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Putting Conflict Behind Us

July 1, 2016 by  

Beechmount Commemoration 1The most recent edition of An Phoblacht carries in full the oration I gave on 11th June in Beechmount, Belfast, at a commemoration in honour of Seando Moore who died six years ago. The event was part of a number of commemorations for Beechmount IRA Volunteers to be held throughout the centenary of the 1916 Rising. This is my speech:

Go raibh maith agaibh. I would like to thank the organisers for inviting me to speak at today’s event commemorating our old friend and comrade Seando Moore. I cannot believe that he is dead six years. Maybe it is because we talk about him so often or that his name comes up in many conversations that his passing seems so recent. Certainly not six years.

It being the 35th anniversary of the hunger strike and it being the centenary of the 1916 Rising I have been speaking around the country in different places. And at these meetings and at the small exhibitions associated with them, people will talk about the great Seando Moore, his humour, his dedication. At some of the exhibitions a letter or photograph or artefact would be missing or would be mislaid or arrive late and people would say, “That wouldn’t have happened if Seando had been in charge.”

And that in itself is a small tribute to the work that he undertook when armed struggle had ran its course, when armed struggle had ended, and other work and other forms of struggle and strategies were adopted, and difficult decisions made, in the same pursuit of freedom and independence and an end to British rule in Ireland that he actively fought for.

Yes, Seando would have been in his element this year, covering all 32 Counties with the republican message.

There is an old republican song: ‘Who Fears To Speak of Easter Week/Who Dares Its Fate Deplore.’

We know who were terrified of the centenary of 1916 – the Irish government, the Irish establishment. Their first foray into the centenary celebration plans was to produce a video which did not include any mention of the Rising or of the executed signatories. After some criticism they produced a second video which was even worse than the first. For not only did it exclude the names of the leaders – as if they would contaminate today’s youth – they included footage of Ian Paisley, David Cameron, the British Queen, and such republican stalwarts as Field Marshall Bono and IRA guerrilla leader Bob Geldof!

Also this year, in the run-up to the centenary, the Dublin establishment was busy defending knocking down Moore Street and the houses where the Army Council of the Provisional government last met. Thanks to a campaign by relatives and supporters this work was stopped and the houses are now marked as national monuments.

Compare that to the brilliant exhibition – Revolution 1916 – organised by Irish republicans at the Ambassador Theatre in Dublin.

This exhibition features the largest private collection of 1916 artefacts, with over 500 items on display. I was there two weeks ago with a friend from the USA, a 70-year-old supporter, Johnny Norby from Seattle. Near the end of the 1916 exhibition there are panels dedicated to a modern event – our ‘1916’ – the 1981 hunger strike which the establishment in the South would rather we forgot. Just as they have forgotten to challenge the British for their role in the slaughter of civilians in Dublin and Monaghan.

Johnny and I went over to a glass case and there was Seando’s famous smuggled crystal set radio from the blanket protest, the one christened Maggie Taggart after the Radio Ulster journalist. On it the prisoners secretly heard the news of Bobby’s victory in the Fermanagh/South Tyrone be-election and on it they heard the sad news of Bobby’s death in the early hours of Tuesday, May 5th, 1981, and the news of nine more comrades between then and the 20th August that year.

So, I was explaining the history of the radio to my friend and I noticed an old woman on my left, an elderly woman, who had obviously been listening to us. She stepped forward and asked me quietly did I know the men. I proceeded to tell her that Joe McDonnell’s future mother-in-law, Mrs Healy, who lived in Number 22, across the street from us in Corby Way, Andersonstown, was there at my delivery in Number 17. That as a teenager I had been interned with Joe and that I was with him in the prison hospital two days before he died. I told her that Kieran Doherty was a year below me in school and that his brother Michael was in my class. I told her how long I had known Bobby, about our writing to each other over many years, my publishing his writings and being one of his spokespersons during the hunger strike.

Then I came across a photograph or memory card of Martin Hurson and told her that it had been my role to visit his family and that when I drove up the lane of their farm in Cappagh, Martin’s father John was cutting the hedge. As I stepped out of the car he said to me, “I know why you’re here.” I was there to tell him that on May 29th Martin would be joining the hunger strike.

And as I told Johnny and this complete stranger this story, I burst into a flood of tears and could not speak. I burst into tears in the middle of the Ambassador Theatre. And then I pulled myself together and apologised. I asked the woman where she was from and she said Dublin. And then she said: “We didn’t know. We didn’t know.”

It is easy to be cynical and dismissive but censorship of the truth of what was happening to the nationalists in the North was of major self-interest to the Southern establishment – else they might have had to address the state they left us in and do something about it. Much easier to blame the IRA when it became a response to British state violence. It comes as no surprise then that when the IRA withdrew from the situation as a result of the peace process, the Southern establishment found itself in knots over how to cope with the question of the North and the rise of republicanism. Much easier to demonise Sinn Féin than confront the British.

In looking at Martin Hurson’s photograph in that display I was also reminded of the tremendous human cost of conflict, of war, on ordinary people as well as the protagonists. It reminded me, if I needed reminding, of how awful war is, the suffering and pain and personal loss to my community but also to those who lost their lives or limbs, soldiers, policemen and civilians, at the hands of republicans.

In a struggle as long as ours, and a Movement as big as ours, it is obvious that down the years differences of opinions would emerge over strategy and decisions taken or over personality differences. It is loyalty to the cause and to each other and to unity of purpose which gives us our undoubted strength – and Seando Moore was one of the most loyal republicans I know.

I was in the H-Blocks when the ceasefire was called and I supported its call. But within hours I was angered and prepared for the IRA to go back to war because of the triumphalist response of the British Prime Minister John Major and that of the unionists. They don’t want peace, I thought. But I was being emotional, not strategic. Then I heard the leader of the Ulster Unionist party, James Molyneaux, in a slip of the tongue say that the ceasefire represented the greatest threat to the union in sixty years. And I knew then that what the leaders of unionists feared most was their attitudes and actions, which were fundamental to the outbreak of the conflict, being scrutinised properly for the first time in a long time. That their ingrained anti-nationalist hostility would be exposed and that the dynamic of peace would drive them towards compromise. That their position was unsustainable. A ceasefire – in which the IRA would ultimately withdraw from the scene – would show that the problem was not the IRA but the sectarianism behind the six-county state and British support of that state by hook and by crook and by spook.

Of course, much has happened since then, relationships have thawed, progress has been made, albeit very slowly. Friendships have been made between former enemies. Greater understanding and appreciation of each other’s positions have been realised.

Post-1994 there were many other challenges, changes and compromises, some of which I had no problem with and others which presented myself and other republicans with difficulties. But again, unity is strength and there is strength in numbers and it has been the loyalty of the republican base, and the loyalty of the bulk of former republican activists and ex-prisoners, which has seen us through to this day where Sinn Féin has become the largest party in Ireland.

Some former comrades, small in number, had difficulties with these changes. Others decided that they could resume an armed struggle. The media very soon unfairly branded them all as dissidents, just as it had branded the IRA and its supporters ‘the Provisionals’ or ‘Provos’ from a statement in 1970 when the reorganised IRA spoke of setting up a provisional army council for a limited period. I know some republicans hated and hate that term as being pejorative and others embraced it. Many of us certainly sang heartily along with the song written by IRA Volunteer John ‘Bap’ Kelly, who was killed on active service in 1975, ‘Say Hello to the Provos!’

I have no problem with those groups who are opposed to the political process, who criticise Sinn Féin or who stand against Sinn Féin in the North, should they be new organisations or comprised of former mainstream republicans who feel disenchanted, disillusioned or disappointed. I would, of course, prefer they were with us. But, their appearance should be seen as a potentially positive development, as healthy for politics and will help sharpen perspectives, priorities and direction. There is no place for arrogance. Sinn Féin has no royal right to represent the nationalist community; it is up to the community to vote whatever way it chooses and we must respect its choices, even if we think it unfair given the amount of work Sinn Féin does on the ground. The electorate has the right to be right and the right to be wrong.

But I do have a problem with those small groups who oppose not just the political process but, more importantly, the peace process and who continue armed activity without strategy, debate, direction or articulation, as if armed struggle is a principle and not a tactic. They usurp my having a say and other comrades deciding on the most appropriate way forward for the future of our children. Indeed, they criticise fellow republicans more than they do the British presence or unionist sectarianism.

They claim nothing has changed and that is a lie; that is not true.

This state is not the state I was born into and grew up in. It has radically changed – but of course it has not changed radically enough. The huge task we face is to un-partition this island, is to overturn not just a state embedded within British constitutional law and supported by violence for almost a hundred years, but to compel the 26-county state, the Republic of Ireland, to face its responsibilities towards all of the Irish people. Many southern politicians are diehard partitionists, are complacent and comfortable with what they’ve got, and practise the deceit of increasingly describing the Republic of Ireland as ‘Ireland’, which it is not, to further distance themselves from us. To quote Frank Gallagher: Six Counties were sacrificed so that Twenty-Six could have their freedom.

Armed actions by micro-bands of republicans are a distraction from the battle to improve conditions for the unemployed, the low-paid, the sick and the elderly. They are a gift to otherwise redundant securocrats and their parrots in the media. Their armed actions are actually ineffectual by any objective standards and, presumably their own, if they are honest.

Ask former RUC men if they think nothing has changed? Many of them felt a sense of betrayal at the Patten reforms, a betrayal of their comrades who had lost their lives in the conflict. Ask the flag protestors if they think nothing has changed; ask those for who marching through Catholic Garvaghy Road is a distant memory. Ask those camped in Twaddell? Ask the unionists parties who were going to smash ‘Sinn Fein/IRA’ and are now in government with republicans. Ask those border communities who no longer have to negotiate interminable checkpoints, whose roads and lands are free of military occupation.

People forget how awful the conflict was. The times when the British army would seal off entire streets for house-to-house searches; would arrest young people at will, take them up entries and give them a hiding or throw them out on the Shankill Road from the back of an armoured car. Back then the conflict was widespread, there was anger, there was support for armed republicanism.

The background to our resistance was the pogroms of 1969, the gassing of entire streets in the Falls, internment and the torture of prisoners, the massacre of civil rights marches. The killing of women and children by plastic bullet. Our comrades were killed. Volunteers like Albert Kavanagh, Jimmy Quigley, Paddy Maguire, Stan Carberry, Paul Fox and Sean Bailey – to mention those of just my generation. Dozens of others from this area went to prison.

And so I would appeal to those small groups engaged in armed actions to consider just how wrong and pointless your campaign is.
There is no way will you ever be able to replicate the tempo or magnitude of the IRA’s armed struggle or be in a similar position to negotiate terms, such as the release of prisoners.

Because you have an AK47 doesn’t make you a freedom fighter. That status can only be conferred by the people you claim to represent, whether they consider themselves oppressed and disenfranchised, whether they consider themselves alienated to the point of opening their doors to you, marching for you, financing you, defending and arguing for you. If you think this is the case then you are delusional as well as being a danger to yourselves but, more importantly, to others.

Any of us could have found a reason to bow out of supporting the struggle. And that’s why I come to praise the loyalty of people like Seando Moore who could adapt to and overcome any circumstance: be it being assaulted and beaten in Springfield Road Barracks, or Castlereagh; be it in the Cages where we had political status and he kept up our morale through raids and beatings, or in the H-Blocks where he fought the system every day and every night through his blanket protest; to his all-Ireland work after the ceasefire when, despite being gravely ill with cancer, he remained loyal especially to the hunger strikers and blanket men of the H-Blocks and the Armagh Women.

Seando Moore was one of the most loyal republicans I have ever come across. He was a loyal son of Ballymurphy and his adopted, beloved Beechmount. He was a loyal husband to Patricia, a loyal father and grandfather. He was a true Irish republican and a freedom fighter in the truest sense of the word.

Our friend, our old friend and comrade, Seando.

Seando