Dublin recalls H-Block struggle
In an historic event last Friday evening, 27 October Bik McFarlane, OC at the time of the 1981 Hunger Strike, met at a public meeting in Dublin with some of those on whom the prisoners had relied so heavily back then. ``It was a privilege to meet them here today and to listen to their contributions, something other prisoners would have liked to do,'' he said.
Sinn Féin's Anne Speed chaired the proceedings in a packed room in the Irish Film Centre in Temple Bar. She led off with a tribute to the courage and example of the hunger strikers and explained that the meeting was the first in a yearlong programme of events to commemorate the Hunger Strikes of 1980 and 1981.
The hunger strikers were ordinary people who did extraordinary things to help us to get to where we are going and we should go away from here looking to ensure that the legacy of `81 is progress and peace in this country
Vincent Doherty organised H-block Armagh Committees and action groups all over the country. He spoke of the establishment of the broad front H-Block Armagh Committee, how it nearly didn't happen, and then to Dublin and the H Block/Armagh Committee in Mountjoy Square, where their only equipment was a golfball typewriter and a Gestetner.
Finian McGrath, the independent Dublin City councillor who had organised support amongst the trade unions, the working people, recalled the struggle which, he said, the five Sinn Féin councillors on Dublin City Council carry on so well today. He talked of the thousands who stopped work, who walked off sites and closed down factories on the day of Bobby Sands' funeral, many to join the 100,000 people who walked behind his coffin.
Sean Crowe, now a member of South Dublin County Council, spoke passionately of organising Youth against H-Block/Armagh and of the profound effect the events of those years have had on his life. He told how in 1981 they took over radio stations, witnessed Garda brutality outside British Home Stores on O'Connell Street, and `occupied' a train engine at Connolly Station. He recalled how they had travelled allover the country to protests. ``None of our lives would ever be the same again.''
Marie Gavigan, herself a prisoner in Armagh in the 1970s, spoke of the conditions in the jail, of prisoners like Mary Doyle and Mairead Farrell, who both went on hunger strike. She spoke of the death of Maura Drumm and of how Mairead, OC at the time, had to break the news of Maura's death, (gunned down in hospital) to her daughter by shouting across the wing. She spoke of the strip searching, the humiliation of the women. To break the struggle, the British had to break the women, and they didn't, she said.
Bik McFarlane, who held the unenviable position of OC in the Blocks for the 1981 Hunger Strike, said how hard it was to talk about those times.
``Between 1975 and 1978, the Brits, the RUC, with the help of the media, rounded up hundreds, bucket loads,'' he said. ``They came in, battered and bruised, processed through the Diplock Courts, sentences rose from 10 to 20 to 25 years. It was a strategy to depoliticise, to criminalise the republican struggle. They chose hard ground, the prisons, to break the republican struggle.
``What was at stake? It was their challenge to the struggle in this country, they thought us the soft underbelly, they sought to criminalise us, to break our base of support. No one would support a criminal movement.
``The NIO gave the screws carte blanche, to do what they liked. The comradeship sustained us. The conditions in the blocks, it was the humour that kept the depression from setting in, even up in the hospital, where people were lying dying.''
Bik recalled a visit with Joe McDonnell. He'd only heard him across the wing and had never met him. ``He was small, but tough, a hard man, shrunken to a waif, in a wheelchair. He spent all the visit trying to get me a smoke, and I don't smoke, and spring water. Two days later he was dead.''.
He talked of the women who had started the Relatives Action Committees and of the suffering of the families. For them, he said, it was all only yesterday. He paid tribute to all the people who were killed through the protests and struggle in 1981.
The 1981 Hunger Strike could have been avoided, he said. The British Foreign office was for reaching a comproomise, but the desire to push the prisoners to the brink ``came from the securocrats of the day, in the NIO, military people, who felt they had us on the run, who went against the advice of the Foreign Office, which had a wider world view.
``The securocrats are still there, looking to maintain the status quo, their positions of power, and they are doing it still, 20 years on, attempting to undermine any kind of progress whatever.
``1981 laid a foundation stone for the development and expansion of republican politics and of the movement that has brought us to where we are today,'' he said. ``What the Hunger Strike did, and what it set out to do, was to create an example. It created a lot of anger, tempered by good clear vision of what needed to be done.
``Politically, the fundamental thing was that it laid that stone where people could look to the example that was given. They propelled the whole thing into a bigger political focus. People with vision saw that there was a wealth of support out there that we didn't realise, and that we could channel it. Not just emotional support, good political support.''
``The message of 1981 is that the prisoners took on the British Government. Ten men died. They beat Maggie Thatcher, they beat the criminalisation policy, they internationalised the struggle, they developed a political base that has gone to extraordinary lengths today.
``They were ordinary people, some of them talented, but they were ordinary people who did extraordinary things to help us to get to where we are going and we should go away from here looking to ensure that the legacy of `81 is progress and peace in this country.''