Republicans mark Sands’ death

:::u.tv:::

Sinn Fein’s current electoral strength was in no small measure helped by 10 republican hunger strikers who died in the Maze Prison 25 years ago, Gerry Adams acknowledged today.

By:Press Association
FRIDAY 05/05/2006 13:43:26

As republicans across Ireland marked the 25th anniversary of the first hunger striker to die Bobby Sands, Mr Adams described the 10 prisoners as role models for his movement.

The West Belfast MP laid a wreath to Bobby Sands, who won a House of Commons seat in Fermanagh and South Tyrone while on hunger strike, at a republican memorial at Hackballscross, Co Louth on the southern side of the Irish border.

But he also remembered around 50 other people who died during the hunger strikes, including three children struck by plastic bullets.

The Sinn Fein president recalled: “The determination of the men in the H Blocks and the women prisoners in Armagh ultimately defeated the British government`s criminalisation strategy.

“The enduring legacy of the hunger strikers is to be found all around us. Like the Easter Rising 65 years earlier it is a watershed in modern Irish history.

“The political growth of Sinn Féin and of Irish republicanism is in no small measure a result of their courage.”

Mr Adams argued the peace process and changes in Irish society were a legacy of the 1981 hunger strikes.

“That process of change continues. It is taking place every single day,” he said.

“For many, the 25th anniversary of the deaths of the H Block hunger strikers will be a personal as well as a political time of remembrance.

“But for everyone interested in freedom and justice and peace in Ireland it is a time to reflect on the lessons of the past and to commit to continuing the struggle to achieve a free, democratic and united Ireland.

“And I believe that we will succeed in doing that – not least because of the example set by Bobby Sands and his comrades.”

Seven IRA prisoners and three from the Irish National Liberation Army died during the 1981 hunger strike whose aim was to force Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher`s Government to recognise them as political prisoners.

Bobby Sands was the first to refuse food in March 1981 and the first to starve to death after 66 days.

He was followed by Francis Hughes, Patsy O`Hara, Raymond McCreesh, Joe McDonnell, Martin Hurson, Kevin Lynch, Kieran Doherty, Tom McElwee and Michael Devine.

The hunger strike ended in October after a number of families sanctioned medical intervention to save prisoners` lives.

Sinn Fein`s Martin McGuinness said today the hunger strikers continue to inspire new generations of Irish Republicans but their nemesis, former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, is not even admired by the current Conservative leader.

The party`s chief negotiator hailed the legacy of Bobby Sands ahead of a private ceremony in the hospital wing of the Maze Prison, where the IRA icon died 25 years ago today.

Mr McGuinness was joined by former IRA OC (Officer Commanding) Brendan “Bik” McFarlane, ex-Sinn Fein publicity chief Danny Morrison and MP Michelle Gildernew at the jail outside Lisburn, Co Antrim.

Standing outside the main gate, the mid-Ulster MP said: “This place behind me was designed by Margaret Thatcher for her criminalisation policy to be the breakers yard of Irish republicanism.

“And the reality is that the hunger strikers by the sacrifices of their lives effectively broke the criminalisation policy of the British government.

As he prepared to re-enter the Maze, Mr McFarlane recalled painful memories of the summer of 1981.

He said: “For us in the prison it was a hard, brutal five years which terminated with the loss of 10 very brave republicans who gave their lives to ensure that the republican struggle would not be criminalised.

“It was difficult for us, it was very, very hard indeed.

“In personal terms it was probably the worst year of my life, 1981, because of the loss of so many close friends and comrades.”

Mr McFarlane said he learned of Sands` death on the 2am news on May 5, 1981, which he listened to on a smuggled radio.

He said: “I was devastated.

“Even though myself and everybody else were in no doubt over the previous week or so that this was the situation and that Bobby Sands was going to die. we were devastated and we were devastated by the loss of each of the hunger strikers after that.”

But Mr McFarlane said the experiences of republican prisoners paled into insignificance when compared with the ordeals of the hunger strikers and their families.

Mr McFarlane also dismissed recent claims that the hunger strikers were exploited by the republican leadership and that lives could have been saved by ending the protest earlier.

He said: “It is reprehensible and despicable, the nature of the allegations that were made.

“What needs to be borne out and what needs to be looked at very closely is that the leadership of the republican struggle were totally opposed to the hunger strike action from the outset of the first hunger strike, and when we broached the idea of the second hunger strike they were vehemently opposed to hunger strike action.

“After the hunger strike had been embarked upon, we received full support from people on the outside, from the (IRA), Army Council and the political leadership of the political struggle.”

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