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Doherty Praises Short Strand Community As Battle Of St Matthews Is remembered

26 June, 2005


Sinn Féín Vice President Pat Doherty MP today addressed a commemoration in the Short Strand area of East Belfast to mark the 35th anniversery of the battle of St. Matthews, when the IRA along with local people defended the district from attack from unionist and state forces seeking to burn it to the ground.

Mr Doherty said:

" My advisers from this area told me to tread carefully when it comes to using the correct name to describe the district.

So let me at the outset stay safe with everyone. I will use, the rarely used, double-barrel name, Short Strand/Ballymacarret or Ballymacarret/Short Strand. I have been told the use of both names spans a few generations, those born in the twenties and those born in the fifties.

If I've got it right then those who use Ballymacarret are of an older vintage. I know the more popular name; on less formal occasions is the Strand or Short Strand. However this is an occasion for both names to be used.

Today we are marking the 35th anniversary of the siege of this district by unionist gunmen on the night of the 27th June 1970. To get a sense of what happened that night I have spoken to a number of republicans from the district.

In the re-telling of the story what struck me was that you people shouldn't really be here. That this district should not be here. That this gathering should not be happening.

Listening to the stories from people who were out on the streets that fateful night I‚m certainly convinced that those who were attacking this district intended driving you from your homes and then leveling the houses, street by street.

Or as loyalists have done on other occasions when they forced Catholics from their homes they took them over. The loyalist's plan was to do to this area what they did some months previously in Bombay Street on the Falls Road. Bombay Street was torched by loyalists, 'B' Specials and RUC men.

The legal and illegal forces of this state have always colluded and used violence to impose their will on the nationalist people of the six counties.

They did it here on the 27th June and continued doing it until this very day. The British Army and the RUC stood to one side for several hours and allowed the sustained gun and bomb attack to take place.

It's not that they were miles away or that the gun fire was too intense. They were here in large numbers but they sat it out and observed the assault.

They only moved in at dawn when it became obvious that the district was going to survive. Had it not been for the people of this area in the IRA and the local defense forces the loss of life on that night bad though it was would have been a lot worse.

From speaking to people, I picked up the attack did not come as a complete surprise but I think the ferocity of it was not expected. The defenders of this area had been on the streets from at least 1968 when unionist violence began to express itself in attacks on isolated Catholics throughout East Belfast and elsewhere.

As I understand it you've gone through a few generations of defenders since those days and people are still on the streets today alert to the ever present threat from loyalists.

The 'Battle of St. Matthews' as some historians have described it was of course heroic. The average age of those who stood armed at the corner of these streets was 17, just about youths. There was of course an older experienced hand provided by a small group of republicans. And this was very much appreciated.

Of course all these defenders knew at the time was they were protecting the men, women and children of this area from certain harm if not death. That of course was more than enough and the people of this area are grateful for their actions. We are all grateful.

But those young rebels did much more than defend this area. They gave birth to the modern IRA. They re-established the IRA's reputation which had taken a knock over the sacking of Bombay Street.

After Bombay Street, 'never again' was the IRA's battle cry. And 'never again' rang out around these streets for over six hours during the intense gun battles.

It must have been a frightening night for those on the streets and for those in their homes fearful of what day light would bring. Fearful yes but brave also. That night changed the circumstances that all of us were to live in.

Across this country republicans said to themselves: they did it in Short Strand/Ballymacarret, we can do it. And I'm not just talking about what the IRA and the defense grouping did important though that is. A new mentality was born here among the people, all the people.

This small district gave us the confidence to stand up for ourselves to fight for our rights. That was a lot in those days. It might not seem like much now, today, but back then we were on our knees.

Fifty years of oppression by the RUC and 'B' Specials had forced all but a small group of republicans to keep their heads down.

But after the 27th June we were off our knees, standing upright, proud people, proud fighters. When dawn broke over this district that morning it was a new dawn for republican Ireland.

The years in between have been difficult years for the district. Over forty families are grieving for loved ones who lost their lives in the conflict. Dozens of men and women spent years behind bars. Others lived on the run in exile watching their extended families grow up from a distance.

All of us carry a burden from the weight of the conflict. For some it is heavier because of what they went through because of the price they have paid.

The people of Ballymacarret/Short Strand have paid dearly for the part they played in this freedom struggle.

We didn't chose the path we followed. It was forced upon us just as it was forced upon the young defenders 35 years ago. We had a choice, which was really no choice: fight or live in our own country 'tipping the cap' living as second class citizens.

You chose to fight, we chose to fight. And what fighters we are. 35 years ago these street corners were lonely isolated places. They aren't any longer.

You are part of national movement for freedom which is stronger today than it has been in over a century.

Those who took to the streets here 35 years ago changed the face of this state.

And today republicans continue to change the face of politics across this island. The struggle has changed beyond recognition in recent years. In the war years we fought hard. In the peace years we are still fighting hard. Our objective hasn't changed.

We started out seeking a united Ireland and we are still seeking it. And we will carry on seeking it until it is achieved.

I know you will carry on as you started out. To those in the first flush of youth in 1970 and now in the first flush of middle age who put this district on the political map 35 years ago let me thank you for taking the stance you did. Had you not we would not be where are today." ENDS

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