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9 August 2001 Edition

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The Falls Road: Symbol of the freedom struggle

BY JIM GIBNEY

Symbols of injustice are very important in the minds of people involved in life and death struggles. These symbols can be an individual, alive or dead, such as Nelson Mandela or Bobby Sands. At times they can be inanimate objects like a place, a flag, a museum. In the absence of liberated zones such symbols can become wellsprings of inspiration and motivation. They can have the same effect on the mind as if the liberator was active in an area under his or her control.

     
In 1981, at a time of great change in the struggle, the people of the Falls rose to that challenge and that is why this coming Sunday in Casement Park they will rally in their thousands to commemorate the sacrifice of the hunger strikers and celebrate their lives
Belfast's Falls Road is such a symbol. It is probably one of the most famous roads in the world, especially to people struggling for freedom.

The `Road', as it is affectionately known, is approximately six miles long. It is flanked on either side by a series of small working class districts, with separate identities but politically linked, like the Lower Falls, Beechmount, the Rock Streets, Ballymurphy, Turf Lodge, Riverdale, Lenadoon, Andersonstown, Twinbrook, and Poleglass, to name but a few.

It was along this stretch of road that an intense and unrelenting battle was fought between the IRA, their supporters, and the Brtish Crown forces and their loyalist allies since 1969. Those who fought that battle on the republican side, activists and supporters, were largely drawn from the already mentioned districts.

The `Road' also bore witness to a hidden war fought out between undercover intelligence operators from the republican and British sides, and both lost personnel. It was hotly disputed territory.

Although it was a `toe-to-toe' military conflict, it was essentially a political/moral contest. Whose writ would run on the main thoroughfare in the centre of the biggest nationalist population in the Six Counties? Would it be the British queen's or those advocating a Republic?

It was on these streets that men and women, mostly teenagers to begin with, learned the craft of guerilla warfare. In some cases they went on to lead the IRA.

It was from these streets that men and women, self taught in the art of politics, emerged to build the formidable party that Sinn Féin is today. Some went on to lead the party, like Gerry Adams, who hails from Ballymurphy. In these streets the people lived, mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, sons and daughters, the backbone of the republican struggle.

The `Road' and its people have a long and proud history of resistance stretching back beyond partition. But it was the events of the last 40 years in particular that gave shape to what we are currently experiencing.

In 1964, Ian Paisley forced the RUC to raid Sinn Féin's Falls Road office and forcinbly remove the Trocolour. Rioting raged for three days. In 1966, thousands of people flocked to the `Road' and marched to Casement Park to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising. I was among them, as a 12-year-old, excited by the splendour of the occasion, on my first march, not really sure why I was there.

Stormont's unionist militias, the RUC, `B' Specials and Orange mobs, in the summer of 1969 attacked Bombay Street and other streets and burned them down. They were trying to teach the inhabitants a lesson for campaigning for civil rights. It didn't work.

In a typical response, the people, united, raised their own money and rebuilt their gutted houses. This self-help and self-reliance was to become a central feature of the people as they shaped their own community institutions: Black taxis, English and Irish newspapers, centres of learning in Irish and English, a vibrant community sector, a thriving small business class.

It was here in July 1970 that thousands of british troops used a military curfew to hem in the people of the Lower Falls. Women from the areas outside the curfew organised themselves, marched on the military cordon, breached it, brought in much needed provisions like milk and bread, and took out the IRA's guns to safety.

Internment without trial followed a year later in August 1971, 30 years ago, when British soldiers dragged hundreds of men from their beds and tortured them. The people absorbed that blow and organised a public campaign to end internment. The British generals reacted and were back in August 1972 with `Operation Motorman'. They occupied schools, libraries, GAA pitches, including Casement Park, and built forts on any available patch of grass, like Navan Green.

Those early years established a pattern for the next 30 years. The people resisted repression in whatever way they saw fit. A lot joined the IRA and formed, as in the case of the Lower Falls, one of the IRA's most active units in the Six Counties, `D' or `Dogs' Compny.

Others joined popular organisations in support of the struggle: the `Political Hostage Release Committee' to campaign for an end to internment; the `Relatives Action Committee' to campaign for political status; the National H-Block Armagh Committee, seekign the same objectives; the `United Campaign Against Plastic Bullets'; `Relatives for Jurstice', seekign the truth for the relatives of those killed by Britain's Crown forces; `Féile an Phobail, which turns West Belfast into an open party every year for a week in August; and the `81 Committees in every locality which have just completed a series of commemorations for hunger strikers Bobby Sands, Kieran Doherty and Joe McDonnell, who were born or lived on and off the `Road'.

The people of the `Road' are very proud of the contribution they have made to the republican struggle. They endured much suffering in the last 30 years but they never bowed the knee nor dropped their heads. That is why at a time of great change in the struggle they rose to that challenge and that is why this coming Sunday in Casement Park they will rally in their thousands to commemorate the sacrifice of the hunger strikers and celebrate their lives.

And that is why, 35 years later, I'll be on the march and I know I'll be joined by hundreds of 12-year-old boys and girls. The continuity of the struggle for freedom and the contribution made by the people of the Falls Road are assured.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1
Ireland