30 July 2010
National Hunger strike Commemoration
County Derry, Friday
13th August to Sunday 15th
“Comrades, the death of our comrade, Bob, has left us all in great sorrow and though we had prepared for such a tragic event it nevertheless stunned each one of us. I feel a great sense of personal loss also. In fact we all do. Blanketmen are more than just comrades – they are brothers. We all feel a bitterness of immeasurable depth and a very great anger at this callous act by the British Government.”
– Written in a comm from Bik McFarlane to Francis Hughes, Ray McCreesh and Patsy O’Hara on the death of Bobby Sands, 1981
BY PEADAR WHELAN
COMRADE MOR, the news of Big Tom’s death greatly stunned us here. It came suddenly and left us pretty numb. He was a terrific character – a pillar of strength here with the deep respect of every last blanket man. He was fearless and never knew despair. It is indeed a very great loss. His spirit was marvellous, God rest him.
This was the reaction of Brendan ‘Bik’ McFarlane, O/C of the blanket prisoners, to the news of Big Tom McElwee’s death on hunger strike on August 8th 1981. Tom was the second-last of the ten H-Blocks Hunger Strikers to die.
The toll of the 1981 Hunger Strike on the republican family throughout Ireland was immense but its effect on the small County Derry village of Bellaghy was more keenly felt.
Tom McElwee followed his cousin, Francis Hughes, on to the hunger strike and followed him to a martyr’s death as both men and their eight comrades refused to bow to Thatcher’s tyranny.
Their deaths destroyed Britain’s attempt to criminalise the Irish people’s struggle for independence.
I travelled to Bellaghy Graveyard where Volunteers Francis Hughes and Tom McElwee are buried.
There I met Ian Milne, a friend and comrade of both Tom and Francis.
IAN MILNE escaped from Portlaoise Prison in 1974 and was in the H-Blocks where he served 14 years of a life sentence.
Milne is the spokesperson for the National H-Blocks Commemoration Committee which is organising this year’s Hunger Strike Commemoration in Bellaghy.
“We want to use this year’s commemoration, which is a national mobilisation, to rededicate ourselves to the struggle for freedom. We want to demonstrate our commitment and remember the sacrifices the Hunger Strikers.
“It is important that we mark the contribution of the men who died in 1981,” says Ian, “because in the 800 years of struggle to get the British out of our country we have never been closer than we are now.
“It is my view that we are in a stronger position now than we ever were and I believe that is due to the sacrifice of the Hunger Strikers”.
“Armed struggle was necessary and it brought us a long way down the road, however we are closer to freedom now, we are in a position of strength, because of our political strategy and because we trust ourselves politically.”
Ian Milne recalls conversations he had with Francis and Tom when they were on the run during the 1970s.
“We knew that no matter how intense the war was, or no matter how much damage we could inflict on the British war machine, it would never have been enough to drive the British out of Ireland.
“No matter what, we knew there would have to be a political solution.
“Military action was centre-stage because the British and unionists brought war to our streets but coming out of the Hunger Strike period we realised that politics had to be centre-stage.”
Milne, who represents Sinn Féin on Magherafelt District Council, maintains that the work Sinn Féin has done over the years has convinced some unionists that a united Ireland is the ultimate and best solution to the conflict in Ireland.
He also dismissed so-called ‘dissidents’ who, he says, are “only disrupting the real work of achieving a united Ireland”.
“There is no magical solution. We are out to achieve a united Ireland and it is about hard work and building politics.”
He adds, laughing, “If somebody came to me tomorrow and said ‘I have the answer’ I would embrace them and say, ‘I’ve been waiting for you all my life!’”
This year’s National H-Blocks Commemoration to be held in County Derry will open on Friday, August 13th with a commemorative event in Dungiven to remember H-Blocks martyr Kevin Lynch.
The main rally will be held on Sunday, August 15th, with Sinn Féin chief negotiator and joint First Minister Martin McGuinness the main speaker.
The rally will assemble at Scribe Road in Tamlaghtduff at 2:30pm, between the homes of the Hughes and McElwee families, and follow the route through Bellaghy to the rally point.
“We are completing a journey,” says Ian Milne. “In 1981, the RUC refused permission for the families to follow a road through the town to the cemetery to bury their sons and our comrades with respect and dignity.
“On this, the 29th anniversary of the Hunger Strike, we are completing that journey”.
To read more about Ian Milne, read Ella O’Dwyer’s interview with Ian in An Phoblacht in 2006 at https://www.anphoblacht.com/news/detail/15668