Martin Galvin delivered the annual Brendan Hughes Memorial Lecture, entitled ‘1916-2016: What Was It About? Where Are We Now?’, at The Playhouse Theatre in Doire on 23 October 2016.
Brendan Hughes Memorial Lecture
1916-2016: What Was It About? Where Are We Now?
It is important to begin by thanking the committee for inviting me but much more importantly for holding a Brendan Hughes Memorial Lecture each year and reminding us today of the fundamental question: 1916-2016: What was it about? Where are we now?
Those who knew Brendan know he would be thankful to be remembered at the yearly commemoration but he would be keenly thankful that there would be a lecture bringing Republicans together for a strategic discussion about the fundamental political challenge which he faced throughout his life and which faces us critically today.
Will we find a political strategy that makes an end of British rule in Derry and the Six Counties, what 1916, or the hunger strikes, or the years of struggle were really about? Can we overcome British plans for what Arlene Foster calls the ‘second century of Northern Ireland’ in a tone that tells us that she takes for granted more centuries of ‘Northern Ireland’ to come?
Brendan Hughes said something to me in a short telephone conversation almost ten years ago which needs repeating here today. Many of you remember those days when the movement which Brendan Hughes had fought for and helped lead proclaimed that a one-sided pledge of allegiance to the renamed RUC would be a major long term victory on the road to uniting Ireland and would mean truth and justice for victims in the short term.
Today’s Minister, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, was then writing in the Andytown News how it would be ‘fun’ bringing the Crown constabulary to heel. We could trust his judgment, he wrote, because he ‘was in the middle of the police riot on the Andersonstown Road in August 1984 when Sean Downes was killed by the RUC… those of us who were on the Andersonstown Road learnt a lesson in policing that day which we have not forgotten.’ They even used photos of that murderous day to make his point.
As someone who was on the Anderstonstown Road and the RUC’s excuse for murder and riot I saw a vastly different lesson. How did RUC murder and riot become an argument in favor of backing the RUC? Why would a new reformed Crown constabulary be willing to stonewall and cover-up by denying the truth on murders committed by proxy with loyalists or shoot-to-kill committed by the old constabulary? Why if they were not one and the same? Pledging allegiance to all that seemed no victory for a united Ireland but the jewel in the Crown of the old British strategic objectives of Ulsterization, criminalization and normalization!
I wrote pieces for Anthony McIntyre’s site The Blanket, which preceded The Pensive Quill , as one of the best sources for dissenting Republican thought. In Fermanagh-South Tyrone my friend Gerry McGeough invited me to come and campaign. He wanted to go into Stormont, stand up, speak out or walk out for Republican principles. This would mean Sinn Féin could stand behind him on Republican issues or be seen leaving Republican issues behind. Gerry McGeough clearly had paid Republican dues to speak out. At his trial the Crown submitted photos of his body which they charged showed bullet wounds suffered as Gerry fought for the IRA. So it was hard to deny that he had played his part in the struggle.
Here in Derry Mrs. O’Hara agreed to stand. I had been friends with the O’Haras since Elizabeth, along with other hunger strike family members, went to America shortly after Patsy’s death in 1981 to campaign for those who came behind Patsy. Peggy O’Hara was never going into Stormont to challenge anyone to a debate. She agreed to stand as a mother who saw her son suffer at the hands of the RUC, saw him suffer death on hunger strike and saw how his body was marked by cigarette burns before it was returned to her. She stood as a quiet dignified statement that it was wrong to buy into injustice by backing this renamed British constabulary. The O’Hara family, as well as friends like Danny McBrearty and John McDonagh, who were on her election team invited me to campaign here in Derry.
So I had what seemed to me a big problem. How do I campaign for Mrs. O’Hara, an abstentionist candidate in Derry, and then campaign for Gerry McGeough taking his seat in Fermanagh-South Tyrone? How could I support one and refuse the other? How do I escape insulting and losing more friends? (And after being blacklisted ten years earlier for debating Martin Ferris in America and daring to say that the Good Friday deal would not lead to a united Ireland within five years by 2003 as promised by Joe Cahill I did not want to lose any more.)
I contacted Brendan Hughes. I hoped he would tell me it was alright not to come. Instead, he said something that bears repeating here:
Martin don’t sweat the small stuff. Gerry McGeough is not taking any seat in Fermanagh- South Tyrone and Peggy O’Hara is not taking any seat in Derry. The seats this time will go to the people promising them a magic wand to make a united Ireland appear. This campaign is more important than seats. The Brits think they have got the means to finish it for good. This election campaign is about trying to build something to see that they don’t.
I did not bother to ask whether he was referring to the war he had fought or the fight against criminalization during the blanket protest and hunger strikes or even 1916 and The Proclamation. I knew he saw them as part of the same thing. (At the start of the first hunger strike in 1980 he had sent me a personal piece headed an ‘Appeal to America‘ about the connection and ‘remarkable similarities’ which I published and can be read in the online archives of the Irish People newspaper in the November 1, 1980 edition.) (Ed.Note: On Pg 2.)
I campaigned for both happily.
Today the question, indeed the challenge, Brendan Hughes summed up in those few words must be faced. We no longer have the luxury or leisure time to let small stuff or minor divisions derail us. The British think they have us caught in a position where your right to national freedom and sovereignty in this part of Ireland will never be more than an unfulfilled wish or aspiration. They think they have set up cosmetic institutions and structures which will, over time, make us content to think of a six county British Ulster as normal and those who want it otherwise as criminal. They think they can ‘finish it for good’ as Brendan Hughes put it. Can we unite and do the work needed to build something to see that they don’t?
There are those in this city and elsewhere in Ireland who say we should not question or seek alternative Republican political strategies. They claim to have the answers. All we need do is follow their leadership without troubling questions and they will give us a united Ireland. Maybe they did not deliver it by 2003, as Joe Cahill promised, or 2014 or 2016 as Martin McGuinness promised, but they will get it somehow, someday and in some ‘acceptable’ to Britain and Unionists shape or form. They will not be caught out again because they gave up on definite time frames and now talk of a countdown to freedom. When you promise you will deliver something in 2003 or 2016, you buy yourself five or ten years but sooner or later your time is up. The clock never runs out on a ‘countdown’ to freedom.
Why are they so eager to reach out to British royalty, uncompromising Unionists and former enemies but turn away from honest questions by disillusioned Republicans about where Sinn Féin is leading?
We understand they have a strategy. We read ‘Towards an Agreed Ireland and Reconciled Future’. We see them put great effort into meeting English royal family members, standing behind Arlene Foster no matter what, working to make way for Orange parades in Ardoyne, giving the constabulary platforms in West Belfast, sorry initiatives and uncomfortable conversations. What is hard to see or understand are signs this strategy is working for Nationalists. Where is there a sign that any segment of Unionism or Loyalism is being converted towards voting for a united Ireland in a six county border poll? Are they instead reconciling Nationalists, who see them alongside the DUP, taking up jobs and positions to agree that British rule does not look so bad?
Such questions get answered by attacking those who dare ask. Brendan Hughes was the first example of this. He asked heartfelt questions and was smeared that he was against the leadership for personal reasons. This was a movement led by some with whom he had fought alongside, been imprisoned with and risked his life. The idea of speaking against close friends must have been heartbreaking for him and harder in some ways than refusing the Crown uniform in Long Kesh.
I was last month’s example. Last May while visiting Derry to speak at a commemoration for an IRA Volunteer, George McBrearty, I was interviewed by Spotlight about self-confessed British agent Denis Donaldson. When he was in America he proved himself a British agent. I warned a very senior Republican about Denis. I refused to name the senior Republican, just as I have always refused to answer questions about whether other senior Republicans were in the IRA. I had no knowledge of what else would be aired and certainly no part in any accusations about who killed him.
Martin McGuinness answered the program by saying I had an anti-Sinn Féin agenda. Ironically, Spotlight included footage of me walking alongside Martin McGuinness when I was banned, being arrested beside him, him shaking my hand as I was put in the RUC jeep to be helicoptered to England. Can any Republican disagree with Sinn Féin policies not because they are against Sinn Féin but because they are against misguided policies twisted to prop up British rule? When Martin McGuinness or any Sinn Féin leaders answer honest questions with slurs about being anti-peace or anti-Sinn Féin it is because they have no better answer.
1916-2016: What Was It About?
The real meaning of 1916 does not require much discussion. The men and women who believed strongly enough to take on the might of the British Empire, and brave the ‘utter detestation and horror’ of elected Irish politicians spoke for themselves in the 1916 Proclamation. They believed that the Irish people had a right to national freedom and sovereignty. In case anyone questions whether that right belongs just as much to Derry as Dublin or Donegal just look back a few months before The Rising. Pearse wrote that freedom meant ‘not the freedom of a geographical fragment of Ireland but the freedom of all Ireland of every sod of Ireland.’ They believed that this right to national freedom and sovereignty would allow the Irish people to make economic and political decisions in Irish interests rather than having policies made to serve British interests at Westminster like we see with Brexit today. They believed that such a state would not need and could therefore end the artificial sectarian divisions that the British would always foster to divide and rule as they do at Stormont today. They said these rights were indefeasible, a very specific word, meaning rights which cannot be sold, given up or bartered away even by a dual referenda.
These ideals so changed history forever when they were proclaimed and fought for in 1916 and inspired people in the months following 1916 just as the 50th anniversary inspired Brendan Hughes and his generation in 1966. They are the ideals read to commemorate fallen IRA Volunteers.
The Irish government commemorations this year, which took pains to speak of British troopers who fought against Irish freedom but were silent about those Irish still denied freedom, show how much sections of the Irish government fear the hold, inspiration and legacy of 1916 today. The blanket protest and hunger strikes were directly tied to these same ideals. Thatcher wanted to dress up Irish patriots and anyone who had struggled to end British rule as criminals. The blanketmen would not serve as human props for her propaganda. It was not about building electoral machines or equality of esteem with any Homeland Security loyalist prisoners. It was about refusing to allow the British to masquerade them and generations of patriots as criminals.
A sad reflection of where we are today is that a British administration, with Sinn Féin in tow, imprisoned Gerry McGeough and Seamus Kearney on criminal charges for actions that took place in 1980-81. They charge Ivor Bell. British troopers, even Bloody Sunday troopers, have never faced charges. The British will not criminalize their own.
1916-2016: Where Are We Now?
Gerry Adams said something earlier this year which I believe should be noted. He said ‘We are not going to go in and prop up a regressive and negative old conservative government whatever the particular party political complexion.’ He was referring to the Dáil and not being used to front for anti-Republican policies in a coalition. Why then prop up and front for a British Tory austerity government in tandem with the DUP?
For fifty years the British ruled behind a one party Orange State giving Unionists carte blanche to impose a system of discrimination and second class citizenship in housing, jobs and every aspect of citizenship. It served British interests. When that strategy no longer worked because of Orange excesses, civil rights and resistance from a growing Nationalist population that would no longer lay down the British made new plans to serve their interests. I seldom agree with Alex Kane but a little over a week ago in the Irish News he said the DUP and Sinn Féin provide ‘a sectarian headcount at the heart of government and a blind eye being turned to every difficult decision they were asked to make.’
What Kane called this ‘blind eye to difficult decisions’ was planned. It is central part of a British strategy whose objectives remain Ulsterization, normalization and criminalization. As Pearse, Clarke and Connolly might have put it the alien government, meaning the British government, carefully fosters, or maybe I should say Arlene Fosters, a sectarian veto. Because the interests of the DUP and Sinn Féin are diametrically opposed they will never agree on key issues. The British can then suit themselves while hiding behind the fiction that Westminster was forced to act because there is no agreement.
Look at Ballymurphy where James Brokenshire told the Ballymurphy families that he requires Arlene Foster’s permission to fund legacy inquests. Look at any funding for legacy inquests. This excuse is a fraud. Where is Martin McGuinness’ veto on paying the cost of imprisoning Tony Taylor? Look at last year’s appearance by George Hamilton in West Belfast, with Martin McGuinness to lend credibility, Hamilton said: ‘I’m accountable to a policing board that’s got four Sinn Féin members on it and an SDLP representative. I’m not going to be fettered by secretaries of state, prime ministers or anyone else.’ Glowing articles were written that victims’ families could now expect dramatic moves about Stalker-Sampson, Ballymurphy, McGurk and legacy inquest funding to flow from Hamilton’s invitation.
More than a year has passed. We got nothing.
Who do we blame? Was it the four DUP, one UUP and one Alliance Party members along with eight independents on the policing board? No one thought this an obstacle worth mentioning. Once, Sinn Féin would have led the outcry against British Crown officials being gifted platforms for making empty promises. Now they take out advertisements attacking those who dare leaflet against rewarding the constabulary with return engagements.
Look at collusion where British colonial secretaries Villiers and now Brokenshire still recycle pious statements about their stalwart forces being responsible for only 10% of the killings, as if hundreds of murders which they plotted, paid for and planned, cannot be blamed on them because their paid Loyalist proxies fired the shots or planted the bombs in Dublin and Monaghan. Look at Brexit where Ireland north and south had little or no say respectively and are ignored in favor of English interests.
Today the question, indeed the challenge, Brendan Hughes summed up ten years ago must be faced: The British think we are caught. They think their strategy is working day and daily to pacify us to be content with a six county British Ulster as normal and those who want it otherwise as criminal. They think they can ‘finish it for good’ as Brendan Hughes put it.
Can we unite and do the work needed to build something to see that they don’t?
Before 1916 the British thought they had ‘pacified Ireland.’ The very diverse groups and leaders from the Irish Republican Brotherhood, Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army saw this and were able to overcome everything that divided them to unite and build a force which defeated British plans for permanent Home Rule and Partition subordinate to Westminster. Thatcher thought she had Brendan Hughes and the blanketmen beaten. Brendan Hughes and his fellow political prisoners locked away in the H-Blocks or Armagh were able to inspire a unity and political awakening which broke anything that Thatcher or the British could throw at them. Can Republicans today forge a unity and strategy which can break through once more and get us back on the path to the united and free Ireland which so many of Brendan Hughes’ time and the men and women of 1916 sacrificed for?
Will Britain finish us or can we unite and find a new political strategy to see that they don’t?