Insider insight into 1981 hunger strike

Ruán O'Donnell reviews Out of Time, Irish Republican Prisoners, Long Kesh, 1972-2000 by Laurence McKeown, Beyond the Pale, £10.99 pbk

THERE IS no doubt that Laurence McKeown is ideally placed to document and analyse the experiences of republican prisoners detained in the H-Blocks (Long Kesh). He spent sixteen years of his life in the complex and very nearly died after seventy days on hunger strike in 1981.

Having survived the rigours of a protest by virtue of lapsing into a coma, McKeown was one of the IRA prisoners who debated the early stages of a strategy which transformed the campaign of armed struggle into a peace process.

It is widely acknowledged that the progress made since 1994 ceasefire could never have occurred without the endorsement of imprisoned republicans.

As such, McKeown's description of the context within the H-Blocks for this momentous step is a valuable precursor to the full story.

The origins of this book as a PhD thesis are self-evident as McKeown and the staff of the increasingly impressive Beyond the Pale Publications have retained much of its academic format.

While this is probably off-putting to some readers, the merit of this decision is that McKeown’s methodology, theoretical framework and personal attitude towards his research is far more transparent than would have been the case with a conventional narrative presentation.

A reasonably wide range of former prisoners was interviewed by McKeown, who supplemented their views, often reproduced verbatim, with depositions from some of the last men detained. Well known figures such as Gerry Kelly, Tommy McKearney, Brendan Hughes and Padraic Wilson offered their co-operation and insights.

It could be argued that INLA and Official IRA perspectives were not properly surveyed or that the research should have taken full account of concurrent events at Armagh Jail, Maghaberry and Portlaoise.

However, McKeown is unapologetic about rooting his project in the H-Blocks and the decision to focus overwhelmingly on its Provisional IRA occupants. In fairness, he has effectively challenged supporters of the smaller republican bodies to produce similar volumes.

If the success of McKeown's example offers an indication of what might emerge on the topic it is to be hoped that his lead is soon followed.

Nonetheless, Out of Time is by no means a narrative without tension.

McKeown is surprisingly frank about dissension within successive IRA prison leaderships and provides a platform for those who controversially regarded the hunger strike of 1981 as a failure whilst viewing the trend towards purely political modes of republican engagement with scepticism.

This is an essential addition to the literature of the conflict in the north of Ireland.

February/March 2002

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2002-10-02 14:52:47.
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