The oration delivered by Padraig Garvey, of Republican Sinn Fein in Kerry, at the annual hunger strike commeration organised by the independent Bundoran / Ballyshannon 1981 H-Block Commemoration Committee.
Here today we remember all those who died and who took part in the 1981 H-Block hunger strike. Hunger strike is an ancient form of protest in Ireland. In more recent times it has been used by the suffragettes in their struggle to gain votes for women as well as by Irish Republicans in the struggle for political status and the freedom of our country.”It is the most dramatic form of protest, the last resort; it shows huge courage and commitment. It destroys the oppressor’s narrative of criminality and selfish motives on the part of the jailed which the oppressor used to justify their methods.
We see the elements that drove the 1981 hunger strike. British injustice in Ireland; Britain’s attempts to portray freedom fighters as criminals and the resistance of the Irish people to this. The resistance, I feel, we can learn from.
The first point is the commitment of the prisoners. These were the people at the sharp edge of the British oppression and without their determination nothing could have happened.
Next is popular public support. Most Irish people knew in their hearts that the protest was right. A well-organised, committed movement to drive the protest on the outside.
Adherence to long-standing Republican principles gave the protest an inner strength. The basic beliefs that ‘England had no right in Ireland, never had a right in Ireland and never will have a right in Ireland’.
The belief that through the All-Ireland Republic the Irish people had the best means of living in peace, fairness and prosperity together. If we look back at history we see those basic elements of the H-Block protests were there that brought success to the Republican Movement.
Between the 1916 Rising and the Tan War it was welcome home rallies for freed prisoners, protests against conscription, the hunger strike of Thomas Ashe, and the running of abstentionist candidates in by-elections that built on the support gained from the Rising up to the general election of 1918 and the establishment of the First Dail Eireann in January 1919. The establishment of the All-Ireland Republic smashed any notion of legitimate British rule in Ireland.
It was from this broad support that the IRA were able to wage a successful campaign. It took threats, treachery, betrayal and the dropping of principle by some to over throw what had been achieved.
Again, in the late 1940s and early 1950s it was the commitment that drove the revival of the Movement from a very low ebb. They raided for arms and ran in council elections and as abstentionist candidates in Leinster House and Westminster elections. This built a nationwide support base for later campaigns. Although the Border Campaign was not successful it did create the core which led to the Provisional campaign from 1969 on. It was with that ousting of that leadership that abstentionism was dropped in 1986 and the road to Stormont taken.
The need to build popular support based on Republican principles is as important today as ever. Often the talk of popular support ism used with talk of dropping principles or joining with other groups. The principles we hold underpin the Irish Republic. We cannot see the Irish Republic as the legitimate government authority in Ireland and also give some support to other institutions who would claim authority in Ireland.
Abstentionism from Stormont, Leinster House and Westminster is not just some old hard- line, dead-end principle but is necessary if we are to call ourselves Republican. Abstentionism must not be used as an excuse not to engage with public debate. We can run in council elections in the Free State and take seats and use these, along with pickets, protests to put Eire Nua, SAOL NUA and the wider Republican position to the people. Terence MacSwiney was Lord Mayor of Cork and elected to the First Dail and Bobby Sands and Kieran Doherty were also elected TDs.
When we look back on 1981 we remember those who gave their lives and those who were prepared to give their lives for a principle. Principles are powerful things. They keep you on the true path. When discarded you are directionless. By holding true to our principles, the principles of the 22 martyr hunger strikers; by openly and proudly promoting them, a free, united and socialist Ireland is guaranteed.