Subscribe to the Irish News




Book Reviews
& Book Forum

Search / Archive
Back to 10/96





Failed agenda again raises its ugly head

(Jim Gibney, Irish News)

The year was 1981, the month was May, the date was probably the first. The location was the prison hospital in the H-Blocks.

I nervously pushed open Bobby Sands' cell door. The scene that greeted my eyes has stayed with me ever since.

Bobby's mother sat by his bed. His sister Marcella was standing over him. Both were looking at Bobby who had by then only a few days of his life left. A pair of rosary beads sent to him from the Pope dangled from his bed's headrest.

He was lying on his back. His face was gaunt. His head and neck were propped up with pillows. A small frame separated the bedclothes from his body.

He sensed my presence. "Who's there?" he asked. "It's me Bobby, Jim." Bobby's eyesight was fading. He couldn't see me. His eyes, wide open, were a bright orange colour.

He stretched out his hand. I took it in mine. "How are you?" I didn't know what to say. "I'm OK. Tell the lads I'm hanging in there."

I never saw Bobby alive again.

He died a short time later.

That same week I stood in Francis Hughes' cell a few feet from Bobby's with his mother and his brother Oliver. Francis was weak and was occasionally being sick into a basin while we were there.

I heard Oliver relay a message to Francis from the Pope's envoy, Fr Magee – Thatcher told him she wouldn't give in to the prisoners' demands.

I heard Francis say to Oliver: "Well there'll be dead bodies coming out of here because we are not giving in." Francis was dead at the end of that week.

I visited Raymond McCreesh, Martin Hurson, Tom McElwee and Joe McDonnell. In their turn they too died, as did Kieran Doherty, Patsy O'Hara, Kevin Lynch and Mickey Devine.

Their deaths on hunger strike put the struggle for Irish independence onto the international stage. Those fighting for freedom in South Africa and elsewhere would look to the hunger strikers and be inspired.

In the course of this epic battle which the prisoners won, Bobby was elected MP for Fermanagh/South Tyrone, Kieran Doherty was elected TD for Cavan/Monaghan and Paddy Agnew TD for Louth.

The people and the prisoners had spoken. The people voted and the prisoners died. Both actions left the British government's attempts to criminalise the prisoners and the republican struggle in tatters.

The term 'criminal', once never off the lips of Thatcher and her allies, was seldom heard again. The prisoners' selfless sacrifice and the will of the people made sure of that.

All of that was more than 20 years ago in the midst of war. We thought we had heard the last of such a failed policy of demonisation.

Now in the midst of a peace process an old failed agenda has again raised its ugly head.

The word 'criminal' has re-entered the political scene, however with a notable difference. Those leading today's 'criminal' charge against republicans are not the British government but the Irish government, the SDLP and those elements in the media who indulge their hatred of republicans at every available opportunity.

There is another notable difference – the target of this campaign are those most identified with the struggle for a united Ireland – the people who vote for Sinn Féin and Sinn Féin itself.

The primary objective of this latest offensive is to criminalise those who support a united Ireland in the hope that such a campaign will limit Sinn Féin's electoral growth and appeal.

There are opponents of a united Ireland and they are not just unionists here in the north. There are unionists in the south.

Their 'republic' stops at the border. Their power resides there and that's the way they want to keep it.

It is a national disgrace that the Irish government is not only lending itself to this campaign but is the instigator and promoter of it.

It is not lost on republicans that at a time when Bertie Ahern's former foreign minister Ray Burke is in prison convicted of corruption he is falsely accusing republicans.

This attempt to isolate republicans by the Irish establishment is reminiscent of an earlier time when they abandoned northern nationalists after partition to live under sectarian domination by unionists.

They turned their back on the people of the north then and they are trying to doing so again.

Fortunately, nationalists have a powerful voice in Sinn Féin and its leadership.

It is quite clear that republicans not only have to challenge unionists in the six counties, they also have to challenge unionists in the 26 counties who fear Sinn Féin's message of peace and a united Ireland.

To claim as Mr McDowell has that the IRA is a threat to the democratic institutions of the southern state is not only absurd, it is a lie and flies in the face of the actions taken by the IRA in support of the peace process over the last 10 years.

It is equally absurd to claim that republicans are riding two horses at the same time.

Republicans are riding one horse and it is called the peace process.

February 25, 2005

This article appeared first in the February 24, 2005 edition of the Irish News.

This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News