The full text of the address by Sinn Fein Assembly member Michelle O’Neill at the party’s annual hunger strike commemoration in Dungiven, County Derry, last weekend.
A chairde agus a chomradaithe,
It is difficult to express in words the immense honour, pride and privilege that I feel today, being asked to speak at this commemoration.
It is especially important for me as a Clonoe woman to be here in the heart of O’Cathain country. And might I add, it is great to see the Derry ‘wans’ admitting they need to listen to Tyrone now and again!!
But, in all seriousness, the rest of our island could learn a thing or two from the courage and consistency of County Derry down through the generations - the county which gave us five of the ten Hunger Strikers in 1981.
It is especially fitting to be here in the homeland of Kevin Lynch. He was born in Park village, just out the road. He played here as a child, went to school here, learned his skills with a caman, a sliotar and a gaelic ball in these fields. It was here that he grew into manhood and became part of the struggle, before being captured by the Brits. This area, like the homelands of all the Hunger-Strikers, has a special place in Republicanism.
So it is with a spirit of comradeship and a strength of unity that all of us gather here today. I want to particularly welcome the relatives and families of the Hunger-Strikers, and those of all our patriot dead. You were, and are, a constant inspiration to my generation.
I was only four years of age in the summer of 1981. Many of my relatives and friends, and my current colleagues and comrades, were older and active during that time - some on the streets, some on the blanket, some on the run. Within this collective memory rests all our living history as activists for freedom. And we should never, ever forget what we came through.
Fathers carried coffins; mothers battled Brits; sons stood on protests; daughters took batons; uncles drove hearses; aunts gathered communities; cousins wore blankets; marchers faced bullets; friends endured hell; heroes gave their lives.
No role was too big or too small; no one was too old or too young; no part was better or worse; each action was a vital step in our movement’s collective march of freedom.
The importance of political prisoners has never been confined to one generation of our freedom struggle. Writing in The Four Glorious Years, David Hogan recalled:
“From 1917 to 1921 the prison struggles gave the people new fortitude. That was particularly so about Terence McSwiney’s death. It brought the spirit of Ireland’s resistance to the very ends of the earth; an unquenchable devotion to liberty pitted against the perfect war machine of a great Power.”
And so it was sixty years later, as hundreds of political prisoners stood in blankets on the frontline of the freedom struggle in Long Kesh and Armagh; where they honed their skill and ingenuity as political activists and thinkers; where some became elected to parliaments; and where the demands for Irish sovereignty were politicised and internationalised as never before.
Hanging on the wall of the Sinn Fein office in Coalisland is a poem that gives voice to that vision of freedom. It looks down on the work that we do every day. Sometimes I take the time to think about its importance. It was written by Bobby Sands and is called the Rythmn of Time.
Its theme is internationalist, egalitarian and universal.
The final verse declares:
It lights the dark of this prison cell, It thunders forth its might, It is the ‘undauntable thought’, my friend, That thought that says ‘I’m right!’
Its strikes me that only something incredibly powerful could have lit up the dark of the prison cells inhabited by our political prisoners during the long decades of war - whether in Ireland, Britain, Europe or America.
Only a flame of freedom with unending reach, with unbending power could have shone any hope onto the darkness of the Blanket Protest and Hunger-Strikes.
Only a beacon of hope with unlimited potential could have motivated our men and women activists to keep turning the pages of history in the bleakest of moments.
Only a torch of history which has been handed down over centuries could ever explain why all of us, at this rally today, still stand ready to deliver the Irish Republic for which our predecessors fought and struggled and died.
Thirty years ago, from the ashes of Britain’s failed criminalisation policy rose the phoenix of a risen Republican people, led by Sinn Fein’s determination and dedication to achieve freedom in our lifetimes.
Sinn Fein is now the third largest party on this island. We are the only Republican movement. We are the only Republicans with a strategy to bring about Irish unity. We are the only collective of activists carrying the glowing baton of national freedom and national reconciliation based on a framework of human rights, social justice and equality.
And no-one should be under any illusion: it is this generation of struggle which will reach the finish line of freedom - through our sustained focus on direction and strategy, and our relentless exhaustion of political and democratic tactics.
These are the undauntable thoughts, my friends, that lead us in our work today, that fill me with constant determination, and that light the road to our new Republic.
Of course, there remains some distance for us to travel. There are still injustices to right, inequalities to address and a nation’s wounds to bind up.
Some of the injustices relate to the north’s prison regime, including prisoners who oppose Sinn Fein and the peace process. Sinn Fein representatives have regularly visited the prisons and met some of the prisoners. We will continue to demand that the British government, Dublin government, six-county Department of Justice, and others, should address the issues being raised on humanitarian grounds. In particular, I want to take this opportunity to reiterate Sinn Fein’s consistent call for the immediate release of Marian Price, Gerry McGeough and Martin Corey.
It is anyone’s right to disagree with Sinn Fein’s political and peace strategies, and our practical promotion of the 1916 Proclamation and 1919 Declaration of Independence. I will absolutely defend that political right.
But I will not condone their apolitical actions. They have no Republican strategy and no political programme - and clearly some of them have no politics either. They are united only in their opposition to the Sinn Fein strategy and in their desire to reverse political progress. They fear the onward rise of Sinn Fein and only they can explain why.
Mindless militarism, adventurism and egotism had no place in the Irish freedom struggle in 1916, in 1971, in 1981, and it has no place in this same struggle that we carry forward in Ireland today. Those who engage in such actions define themselves - not as political activists, not as freedom fighters, not as Irish Republicans, but as the late Brian Keenan accurately described them : “mindless gunmen for nationalism”.
Those opposing the peace process with pointless violence should remember the challenge of James Connolly in 1897: “When you talk of freeing Ireland, do you only mean the chemical elements which compose the soil of Ireland? Or is it the Irish people you mean?”
Gerry Adams, shortly after he became the Sinn Fein president in 1983, developed that theme further when he said: “We cannot free Ireland unless the people of Ireland want to be free.”
I want you all to think carefully about that statement: “We cannot free Ireland unless the people of Ireland want to be free.”
This places a huge onus on Republicans to address the realities of struggle and society as they exist today. Achieving true freedom will require the involvement of all the people of Ireland in the process, including our Unionist neighbours.
There is now a real, viable and effective democratic and political road to Irish freedom and equality, down which the IRA walked seven years ago. The IRA has left the political stage. I would call on every Republican to follow Sinn Fein and support our political project. Those who are promising young, and sometimes vulnerable, people nothing more than imprisonment, injury or death should desist and disband.
The current phase of the peace process is moving towards a critical moment, where the new dawn of national reconciliation can begin to rise on a hurt society still scarred by the legacy of our conflict.
Our task today as Irish Republicans includes cultivating the rough middle ground to plant the seeds of a healthy and harmonious relationship between the Orange and Green cultures; nurturing a new nation in which all traditions are proudly valued, based on equality, dignity and mutual respect.
This will require us all to be brave and bold; to break new ground, shape new agendas, and explore new thinking. It will demand that each of us becomes willing to hold the type of ‘uncomfortable conversations’ which Sinn Fein’s leadership is currently conducting with members of the Unionist and Loyalist community.
This phase will not be easy. There are many legacy issues. But our generation of Republicans has never been afraid to show leadership, try new tactics, or develop new approaches. The prize of national reconciliation is too important for us to stand back from the opportunity we now have. We must move onto the ground before us, otherwise those who oppose change will enter the arena of debate to try to maintain the old order and sustain the status quo.
There are some within the Unionist political class whose raison d’etre is stopping change. Their system of division, based on inequality and sectarian segregation, remains the cornerstone of partition. Irish Republicanism is founded on the opposite qualities of equality and unity. Let that be our message to our Unionist neighbours in the time ahead as we talk to them about the new nation we are building.
The British government also has a massive role to play. It could start by butting out of our country once and for all! Disband the NIO. Devolve outstanding powers. And take the Spooks back to London!
In the immediate term, the British government, and Irish government must fulfil their outstanding commitments to the peace process. They must prepare for, and become persuaders for Irish unity.
The British must disclose the truth about their dirty war. They must now call an immediate border poll, so that the people of this country can determine their own future. And they must realise that the Agreement’s power-sharing, all-Ireland and equality provisions won’t be reversed.
More and more Unionists see the good-sense and inevitability of Irish unity. We must, in the time ahead, harness that common-sense to build the policies of unity upon which all of us can rely in a new Ireland.
Across this island, the old establishment’s Gombeen greed is leaving legacies of pain. These legacies are punishing the infants of today with the unrivalled political corruption of the Celtic Tiger’s gangsters and banksters. In the north, we are faced with fighting against ruthless British Tory economic policy. This island is once again being robbed of our young people through emigration, and those who stay are being robbed of a future by unemployment.
I want to praise the current national campaign of Sinn Fein Republican Youth entitled ‘No Jobs, No Future, No Way’, and would call on everyone to support it.
Sinn Fein’s consistent demand for a new way of doing things and a different solution to old problems is based on Irish citizens having control of our own affairs. This simple logic of self-determination is increasingly winning public support through the 32 counties. To paraphrase the banner of the Irish Citizen Army - in the years to come, ‘we must serve neither Britain nor bond-holders - but Ireland’!
For make no mistake, Sinn Fein’s rise in the south isn’t a passing tide of opposition. Rather, it is an unstoppable sea of change, with more and more citizens motivated by our message, encouraged by our activism, and impressed by our integrity.
We must ensure that these pillars of progress - our message, our activism and our integrity - are strengthened and widened in the time ahead. And if each of us committed to bringing one new member into Sinn Fein in the time ahead - just one new member- then imagine the scale of challenge and speed of change we could unleash against the old order.
So, a chairde, our roadmap is clear. Our destination is certain. Our tactics are set. Our confidence is well-founded on our convictions. Our vision is stoked by our values: independence; justice; peace; equality; a new nation based on authentic national reconciliation between Orange and Green; and the end of the British state’s jurisdiction on this island.
And we must never, ever forget that shining over all of these values is the eternal flame of freedom which once lit the dark of the prison cells, endured over three decades ago by Bobby Sands, Francis Hughes, Raymond McCreesh, Patsy O’Hara, Joe McDonnell, Martin Hurson, Kevin Lynch, Tom McElwee, Kieran Doherty and Mickey Devine and their other comrades on Hunger-Strike and hundreds of protesting political prisoners in Armagh and the H-Blocks. And by Frank Stagg and Michael Gaughan.
So leaving here today, remember that, with this flame, we will create the new Ireland which all of our children deserve to enjoy.
Under this flame, we will face down those on any side who would seek to drive us back into the tragedy of war or brutality of conflict.
Under this flame, we will stand together, campaign together, march together, organise together, work together, face all-comers together, all bound by an unbreakable spirit of comradeship and unbending strength of unity.
Under this flame, we will ignite “the undauntable thought that says I’m right”, that says we’re right : right to place equality at our core; right to tackle injustice in our midst; right to build a future with our neighbours; right to raise the banner of justice and peace for all; right to end the outrage of partition; and right to fight - through every political and democratic tactic we have - for the ultimate prize of national freedom and national reconciliation across this wonderful and beautiful island of Ireland.
Go raibh mile, mile maith agaibh. Beirigi bua.