Around 150 people took part in a candlelit vigil in Belfast last night [Tuesday], to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the start of the 1981 hunger strikes. On March 1 1981, republican prison leader Bobby Sands began refusing food and continued to do so until his death on May 5 1981, at the age of 27.
The vigil took place on the site of the former Crown Forces barracks in Andersonstown. Though the barracks no longer exists, a number of PSNI landrovers kept a close eye on the crowd through the event.
During the vigil, the names of Sands and his nine comrades who died on hunger strike in 1981 were read aloud, followed by a minute’s silence in their memory. This was followed by a recital of Sands’ poem The Rhythm of Time.
The vigil was also addressed by former blanketman Pádraic Mac Coitir, who spoke of the experiences of republican political prisoners during the period and their impact on political prisoners around the world and on republicans today.
The full text of Mac Coitir’s address can be read below:
“On this day 35 years ago, the British government introduced one of their draconian laws whereby anyone convicted of a political offence would be deemed a criminal.
“These laws were nothing new because, as far back as the Fenian rising of the 1860s, republican prisoners were treated as criminals and, in many cases, this meant lengthy times in solitary confinement. In response, these prisoners embarked on protests such as refusing to comply with prison rules and refusing to do prison work.
“At the start of the 20th century, republican prisoners started a new form of protest – hunger strike. Thomas Ashe died in September 1917 and this led to a trend that was to continue right up to 1981. During this period, numerous men and women went on hunger strike, leading to the deaths of 23 political prisoners in Irish and British jails. Those who died inspired many throughout the world, including Ho Chi Minh, Mahatma Gandhi and prisoners in countries such as Turkey, Palestine and, more recently, North America.
“I first went to gaol in July 1976 and, while on remand in the H-Blocks, would see a small number of men who were on the blanket protest. In September of that year, Kieran Nugent became the first republican to be sent to the Blocks and, refusing to wear a prison uniform, he became the first Blanketman.
“I was sentenced in January 1977 and joined the small number of protestors in H2. The screws were constantly trying to break us with beatings and humiliating us by forcing us to leave our cells naked. They realised how determined we were when more men joined us and we were moved to H5 in April of that year. It was while in this Block that I met some of the men who were later to die on hunger strike.
“In March 1978, we went on a no-wash protest and this led to even more beatings carried out by the screws. Just before I was released in July 1979, the camp staff asked us all to give our views as to how we could escalate the protest. It was very difficult for me to give my opinion because, even then, we all knew the next stage was a hunger strike.
“In October 1980, seven men started a hunger strike and they were later joined by three women in Armagh jail. The men in the prison hospital were led to believe the Brits were giving in to their demands and so called the strike off. As has so often been the case, the Brits reneged.
“After much discussion and debate among the prisoners, another hunger strike was planned. On this day 30 years ago, Bobby Sands began a hunger strike which was to have massive repercussions not only here in Ireland, but throughout the world.
“We have learned a lot since those dark days in 1981 when 10 brave men died in the hell-hole of Long Kesh. Those of us who were back in the H-Blocks in the ’80s and ’90s were very conscious of the sacrifice of the 10 men and we benefited greatly from their sacrifice.
“All of us thought that republicans who have been imprisoned in Maghaberry prison would also benefit from their sacrifice but, unfortunately, this isn’t the case. Men are still being forcibly strip-searched and beaten despite an agreement reached between themselves and the prison regime. But history has taught us that the British and their willing servants will do all they can to criminalise not only prisoners but those engaged in a legitimate struggle for a democratic socialist republic.
“So let us all remember the hunger strikers who died 30 years ago for the goals which we strive for today.”