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14 August 2016

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35th anniversary of the 1981 H-Blocks Hunger Strike marked in Belfast

● POWs lead the way again

THE National Hunger Strike Commemoration in Belfast on Sunday attracted people from the length and breadth of Ireland as well as overseas alongside the families of our patriot dead and ex-prisoners.

“North men, South men, comrades all – Dublin, Belfast, Cork and Donegal” were joined on the one road by friends from Britain, the Basque Country and mainland Europe as well as the United States and other parts of the world.

Assembling at Divis Tower in the lower Falls area of west Belfast, the parade was led by a symbolic ‘Blanket Man’ and a colour party and guard of honour made up of female and male ex-POWs.

At Conway Mill, families of our patriot dead joined the parade and were followed by the republican leadership.

H35 Smash H-Block

There was the banging of bin lids at various points along route, recalling how communities heralded incursions by the British Army and Royal Ulster Constabulary or crises in the prisons and actions to support the POWs.

Replica banners of the prison struggles were carried, as were portraits of Ireland’s hunger strikers over the past 100 years.

At the rally in Dunville Park, biographies of the hunger strike martyrs were read in between songs and tributes.

H35, Warfield, Fearon, McCallion, Ó Donnghaile

Speakers: Fintan Warfield, Megan Fearon, Elisha McCallion and Niall Ó Donnghaile

SPEECHES came from some of Sinn Féin’s youngest elected representatives in a homage to the words of Bobby Sands: “Our revenge will be the laughter of our children.”

They are:-

  • Senator Fintan Warfield (Dublin);
  • Assembly member Megan Fearon (Newry & Armagh), a junior minister in the Stormont Executive;
  • Senator Niall Ó Donnghaile (Short Strand, Belfast);
  • Councillor Elisha McCallion, who has just finished her term as the first Mayor of the newly-formed Derry City & Strabane District Council.

Fintan Warfield

Ba mhaith liom failte ag cúr riomh gach duine anseo chuig an sholadh seo.

Is mór an onoir é dom a bheith anseo inniu.

Ba mhaith liom buichas a gabhail do Sinn Féin Beal Feirste as an cuireadh a thug sibh dom inniu.

Eight years ago, I became involved with our movement, aged 16.

Inspired and informed by our songs, poems and music, and politicised by my sexuality.

As in 1916, the ten men who made the ultimate sacrifice in 1981 were cultural as much as political activists.

As in 1916, amongst our comrades, and before and after, were prisoners who ensured queer representation from the cells of Long Kesh.

A quarter of a century before the achievement of civil marriage equality in the south, one Prisoner of War said:

“The key to gay and lesbian liberation lies in the success of the national liberation struggle.”

That national liberation struggle has yet to be achieved and our rights continue to be partitioned.

The events of the past continue to shape us and what we do today.

Sometimes those events happened long before we were born, sometimes in our own lifetimes, but their legacy remains as strong and vivid today.

In this year we remember the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising with dignity and pride.

They led our struggle, provided inspiration, and continue to guide us today as we seek to complete their task of establishing a republic worthy of the Proclamation.

We also remember the leaders of the 1981 Hunger Strike with pride and admiration.

They, like the leaders of the Easter Rising, took on the might of the British Establishment and did so with nothing but their bodies and a steely determination for what was right.

For republicans today, the ten hunger strikers who died in Long Kesh occupy the same space in republican history as the men and women of 1916.

The courage and determination of the 1981 Hunger Strikers continue to inspire republicans today and guide everything that we do.

They faced repression, brutality, indignity and living conditions unimaginable in a supposedly civilised society.

They also faced the malicious indifference of a political regime which sought to criminalise them and to break their spirit.

Against such cruelty, the unbreakable republican strength shone through and, in the harshest conditions in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh, the prisoners became the forefront of the republican struggle.

Megan Fearon

I’ve been a republican, socialist and feminist activist for almost a decade. I’m very proud to be the current MLA for Newry & Armagh and junior minister as part of our Executive team. 

I grew up in south Armagh, an area that has successfully resisted British oppression for generations. My happy childhood memories are underpinned with visions of a very visible and disruptive foreign occupation.

I’ve always felt a strong connection to our local Volunteers, and to the cause of freedom and equality that they fought and died for. 

One of south Armagh’s proudest sons was Raymond McCreesh. I was born ten years after the hunger strikes but I’m already older than he was when he made that ultimate and unimaginable sacrifice. His memory has always been an inspiration, not only to me but to thousands of others around the world.

He could have chosen another way, taken an easier path – but he didn’t. He chose to stand up for his community, for the country he loved.

And it is because of the dedication and sacrifice of people like those we remember today that I was fortunate to be born into an entirely different political dispensation. My generation of young republicans is separated from them only by time.

Young people have always been catalysts for change around the world and to the forefront of our struggle at home. 

This is true even today, as we stand here together on this stage, honouring their memory and proudly carrying on their legacy – a legacy that has been handed down through generations, from 1916, to the men in H-Block cells, to the women in Armagh Gaol, and to us here today. 

The flame of freedom burns bright in our hearts, just as it did 35 years ago.

Inspirational and determined leadership, like that witnessed in the GPO, came to the fore and ordinary young men took on extraordinary roles that would change history.

They remained unbowed and unbroken, guided by that undauntable thought – they were right.

Tragically, ten Hunger Strikers went to their deaths as a cruel British Government looked on.

They did not die in vain, however, and their legacy helped propel our struggle to where it is today.

But the Hunger Strike was about much more than ten brave men. It was the hundreds of men and women in Long Kesh and Armagh who endured years of protest, refusing to be criminalised.

The victory of the Hunger Strikers was their victory.

It was also about the prisoners’ representatives on the outside, who battled daily for the Hunger Strikers and those who travelled the world to garner support for their five demands.

And it was about the tens of thousands of people, young and old, who took to the streets in villages, towns and cities across Ireland and across the world in support of the men and women in Long Kesh and Armagh.

The people of Fermanagh/South Tyrone elected Bobby Sands as “The People’s MP”.

Against the opposition of Fianna Fáil and the political establishment in the South, the people of Cavan/Monaghan elected Kieran Doherty as their TD and the people of Louth elected another prisoner, Paddy Agnew

The Hunger Strikers and the men and women of Long Kesh and Armagh and prisons in England and the 26 Counties led the way and created the path we have followed ever since, a path that has led us to our current position of political strength.

It’s now our job to make the vision of 1981 a reality.

Niall Ó Donnghaile

Rugadh agus tógtadh sa Trá Ghearr mé, ceantar ina bhfuil mé i mo chónaí ann go foil, ach caithim píosa ama i mBaile Átha Cliath anois ‘s arís na laetheanta seo.

I am the proud son, grandson and nephew of republican ex-POWs.

I am the product of a risen, politicised, defiant and organised community.

I am the product of an Irish-language education.

I am a proud product of Béal Feirste.

I became active in the republican struggle in my early teens when the spectre of unionist violence and intransigence returned to the streets of my neighbourhood, inspired by the example of the men and women around me – extraordinary people in the same vein as those brave heroes of the Hunger Strike era.

Inspired by the activism, example and sacrifice of the heroes of 1981, I went forward as a Sinn Féin public representative in 2006. In 2011, I became Belfast’s youngest Mayor. Just a few short months ago I was elected to Seanad Éireann.

Throughout all these journeys I have been accompanied on the path by the men and women of ’81; those who are still here with us and the spirit of those who, sadly, aren’t; the protesting prisoners in Armagh and the H-Blocks; the youth committees on the outside who became the model for the energised and dynamic youth movement we see represented so vividly here today and continue to shine like beacons, guiding the way for those of us doing our utmost to advance the struggle today.

Ba iad laochra an tréimhse sin na daoine a lás splanc ar léith i streachailt s’againn. Leag siad deá-shampla dúinn. Thug siad dúinn an tathrú le go bhfuil muid anois in ann gáire.

Our Hunger Strike heroes have passed the mantle onto us. We are determined, for them and for you, to finish the job.

We are now in government in the North and leading the effective opposition in the South, representing communities from all over Ireland on local councils, in the Dáil, Seanad, Assembly and in Europe.

Today too we face an unprecedented opportunity. Just as in 1916 and in 1981, our struggle stands on the threshold.

Partition was wrong in 1922, it was wrong in 1981, and it is wrong today.

It is an injustice that must be ended.

The Good Friday Agreement provided for a peaceful and democratic pathway to unity.

This generation, our generation, does not have to make the sacrifices of previous generations.

But we have to make good the promise of 1916. The only fitting tribute to our Hunger Strikers is a united Ireland and a true Irish Republic.

The recent Brexit vote demonstrates once again the undemocratic nature of the Union.

We have to build the momentum for unity.

We all have to advocate, campaign and plan for unity.

We cannot deliver Irish unity alone. We need the maximum support, North and South.

In the words of the Blanketmen, in the words of the Armagh women, in the words of Short Strand, Clonard, Creggan, Ballymurphy, ‘Strabane Youth Against H-Block & Armagh’ – in the words of  the Rebel Cork Olympians – Tiocfaidh ár lá!

Elisha McCallion

I’m a proud daughter of Derry City, and at the time of the Hunger Strikes I wasn’t even a notion, not even a thought.

I was born in 1982 into a strong republican family in Derry and I’ve been a republican all my life. Like most republican children at the time, I took part in hundreds of marches, protests and events throughout the years.

Even as a small child I was always aware of the injustices and inequalities that faced our community and I loved nothing more than watching the news daily after dinner and listen as my parents would debate and discuss the issues of the day.

The fact that I came from a republican family wasn’t a predetermination that I too would follow suit and become involved and like everyone here today there was a number of events that took place that I can point to which shaped my decision to dedicate my life to republican activism. Two of these events took place before I was even born.

Having attended annual Bloody Sunday marches as a child I was influenced very early in life with the events that took place on 30 January 1972 in my home town. As I became a little older and better informed, a fire began to ignite in my stomach; that same fire is still burning within me today.

Strangely enough, another event which influenced me significantly took place one year after the first cessation.

In 1995, as a young girl aged 13, I watched with fury and anger as events began to unfold in Drumcree. It was that summer when I decided that I wanted to play a part in bringing an end to British rule in Ireland and it wasn’t long after that when I joined what was then called Sinn Féin Youth

The H-Blocks protests and the Hunger Strike inspired a new generation of republicans; I am part of that story!

There is no doubt that a huge debt of gratitude is owed not only to the brave men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice but also to the tens of thousands of women and men who individually played their part. Many of you are here today and, on behalf of my generation of republicans, I want to say go raibh mile mile maith agat to each and every one of you

So, fast-forward a few decades, three children one wedding and 19 elections later and here I am today.

I have just finished having the great honour to serve my city and district and its people as their mayor. I have been honoured to have been elected three times from the community in which I love and serve. I work day and daily within the structures of the party with many different roles to help to bring about our ultimate objective.

I also take great pride in listening to my children as they too are beginning to take inspiration from the Hunger Strikers

During the Hunger Strike, republicans travelled across Ireland and across the world generating support, promoting awareness and building alliances.

The righteousness of the Hunger Strikers’ demands won people to their cause.

Today we must follow their example. We must take inspiration from the Hunger Strikers and their representatives.

The righteousness of Irish unity is self-evident. Partition has failed and unity is the way forward.

Let the voices for unity be heard.

Let us commit to building support and building alliances for unity.  

35 years ago, the Hunger Strikes caught the attention of the world and catapulted our struggle forward. Today we can take on their mantle and continue their task to build a new Ireland.

Let this generation be the generation that delivers Irish unity.

H35 Long Kesh shirt

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