The following article was written by Father Des Wilson, a priest and community activist in West Belfast. I’m a little late in the game to be posting this, but I was at the march and it was incredible and I didn’t want to overlook it before I write something new. The original article appeared in the Daily Ireland on 18 August and can be found here.
The public demonstration for the anniversary of the hunger strikers was a powerful evidence of people’s determination, and of their dignity.
The 1981 hunger strikes were a continuation of a long and sad series of actions by otherwise powerless people against tyrannical government. There were many hunger strikes by Irish people before 1981 and now prisoners were making a bid to ensure they would never be necessary again.
There was a clash of beliefs as well as of politics. For Irish people the only dignified and proper thing to do in face of a hunger strike is to give in to it and negotiate a settlement. That belief has come to us from thousands of years of Irish civilisation. For the London administration, which had military power in Ireland but no tradition of dignified beliefs, the opposite was true, they believed the only thing to do in face of a hunger strike was to defy it and refuse to negotiate anything. A militarily powerful administration without such a moral sense faced a group of militarily powerless prisoners whose moral sense was rooted in thousands of years history of how honourable human beings should behave towards each other.
The militarists lost. Sunday’s Commemoration showed it.
Could you imagine between 20 and 30,000 people massing on a single afternoon to uphold any cause suggested to them by the London administration?
Could you imagine such a multitude of people massing on a single afternoon to uphold those churches, universities, press and politicians who pushed the hunger strikes to such a tragic end?
Of course not.
If the London and Dublin administrations which control the Ireland’s northeast – without a single vote from any of the people living there – had any political wisdom (we never talk of moral principle in administrations) they would see where people’s consciences are and what people’s intellects believe. Then they would act accordingly, but they don’t.
At Sunday’s Commemoration there were children in prams whose parents might not even have been born themselves at the time of the 1981 strikes, there were youngsters whose parents might still find it hard even yet to talk about them, there were middleaged and older people, and the very mix of ages and conditions would make a decent administration think about who won those battles and at what a cost.
There were two pictures in our minds which may well have blotted out the speeches and even the pageantry – one was the picture of a table in Westminster with a woman at the top, surrounded by men who were yes-men.
Men who said “yes” to Thatcher because they were afraid of her.
The other picture was that of helpless prisoners on whom Thatcher was determined to wreak her own brand of vengeance. We had the same two pictures in our minds in 1981 and who would have dared to say which was the picture of winners in such a struggle? Who would have thought ten powerless men in prison would have defeated two dozen men and a powerful woman at a cabinet table in Westminster? A dozen men terrified by one woman, ten men afraid of nothing. Who indeed should win?
The 20 to 30,000 people gathered in Casement Park on a Sunday afternoon gave their answer to that question.
And as always the thoughts of dignified people were reverent towards the past, determined towards the future.
We must control our own lives, and so we shall. Even if a certain political arrangement is imposed upon us by military force, we must first discipline it and then control it, then change it.
Rational politics must control the city halls, the council offices, the police, the civil service. Rational economics must direct future prosperity for all our people.
And all the young people will be given full opportunity for development through decent education, none of them recruited as the hooligan arm of the police.
We do not need to prove that London has behaved abominably in Ireland by corrupting our institutions and presenting us with the most backward economy and political system in Europe. We just need to keep on reminding people of it, and plan for the better future. If we can bring all decent people together on the main issues this will strengthen us immensely. If not, then at least we can treat each other’s differences with respect.
Now is the time for courageous planning, for foresight, for exchange of ideas, for respect for each other.
Can we be as courageous creating our future as those people were who were willing to die for it?