20 August 2009 Edition
Massive tribute to hunger strikers in republican Tyrone
By Peadar Whelan
The success of Sunday’s National Hunger Strike Commemoration in Galbally, County Tyrone was down to months of hard work by the organisers.
Republicans from across the country turned out in their thousands, on Sunday 16 August, to remember the sacrifice of the ten H Block Hunger Strikers as well as Mayomen Michael Gaughan and Frank Stagg who died while imprisoned in England during the 1970s and the 12 other republicans who died on prison fasts in the 20th century.
Sunday’s march, the culmination of a weekend of events organised to mark the 28th anniversary of the H Block fast, saw as many as 10,000 people join with representatives of the families of the 1981 Hunger Strikers as they marched through Galbally, the birthplace of Martin Hurson, to a rally at Piarsaigh an Ghallbhaile GAA grounds.
The many banners that were carried along the three mile route were a colourful display of solidarity and a geographical pointer to the fact that people had travelled the length and breadth of Ireland to attend the march. From Tyrone there were banners from Brantry, Eglish, Kileeshill, Loughmacrory and Killyclogher. Then there were banners from Wexford, Dublin and Monaghan.
Republican flute bands travelled from Dungiven, Belfast, Strabane, Armagh, Antrim and they all beat out their defiance, to the delight of the crowds. The bands from Scotland were a welcome addition. They are proud republicans who still face the rigours of sectarianism and racism in Scotland as they play their part in the struggle for a united Ireland.
The lines of former POWs came from all over Ireland, bringing their own memories of the prison struggle. The former H Block prisoners reminisced about Bobby, Francie, Ray McCreesh, Patsy, Big Joe, Hurson Boy, Big Doc, Kevin ‘Barabbas’ Lynch, Big Tom and Red Mick.
But prison struggle was not confined to the H Blocks. There were many faces in the crowd of women who had fought the injustice and brutality of strip-searching in Armagh and Maghaberry, men who were gassed by the British army using highly toxic CR gas in Long Kesh in 1974, and these were just some of those who stood firm against successive British regimes in their efforts to criminalise our struggle.
There were prisoners who spent many years in prison in England who were at Sunday’s march, POWs who were isolated in Special Secure Units (SSUs), who refused to be broken or criminalised, as well as prisoners who had been held in jails in the 26 Counties.
Regardless of the individual experiences of the people who marched in Galbally on Sunday the reality is that they all gathered as republicans. Whether young or old, whether they were in prison or not, whether or not they took part in armed actions against the British is not the issue now.
What we must face up to is that each of us has a part to play in the struggle to end British rule in Ireland and Sunday showed that as a united people we can generate the strength and will to achieve our goals.
On reaching its destination at Galbally the huge crowd was addressed by the Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams. He said that Sinn Féin is not in the business of electoral politics for the sake of it but to bring about real change for the better in the lives of citizens. Speaking about activism Adams said:
“Activism for Irish republicans means being firmly rooted and active in our local community and republican in our politics and motivation. Our objectives are about a better Ireland, a reunited Ireland, a new inclusive society – and a new national Republic based on equality, freedom and justice.”
He said the republican struggle was not and is not about bums on seats in the Executive or Parliament Buildings or Leinster House or the EU or any other forum just for the sake of it.
“Our representatives know this. They are about delivering. They are about using the political strength we have vested in them to deliver the rights and entitlements of citizens and to achieve our republican objectives.
“We are not in the business of electoral politics for the sake of it but to use the political mandate we receive to bring about real change for the better in the lives of citizens.
“Republican politics are about the national and the social: the national and the local. In simple terms our objectives are about a better Ireland, a reunited Ireland, a new inclusive society – and a new national Republic based on equality, freedom and justice.
“There are a number of prongs to our activism and to our strategy. One is about bedding down the Peace Process. This means completing the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement; on the transfer of powers on policing and justice; on a Bill of Rights and on Acht na Gaeilge.
“It also means tackling disadvantage and poverty and injustice and delivering effective government. And it’s also about reaching out to and engaging with unionism at all levels; community, church, political, the Orange Order, the working class and middle class.
“We who want a United Ireland must be prepared to persuade those who don’t of the merits of our position. While all this is a huge challenge in many ways the work we do in the South is just as difficult.
“Since 1927 the politics of the southern state has been dominated by the two big conservative parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. The reality is that it is only in recent years that Sinn Féin has been able to seriously take on the task of building a long term political strategy in the south. It is a slow process but Republicans are about changing political conditions so that citizens are empowered to make their lives better, to reclaim their rights.
“The Irish government purports to be republican. There is nothing republican about its policies. It is not about equality or citizens’ rights. It is a bad government, taking bad decisions, in the interests of its money-lender friends in the banks and among the developers. The decisions that have been taken so far and the decisions likely to emerge out of the McCarthy report and in the budget later this year, amount to an attack on the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in society.
“Instead of taxing the wealthy the Irish government is slashing public services and jobs and beating up on the unemployed, the elderly, the children and the sick.
“There is an urgent need to build opposition to the coalition government, and to the conservative forces in the state. They cannot be allowed to destroy the social fabric of Irish society. Our responsibility is to make republicanism relevant to our time by bringing forward commonsense and practical solutions to the chaos the conservative parties have caused.
“What is needed is a new politics delivering and implementing new policies that protect jobs, create new jobs, invest in public services and remove the threat of homelessness from tens of thousands of families.
“There are lots of potential allies out there. The prison protests in Armagh and the H Blocks brought together many people who disagreed on other issues. The hunger strikes became a catalyst for a huge mass movement.
“In dire economic times, not dissimilar to today, prison candidates including Martin Hurson, received substantial votes and two prisoners were elected TDs. So while building Sinn Féin, we also have to help build an alliance for change. We have to come together with others to forge a stronger, united progressive and democratic movement for our country – one that aims to meet the needs of all citizens. Just as we did in that long hard summer of 1981. I believe that this can be done.
“The first hurdle we will face will be the re-run of the Lisbon Treaty. This was a bad treaty when it was first put to the electorate and it is still a bad treaty, negotiated by a bad government. Think about it: Would you buy a second-hand treaty from this government?”