Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Belfast éirígí Remembers 1916

Upwards of 500 people gathered in Belfast on Easter Monday [April 5] to remember all those who gave their lives in the cause of Irish freedom.

Assembling at the gates of Milltown Cemetery on the Falls Road, the marchers made their way to the Harbinson republican plot led by the Kilkeel republican flute band, where proceedings got underway.

éirígí national vice-chairperson Rab Jackson chaired the event and began by highlighting the plight of the republican prisoners in Maghaberry Jail, who had begun a protest against appalling conditions.

The Proclamation of the Irish Republic was read by former Armagh political prisoner Maire Drumm, before wreaths were laid on behalf of éirígí’s ciorcal naisiúnta, éirígí Béal Feirste and republican ex-prisoners.

The main oration was read by one-time blanketman and former chair of the Belfast National Graves Association Pádraic Mac Coitir

Pádraic Mac Coitir Speech
Go raibh maith agaibh a cháirde agus chomrádaithe. It is an honour and a privilege for me to speak at the first éirígí Easter parade here in Milltown cemetery. On behalf of éirígí we send solidarity greetings to all our supporters and activists at home and abroad.

Since 1926 Republicans have attended similar parades throughout the country; even during very difficult periods when we have been attacked and vilified by our enemies, both foreign and domestic. On this the 94th anniversary of the Easter rising we especially remember our patriot dead and extend solidarity greetings to their families.

On Easter Monday, 1916 thousands of Irishmen and women took on the might of the British Empire by taking part in an armed rebellion. Pádraic Mac Piaras read on the steps of the GPO the Proclamation, which is as relevant to us today as it was 94 years ago. During Easter week these brave men and women fought throughout Dublin and many of them sacrificed their lives for national freedom and sovereignty.

In the 94 years since the rising there have been five occasions when Republicans have taken up arms against the British and counter-revolutionaries. Unfortunately each time it has ended in defeat only to be re-ignited by the next generation.

In this cemetery there are numerous graves of those who fought for independence, from the Young Irelanders of the 1840’s, to women like Winifred Carney who was in the GPO, those who fought in the Tan War and the counter revolution, the 40’s and 50’s right through to those who fought and died in the most recent phase of the struggle. None of us can say for certain where these men and women would be today but as Republicans they would definitely not accept a partitionist state nor be participants in it.

We are standing at a memorial to a man who was in the British army at the time of the Fenian rising of 1867 and was prepared to resist British oppression. Along with his brother and others he was imprisoned in Belfast gaol and due to the treatment he endured in that very prison he died. Men like William Harbinson are the true bearers of the Republican ideal.

One of the six men buried in this plot is Joe Mc Kelvey who was executed by the Free Staters on 8th December 1922. Joe had been a Volunteer in the IRA in Belfast and he quickly rose through the ranks. By the time a truce had been called in July 1921 he was active in Dublin and with many others he was appalled at the terms of the truce and treaty. This led to the civil war in which the counter-revolutionaries and the stake-in-the-country merchants were victorious.

When the counter-revolutionaries led by Mulcahy and Collins decided to take out all opposition they set the scene that was to continue for generations of Irishmen and women. Their cohorts continued to oppress Republicans to the point that many either walked away or kept their heads down.

This position also encouraged the unionists in the newly formed Northern state when they brought in repressive laws which were the envy of despots throughout the world. Is it any wonder so many were afraid to raise their heads? Of course in every generation there were those who aspired to the ideals of the Proclamation and for us standing here today we should understand and be guided by the principles of it.

Some of those who should know better frequently engage in felon setting and accuse of us of having no mandate and no political philosophy. If people like Peadar O’Donnell, Frank Ryan and George Gilmore and others who were involved in The Republican Congress were able to continue the struggle then it’s imperative that we do likewise. During the 1930’s Ireland had suffered massive economic problems which were mirrored throughout Europe. This in turn gave rise to fascism and attacks on Socialists and democrats. These fascists were supported by the extremists in society led by the Catholic Church. In our own country former IRA Volunteers led by De Valera’s party, Fianna Fáil imprisoned and harassed their former comrades and this also allowed reactionary forces to flourish.

Why didn’t Republicans just accept the status quo and row in behind Fianna Fáil? Why did a large number of them defy the conservative elements in the IRA and go and fight in Spain? Because like us here today they believed that the only way in which to challenge these fascists was through resistance. The Spanish Civil War was one of the most defining moments of the 20th century and without the sacrifice of Internationalists like Charlie Donnelly, Jim Straney and Bob Hilliard where would we be? These men had no desire to die but they made a conscious decision to go and fight in a foreign country for a cause that they had a lot in common with. Although they knew change was needed in their own county they believed the greater evil was to be fought in Spain.

Since partition both states have been determined in their pursuit to defeat Republicanism, none more so than De Valera’s government. He executed IRA Volunteers and allowed others to die on Hunger Strike-one of which, Seán McCaughey is buried in this very graveyard. Like others before them men and women continued to fight in pursuit for a Republic. Today we took the route from the gates to this plot, which for a long time in the 1940’s and 50’s was the very same route our parents, grandparents and their comrades took. This was to change dramatically in the 1960’s when there was a revival in Republican politics inspired by the ideals of the 1916 rising. Thousands took to the streets in celebration of the 50th anniversary and here in the North this greatly concerned the Unionists. What did they do? What they have always done- set up death squads. Ordinary working class Protestants had nothing to fear but goaded on by bigots led by Paisley they swelled the ranks of the loyalism and initiated pogroms.

The Civil Rights movement campaigned for an end to gerrymandering and discrimination. Unionists saw this as another Republican conspiracy and reacted violently to peaceful marches and demonstrations. The state forces led by the RUC attacked the Bogside in Derry; this was quickly followed by attacks here in Belfast when thousands of people were burned out of their homes on the Falls Road, Bombay Street and Ardoyne. Along with loyalist mobs the RUC also shot and killed a number of people. Only for the brave actions of a small number of IRA Volunteers more homes would have been burned and more people killed. Republicans in the 6 Counties were determined not to let this happen again and so more weapons were brought in, the IRA started recruiting and very soon became a formidable guerrilla army.

Once again both states reacted with violence by bringing in repressive laws which led to Internment in 1971, the ‘special courts’ in the free state and Diplock Courts here in the North. Despite these draconian measures Republicans continued to resist. Neither did Bloody Sunday in Derry, the use of plastic bullets, shoot to kill and the use of loyalist pseudo-gangs to attack Republicans/Nationalists in the hope that it would break the will of the people to support an armed struggle.

I have spoken of pivotal moments in Irish history but the events of 1981 will be spoken of in years to come. For generations Republicans have been imprisoned throughout this country and in foreign prisons and whilst in gaol they have gone on protest, either by refusing to work or by refusing to wear a prison uniform. In September 1917 Thomas Ashe died on Hunger strike in the Mater hospital, Dublin after being force-fed and in every conflict since then others have died on Hunger Strike. On March 1st 1981 Bobby Sands started another strike and after 66 days he died. He is buried in the New Plot along with his fellow comrades and hunger strikers, Joe Mc Donnell and Kieran Doherty. The other seven men who died are buried in graveyards in counties Tyrone, Armagh and Derry.

It was also during this period when the RUC and British army killed and injured dozens of people, including children by the firing of plastic bullets. The British, by their own admission, said they fired 50,000 of these weapons from the 1st March until the 3rd October. The same plastic bullets they fire today.

We Republicans continued to be targeted, killed and imprisoned but still we struggle. We struggle because we are right in our pursuit of a Democratic Socialist Republic. We will continue that struggle no matter what our enemies may say. How many times have we heard in the past that we have no strategy and no mandate? Were these same accusations not levelled at every generation from pulpits, the media and by partitionist governments?

We should be under no illusion that the reactionary forces out there will use all the might they have to try to crush us. The state forces didn’t deter men like Henry Joy McCracken, Robert Emmett, James Stephens and women like Anne Devlin and Constance Markievicz. People like Thomas Clarke, Seán Mac Diarmada, James Connolly, Liam Mellows, Tom Williams, Brendan O’Boyle and every Volunteer buried in this cemetery who were labelled because they ‘dissented’ from this state and went out to fight for what was right. As Mac Piarais said, ‘they think have purchased half of us and intimidated the other half they are wrong’. Given that is the case I am proud to say that I too ‘dissent’ from the current state today. However the one thing I am not is a ‘traitor’, as I assume none of you here today are!!!.

Where are the great and the good when heavily armed members of the state, in the guise of a police force, break down doors and smash homes today? This is the same force that assassinated Tomás Mac Curtain, killed an unarmed Pearse Jordan, shot John Downes dead with a plastic bullet. This is the same force that colluded with loyalists in the killing of hundreds of nationalists and Republicans. This is the same police force that harasses Republicans on a daily basis. This is the same police force that will beat workers off peaceful pickets. This is the same police force that will imprison not only Republicans, but those who stand up to the state in whatever form. Be under no illusion that whenever those in Stormont, Leinster House or Westminster decide to use force to put workers down they will do so.

So where do we go? We will not go away you know; that much is for sure. We know what we are up against – the same bigots in unionism, the reactionary forces of the Free State, those who wish to reform Stormont and ultimately the British government. Of course we have a daunting task ahead of us but unless we get up and do something about it our goal of a Democratic Socialist Republic will not be handed to us.

On behalf of éirígí we salute the people of Palestine and the democratically elected government of Hamas. We stand shoulder to shoulder with the people of the Basque Country, of Cuba, of Venezuela, of Vietnam and others throughout the world defending democracy and Socialism. We will always oppose the aggression of the British, the US and their allies who are destroying the lives of millions in Iraq and Afghanistan. We support the workers who strike for better working conditions, whether it be in Ireland or Britain where gombeen Irishmen are doing all they can to follow Thatcher and destroy the unions. We will oppose the injustices in this country while others rub shoulders with corporate America and the multi-nationals who pay their workers slave wages. We will oppose the unscrupulous slum landlords who expect people to live in their properties where they demand massive rents.

So there is plenty for us to get involved in – community projects, the Irish language campaigns, trade unions and political parties. Each on their own will not bring about change but if we have the confidence and show leadership to others then we will succeed. As the men on the blanket protest used to shout in the face of the screws – Tiocfaidh ár lá!

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