Remembering Tom Barry

Sinn Féin Assembly member for North Belfast Gerry Kelly spoke on Sunday at the annual Crossbarry commemoration, remembering the British Army operation of 1921 which set out to eliminate Tom Barry’s famous Third West Cork Flying column. The operation ended with the deaths of 4 IRA Volunteers and 39 enemy troops.

During the course of today’s speech Gerry Kelly recalled meeting with Tom Barry in Cork. He also reflected on the current phase of the Republican struggle.

Is onoir mor domhsa bheith anseo inniu, ag labhairt libh san ait stairiul seo. Agus is fior ait stairiul e de thairbhe go bhfuil muid cruinnithe anseo ag cuimhniu ar na fir a chuaigh amach, ar an la sin chuin troid ar son na saoirse.

In the small hours of March 19th, 1921, a huge British Army operation involving well over 1000 troops, began. The British set out to eliminate the very active Third West Cork Flying column, which contained a total of 104 IRA volunteers. What the British underestimated, to their cost, was the military prowess of the legendary Commandant General Tom Barry and his officers. They also grossly underestimated the conviction, bravery and determination of Irish men and women fighting for the freedom of their country and their people. It is a miscalculation they paid for dearly at the time and many times since.

By the end of that fateful day 4 volunteers lay dead while 39 British soldiers lost their lives and forty seven were wounded.This is the 85th Anniversary of the Crossbarry ambush. It is also the 90th Anniversary of Easter week 1916, which was one of the greatest historical events of the last century. It started the bush fire of decolonisation, which was to engulf what was then the British Empire. It inspired generations of Irish Republicans and peoples throughout the world who rose up against the tyranny of colonial rule, imperialism and oppression. It is a fire still burning in the heart of every Irish republican.

If 1916 was the catalyst to mass resistance to oppression then Crossbarrry was arguably the catalyst to negotiations between the British and Irish which commenced a few months later in July 1921. The 1918 election which ratified the establishment of Dail Eireann as the sovereign parliament of a 32 County Republic was the democratic will of the Irish people writ large. The British of course tried to suppress that will through terror and brutality. This drove more and more Irish men and women to take up arms throughout the country.

Out of the talks came the partition of Ireland and while it removed the British occupation from the 26 Counties. The oppression in the 6 North Easter Counties continued and intensified resulting in rebellion in every generation culminating in the insurrection triggered off by the pograms of 1969.

I met Tom Barry in Cork in 1972. I was a young volunteer in the IRA in the Ballymurphy area of West Belfast. I didn’t then realise the coincidence with the Ballymurphy townland which was headquarters to the West Cork Brigade.

I think Tom Barry was in his 70’s. There was about a dozen of us down from Belfast as there was a short truce at the time. We were all teenagers and on active service. What I remember most about our conversations was that despite our youth he showed us respect and discussed the struggle in the North on an equal basis. He had his own opinions and advice but he also listened attentively to our views and discussed the issues out. As far as he was concerned it was the continuation of the struggle for Irish freedom to which he and his comrades had dedicated themselves. He was indeed an inspiration. Tom Barry made no distinction between the IRA volunteers of his generation and the volunteers of our generation.

In commemorating and celebrating the bravery of our fallen comrades, I want to pay tribute to the volunteers and leadership of the IRA of today because they have shown outstanding valour and vision on and off the battlefield. They have played a central role in this phase of the struggle and I commend their initiatives, patience, discipline and tenacity.

The now famous battle in West Cork in 1921 epitomises the David and Golaith struggle of the IRA throughout the generations. If courage were the yardstick of success then the British would be long gone from the whole country.

Indeed individual and collective courage have been the mainstay of this long struggle. It was the courage shown by the leadership of the IRA in calling a cessation of military operations in 1994 which was the catalyst for not only the overall peace process but for the ongoing development of the republican strategy which has brought us so far today.

On July 28th, 2005 the Irish Republican Army announced that it had formally ended its armed campaign. This was a courageous and truly historic step to advance the cause of peace and the cause of Irish freedom.

There are turning points in a nation’s history that change the course of that nations people. The 1916 rising was such an event so was the Crossbarrry ambush, as was the Hunger Strike of 1981. Despite the profound difficulties for many Republicans the IRA statement of July 28th, 2005 could be another such event. The IRA has provided a golden opportunity to advance a new era in our long struggle. It is crucial that this opportunity be grasped by Republicans and opponents alike across the island.

In the coming weeks there will be renewed efforts to advance the peace process. Republicans have taken hugely important decisions. It is time for others to respond in like manner. The challenge is there not just for the DUP but for the British and Irish governments also.

The Assembly will be reconvened on May 15th. Sinn Féin will be there with a focus on forming a power sharing government on the basis of the Good Friday Agreement. The inescapable question for the DUP is whether they are prepared to join with the rest of us in sharing power. If they refuse then the 2 governments must deliver on their commitments to jointly implement all other elements of the Good Friday Agreement.

Sinn Féin has become the largest political party in the North. We became the 3rd largest party in Ireland. We are the only all-Ireland party. Republicans have the capability of achieving a united Ireland and we are constantly building the capacity to achieve that goal.

We will only do that by leading with courage and imagination, by taking initiatives and above all by hard work. More and more people in Ireland North and South are looking to us for leadership. It has meant activists changing and adapting their role in our struggle. Perhaps few activists thought they could adapt, but, as they say, ‘the proof is in the pudding’.

It has been the Republican ability to face each new situation, each new obstacle to overcome, in an open and imaginative way, which has proven the versatility and ability of the Republican activist. There is no lack of work in this struggle and make no mistake the work that republicans put into this struggle is the envy of political struggles the world over.

The Good Friday Agreement is about the rights and entitlements of citizens. They are not negotiating chips to be bartered for, or withheld. They are absolute and should be defended. Sinn Féin is not going to stand by and allow Human rights, equality, ending discrimination, the rights of Irish language speakers, the achievement of an acceptable policing service or any other of our rights, to be subject to any unionist veto. These are our rights and we will persist until they are achieved.

Republicans believe in people. We believe in empowering people, in working in partnership with local communities to tackle problems and map out new policies.

One of the most encouraging aspects of this phase of our struggle has been the numbers of young people attracted to our struggle. A new generation of activists are taking their place in the struggle and we must ensure that place is secured. The first people out to defend our areas against physical attack are youth - they should also be in the vanguard of our political project.

Sinn Féin is a republican party. We are the only All-Ireland party. Our goal is to see a United Ireland, which delivers real social and economic change. We are the only party with a strategy and policies for achieving Irish unity and independence. An All Ireland democracy. An Ireland of equals

We will never again accept the status of second-class citizens. Neither will we ever impose second-class citizenship upon anyone else. But unionists too have responsibilities and this includes the need to break with sectarian politics. The politics of domination.

However, in this process we also have to remember that for many unionists the change we have embarked upon is a terrifying prospect. Change is always difficult. When taken in the context of a conflict resolution process, change can be traumatic. And this can be made even more difficult when there are those, both within sections of unionism and within the British political and military establishment who still want to hold on to the old ways. The effect of political policing over the last few years, especially where the institutions were collapsed on a lie, demonstrates the dangers. That is where the most serious threat to the peace process comes from at this time.

Our goal as Irish republicans is an Irish unity that is inclusive, that unionists will feel welcome in, that they are a part of.

There is much work to do. But we believe that we are in the countdown to a united Ireland. We believe that together we can make further progress and truly transform society on this island forever.

Is the British government up for this?

Time will tell.

Is the Irish government up for this?

Let’s test that. The Irish Government has after all a constitutional imperative to work for a United Ireland.

We are commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Hunger Strike, we can mirror the 5 demands of the Hunger strikers with the Irish government.

1. The Irish government should produce a Green paper on Irish unity.

2. The work of the all-Ireland ministerial council should be expanded and additional all-Ireland implementation bodies created.

3. MPs elected in the 6 counties should be accorded speaking rights in the Dail.

4. Voting rights for Presidential elections should be extended to citizens in the six counties.

5. The Irish government should actively engage with the British government and unionism to promote and seek support for reunification.

Is Sinn Féin up for it?

The answer is a word unionist political leaders need to learn. The answer is YES. Sinn Féin is up for making this work. Our activists and supporters are up for it.

Is the IRA up for it?

Who, except for the most vitriolic and blind anti republican elements could doubt that the IRA is up for it. Republicans have stretched themselves repeatedly to keep the peace process on track.

The people we represent have rights. So does everyone on this island, unionist and others alike. We have been through pre-condition, after pre-condition, after pre-condition.

We are all on the journey. It is always easier to begin a journey. The hard thing is to reach the end.

Sinn Féin is in this process to the end. We want the British government and the Irish government and the unionists to work with us and to finish the work we have all started. The length of the journey can be shortened and the ups and downs on the road can be smoothed out if we go at it collectively. If we do it together.

This also is a day for remembering fallen comrades and all of those who died as a result of conflict. We are here to celebrate their lives and we send out solidarity greetings to their families and friends.

Let’s also remember POW?s still incarcerated. There are still political prisoners in jail. They should be released immediately. There are people on the run. They should be with their families.

Republicans are not chained by history. They learn from it and use it. That is why important initiatives have been taken on so many occasions. While unionists are fixated with slowing down and frustrating change republicans want more change, want to move on from the past. But there will be a need for more discipline and a well of patience by republicans. More courage is called for. Those who have set their minds against change will be more provocative. The bigots and the securocrats dream of wrecking the structures of change. They want to destroy rather than build. Their tools are bigotry, mistrust, political policing and paramilitary attacks. They should be starved of anything that feeds their frenzy.

Republicans have a better vision.

Let me say now what I have said many times when commemorating fallen comrades. I do not claim to speak for the dead. I cannot give you Tom Barry’s view of our strategy or Padraic Pearse’s or Tom Kellehers or Bobby Sands. I can only tell you this: The duty of those who take up the mantle, those who are privileged to lead, is to carry on that struggle for a United Ireland to the best of their ability. To use the best strategy and tactics suitable for 2006. Learn from 1916, 1921, and 1981 but lead in the 21st Century.

I am confident that we will build on our achievements and substantially increase our political strength. We must continue to build on that strength, the stronger we are the closer our goal of a free independent, and united Ireland will come.

We face difficult challenges ahead but also with great opportunities. We s tand on the threshold of great change. Previous generations have struggled for a united Ireland. It is, however, our generation who have the possibility of achieving that goal. So go out and do what you do best.

Bigi cinnte go dtiocfaidh ar la.

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© 2006 Irish Republican News