Pat Sheehan MLA – Address to annual Wolfetone Commemoration
Speaking at the annual Wolfetone commemoration in Bodenstown today Sinn Féin MLA Pat Sheehan spoke of the need for genuine national reconciliation and an inclusive healing process.
The former H-Block Hunger Striker also spoke of plans for a conflict transformation centre at the Long Kesh site, the growth of Sinn Féin, the Government’s first 100 days and the upcoming Presidential election.
Full text of the address to the commemoration follows.
Leadership across the island – Pat Sheehan MLA
Go raibh mile maith agaibh go léir agus fáilte mór romhaibh chuig Baile Ui Buadháin inniu.
Two hundred years ago, Irish republicans, through the organisation of the United Irish Society, rose in arms against British rule Ireland and in the cause of an independent Irish republic based on the principle of equality for all citizens.
Today at the graveside of Theobald Wolfe Tone we honour not only the men and women of 1798, but each subsequent generation of Irish republicans who gave their lives in the cause of that objective.
This year in particular we recall the heroic scarifice of our ten comrades who died on hunger strike in the H Blocks of Long Kesh in 1981.
Thirty years ago Irish POWs faced the most repressive and violent prison regime in Western Europe.
The British Government had developed a strategy aimed at defeating the IRA. One strand of that strategy was to criminalise our struggle and to that end they instructed their diplomats throughout the world to portray the conflict here as some sort of criminal conspiracy.
Next they decided they would criminalise the prisoners. In fact they thought the prisoners were the soft underbelly of the struggle. They figured if they could force the prisoners to accept criminal status it would have a devastating and demoralising impact on the struggle on the outside.
But we understood what was at stake. In fact Bobby Sands encapsulated it in his writings when he said that what was lost in the H Blocks was lost for the Republic.
So we in the H Blocks and the women prisoners in Armagh saw ourselves as being in the front line of what developed in to an epic and tragic battle in which ten brave men sacrificed their lives.
It’s a measure of the man that Bobby Sands was that after the way the first hunger strike ended he decided he would lead the second hunger strike out front on his own.
And make no mistake Bobby knew he was going to die - even after his election as MP for Fermanagh/South Tyrone.
And let’s not forget that that election success was front page news throughout the world and effectively blew Thatcher’s criminalisation strategy out of the water and opened up a new site of struggle for republicans.
There were protests throughout the world from Hong Kong to New York, Melbourne to Tehran, Paris to Havana. No-one with any objectivity on this planet in 1981 believed the H Block hunger strikers were criminals.
On the contrary, they were admired and revered by many for the stand they took and the sacrifices they made. Not least among the political prisoners on Robben Island in South Africa.
In 2001 – the 20th anniversary of the Hunger Strike – I travelled as part of a Sinn Féin delegation to meet Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg. We later went to Robben Island to unveil a monument to the shared suffering of Irish and South African political prisoners.
One of those who gave us a guided tour of the island was Ahmed Kathrada. Kathrada, who was Minister of Culture in the new South African Government after the fall of apartheid, had been a political prisoner with Mandela on Robben Island.
Of that experience and the decision to convert Robben Island in to a museum he remarked:
‘While we will not forget the brutality of apartheid, we will not want Robben Island to be a monument for our hardship and suffering. We would want it to be seen as a triumph of wisdom and largeness of spirit against small minds and pettiness; a triumph of courage and determination over human frailty and weakness.’
The H Blocks of Long Kesh still stand and that in itself is an achievement. Several attempts have been made over the last few years to have them and what they represent obliterated. Like the strategy of criminalisation those attempts also failed. Now plans are advancing for a conflict transformation centre. The role of Sinn Féin in government has made that possible.
Those who stoke up fears that the remaining H Block and prison hospital would become some sort of shrine could not be more misguided. They reveal how little they have learnt about the republican struggle and those imprisoned for their part in that struggle. Because the people who gave their lives for Irish freedom in Long Kesh in 1981 are not in the walls or floors of the H Blocks. They are alive and well in the hearts and thoughts of another generation who have been inspired by their sacrifice.
All of those who died in the H Blocks that spring and summer of 1981 left behind broken-hearted families and friends. They made a conscious decision to give up all the pleasures of life in the hope and belief that their deaths would move the struggle forward.
The only shrine worthy of that sacrifice is the completion of the struggle for a free, independent, united Ireland. That is something we must sort out in our time; it’s not something to be left for future generations.
Let us for a moment take stock of where we are today in that journey:
The Orange State is gone.
Our young people don’t have second-class citizenship on their radar.
There are more Republicans in Ireland today than at any time since partition.
We are giving leadership right across this island.
And the signs of change are all around us.
While the peace process has transformed the political landscape in recent years, charting a route out of conflict - the process of conflict resolution - is far from over. Many families are still grieving and are still seeking answers regarding the deaths of their loved ones.
Sinn Féin believes that there needs to be an effective process for dealing with all legacy issues. In our view The Irish and British governments should invite a reputable and independent international body to establish an Independent International Truth Commission as part of a viable truth recovery process.
Genuine national reconciliation, an inclusive healing process and the closure which victims, victim’s families and survivors deserve, demands that all of us pledge ourselves to tell and to hear the truth about the past. The Irish Government should proactively engage with the British Government on this issue and seek to ensure that such a process is established.
Republicans will play our part in such a process.
The recent conflict involved various armed groups, state forces and governments. With progress in the building of peace in Ireland, there are now many individuals from all of these groups working in their communities. They include political ex-prisoners. Former political prisoners have played critical and positive roles in bringing the political process to where it is now and will continue to do so.
This year has witnessed the greatest political resurgence of Irish republicanism since the partition of our country. Elections North and South have seen Sinn Féin become the third largest party on the island of Ireland. The all-Ireland project has received a massive boost and added momentum.
We have seen the arrival in Leinster House of Sinn Féin as a truly significant political force in the 26 Counties – with 14 TDs, including our party leader Gerry Adams and three Senators.
Not only were there tremendous gains with the 14 newly elected TDs but several other candidates came very close to making this election even more historic.
Almost a quarter of a million people voted for Sinn Féin in that election.
Sinn Féin's platform in that election was based on core, genuine republican values. We talked about sovereignty and independence and standing up for peoples rights and in Ireland's interests. We talked about political choices and the need for real change. We said there was a better way and produced costed proposals to get the economy back on track. We offered more than just hope - Sinn Féin offered a real alternative and the people responded.
In the Six Counties, the Assembly and Council elections on May 5th – Bobby Sands’ anniversary – produced the most successful results ever for Sinn Féin.
In the North we now have 29 MLAs, and 138 councillors.
Joint First Minister Martin McGuinness and the new team of Sinn Féin Ministers are providing principled republican leadership in the Executive.
Inside and outside the Executive and Assembly, Dáil and Seanad, Sinn Féin Ministers, TDs, MLAs, Councillors, and activists will use every opportunity to forward the radical republican alternative to the social and economic crises facing families, north and south, east and west and will forge ahead with the all-Ireland agenda.
The general election in this state saw a change of faces around the cabinet table. But the Fine Gael/Labour coalition is continuing to pursue the failed policies of the past, kow-towing to the diktats of the EU/IMF and heaping more misery on families on low and middle incomes trying to get by, families struggling to pay their bills and their mortgages while the banks are bailed out with billions of taxpayers’ money. The new government has done 50 uturns in 100 days — that’s 1 every 2 days.
Sinn Féin provides the only real political opposition to the bankrupt policies of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour. Throughout the 32 Counties, Sinn Féin must use its increased political strength and growing support to build for a united Ireland and a New Republic built in the interests of citizens.
A major political force on both sides of the border Sinn Féin has an all-Ireland vision and the politics and programmes to achieve the republican goal and realise the ideals of the 1916 Proclamation.
The objective of a united Ireland is front and centre in everything that Sinn Féin does. As part of our campaign for a united Ireland, Sinn Féin yesterday held the first of two conferences under the theme of ‘Towards a New Republic’. The next conference will be in Cork on June 25th.
We need to continue to host such events and to engage in campaigning to raise consciousness that a united Ireland not only makes political, social and economic sense but that its is an achievable objective.
This year will see an Irish Presidential election campaign in which thousands of Irish citizens will be denied the right to vote for their President. The current President could not even vote in the Presidential election if she still lived in her native Belfast. This must change. Irish citizens from whatever part of Ireland must be able to vote in the forthcoming Presidential election and the current Irish Government must do whatever it takes to ensure that this democratic entitlement is realised.
We now need to build Sinn Féin in every parish in Ireland. People need to come forward and join the party – people who were involved in the past, those who help out at election time, ex POWs, republican families, young people – we need everyone involved.
North and South Sinn Féin is a party filled with youthful talent, energy, enthusiasm and passion for the republican struggle. Young represntatives like Kathleen Reilly, the youngest ever Senator in the Oireachtas and Niall Ó Donghaile, the youngest ever Mayor of Belfast.
And Sinn Féin also have men and women with years and years of experience at the coal-face of struggle. Comrades who were interned or imprisoned for countless years, who saw active service with Óglaigh na hÉireann, who were on hunger strike in the dark days but who now stand in elections or help in elections or work behind the scenes for Sinn Féin.
We have a great blend of youth and experience.
But what’s important is this: we are all speaking with the one voice. And we are all on the one road . . .to a new Irish Republic!