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Saturday, 5 May, 2001, 16:02 GMT 17:02 UK
Adams pays tribute to hunger strikers

Prisoners on the so-called dirty protest
Former prisoners and relatives of the IRA hunger strikers have held a tree-planting ceremony to mark the 20th anniversary of Bobby Sands' death.

Sands from west Belfast died on 5 May that year after refusing food for 66 days.

He was elected as MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone in a by-election while he was on hunger strike.

Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams said the line of Irish oaks planted outside a social club in west Belfast on Saturday would be a living monument to the men who died.

Gerry Adams:
Gerry Adams: "Hunger strikers' legacy still influencing political thinking"

"Bobby Sands famously wrote that our revenge be the laughter of our children," he said.

"It's about trying to reach out to enemies and opponents and friends alike to try to build that as a monument."

The West Belfast MP also said the hunger strikers raised the raised the republican movement's struggle against the British presence to a "moral threshold".


"When asked what is the legacy of the hunger strikes, when asked where are we 20 years on, there are more republicans on this island today than there were 20 years before," he told around 100 people gathered in the grounds of the Roddy McCorley Club on the Glen Road during the ceremony.

Bobby Sands: first hunger striker to die
Bobby Sands: first hunger striker to die
"We are blessed to even have known, even to be remotely associated with these men who died on hunger strike because they brought our struggle to a moral threshold.

"They brought the entire struggle to a platform from where it was clear to see that the fundamental issues have been as they have always been since the conquest - the presence of British Government control on this island, the partition of the island and the denial of our people of their freedom."

Mr Adams noted that while 10 republican prisoners Sands died in the hunger strikes in 1981, 60 other people lost their lives outside the Maze Prison during that period and 50,000 plastic bullets were fired.

He paid tribute to those people in the republican community who had lived through the period.

"It is to your credit that 20 years later the world knows that Margaret Thatcher was wrong and Bobby Sands and his comrades were right," he said.

Irish folk singer Christy Moore sang his hunger strike lament The time has come, at the climax of the ceremony.

Among those taking part in planting the trees were Sinn Fein assembly members Gerry Kelly and Michelle Gildernew, 1980 hunger strikers Leo Green, Mary Doyle and Pat Sheehan and relatives of the 1981 hunger strikers Francis Hughes, Raymond McCreesh, Joe McDonnell, Kieran Doherty and Kevin Lynch.

Sinn Fein Health Minister Bairbre de Brun also attended.

Turning point

One of the key demands of republican prisoners was the right to wear their own clothes.

When this was refused they started a blanket protest where they abandoned the prison uniform in favour of blankets.

Two years later the protest escalated with prisoners smearing their cells with their own excrement, which became known as the dirty protest.

The hunger strike came at the peak of the prisoners' campaign.

The IRA's commander in the Maze prison in 1981 was Brendan "Bic" McFarlane.

He said all of the prisoners were "shattered" when they heard the news of Bobby Sands' death through BBC radio on a smuggled handset hidden in his cell.

But he said the deaths marked the beginning of the current peace process.

"Criminalisation was nailed to the ground by the hunger strikers beyond a shadow of a doubt and as a direct consequence of that we have had the political development that has brought us to where we are today."

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See also:

05 May 01 | Northern Ireland
Anniversary of IRA hunger striker
04 May 01 | Northern Ireland
'Error of judgement' in 1981 hunger strike
28 Jul 00 | Northern Ireland
The prison that served its time
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