Thousands of republicans marked the 29th anniversary of the 1981 hunger strike in a march and commemoration held in Bellaghy, home of Francis Hughes and Tom McElwee. The guest speaker was Sinn Fein MP Martin McGuinness, Deputy First Minister. A large number of photographs of the event can be accessed here.

Peadar Whelan writes:

“The legacy of the 1981 hunger strike was with the thousands of republicans who travelled to Bellaghy, County Derry, from far and near on Sunday, 15th August, to honour the memory of the twelve hunger strikers who died in British prisons during the 1970s and 1980s.

“The ten H-Block martyrs and Mayomen Michael Gaughan and Frank Stagg will forever be an inspiration to republicans everywhere and those struggling for freedom and justice throughout the world.

“That was the clear message from Bellaghy on a day that saw a proud and determined people walk from Scribe Road in Tamlaghtduff to Bellaghy village, following the route that was denied to the families of Francis Hughes and Big Tom McElwee after their deaths in 1981.At the behest of bigoted unionists, the RUC then forced the families to take back roads to the cemetery at St Mary’s.

“Hundreds of young people were in confident mood, they marched they organised, they played music and most of all they laughed. They laughed because they are confident of taking the republican struggle to the next level.

“So if our revenge is the laughter we heard echoing throughout south Derry then we should be satisfied that our struggle and the legacy of our dead comrades are in safe hands.”

Here are some extracts from the speech gave by Martin McGuinness:

“Bellaghy is a proud republican community, who in the most difficult days of our struggle rose up in defiance of Britain’s failed entity that was the Orange state.

“Bellaghy continues to play its part in the pursuit of freedom and independence…

“The deaths of the hunger strikers has left an indelible mark on all of us. In particular, the relatives of the hunger strikers suffered most of all. They suffered grievously but bear with each passing year the huge sense of loss to themselves with great dignity and pride. Our respect for them knows no bounds. We are mindful too that many other families suffered loss as the result of conflict on the streets during the hunger strikes.

Five of the Hunger Strikers came from County Derry. Twenty-nine years ago, in the summer of 1981, the eyes of the world were on Derry…

Twenty-nine years on, we are back here today, in Bellaghy, a republican community unbowed, unbroken and here in a spirit of ongoing solidarity and comradeship. And 29 years on – here where Francis and Tom grew up, joined the IRA and fought the British – we are joined by the friends and families of the eight other men who died in the H-Blocks in 1981 and also friends and family of Frank Stagg and Michael Gaughan.

The hunger strikers and everything that they represent continue to be an inspiration to us all today. It is worth noting that following the death on hunger strike of Terence MacSwiney that Ho Chi Minh praised him as an example to be proud of.

The legacy of the hunger strikers sustains the struggle for freedom and contributed greatly to building the conditions where we now have the opportunity to complete the journey without our young and bravest giving their lives or spending their youth in prison camps. Their names are known and revered across Ireland and the world, in America, South Africa, Europe, the Middle East and beyond.

“The hunger strikers focused the eyes of the world on the political conflict in Ireland and our struggle increased in legitimacy both at home and abroad as a consequence. Britain’s hold on Ireland was severely weakened.

“And while many of us knew some of the men who died and have heard countless tales of the others – of their bravery on the outside and their courage inside prison as they confronted Thatcher’s intransigence and her attempt to break the struggle – and while we lost comrades we must never lose sight of the fact that it is the families who live day and daily with their loss.

“It is important also that on days as significant as this we should also remember the families of all of our patriot dead. We say to them today that we stand with you, we take courage and inspiration from you and we will continue on the path made possible by the sacrifice of your loved ones.

“Over the course of the next short period, people will be marking the 30th anniversary of the 1980 and 1981 hunger strikes. It is important that 1981 Committees are up and running in every area.

“Just as our opponents attempted to criminalise these brave freedom fighters in life, have no doubt that as the 30th anniversary approaches the revisionists will be out in force trying to once again criminalise them and our struggle. We need to be ready and prepared to counter their lies, their propaganda and their attempts to legitimise the positions they adopted in 1981 and since.

“When in recent weeks Britain’s new Prime Minister corrected the lies of a previous Conservative government over the murders of 14 Derry men, I gave him credit for that. The following day I recalled to myself what writer Eugene McCabe said about the hunger dtrikers when he wrote: ‘The hunger dtrike was Derry again in slow motion.’

“The message needs to go out very strongly that we are not prepared to see the memory of Bobby, Francis, Raymond, Pasty, Joe, Martin, Kevin, Kieran, Tom and Mickey sullied or used or abused by anyone.

“The 1981 hunger strike destroyed Britain’s strategy to criminalise the IRA and the republican struggle. After that, in the 1980s they began a policy of attempting to terrorise our people through a campaign of assassination and murder carried out by British surrogate death squads and attacks on republican funerals, and more.

“But, as in 1981, they fundamentally miscalculated.

“Yes, they killed leaders like John Davey, Sheena Campbell and Bernard O’Hagan but they could not kill their spirit or their legacy. Ideals cannot be assassinated. Determination and commitment cannot be imprisoned because we carry these things in our hearts and minds. Just causes are never defeated. The proof of that is all around us today; the spirit and legacy of 1981 continues to inspire.

“From 1981 to the present day the legacy of the hunger strike has been the bedrock of our strength. Today, the inheritance of our dead comrades is all around us as we pursue the new goals that we have set ourselves.

“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.

“Their ideals have yet to be fulfilled, but they also remain timeless. The task of today’s generations is to translate them into action.

“We must always do more. Bobby Sands wrote of the need for everyone to play their part; that no part was too great or too small.

“Bobby was right.

“Our objectives are about a better Ireland, a reunited Ireland, a new inclusive society – and a new national Republic based on equality, freedom and justice. That is the monument we must build to the hunger strikers and all of our patriot dead.

“We must continue to lead; we must strategise and use tactics suitable and workable to the 21st century, to 2010. There are lots of potential allies out there. The prison protests in Armagh and the H-Blocks brought together many people who disagreed with us on other issues.

“The hunger strikes became a catalyst for a huge mass movement. In dire economic times, not dissimilar to today, prison candidates received substantial votes with Bobby Sands elected MP and Kieran Doherty and Paddy Agnew elected TDs.

“So while building Sinn Féin we also have to help build with others – an alliance for change. We have to come together with others to forge a stronger, united, progressive and democratic movement for our country – one that aims to meet the needs of all citizens. Just as we did in that long hard summer of 1981.

“Together we need to do it again now.

“We are proud of our past, stronger in our struggle today than ever before and confident in our future. Together we will achieve Irish unity, independence and sovereignty. We will live in the Irish Republic that our comrades sacrificed their liberty and lives for in the H-Blocks 29 years ago.

“Bígí Linn, Tiocfaidh Ár Lá