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“CONTRARY to allegations made in the news media, there was not a straight line from the election of Bobby Sands in 1981 to the Stormont Agreement of 1998”, said Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, President of Republican Sinn Féin at a seminar in Lisnaskea, Co Fermanagh (2pm, Donn Carragh Hotel) on Saturday, May 5, the 20th anniversary of Bobby Sands’ death on hunger strike.
Other speakers included former hunger strikers Tommy McKearney, Tyrone and John Nixon, Armagh. The commemorative lectures were organised by Fermanagh Comhairle Ceantair, Republican Sinn Féin.
“Rather was the line from March, April and May 1981 to the same months in 1998 disfigured and distorted by an internal power-struggle for the leadership of Sinn Féin accompanied and followed by deceit and artifice as the ideals of Bobby Sands were steadily perverted and a section of the then powerful revolutionary Republican Movement turned into a constitutional party.
Those who had opposed any electoral intervention during the 1970s and were initially against Bobby Sands being a candidate in the Fermanagh-South Tyrone by-election, when ultimately convinced of nominating the hunger striking prisoner did a complete volte face on his election and sought to contest every and any election regardless of the circumstances.
They organised a section of the political prisoners and Sands’s elected successor as H-Block representative for Fermanagh -South Tyrone to throw weight against the ÉIRE NUA policy of a new Federal Ireland of the four provinces, including a nine-county Ulster, and succeeded in having it jettisoned at the Ard Fheis of Sinn Féin in the autumn of 1981. This forward-looking policy of the movement for more than 10 years was thrown out to the slogan that it was “a sop to the unionists”.
Bobby Sands commenced his hunger strike on March 1 and Frank Maguire MP for Fermanagh-South Tyrone died on March 5. Following the British government’s reneging on the settlement of the 53-day hunger strike of late 1950 and the start of another fast, it was felt that a new factor was needed to galvanise support in Ireland and abroad.
The idea of putting forward Sands as a candidate was the brain-child of a man of vision, Dáithí Ó Conaill, a long time friend of the Maguire family. It was he who proposed it to a meeting of the Ard-Chomhairle of Sinn Féin and the opposition was finally persuaded to support the move.
Incidentally, the “armalite and the ballot-box” strategy was nothing new. It dated from 1917 and as a younger man I was active in Fermanagh-South Tyrone in the campaign which elected Philip Clarke, a prisoner candidate, in 1955. Later, in 1966 I was the Republican candidate in the same constituency. Its place in history is now well marked out due to the events being commemorated today. Twenty years subsequent to the sacrifice of Bobby Sands and his nine comrades, the political status they sought and achieved has again been withdrawn from Republican prisoners.
Tommy Crossan of Belfast leads the struggle in Maghaberry Prison, Co. Antrim and was on May 2 selected as candidate for West Belfast in the coming Westminster election in order to highlight and build support for the restoration of political status to political prisoners.
Those who are loud in their support for the hunger strikers of 20 years ago are silent today in the face of the plight of Republican prisoners in Maghaberry whose physical safety even is in danger from loyalists and ordinary prisoners. The former Republicans who rebuilt the Stormont assembly are now part of the British system in Ireland and have turned their backs on the successors of Bobby Sands and his comrades.
Their progress since 1981 was not a line of advance but a gradual retreat from the ideals that motivated the hunger strikers of 20 years ago. Their policy of acceptance of Leinster House and Stormont and of the Unionist Veto on Irish national independence has now become a classic counter-revolutionary stance.
Yet the unsullied ideals of the hunger strikers who suffered such painful and agonising deaths continue to motivate and inspire young people to strive for Irish freedom. Sands, like Pearse, Connolly and MacSwiney before him has left us copious writings which makes it very difficult to misrepresent him.
He did not die for mere civil rights under English rule nor for a spurious equality, but for human dignity and prisoner-of-war treatment as part of the on-going struggle for Irish national liberation and the liberation of all humankind.
He has amply documented his case for those who wish to be aware of it.
May his noble spirit and those of all our hunger strikers enjoy the peace denied to them on this earth.
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GALWAY Republican Sinn Féin held a march and rally in Galway City on May 5th to remember the H-Block hunger strikers, and to campaign for political status for Republican prisoners currently held in Maghaberry Jail. As a result of the Stormont Agreement of 1998, political status has been withdrawn from all Republican prisoners in the Six-Counties.
The march from the Cathedral, led by a piper and the Republican Sinn Féin Colour party to Liam Mellows statue at Eyre Square. The rally was chaired by Tomás Ó Curraoin, (Bearna). During his introduction Tomás Ó Curraoin “welcomed those present on this sad but historic day to honour men who have submitted themselves to the ultimate sacrifice in giving their lives for their country. Tomás Ó Curraoin asked all present to observe a minutes silence in honour of the hunger strikers. Duirt Seán Mac An Iomaire (Cathair na Gaillimhe) deichniur den phaidrin ar son iad siud a fuair bás. Mike Connelly laid a wreath on behalf of the Republican Movement.
Colette Butler (Knocknacarra) read a tribute to Bobby Sands and read the Roll of Honour of 22 Hunger Strikers to have died in the cause of Irish Freedomform 1917 to 1881. In her tribute Colette voiced her shame to the fair weather Provisional Sinn Féiners who have sold out the cause for which the Hunger Strikers gave their lives. They have embraced the Stormont Agreement and in doing so abandoned
Tommy Crossan and other Republican prisoners fighting for political Status in Maghaberry Jail in Belfast. Bobby Sands along with the other nine Hunger Strikers died to achieve this political status.”
Long time Republican Sinn Féin member Caoimhin Mac Cathmhaoil read a poem as a tribute to Bobby Sands.
Bobby Sands and his comrades did not die for these people to go in to Stormont, no they died for Irish Freedom, free from British rule. The cause of Irish Freedom is greater then any man or woman. I urge people to follow the cause of Irish Freedom not the cause of a man or woman and follow that cause until Ireland is free from shore to shore.”
The main speaker Mr. Joe O’Neill, member of the Ard-Chomhairle of Republican Sinn Féin.
In his oration Mr. Joe O’Neill said: “This Saturday marks a very sad day, the 20th anniversary of the death of Bobby Sands MP on hunger strike in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh. Bobby Sands, from Twinbrook in West Belfast, and his comrades were on hunger strike for political status, and his death (after 66 days) was followed in the summer of 1981 by the deaths of nine others: Francis Hughes, Raymond McCreesh, Patsy O’Hara, Joe McDonnell, Martin Hurson, Kevin Lynch, Kieran Doherty TD, Thomas McElwee and Michael Devine.”
“We are here also to ask ourselves one question. Why would men give up their lives in this way? The reason was to achieve political status for those republicans who followed and to break the connection with England. The Provisionals are misrepresenting this fact of sacrifice by embracing British rule in Ireland through their participation in Stormont. Bobby Sands and his comrades did not die for these people to go in to Stormont, no they died for Irish Freedom, free from British rule. The cause of Irish Freedom is greater then any man or woman. I urge people to follow the cause of Irish Freedom not the cause of a man or woman and follow that cause until Ireland is free from shore to shore.”
“The only lasting peace that will survive is the complete withdrawal of the British form these shores. Ireland can then live in harmony and determine its own destiny along with all Irish men and women through out the 32 counties.”
Tomás Ó Curraoin closed the Commemoration and called on the piper to play Amhrain na bhFiann.
IN Dublin on May 5 over a thousand people marched behind a piper and a Fianna Éireann colour party from the Garden of Remembrance in the centre of the city to the GPO, where a large crowd had assembled. Speakers included Josephine Hayden (Dublin) and John McElhinney (Tyrone), ex-prisoners and Mary Ward (Donegal), Chairperson fo the Ulster Executive of Republican Sinn Féin.
The large crowd listened intently to the speakers as they outlined their memories of the hunger strike and related to the present day as Tommy Crossan continues his fight for political status in Maghaberry prison.
To loud cheers from the crowd a Union Jack (British national flag) was burned in a symbolic gesture.
In the course of her oration Josephine Hayden said:
“Tommy Crossan is imprisoned in Maghaberry Jail in Co Antrim. Tommy is a political prisoner though the prison authorities refuse to grant him such recognition because he was sentenced after the Stormont Agreement was signed.
“In the signing of the Belfast Agreement, political status was to be denied to Republicans who were arrested, tried and sentenced after April10, 1998. Remember this agreement was signed by the very people who 20 years ago were out campaigning for political status for Bobby Sands and his comrades on hunger strike in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh. Today some of those same people are British Ministers in a British Assembly implementing British rule in Ireland and using the name of Bobby Sands and his comrades to gain more seats in Leinster House, Stormont and Westminster.
“But it was not for seats in a partitioned assembly – or indeed in Westminster — that Bobby Sands and his comrades endured such a horrible death. These principled men endured a horrible death rather than allow themselves to be criminalised – nor would they allow the struggle for freedom and justice in this country to be criminalised. They proved to the world that they were political prisoners fighting a political struggle and that their country had the right to take it’s place among the nations of the world as a free and united nation.
“Yet today, 20 years after Bobby Sands death, we are asking you to campaign once again for political status for Irelands freedom fighters. We are asking you to campaign to have restored that which was sold out by the Provisionals for a few seats at the table and a British minister’s salary.
These British ministers are trying to tell us that there are no political prisoners in Ireland because they say so. But no British minister, be they Irish or otherwise, will tell the Irish people that they cannot have freedom fighters or political prisoners. Until Ireland is free we can expect to have political prisoners because there will always be men and women willing to continue the struggle for Independence.
“Tommy Crossan is one such young man enduring hardship, harassment, intimidation and beatings in Maghaberry prison. He is housed with the loyalist prisoners who have beaten him so badly that he had to have hospital treatment – he was also scalded with boiling water. His family on the outside is suffering intimidation and harassment and now they have been told they and Tommy are on a loyalist death list. He is strip-searched on a daily basis and some of his mail is not getting through. It is up to us to highlight these issues and to work on Tommy’s behalf.
“It is for this reason the Sinn Féin Poblachtach decided to stand Tommy as a candidate in the forthcoming Westminster election on an abstentionist ticket. A high profile campaign can only assist Tommy in his fight to restore political status to POWs.
“We must all highlight wherever possible the situation regarding Tommy and remind people why 20 years ago ten brave men believed they had no option but to go on hunger strike for their five demands.
“Hunger strikes and the issue of political status is nothing new to Republicans. In 1974 and 1976 we attended the funerals of Michael Gaughan and Frank Stagg who died on hunger strike in British jails for political status. Such funerals must never take place again. “Support Tommy Crossan!
In her speech Mary Ward said “During the hunger strike, in a sermon in Westminster Abbey in London, on December 1, 1980, a leading Anglican theologian, Dr John Austin Baker, who was then the chaplain to the Speaker of the British House of Commons, and who is now Bishop of Salisbury, pointed out:
“No British government ought ever to forget that this perilous moment, like many before it, is the outworking of a history for which our country is primarily responsible. England seized Ireland for its own military benefit, it planted Protestant settlers there to make it strategically secure, it humiliated and penalised the native Irish and their Catholic religion – and then when it could no longer hold on to the whole island, kept back part to be a home for the settlers’ descendants, a non-viable solution from which Protestants have suffered as much as anyone.
“Our injustice created the situation, and by constantly repeating that we will maintain it so long as the majority wish it, we actively inhibit Protestant and Catholic from working out a new future together. This is the root of violence, and the reason why the protesters think of themselves as political offenders.”
“We in Republican Sinn Féin agree with Bishop Baker’s analysis.
“With the best will in the world the current process cannot lead to a just and lasting peace because it is based on the wrong agenda. It is founded on the false belief that one can ignore the underlying realities of the unjust settlement that caused the problem in the first place, the partitioning of Ireland against the will of the majority of Irish people – and then patch up that evil by modifying the different relationships, ie the two statelets imposed on Ireland by Partition.
“These relationships would not exist at all to begin with if they had not been drawn up and enforced at gunpoint. In the words of Lloyd George, British prime minister during the Treaty of Surrender in 1921, “Ireland should be visited with immediate and terrible war”. Their purpose was to distort real democracy and true Irish self-determination.
“The saddest and most amazing thing about this current sell-out is not only that it has been so well camouflaged, but it is in fact being 'sold' by some of out former comrades as not just a stepping-stone a la Collins, but in fact as a victory.
“Even younger Republicans in our midst are well aware that sell-outs are nothing new – not just of ideals and principled positions but in the honest use of language and in open and honest discussion of the issues themselves.
“Republican Sinn Féin stands most of all for a settlement, a generous democratic settlement of the Irish problem by constitutional discussion between all the people of Ireland. Britain can have no part in either setting the agenda or devising the constitutional solution. That is a matter for the sovereign Irish people. All Britain can do is set up a debate to leave Ireland for all time, lock, stock and barrel.
“We must not betray the enormous sacrifices already made, not least by those we commemorate this year, the H-Block Martyrs, but work to realise them in the everyday lives of our people. Anything less would be unworthy of those we honour and of ourselves.
“In conclusion, I will quote from a letter Francis Hughes wrote to the people of Derry on March 1, 1981:
“I have no prouder boast than to say I am Irish and have been privileged to fight for the Irish people and for Ireland. If I have a duty I will perform it to the full in the unshakeable belief that we are a noble race and that chains and bonds have no part in us . . . There is no white flag and there will be no surrender.”
“Victory to the All-Ireland Republic! An Phoblacht Abú!”
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