25 December 2005

Republicans emerged victorious in tragic and glorious times

Daily Ireland

TOMMY McKEARNEY

Incredible as it may seem to younger readers, the British government attempted 30 years ago to defeat republican Ireland by embarking on a strategy that involved defining the struggle for democracy here as nothing other than inter-tribal warfare at best or a vulgar, criminal conspiracy at worst.
Having failed in 1974 to persuade Northern Irish unionism to accept a reformed, ‘power-sharing’ local administration, the then Labour government opted for a more traditional British approach in this country and sought to crush the progressive forces.
With centuries of experience as an imperial power, Britain’s senior civil service recognised the importance of claiming the high moral ground (however undeserved) in a colonial war. London had learned from the Black and Tan period the dangers of losing a propaganda battle. Not only had international opinion then turned against Britain but crucially too, so did significant sections of its own media and population.
The British offensive of the mid-1970s was to take a multi-faceted ‘beans and bullets’ approach. In an effort to appease, efforts were made to stimulate the local economy. Money was poured into the ill judged DeLorean factory and funding distributed to pro-establishment charities. On a different level, the tactics were political/military. Hoping to create the impression of civil society under attack, internment was ended and a quasi-legal system established in its place while to further this illusion, the RUC was ostensibly to have supremacy for security. Simultaneously, state sponsored terror was unleashed under the guise of loyalist sectarian attacks in order to demoralise the republican community and spread the lie of ‘feuding Ulster tribes’.
However, to provide a highly visible photo opportunity that would physically demonstrate the supposed degeneration of Irish republicanism into criminality, the British government decided to remove political status from prisoners of the conflict. The plan was to dress and treat them as ‘mere criminals’ in the newly-built cellular H-Blocks and thus allow Britain to pretend that its role in Ireland was purely altruistic.
Had Britain succeeded, the republican struggle would have been destroyed. Not only would the physical movement have been defeated but the philosophy would also have been damned as pernicious. This is the context in which the prison struggles of the period should be viewed and that is why many hundreds of republicans refused on principle to accept prison rules and acquiesce with the criminalisation policy.
No one should underestimate the hardship this course of action caused. For refusing to conform to the prison regime, republican prisoners were confined to their cells with only a blanket for warmth. The prison authorities were, moreover, extremely hostile – and violence from the prison guards was an ever-present concern for all protesting prisoners.
When a prolonged and intensive series of semi-official negotiations failed to move the newly-elected Tory government led by Margaret Thatcher, republicans in the H-Blocks sought and gained permission from the IRA Army Council for that last resort of any prisoner, a hunger strike.
Seven men were selected from among the many who volunteered and on 27th October, 1980, the strike began. The seven, led by Brendan Hughes, included Leo Green, Raymond McCartney, Tom McFeely, myself, Sean McKenna and John Nixon. Fifty-three days later the strike ended.
Controversy surrounds the ending of the hunger strike. With Sean McKenna hours from death and myself declining rapidly, Brendan Hughes decided that in light of existent promises it would be unwise and irresponsible to allow the situation to drift. He believed that the British government had conceded sufficient ground to allow the prison situation to progress gradually towards a satisfactory outcome. A sophisticated and pragmatic thinker, Brendan Hughes recognised the improbability of an initial total triumph and understood that political reaction in Britain to a hunger striker’s funeral would most likely not allow for flexibility in Downing Street. Under such circumstances, decisions are rarely easy and never clear-cut.
It is now common knowledge that Britain reneged on the assurances and thus brought about the second hunger strike when ten prisoners died in the H-Blocks. It is tautological to say that had the first hunger strike succeeded in gaining political status, the second event would never have taken place. What is not so clear is whether the Thatcher government had ever any intention of negotiating honestly with Irish republicans. This, after all, was the government that deliberately sank the Argentinean ship General Belgrano in order to prolong the South Atlantic war and calculatingly drew the National Union of Mineworkers into a debilitating year- long strike. With the benefit of hindsight, it is now reasonable to hold the view that a perfidious British government sought to annihilate Irish republicans in a destructive final pitched battle and therefore acted duplicitously at all times.
Victory in the struggle for political recognition came eventually to republicans, not so much from material conditions gained but from standing and fighting. The apex of this struggle came during the tragic and glorious year of 1981. The first hunger strike of 1980 was one of the lesser, although significant battles in that hard-fought campaign.

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