RECENTLY I spent a short time, along with scores of other republicans, remembering and celebrating the life and courage of IRA Volunteer Joe McDonnell.It was the anniversary of Joe’s death.
He died on hunger strike on July 8, 1981 after 61 days without food. Sinn Féin organised a white line picket along the Andersonstown Road in West Belfast. Such pickets involve protestors standing along the dividing white line on the road holding a placard, or in this instance, a photo of Joe. It was a method of highlighting the hunger strike frequently used then and since. Big Bobby and the party executive in Belfast thought it was an appropriate way of remembering Joe.
I was standing not far from the party’s Connolly House office and close to the junction with St. Agnes’ Drive. In the busyness of my life I don’t often get the opportunity to just reflect. To take a few minutes and allow the mind to relax and wander. To look around and recall events or people connected to wherever I am. But for about 30 minutes, standing there on my own, with lines of republican activists stretching away on either side of me, my memory journeyed back to the day we walked from Joe’s home in Lenadoon, down the Shaws Road and along the Andersonstown Road to Milltown Cemetery.
A beautiful summer’s day. Thousands of people standing along the footpaths and many more following the cortege. Joe’s coffin was set on trestles just outside Connolly House – which was then an empty building – and an IRA firing party stepped forward and gave their comrade his last salute.
They then disappeared into the crowd and slipped up through the houses toward St Agnes’s Drive. Unbeknownst to any of us, British soldiers had moved in to the street. They raided a house in a bid to capture the volunteers.
I remember hearing the shots being fired and then the British troops and RUC attacked the mourners firing plastic bullets. Men, women and children screamed and scattered, desperately trying to avoid being hit by plastic bullets. Mothers held their children close to them, desperately trying to shield them with their own bodies. Others lay on the ground or hunkered down in shop doorways or behind cars. There was pandemonium along the Andersonstown Road.
That summer was a bleak time for many reasons, but not least because of the widespread and devastating use of plastic bullets by the British Army and RUC. Seven people were killed, three of them children, and hundreds more were injured, some permanently. It was a weapon of control and intimidation and a weapon that was used indiscriminately.
We were determined not to allow the Brits to hijack or obstruct the burial of our friend and with difficulty we moved on down the Andersonstown Road toward Milltown. It was only as we approached the cemetery a short time later that I learned that my brother Paddy had just been shot and seriously wounded.
The same morning Joe died, 16-year-old John Dempsey, a member of Na Fianna Éireann, was shot dead just across the road from Milltown Cemetery. I attended John’s wake and his funeral to Milltown before I went to Lenadoon and Joe’s funeral.
Three years after those awful events, 23-year-old John Downes was shot and killed by a plastic bullet in August 1984 almost on the spot that Joe’s body had rested for that final salute. He was struck by a plastic fired an RUC man as the RUC attacked a peaceful public demonstration and stormed the building.
Connolly House, like many other Sinn Féin offices, was targeted not just by the Brits and RUC, but also by their loyalist allies. Several activists were shot and wounded in one incident and an RPG rocket was fired on another. It was also the location for many of our meetings with Irish Americans in the early days of the peace process and in 2004 we discovered a sophisticated listening device hidden in the floor of the building. MI5 apparently described this as a ‘superbug’. We brought the bug with us – or most of it – when we travelled to Leeds Castle for more talks aimed at getting the peace process back on track. Martin and I ceremoniously handed it back to Tony Blair. Although those bits that were kept were auctioned on eBay and the money raised was put to good use by the party.
Around the corner from the Sinn Féin office is a shopping area still known locally as the Busy Bee, even though the supermarket of that name is no longer there. For many years, and especially during the hunger strike period, most republican marches ended at that spot as the car park there provided a natural amphitheatre.
A few hundred yards in the opposite direction from where I was standing is Casement Park. Just outside its main gates in March 1988 two armed British soldiers attacked mourners attending the funeral of Caoimhín Mac Bradaigh, who had been killed when UDA gunman Michael Stone attacked the Gibraltar funerals. The soldiers themselves were overpowered and killed by the IRA.
So, it was a moment in space for reflection. Mostly about the hard times, the difficult times and the friends and neighbours who are no longer with us. And that’s good. We should never forget what happened or the bravery and audacity of those who created the opportunity for the republican struggle to grow.