Voice of the Lark
MONTHLY PUBLIC DEBATES
LEGACY OF THE HUNGER STRIKES
Lessons Learned, Lessons Forgotten
may have to concede defeat
By Malachi O'Doherty
6 Feb 2001
a new Republican agenda
Malachi O Doherty
Republicans opposed to the Good Friday Agreement were the loudest voices at a debate in west Belfast this week on the legacy of the hunger strikes. Is this the beginning of a political challenge to Gerry Adams?
Five former Republican hunger strikers met in Belfast on Wednesday evening to declare outright opposition to the Good Friday Agreement. They represent enormous moral authority within the Republican Community and, therefore, a major headache for Gerry Adams, as talks on policing and disarmament present him with difficult choices in the coming days.
There now appears to be a real prospect that Republicans opposed to the agreement will put up a high profile challenger to Adams for his west Belfast constituency in the coming General Election.
At the meeting were Marian Price, Brendan Hughes, Billy McKee, Tommy McKearney and John Nixon.
Mc Kee, Hughes and Price are virtually legendary figures within the republican tradition. Marian Price was one of the bomb team caught in London in 1973 after a massive bomb at the Old Bailey. Her accomplices at the time included her sister Dolores and Gerry Kelly, who is now a close associate of Adams and a member of the Stormont Assembly.
The sisters maintained a hunger strike, despite force feeding, for six months, and won a demand to be allowed to serve their sentences in Northern Ireland. They were released after six years on medical advice that they were anorexic and might die.
Billy McKee was one of the founder members of the Provisional IRA in 1970. He participated in a major gun battle with Loyalists in 1970 at St Matthew's Church on Belfast's Short Strand. His own hunger strike in 1972 forced the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, William Whitelaw to all special category status for prisoners affiliated to paramilitary organisation.
The withdrawal of that status by Margaret Thatcher led to two hunger strikes campaigns in the Maze prison in 1980 and 1981.
Brendan Hughes was the leader of the 1980 hunger strike, with John Nixon and Tommy McKearney. They all went without food for 53 days.
The meeting in Conway Mill on Wednesday night was an open forum discussion on the lessongs of the Hungers Strikes, but it turned quickly into a rally of opposition to the current Sinn Fein leadership and its acceptance of the Good Friday Agreement.
One of the five, Billy McKee did not sit on the platform and did not speak during the meeting, but his presence was announced at the beginning.
The four who did speak launched a tirade of criticism of the current Sinn Fein leadership to warm approval from the audiuence.
Marian Price said: "I am called a Republican dissident. I am not. I am a dissident and I am a Republican". She said that she supported any Republican who took up arms against British imperialism and described the Good Friday Agreement as "betrayal".
John Nixon, who had been a member of the Irish National Liberation Army, accused Sinn Fein of writing the socialists out of the history of struggle. He claimed that when he had declared an intention to run for a seat in Local Government in Armagh he had been warned off by the Provisionals".
"Two young men were sent to me to say that if I did stand I wouldn't stand again".
Tommy McKearney called for a coming together of Republicans to consider a new strategy to fight "British and American imperialism". He criticised Sinn Fein sponsored prisoner support groups for ignoring Republican dissidents, like Tommy Crossan, serving sentences for offences committed since the Good Friday Agreement.
He said: "I may not agree with Tommy Crossan, but I will never deny that he is a Republican".
Brendan Hughes, nicknamed The Dark, attacked Sinn Fein for allowing building firms ion west Belfast to pay low wages to former prisoners, expecting them to draw the dole too.
The meeting was not an unreserved attack on Sinn Fein. Some speakers from the floor suggested that the people gathered there could act as a restraint on Sinn Fein, to "show them where the line is before they cross it".
Marian Price said: "There is not much point in that when they are already a mile down the road".
A man who declared that he had been an activist since the age of twelve, accused the speakers on the platform of pointless argument, but Hughes took up his challenge to form a strategy and said: "Yes, let's go for it".
Several speakers called for an Independent Republican candidate to be fielded in the coming election.
One of the organisers, Anthony McIntyre said yesterday: "There is no definite plan yet. This is the first time that I have heard the idea raised in public, but it has been knocking about for some time".
A problem is that some of the hardline ideologues would see such a move as the beginnings of the same slide into mainstream politics which they believe corrupted the Provisionals.
There were clear differences between the speakers on attitudes to renewed violence.
Tommy McKearney was opposed. "We were told to sign the Good Friday Agreement on the understanding that the only alternative was a return to war. That is not the only alternative".
Marian Price appeared to take a much harder line. She said the Hunger strikers should not be remembered as being like Gandhi or Martin Luther King. "They were ruthless killers who fought for a cause. They did not, and republicans do not, refer to an electorate for that right".
The meeting was convened by the Republicans Writers Group and several members of Sinn Fein were invited to attend but stayed away.
A curious diversion in the intense political debate dealt with the touchy issue of republican attire. Brendan Hughes started this off with an admission that he had caused unnecessary grief to sensitive souls by criticising Sinn Fein leaders for wearing Armani suits. Sister Noelle picked up the issue from the floor and reminded Hughes that when he had been on the run in middle class areas, he too had worn a suit, for tactical reasons.
"That was a Burtons", said Hughes.
The heat rose on this issue when Carrie Twomey argued from the floor that suits were indeed meaningful symbols. "Darkie wore his to advance Republican principles. The Sinn Fein leaders wear theirs to destroy them".
Tommy McKearney was not pleased. He said: "The suit is a distraction. I judge a republican by what he stands over, not by what he stands in. I am wearing a suit myself tonight. It means nothing".
Reflecting on Sister Noelle's suggestion that the suit is a tactical instrument, perhaps recalls the old Tuas document, briefing IRA members on the peace strategy. There has been much debate over what that acronym might really mean. Could it be Tactical Use of Armani Suits?
Voice of the Lark is a new monthly public forum for open debate and discussion.
The Lark forum intends to present debate from a wide variety of views, excluding no one and including all.
Monthly series of open public debate sponsored
The Devine Family * The O’Hara Family