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4 October 2001 Edition

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Hunger strikers honoured in South Africa

Sinn FÈin President Gerry Adams was in South Africa this week, where he met with former ANC President Nelson Mandela and, in a moving ceremony on Robben Island, where Mandela was imprisoned for so many years, unveiled a monument dedicated to the memory of the 1981 hunger strikers.

On Tuesday, 2 October, Sinn FÈin President Gerry Adams MP had a one-hour meeting with Nelson Mandela, where he briefed the veteran freedom fighter about the current crisis in the peace process. Speaking to a packed press conference on the porch outside his office, Nelson Mandela said:

"I don't have to introduce Gerry Adams. I am sure you know him better than I do. He came here to give me the opportunity of learning more about the situation in Ireland. Sinn FÈin is an old friend and ally. They supported us very strongly during the anti-apartheid struggle."

Asked by journalists about his view of the peace process in Ireland, Mandela said: "It is important to emphasise the importance of dialogue and to avoid any violence that might lead to bloodshed. I have said that solving problems is never a question of pointing the finger at your enemy. The fact that there is no peace in that country is an indictment against all the leaders who are involved in that process and it is not going to help people to say that it is the IRA. That is wrong. They must solve their problems as we did in our country. We surprised the world. They said there would be no peace here but we in the ANC took the initiative and spoke to our enemies."

Nelson Mandela endorsed the Sinn FÈin leader's condemnation of the terrorist attacks in the USA and his call for justice not retribution in any response made by the governments.

Gerry Adams thanked Nelson Mandela for his efforts on behalf of the Irish Peace Process and praised the ANC and South African President Thabo Mbeki for their consistent and balanced support and encouragement over recent years.

On his visit to South Africa, Adams said: "We are here to listen and to learn from their experience and if possible to apply that to the current deepening crisis.'

On Wednesday afternoon, the Sinn FÈin President, accompanied by Siobh·n O'Hanlon of Sinn FÈin's South Africa desk and former hunger striker Pat Sheehan representing ex-prisoner organisation Coiste na nIarchimÌ, visited Robben Island, where they were given a tour before the ceremony unveiling the monument. The piece itself, designed by artist Robert Ballagh, consists of a marble base in the shape of a broken H with three bronze larks emerging from it. It stands in the exercise yard of the prison on Robben Island, overlooking the cells where Mandela, Walter Sisulu and other laders of the struggle against apartheid were held.

The Irish party was shown around the prison complex, now a museum, by South African defence minister Mouisa Lekota, who talked of his own experiences as a prisoner on Robben Island.

The unveiling was performed by Adams, Sheehan and Ahmed Kathrada, chair of the council that runs Robben Island. Indeed, Kathrada knows the island as well as anyone, having been imprisoned there for 24 years. The monumen twas officially dedicated to those who died on hunger strike in Ireland and those who suffered on hunger strike in South Africa also.

It was noted that the time of the unveiling, 3pm on Wednesday, 3 October, was exactly, to the hour, 20 years since the declaration of the end of the 1981 hunger strike. Pat Sheehan, at the time the protest was called off, had been fasting for 55 days and was within two to three days of dying.

Speaking, Gerry Adams expressed his deep honour at being present and having permission to unveil the monument. He thanked the ANC for their help and assistance over the years and spoke of the similarity of experience in terms of political prisoners. Pat Sheehan talked about his expewrience of hunger strike, while Mouisa Lekota told how political prisoners on Robben Island had watched the Hunger Strike in Ireland closely, recalling how there was even talk at one stage of a a hunger strike in solidarity with their comrades in Ireland. The South African political prisoners later did go on hunger strike to secure better conditions.

He said that the 1981 hunger strike was evidence of the resilience of the human spirit. That spirit, Lekota said, can defy any conditions and no force of arms can withstand it. He said that the monument would serve as a reminder that there are putstanding issues of freedom and justice in the world and that the question of the freedom of the Irish people has yet to be resolved. This issue requires outstanding attention, he said, adding that the Irish agenda to be free is still incomplete while this chapter is yet to be completed.

Commenting on the deepening crisis in the process, Adams said: "Unionism now appears united in its opposition to the Good Friday Agreement and to the changes it heralds. There will be enormous disappointment, among all people who want the Good Friday Agreement to work, that the unionist parties are now intent on bringing down the institutions."


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