The oration delivered by Francie Mackey, chairman of the Irish Republican Prisoners Welfare Association, at the Hunger Strike commemoration in Duleek organised by the Duleek Hunger Strike Monument Committee on Saturday, 17th September.
As Irish republicans we know we are right. But we must equally know and accept that we are not winning this struggle. To sacrifice your life with the implicit trust that your comrades will fully utilise that sacrifice to attain the ultimate objective can only be reciprocated by the fullest efforts to do exactly that.
The Hunger Strike brought to a climax the role that the imprisonment of PoW’s has on the overall Republican Struggle. The repressive confinement forged a bond that became unbreakable despite the massive efforts of the British establishment to do so.
One could argue that the Hunger Strike was the most defining republican battle since the Civil War. For just like the Anglo Irish Treaty in 1921 the policy of criminalisation was a strategic British effort to fundamentally undermine the sovereign legitimate basis of the republican struggle itself.
The Five Demands were essentially a metaphor for Irish Independence. This is what the ten republican and republican socialist volunteers died for. There exists today on this island republican PoW’s in incarceration. They exist because the British government, in connivance with Irish allies, continues to violate our national sovereignty.
But the same unity of purpose that existed in 1981 does not exist today. We need to address this. There can only be one national army and those taken prisoner for its activities are national prisoners. The practice of republican POW’s being somehow relegated to the status of a given prison landing is a farce.
To claim that republican PoW’s are aligned to a given political or welfare group reduces the national army to the status of a militia. To have a policy of discrimination for the welfare of PoW’s families based on what landing their relative or spouse reside on is an obscenity.
This entire approach represents a deeply flawed understanding of what republicanism is all about and what the Hunger Strikes endeavoured to achieve.
To claim to be a republican, to claim to honour the memory of the Hunger Strikers carries with it an onerous responsibility. The Hunger Strikers did not die for glory, let alone hollow homage. No matter where we stand in their name we must give an account of ourselves in the most honest terms. As of now this account is exceptionally weak and disunited.
Republican history is replete with examples of when republicans came together in common cause to maximise the political effects of their combined efforts. This being the Centenary Year of the 1916 Easter Rebellion that event naturally comes to mind. But the Hunger Strike of 1981 is no less an example.
In an almost tragic irony, with the perceived differences we conjure between ourselves, it was the British establishment who always viewed us as one. And in doing so they treated us in kind. For the British, Volunteers of the Republican Movement and the Republican Socialist Movement were united in criminal intent against British interests in Ireland.
And to extend this irony it was the unity of purpose between the Republican Movement and Republican Socialist Movement which defeated their policy of criminalisation within their prison system. This took great effort and sacrifice. But it took unity of purpose first. Failing to recognise this is a criminal dereliction in itself.
We cannot write the history of the Hunger Strike by looking back. Ours is not an academic struggle. Events like the Hunger Strike and the 1916 Rising were the chapters of their time. We are now the authors of this struggle in the here and now.
To begin this task there are certain realities we must face. Firstly, we must adopt a concept of winning this struggle. We are not here to uphold a tradition or praise glorious defeats. It is not our place to stand on the coattails of previous generations and claim some form of apostolic lineage to them. We are not here to bequeath our failures to the next generation.
Secondly, although the core principle for which we struggle remains our constant, the political environment in which we struggle for it, is constantly changing. That means that republicans must adapt. Our message must adapt. Our language must adapt and our strategies must adapt.
We have to abandon the fallacy of believing that simply being right is enough. We need to stop deluding ourselves that by calling ourselves something different it somehow makes us different, let alone relevant. We must recognise that because the British presence in our country is even more entrenched, all that has gone before has failed.
Thirdly, and crucially, we must take collective responsibility for the circumstances in which Irish republicanism finds itself. And in so doing we must recognise that a collective approach to addressing this is the only viable way forward. Blaming others is not a solution.
A collective approach means a democratic approach. That requires us sitting down as equals and mapping a way forward. In such a process making our core message relevant to our people is key. For too long republicans have looked upon the Irish people as mere spectators to the struggle for independence. To struggle for the Irish people we must struggle with them. An Irish Republic is not a monument to the dead but a home of peace and justice for the living.
When we go into our communities our message must first and foremost make sense. Communities which are suffering from discrimination, drug abuse and debt exploitation are not in tune with the narrative of a green or socialist utopia. In their lives they need solutions. The task for republicans is to make our solutions at community level integral to our national struggle.
This is the debate that republicanism must engage with itself. Our identity should be sourced in the radicalism of our message and not in a set of insipid initials. Through genuine comradeship and professionalism we must create a radical policy platform that propels the core republican message into modernity.
As Bobby Sands said, everybody has their part to play and this is no less true for this necessary project. This policy platform cannot and will not be developed by some backroom committee. The democratisation of the Republican Movement is essential to its future progress.
Republicanism is not a spectator sport. It needs everyone to play its part and to do so in unison with our fellow republicans, socialists and social activists. The simple dynamic of allowing the better argument to democratically prevail will serve us well. We have nothing to be afraid of open and honest debate. We won’t have all the answers nor do we need to.
This process has begun. The door is open. You are invited to step through.