Bobby Sands Commemoration 2005

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Speech From Bobby Sands Commemoration

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A chairde,

Today we remember Volunteer Bobby Sands who died on hunger strike for the sake of his comrades and for the cause of the Irish Republic on May 5th 1981. What better place to remember one of the greatest heroes of the All Ireland Republic than at this spot where Pearse proclaimed the Republic and where so many brave Irish men fought and died defending it?

Bobby Sands was born in Rathcoole, North Belfast in 1954. His twenty seventh birthday fell on the ninth day of his hunger strike. Bobby was to experience the realities of living in a sectarian partitioned state at an early age when his family were forced out of their home in Abbots Cross, Newtownabbey by pro British loyalists in 1962. He was to experience bigotry, hatred and harassment on many occasions in his young life such as when he was forced out of his apprenticeship and in 1972 when his family was again intimidated into moving home this time from Rathcoole to Twinbrook. Bobby was later to describe the effect this evil that pervaded the six north eastern counties of Ireland had on him in the following way: “I was only a working class boy from a nationalist ghetto, but it is repression that creates the revolutionary spirit of freedom. I shall not settle until I achieve liberation for my country, until Ireland becomes a sovereign independent socialist republic”. It was in this year of 1972 that Bobby aged only 18 yet seeking the liberation of Ireland and the establishment of a 32 county socialist republic took the brave decision to join the Irish Republican Army.

Bobby’s commitment to the All Ireland Republic of Pearse and Connolly led him to become an inspired and an inspiring volunteer. In October 1972 he was lifted and charged with possession of weapons. At his trial being a loyal Republican Volunteer he refused to recognise the legitimacy of the court. He was sent to Long Kesh for three years where the prisoners had political status.

On his release Bobby immediately reported back to his unit of the IRA for his treatment at the hands of the British had done nothing to quell his love of freedom. He was straight back into the fight for the All Ireland Republic, the honourable war against the Brits, the occupier and the real terrorists in our country. Six months later Bobby was lifted again, this time following a bomb attack and gun battle. Now unfortunately he was sent to the torture chambers of Castlereagh for interrogation. For six days they beat and tortured Bobby and his comrades. For those six long days despite their tortures the Brits couldn’t break Bobby. In all that time he told them nothing except his name, age and address. Bobby was to write of his experiences in Castlereagh in a poem in 1980

entitled “The Crime of Castlereagh”.

They came and came their job the same

In relays N’er they stopped.

‘Just sign the line!’ They shrieked each time

And beat me ’till I dropped.

They tortured me quite viciously

They threw me through the air.

It got so bad it seemed I had

Been beat beyond repair.

The days expired and no one tired,

Except of course the prey,

And knew they well that time would tell

If I had words to say,

Each dirty trick they laid on thick

For no one heard or saw,

Who dares to say in Castlereagh

The ‘police’ would break the law!

Bobby was imprisoned on remand until his trial in September 1977 where he again refused to recognise the court. This time Bobby was on trial with three other men and they found themselves sentenced to fourteen years each for the possession of one handgun. This was and is typical of the treatment handed out by Britishpolitical courts to Irish patriots. While the agents of Britain can murder at will Irish men and women can expect special sentences for special offences in the special courts. And although he received a politically motivated sentence by a politically appointed court Bobby was refused political status as part of Britain’s attempt to criminalise the Irish freedom struggle.

Having spent 22 days in solitary confinement in Crumlin Road Bobby was moved to the newly built H-Blocks where Republican prisoners were engaged in the Blanket protest for the restoration of POW status. Bobby’s commitment to the cause and his keen mind was recognised by his fellow volunteers and he became PRO for the Blanket Men. Like Pearse before him Bobby was a gifted poet and writer as well as an Irish revolutionary. While Pearse’s political writings appeared in such publications as An Claidheamh Soluis, the sword of light, which he edited, Bobby’s writings appeared in the Republican papers of his day; Republican News and An Phoblacht under the nom de plume Marcella, his sister’s name. The letters he wrote were of necessity written in tiny handwriting on toilet paper and smuggled out of the jail.

Bobby and his fellow Blanket Men suffered under a brutal regime imposed by the Brits in an attempt to break the prisoners’ resistance to the policy of criminalisation. But the prisoners refused to be broken. They knew that if they allowed themselves to be labelled criminals then the struggle for the All Ireland Republic would also be labelled a criminal act. The H-Block was another front in the war against the Brits. The prisoners knew that although they had no guns or bombs their determination to resist was their weapon that would see them victorious. Famously Bobby was to say “I am, even after all the torture, amazed at British logic. Never in eight centuries have they succeeded in breaking the spirit of one man who refused to be broken. They have not dispirited, conquered, nor demoralised my people, nor will they ever”.

In April of 1978 the protest was intensified with the commencement of the No Wash protest against the treatment dealt out to prisoners going to the toilets or to the showers. And in case they be forgotten, the women in Armagh Jail joined this protest when they suffered under similar conditions in February 1980.

The No Wash protest had been ongoing for two and a half years in the H-Blocks when in October 1980 seven prisoners began a hunger strike. Bobby was appointed OC as Brendan Hughes his predecessor was on the strike. The strike was called off in December as it was believed that a deal had been reached. But the Brits, being without honour, reneged on the deal just as Bobby was negotiating with the prisoner governor. Bobby was to write ‘We discovered that our good will and flexibility were in vain. It was made abundantly clear during one of my co-operation’ meetings with prison officials that strict conformity was required. Which in essence meant acceptance of criminal status”.

There was no way now that the prisoners were going to accept criminalisation after all they had endured. On March 1st 1981 Bobby began a Hunger Strike in the full knowledge that it could and probably would lead to his death. “Of course I can be murdered”, he said, “but I remain what I am, a political POW and no-one, not even the British, can change that”.

A few days after he commenced his strike Frank Maguire an independent MP who supported the prisoners cause died forcing a by-election in the Fermanagh-South Tyrone constituency. Dáithí Ó Conaill, the late vice president of Republican Sinn Féin proposed at an Ard Comhairle meeting that Bobby Sands should run as an abstentionist candidate to highlight his plight. Bobby agreed to this and an intense election campaign was begun. On April 10th he was elected thanks to the support of the nationalist people for his struggle. Bobby was not now an MP. He had stood on a Republican ticket and was endorsed by the people of Fermanagh-South Tyrone. He was a TD and would only have taken his seat in a 32 county All Ireland Dáil had circumstances allowed. The election victory was a great boost to the struggle. Support for the prisoners and for Irelands cause was now building on a world

wide scale. But the British were oblivious to the shame being heaped upon them and on May 5th, the sixty sixth day of his hunger strike Bobby Sands joined the ranks of Irelands martyred dead. Over the next few months while the streets of Ireland ran with blood and fire the Brits remained impervious to world opinion and nine more brave men were to sacrifice themselves just as Bobby had done.

Following the deaths of the 10 Hunger Strikers it was clear that Britain’s shameless intransigence could not be overcome by the deaths of more Irish men. The strike was called off in October. But the Brits had been stung by the hunger strike and the turning of world opinion against them. Rather than risk a repeat of the protest, effective Political Status was introduced without fanfare on the quiet.

Bobby is a true hero of the Republic in the same way that Pearse and Connolly who fought here are. Not only did he gallantly fight the enemy on the field of battle but through his struggles and sacrifice his name has become synonymous with resistance to oppression the world over. He has inspired this generation of Irish men and women the same way the men who fought here at the GPO inspired previous generations. I know that he has inspired me. I remember well that day we marched to the British embassy in Ballsbridge and were baton charged by the Free State police. I can clearly remember thinking “this is what the hunger strikers are fighting against”. And though I was afraid, being only nine years old, I knew that the fear I felt was nothing compared to the fear felt every day by the men in the H-Blocks and the women in Armagh. Yet I would have gladly endured that fear a hundred times over if only we could have had Bobby Sands and the other hunger strikers back again.

Now twenty four years later we stand here humbled by the greatness of the Hunger Strikers and the Heroes of 1916. But that which they fought and paid for so dearly is still not achieved. Britain still rules in six Irish counties and a puppet regime administers her rule in the other twenty six. The goal of the Republican Movement remains today the same as it was on Easter Monday 1916. We aim to establish an All Ireland Republic free from foreign oppression and interference where the common name of Irish Man replaces the labels of Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter. This was the cause for which Pearse and Connolly fought. This was the cause to which Bobby Sands and the other H-Block Hunger Strikers dedicated themselves and for which they eventually gave their lives.

Bobby Sands and the Hunger Strikers of 1981 have inspired a generation of Irish men and women. Their brave sacrifices showed that there was still honour and nobility in the world. They have proven that The Republic which has been struggled for by so many gallant men and women is indeed worth the heavy price paid. We must ensure that the price paid by the blood Irish martyrs is not wasted. It is up to us to ensure that the Irish Republic of Pearse, Connolly and Sands is finally enthroned.

Bobby is often quoted as saying, “Everyone, Republican or otherwise, has his or her own part to play”. What will your part be? Will you be content to sit on the sidelines and criticise while darkness slowly descends on the Republic? Or will you join in the struggle? Will you stretch forth your hand and grasp “an claidheamh soluis”, the sword of light, and drive back the darkness of British rule, defeat the shadow of Imperialism? The day of the Republic is only dawning and so long as we stand united and sing of the glory of Pearse and Connolly of Bobby Sands and the All Ireland Republic then night will never fall.

An Phoblacht Abú

– Fergal Moore

7 May 2005

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