The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

The Price of Our Memory

Speech given at the Annual H-Block Hunger Strike Commemoration, 25th anniversary, Bundoran, Donegal

Anthony McIntyre • 26 August 2006

While sorrowful it is a deep honour to speak here today. To the organisers I would like to convey my appreciation for their having bestowed that honour upon me. It is also to the credit of the organisers and a measure of their integrity that they have not reduced this venerable event to a political rally. Their willingness to offer this platform to people who do not share their political outlook is admirable. It is clear that the sacrifice of the hunger strikers is the primary motivating spirit that guides them. The dark spectre of political opportunism may have stalked Casement Park two weeks ago but it is banished from here today as we gather to pay true homage to our fallen comrades rather than use their imagery and exploit their memory to add wind to the sails of political careers.

Today there are more than enough people claiming to be close friends of Bobby Sands. It is the price an icon of radical struggle pays. Some see only the celebrity dimension that is often generated by the life, works, or death of an incorruptible activist and tend to downplay the intense agony undergone by them and their families. While the hunger strikers never sought fame, perhaps the definition of a celebrity is apt for Bobby Sands in the current context if we accept the definition of a celebrity as someone who is known by many people he is glad he does not know.

I recall once acquiring a certain cynicism upon learning of a book about the late guerrilla fighter Che Guevara. Its title was My Friend Che. These things never fail to strike me as exploitative. Consequently, I was surprised to find in yesterday's Guardian that I too had joined the illustrious society of close friends of Bobby Sands. It was an honest mistake by the journalist who wrote the story. At the risk of depleting the membership of the society of friends, I was not one of Bobby's bosom buddies. I didn't know him well enough to acquire that status. Yet I am mindful of his own comment to Monsignor Denis Faul shortly before he died that man has no greater love than he who would lay down his life for his friends. On that basis we could all claim to be friends of Bobby and the other hunger strikers. They literally gave their lives for us and the republican philosophy that animated us.

I take great pride from the fact that Bobby Sands, Frank Hughes, Patsy O'Hara and the other volunteers who died were comrades and that I was on the blanket protest with them. We were young men, who along with young women in Armagh prison, pitted our one weapon, endurance, against the vile might of a state that had massacred an unarmed civilian population on the streets of Derry and would not baulk at the thought of putting us to the sword. Blocks apart we were united, as all blanket men were, in our opposition to a British lie and the reassertion of a republican truth. They, not we, were the criminals. Yes, the H-Blocks were filled with criminal types. They all belonged to the Northern Ireland Prison Service who regularly beat republican political prisoners and inflicted a regime of deprivation upon us in a futile attempt to break the spirit.

The British in 1981 demonstrated to the world the essence of their malign character. They give in at the end but they exacted a terrible price for it. Had they have delivered in March 1981 what they eventually conceded in October of the same year, there would have been no dead hunger strikers. But the vindictiveness of Britain is well known to Irish republicans. One lesson to be learned from that terrible time is all the force of British violence could not defeat the moral power of a peaceful republican protest.

The H-Block hunger strike carried out by the volunteers of the IRA and INLA was a defining moment in Irish republican history. It resonated globally and has led us here today to honour the memory of Raymond McCreesh, Kieran Doherty and the eight men who never again were to wear their own clothes but who broke the will of the British to persist in their demand that republicanism walk the face of this earth wearing the criminal mark of Cain. Kevin Lynch and his comrades ensured that never again would Britain be able to succeed in characterising resistance to its rule as the work of common criminals.

There are some today who tell us that had Martin Hurson, Joe McDonnell and the hunger strikers survived they would most likely support the corrupt peace process and back the Provisional leadership in its stewardship of that process. Perhaps. But how can we tell? The simple truth is that we cannot. To designate positions and perspectives to people who gave no license for such designation is every bit as dishonest as the attempts by the British to assign criminal motivation to the same people. It is to take a liberty where none was granted. It is theft. It is to steal a sacrifice and put it in a place other than its rightful one.

We can say absolutely nothing about where the hunger strikers would stand today. If we were of such a mind we could lie with statistics. We could infer that because some former hunger strikers stand ready to embrace the PSNI then those that died would, had they survived, do likewise. But which ones? Who amongst us would dare pick one of the ten dead men and insult him by saying with any certainty 'yes - he would bust his gut today to support British peelers?'

To proclaim that the republican dead would endorse Sinn Fein the Peelers Party is not to tell any truth about men such as Michael Devine and Tom McElwee. It is to provide cover for those who cannot walk erect, head held high to the partitionist destination that they have now chosen. They want to take the hunger strikers with them, to lean on them, use them as a crutch. We don't demand that they have the courage of the ten dead men. That comes to few. We simply ask that they have the honesty of the fallen. They would be better thought of. Perhaps, in a world governed by organised lying, methodical lying, where there are those who lie like the rest of us breathe, honesty is as rare as the courage of the hunger strikers. A fitting epitaph to be engraved on the headstones of those who would use the memory of the hunger strikers for their own scrofulous ends would be 'here they are, lying still.' The meaning would be clear to all.

Yet there are some things we can say with absolute certainty about the men who died on hunger strike within the corridors of steel and concrete that were the H-Blocks of Long Kesh. And the expression of that certainty in no way exploits the sacrifices made but on the contrary honours each and every life and death experienced by our ten comrades. As has been said, to the living we owe respect, to the dead we owe only truth. When the men lost their lives they died in opposition to a reformed Stormont; they died in opposition to acceptance of the unionist veto dressed up in the language of the consent principle; they died in opposition to Leinster House; they died in opposition to a British police force enforcing the law of the British state in any part of Ireland. Whatever tradition inherits their legacy or lays claim to their suffering it is an absurdity to claim that such a tradition could be made up of all the component parts the hunger strikers died opposing.

It is important that we continue to reassert what we believe to be the truth. We live in a world where many are more afraid of being isolated than they are of being wrong. Consequently, they take the easy option and are content to be wrong. Recently, former blanket man Richard O'Rawe, who I am pleased to say is standing with us here today, displayed enormous courage and went against the Provisional narrative of the hunger strike. To his credit being wrong was more repulsive to him than being isolated. He did the right thing, faced down the isolation and published the book Blanketmen. In it he levelled the charge that the lives of six of the hunger strikers could have been saved were it not for some elements in the republican leadership machinating and manipulating events to further their own ambitions. Despite the assaults on his character and integrity, Richard O'Rawe, wearing the tenacity that made him one of the Blanket men, persisted with his conviction. He withstood the whispers, the graffiti sprayers, the ostracism, the labelling of him as some sort of deviant who traded in his human decency for profit. What nonsense. Richard O'Rawe simply opted to bear witness. Given his knowledge of events he feels it is the least he could do. What else but to establish truth were the blanket protest and hunger strikes waged?

The key questions asked by Richard O'Rawe remain unanswered. What did the offer made by the British through the Mountain climber constitute? Where are the comms relating to the Mountain climber? There has been a deathly silence on the part of some Provisional leaders in relation to these matters. There is only one place for a republican to be silent; in the barracks. But even some prominent Provisionals managed to fail in this respect.

There is independent evidence to support the claims made by Richard O'Rawe in his book. That evidence has been made available to a small number of key leaders within the Irish Republican Socialist Movement who feel obligated to explore the claims out of respect to their fallen comrades and their grieving families. It has prompted that movement to publicly state that it wants the matter further investigated.

Richard O'Rawe has faced accusations that his actions amount to launching a blasphemous assault on the most sacred cow within modern republicanism. The truth is that those making the accusations see in the hunger strikers a cash cow rather than a sacred one. And they are determined that it will graze in no field but their own. Blankets were being sold at the Casement Park political rally so that a corpulent crowd could march up the Falls Road and provoke the sarcasm of the press who lambasted it as resembling a Friar Tuck convention more than it did the austere era of the blanket protest and hunger strikes. The contrast between the easy corpulence of today and the hard emaciation of twenty five years ago was no more stark than it was on the Falls Road at that political rally. In a sense the imagery mirrored perfectly the ethical decay that has come to beset republicanism. The screws at least gave out the blankets for free.

Our dead hunger strikers are sacred to us. They occupy hallowed ground within our minds. The commercialisation of their memory is a travesty. It is a crime against republican sensitivity and our own natural intellect.

But nothing else can be expected. Experience is a good teacher and we know only too well what happens when republicanism falls prey to the Stick virus. It becomes ravished and mutates beyond all recognition. Cast our memories back to 1981, our most intense ideological and emotional year as Irish republicans. The people who today wish to transform the hunger strike into a profit making industry do not with their politics remotely resemble the republican spirit of that year. But they very much look like the Workers Party of 1981.

Cathal Goulding, the one time Official IRA/Stick chief of staff, knew exactly how to strangle republicanism. The trick was to corrode it from within. Republicanism can withstand inordinate amounts of pressure from without. But it is always vulnerable to the false messiah, the leader who thinks we exist as playthings in his little dance of deceit. Such leaders prevail only where they go unchallenged.

Today the energy and sacrifice of the hunger strikers is in the service of a political project which at the time of their deaths they opposed. There is no need to go into the detail of a political analysis to see where things have needed up. Small human stories allow us to instinctively and intuitively grasp what is going down better than any amount of political treatises. Who would have thought that when Brendan Hughes lay in a bed in a prison hospital leading the 1980 hunger strike, fellow blanket men would two decades later visit him in the Royal Victoria hospital where he lay on a hospital trolley because there were no available beds? The British Health minister at the time was a member of the Provisional Movement.

It is in these little vignettes that we are able to see the collapse of the Provisional project, how little it actually achieved. And now it demands that Paisley be prime minister and that their own volunteers hand themselves over to a Diplock judge so that they may be jailed without political status for their role in the leadership-ordered kidnapping of Bobby Tohill.

During the Blanket protest one of our favourite acts of defiance was staged when the governor came around to impose punishment on us for refusing to wear the prison garb or do prison work. We would scream in his face 'up the Ra.' Imagine had we shouted 'up Paisley; jail the Ra.' The governor would have recommended our immediate release as the quickest possible way to secure the defeat of the republican resistance.

In 1981 the British inflicted a terrible crime on Irish people. They scarred us deeply and its pain pulsates as we reflect on the lives and deaths of the H-Block volunteers on the 25th anniversary of that momentous occasion. As we leave here today we would do well to remember the words of two Czech novelists. Vaclev Havel urged people to speak truth to power. Milan Kundera said that 'the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.' Let us memorise and never forget those who gave their everything; Allow the awesome power of republican memory to triumph over those who wish to forget what they inflicted and those who conveniently want us to forget what it was all about.

As republicans who refused to wear the badge of criminality we will not commit the crime of forgetting. Always and everywhere, remember the hunger strikers.




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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



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Index: Current Articles

27 August 2006

Other Articles From This Issue:

The Price of Our Memory
Anthony McIntyre

In the Balance
John Kennedy

The Time for Revolutionary Marxism is NOW
Darren Cogavin

No! To A Holy War
Liam O Comain

Rendition Collusion
Eoin McGrath

Rendition Flights
John Kennedy

An Open Letter to Martina Anderson
Dr John Coulter

An Honest Writer: Cristóir Ó Floinn
Seaghán Ó Murchú

A Dual Presidency: An Improbable Solution to the Irish Problem
Michael Gillespie

Michéal Mhá Dúnnáin

Petition Calling for a Referendum on Irish Unification
Patrick Lismore

Federal Unionism—Early Sinn Fein: Article 5
Michael Gillespie

Federal Unionism—Early Sinn Fein: Article 6
Michael Gillespie

Number Crunching
Dr John Coulter

PFI Ventures Show the Con in all its Sordid Splendour
Anthony McIntyre

21 August 2006

Throwing the Book at Gerry
John Kennedy

The Man With the Planter Name
Liam O Comain

Diplock Delay Equals Justice Denied
Martin Galvin

Kevin Lynch, INLA Volunteer
Ray Collins

1981 Hunger Strike Commemoration in Chicago
Richard Wallace

The Question of Paisley's Legacy
Dr John Coulter

Turf War
John Kennedy

Eoin O’Duffy’s biography by Fearghal McGarry
Seaghán Ó Murchú

The Proclamation to Me
Mick Hall

Federal Unionism—Early Sinn Fein: Article 3
Michael Gillespie

Federal Unionism—Early Sinn Fein: Article 4
Michael Gillespie

House on Notting Hill
Dr John Coulter

Courage, Muslim Leaders
David Adams

Middle East Conflict Has Abandoned Rules of War
Anthony McIntyre

A Warning From History
John Kennedy

Cartoon Commissar
Anthony McIntyre

The Letters page has been updated.



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