Hunger Striker Go-Between Interviewed

The man who acted as an intermediary between the British government and representatives of the leadership of the Republican Movement during the 1981 hunger strike has spoken about the negotiating process he was involved in.

Derry businessman Brendan Duddy, who also spoke at a meeting last weekend organised by the Republican Network for Unity, has stated that “Nothing was ever communicated on paper to the IRA.” He also said that all that was on offer to the prisoners was already published in the book, ‘Ten Men Dead’, and that he agrees with the former leader of the women in Armagh during the 1981 protest who in a letter to the ‘Irish News’ had stated that there was an offer but no deal.

“Sile Darragh got it spot on,” he said.

Brendan Duddy was interviewed by Brian Rowan and the feature is available in full at the website of the ‘Belfast Telegraph’.

The Kurdish Question

An influential English-language newspaper, ‘The Kurdish Globe’ published in the Iraqi Kurdish Region, draws lessons from the 1981 hunger strike and the political development of the Irish Republican Movement after the election of Bobby Sands. “A peaceful solution to the ‘Kurdish question’ in Turkey: Lessons of the ‘Northern Ireland question’” was written by Zafer Yörük and was published on Saturday, 23 May, 2009

Finally, the Kurdish question has been declared “the number one issue of Turkey” by the highest authority of the Turkish State, President Abdullah Gül, on 9 May 2009.

Gül also stated that there were optimistic developments and that a historical opportunity for a realistic and rational solution had emerged. Gül’s historical statement followed a statement by the top name of the PKK, Murat Karayılan [pictured], in an interview with the Turkish press that the PKK was ready to give up arms as part of a reasonable peace process. If these mutual statements indicate anything more than mere expressions of goodwill, then we have every reason to expect the commencement of a “peace process” in the near future.

From South Africa to Nicaragua, Kosovo, Cyprus, East Timor, Angola and Palestine, we have been witnessing many “peace processes” around the world since the last decade of the twentieth century. A few of these have led to peaceful and rational settlements, while most of them are still work in progress, with many ups and downs, setbacks and partial steps forward. Turkey’s Kurds tend to resemble the situation in Turkey to South Africa: “Mandela had been jailed for 27 years. But he was released and elected the President of South Africa. We want a similar general amnesty in Turkey. And this amnesty should also apply to Öcalan” (Halil İrmez, DTP Şırnak Provincial Chairman in Taraf, 14 May 2009).

It goes without saying that if this analogy works, then we only have 17 years before a person, whose sole resemblance with the current president is his first name, to be transferred from his “compulsory accommodation” on Imralı Island to the presidential palace in Çankaya! However, if we are to comply with Gül’s call to reason and realism, then it should be emphasized that every analogy has its limits beyond which it becomes mere speculation.

Each of the peace processes above would be useful to study to derive analogies with the Kurdish question of Turkey, which would help the illumination of possible difficulties and problems on the road to peace. I will choose the peace process of Northern Ireland for such a comparison, for a number of reasons, most important being my personal familiarity with the situation.

There is a second and significant reason for this attempt, which is that although the Irish conflict dates back to many centuries in British history, with a number of peak points, the major and most violent conflict in recent times lasted exactly for 25 years between 1969 and 1994, until the declaration by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) a “complete cessation of violence” against the British State. Similarly, although the Kurdish conflict in Turkey can be traced back to the 19th Century, at least to the formative years of the Republic of Turkey, the recent violent conflict between the Turkish armed forces and the PKK is also about to mark its 25th anniversary.

However, there are as many dissimilarities as the similarities between the two ‘questions’. In what follows, following an outline of the chronology of the conflict and the subsequent peace process in Northern Ireland, I will clarify these similarities and differences to derive some conclusions regarding the possible trajectory of the prospective Kurdish peace process in Turkey.


The ‘Northern Ireland Question’

The roots of the conflict in Northern Ireland can be traced back to the year 1607, when English and Scottish landowners began to settle in Northern Ireland to dominate economically and politically the whole island of Ireland. These settlers were exclusively Protestant as opposed to the predominantly Catholic population of the island. They ‘baptized’ the six counties in which they settled “Ulster” and established their rule from there over the rest of the island with the military support from London. The contemporary successors of these settlers form the majority of the population in Northern Ireland and a good part of the cause of the current problems in Northern Ireland originate from this contradictory composition of population in the region.

In 1922, following the Irish independence with the declaration of Irish Free State, the ‘Ulster’ Parliament dominated by unionists decided to opt out and remain as part of the United Kingdom. Since then the 6 counties in the northeast of the island form the country of Northern Ireland.

In 1960s, a civil rights movement emerged in Northern Ireland with a perspective of cessation from Britain in favour of unification with the Republic of Ireland, and to protest the domination of the nationalist/Catholic community, and discrimination against them, by the unionist/Protestant population. This movement was violently suppressed by the police. Moreover, the loyalist paramilitary forces organized as ‘Ulster Voluntary Force’ launched a counter offensive to the Catholic neighbourhoods around the country, which led in 1969 the arrival of the British troops in Northern Ireland ‘to restore peace’. In practice, though, the British army soon became one of the combatants in the conflict, teaming up with the loyalist paramilitaries and the police to suppress the nationalist/Catholic aspirations.

The Irish Republican Army (IRA) reformed itself as the ‘Provisional IRA’ in response to this concerted aggression and announced the launch of an armed campaign to end the British backed rule in Northern Ireland. The British reaction was violent: in January 1972, British troops shot dead fourteen civil rights marchers on ‘Bloody Sunday’, which was followed by the abolition of the Northern Ireland administration and the imposition of direct rule from London.

The year 1969 marks the beginning of the “Troubles”, an undeclared war between the IRA and the nationalist/Catholic community on the one side and, British armed forces, ‘Ulster’ Police and the Protestant/loyalist paramilitaries on the other. To the British public, this violent conflict, which claimed over 3,600 lives (of a population of just over 1.5 million) and countless more injuries and bereavements, has been systematically portrayed either as ‘sectarian violence’ between communities or simply as the ‘terrorist’ activities of the IRA. In 1978, the euphoric British government refused an offer by the IRA for peace talks, hoping to eliminate the republican movement for good by military means.

By the 1980s, it looked as if the British/loyalist side was winning the war, with thousands of IRA militants captured and imprisoned, which must have encouraged the ‘Iron Lady’ Margaret Thatcher to go so far as to deprive the IRA prisoners of their political prisoner status to reduce them to ‘common criminals’. This move was countered by a wave of prison strikes, which led to the death of Bobby Sands in May 1981. Sands had been elected to the British Parliament as the Northern Ireland deputy while on hunger strike, along with his comrade Owen Carron, while two other protesting prisoners were elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly. In addition to the electoral support, there were work stoppages and large demonstrations all over Ireland in sympathy with the hunger strikers. Sands’ funeral turned into a 100,000 strong nationalist demonstration.

Sands’ death caused a major shift in British mentality regarding the ‘Irish question’. It became impossible to hold on to the official argument that the whole conflict was simply the work of ‘a bunch of terrorists’, given the democratic/electoral support to Sands by the Irish masses. Sands’ self-sacrifice also made the British public to realize that there must have been serious suffering among the Irish community, so serious as to die for. It was in this changing climate that the British government began to seek a way out of the Northern Ireland impasse. Thatcher tried to handle the situation by signing an Anglo-Irish Agreement with the Irish Prime Minister, which mainly intended to increase cooperation between London and Dublin in suppressing ‘terrorism’. As expected, this treaty was simply stillborn, and it became increasingly clear in the late 1980s and early 1990s that, in order to find any kind of ‘solution’ to the continuing conflict, the British government would have to find some way of conducting discussions with the Republican movement itself.

Sands’ death also served the understanding by the Irish republican movement of the importance of electoral process. Sinn Fein (“We Ourselves” in Irish) Party stepped forward with the famous motto, “a ballot paper in one hand and an Armalite in the other” to stand in the elections as the political representative of the republican movement. In 1983, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams was elected to the British Parliament. Adams immediately declared on behalf of the republican movement that he was ready to enter talks with the government representatives but instead of an invitation to the negotiation table, he would face the imposition of restrictions on his media coverage.

1980s also witnessed the change of IRA tactics. While decreasing the level of armed attacks in Northern Ireland, they carried the conflict to the sight of the British public, through a series of bombings in major English cities, including London. In 1984, Prime Minister Thatcher narrowly escaped death when an IRA bomb blast killed five in the Grand Hotel of Brighton, where British cabinet members were staying during the Conservative Party’s annual congress. The bombing campaign in mainland England targeting train stations, shopping centers, financial institutions, army barracks, etc. continued until 1994, claiming around 60 lives, including soldiers, politicians, policemen and civilians, in addition to causing colossal economic damage. The IRA called this campaign, TUAS, “Tactical Use of the Armed Struggle”, and defined its goal as forcing the British State to the negotiating table with Sinn Fein.


From ‘Troubles’ to Peace

Finally, in 1993, Conservative Prime Minister John Major declared that his cabinet was ready to facilitate negotiations between the representatives of the conflicting communities of Northern Ireland. This gesture was sufficient enough for the IRA to declare a ceasefire in 1994. British government made it clear however that a ceasefire was not enough: until a complete decommissioning of arms by the IRA, they would not engage in direct talks with Sinn Fein. Breaking this deadlock became possible only with an intervention from outside: the US envoy, Senator George Mitchell, stepped in to open lines of communication between the IRA/Sinn Fein and the British State. To demonstrate the American commitment to the peace process, President Bill Clinton invited Gerry Adams to the White House, albeit objections from the British government.

This visit, which took place in 1994, served to legitimize Sinn Fein as a fundamental part of the peace process and paved the way for the Prime Minister Tony Blair’s historical meeting in 1997 with Gerry Adams at 10 Downing Street. The immediate fruits of this meeting were the declaration of a second ceasefire by the IRA, and the subsequent admission of Sinn Fein into the “Peace Process”. The process was crowned by the announcement by the US Senator George Mitchell, who was chairing the negotiations, the signing of the “Good Friday Agreement” on 10 April 1998, the terms of which included a devolved, inclusive government, prisoner release, troop reductions, decommissioning of arms, provisions for polls on Irish reunification, and civil rights measures.

Since the Good Friday Agreement, the IRA has gone through a complete disarmament under the supervision of an “Independent International Monitoring Commission”, and the former enemies, the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein formed a regional coalition government in 2007, which was followed by a declaration by the British Army that they completely ceased their operations in Northern Ireland.


Problems of the Irish “Peace Process”

Northern Ireland Peace Process began in 1994 and it took 13 years before the achievement of a proper peace in the region. The main obstacle of the process was the position of the Protestant community, who felt that they were being “sold out” to the Irish Catholics by the British State. At the outset, their refusal of sharing the negotiating table with “IRA terrorists” was frequently expressed by Ian Paisley, a protestant priest and the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party. In 13 years, the same Paisley would agree to accept Martin McGuinness, a former IRA commander, as his Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland.

The process did not evolve smoothly. Persuading the IRA to comply with the decommissioning of arms has been one of the major difficulties. The commencement of the peace process did not mean an immediate end of violence. While the occasional attacks and retaliations between the IRA and loyalist paramilitaries with fatalities and casualties have never completely ceased, radical splinter groups such as the Real IRA and Continuity IRA have maintained attacks on British targets in the form of bombings in England and shooting of British soldiers in Northern Ireland. The last reported incident occurred in March, when two British Army soldiers were shot dead and two more seriously injured in Northern Ireland by the Real IRA.

These setbacks, however, have not destroyed the peace process, thanks to the determination of the parties involved. The terms of agreement have been systematically applied, including the release of political prisoners, decommissioning of arms and the formation of an Assembly and regional administration in Northern Ireland. There were also important gestures by the British government, including an apology for Britain’s role in the “potato famine” of the 19th Century, and an end to referring to the region as ‘Ulster’. The name of the regional police force was changed from the Royal Ulster Constabulary to the Police Service of Northern Ireland in 2001.

The most important factor that has made the Irish peace process to advance steadily since 1994 was the commitment of the British State as a whole without any fragmentations. When the process commenced in 1994 under a Conservative government, the opposition Labour Party did not chose to ally with the grievances of the Ulster Unionists to increase their votes in the approaching elections. Similarly, the pathbreaking steps taken by the Labour government since 1997 have never been substantially opposed by the Conservative or Liberal opposition parties. Peace in Northern Ireland had obviously been agreed upon in advance by all the major components of the British establishment as a State Policy, as a precondition of the future steps.


Kurdish Peace in Turkey: Lessons of Northern Ireland

Following the above narration of the political process, a structural analysis of Northern Ireland peace process becomes possible, which would enable us to identify its main elements below, for a comparison with the prospective peace process in Turkey.

(1)Interaction of the key Political Parties: a)The main advantage of the Turkish case is that unlike the case of Northern Ireland, there is no serious fragmentation on the side of the Kurdish representation in Turkey. The Kurdish conflict in Turkey has never included a dimension of serious sectarian violence between different communities. In fact, the 25 year long Kurdish conflict has not led to the escalation of serious ethnic hostilities in the whole of Turkey, despite the sustained chauvinistic agitation by the Turkish press and media.

b)Regarding the Kurdish counterpart of the Turkish government in peace negotiations, an analogy between the DTP and Sinn Fein would not be unrealistic. DTP seems capable of obtaining a mandate to represent the Kurdish movement in Turkey as a whole, including the consent of the PKK. The position of the Turkish State so far is similar to Thatcher’s position in the 1980s, which demanded the disarmament of the IRA as a precondition for the commencement of direct talks with Sinn Fein. This position proved to be unrealistic and the British government accepted by 1994 to enter talks without this condition. Therefore, the Turkish insistence on the surrendering of PKK guerrillas prior to any talk about any solution for the “Southeast Question” needs serious revision.

c)While the unity of the Kurdish side is an advantage for the Turkish case, the fragmentation on the Turkish side constitutes the main weakness of our analogy. The President’s call for peace has been countered by the opposition parties, who have gone as far as to name such a move as “treason”. Instead of Ian Paisley, we have Deniz Baykal and Devlet Bahceli, who are involved in an identical protest to the Paisley’s that the state should not negotiate with the ‘terrorists’. It should be noted that the opposition parties in Turkey do not only express the views of their electorate but they also represent different sectors of the Turkish State. In fact, only a week before the President’s statement, in response to the questions of the necessity or not of a general amnesty, the Chief of General Staff Ilker Basbug said that ‘rehabilitation centers’ for ‘repenting terrorist’ would be sufficient for the encouragement of PKK guerrillas to disarm themselves. Moreover, Kurdish and liberal observers link the recent decision by a Court for the trial of Abdullah Gül for the corruption charges dating back 1997 to his recent statement on Kurdish question. The opposition leaders’ objections should therefore be read together with these ‘meaningful coincidences’ as a sign that Turkey’s military-bureaucratic elites still need serious work to be convinced that a Kurdish peace is in the long term interests of the Turkish state. Without this unity and determination are formed as a state policy, a peace process will be far more difficult than the case of Northern Ireland.

d)The initial Kurdish demands for the restoration of the Kurdish names of towns and villages in the region, which had been ‘baptized’ in Turkish during the recent century, and for an official apology for the killing of civilians by the state forces, need to be taken seriously. Such gestures by the State have constituted an important part of the peace process in Northern Ireland. For one thing, the British stopped referring to the region as ‘Ulster’. If the Turkish process to follow, then we should expect the Turkish authorities to stop referring to the Kurdish provinces as ‘southeast’ in near future. A major necessary state gesture is amnesty, given that the Irish peace process advanced in parallel to the early release of IRA and other paramilitary prisoners in their hundreds.

(2) Involvement of Outsiders as Brokers: We have noted that US Senator George Mitchell’s involvement was essential in the Irish peace process. The same Mitchell is in our day President Obama’s special envoy for the Middle East. In fact, Mitchell visited Turkey and held meetings with President Gül and Prime Minister Erdoğan only a few weeks prior to the President Gül’s peace statement. This ‘meaningful coincidence’ would provide careful observers with signs of the new American administration’s determination for a peaceful solution to the Kurdish question. We have therefore reasons to expect increasing US involvement in a prospective peace process in near future.

(3)Involvement of Regional Powers: Republic of Ireland has been one of the major parties of the Northern Ireland peace process. The location of the KRG in the south of Turkey’s Kurdish region and their historic links with Turkey’s Kurdish population present important similarities with the Republic of Ireland. There are at the same time important differences, including the fact that the KRG’s status is far more unstable compared to that of Ireland. In any case, the KRG should be ready to assume an important role in near future in the capacity of a mediator or as one of the participants of negotiations between Turkey’s Kurdish movement and the Turkish state.


Conclusions: to extinguish the fire

Dostoevsky used the phrase to describe the ruthless activity of radical anarchists who burned a village: “The fire is in the minds of men, not on the roofs of houses.” The outline above of the conflict and peace process in Northern Ireland and the comparative reading of it with the Kurdish conflict in Turkey may be capable of presenting some useful lessons for the prospective peace process. In our day, the British government, the Republican movement and the protestant/loyalists of Northern Ireland are all in positions to interact with each other, which were impossible to imagine a decade ago. What each of these parties had to do through this peace process was probably “to get rid of the fire on their minds”. Dostoevsky’s description is probably the most valuable lesson that had to be learnt from human experience, before any attempt to extinguish the fire on the roofs of our houses.

Kevin Lynch Revered

On Sunday, 24th May, a commemoration in memory of INLA Volunteer, Kevin Lynch, who died in the 1981 hunger strike was held in Park, County Derry. Veteran republican Martin McGuinness, Deputy First Minister in the North’s power-sharing executive gave the main speech. This is what he said.

28 years ago on August 1st, Kevin Lynch died on hunger strike in the H-Blocks, Long Kesh.  Kevin had been on hunger strike for 71 days. He was just 25 years of age. Tomorrow would have been his 53rd birthday.

He was the seventh hunger striker to die.

The 1981 hunger strike was the culmination of a battle that had begun many years earlier: a political battle.

A battle during which the hundreds of republican POWs in Armagh prison and the H-Blocks who refused to accept the badge of criminalisation had to endure indescribable torture and brutality.

The hunger strike was a republican response to the British government’s attempt to criminalise our struggle and to criminalise our objectives.

When the hunger strike ended British criminalisation policy was in shreds, albeit at enormous cost to the prisoners, their families and the entire republican community.

At that point it was British rule in Ireland that was exposed as a criminal act.  Maggie Thatcher and her government were reviled, while Kevin Lynch and his comrades were revered.

Kevin Lynch could have been any one of the young people gathered here this evening.

In his own words, Kevin was “mad about sport and liked history a lot”.  And those two words – sport and history – seem to best sum up the way that many of us think about Kevin.

In life, he excelled at Gaelic games both locally and for County Derry, and he had the medals to prove it.  His most treasured win came when he captained the county to victory in the all-Ireland under-16 hurling final at Croke Park.

Yet his death – and the deaths of his comrades in 1981 – was indeed a watershed moment in Irish history like no other.

The sacrifice of Kevin Lynch and his comrades – their determination and their spirit – has been printed indelibly on our history like no other event.  For the impact of the hunger strike went beyond what they had set out to do.

The hunger strikers had sowed the seeds of significant change in the republican struggle.  The election of political prisoners sent shock waves through the political establishment in Ireland and Britain.  And it injected a political momentum into republicanism which would, in the years ahead, transform the nature of republican resistance and the liberation struggle.

It began a process which eventually opened up a new road for republicans in pursuit of our objectives: a road that led to the creation of an entirely new set of political systems on this island designed to provide for peaceful and democratic change, and underpinned by a binding commitment to equality and human rights – including the all-Ireland Ministerial Council and the inclusive power-sharing Assembly.

Sometimes when people like me talk about institutions like the Assembly, or the all-Ireland Ministerial Council, it all seems very remote from the lives of grassroots republicans.

So, let me give you a flavour of how the Assembly works.

Every Monday morning our entire Assembly team gathers for a weekly meeting – MLAs, political advisors, press officers, political management, Cuige officers, Ministers, local area managers and others.

We update each other on developments, discuss the direction of issues and negotiations, and plan and prepare the approach to the week’s work.

It’s all tied into the Cuige and Assembly work plans, and our party’s overall strategic objectives.

And every Monday morning, without fail, I look around that room and I see former hunger-strikers and freedom fighters staring back at me. People like Leo Green or Raymond McCartney or Jackie McMullan who were – like Kevin Lynch – literally prepared to give up their lives on hunger strike for justice in the jails. People like Sean Lynch or Alex Maskey or Gerry Adams who carried the burden of the freedom struggle and who still bear the scars of the battle. People like Martina Anderson or Sinead Walsh; people like Caral Ni Chuilin or Jennifer McCann or Mary McArdle, all of whom endured the brutality of state-approved strip-searching in prison and yet who maintained their republican dignity – and their good humour. People like Gerry Kelly or Bobby Storey; people like Conor Murphy or Padraic Wilson or Sean Murray, who helped lead the Long Kesh prisoners and who took the entire system apart – block by block – from the inside out. People like Francie Brolly, a civil rights veteran and former internee, or Francie Molloy, a veteran of Caledon and the civil rights struggle.

And there are dozens of other equally brilliant comrades in our team – older and younger; men and women alike.

So when you see the Assembly on TV, or look at Gerry Adams or Bairbre de Brún or myself in the media, always remember this: standing at our shoulders are the women and the men who stood at the front of the struggle when there was no alternative option but war, and who – when the time was right – had the courage and commitment and skills to create the new phase of peaceful and democratic change into which we have successfully led this society.

These are the comrades, along with all of you and thousands of other comrades across the rest of the island, who are collectively driving forward the Irish republican struggle today in the six counties – both inside, and outside, of the power-sharing Assembly at Stormont.

I recognise that there are a small number on the fringe of republicanism who feel disaffected from the current phase of the freedom struggle.

None of this is easy, and we understand and appreciate that this new phase has brought difficult challenges for everyone.

There are other wreckers who are seeking to exploit tiny pockets of disaffection by promoting destructive attacks on the peace process, and in particular physical attacks against Sinn Féin representatives.

Such wreckers are counter-revolutionary, and they merely feed the out-dated and unwanted agenda of rejectionist unionists and old-guard British securocrats.

Sinn Féin will not accept – nor will we tolerate – anyone seeking to destroy or destabilise the growing momentum towards Irish unity and national equality which we have developed through the peace process.

But that message doesn’t merely go out to those small factions on the edge of republicanism.

It also goes out – more importantly – to those in the leadership of the unionist political class and their ideological counterparts in the British system who have yet to fully embrace the equality agenda.

We need to remember that the unionist political class described the emergence of the peace process and the IRA cessation of August 1994 as the most destabilising development since partition for the six county status quo.

That was the UUP – 15 years ago.

The DUP are now the leaders of that unionist political class.

And it is a fact that they too have found the demands of the peace process to be a challenging experience.

In particular, the last two years have witnessed the DUP:

·   being brought into an inclusive power sharing Executive – with Sinn Féin;

·   being brought into the daily operations of the all-Ireland Ministerial Council – with Sinn Féin; and,

·   being brought into the joint First Ministers’ office – with Sinn Féin.

And the foundation for all of this has been the political arrangements, based on absolute equality, which were negotiated by Sinn Féin over a decade ago in the Good Friday Agreement.

Until two years ago, the DUP told everyone they would never accept such an outcome and that they would bury the Good Friday Agreement.

So the DUP have found out a big lesson in the last two years: when Sinn Féin negotiate – we deliver.

And what’s more, we’re prepared to play a long hand – we don’t do short-termism and we’re not into ‘stroke’ politics.  Our agenda is too serious and our objectives are too important for any of that.

But in order to get an even better understanding of the impact of the peace process upon the DUP, we need to measure events – not just in terms of the last two years, but rather the last twenty years.

Two decades ago, the DUP had built its hard-line reputation on gun licences on hillsides; red berets and blackthorn sticks; ‘Smash Sinn Féin’ slogans and sledge hammers; cheerleading the assassination of nationalists and republicans; and ‘never, never, never’ politics.

Who would ever have believed in 1989 that the very same DUP would be left with no other option than to embrace an inclusive, power-sharing, all-Ireland framework of political institutions as the joint equal partner with Sinn Féin on terms set out by the Good Friday Agreement?

Who would ever have believed in 1989 that we would now have legislation which leaves the DUP with no other option than, when addressing the needs of victims, to recognise that the relatives of IRA volunteers killed on active service are absolutely equal – absolutely equal – to the relatives of Crown forces personnel killed by the IRA?

Who would ever have believed in 1989 that developments on the Justice front would demand that the appointment of the most senior law officer in the six counties – the new position of Attorney General – needed the joint approval of the Sinn Féin and the DUP joint First Ministers?

Some within unionism see such developments as negative. They fear the promotion of partnership and equality.

But they are wrong.

The developments of the last two decades, and the potential of the next two decades, are taking this society on a journey towards the Ireland of equals which was aspired to by the Presbyterian republican idealists of the United Irishmen over two centuries ago.

This is the political reality for unionism.

In the time ahead the best option for unionists is, I believe, to join – as equal, and influential, participants – in the onward march towards all-Ireland unity and national reconciliation.

Yes, some within unionism are working to slow up progress.

Some may veto certain short-term issues.

There are clearly some senior members of the DUP – and some in the civil service and British system – who miss playing the ‘Orange card’.

Others think that they can start to reverse the template of the Good Friday Agreement, with its all-inclusive power-sharing structures, its accountable, political institutions, and its bedrock of equality and human rights for all.

My message to them is clear: the old ways are gone – never to return.

The dice are no longer loaded in favour of big-house unionism.  Clearly, some senior unionists don’t like that fact.

But the hard lesson of the peace process is that – some day soon – even the Afrikanner wing of unionism will be brought to a place it never wanted to be.

My strong preference, and that of the Sinn Féin leadership, is that all sections of the DUP – and indeed unionism – will now embark fully on the pathway to equal partnership, and a future of national unity and national reconciliation in Ireland.

For unionists, that pathway starts in recognising and embracing the equality agenda in Stormont and the other Good Friday Agreement institutions.

The alternative to partnership and equality with Sinn Féin is deadlock and stasis.

All of our people deserve better than that.

They deserve the transfer of policing and justice powers.

They deserve to have full confidence in the partnership approach of those leading the political institutions.

I understand that this process presents enormous challenges for unionists, particularly their political leadership.

Together with the collective republican leadership, I have been at the forefront of the process of change on this island for over twenty years.

I know what it means to take political risks and embrace political transformation.

Some unionists may be concerned about their political reputations.

But the republican leadership has risked far more than reputation to bring about the peace process and provide the opportunity for peaceful political progress which has now opened up.

Many of us have in the past – and continue in the present – to put our lives on the line because we are determined to ensure that all of our children will never again have to face the indignity of institutionalised inequality and the terrible outcomes of armed conflict.

The long-term benefits of such a step forward by the DUP – for this entire society, would far outweigh the short-term risks that make them lose their nerve.

I am appealing to unionism to stand with us and work with us in building a society of equals.

It’s now time for the leaders of political unionism – currently the DUP – to join with Sinn Féin in hammering home the keystone of equality and cementing the bridge of hope to tomorrow’s new dawn of national reconciliation and national unity.

We are currently in the middle of an important European election, with Bairbre de Brún as an outstanding Sinn Féin representative once again seeking election.

All republicans, democrats and progressive elements need to be backing Bairbre’s campaign with their votes on June 4.

However in less than a fortnight, it will be back to basics at the

Our Monday morning team meetings will once again be dominated by pushing Sinn Féin’s all-Ireland and equality agendas, and overcoming the obstacles created by the approach of other parties.

And as I look around the room, I will think about this tremendous occasion today – how far we’ve all come in the blink of a lifetime, and what will be achieved in the next few years.

I’ll recall Kevin Lynch, his huge struggle and sacrifice – and that of his family.

I’ll fill myself with pride at the calibre and the courage of the
republican people – people like all of you.

And I’ll have absolute confidence that the road we’re on will take us to the republic.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh.  Beirigí bua.


On this day

The campaign for the restoration of political status suffered two tragic blows on this day with the news of the deaths of Raymond McCreesh at 2.11am and Patsy O’Hara at 11.29 pm on Thursday May 21st, 1981. Tomás Ó Fiaich, then Catholic Primate of Ireland, criticised the British government’s attitude to the hunger strike. Both blanket men had begun their hunger strike on the same day, Sunday, 22nd March, 1981, and died after sixty one days. For full biographies see Raymond McCreesh & Patsy O’Hara

Kevin Lynch Memorial Unveiling

A memorial stone in honour of hunger striker Kevin Lynch will be unveiled on Sunday May 24th at 7.30pm in Park Village, County Derry. The guest speaker will be Martin McGuinness.










On This Day

Twenty-eight years ago, on 12th May, 1981, 25-year-old IRA Volunteer Francis Hughes from Bellaghy, South Derry, died after fifty nine days on hunger strike. At the time of his arrest in March 1978, after a gun battle with the SAS, Francis was the most wanted man in the North. At his trial he was sentenced to 83 years imprisonment. He was on the 1980 hunger strike which ended on December 18th without the loss of life. He was the second prisoner to join the 1981 hunger strike in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh, on 15th March, two weeks after Bobby Sands began his. Francis is laid to rest in Bellaghy, alongside his cousin Thomas McElwee who was also to die on hunger strike three months later.

The American city of Boston renamed the street the British consulate is on to Francis Hughes Street. He is also commemorated on the Irish Martyrs Memorial at Waverley Cemetery in Sydney, Australia.

Sean McCaughey Anniversary

On May 11, 1946 Sean McCaughey died after thirty-one days on hunger strike, the last twelve on thirst strike, for his unconditional release. After his death, and partially as a result of the publicity detailing the horrific conditions under which he was imprisoned, Fianna Fail fell from power and the incoming coalition of Fine Gael and Clann na Poblachta (led by Sean MacBride, counsel for McCaughey), unconditionally released all IRA prisoners.

Sean McCaughey, a metal worker who spent the summers teaching Irish in the Glens of Antrim, was born on the 8th June 1915 in Aughnacloy, County Tyrone and came to Belfast with his family when he was five years old. He was imprisoned for a short while in the late 1930s and rose to become Adjutant-General of the IRA. Suspecting that the then leader of the IRA, Stephen Hayes, was in the pay of the Free State government, McCaughey and several others arrested and interrogated Hayes. Whilst Hayes was still in IRA custody, McCaughey was arrested. Hayes escaped and later testified against McCaughey at a Military Court which sentenced McCaughey to be shot by firing squad, though his sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment. In September 1941 he was moved to Portlaoise Prison and held in brutal and inhumane conditions. He was held in solitary confinement, naked but for a blanket. He started his strike on 19th April 1946. After sixteen days he stopped taking water and died on the 23rd day of his strike. The inquest into his death was held in Portlaoise Prison and the deputy coroner refused to allow Sean MacBride, counsel for the next of kin, to cross-examine the governor.

However, he was allowed to question the prison doctor, Dr Duane:

MacBride: Are you aware that during the four and a half years he was here he was never out in the fresh air or sunlight.

Duane: As far as I am aware he was not.

MacBride: Would I be right in saying that up to twelve or eighteen months ago he was kept in solitary confinement and not allowed to speak or associate with any other persons?

Duane: That is right.

MacBride: Would you treat a dog in that fashion?

The deputy coroner intervened: That is not a proper question.

MacBride: If you had a dog would you treat it in that fashion?

Duane: No.

MacBride: Did you have to attend the prisoner for a nervous breakdown?

Duane: He suffered from a nervous condition for a time.

MacBride: By reason of solitary confinement?

Duane: I don’t know.

Sean McCaughey is buried in the Republican Plot at Milltown Cemetery in Belfast.


Bik for London Discussion, 17th May

Brendan ‘Bik’ McFarlane, a member of the Bobby Sands Trust, will be speaking in the Phoenix Cinema, 52 High Road, East Finchley, N2 9PJ after a special-screening of the film ‘Hunger’ on Sunday 17th May at 2pm. For tickets telephone 020 8444 6789 or email –

In a press release the organisers write: “Turner Prize-winning artist Steve McQueen directs a powerful and compelling account of the 1981 hunger strike of Bobby Sands in Belfast’s Long Kesh Prison. With a devastating performance by Michael Fassbender, this key moment in recent history proved a turning point in the political struggle and is recreated in a visually striking film of awesome power. This award winning film has put the issues surrounding the Hunger Strike back on the political agenda, and provoked renewed debate and interest in the lessons of that period for today.

“Brendan ‘Bik’ McFarlane was the leader of republican political prisoners in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh prison during the 1981 hunger strikes. He succeeded Bobby Sands in this role when he commenced hunger strike on 1 March.

“In 1983 he was one of the key people involved in crucial roles in a mass jail escape, when 38 republican prisoners broke out of what was the highest security jail in Western Europe. Recaptured in 1986, he spent over 20 years in jail until his release in 1998.

“A strong participant in the development of the peace process, he currently works for Sinn Féin and is a vocal supporter of the continued political direction.” 

Special screening and discussion

HUNGER (15) 2.00

(UK/Ireland 2008)

dir. Steve McQueen, 90m.

£6/£5 concessions

Michael Fassbender, Liam Cunningham,

Stuart Graham, Brian Milligan, Liam




Friendships Forged

On the anniversary of the death of Bobby Sands Gerry Adams has paid a personal tribute to Bobby and his comrades who died on hunger strike twenty-eight years ago.

Bobby Sands is one of my friends. I am using the present tense very deliberately when I write Bobby is one of my friends. Sometimes, without really thinking about it, when we talk about friends who have gone before us, we use the past tense. But friends don’t cease to be friends just because they are dead. That’s why I say Bobby Sands is one of my friends.

I have a lot of friends. I feel a real sense of privilege about being able to say that. Friendship is one of the great blessings of life. The strength of this blessing should not be judged by the number of friends it involved. Some of us go through life with only one or two friends. I suppose it depends on how you define friendship. When it comes down to it maybe none of us have any more than one or two friends who we would trust completely or who we would do anything for. Or who feel the same way about us.

But being involved in struggle for a protracted period, being in hard places, in difficult circumstances is a great equaliser. Being part of efforts to change this and being successful even in small ways brings its own special sense of achievement and confidence and empowerment. And friendship.

Involvement in struggle is a great way for people to bond. Friendships forged in these conditions endure.


That’s why I say I have lots of friends. Lots of us have come through difficult times. We have been in hard places. We may not be in as much contact as we should be. We may have moved on in our own lives. All of us are older. Personal circumstances have certainly changed for most of us. The politics and tactics and mode of struggle have been transformed. The world is changing. So is Ireland. But core values should never change. That includes the value of friendship.

Bobby died on this day, May 5, at 1.17 in the morning. He was on the sixty six day of hunger strike. If Bobby had not died he would be fifty five years old. Who knows what he would be doing today. My guess is that he would be active in struggle. Bobby was like that.

We first met in Cage 11 in Long Kesh. Bobby was articulate, committed, curious about struggle and modes and forms of activism. He attended lectures and participated in debates, read voraciously and was always eager for a one to one discussion on any number of issues. Bobby also learned his Irish in the Kesh. By the time we met he was an accomplished Irish speaker. He loved sport, was a decent soccer player, a robust Gaelic footballer and a good singer. He practiced guitar regularly in the ‘study’ hut in our cage and did a very passable version of Kris Kristofferson’s Me and Bobby Magee at Cage hoolies. On one particularly memorable evening he and other comrades did a hilarious performance of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.

Bobby was married with a young son, Gerard. He was in Cage 11 serving a sentence for possession of handguns which were found in the house he was arrested in. Bobby was released in 1976. He returned to his family in Twinbrook and, among other things, he began to tackle the social issues bearing down on people there. Six months later he was arrested again. This time not far from the scene of a bomb attack and a gun fight. Bobby was in a car with three other young men. There was a revolver in the car.

After almost a year in custody on remand all four were sentenced to 14 years imprisonment for possession of one revolver. The judge admitted there was no evidence to connect any of them to the bombing. They were all transported to the H Blocks of Long Kesh and to the prison protest. That was in 1977.

He was to die four years later still on protest. While on hungerstrike Bobby was elected as the MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone. I could write a hundred blogs about him and the other hungerstrikers or the women in Armagh and the blanket men in the Blocks. But I won’t.

I think about them most days in some small way or other. I mention Bobby today because this is the 28th anniversary of his death. So on a day like today memories come rushing back.

My sense of Bobby? Bobby was a wonderful human being. He gave his all for the Irish cause. And for his friends.

What greater love than to lay down your life for your friends?

Aren’t we privileged, those of us, who knew people like this?
Bobby Sands MP (26) died on 5 May 1981 after 66 days

Francis Hughes (25) died on 12 May 1981 after 59 days

Raymond McCreesh (24) died on 21 May 1981 after 61 days

Patsy O’Hara (23) died on 21 May 1981 after 61 days

Joe McDonnell (30) died on 8 July 1981 after 61 days

Martin Hurson (29) died on 13 July 1981 after 46 days

Kevin Lynch (25) died on 1 August 1981 after 71 days

Kieran Doherty TD (25) died on 2 August 1981 after 73 days

Thomas McElwee (23) died on 8 August 1981 after 62 days

Michael Devine (27) died on 20 August 1981 after 60 days


On This Day


At 1.17am on the morning of Tuesday, 5th May, 1981, after sixty-six days on hunger strike, Bobby Sands died in his cell in the prison hospital of the H-Blocks surrounded by his mother, father, his sister Marcella and brother Sean. The Bobby Sands Trust remembers with pride this great Irish man.

“They have nothing in their whole imperial arsenal that can break the spirit of one Irishman who doesn’t want to be broken” – Bobby Sands.






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