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20 April 2000 Edition

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Gibney recalls political status campaign

Sinn Féin national director of campaigns Jim Gibney talks to Eoin O'Broin about his involvement in the campaign for political status.

Like many republicans of his generation, Jim Gibney cut his political teeth during the campaign for political status in the late `70s and early `80s. His involvement came about a result of his own prison experience, but was influenced by political organisations such as People's Democracy. Gibney recalls the radical student organisation campaigning in 1975 about the impending loss of status for POWs and its potential impact on the struggle. Within months, he was forming a Relatives Action Committee and organising in order to win public support for the prisoners' cause.

However, only six months after status was denied by the British government, Gibney was arrested and held on remand in Belfast's Crumlin Road Jail. Although conditions were better than in the new high security prison Long Kesh, republican prisoners were integrated with loyalists and other prisoners. Levels of conflict and confrontation were high and jail life was anything but stable. Republican prisoners were also begining to discuss how best to tackle their new situation and were examining what their comrades imprisoned in earlier decades had done when faced with similar problems. Within 13 months, Gibney was released, having witnessed at first hand some of the new realities which republican POWs were about to face in Armagh and the H Blocks.

On his release, the campaign in support of the Blanket Protest was underway, although only mobilising relatives and friends of those imprisoned. Gibney threw his energy behind the campaign. In fact on the very day of his release from the Crumlin Road, he was taken directly to a Relatives Action Committee (RAC) rally in Castle street to address the crowd.

Gradually, the numbers of people involved in the RACs grew and the campaign developed. Gibney, however, describes the period as ``an uphill struggle'', with little support outside the republican base and concerted opposition from the nationalist establishment. More significantly, the British government was implacable opposed to any movement on the issue, and thus ``the scene was set for a confrontation between Irish republicans and Britain'', which was to manifest itself most graphically in the Hunger Strikes.

Although the first Long Kesh/Armagh Hunger Strike did not take place untill the end of 1980, Gibney recalls that it was being discussed from as early as 1977 and was decided upon as a serious option by the prisoners themselves by 1978. Fortunately however, the leadership outside managed to convince them not to go on hunger strike on the understanding that they were going to develop a `broad front' campaign on the issues of political status, on both a national and international issue.

The result was the establishment of the National H Block/Armagh Committee, of which Jim Gibney was national chairperson. Throughout 1979, the campaign attempted to further develop the campaign in the streets and on the airwaves, and succeeded in putting the agenda centre state. But inside the jail, says Gibney ``the clock was ticking.

``The brutality inside the jails was getting worse. But on the outside we were emotionally caught up. The prisoners are suffering enough, why should they have to suffer more. We should be able to mobilise enough political pressure to break the British government.''

By mid-1980 it was clear that the campaign on the outside was not going to move the British government. Despite the tireless work of activists across the country, the last resort of hunger strike would have to be played. But for Gibney, this wasn't just a question of politics, it was his friends and former cell mates who would be embarking on any future hunger strike.

For him personally, this reality brought mixed feelings ``which are hard to describe.

``It was such a big issue that we were not criminals. It was such an emotional issue that people were prepared to do anything to avoid that, even to hunger strike. They were a very powerful constituency of people, very clear in their minds about what they were dealing with.''

The hunger strikes provided a new focus and urgency to the campaign for political status. The issue began to attract worldwide attention, national media interest and most importantly, it began to motivate and mobilise people on the streets. All of this climaxed in the electoral successes of the Hunger Strike candidates in the Fermanagh/South Tyrone by-election and Leinster House elections of 1981.

The tragic events which followed are a testament to the resilence and determination of the political prisoners themselves and the republican family as a whole. But equally, they are an inditement of a British government whose sole interest was murder, and an Irish political establishment more interested in narrow political gain than the rights and wellbeing of fellow Irish men and women.

But on another level, the Hunger Strikes taught republicans the value of politics, both in terms of popular campaigns and electoralism. These two arenas of struggle, so important today, were rediscovered and developed throughout the fight for political status. For Jim Gibney, the impact of that period is far more personal and emotional and its effects more lasting than words can describe.

Hunger Strike March & Rally, Sunday 7 May, Belfast. Main Speaker Gerry Adams. Full details in next week's issue

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