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7 June 2001 Edition

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Support from afar - Australian support for the hunger strikers

Australian Aid for Ireland has produced a special issue of its magazine, Towards 32, to mark the 20th anniversary of the 1981 hunger strike. The following article from that magazine, penned by CHRIS RALEIGH, traces the story of Australia's support for the prison struggle and the hunger strikers.

As Bobby Sands embarked on hunger strike in Long Kesh, Australia had only recently replaced God Save the Queen as its national anthem.

So it is hardly surprising that the Australian branches of the National H-Block/Armagh Committee faced a daunting challenge in swaying the mood of the Australian people towards the demands of the hunger strikers. However, sway the mood they did, and through a mixture of courageous and innovative actions and unrelenting hard work, they convinced political parties, trade unions, and most importantly, the general public of the moral righteousness of the prisoner's demand for political status.

In doing this they forever changed the manner in which many ordinary Australians viewed the prison protest and the overall struggle for Irish freedom.

The attempted criminalisation of the prisoners had been a non-story. Consequently, when political status was withdrawn in March 1976 and the Blanket protest began, the average Australian was ignorant to the prisoner's motives

To counter this, the H-Block committees began to reach out to all sections of the Irish and Australian communities to articulate and expound the position of the protesting POWs. Rallies and marches, pickets, leafleting, and political education were combined to build a broad-based public spectrum to highlight the five demands.

The Labour Movement, a traditional republican support base, was tapped into first, with massive support received from dozens of trade unions throughout the country. The New South Wales South Coast Trade and Labour Council, at the time the largest provincial Labour Council in Australia, confirmed its support for the POWs' five demands.

The members of the H-Block committees built on this support from the union movement to bring pressure to bear on the Australian Labour Party (ALP), at the time the federal opposition. Local branch meetings were addressed by committee members in all of the major cities, with the majority of the ALP branches, consequently sending telegrams to Margaret Thatcher condemning her intransigence and insisting that the prisoners' demands be granted.

On the streets, a campaign of leafleting major commuter centres in the capital cities was undertaken. At ferry and bus stations and outside the offices of British Airways and the British consulates, stood republican activists, handing out leaflets and receiving wishes of support, verbal abuse, and on isolated occasions even physical attack.

On 1 May, as Bobby Sands entered the 61st day of his hunger strike, over 200 people held a silent, candlelit vigil in the centre of Sydney. Two men wearing nothing but blankets stood at the head for six hours, providing powerful imagery for the city's seething masses, weaving their way home.

Two days later, in the annual May Day parade, over 100 protestors marched in silence behind a black-clad coffin

The death of Bobby Sands

When Bobby Sands was pronounced dead, the outpouring of grief and anger was massive. In Sydney, an estimated 5,000 people marched from the Irish National Association to the British Consulate and at a requiem mass in the city's St Patrick's Cathedral, 2,000 mourners lined the massive building. Bishop David Cremin proclaimed from the pulpit that ``tonight we not only pray for Bobby Sands, but for a speedy resolution to the underlying cause of the unrest that has troubled Ulster and all of Ireland... the British government must give notice of withdrawal.''

In Melbourne, some 2,000 people attended a similar requiem mass and 30 members of the Victoria state parliament from across the political spectrum put their names to a death notice in The Age, ``In tribute to our fellow parliamentarian, Bobby Sands, who, like Kevin Barry, believed in liberty and has been prepared to die for it''.

In Adelaide, a 48-hour hunger strike was staged on the steps of Parliament House and in Brisbane, hundreds congregated to protest the death and vent their anger.

After the deaths of Francis Hughes, Raymond McCreesh and Patsy O'Hara, 1,500 marched behind four black-clad coffins bearing the faces of the four men. The rally then heard notices from Gerry Adams and Bernadette McAliskey.

From these tragic deaths sprang a revitalisation of Irish republicanism in Australia. The H-Block committees received unprecedented support and new branches were founded. Media appearances and street activism increased. No British establishment figure could escape the clutches of the protesting republicans.

At Port Kembla, north of Sydney, in June of 1981, a British ship, The Cape Horn, was forced to stay docked as the Waterside Workers Federation placed a 48-hour blanket ban on loading the ship's cargo, tons of grain bound for England, in solidarity with the POWs. The captain, a Scottish royalist, was said to be incensed.

At a function in nearby Newcastle to celebrate a royal wedding, over 50 H-Block supporters staged a picket on the steps of the offending restaurant.

Tension reached a climax in Australia after the death of Thomas McElwee at a well-attended rally, held outside the British consulate in Sydney. Addressing the crowd, 27-year-old Eamon (Ned) O'Connor from Tullamore, Offaly spoke from a prepared statement, which read in part:

``I, Eamon O'Connor, pledge this day, 9 August 1981, to go on hunger strike to the death if need be in support of our Irish political prisoners. I start this hunger strike demanding that the Australian government and the Australian politicians publicly call on Margaret Thatcher to grant the five demands of the Irish political prisoners. I call on them to remember Australian history and the contribution the Irish have made to that history. Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.''

O'Connor then marched to the Irish National Association and began his fast immediately. After 18 days of the strike, two members of the Sydney H-Block committee met with acting Australian Prime Minister Doug Anthony (yet again highlighting the influence the H-Block committees held), only to be told that the problem was an internal matter for the British government.

Media attention began to grow as the days dragged on and Eamon's health deteriorated. On his 37th day without food, a specific request to end his protest was received from the leadership of the Republican Movement, which finally persuaded him to call off his protest.

Hunger strike legacy

When the hunger strike was finally called off, in Australia, as in Ireland, a strange void was created. As gradually the five demands where phased in, a sense of victory began to set in amongst the Australian committees. Not a euphoric victory, but a victory through struggle, a victory that had cost ten lives.

This victory was shared by all who gave their support to the campaign, but during the course of the prison protests it was a core number of activists throughout Australia who kept the spirit alive. In doing so they forever changed the way in which the Irish freedom struggle would be viewed in Australia


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