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7 September 2020 Edition

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Bobby Storey – a life of struggle is a life well lived

Republicans across Ireland reacted with shock and sadness at the death on June 21st, after a long illness, of leading republican activist Bobby Storey.

Widely known and hugely respected within republicanism and in his native Belfast, Bobby Storey was a key figure among a group of republican leaders who, over recent decades, formed the most cohesive and effective collective republican leadership that Ireland has seen.

Noted for his organisational and leadership skills, Bobby spent many years of his life imprisoned by the British who saw him as a potent threat to their rule in Ireland.

During a lifetime of struggle, he was interned at the age of 17; arrested, but later acquitted in connection with a plan to free fellow republican Brian Keenan from jail in England; sentenced to 18 years in prison in 1981; and was a key organiser of the mass breakout of republican prisoners from the H-Blocks of Long Kesh in 1983.

In recent years, he had served as chair of Belfast Sinn Féin and later as chair of the party’s Six County Cúige.

The young Bobby Storey

Born in Coventry, England on 11 April 1956 to parents Robert (Bobby) Storey and Mary (Peggy) Rafferty who were both from Belfast, his brother Seamus was also born in England. The family moved back to Belfast in 1959 where Bobby’s sister Geraldine and brother Brian were born.

Speaking to An Phoblacht in 2008, Bobby said: 

“I have two brothers and one sister: Seamus, who escaped from Crumlin Road Jail in 1971; Brian, who has Down Syndrome; and Geraldine. Our whole household revolved around Brian. He was born in 1970 and he was a beautiful development.”

Bobby’s father sold fish door to door and later fruit and veg. The Storeys were eventually running two shops before Bobby senior started a small building contracting firm.

Fifty years ago, three hugely significant events had a profound effect on the then 14-year-old Bobby Storey.

The first was the Battle of St Matthews, which saw the IRA defend the small nationalist enclave of Short Strand from being burned to the ground by unionist mobs.

The second was the introduction by Stormont of the draconian Criminal Justice Bill, which involved a mandatory six-month prison sentence for rioting, which was widespread in the Six Counties.

Within six months, over 100 people, mostly young nationalists, were imprisoned under mandatory sentencing.

The third and final event was the Falls Curfew in 1970, during which 3,500 British soldiers attacked the Falls area, killed four civilians, shrouded the area in CS gas, and arrested and brutalised hundreds.

These events and his own direct experience on the streets of Belfast politicised Bobby Storey. His father was involved in the defence of nationalist areas and Bobby’s brother Seamus soon joined the IRA. Their home was raided in 1971 and pistols and a rifle found. 

Bobby said of this: 

“Daddy and Seamus were arrested and taken to Girdwood Barracks and brutalised. Girdwood was a well-known torture centre… My brother took full responsibility for the weapons and was charged... he refused to recognise the court.

“My father denied knowledge of the guns and was beaten and brutalised. At one point, he was made to run along a track jumping hurdles as he was struck with a bamboo style rod. He reflected later that this was as much to humiliate him as hurt him.

“The effect of all of this on me was immense. I was outraged at my father’s treatment. He was a quiet, dignified man who had little to say about any of this nor the thugs who carried it out.

“I was similarly very proud of my brother Seamus who had the courage to do what he did as a republican and the strength of his convictions when captured. This further impacted on me months later in 1971 when nine IRA prisoners escaped from Crumlin Road Prison which was 300 yards from my home, among them my brother Seamus.

“Meanwhile in my own life, I was rioting against the RUC, the Brits, and against loyalists who were attacking our homes because we lived on the last Catholic street on the interface.”

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• Bobby Storey organising, July 2010

Joining the IRA

Commenting in an interview ten years ago on the momentous events which took place in the North at this time and reflecting on how they influenced his decision to eventually join the IRA, Bobby said:

“There was an instinctive anti-British culture and politics in our house but, although there was a history of republicanism on my mother Peggy’s side, the main influences were the conditions around me, particularly the attack on McGurk’s bar when 15 people were killed.

“Some of those killed were known to our family. Then, there was the massacre on Bloody Sunday when 14 people were killed… The fact that British Paratroopers could gun down innocent protestors had a massive impact on me and, from that point on, I was attempting to join the IRA… I was attracted to republican resistance, especially the IRA and the fight they were bringing to the Brits not only in pursuit of a United Ireland but also in defence of nationalists and republicans.”

Evicted from their Oldpark home by loyalists, the Storey family moved to Manor Street, another interface area in North Belfast, but were again forced out by loyalists. In 1972, they moved to the Riverdale estate in the west of the city.

In July that year, the British sent 30,000 troops into nationalist areas to take down the barricades in Operation Motorman. By this stage, Bobby was in the IRA. He said:

“I was involved in the Andersonstown area when the British Army came in during Operation Motorman…The armed struggle in the early ‘70s was flat out. We were all part of that. I was absolutely in the thick of it. We engaged the British Army on the streets. They came into our areas and took over our local GAA clubs and schools and turned them into British Army bases. It was a heavily militarised situation.”

Bobby described his experiences: 

“I would be just walking up the street and the Brits would jump out and beat the f*** out of me and leave me in the middle of the street. I wasn’t on the run because I was too young to be interned and I was also over six foot, so I took a lot of flak from the Brits.

“My experience was no different from many other people’s experience… The more beatings they gave me, the more my resolve developed. The British presence was a cancer and had to be removed. These were the things that brought me to be a republican activist.”

One of these beatings took place after an early morning raid in which he was dragged from his home and spread eagled against a wall over a hot radiator:

“I was beaten and interrogated for four hours about the whereabouts of my brother who was still an on-the-run escapee. I refused.

“They played a ‘game’ with me. I was punched every time I gave them a negative reply to a question. When finished, they cuffed me again, put a hood over my head and drove me into the loyalist Highfield estate where they released me. 

“They took the hood and handcuffs off and drove around the area shouting ‘He’s an IRA man’. I had to run to avoid loyalist youths who ran after me.”

On another occasion, Bobby was severely beaten and threatened by British soldiers and an RUC officer in the grounds of St Agnes’ Church as he returned home one night. He remembered: 

“I was attacked by both of them and thumped and kicked … I was struck with a rifle barrel.

“One of the soldiers got into such a frenzy aiming a kick at me that he kicked the RUC man who told him, ‘I don’t mind you kicking him, but don’t kick me’.

“It was then that another soldier cocked his rifle and screamed that he was going to shoot me. I thought he was going to pull the trigger, but two of the others grabbed him and, while one held onto him, the other took the rifle from him.”

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• Sinn Féin Women’s Conference, July 2006 - Sue Ramsey, Lily Hall, Jennifer McCann, Eibhlin Glenholmes, Bobby Storey, Bairbre de Brun, Sinead Moore, Jackie Currie, Tish Holland, Teresa Clark and Caral Ní Chuilin

Prison

The day before his 17th birthday, Bobby was arrested. The day after his 17th birthday, on which he could be legally interned, he was served with an internment order:

“I was held in the Cages for two years in Long Kesh. There was great comradeship in the Kesh and internment gave me the opportunity to look into Irish history, politics, the history of the IRA, and of Sinn Féin… It was also my first experience of prison struggle and one of the most obvious manifestations of that was when we burned down the Cages in October 1974. That was one of my happiest prison struggle memories.”

In a small autograph book of former political prisoners collected by Pól Wilson, Bobby’s entry reads:

‘Bobby Storey interned: 1973-75

Remand: 76-77

Remand: 77-77

Remand: 78-79

Remand:79-81

Sentenced: 81-94

Remand: 96-98

A life of struggle is a life well lived.’

In an interview in 2009, Bobby recalled these events saying: 

“I was very active. The British Government had a determination to keep me off the streets. They used internment and, when they weren’t able to use internment again, they would fabricate evidence.

“They actually pretended that I said things under interrogation which I never said. By the time of the Hunger Strike, I had done maybe seven years in jail with no convictions – all on remand. Internment by remand.”

Bobby was arrested again in August 1977 during a controversial visit to the North by the English Queen as part of her Jubilee Year celebrations.  It was also the anniversary of internment.

Bobby and a comrade were so badly beaten that they were hospitalised for four days and then taken to an interrogation centre where they were beaten again for another two days. They were then charged with attacks on British soldiers. The British Regiment involved left the North four months later.

Bobby recalled: 

“The night before them leaving, every window in my comrade’s home was broken. Simultaneously, a gunman fired at my parent’s home, narrowly missing my sister Geraldine. When my father ran out, there were soldiers in the garden. They denied firing into the house, but no one believed them. My comrade and I were released a few weeks later.”

In 1979, Bobby was arrested and charged in relation to an abortive attempt to free leading republican Brian Keenan from Brixton Prison in London.

He spent almost two years in prison in England before being acquitted by a jury and released in early April 1981. He was excluded under the Prevention of Terrorism Act from entering England again.

The Hunger Strike

When Bobby returned to Belfast, the 1981 Hunger Strike was a month old. He described the Hunger Strikers as “iconic figures, but when it was required of them, they stepped into the breach”.

Bobby played a central role in organising the funerals of his two close friends and comrades, Hunger Strikers Joe McDonnell and Kieran Doherty.

The British Army launched an operation to catch the IRA firing party at Joe McDonnell’s funeral and attacked mourners. Paddy Adams, a friend of Bobby Storey, was shot and seriously wounded 

Describing this episode, Bobby said: 

“The British Government and the establishment were infuriated by the global media attention on the deaths of the first four hunger strikers.

“They were very concerned by the fact that the funerals showed mass support for the prisoners, as could be seen in the 100,000 who turned out for Bobby Sands’ funeral… After the firing party carried out the volley of shots, the Brits smashed their way into the house in St Agnes where they were. Some were arrested and others escaped. The Brits and RUC then attacked the funeral. They ran down St Agnes’s firing plastic bullets at people on the Andersonstown Road while scores of people lay on the ground.”

The day after the last hunger striker Mickey Devine died, Bobby Storey was captured following a gun attack on British soldiers. A British soldier was shot and wounded. Bobby later explained: 

“I was in a car with two comrades and we were rammed by an RUC divisional mobile support unit. We drove off and they fired after the car. We were chased through Andersonstown and we avoided being rammed by a British army vehicle. However, we were eventually cornered and arrested with two rifles.”

Bobby was sentenced to 18 years in prison. Just over two years later, he was a key figure in the largest mass prison escape in British penal history.

The Great Escape

On the day of the Great Escape from the H-Blocks in 1983, Bobby’s job was to coordinate the escape. He said: 

“The biggest contribution to making the day so successful was the comradeship. People who don’t know much about the escape might think of it as a wham bam and run, attack and climb over the wall or ram the gate type of action. But, in actual fact, it was a very complicated operation.

“We embarked on a deliberate strategy of relaxing the H-Blocks and relaxing the wings by having a more practical working relationship with the screws.

“That defused the tensions. It suited us because from a security point of view that gave us more psychological control and more territorial control within the wings and blocks.

“It also created a less alert climate amongst staff, because they weren’t fearful of us attacking them, and so they naturally relaxed. Some of them actually stopped carrying their batons, and grills, which were normally locked, would be left open. It created the perfect conditions for us to carry out the escape.

“The obstacles we had to face on the day were so substantial that I don’t think any of us thought about actually escaping to freedom.

“We had to take over the block and manoeuvre through the jail and we had to get the guns in previously. Many people had roles which involved them staying behind.

“I was captured within an hour of the escape and I was brought to a punishment block and severely beaten, but I was enthused. My morale was sky high. You could not annoy me; being captured could not undermine the euphoria I was feeling.

“I was lying naked and battered, but, for me, the most dominant thought that I had was if the escape was a success, it would absolutely devastate the British Government. I wanted to ruin Margaret Thatcher’s life… I wanted the British government damaged.” 

Speaking some years later, Bobby said: 

“It was a great achievement for the IRA. It showed the degree to which comrades could work together, not just those who escaped but those who formed the back-up inside the jail, prisoners who weren’t going to escape. There was the teamwork of people outside the jail; the drivers, the safe houses. Even getting captured didn’t dampen the event.”

Bobby Storey4

• Gerry Adams and Bobby Storey at vigil to remember victims of plastic bullets, April 2008

Life after Prison

Bobby was released in 1994 and returned to the republican struggle, although now in a different mode. He travelled widely explaining republican strategy to comrades and the wider republican family.

It was during a mid-1990s prison pre-release scheme that he met and fell in love with Theresa who was known to Bobby through family and comrades.

In 1996, Bobby was arrested again, charged, spent two years on remand and was eventually released in 1998. He was 44 years old and had spent more than 20 years in prison.

Bobby first became Chair of Belfast Sinn Féin and then of the Six County Cúige, a period in which the party grew significantly in electoral strength and representation.

He believed in the need to reach out to unionists in the course of seeking to build a new, 32-County republic. He said: 

“Working with unionists as equals we can bring them further, even to the point of persuading unionism or a section of unionism to accept a shared future within the concept of a United Ireland.

“Any developments that have occurred over recent years are within the context of our strategic developments.

“Sinn Féin’s primary objective is a United Ireland. The Good Friday and subsequent Agreements are platforms, staging posts, on the road to Irish Unity. We are committed to a United Ireland. Politics is about making the impossible possible.”

Bobby’s illness shocked his many friends and comrades. In recent months, it became hugely debilitating, but he never gave in and never stopped working.

Just before Christmas 2019, he attended the opening of An Fhuiseog, the republican book and craft shop on Belfast’s Falls Road. Bobby and Sinead Walsh were the driving force behind its redesign.

Bobby’s funeral in Belfast, watched online by a quarter of a million people across the country and further afield, saw a demonstration of solidarity with his grieving family.

The people of West Belfast and republicans across Ireland paid their respects to a leader whose life, though often hard and involving much suffering and sacrifice, was one of deep commitment to his community, his country, and the cause of freedom and social justice. In Bobby’s own words; a life of struggle is truly a life well lived.

An Phoblacht extends sympathy to Bobby’s partner Teresa, their children and grandchildren, his brothers Seamus and Brian, sister Geraldine, and their many friends and comrades across Ireland.

I measc laochra na hÉireann go raibh sé.

Gerry Kelly remembers Bobby Storey

Bobby Storey Kelly 2

• Escapees Gerry Kelly, Harry Murray, Bobby Storey and Joe Simpson with Martina Anderson, November 2013

‘One of the most courageous people I have ever known’

I first met Bobby while both of us were waiting for our family visits in the H Blocks of Long Kesh Prison Camp in 1982. I am 6ft tall, but I well remember his giant stature making me feel much smaller. He had hands like shovels, but his handshake was firm and friendly. 

His reputation preceded him, as they say, and he certainly made a memorable first impression on me, speaking to me as if I was an old friend and comrade. There were a lot of prisoners in the waiting room and I noticed that all of them greeted him with familiarity and warmth. I soon found out that he made a great first impression on nearly everyone he met.

It was the start of a close friendship which was to span almost 40 years and my only regret is that I didn’t know him longer, that we all couldn’t have had some more years with him.

Another friend of ours summed up his character much better that I could when he said that people didn’t just like him, they fell in love with him, be they man, woman or child. He had the capacity to make you feel like he was your best friend. He was father, son, brother, granda, cousin, nephew, confidant, not just to his immediate family, but to many, many more. 

Of course, his actual best friend and anam cara was his partner, Teresa, whom he loved above all else. She in turn shared him with the struggle for a United Ireland with all its hardships and long periods of separation, when he was in various jails and the worry and harassment of the British State Forces when he was not in jail. She went through it all with him, whether she was there being arrested or searched or harassed beside him or away from him.

Bobby chose to fight for and with his community from an early age and was first imprisoned in the Long Kesh Interment Camp as he turned 17 years of age. He gained respect and influence from the start of his activism precisely because he acted. Bobby led from the front with sometimes reckless courage on the streets of his native Belfast; first in the cauldron of North Belfast, and then in West Belfast, after his family was burnt out of their home by sectarian bigots.

Bobby learned fast and had a sharp and incisive mind. He had a great eye for detail, a lawyer’s eye, and would spend many hours helping other comrades to prepare their defences in court well in advance of their barristers reading the legal depositions. He honed his abilities and used them operationally when fighting the much more powerfully armed state forces. In whatever he set his mind to, he gave it his full attention and energy.

He drew volunteers to him and inspired them not just with his courage, but with his thoroughness in planning. It was perhaps best seen in the planning and execution of the Mass Escape from the H Blocks in 1983. He was meticulous before and during the operation, but when things started to go off plan at the front gate of the prison, when confronted with scores of warders coming on and off duty, he improvised and adapted to the quickly changing situation. He asked the three comrades holding the Security Hut containing dozens of arrested warders to hold fast. They knew he was essentially asking them to eschew their chance at freedom so that the bulk of the 38 political prisoners could continue their escape. Those he asked did not hesitate in standing their ground so that their comrades could continue their escapade.

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• The Great Escape, 25th Anniversary, ‘The Untold Story Behind the Escape’, Whiterock, Belfast, June 2008

While most of the media wrote about their view of his activity as an IRA Volunteer, he was also a voice for change. Bobby used his huge talent, ability, and influence in pushing forward with the Sinn Féin negotiations strategy and peace process. He made the difficult transition from an offensive military approach to one of negotiating peace with opponents and enemies. To him, it was all part of the same struggle for a United Ireland of equals. He had a huge reservoir of energy all his life, until his illness gradually took its toll. That too, he fought with quiet determination.

He could easily have been elected as a political representative, but he believed that his wide-ranging influence and organisational skill set was of better use on the ground. He became Chairperson of Sinn Féin in Belfast and later Chairperson of Sinn Féin in the Six Counties. He travelled to all parts of Ireland to speak to activists and to listen to their views.  

If you are lucky enough to live a long life, you will have some life-long friends; you will meet people you respect in your family and also perhaps in public life or quiet helpful neighbours or heroes that you look up to. In or out of conflict situations, you will meet people of courage and determination. Bobby Storey was one of the most courageous people I have ever known. He was dedicated, intelligent, thoughtful, a workaholic, a comedian and raconteur. 

What marks him out in an ordinary sense though was that people always wanted to be in his company. He was always entertaining and always lifted people’s spirits. He was never boring; even when you heard the same story he had told before, he had some embroidery of detail to add to the last time he told it. He continually made fun of himself and knew the power of humour. His lighthearted spirit was contagious and his humour was medicine to anyone feeling down. 

To try to give the measure of Bobby Storey in a few paragraphs is an impossible task. He definitely crammed much more than one lifetime into his 64 years.

There are some, those who did not know Bobby, who have a different view of him. They have had their weeks of diatribe. I don’t claim objectivity when speaking of my friend, but there are hundreds I could name who loved him and are missing him as I do. 

Slán ár gcara mór. 

Gerry Kelly is a Sinn Féin MLA for North Belfast and party spokesperson on Policing

   

   

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An Irish revolutionary is laid to rest

Republicans from across Ireland and the people of West Belfast came out to pay their respects as Bobby Storey was laid to rest. Bobby’s remains were removed from his home to St Agnes Church, where the funeral service was conducted by Fr Gary Donegan.

Several hundred republican stewards, dressed in black and white, lined the funeral route in Andersonstown and along the Falls Road, which was marked by black flags all along the way.

The people applauded as the hearse, containing Bobby’s Tricolour-draped coffin and preceded by two pipers and flanked by a republican guard of honour, passed by. The cortège included many of the Sinn Féin leadership, including Party President Mary Lou McDonald TD.

At Milltown Cemetery, ceremonies were chaired by Sinn Féin TD Pearse Doherty. Sinn Féin Vice President, Michelle O’Neill MLA, read the poem, ‘The Road Not Taken’, by Robert Frost. Gráinne Holland sang ‘Roisín Dubh’. The main oration was delivered by Bobby’s friend and former Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams. During the course of his address, he said:

“I have known many sound people, but Bobby was one of a kind. He was always positive. He was a great motivator. He would make you think you could fly a plane, a comrade once told me. And when you talked to him, whatever the issue, you always came away knowing that he would move heaven and earth to do what needed to be done to help. And he would do it with a smile.

“I don’t know anyone who knew him who didn’t like him. Except for MI5, MI6, the old RUC, the British Army, and prison governors. How could you not like him? He was smart, well read, funny, caring, always ready to listen, always willing to help, always prepared to give freely of his time and his great positive energy.”

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Adams detailed Bobby’s young life and the events 50 years ago that shaped his outlook and politicisation.

Turning to current political developments, Adams said: 

“This weekend saw the election of Micheál Martin as Taoiseach as part of the manoeuvre by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, aided and abetted by the Greens, to maintain the status quo and to prevent Mary Lou McDonald from becoming Taoiseach. They are entitled to do that, but their refusal to talk to the Sinn Féin leadership is a sad little undemocratic throwback to the way the unionist leaders used to behave.

“Denying Sinn Féin voters their right to be included in talks shows how far the Dublin establishment is prepared to go to minimise and delay the ongoing process of change across this island, including the movement towards Irish Unity. So, let me say loud and clear. They will fail. Just as Unionists failed in their exclusion policies.

“Change is coming. Not least because of the work of change makers like Bob Mór.

“In order to justify their policy of exclusion, An Taoiseach and Leo Varadkar say they cannot talk to us because Sinn Féin is controlled by ‘shadowy figures’ like Bob.

“They also name Ted, Padraic, Marty. Sinn Féin is controlled by no one. We are an open, democratic national movement with our elected leadership, led by two fine women and other national leaders, and countless regional and local leaders.

“We are proud and glad that Bob and other former IRA volunteers are part of what we are.

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“We are also proud of Bob and the others when they were IRA Volunteers.

“They and their support base and republican Ireland defeated the British Army. They brought us and their political masters to the negotiating table.

“Leo Varadkar has Michael Collins. Micheál Martin has De Valera. We have Bobby Storey.

“Bobby has done more for Irish freedom, peace, and unity on this island than either Leo Varadkar or Micheál Martin. 

“Big Bobby’s death is a huge political blow for republicans, but it is also a very personal loss for all of us who knew him.

“There have been many tears shed since the news of his death. There is a void in our lives.

“Bobby would not want that. He would want us to mind each other. He would want us to continue our struggle and to win that struggle. And that, my friends and comrades, is what we will do.

“On behalf of Colette and myself and our family, I extend my sincerest and deepest sympathies and solidarity to Teresa, their children and grandchildren, and the wider Storey and Pickering family.

“We will all miss his wisdom, his analysis, and his craic in the time ahead. He brought out the best in all of us.

“Because of him, we can go forward with optimism as more and more people on this island realise that England rules us only in English interests and that the time is coming when we will end English rule and replace it with governance by the people of this island, for the people of this island.

“That’s what Bobby believed. He knew we don’t need Boris Johnson or his cronies. Or any of the other mediocre amadáns who are arrogant enough to think they can rule us. Bob was right. As Ian Paisley said to Martin McGuinness one time: ‘We don’t need Englishmen to rule us’.” 

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An Phoblacht
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