Dia daoibh a chairde agus fáilte mór romhaibh uilig. I want to welcome all of you here today – Big Bobby’s family and friends and comrades from all parts of the island here together to remember with pride a great republican and a great human being.
I have known many sound people but Bobby was one of a kind. He was always positive. He was a great motivator. And when you talked to him – whatever the issue – you always came away knowing that he would move heaven and earth to do what needed to be done to help. And he would do it with a smile.
I don’t know anyone who knew him who didn’t like him. Except for MI5, MI6, the old RUC, the British Army, and prison governors. How could you not like him? He was smart, well read, funny, caring, always ready to listen – always willing to help – always prepared to give freely of his time and his great positive energy.
The first 15 years of Big Bob’s life was spent in North Belfast. He was just 13 when the Falls and Clonard area and Ardoyne were attacked by loyalist mobs, led by the RUC and B Specials.
In this week 50 years ago three hugely significant events occurred which had a profound effect on the 14-year-old Bobby. The Battle of St Mathews took place, when unionist gangs tried to destroy the Short Strand and Ballymacarrett. The district was successfully defended by a small number of IRA volunteers and the local defence group.
Tomorrow is July 1st. On that day in 1970 the unionist regime at Stormont passed the Criminal Justice Bill which introduced a mandatory six-month prison sentence for rioting. Within six months over 100 people, mostly young nationalists were imprisoned under mandatory sentences.
Fifty years ago this Friday the Falls Curfew began. Three and a half thousand British soldiers surrounded the Falls area, killed four civilians and shrouded the area in a cloud of CS gas. Hundreds were arrested and beaten – homes were smashed – and mothers were denied food for their babies. The curfew was broken after three days by the courage and determination of thousands of women led by Máire Drumm and Marie Moore.
Bobby was politicised by his experience and by the events around him. He described his own experiences at the hands of the RUC and British Army.
“I was arrested over 20 times in a four-month period. They tied me up once and threw me out on the Shankill Road; they beat me up at a chapel one night. My experience was no different from many other people’s experience… The more beatings they gave me the more my resolve developed. These were the things that brought me to be a republican activist.”
In a little autograph book of former prisoners Bobby’s entry reads.
‘Bobby Storey interned 1973-75
A life of struggle is a life well lived.’
He signed off with a smiley face.
On 20 August 1981, the day the last hunger striker, Mickey Devine died, Big Bob was captured following a gun attack on British soldiers on Shaw’s Road. Bobby and his two comrades were captured and he was sentenced to 18 years. The 1983 escape came soon after. It wasn’t all down to Big Bobby. It was a team effort. His job as OC on the day was to coordinate the escape. He always said: “The biggest contribution to making that day so successful was the comradeship.”
Bobby was released in 1994. He went straight back into the struggle. The fact that it was now moving into a different mode didn’t faze him at all. He said:
“I put the same application into my current work as I did in the past. As republicans we are constantly making new sites of struggle and we have to be alert and scientific in our approach.”
During those years he travelled widely explaining the republican strategy to comrades and to the wider republican family. In 1996 he was arrested again, charged, spent two years on remand and was eventually released in 1998. He was 44 years-old and had spent more than 20 years in prison.
Bobby became the Chair of Belfast Sinn Féin and then of the six-county Cuige. He worked diligently at building the party. The result of his work and of others can be seen in the strength of the party today.
This weekend saw the election of Mícheál Martin as Taoiseach as part of the manoeuvre by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, aided and abetted by the Greens to maintain the status quo and to prevent Mary Lou McDonald from becoming Taoiseach. They are entitled to do that but their refusal to talk to the Sinn Féin leadership is a sad little undemocratic throw back to the way the unionist leaders used to behave.
Denying Sinn Féin voters their right to be included in talks shows how far the Dublin establishment is prepared to go to minimise and to delay the ongoing process of change across this island, including the movement towards Irish Unity. So, let me say loud and clear.
They will fail. Just as Unionists failed in their exclusion policies.
Change is coming. Not least because of the work of change makers like Bob mór. In order to justify their policy of exclusion An Taoiseach and Leo Varadkar say they cannot talk to us because Sinn Féin is controlled by shadowy figures like Bob. They also name Ted, Padraic, Marty. Sinn Féin is controlled by no one. We are an open democratic national movement with our elected leadership, led by two fine women and other national leaders and countless regional and local leaders.
We are proud and glad that Bob and other former IRA volunteers are part of what we are. We are also proud of Bob and the others when they were IRA Volunteers. They and their support base and republican Ireland defeated the British Army. They brought us and their political masters to the negotiating table.
Leo Varadkar has Michael Collins. Mícheál Martin has De Valera. We have Bobby Storey. Bobby has done more for Irish freedom, peace and unity on this island than either Leo Varadkar or Mícheál Martin.
Big Bobby’s death is a huge political blow for republicans but is also a very personal loss for all of us who knew him. There have been many tears shed since the news of his death. There is a void in our lives.
Bobby would not want that. He would want us to mind each other. He would want us to continue our struggle and to win that struggle. And that my friends and comrades is what we will do.
On behalf of Colette and myself and our family I extend my sincerest and deepest sympathies and solidarity to Teresa, their children and grandchildren, and the wider Storey and Pickering family.
We will all miss his wisdom, his analysis, and his craic in the time ahead. He brought out the best in all of us.
Because of him we can go forward with optimism as more and more people on this island realise that England rules us only in English interests and that the time is coming when we will end English rule and replace it with governance by the people of this island, for the people of this island.
That’s what Bobby believed. He knew we don’t need Boris Johnson or his cronies. Or any of the other mediocre amadáns who are arrogant enough to think they can rule us. Bob was right. As Ian Paisley said to Martin McGuinness one time: “We don’t need Englishmen to rule us.”