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Gildernew addresses 1981 Hunger Strike Anniversary vigil in Dungannon

14 August, 2009 - by Westminster


Gildernew addresses 1981 Hunger Strike Anniversary vigil in Dungannon
To mark the beginning of the events surrounding the 28th anniversary of the 1981 Hunger Stike Sinn Féin MP for Fermanagh South Tyrone, Michelle Gildernew MLA addressed a gathering at the Black Flag protest and candle lit vigil in Dungannon tonight. Below is her speech.

A chairde,

we are gathered here tonight in good numbers to celebrate and remember the lives of thirteen brave men who have died on Hunger Strike for the cause of republicanism and uniting our island.

While the three instances of hunger strike have different backgrounds all of those who died, died with the thoughts of their friends, families and comrades and the cause of Irish freedom at the heart of their decision.

Under a so called republican Fianna Fáil government three hunger strikers died in the free state in the 1940’s. Amongst them was Sean McCaughey, from Aughnacloy, Co. Tyrone, who died following 23 days on Hunger Strike on the 11th May 1946 who being from Tyrone, shares a special place on this occasion.

Determined not to be criminalised Sean McCaughey refused to wear a prison uniform in Portlaoise Prison for nearly five years where his protest culminated in Hunger Strike and eventually a thirst strike. He is now buried in the Republican Plot in Belfast.

During the most recent stage of struggle two men were to engage in the age old protest of Hunger Strike dying in English prisons.

Michael Gaughan from Co. Mayo died on the 3rd June 1974 following 64 days on hunger strike in Parkhurst Prison on the Isle of Wight, England. On his return to Ireland he was met by an IRA guard of honour and his funeral was attended by over 50,000 people and was larger than the funeral of former Irish president Eamon de Valera.

Frank Stagg, who was being held also in a British jail, Wakefield in Yorkshire, died after a 62-day hunger strike in 1976. His initial hunger strike called for repatriation to Ireland which he began with Michael Gaughan. He was refused and began a second hunger strike. Following his move to Wakefield the British authorities insisted he once again do prison work. It was this and the refusal to repatriate him to Ireland that led Frank Stagg to engage on a third hunger strike which lasted until his death on the 12th February 1976.

Perhaps though most prominent in our memories, as I see so many young people here tonight, is the Hunger Strike of 1981 when ten brave republicans died in the H Blocks of Long Kesh. We stand here now in Dungannon, Co. Tyrone a town played such a prominent role in this period of prison struggle and of the republican struggle as a whole.
Dunagannon was the place for the registration of Bobby Sands by Owen Carron, his election agent, for the contesting of the Fermanagh South Tyrone seat following the sudden death if Frank Maguire.

On March 30th, the thirtieth day of the Hunger Strike, Bobby Sands’ nomination forms were handed in at Dungannon as the candidate for the Fermanagh and South Tyrone and over a fervently fought campaign was elected with 30,492 votes. He beat the Unionist Harry West, he beat the SDLP who later called it ‘a mandate for violence’ and need we be reminded that Bobby Sands was elected with more than 10,000 votes than Margaret Thatcher.

At 1.17 a.m. on Tuesday, May 5th, having completed sixty-five days on hunger-strike, Bobby Sands MP for Fermanagh South Tyrone, was the first of the ten hunger strikers to die in the H-Block prison hospital at Long Kesh.

Alongside Bobby Sands and the election victory, Martin Hurson stands close to the heart many in Tyrone. Martin, from Gallbally, joined the Hunger Strike on May the 29th 1981.

In a similar stance to Bobby, Martin also stood for election; this time in the twenty six counties. Martin was a candidate in Longford/Westmeath, and although missing election, obtained almost four-and-a-half thousand first preference votes, and over a thousand transfers, outlasting two Labour candidates and a Fine Gael contender.

Barely one month after election on the 13th of July, Martin Hurson was the sixth hunger striker to die. His death had a profound impact on the local community and the wider Tyrone area.

We remember with fondness all of those from Tyrone who have died as a result of their unselfish sacrifice and all of those, including the other eight men from 1981 who have given their lives, both in their precious time amongst us, and in their deaths to the cause of Irish Freedom.

I stand here now, twenty eight years, both proud and humbled to be representing the same constituency that Bobby Sands was elected to in 1981. We have come a long way from then. Republicanism is stronger than ever before across the island of Ireland.

The Struggle is by no means over. 

In the North we see new milestones. Bairbre de Brún MEP topped the poll for Sinn Féin in the most recent European elections. Each year we see new Sinn Fein mayors on local councils, new young and energetic councillors being elected, a vast amount of experience being passed down through the party, and we are all learning new ways to define and push the republican project forward.

Sinn Féin continues to grow. Every day new people, but especially young people join Sinn Féin.

But let’s be clear. We did not get here overnight. The amount of hard work, dedication, determination and time given over to advancing our objectives took us to where we are today. From 1981 onwards Sinn Fein have grown in electoral terms. As republicans we are now the leading voice for nationalism.

A case in point is this: Following Owen Carrons victory, the seat then passed to Willie McCrea and then to Ken McGuiness. Years of determined hard work and visions saw the seat come to Sinn Féin in 2001Without that work over a long period of time we would not be here today stronger than ever before.

Recently the media in particular has cried that Sinn Féin are facing an internal crisis, people are leaving and the all Ireland project is failing. They couldn’t be further from the truth.All political parties will see people leave, however more importantly and not reported upon so quickly is that all will see many join them, convinced of their message. To say this is a crisis is a nonsense. We have internal debate, we have our ups and downs, but without speaking to each other and rationalising, evaluating and debating the way forward how can any project, but especially a republican be called radical and progressive. Sinn Féin and republicans are about bringing about significant and real change on this Island and we will continue to press for this at all levels and at every opportunity.

The Sinn Féin project in the South faces new challenges. However lets go back to what I just said. Change cannot come overnight, the same ethos that took Sinn Féin to its strength in the north needs to be, and will be, applied to the politics in the south. There are two projects, two political realities, that are married together. Through asking people what they need, what they require of us as representatives and working to deliver for them across the island we will see Sinn Féin grow further. But it is only though the hard work that we as republicans know so well, the hard work that goes on at street level, community level, council level and within the Assembly or the Dail that will deliver our goals.

The struggle is not over. There remains much more to do and complete but we, as republicans are up to the task. Let us go from here and honour our dead volunteers and comrades and re-energise ourselves with the confidence and determination we have inside all of us and apply this each and every day to achieving and advancing our goals of a united and radically transformed Ireland, truly an Ireland of equals.
Go raibh maith agaibh.

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