The full text of the speech delivered by Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly at the party’s National Hunger Strike Commemoration in Ballina on Sunday 13th August.
A chairde agus a chomradaithe,
I am very honoured to speak at this National Hunger Strike Commemoration, especially to address you all here, in Co Mayo, home to Sean McNeela, Michael Gaughan and Frank Stagg: All three hunger strikers and patriots are buried in this historic cemetery.
It is in itself a great testimony to what Co Mayo has sacrificed in the fight for Irish freedom across the generations.
I would like to welcome the families of our fallen comrades who gave their lives for the freedom and independence of our country. I am acutely aware that when I speak of loss and grief that it is most deeply felt by those who knew and loved them personally.
The 1981 Hunger Strike in which 10 Irish Republican Political Prisoners sacrificed their lives came at the end of years of harrowing prison protest by the women and men in Armagh Jail and the Long Kesh H Blocks, supported by tens of thousands of people protesting on the streets of Ireland and internationally.
It is recognised as a hugely significant political watershed in our struggle, by friend and foe alike.
The history of hunger striking dates back to pre- Christian times in Ireland. Those who lacked power would fast in order to bring attention to an injustice done to them by powerful people when there was no other avenue to justice. It was basically saying to the wider community ‘I will prove my integrity and honesty in my commitment to go without food until death - if necessary’. People intrinsically understood how profoundly difficult such a sacrifice would be and could witness that commitment and integrity over a prolonged period of fast.
A hundred years ago Tom Ashe brought this to a much more significant political level by fasting against the British Government demand on him to wear prison clothing or do penal work. Essentially to criminalise him, his comrades and the struggle for freedom. He and his fellow hunger strikers, placed the value of their lives in support of their just demands to be treated as political prisoners. He was the first Hunger Striker to die and became the inspiration for political hunger strikers since.
Yet it is important to say that no Irish political prisoners who pitted themselves against the might of a British government in this way, wanted to die. Neither were they naive in such a David and Goliath battle.
We will celebrate the life and death of Thomas Ashe on his centenary next month but it is worth noting that he was imprisoned in Mountjoy Jail and died as a result of force feeding just five days into his hunger strike. His death and the huge public reaction to it forced the British government to stop the brutal practice in Ireland. To my knowledge force-feeding has never been used on Republicans in any jail on the island of Ireland since.
When the British Government decided 56 years later to use force-feeding against political prisoners in English jails it was Michael Gaughan’s death, which brought an end to its use in Britain.
By the time Michael Gaughan and Frank Stagg went on hunger strike in 1974 there had been a large number of deaths of Irish Republican prisoners, after Tom Ashe, including Sean McNeela’s comrade Tony D’Arcy
The hunger strike in Crumlin Road Jail by Republican prisoners, just two years before Michael’s death, had achieved political status for Irish Republican prisoners in the North of Ireland.
The hunger strike, which we embarked upon in jails in England after sentencing in 1973, was for transfer to jails in the North of Ireland to be treated the same as our comrades there.
The Price sisters, Michael Gaughan, Frank Stagg, myself and others were on that hunger strike.
Michael, like Thomas Ashe, died not of starvation but of force-feeding. He died on the 3rd June 1974. His friend Frank Stagg was given commitments by the British administration. They later reneged on them forcing Frank on to a number of hunger strikes which culminated in his death on 12th February 1976.
While I, and other comrades, were on hunger strike at the same time as Michael and Frank I never met either man as the prison authorities made sure to separate and isolate protesting prisoners in English jails.
When the 1981 Hunger Strike began Bobby Sands knew the odds were stacked against him.
But as our late great friend, comrade and leader Martin McGuinness said of the hunger strike:
“The 1981 hunger strike destroyed Britain’s strategy to criminalise the IRA and the republican struggle.
“Bobby Sands, Francis Hughes, Raymond McCreesh, Patsy O’Hara, Joe McDonnell, Martin Hurson, Kevin Lynch, Kieran Doherty, Tom McElwee and Mickey Devine were not defeated or broken. Neither was Frank Stagg or Michael Gaughan. And neither will our struggle and our political strategy.
“They proudly take their place alongside Pearse, Connolly, Clarke and the rest of the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation - they were the history makers of our generation. They are the people who have set the moral compass for the rest of us to aspire to.
“That is their legacy - just as The Proclamation set out a vision, which continues to inspire so too did the Hunger Strikers.”
These heroic hunger strikers of our generation inspired not only fellow Irishmen and women but freedom loving people the world over.
However, I think it is also important to state about our courageous comrades, that they were ordinary people like any of us standing here today. They had family and friends who they loved and who loved them back. What bonded them together as comrades, as revolutionaries, was a profound love of Ireland and its people.
What made these ordinary men so extraordinary, was that they had a vision of a New Ireland based on freedom and equality. They rose to the challenge of that vision, despite the fact that they might have to forfeit their own lives. They led from the front.
If courage was the measure of success then Ireland would have had her freedom many generations before now. Volunteers in the IRA knew that our opponents and enemies had to be faced up to in every single sphere of life.
Whether it was by being in the civil rights movement or fighting against discrimination in housing or unemployment; or fighting for and learning the Irish language or protecting our culture, or creating jobs or building communities or dealing with social problems.
The activists we are remembering here today were proud republican volunteers who took up arms against a massive military machine when there was no other option. But they were not war mongers.
These same activists had the courage and commitment to embark on the passive protest, which is Hunger Strike. They risked their lives and sacrificed themselves for others.
Today as a result of the efforts of these republicans there is a peaceful and democratic path to a United Ireland. The 1981 hunger strike led to a widening of the structures of struggle for a United Ireland, which facilitated the strengthening of Republicanism to a point where we are stronger now than we have ever been in our history.
Sinn Fein is a party born in struggle with our membership and elected representatives coming from the communities most under the strain of the deep economic austerity policies driven by Conservative governments in London and Dublin. We understand the needs of people trying to survive in their daily lives. That understanding and connection with our community is the bedrock of our politics.
For Sinn Fein, standing against the cuts affecting the most vulnerable in our society and standing up for equality, will be the battlefield in the time ahead.
We want the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement re-instated but on the basis of equality, mutual respect and integrity. The present talks, now stalled, are about implementing agreements already made. That is basic to a power-sharing Executive and Assembly.
The right to an Irish Language Act; The right to have a loving relationship recognised in a Marriage Equality Act; the right of families to a coroner’s inquest into the killing of a loved-one; the right to be free from sectarian harassment; the right to have a Bill of Rights:
These are not unreasonable asks for people living in the North of Ireland and especially when they are rights everywhere else in Ireland and Britain.
Our vision does not start or stop at the border. Unlike the nationalist parties of old, unlike the SDLP, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. We do not stand idly by.
Our job as republicans is to build a republic as a fitting tribute to all those who came before us, those who stood beside us and for generations to come.
This state is not the republic envisaged by the patriots of 1798, 1916 or 1981.
Irish unity is now on the political agenda.
Sinn Fein wants an Ireland that is defined by hope, prosperity and opportunity for all citizens irrespective of their age, religious persuasion, cultural identity, political affiliation, ethnic origin, or sexual orientation.
A new, agreed and United Ireland, upholding, protecting and respecting the rights of ALL citizens. That entails upholding the rights of citizens to be British and Unionist.
I would challenge the leaders of the SDLP, Fine Gael, and Fianna Fail to stop hiding behind the mantra of now is not the time to discuss unity. 100 years on since 1916, as we face into Brexit. Now is the time not only to discuss unity, but to plan and deliver Irish Unity.
So Leo, Colm and Micheal this is the time put aside your narrow party political interests, the time for national leadership, the time to stand together to plan and deliver Irish unity.
That is the project that can define the coming political era.
Sinn Fein is willing to stand with all those in favour of unity.
There is much work to do. But we believe that a united Ireland is possible. That a united Ireland is achievable and that a United Ireland is in the best interest of all our people. We believe that together we can make huge progress and truly transform society on this island forever.
There is no short cut to a United Ireland. We have to prepare for it and that’s exactly what we have been doing and continue to do North and South, East and West.
Irish politics is undergoing its biggest shake-up since partition. We are at the core of that change. This is about you, your family, your hopes and your ambitions.
It’s about taking your country’s future into your own hands. Your opportunity to decide on our future.
It’s time as a nation to believe in ourselves. If not us, then who? If not now, then when.
We are now in a phase of nation building. What Connolly called “the re-conquest of Ireland by the Irish people” that requires building the political clout to bring about fundamental change.
Let us send out this political message. Not only have we not gone away but we are getting stronger by the day.
One of the reasons I refer to our fallen heroes as ‘ordinary’ men and women who found themselves in extraordinary circumstances is so that you all here today, especially the young, can recognise your own potential in the challenges we face now and into the future.
I would like to finish by returning to the very personal loss and grief of loved ones of our fallen patriots.
On Bobby Sands’ death I went to my cell and tried to write down my feelings at the loss of such a comrade. After coming back to it many times I realised that I was actually thinking of his mother’s pain, when she had to announce her son’s last moments to the world outside his cell. So I wrote this short poem:
You do not know me
I saw you only
On a television screen
When, so reluctantly, you announced
‘My son is dying
Standing with such dignity and pain
In a deep well of grief
I felt an intruder
To your private torment
Witness to a mother’s
For allowing us to share
Your precious final moments
With a great man.
A Chairde agus a Chomradaithe, Bigi Cinnte go dtiocfaidh ar la.”