15 February 2001 Edition

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Memories of `81 stirred

Hunger Strike office opens


Two women whose names are synonymous with the battle for political status in the 1970s and 1980s, Marie Moore and Lily Fitzsimmons, accompanied Sinn Féin's Gerry Kelly at the opening of the National `81 Hunger Strike Commemoration Committee's office in Belfast last Friday, 9 February.

The office, located in Belfast's Turf Lodge, will be the nerve centre for the year-round series of events planned to remember the 1980 and 1981 Hunger Strikes. The office, which started life as the headquarters of the area's Relatives Action Committee, went on to become a Sinn Féin centre and at one point housed An Phoblacht's Belfast office.

Headed by Mairead Keane, the `81 Commemoration Committee has already achieved much in this 20th Anniversary year. Many commemorative events and exhibitions have already taken place.

However, according to Keane, ``the objective for the Committee is to ensure that many people, particularly young people, learn about the hunger strikes. And while we want this year to ensure we remember the sacrifice of the dead hunger strikers and mark their sacrifice fittingly, we also want to make sure that there is an educational aspect to the year's events''.

Speaking at the opening was Lily Fitzsimmons. From Turf Lodge, Fitzsimmons was a key activist in the Anti-H Blocks/Armagh Committee. As the mother of Sean, who was on the blanket in Long Kesh, Lily, along with many other Turf Lodge mothers, sisters and wives took to the streets to highlight the conditions under which republican POWs were being held.

Their Relatives Action Committees literally brought the fight for political status to the British. They took over buildings and blocked streets and when the British Army and RUC, the armed wing of the British government, were sent in to beat them off the streets, the women faced them down.

In a masterpiece of understatement Fitzsimmons said: ``We endured a lot of harassment and threats from the British Army and RUC during these times, but instead of intimidating us, it made us all the more determined to carry on.''

In May 1981 alone, the month of Bobby Sands' death, the crown forces fired 16,656 plastic bullets as they attempted to break street resistance and between April and August that year seven people were killed by these weapons, including three children under the age of 15.

That Fitzsimmons went on to become a Sinn Féin councillor in Belfast City Hall is testament to her determination and to the political transformation of the struggle sparked by the prison protests and the hunger strikes.

Jim `Flash' McVeigh, the last OC of republican POWs in Long Kesh, is based in the Turf Lodge office. As one of the coordinators of the National `81 Hunger Strike Committee, McVeigh is anxious to encourage people to tie in with the office so that events can be organised as best as possible.

``We are trying to provide people with help and information and whatever resources are available to us so that we get as much as we can out of any event that is put on during the year,'' he said.

The office can be contacted at Belfast 90 615900.

The committee's Web site is up and running at http://www.hungerstrike81.com

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1