This is the 24th anniversary of the Great Hunger Strike of 1981. That is almost a generation ago. Many of the young people here today were not born then. Many others were too young to remember those long weeks and months of intense emotion and heartache for the hunger strikers families and for our generation of Irish Republicans; for the friends, comrades and loved ones of those who so gallantly gave their lives.
Looking back, I am struck with the pride of being Irish and a member of the Irish Republican community. There has been much tragedy and bravery in the last 35 years. But to me the 1981 Hunger Strike was one of the greatest historical events of the last century, which impacted far beyond these shores. On the one hand it is a monument to mans inhumanity to man, to what powerful governments can do to the defenceless, of what larger nations can do to smaller ones. But more importantly the Hunger Strike epitomises the ability of the defenceless to withstand the military and political might of colonial governments and occupying armies.
Where else would you find the courage and tenacity and commitment shown by Irish Republican Hunger Strikers; political prisoners lying completely naked in cells after years of systematic physical and mental brutality and torture in Armagh Women’s Prison and in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh. And they still found the strength and spirit to take on a harsh, merciless and utterly cruel regime with the only weapon they had left - their own bodies. Nor was it the first time.
In remembering our 10 comrades who gave their lives let us also remember Michael Gaughan, Frank Stagg, Sean McCaughey and his comrades, Tom Ashe, Terence McSweeney and those other comrades who gave their lives in slow, increasingly painful deaths to protect our birthright and to push our struggle forward to the ultimate goal of a 32 county Ireland, united and free.
Let us remember also that they were all, active volunteers, Irish Republican soldiers. So for the generation coming up now I don’t know what you might be told in school or college or university but I do know the truth, these men gave their lives for this generation and the generations still to come. They were ordinary men born into extraordinary circumstances who did extraordinary things; rising to the challenge again and again. They were volunteers and let their lives & deaths be testimony to the fact that they were the best of a generation of freedom fighters ever produced by Ireland, or anywhere else. They, along with other political activists have reclaimed Irish history from the revisionists. They have worked actively for the democratic objective of a United and independent Ireland which can deliver National democracy and equality which should be every man and woman’s birthright. They came and come from this crowd here today and the surrounding city and countryside of Ireland. They were truly of the people.
Now I am here to pay tribute to the Hunger Strikers but let me make it clear, crystal clear, I do not pretend or presume to know what their thoughts or attitudes would be on the present situation or indeed any of the developments in our struggle over the last 24 years. One of the tragedies of war is that the struggle loses some of its best activists in any armed conflict. Greater then is the responsibility for those left alive to take up the challenge of leadership; to finish the job.
One claim only I make with certitude. The objectives for which they gave their young lives, remains the objectives we as republicans will continue to struggle for until we are successful.
It is ironic and symbolic that the people of the 6 counties went to the polls on the 24th anniversary of Bobby Sands death. It was his election in Fermanagh / South Tyrone which made the suffering in the H-Blocks & Armagh Women’s Goal an international issue. By the way special congratulations to Michelle Gildernew who expanded her lead from 53 votes to over 5000. It is also ironic that that election on the 5th May last, followed months of vilification and vitriol against Irish Republicans. Never since the Thatcher regime have I witnessed such on onslaught from the establishment attempting to criminalise our republican past and present.
The difference this time is that the Brits weren’t even in the forefront. The front runners in this opportunistic and despicable propaganda drive has included leading members of the SDLP as well as Irish Government ministers such as Michael (Mad Dog) McDowell and Dermot and Bertie Ahern. At the core of this are electoral interests in the 26 Counties. In pursuit of that the interests of the peace process have been set aside, the interests of national and democratic rights and the rights of citizens have been set aside. This is an absolute disgrace.
Ministers in the Irish government need to move beyond party politics. They have a duty to defend Irish national interests just as the British are driven by British national interests. The Irish government must be active advocates of Irish unity.
But despite the months of abuse and poisonous invective from sections of the media and our political opponents Sinn Féin have emerged from the recent elections stronger and with an enhanced mandate. Sinn Féin now have 2 MEP’s, 5 TD’s, 5 MP’s, 24 MLA’s, 1 member of Udaras na Gaeltachta and 252 councillors across Ireland. Today the political transformation throughout Ireland owes much to that success and the political strength and vision of republicans. For our part we will not settle for less than the national and democratic rights of the people of Ireland. I want to congratulate all those activists who worked so hard in the election. I want to thank the thousands of voters who responded positively to this. Despite the onslaught we advanced our representation and our national project. I don’t want to single out anyone in particular but Conor Murphy’s win was spectacular. And of course since we are in the Lower Falls, we have done what pundits thought was impossible. Five out of Five in a PR election.
Of course the DUP have consolidated their leadership of Unionism. Many people find Paisley’s politics distasteful - to say the least; The bluster and the bigotry and the belligerence. We are getting a lot of it from the leadership of Unionism at the moment.
But if the DUP believe they can turn back the clock to 1969 or even pre 1998 they have another thing coming. The politics of Ireland and the political institutions of Ireland are irreversibly cast in an all Ireland context. If the DUP think they will have a veto over power sharing - they are wrong. If they believe they will have an Assembly based on Castlereagh or Lisburn council they are wrong. If they think direct rule can continue indefinitely they are wrong. If they believe they can govern without sharing power they are wrong. If they believe they can stop change they are wrong. If they believe there is a future in excluding Sinn Féin and our voters they are living in cloud cuckoo land. The world is clear about what the DUP are against - they have been saying it since their inception.
What people want to know is what they are for. What is their vision - do they have one? Other than to prevent change.
There are few things inevitable in life or in this long struggle but one, I think, is that there will be further talks, which must involve the DUP and Sinn Féin. Negotiations herald change. Change brings a great deal of soul searching. It also means breaking moulds.
The DUP leadership knows this from December last. They moved into unchartered waters. They were uncomfortable with the political currents. Hey! Welcome to the real world of politics where you have the power and it’s time to do something with it. When Republicans have power they do something with it. The DUP haven’t many choices but shouting slogans is not equivalent to action.
We are undoubtedly in a crucial phase of our struggle. That phase so far has tested the mettle of our activists and supporters. We have had to deal continually with new concepts and open new areas of struggle. In my opinion, we have done so with a lot of confidence and ability. A confidence and ability indicative of republicanism throughout Ireland.
Politically, it is true, that the process is in a deep crisis. People are tired and angry but still determined. Whatever happens in the weeks and months ahead it is important that every republican is focussed on our primary goal of a united and democratic Ireland, because it is collectively, it is together that we will achieve our goal. Here is the challenge facing us. As political activists we must think strategically, debate strategically and decide what is best for our party, for the cause we represent, and most importantly for the people we represent. We must act in the interests of all of the people of this island.
What our opponents need, is to accept the reality of a growing republican representation. They need to know we are not going away. Like it or not republicans are a substantial part of the future. It is better that they accept that reality now.
The SDLP according to recent comments don’t know whether they want 10 commissioners to run the North or a voluntary coalition, excluding Sinn Féin. No wonder then that the DUP think they can publicly court or cajole the SDLP into bed with them. Wake up and smell the coffee folks. The reality in South Africa was that the resolution came between the ANC and the Afrikaners. It doesn’t worry me at all that the DUP lead unionism. There is no where to run from the reality that they have to deal with Republicans. The sooner the better for all of us living on this relatively small island.
Let me return to our comrades who died on Hunger Strike. I would like to give the support and thoughts of everyone here today, to their families. It may be 24 years ago but to their families and loved ones, to their friends and comrades it might as well have been yesterday. An important part of gathering in their memory is to let their loved ones know that our thoughts are with them. Another part of the commemoration is the opportunity to rededicate ourselves to their cause and gain inspiration and strength from their great well of spirit.
We are Irish republicans; our vision of a United Ireland is stronger than ever and more achievable than ever. Those who have died over the years did so looking to the future for all of us. We rededicate ourselves as we step confidently forward; to achieving the future they fought and died for.
Bigi cinnte go dtiocfaidh ar la.