14 July 2011
1981 HUNGER STRIKE 30th ANNIVERSARY | LONDON CONFERENCE
A Turning Point in History
» BY JAYNE FISHER
MARKING the 30th anniversary of the Hunger Strike, one of the most important and courageous struggles to have taken place anywhere in history, anywhere in the world, saw London’s Irish Centre packed on June 18th at a conference to mark this turning point in history. The event was organised by Sinn Féin to remember the Hunger Strike and to put it in its wider political and international context.
The day heard moving and poignant contributions to mark what Fidel Castro described in 1981 as “one of the most heroic chapters in human history”.
Sinn Féin Mayo Councillor Rose Conway Walsh chaired the first session on the impact and significance of the Hunger Strike.
Opening the conference, Brendan ‘Bik’ McFarlane, the Officer Commanding the IRA prisoners in Long Kesh during the Hunger Strike, gave a moving, unique and detailed insight into what happened within the jail. Setting the tone for the day, Bik outlined the stakes involved and how there was a clear political understanding of what was necessary.
It was clear that the British Government’s ‘criminalisation’ policy was central to its entire strategy in Ireland: by criminalising the prisoners the whole struggle became criminalised. And so the stakes for both the British Government and Irish republicans were immense. Ultimately, the British Government was defeated but this took the lives of ten men in the course of the struggle.
Bik spoke of the importance of the prisoners’ families, their quiet dignity and strength, in the face of immense pressure.
During his detailed and extraordinary account of what took place, the audience sat in rapt silence, many near to tears and struck by the magnitude and heroism of those involved, and with a feeling that this was indeed a unique and privileged occasion to hear so directly about such a key moment in history.
Sinn Féin MEP Bairbre de Brún spoke from her own involvement in the anti-H Block/Armagh Committee about the development of the solidarity movement outside the prison. She outlined how a huge coalition developed, based on the simple demand of supporting those who wanted the inhuman condition of the prisoners to end. She pointed to the huge protest activity on the streets, and how it was met with outright violence from the British state, such as the use of 16,500 plastic bullets in just one month.
Former British Labour Party MP Kevin McNamara analysed how the Hunger Strike impacted within the British state and how some voices, like his own, refused to go along with the British imperialist agenda, like Labour spokespersons Don Concannon and Merlyn Rees. His insight revealed how leading ppoliticians - including some in the South of Ireland - were clearly affected by the mass mobilisations.
Journalist Roy Greenslade spoke about the British media distortion about the Hunger Strike at the time, a key part of the propaganda war being to attempt to defeat what was happening (see his article on Page 20 of this issue). He pointed out that such lies still prevail today, including a concerted right wing campaign prevalent in many online debates on the comment pages. He urged people to challenge this aspect.
US-based academic and writer Professor Christine Kinealy gave a detailed account of events leading up to and after 1981, pointing to the subsequent rise of Sinn Féin and the Peace Process, underlining how the magnitude of the Hunger Strike was greater than anyone could have envisaged at the time.
How 1981 shook the world, and the international impact of the Hunger Strike in breaking the isolation of the prisoners, formed the theme of the second panel discussion, chaired by Stephen Bell.
A legendary leader of the struggle to defeat apartheid, Ronnie Kasrils, gave an inspiring and incisive account of how the South African movement learned from the Irish struggle and vice versa. Quoting James Connolly on why “the cause of Ireland is the cause of labour and the cause of labour is the cause of Ireland”, he argued that the national and social struggles were and are indivisible. He spoke of the worldwide struggle against imperialism and how alliances and common links are absolutely vital.
Former French MEP Francis Wurtz, who chartered a plane to travel to Belfast to attend Bobby Sands’s funeral, related the impact across Europe. This, along with the wider international ramifications, helped overcome the idea that the prisoners were isolated. In fact, it was the Thatcher Government in Britain that became isolated and despised for its actions.
Writer and activist on Palestine and the Middle East, Kevin Ovenden, related how the whole of the Arab world was inspired by the Hunger Strike and the influence that it had. He said that leading figures today speak about how inspirational the Hunger Strikes were.
From the chair, Labour Party MP Jeremy Corbyn spoke of the lasting legacy of the Hunger Strike, with a strong resonance with much of today’s international struggles, particularly in Palestine and elsewhere in the world.
Closing the day, Sinn Féin’s Chief Whip in the Assembly and a former political prisoner and friend of Bobby Sands, Jennifer McCann MLA, spoke of the role of women in the jails at the time, and what was a dual struggle where there was a strong interconnection between the men and women POWs. She remarked that, like herself, Bobby was elected by the people, as the MP for Fermanagh/South Tyrone, and yet the British Government still allowed him to die. Bobby Sands’s election to Westminster, she said, and that of two of his comrades to the Irish parliament, marked a sea-change in how Irish republicans looked at elections and their potential. This could be seen as a catalyst for Sinn Féin’s electoral intervention the following year, 1982, and since. She also brought the discussions up to the present day, outlining the development of Sinn Féin’s political strategy and pointing to the growing strength and dynamic towards Irish unity - economic, social and political.
The final speaker was veteran campaigner and former British Labour Party minister Tony Benn, who spoke of how it was necessary to see the Irish struggle for self-determination not simply as a small isolated fight but as part of a huge and general struggle against colonialism worldwide. He said this was not the case of a small band fighting a bigger monster but a world-wide anti-colonial struggle. He pointed to the rise of Sinn Féin, the advancement of the cause of Irish unity and of his own conviction that Irish reunification would happen - it is only a question of how soon.
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Contributions from key figures in the churches, academia and wider civic society as well as senior republican figures