Tina Tully, Sinn Fein
Speech on May 4 2001

Kent State University

Dia dhaoibh a chairde agus tá an-áthas orm bheith anseo libh inniu. Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen and I am delighted to be here with you today. I would like to thank the May 4th Task Force for inviting me here to speak to you today, on this the 31st anniversary of the killing of four students and the injuring of many more. I wish to extend solidarity to you on this occasion from Sinn Féin, the only all-island party in Ireland.

I would like to commend you on your choice of theme and it is one, which, in the case of Ireland, an entire library of speeches could be written. However, on this the 20th anniversary of the Hunger Strikes in Ireland in which ten men died and many more men and women suffered, I would like to concentrate mainly on the huge contribution these people made to the struggle for Irish freedom in which they paid the highest price of all, their own lives and the lives of their loved ones.

I was about ten years of age when the Hunger Strikes began and while I was probably a relatively politically aware ten-year-old, my memories are mainly of marches and protests, black flags and other such activity. But I remember well when Bobby Sands, the first of the ten to die, finally died after up on 70 days on hunger strike, on May 5th, twenty years from tomorrow. My mother and sisters were some of the many thousands that attended his funeral and on their route home, not one window on the bus they traveled on was left unbroken. At a time of great sorrow and depression, loyalists in the north had nothing better to do than stone the people on their way home from a funeral. I also remember sharing in the sense of elation when the constituency in which I live elected Kieran Doherty, another one of the hunger strikers to the Dáil, that is the Irish Parliament. But do you think that being a member of the Irish Government would prompt that Government into speaking out on his behalf? No, silent as ever, with the British Government, they let him die that August.

Many of you, if you lived in Ireland, might be too young to remember the Hunger Strikers, and this is something with the present generation of young people in Ireland, that we often forget. So what was it all about? Why did these people suffer so much and what did they die for?

In response to the civil rights campaign in northern Ireland in1968-69, the Unionist Government in the six counties, backed up by their British masters unleashed a bitter and terrible war on the people of Ireland. Rapidly, the British Government took over the war and introduced direct rule. Stories abound of men, women and children being murdered, of internment in prison without trial, of thousands of prisoners and of the families left behind to cope. As time passed and the British were no nearer to defeating Irish Republicans, they devised a strategy, of which one leg was to criminalise the struggle, to portray the conflict as arising from the greed of a small,  unrepresentative bunch of gangsters intent on making money and exploiting our people. The prisoners were perceived to be the soft underbelly of the struggle. In jail the British thought they could be isolated, beaten, intimidated and coerced into accepting the label of criminal.

The H-Block and Armagh prisoners resisted. They endured horrendous conditions and bore great physical cruelty with fortitude and courage because Republican prisoners are political prisoners, men and women of conviction, commitment and determination. And at the end when no other as republican political prisoners, in defense of the struggle, in defense of their comrades in the prison, and to assert their humanity. None of this was part of any clever republican strategy. It was at its core a very individual response by prisoners in Armagh Women's Prison and in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh. They were responding to a British strategy, but in their fight for political status, they politicized our struggle all over the world. In the course of their protest, the Hunger Strikers smashed British policy. Their legacy is still unfolding and their idealism remains as an example to the rest of us. And what a cost that was - ten men died, many others' physical and mental health deteriorated to a point from which they could never fully recover, and many families have had
to live with that pain for 20 years.

On this the anniversary, we sometimes, unintentionally, give out the impression that it was mainly men who suffered. However, apart from the mothers, wives, daughters and sisters who watched their men die, apart from the brave women who organized and led the protest campaigns on the street, there were also women in Armagh Prison who suffered immeasurably, and who went on Hunger Strike. We don't hear their stories often enough but when we do it's as painful now as it was then. Even as a child, I remember feeling sick and horrified at the use of strip-searching, bad enough for men, but worse for women, surrounded by male so-called prison officers. Recently, I was reminded of this at a conference in Dublin at which a woman ex-prisoner spoke. She talked of the strip-searches and she said, when the women came back into their cells, you never had to ask them how they were or what had happened, she said you could see it in their faces.

The men and women who suffered at that time were very young, almost all of the ten men that died were in their twenties. You might wonder of yourself if you could ever give up so much but these were ordinary people, like you and me, living in extraordinary times. And who were they doing it for? - not for themselves, but for the children, that they might never have to suffer in the same way.

So what can we, who were then the children, do in what can be described as more ordinary times? Although we have a Peace Process, our struggle continues, not for a United Ireland just for the sake of it, but in order that all the people of Ireland might have equality. Still at this time, while the great ugly British Army installations are being dismantled to give people the impression of a normal society, the same Army patrols Nationalist areas and harasses the people. The RUC, a State organization, and one that is currently promoting itself as a "new" policing service, breaks down the doors of people's homes and drags the occupants from their beds in the middle of the night and early in the morning, questions children in their bedrooms and ransacks the houses. But then, they are the defenders of the British State. And on the Garvaghy Road, "ordinary" life there is a different experience to "ordinary" life elsewhere. There the children play games - not of cops and robbers - or the like, but of "orangies" (the Orange Order) and Nationalists.

Sometimes people ask us in Sinn Fein what we will have to do if or when we achieve our goal of a United Ireland and when there is a lasting peace. Our fight for equality will be a long one. We envisage not only the political independence of our country but also the social and economic liberation of all citizens within it. This means freedom from foreign domination, freedom from poverty and inequality, freedom from the scourge of drugs, from crowded classrooms and hospital queues and housing shortages. At what cost will this be? As yet we don't know, but whatever it is we will pay it.

And as long as people like you and people like us stand together, we will achieve our goals and our freedom. The women and men of Armagh and the H-Blocks set an example for all other Republicans to follow, the students being commemorated here today have set an example for you. Let us draw strength from them and their example, their unselfishness, their generosity, their commitment and idealism. And to quote part of a song that Gerry Adams quoted recently, by an ex-prisoner called Brendan McFarlane -

"We're stronger now,
You showed us how
Freedom's fight can be won
If we all stand as one".

Let us stand as one, let us achieve the freedom for which they gave their lives.
Ar aghaidh linn!

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