The lesson of 1981 - Advance the struggle
As Martin Ferris rose to deliver the 18th Bobby Sands memorial lecture in the Felons Club in West Belfast last Friday night, 5 May, the thoughts of the majority of those in the audience would have been with the family of Kieran Nugent.
Kieran, the first man to go on ``the Blanket'' in this present phase of struggle, had died the previous day.
For 19 years, republicans have been broadening the political field and building political strength. Through our advice centres, and campaigns, our elected representatives, in the pages of An Phoblacht and throughout the negotiation process, Sinn Féin has been continuing the work begun two decades ago in Long Kesh and Armagh jails.
Kieran was the man who warned the British prison authorities that if they ``want me to wear a prison uniform they'll have to nail it to my back'', and became the symbol of republican resistance in the jails, a testament to his courage and determination.
In his lecture, Ferris paid tribute to those prisoners who died on hunger strike, ``those who took part in the prison struggle, and those who have since died, particularly Kieran Nugent. This weekend is both about them and for them. There can be no distinguishing between their courage, strength, determination and generosity.
``We look back at those sacrifices of 1980 and 1981 and ask ourselves why? Why did these men give up their lives? From 1976 through to the end of 1980, hundreds and hundreds of republican POWs in Armagh and Long Kesh endured the most barbaric and inhumane conditions. They led the battle against the British government's policy of criminalisaton - the attempt to hide their role in the war in our country. While focusing on our political prisoners, this policy was part of a broader strategy aimed at destroying the entire republican struggle and vision.
``By 1980, after almost five years of the daily and hourly struggle for survival, the republican prisoners decided that their struggle for political status had to be raised to a new level.
``They decided, with the full knowledge of the implications and consequences of their actions, that the last resort of hunger strike was the only tool left with which to advance the struggle for political status. The decision to hunger strike was not made in order to fulfill some vision of self sacrifice. It was a pragmatic decision, made in the context of a struggle for better living conditions within the prison, which would be used to move the struggle forward, from criminalisation to political status.
``In 1981, the deaths of our ten comrades was probably the most painful time in recent republican history.
``The cynicism and lack of humanity of the British government was laid bare before the world. The Irish hunger strikers became a symbol, not only against oppression, but also of humanity and of the desire of people to be free.
``In the words of a fellow political prisoner from South Africa, Strinni Moodley, the Irish republican prisoners were and remain symbols for humanity, because they were the very articulation of humanity. They made the greatest sacrifice for their fellow human beings. They died for the sake of the human race.
``What is probably most striking about Bobby Sands is that he was an ordinary man who became extraordinary because of the sheer scale of oppression and terror and hope and resistance he grew up with. His involvement in political life was a consequence of both his environment and his personality. He was the kind of young man who could not remain passive in the face of discrimination or violence.
``Whether as a local community activist within the tenants' association, in political work as a Sinn Féin activist or indeed as an IRA Volunteer, his life became a life of resistance.
``His level of political commitment was incredible. He was willing to put his life on the line as an IRA Volunteer and he endured the realities of prison during the darkest days of British oppression. He was willing to go a stage further and offer his life so that we would be free. This is a commitment that cannot be measured, it cannot be quantified. It is absolute. He also had a strength and determination which enabled him to see his convictions through to the end.
``He was an inspiration to all those who came into contact with him.
``However he was also a son, a brother, a friend and a husband and father. He was an ordinary human being whose death brought great suffering and grief to those who loved him and were close to him. Irrespective of all that I have said, we must never lose sight of the fact that his sacrifice was also the sacrifice of his family. And their courage, their strength and their commitment must be remembered and applauded.
``All of those who were on hunger strike and all of their families and friends endured the same pain, the same suffering and the same grief. Whatever the circumstances, whatever the subsequent developments, we have a duty to honour and remember them all in equal measure. The image of Bobby Sands is their collective image and we must never lose sight of that.
``The hunger strikes broke the British government and their prison administration in the North of Ireland. It was the defining moment in the battle for political status and indeed the wider battle for Irish freedom, justice and equality.
``Politically, the impact of the hunger strikes on republican politics, on Irish politics and indeed on Britain's policy here in Ireland was both profound and far reaching. It has been described as a watershed and there is no other way of describing it.
``It shook both the northern and southern states to their foundations and laid the foundations for political developments that are beginning to bear fruit today.
``The most important of the changes brought about by the hunger strikes were those within republicanism itself. Through the campaign for political status and then the hunger strike itself, Irish republicans reengaged with politics for the first time since the civil rights movement. We developed a broad-based popular campaigning dimension to the struggle which provided a vehicle for thousands of people to become involved and express themselves politically.
``The lessons of the hunger strikes have become guiding principles in everything that we are doing in the present. Change did not come easily or quickly at that time and as we are witnessing today, it requires a long and determined struggle in which all people can play their part.
``There is no point in people sitting here and reflecting on either the tragic or the human side of the hunger strike unless we ask ourselves what is our responsibility for advancing the struggle. How will we best honour the commitment and sacrifice of those who died on hunger strike? Ask yourself what can move us closer towards our goal of a united democratic socialist 32-county Ireland. This will only be achieved if everyone plays their part no matter how small, no matter how great.''