This Sunday, August 4, for the first time the National Hunger Strike Commemoration will be held for the first time in Strabane.
Thirty-eight years after ten republicans died in Long Kesh during the spring and summer of 1981, thousands of people from across Ireland will march from Lifford across the border to the west Tyrone town to remember the prison battle conducted against the Thatcher administration’s policy of criminalisation.
Speaking at the announcement that Strabane will host the event, Sinn Fein’s West Tyrone MP Orfhlaith Begley said it was a privilege for Strabane republicans and the rest of the constituency to host the event.
“The 1981 hunger strike was a watershed in Irish history and had a profound impact in terms of radicalising communities throughout Ireland. This impact was particularly felt in areas like here in Strabane where pride in the hunger strikers, their courage and sacrifice still remains undiminished almost 40 years on.”
The roots of what took place in 1981 began several years earlier, when in 1976 Belfast republican Kieran Nugent became the first man to refuse to wear a prison uniform. In 1972, republicans had been accorded what the British termed Special Category Status recognising the political nature of their offences.
By the mid-1970s however, political status had been withdrawn and as the cages of Long Kesh were replaced by the concrete H Blocks, the new British policy of ‘normalisation’ was wholly designed to strike any notion of political credence away from the IRA campaign.
When he entered the H Blocks, Kieran Nugent was instructed to put a prison uniform on by the authorities. He answered, ‘you’ll have to nail it to my back.’ This began five years of protest inside the prison and heightened violence outside it which resulted in dozens of deaths.
The blanket and no wash protests of the first four years of the prison conflict yielded no concessions on the issue of political status.
The years of isolation and living in dire conditions eventually brought the situation to a head. The choice was plain and stark. The protesting republican prisoners could either concede and serve out jail sentences classed as ‘ordinary criminals’ or escalate the protest to the last ‘weapon’ available to them inside a prison-the hunger strike.
It was not a new tactic for the republican movement, and it drew its inspiration from stories from the old Gaelic order.
It’s recorded in the annals of Irish history that when a citizen felt slighted by the ruling order, it was not uncommon for them to lie outside their dwelling and refuse food in the hope of publicly shaming the guilty party into reparation and or an apology.
In 1917, Thomas Ashe died in Mountjoy prison in Dublin after being force fed whilst on hunger strike demanding political status. Then, in 1920, the Lord Mayor of Cork Terence McSwiney died after 74 days whilst on hunger strike in Brixton jail. And, next year in 2020 to mark the centenary of the death of McSwiney, the National Hunger Strike Commemoration will take place in Cork city.
Back in 1974, Michael Gaughan died in Parkhurst on the Isle of Wight after 64 days on hunger strike, and shortly before the beginning of the prison blanket and no wash protests in Long Kesh, in February 1976, another Mayo man, Frank Stagg died at Wakefield jail in Yorkshire after 62 days without food.
The first Long Kesh hunger strike began on October 27, 1980. The protestors set out a list of five demands: 1-The right not to wear a prison uniform; 2-The right not to do prison work; 3-The right of free association with other prisoners; 4-The right to organise their own educational and recreational facilities and 5-The right to one visit, one letter and one parcel a week.
Seven men, including Sinn Fein MLA Raymond McCartney said they would fast to the death in the pursuit of the re-establishment of political status. Simultaneously, three female republican prisoners also embarked on a strike in Armagh jail.
As Christmas 1980 approached, the British offered a deal which appeared to agree to the central demand of the right not to wear a prison uniform. One of the hunger strikers, Sean McKenna was close to death at this stage and the strike was called off. It later emerged that was really being offered was a deal to allow prisoners to wear ‘civilian type clothing’ supplied by the prison regime. The scene was therefore already set for a second strike.
It began on March 1, 1981 when Bobby Sands refused to eat. Raymond McCartney said: “Obviously everybody’s memory of 1981 is the fact that ten people died on hunger strike.
“On March 1, 1976 the British Government removed political status. I think most people thought that this was a half-hearted attempt and they’d roll over within a short period of time.
“But, clearly what was emerging was a complete change in policy by the British Government who were intent on the idea of ‘normalisation’, ‘criminalisation’ and ‘Ulsterisation’.
“Instinctively, any of us who found ourselves in prison at that time, knew we were political prisoners and any attempt to criminalise us just wasn’t going to work. It became a battle of wills.
“But, I think by the end of the hunger strike in October, 1981, most people looking on were saying that whatever was going on in the North that nobody in their wildest notion thought it was a criminal conspiracy. They certainly saw it as a political conflict. They may not have agreed with the armed actions of the IRA, but they certainly viewed it as a political situation.
“So, for us by that stage, the process of criminalisation was in tatters. But, there was a very high price paid because 10 people had died in prison and 60 or 70 people had died on the streets.
“Within the prisons we knew that we still had work to do because what we had to do was turn that acceptance of political imprisonment into every day conditions. By the end of the hunger strike I suppose there was a big recognition of the difference between the criminal’s uniform and our own clothes was one manifestation of it. And, over the years we continued to ensure the conditions in Long Kesh reflected that.
“By the late 1980s and early 1990s, journalists were frequent visitors to the prison and left with the overwhelming impression that we were a ‘different type’ of prisoner. They may have gone out and had questions about who you were and what you were about but they were in doubt that we were political prisoners. That was a big source of validation.”
The intensity of the events and scale of death and destruction between 1976 and 1981 in retrospect now seems enormous, but Raymond McCartney maintains that it paved the way for future political developments.
“It was only five years, but it was a very intense five years. It is only when you get a bit older you realise just how short a time span it was, because when you roll onto 1998 and the Good Friday Agreement there was an acceptance of the framework that there was a political conflict which had to be resolved by political means-the recognition of political mandates, the political framework to address all these issues, but at the core of that was the acceptance of political prisoners.
“There is no doubt there is evidence that there were elements within the British Government were determined that political status should not be granted for whatever reason.
“Even in 1972, when there was internment without trial and up to 1,000 people were held in conditions where they wore their own clothes. There was a recognition of the political conflict of one nature or another.
“How that was defined by different people is a different matter. I know that other people have made the observation that for too long the British tried to deal with the North as a security issue. therefore, when you have a security mentality or emergency laws, emergency courts, emergency interrogation centres, everything is changed and turned upside down.
“If you follow their logic from that point of view and they say ‘you cannot now say you are political prisoners’ whilst trying to pretend that everything else about the situation isn’t political too then the penny drops in a whole lot of ways.”
The almost 40 years since 1981 have provoked much debate within wider nationalism about whether or not the hunger strike was harnessed as a catalyst for the republican movement to embark on the path to politics.
The election of Bobby Sands to Westminster and Kieran Doherty to the Dail was followed quickly by a debate within Sinn Fein about ending their policy of abstentionism from political institutions that would lead to a split in the republican movement in 1986. The Derry News asked Raymond McCartney for his view on this.
He said: “It is interesting now, because everyone has their story about what the origins of the peace process was. But, there is absolutely no doubt that when you look back as far as 1982 that Gerry Adams that there needed to be a political way of resolving the conflict, because military stalemate was exactly that.
“The famous Glover Report from the British Army accepted that there was not going to be a military defeat, was them in their own way, saying the IRA was a political force and that the guys in Long Kesh were political prisoners. They job they were sent to do, they couldn’t do and that was to impose a military defeat and by extension their laws of oppression were not going to work either.
“It made the situation painful and made the conflict last longer. Then, whenever the formula for the Good Friday Agreement was put forward, some former prisoners will tell you that it was too high a price to pay, but the core accepted it was a political problem and without political solutions it was never going to be resolved.”
When the first hunger strike ended in October of 1980, Raymond McCartney had gone without food for 53 days. So, what are his own personal recollections of the physical effects of what took place?
“I suppose when you look at that time in 1981, Martin Hurson died after 46 days whilst others like Kevin Lynch were approaching 70 days when he died.
“In a very strange way hunger strike affects different people in different ways. Even the day the hunger strike ended in 1980, I was still walking about, I was out of bed. But, there is no doubt that your body slows down.
“My ability to see was greatly affected. But, the body is a remarkable piece of equipment and resilience is obviously built in. As you get older you reflect on it and it is difficult to work out in your head that you could sustain doing without food for 53 days and others for 66 days.
“I suppose when you look at that time in 1981, Martin Hurson died after 46 days whilst others like Kevin Lynch were approaching 70 days when he died. In a very strange way hunger strike affects different people in different ways.
“Even the day the hunger strike ended in 1980, I was still walking about, I was out of bed. But, there is no doubt that your body slows down. My ability to see was greatly affected.
“As you get older you reflect on it and it is difficult to work out in your head that you could sustain doing without food for 53 days and others for 66 days.”
Undoubtedly, it was Margaret Thatcher more than anyone else within the British establishment at the time who demonstrated complete determination to use the protests in Long Kesh to divide and break the republican movement.
Many commentators have pointed to the INLA assassination of her colleague Airey Neave in 1979 as one reason why the British Prime Minister embarked on a path of total intransigence towards the IRA. However, Raymond McCartney believes that her thinking was a lot wider than that.
“Whatever her antipathy towards Ireland was and what came with that, she was setting out a broader political stall. Look at how she treated the miner’s later on.
“Reading state papers now, years after these events, her take on the miner’s strike wasn’t just a battle about conditions in the mines, it was about strategically tackling trade unions. It was a case of her saying who is the strongest union-who is the spine of the working class and acting on that.
“I always remember that being in jail gives you the time to reflect and read and think and I also always remember that Bobby Sands out of all the people who had been in jail was very clear about what he was there for because he wrote it all down. Some of the things he wrote captures the way a writer works-it’s all encompassing and puts it out there in a very vivid way.
“I had previously been interned, I had an understanding about what being a political prisoner was. You had your own clothes and a bit of freedom to associate with other prisoners and you didn’t feel that sense of captivity although you were locked up. Bobby Sands caught on very early that the British were trying to defeat us in the prisons. It wasn’t just about trying to give you a hard time or denying you your own clothes, it was that they had a core idea to break us.
“One of the rewarding things for me personally was that the system we had in the end in jail was one based on equality. That we treated people as equals. If you couldn’t treat the person beside you as a comrade and an equal that you couldn’t expect anyone else to believe that you’d treat all people as equals as you went on through life.”
Those wishing to attend the 38th National Hunger Strike Commemoration are asked to assemble on Sunday, August 4 at 2.30pm at the Diamond in Lifford before marching across the border into Strabane where Martina Anderson MEP will deliver this year’s main oration.
CAPTION: Raymond McCartney spent 53 days on hunger strike in 1980.
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