Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams said the 25th anniversary of the 1981 hunger strikes must be used as an opportunity to look forward as well as remember those who died.
Mr Adams was joined at the Europa Hotel in Belfast by relatives of the ten hunger strikers who died and former political prisoners at the launch of a year-long series of events to mark the 25th anniversary.
The event was also addressed by Oliver Hughes, brother of the IRA hunger striker Francis Hughes, and by the former prisoners Martina Anderson and Seando Moore.
Mr Adams said the prison protests of the late 1970s and early 1980s and, in particular, the 1981 hunger strike were watershed moments in Irish history.
“It does not seem like 25 years ago when ten republican prisoners lost their lives when faced with an intransigent British government in London and an Irish government in Dublin more interested in self-interest than seeking a resolution to the situation in the H-blocks and Armagh prison,” he said.
“The forthcoming year will provide an opportunity to reflect upon the ten men who died, the contribution they made, and the sacrifices made by their families during the summer of 1981.
“These events must also be about more than looking back.
“They must also be about looking to the future, exploring how best we move our struggle forward in the coming years, and how best we complete the job of delivering Irish unity and independence.”
Mr Adams said the year-long series of events would also allow a new generation of people, who were not even born in 1981, to learn about the time and take part in mapping out the future.
“My generation of Irish republicans will never forget those terrible months from March to October when ten men died in the H-blocks of Long Kesh and over 50 others died on our streets but, in marking the 25th anniversary of the hunger strike, we have an opportunity to celebrate their lives, remember their sacrifice, and rededicate ourselves to advancing the struggle,” Mr Adams said.