A hunger for change

Sinn Féin's Jim Gibney, below, explains the impact of the 1981 hunger strikes on the development of modern republicanism

I always find it difficult when speaking about the hunger strike. Not just because it is difficult to do justice to the memory of those who died on the hunger strike, but because it is also difficult for those listening to get a sense of the time. It was, after all, 20 years ago.

Many people not old enough to remember ask: what was it like 20 years ago? What were the circumstances that drove ten young men, in the prime of their lives to die in such agonising conditions? And it is genuinely difficult in a short way to recreate the times, but I think it is helpful to try to do so.

Well, dictators of various hues were in the ascendancy. Maggie Thatcher ruled Britain; Nelson Mandela was in gaol on Robben Island and apartheid looked set to last forever in South Africa; Pinochet's Chile was a byword for torture, and death stalked the streets of the six counties. The world was divided between the two superpowers, north America and the Soviet Union, and this also looked as if it would last forever.

And a few miles outside Belfast, in Armagh women's prison and in the H-blocks of Long Kesh, hundreds of republican prisoners were held in inhuman conditions.

In the H-blocks hundreds of young men, most between 17 and 30, were held naked in their cells. They covered their bodies in rough woollen blankets to keep warm. They were locked in their cells 24 hours a day, every day.

They were denied the use of the toilet and smeared their cell walls with their excrement and urinated out of the cell door. They got one visit a month and if they were lucky a letter a month. They were denied books, magazines and papers. They were permitted a small number of religious magazines. They were starved of adequate food and were routinely beaten by sectarian, bigoted prison warders.

In Armagh Women's Prison the women had their own clothes, but everything else was the same as in the H-Blocks. The prisoners lived in these conditions for five years between September 1976 and October 1981. Five years is 60 months, 260 weeks, 1820 days, 23,680 hours, 2,620,800 minutes, 157,248,000 seconds.

To the prisoners living in these conditions it was the seconds that counted.

It is now clear looking back 20 years to the 1981 hunger strike which claimed the lives of ten republican prisoners in the H-blocks, that this was a watershed year for the republican struggle. The story of the prison protests for political status in the H-Blocks and Armagh Women's Prison is unsurpassed in the annals of Irish history.

It is a story of death-defying bravery, not on one occasion but ten times over, by a group of men who were already heroes to Ireland's cause as 'blanketmen'.

Republicans learned a lot of lessons that year. It wasn't just that the freedom struggle went through a watershed period, as Gerry Adams aptly described it: "This generation's 1916". It was that, plus.

This generation of Irish people, indeed freedom-loving people all over the world, were given a rare and, at the time, and because of the price extracted, an unwelcome privilege of watching ordinary mortals display superhuman, perhaps supernatural, acts of unimaginable generosity, not only to their imprisoned comrades but also to us.

They died not only to end the nightmare conditions for their comrades in the H-blocks and Armagh prisons. They also died to defend the struggle for freedom from being criminalised and thereby criminalising the Irish nation and all those who fought for its freedom in this and previous generations.

They lifted themselves out of the fetid conditions in the prison; they elevated the struggle for freedom onto a higher moral plane and they restored to us a pride in our republican beliefs and in ourselves that was denied us by our opponents.

They conquered the human imperative to live and the instinct to resist death with a grace of the human spirit that defies written definition or description.

The bravery inside the prison was responded to by the determination of the people on the outside to take to the streets in support of the prisoners. The British government didn't just implement a brutal and inhumane regime inside the prisons. They did the same on the streets in the months of May 1981, when the first four hunger strikes died.

The British crown forces fired 15,000 plastic bullets. But the repression did not quell the people's support for the prisoners, anymore than it broke the prisoners' stand inside the prisons. The prisoners and the people were one.

In my opinion the hunger strike of 1981 changed fundamentally the republican struggle. Those who died on hunger strike not only set a new moral frame or context from which everything else derived, they propelled the struggle forward into a new arena: they strengthened the struggle at a time when it was under pressure.

They inflicted both a moral and political defeat on Margaret Thatcher and inspired and continue to inspire republicans all over Ireland. In fact Bobby Sands became an icon for oppressed peoples all over the world. And he still is.

The prisoners in Turkish gaols who are on hunger strike at the minute told two ex-prisoners a few weeks ago that Bobby Sands was their hero and they drew strength from him.

To date 31 Turkish prisoners (the figure is now approaching 40, ed) and their relatives have died on a hunger strike. which began last November.

But 1981 and the hunger strike is a turning point in the Irish freedom struggle. Prior to that year the struggle was very much one-dimensional, ie a military contest between the IRA and their supporters and the British crown forces and loyalists.

After that year many other forms of struggle came into both popular and electoral play. In 1981 Bobby Sands won Fermanagh-South Tyrone and Kieran Doherty and Paddy Agnew were elected as TDs in the 26 counties. Dozens of people standing on pro-prisoner tickets were elected as councillors in the local government elections in the six counties, some of whom topped the poll.

Fergus O'Hare, then in People's Democracy, unseated Gerry Fitt as a councillor for the New Lodge Road. Fitt was leader of the SDLP and MP for West Belfast. But he regularly attacked the prisoners and the people gave him a bloody nose.

Owen Carron held Bobby's seat with an increased majority before the year was out.

When the year was over it was obvious to the leadership that an electoral strategy was needed. The prisoners gave us the courage to open up this front. That meant that a party had to be built.

It was no longer good enough for Sinn Féin to be a party of protest on the outside. It had to build as an effective and real party and it had to bring its protest politics into the system. As I speak, that might sound reasonably straightforward. Back then this was a huge shift.

Also in that year electing two TDs pointed us in the direction of ending abstentionism from Leinster House. We learnt that you can't stand outside the institutions of state, which the people legitimately recognise, and expect to grow as a party or secure political influence.

That year we learnt that the struggle was truly national, and that the 26 counties was not a tag on to what was going on in the six counties. The popular dimension to the hunger strike also pointed us in the direction of building Sinn Féin across the 26 counties also.

It was logical. If we needed support here for the prisoners' cause, it followed that we needed support to secure the unity and freedom of this country.

Also coming out of the hunger strikers and prison protests was the importance of people, ie popular struggle.

Prior to that reality people's involvement in the struggle was as the supporters of the IRA. That view was replaced with a new outlook which recognised the central role of popular struggle in its own right. And when the prisoners started getting out of the H-Blocks in the '80s there was an explosion of interest in the Irish language, especially in Belfast, and since then it has spread out to many areas across the country.

And so today, as we all know, is the 20th anniversary of the hunger strike. The response to commemorative events has been very impressive. The turnouts for the hunger-strike anniversary prove that, there is no doubt; and the evidence is there to prove that the hunger strike of 1981 was a turning-point in the struggle for Irish freedom and that it continues to impact on political developments.

The above is an extract taken from Jim Gibney's contribution at the recent Desmond Greaves Summer School

<< | Up | >>

This document was last modified by David Granville on 2002-10-03 16:06:48.
Connolly Association, c/o RMT, Unity House, 39 Chalton Street, London, NW1 1JD
Copyright © Connolly Publications Ltd