Hunger strikers and families remembered
Hunger strikers and families remembered

Republicans across the country yesterday lit candles on Sunday to mark the 25th anniversary of the 1981 hunger strike.

Irish Republican Army and Irish National Liberation Army prisoners in Long Kesh jail began the hunger strike in March 1981. Ten men had died by the time it was called off in October.

The first to die was Bobby Sands, who began the fast and who was elected MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone in an April by-election. His death on May 5, 1981 after 66 days on hunger strike was followed by the biggest funeral ever seen in the North. Around 100,000 people lined the route to Milltown Cemetery in west Belfast.

The hunger strike smashed British attempts to criminalise Republican prisoners and kick started Sinn Féin’s entry into electoral politics.

Bik McFarlane, the IRA officer commanding in the County Antrim jail at the time of the 1981 hunger strike, said the initiative was a way of showing continuing solidarity with the families of the hunger strikers, especially the mothers on Mother’s Sunday.

“We chose Mother’s Day as the day when we are asking people to place the candle in the window of their homes as a particular tribute to the immediate families of those who died and as a tribute to the courage they displayed throughout those long and difficult months from March to October 1981,” he said.

A documentary shot more than 25 years ago is to be screened tonight as part of the Belfast Film Festival.

The renowned World in Action documentary about the 1980 hunger strike broadcast the first video of the protests inside Long Kesh prison.

Former prisoner Raymond McCartney, now a Sinn Féin representative, became the unofficial spokesman for his colleagues after producers asked him to appear on camera and explain the reasons behind the strike.

Mr McCartney is to introduce tonight’s screening.

“Paul Greengrass, one of the show’s producers, had read a newspaper article about the effect Bloody Sunday had had on me,” he said.

“We all felt that it was an opportunity to bring a human perspective to what was being shown on the news and to explain why we were fighting for recognition.”

The resulting show, entitled H-Block Fuse, attracted a lot of attention when it aired on television.

“Up until then, the public had only ever seen us behind closed doors but the show showed us in a very poignant and emotional light,” said Mr McCartney.

“Whether it changed very many opinions, I don’t know, but I think it had an impact on hearts and minds, which is what we wanted.”

A quarter of a century later, Mr McCartney said the documentary was still relevant. He will introduce a screening of the programme at the Culturlann in west Belfast at 7.30pm tomorrow as part of the Belfast Film Festival.

“It’s great that it’s being shown now, on the 25th anniversary of the hunger strikes.

“It’s a hugely significant programme because it was the first time we were interviewed on television and the first time the public got to see what really went on in Long Kesh,” he said.

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© 2006 Irish Republican News