A lesson the oppressed will never forget

Trade union activist and former republican prisoner Tommy McKearney points to the significance of the 1981 hunger strike

HE WAS my MP for the last few days of his life and although I was not able to speak with him in his constituency office, he understood my plight and cause so well, and endorsed it so passionately, that he literally gave his life for me.

Of course he didn't do it just for me. He understood and shared the deep, bitter sense of injustice felt by a community that had experienced more than two centuries of being treated as children of a lesser god. A people who for long had been placed second in the queue for jobs or promotion, second in the queue for housing or planning permission and second in the queue for state assistance. In fact they were second in the queue for every important decision made about them, or the society in which they lived.

As with many youngsters of his generation in that community, he rebelled furiously against the government and the state that had smugly presided over this long-running injustice. He joined the widespread, well-supported insurrection designed to break the state's grip over his community but was captured bearing arms and imprisoned.

Having neglected its responsibility for decades, the government had been caught flat-footed when the insurrection broke out initially. Years of quiet endurance by my MP's broader community had resulted in the state's administration growing complacent. Television too, was relatively new and sometimes unpredictable. Taken together, these factors allowed the insurgents to set out their cause before the world in a reasonable light.

The government reacted, as governments often do, by waging a propaganda war (as well as a military campaign) against the insurgents. They sought to tell the international community that this conflict was not the altogether predictable product of centuries of mistreatment but was instead purely a question of criminal malevolence and thereafter decided to treat captured insurgents as if they were common criminals. A brilliant, albeit perfidious and immoral, masterstroke. Rename and redefine the problem and, by gum, the government has a convenient coping strategy. It might have worked actually; if only the captured insurgents had only conformed to the government's new prison policy of criminalisation. Not only did the captives refuse to conform, but ten of their number, led by my MP, died on hunger strike in order to disprove the crude attempt to crush their struggle by deeming it a criminal enterprise.

Although I knew him well and we spent 18 months together on the same prison wing, some things are lost on me.

That man in the well-known photograph wearing a red, v-necked sweater and laughing for the camera is a stranger to me. I never saw him wearing ordinary clothes or without a beard. And all the time we knew each other, I only ever used the Irish version of his name. To me he is always Roibeard.

Of the many incidents involving him during his time on that prison wing, for some strange reason one picture of the man lingers in my mind.

The prison officers were taking an unusually long tome to return us to out cells after mass and at that time a break in routine often meant trouble for us captives. As it turned out,, he and I were last to be called and as the tension rose he asked in Irish: cad ata ag titim amach? (What''s happening?), followed by, Is cuma (Don't worry about it). It's just an image in my mind but I can see it sometimes when that period is recalled and how the attempt to denigrate a cause was resisted by heroic self-sacrifice and courage.

There are times too when I wonder if that image is still not visible around other shameful places of incarceration. It wouldn't surprise me if it can be seen by some unfortunates held in detention centres around the world like Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo Bay, and that image still asking, cad ata ag titim amach?

He was fond of repeating Tom Clarke's words that imperialism has no weapon capable of overcoming a person's will to resist. It is still baffling that empires of the world never seem to remember that and, thanks to him and his comrades, the oppressed will never forget it.

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2006-05-26 09:29:48.
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