Gerry Kelly address to Tyrone Volunteers Commemoration
Is onoir mór dombsa cupla briathre a ra inniu ar na daoine as Tir Eoghan a fuair bas ar son saoirse na hEireann le linn an Cogadh fhada.
When I was asked some weeks ago to speak at the annual commemoration of the Tyrone Volunteers who lost their lives in the pursuit of Irish Independence and Freedom I was honoured to agree. As I’ve listened over those weeks to the building media maelstrom of attacks on their memory and integrity my wish to speak at this gathering has grown in proportion to those attacks.
Let me state this clearly at the start: No Unionist MLA, Councillor, MP or Minister; no loyalist paramilitary or Loyal Order spokesperson - no matter how loud they shout, will prevent me or any other Republican honouring our comrades who gave their lives in the Struggle for Irish freedom and equality.
The Republicans and Nationalists of Castlederg / Aghyaran and of Tyrone remember the oppression of house raids, harassment, internment, collusion, imprisonment and shoot to kill. They also remember when the RUC, UDR and British Army in their thousands tried to prevent the dignified burials of our comrades killed in action.
The wrong place for Unionist politicians or Orange Order spokespersons to be at the moment is on any platform self-righteously pontificating about dead Volunteer’s of the Irish Republican Army. Especially with the known closeness of the DUP to the Freeman Memorial Flute Band or North Belfast flute band which celebrates UVF man Brian Robinson or the platforms shared with loyalist paramilitaries.
There was a war, which the Orange Apartheid State caused through its institutionalised and endemic discrimination and oppression of the Catholic population over generations. It was described succinctly by Lord Craigavon as “A Protestant State for a Protestant People.” Terrible things happened during that conflict. Terrible suffering was inflicted on all sides - by all sides. But let us not countenance a hierarchy of victims which would discriminate against Republicans and Nationalists not just in life, but in death also.
We are told by Unionists that Tyrone Republicans are insensitive to those who suffered at the hands of Republicans, in this area. Yet Castlederg is where Republicans have been involved in dialogue with the Loyal Orders and others within the Unionist section of our community for over 5 years. Despite the difficulties and hurt felt, the majority Nationalist population in the area have tolerated Loyal Order marches through the town which amount to almost 20 in this year alone. The majority Irish Nationalist town is also festooned with pro-British flags and emblems.
It was agreed in those talks that the centre of Castlederg should be a shared space. Yet when a single Republican commemoration parade is organised we are confronted with a deluge of orchestrated complaints. In effect we are being told that it is right for unionism to remember their British dead without interference but how dare Republicans remember their Irish dead in the same way. No discussion of the issue – just megaphone attack
When the problem was identified publicly: as Republicans parading past the cenotaph, Castlederg Republicans took an initiative and I want to congratulate them for that. They said that, this year, they would not parade around the Diamond where the cenotaph and the Methodist Church were situated.
The Parades Commission, instead of recognising this as a huge step; instead of recognising that Republicans were involved in constructive dialogue for over 5 years –restricted the parade further. Even those restrictions weren’t enough for Unionists. They then demanded that honouring our dead should be banned altogether. They demanded that the British Secretary of State ban the commemoration parade and then that the PSNI ban it.
As people here know, that has been done before in our history and it did not work then and it certainly will not work now. You cannot, with any law or legislation banish the feeling of respect and pride in the hearts of Republicans for their comrades.
But lest you think that the bigotry stops there, remember, not so long ago there was a Fleadh parade in Castlederg which was not Republican and what did the same Unionists do? They opposed it. A GAA pitch was to be built and named after Marius McHugh, a local man who died of cancer and left money in his will to help pay the costs. What did the Unionists do? They opposed it. In both cases they failed but unfortunately, it shows that this is not a new phenomenon.
Despite the present difficulties, Republicans withdrew a peaceful protest against the Apprentice Boys parade yesterday to de-escalate a worsening situation. If the Orange Order had done the same in Belfast last night we would not have had the verocious attacks on the police we witnessed last night - incidentally a considerable distance from the legal parade which had been filed for.
This was then followed up with sectarian attacks on Nationalist homes in North and East Belfast. The Loyalists also attacked a pub frequented by Catholics which had been previously attacked by Loyalist gunmen killing three Catholics.
The DUP spent their time blaming the Parades Commission as usual. Unionist Representatives have seldom shown strong leadership. The First Minister Peter Robinson has been uncharacteristically quiet. The most militant voice leads – whether that is a Willie Fraser or Jim Allister or some loyalist paramilitary. The DUP are inclined to follow.
So, having said all that, where does it bring us? Does it make me feel hopeless or helpless? No. Do I think dialogue should cease? No, I don’t. It means, after today, we seek out those who we need to talk to in the Unionist part of our community and we find a way forward with them.
We recognise that there are two narratives about our past. That is the reality. It does not mean that we will agree on the past. I do not expect Unionists to agree with or even accept a Republican or Nationalist view of the past. No more than Unionists can expect Republicans to agree with their account of our history. I may not like the part played by the Crown Forces during the conflict but I absolutely accept their right to commemorate their dead with dignity. Indeed Alex Maskey was the first Sinn Fein Mayor to reach out through laying a wreath for Remembrance Sunday some years ago. Unionists may not like the part played by Republican Freedom Fighters in the conflict but they should accept their right to be commemorated with dignity.
If both sections of our community can come to terms with the fact of there being two narratives, at least two views of our past. That, I believe will help our whole society to move forward. We have, in fact, agreed on many things already – the GFA, St Andrews and Hillsborough agreements being prime examples. There are also things we don’t agree on. But for the future, for a shared future there may have to be more compromises on all sides. If we can allow for the different narratives it may open up the space to do that.
Without dialogue, whether in Castlederg or Derry or Rasharkin or Belfast we cannot progress. So as Republicans we must stand by face to face dialogue as a method of resolution.
But today, let me say this on the 40th Anniversary of the deaths of Volunteer Seamus Harvey and Volunteer Gerard McGlynn who gave their lives so that we could be free.
These 2 young men could have made different choices in life. They could’ve avoided the risks of imprisonment or death – But they were leaders, people who led from the front. They chose to stand up against the oppression in our country, the intimidation of their people: Because of their profound love of Ireland and of their community.
They were not alone in Tyrone to step forward in Ireland’s time of need. Tyrone has given of its best over the centuries. It has suffered and sacrificed more than its fair share in the conflict. There are 60 names on the roll of honour-most of them young men cut down in their prime.
It is worth saying – and I hope Unionism is listening, that they were ordinary young men who loved their families and friends and were loved in return. They got great satisfaction from playing sport and reading history and going to dances or courting or playing with their children or going to college or university. They were ordinary young men in the extraordinary circumstances of the early 1970’s who rose to the challenge of the time. They had a vision of Equality and Freedom and they knew the risks they were taking to achieve it but they could not stand idly by or leave it to others.
It is a harsh reality of Resistance that we lose some of our best activists during armed conflict and Seamus and Gerard along with their other comrades whom we remember here today, paid with their lives. Forever young, they are remembered, loved and cherished by their families, friends and comrades and always will be.
We also remember those who lived their lives in service to the people and the cause of freedom. Some of whom have died in this area in the last few years.
I don't know what our dead comrades might have said if they were here today on this platform, but what I do know is that they left a legacy behind them. Their courage and their sacrifice inspired others who took up their mantle and continued their struggle.
What I do know is that they played their part in our long struggle with dedication and commitment using the tools available to them in the 1970s. As our comrades in 1916, or in 1803, or in 1798 used the tools available to them in their eras and indeed in any of the many uprisings, large or small which has peppered our Island’s history.
What I do know is that we, who continue that struggle for Irish Unity and Independence, must use the tools available to us in 2013. We should not and cannot act as if it is 1916 or 1969 or 1980 or 1996 or even 2006. We cannot live in our past but we must learn from our past to secure and improve our future. There are those on both sides, a minority, who yearn for past certainties, who want to return to the conflict years. They will use any issue in a forlorn attempt to undermine progress or destabilise the peace. They will fail because they have no vision for the future of Ireland and therefore no strategy other than violence itself. The vast majority of people on the Island reject them.
James Connolly who was executed by the British in 1916, speaking of Wolfe Tone, the father of modern republicanism said: “We who hold his principles believe that any movement which would successfully grapple with the problem of national freedom must draw its inspiration, not from the moulding records of the past, but from the glowing hopes of the living present, the vast possibilities of the mighty future”.
Ní Raibh Seamas Ó Conghaile ina phriosúnach don stair. A chomradaithí agus a chairde, inniú agus as seo amach tá muid ag deanamh ar stair féin agus ar dtodhchaí féin.
James Connolly was no prisoner of History. Comrades and friends, today and into the future we are shaping our own history and destiny.
The united Ireland Sinn Féin seeks to build is inclusive, pluralist and where all the elements of the Irish nation are comfortable, secure and can find the fullest expression of their identity.
Sinn Féin is a party on the rise. In the North we are the undisputed voice of nationalism and are transforming a society moving out of conflict and into a new shared future. In the South we are providing the credible, radical republican opposition to the gombeenism, corruption and lack of vision of a political establishment which has failed the Irish people.
Republicanism on this island has never been so strong, so organized and so capable of achieving its objectives. This generation of republicans is laying the foundations for a New Republic — a 32-County Republic with social justice and equality at its core.
This generation has the greatest opportunity since Partition to finally achieve genuine national self-determination. We do not underestimate the challenges ahead. Indeed as Republicans we embrace challenge, we embrace activism and we embrace the responsibility that comes with activism.
Finally, and importantly we could not have got this far without the activism, dedication and self-sacrifice of the people we are here to honour today. Our best tribute to them, I would suggest is to rededicate ourselves to the achievement of the United Ireland for which they gave their lives.