. Individual parades left from virtually all areas of Belfast before marchers converged on Dunville Park on the Falls Road.

At the rally, Margaret Doherty, the mother of hunger striker Kieran Doherty, sang the lament that immortalises her son. Her voice still ached with the pain of his loss and a respectful hush fell over the crowd as she sang. Young people then read two pieces of poetry penned by Bobby Sands before Martin McGuinness took the stand.

"We have come here today to remember the hunger strikers, to remember them as heroes, as courageous Volunteers, as leaders of the community, as leaders within the prison and as people the British government could not break," McGuinness told the crowd. "We are proud to be here. We are proud to remember them as the heroes and the freedom fighters they were.

"Margaret Thatcher was the British Prime Minister at the time. Margaret Thatcher is now, effectively, a political nonentity. But the name of Bobby Sands and all the other hunger strikers are remembered by freedom loving people all over this world."

Battling a strained voice, Sinn Féin's chief negotiator expressed his frustration with the current political deadlock.

"What we saw this week, in my opinion, was nothing short of a betrayal of the Good Friday agreement," McGuinness said pointedly, "nothing short of a betrayal of the peace process by the British government at the behest of unionist leaders who find it difficult to come to terms with change.

"This week the British Prime Minister, in taking his decision to refuse to hold the elections and make it clear to the Ulster Unionists that they should fight those elections on a pro-Agreement agenda, effectively called a halt to the Good Friday Agreement. And there is anger and there is fury and there is dismay within nationalist and republican Ireland.

"And it is right for us to be so. But our job is not just to be angry. Our job is to be organised.

"We've heard all the nonsense... if Gerry Adams would say 'will' rather than 'should...' and so Gerry Adams says 'will.' And we get bombarded with five more questions. I think that speaks volumes for the mindset of the British establishment."

McGuinness also related the details of a recent meeting in Belfast in which he had told "someone very, very close to the thinking of the Ulster Unionist leadership" that the Sinn Féin leadership was considering how they could be helpful to the Ulster Unionist leadership, what they could do to help the process to go forward.

"Do you know what I was told?" McGuinness asked the crowd. "I was told, 'It really doesn't matter what Gerry Adams says. It really doesn't matter what the IRA does. This Ulster Unionist leadership is not - under any circumstances - going to hold an Ulster Unionist Council meeting in the course of this election campaign.'

"And what that confirmed for me, was a conversation I had some weeks earlier, when I put it directly to David Trimble - I asked him, 'if we get this sorted out, if we can get a resolution to this difficulty, and if you can go to the Ulster Unionist council and give an endorsement from the Ulster Unionist council, will you then resume your ministerial responsibilities between getting the endorsement and holding the election?' And he told me, 'No'.

"So I have been convinced - not just for days, I have been convinced for weeks - that the Ulster Unionist Party never had any intention of fighting these elections. And I believe the British government knew that. I believe the British government effectively capitulated to the leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party.

"And the people who need to provide answers now - is not the leadership of Sinn Féin. It is not the leadership of the IRA. It is the leadership of the British government and the Irish government. They have to tell us how they are going to sort out this mess and get the peace process back on track again."

McGuinness also minced no words as he referred to a recent statement by 26-County Justice Minister Michael McDowell, remarking angrily: "This week we were also hit with the debacle of an Irish government minister telling us that the Irish government tried to be 'honest brokers' within this process. What total and absolute rubbish.

"The Irish government have a duty and a responsibility to uphold the rights and entitlements - and democratic entitlements at that - of Irish citizens who live in the North. And we don't want them to be 'honest brokers.' We don't want them to be 'neutral.' We want them to be on the side of those who are struggling for freedom, justice and peace on this island.

"Since Michael McDowell made that comment I have been listening for someone in the leadership of the Irish government to flatly contradict him, and all I have heard is a deafening silence.

"So I challenge the Taioseach, I challenge the Irish government, to tell us today or tomorrow morning that they are not 'honest brokers,' that they are not 'neutral,' that they are on the side of the peace process, that they are on the side of the Good Friday Agreement, and that they are on the side of Irish citizens in the North."


The optimism of the will


The Bobby Sands Memorial lecture

The 21st Bobby Sands memorial lecture was delivered this year by Sinn Féin West Tyrone Assembly member Barry McElduff to an audience of hundreds in West Belfast.

Among those in attendance were senior republicans of the status of Joe Cahill. Danny Morrison, the former Sinn Féin Director of Publicity, was in the hall, as was Jim Gibney, who played a leading role in the National H Block-Armagh Committee and was a personal friend of Bobby Sands.

McElduff delivered a lecture that was both personal and political, as he reflected on how, as a 15-year-old, he first become aware of the situation in the H Blocks and joined Youth Against the H Blocks in Omagh.

He remembered the Rock against the Block discos and the Rosaries at roadsides as one after another of the Hunger Strikers died.

He recounted how he went from a student who received straight A's in his exams to one who failed four tests he had been certain to pass.

When the headmaster asked him what happened, McElduff replied "the Hunger Strike".

However, for McElduff, the one most important lesson of the Hunger Strike period was the way in which the sight of the IRA colour parties and firing parties at the funerals of the hunger strikers established firmly the legitimacy of the IRA.

Reflecting on the present political situation, McElduff pointed out that "Britain's occupation remains the problem, their interference in Irish affairs and the denial of democracy and national self-determination is the main problem here."

He pointed out that Tony Blair's decision to cancel the Assembly election was in keeping with Britain's attitude to democracy, given that after Bobby Sands was elected for the Fermanagh South Tyrone Constituency, the then government of Margaret Thatcher introduced legislation barring prisoners from standing in elections.

"The decision to cancel the elections has caused great anger. Tony Blair has reinforced the unionist veto and the British have brought us back to the days of the civil rights campaign," said McElduff.

He urged young people to become more active in the struggle and called on older people to make room for the enthusiasm of youth. "We need the optimism of the will to triumph over the pessimism of the intellect," he concluded.


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