Monday, 5 March 2012

International Women's Day - A tribute to Mairead Farrell

"Do Not Stand At My Grave and Weep..."

Mairead Farrell

Mairead Farrell,  a mature student at Queens University Belfast, was shot down unarmed by the SAS in Gibraltar on March 6th 1988. Mairead died of  Internal hemorrhaging, caused by multiple bullet wounds, alongside her comrades Sean Savage and Dan McCann. This is my personal tribute to a remarkable woman for International Women's Day 2012.

Nearly a quarter of a century after her death it is still very difficult to talk of anything connected with the dirty and brutal war between the British State and the Irish Republican movement. Ten years after Mairead, Sean and Dan were slaughtered on the Rock, The Good Friday Agreement brought the war to an end. However, the painful legacy of the conflict still resonates and the process of peace and reconciliation is slow. It is slowest in England, in fact there is no process of peace and reconciliation in England. The bulk of ordinary people in England are still blinded by a deep seated ingnorance of what drove young women like Mairead to become IRA Volunteers.

When I first travelled to Belfast in 1980, I was already aware of the central role that inspirational women leaders had played in the struggle for Civil Rights, figures like Bernadette Devlin who became the youngest ever woman elected to the Westminster Parliament in April 1969.

Within an couple of hours of my arrival in West Belfast I was to suffer a real shock. I was picked out of a crowd of other Troops Out Movement  activists 'picketing' a British Army Fort in Turf Lodge by Suzanne Bunting and Barbra Brown. Suzanne and Barbra told me that Anne Marie McMullan, a personal friend of mine, had been critically injured 6 hours earlier and was in Intensive Care at the Royal Victoria Hospital. Anne Marie had be shot by a Plastic Bullet while standing next to a traditional Internment Night Bonfire, just yards from her home in Horn Drive Lenadoon, West Belfast, she had suffered extensive brain damage. After spending hours at Anne Marie's bedside I returned to Horn Drive and stayed awake all night talking with Barbra Brown, who was a 27 year old Teacher and activist in the National Committee Against the H-Blocks.

After over a decade of traumatic struggle, women in the nationalist  community were still at the forefront of campaigning activity.  Women like Miriam Daly, a member of the Relatives Action Committee, who was assainated by a Loyalist Death Squad just 6 weeks before I met her comrades and sisters at a RAC meeting in August 1980.

I remember travelling on a coach organised by Belfast Women Against Imperialism in early October 1980 to a protest outside Armagh Gaol. Inside the Gaol was Mairead Farrell and she was to to join her comrades in the H-Blocks on Hungerstrike for the return of Political Status for Republican Prisoners. On the coach to Armagh I sat next to Noel Little, a gently spoken and thoughtful socialist who had the exhausted look of a political activist prepared to sacrifice his health because the demands of the struggle took priority, I liked him. I never met Mairead Farrell, but on that cold October morning in 1980 standing outside the gates of Armagh Gaol with others chanting slogans in support of the Prisoners I did hear Mairead, she shouted from the barred window of her cell Tiocfaidh ar la "Our Day Will Come".

Back in England - a couple of weeks later, I was waiting to catch a train at Bristol Temple Meads to go to Swindon. I was to speak at a meeting of Swindon Youth Against the Missiles a new youth group established in support of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. There was a rapidly growing movement against the deployment of Cruise Missiles in the UK. CND, after years in the doldrums, was experiencing a huge revival and was planning its first major Demonstration for decades in London on October 26th. Anyway, while waiting for my train I bought a copy of the Guardian and a few pages in what I read made me feel physically sick. Noel Little had been murdered,Ronnie Bunting [Suzanne's Husband] had been murdered and Suzanne Bunting had suffered multiple gunshot wounds and left for dead.  A counter revolutionary 'death squad' had killed people I knew and liked. I was 18 years old and I had already spent time at the bedside of a young friend of mine, Anne Marie McMullan, from Lenadoon, who was seriously brain damaged by a Plastic bullet on August 9th 1980. Now death had taken my new friend Noel. Despite the shock I was still able to speak at the Swindon Youth Against the Missiles meeting and encouraged the 60 or so young people to make every effort to attend the CND Demo two weeks later in London.

The CND Demo on 26th October was huge, at least 70,000 and many of the young people who participated were also open to supporting the struggle of Irish Political Prisoners who were on Hungerstrike and some of the youth from Birmingham Youth Against the Missiles went on to get involved in campaigning for the Prisoners 5 Demands. These young people represented the 'honourable exception' most political activists and socialists had little interest in the life and death struggle going on just across the water and they frequently denounced young women like Mairead Farrell as "petit bourgeois nationalists" and "individual terrorists".

Today, 14 years after the Good Friday Agreement and 24 years after Mairead's murder, many English people who pride themselves on their understanding of history still fail to appreciate why Irish Republicanism produced figures like Mairead. Maybe it is me who is just too sentimental,  but I genuinely feel that the years to come a form of English Republicanism will emerge to complete the unfinished business of the English Civil War  and perhaps New Levellers will look to heroines like Mairead for inspiration. TheThe Spirit of Irish Republicanism has taken a battering but remains unbowed and unbroken and the leading role of Sinn Fein women like Mary Lou McDonald has much to teach those of us in England who believe "Fair is worth Fighting For" 

On International Women's Day 2013, I hope that the 25th Anniversary of Mairead,s murder will see more commemorations and widespread appreciation of her contribution to the liberation of humanity from all forms of oppression.

"Unbowed, Unbroken" the 25th Anniversary of the Hungerstrikes 2006.

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