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16 April 2009 Edition

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Interview: Belfast republican and Dublin community activist Rab Hunter

Honorary Dub – 100% republican

RAB HUNTER has faced many challenges as a republican activist. He’s fought the British Army and the RUC on the streets of Belfast during the 1970s, was forced on the run by supergrass Christopher Black in the 1980s, and he has almost been killed in a murderous Garda Special Branch ambush in County Wicklow.
Now a community activist in his proudly adopted neighbourhood of Dublin’s south inner city, Rab talks to ELLA O’DWYER ahead of being officially honoured by Dublin South Central Sinn Féin later this month for his staunch service to the republican cause.

BORN in 1945, Rab Hunter is from Ardoyne in north Belfast. There were five in the family: four boys and one girl. Although Granny Lavery on his mother’s side was republican, none of the rest of the family was involved. “She had a brother, John, who was in the IRA and she used to tell me stories,” Rab recalls. “Probably that’s where it began for me.”
He went to the local primary school and, despite being a very good student, decided to drop out of education at the age of 14 and take a job as a messenger boy.
“The IRA Border Campaign was going on when I was a kid and I remember that in the hurling club all you heard were rebel songs. You’d hear the wee whispers; republicanism was in the air around Ardoyne. The 50th anniversary of the Rising was in 1966 and I was in my early 20s then. There was a huge march in Belfast. It was one of the biggest marches I ever saw in my life, probably on a par with Bobby Sands’s funeral.”
In the North back then, Irish history wasn’t taught in school.
“We were only taught English history. I never learned Irish history until I started reading when I went to sea and later when I went to jail.
“My father was in the Merchant Navy all his life, then my brother joined and when I got the opportunity I took it and went to sea as a deckhand. We just travelled cross-channel, to Liverpool and Scotland from ports all over Ireland. I loved it. It ruined my hurling career, though. I’d been selected to play for Antrim by I never got to do it.
“I became involved in the Republican Movement in the early 1970s. I was doing things for the Movement and then I was told I needed to join the Movement if I wanted to help so I did.”
Rab was arrested in 1977 in Ardoyne and charged with possession of explosives.
“I was sentenced to two years in Crumlin Road Jail and when I got out in 1979 I got reinvolved. In the early 1980s, ‘supergrass’ Christopher Black came on the scene and the long and the short of it was that I had to go on the run, so I came south.”

Rab was arrested in County Wicklow in August 1983 with several other republicans. “I was shot in the back of the leg by the Garda Special Branch. I was lucky I wasn’t shot in the back of the head!”
Misled by Rab’s matter-of-fact laughter, I blurt out: “Was it sore?”
“Was it sore?!!”, Rab rasps in his still strong Belfast accent. “It was like having a hot poker stuck into your heel because it hit the nerve-ends all along the leg.”
Rab recalls the bedlam surrounding the arrest. “They were using Uzis and .38 Specials. Bullets were flying everywhere.  Four of us were shot – we were lucky to be alive afterwards. I remember there was a heading in the Cork Examiner at the time and it read ‘187 bullets and an Act of Contrition’ because a Branch man came to one of us and said an Act of Contrition in his ear, I don’t remember which of the lads it was.”
He was held under armed guard in Loughlinstown Hospital in Wicklow for two weeks.
“The place was completely surrounded round the clock. There must have been hundreds of armed guards there. After two weeks I was taken to the Bridewell, charged and transferred to Portlaoise. I got three counts of ten years to run concurrently and with remission I served almost eight.”
Portlaoise at the time was notorious for its visiting conditions.
“They were what was called closed visits,” Rab explains, “with two screens between the prisoner and the visitor. After a couple of years we decided to refuse visits altogether as a protest and finally, after about three years, they took away the grilles.
“Then there were the beatings. For example, if we refused to come in off the exercise yard as a protest against conditions we’d get hosed down and beaten. Most of the screws weren’t that bad but there were some really, really bad ones.
“Again, when the men would refuse to take a strip search you’d get a bad beating.
It was on his first parole in Christmas 1990 that Rab met his partner, Elaine.
“Someone introduced us and that was that, we’re together ever since. I’ve a son, Stephen, from a previous marriage and we’ve a great relationship too.
“When I was released in 1991, for a year I did everything I said I was going to do. I travelled all over Ireland. I’ve had a happy life, I’m one of those eternal optimists.”

On his release Rab went to live in School Street flats off Dublin’s Thomas Street and immediately became involved in community activism particularly with St Catherine’s Combined Community Centre. This was established in Marrowbone Lane in the early 1990s by concerned parents rallying for facilities for their children.
“ After a couple of years we decided to set up the School Street Committee to address the problems in our more immediate area. We set up a crèche and in 1994 we started a FÁS scheme which allowed us to take the kids away on trips.”
Rab also got involved in the anti drugs movement in Dublin.
“We went on marches, held pickets and had local people defending our area from drug dealers.”
Two people regularly in Rab’s company are POW Department stalwart Ann O’Sullivan and former POW Gerry Cunningham, who served 16 years in jail in England.
“I’ve known Ann since I first came down here years ago and we’ve been friends ever since. I worked with her in the POW Department along with Gerry Cunningham after he got out of jail.”
Gerry is a fully-fledged card and backgammon player and you’d be hard-pressed to beat him at either – especially at the backgammon. But eternal optimist that he is, Rab has persisted. “You won’t believe it but I finally beat him at backgammon,” he chuckles.
So how does Belfastman Rab feel about being honoured in his adopted home of Dublin South Central this month?
“When I was asked first I said no. I felt there were a lot of other people who should have been honoured – and I still do – but Ann O’Sullivan said, ‘You’d better accept it.’ I’m looking forward to it now - it’ll be a good night.”
It will indeed and Dublin Sinn Féin is encouraging everyone to come to Crumlin’s Transport Club on 23 April to honour a lifelong republican who, by now, is as much a part of Dublin as he is of Belfast.

TOGETHER: Rab with his partner, Elaine 

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1