28 February 2006

Becoming politically radical in Cages of Long Kesh

Daily Ireland

In the second excerpt from the Denis O’Hearn biography Bobby Sands: Nothing But an Unfinished Song, we discover how Sands was politicised during his first period in prison.


Image Hosted by ImageShack.usGerry Adams’ and Brendan Hughes’ arrival in Cage 11 started a pot boiling that had been simmering for some time. The latent dispute between younger volunteers and the more conservative and Catholic veterans coincided with a parallel dispute within the IRA about Britain’s intentions in Ireland…

The IRA leadership insisted that the British were beginning to withdraw from Ireland.

This assertion was nothing new. The IRA leadership had been claiming that victory was “imminent” since late 1973, when Republican News ran an article entitled “British Army Starts Withdrawal”. In May 1974, the paper ran a front-page story claiming that the British minister of defence Roy Mason had admitted that his troops had “lost the war”, and cited the last day of 1974 as the planned “English withdrawal date”. Now, the IRA leadership claimed that British withdrawal was an integral part of the truce process.

Many younger prisoners believed them. They had been in jail for years and were now being told by their leaders that they would soon be released because the British were withdrawing.

“We wanted to see this in terms of a British withdrawal, so we did,” admits Séanna Walsh.

Bobby’s continuing belief in the leadership is displayed in a scribble that he wrote on the inside cover of an Irish book that he was reading: “Roibeard Ó Seachnasaigh, Cas 11, Ceis Fada, Blian 75, Blian Saoirse” (Bobby Sands, Cage 11, Long Kesh, 1975, Year of Freedom).

Adams and Hughes argued the opposite: The British were not withdrawing, the war was not yet over, and the struggle had to be rebuilt with politically educated rank-and-file volunteers. They spoke of a “long war”, with implications for all aspects of the struggle. Most importantly, the struggle had to become more politicised; it had to offer something to the communities at its centre if they were to support it over the long haul.

They opposed the IRA’s strategy outside of jail. They viewed the struggle as an anti-colonial war of liberation and saw the IRA’s retaliatory campaign against Protestants as a diversion that played straight into the hands of the British state. Inside prison, they opposed the undemocratic, authoritarian, non-transparent, overly militaristic, and anti-Marxist leadership of Davey Morley and his camp staff…

Adams was cautious. He constantly beat into the others, including Hughes, to stay within the movement’s lines because he knew that Cage 11 was barely tolerated by the camp staff. Hughes, on the other hand, could not contain his open disdain for Morley and once told him straight to his face that he could build a far better group of volunteers with self-discipline and comradeship than Morley’s brand of enforced discipline.

“It was clear where I stood, quite clear where I stood,” Hughes recalls. “Gerry was shrewder in his opposition… Me being who I was, I was more verbally antagonistic toward them all.”

While the men in Cage 11 immediately accepted Adams as their OC, they were far from unified about the need for change either in the prison leadership or in the overall leadership and strategy of the IRA. For Bobby, continued support for Davey Morley was a matter of army discipline. He was an IRA volunteer who had been trained to follow orders without question. Hughes’ open defiance of the leadership led to his first direct encounter with Bobby Sands. Hughes had been criticising the IRA leadership in front of other prisoners for their sectarian bombing campaign against Protestants, which he said played into the hands of the British government’s campaign to portray the Irish struggle as tribal warfare between two equally repugnant groups of natives.

One day, Gerard Rooney brought Bobby and another prisoner into the Dark’s [Hughes’] hut to arrest him. They escorted Hughes to the study hut, where Roon accused him of dissenting against the authority of the IRA leadership and gave him a severe reprimand. Rooney ordered Hughes to stop his opposition to the leadership or he would be court-martialled.

Hughes went back to his hut, seething with anger. He packed up his gear and prepared to leave Cage 11 to join the Irish National Liberation Army prisoners in another cage. Adams persuaded him to stay. In hindsight, Hughes admits that the position of the arresting party that detained him was not as clear-cut as he thought at the time. Once he got to know Bobby and began talking to him, he realised he and Rooney were already coming round to his way of thinking. But they were disciplined IRA volunteers. Bobby’s heart was not in the arrest, yet he did it as a matter of IRA discipline.

Over the next six to nine months, Bobby’s resistance to change broke down. He began to question the movement’s strategies, both inside and outside of jail, as he raised his political consciousness to a higher level.

Gerry Adams encouraged all of the young prisoners to participate in an intensified programme of political education that promoted debate and political self-awareness.

He gave them new confidence to develop their radical political ideology and protected them from the camp officers as they did so. Adams and Hughes also won their loyalty by demonstrating solidarity with them rather than demanding obedience.

Personality conflicts dissolved. Soon, Cage 11 had a more collective leadership and collective responsibility. In their military parades, everybody fell in together and ordinary volunteers got to dismiss the parade. Cage staff did menial tasks alongside ordinary volunteers. Even the distinction between cleared and uncleared prisoners was largely ignored.

Cage 11 became the centre of challenge to the established leadership as Adams built “a number of enterprises” to raise the prisoners’ political awareness.

He introduced new classes that critically deconstructed republican ideology and policy. He resourced them by starting a book club that provided the necessary materials for self-education. Adams used his contacts to supply the book club and to build up a cage library. Prisoners gave up their food parcels to get books, instead. Bobby Sands, says Adams, had “a more than normal interest” in these activities. Adams developed this new awareness by encouraging the young radicals to continue reading global revolutionaries but also to synthesise them with Irish socialists like James Connolly and Liam Mellows.

“It’s all well and good talking about Che Guevara or Hô Chi Minh… now let’s get back to what we’re doing,” he would challenge them.

He strongly believed that “you ground your politics in the indigenous… it’s much easier to argue the validity of a position from the perspective of a James Connolly or a Fintan Lalor or a William Thompson or a Liam Mellows or a Pearse.”

Bobby threw himself into the new education regime. When he was not in classes or debating in the yard, Tomboy Loudon often found him lying on the bed in the cubicle they now shared in the Gaeltacht hut, holding a book by Che Guevara in his right hand and writing notes on the partition wall with the pen he held in his left. He began to organise notebooks on “guerrilla struggle” and “the Cuban revolution”.

Bobby and the others developed from a near childish understanding of politics to a relatively mature political analysis. They were under the guidance of the new leadership but they achieved the transition by learning from each other. Learning came through participation and debate and not through lecturing and the handing down of “truth” by a “teacher” of superior intellect.

The debate that had the strongest effect on Bobby Sands began when Gerry Adams organised a series of critical discussions of Sinn Féin’s central policy document called Éire Nua. What began with a critical analysis of existing policy ended as a full-blown radical alternative that Adams called “active abstentionism” — that is, abstention from the existing structures of mainstream politics while actively creating an alternative that combined grass-roots democracy with military resistance to British rule.

Adams encouraged wide-ranging discussions of people’s councils and grass-roots politics, always with an eye toward how a more democratic and participatory grass-roots strategy could be incorporated into the republican campaign outside of prison. The prisoners discussed how military struggle alone was an inadequate basis for bringing about progressive social change; it had also to be political struggle, a struggle to create something and not just a fight against the Brits. But how could you do this and still adhere to one of the movement’s sacred cows: the policy of abstaining from elections?

Just because the movement did not participate in elections, they decided, did not mean it must avoid politics. Rather, it had to build an alternative administration, particularly in “war zones” where the IRA enjoyed widespread grass-roots support and where the state failed to provide adequate services.

Adams incorporated the main points of these discussions in a series of articles under the pseudonym “Brownie” in Republican News. In time, this would be his most lasting influence on Bobby Sands, not just in terms of what he wrote but also by demonstrating that the written word could be an effective tool of struggle. If, in time, Bobby Sands became the leading republican propagandist through his own writings — prose, essays, songs, and poetry — he was following the example of Adams. In Adams, Sands found a role model to help him complete his personal journey toward becoming a politicised militant.

Mellows was the Irish revolutionary that Bobby came to admire most. He was one of four republican leaders who the Southern Irish government executed in December 1922, in reprisal for an IRA shooting of a member of the Dublin parliament. The four were executed without trial, by cabinet decision, even though they were all in jail when the politician was shot. Mellows, just 27 years old, was the most radical republican of his time.

Mellows’ writings contained thoughts about building alternative republican structures as a challenge to the existing government of his day.

“Where is the government of the republic?” he wrote. “It must be found… It is, and must always be, a reality.”

By this, Mellows meant that alternative structures of government had to be built, including courts, land settlements, decrees, etc. Now, the prisoners in Cage 11 explored whether a similar opportunity to “find” the republic existed in the North of Ireland. People in the nationalist communities had “opted out” of the British system, providing a real opportunity to build alternative structures of local governance. As Adams summarised their discussions, “… the building of alternatives cannot wait until ‘after the war’. It must start now.”

And this was not just a military war; it was also necessary to fight the British on economic, political, and cultural fronts. Now was the time to build “people’s organisations” because they could harness the energy that “only a people at war possess”.

Volunteers like Bobby could build the alternative. In every neighbourhood, they could work with people to govern themselves. They might even organise parallel community councils in the three or four big nationalist areas in Belfast, complete with departments to provide services. Far from being an alternative to armed struggle, such a programme of community action would strengthen the IRA’s war effort.

Again, as Adams wrote: “If we have only a local unit in an area, the Brit wins by isolating or removing that unit from the people. If the unit is part of an aggressive republican or people’s resistance structure (local people’s councils), the Brit must remove everyone connected, from schoolchildren to customers in the co-ops, from paper sellers to street committees, before he can defeat us. Immersed in the structure, as part of the alternative, republicanism can’t be isolated and will never be defeated.”

Bobby Sands was excited by this kind of talk. Here was the kind of project that he could work with, a revolutionary project that was Irish in character and origins, yet reflected the kind of militant politics that he had been reading about in the books by Latin American revolutionaries.

In Mellows, he found an Irish revolutionary spirit that he had earlier located in men and women from other countries. In Gerry Adams, he found a mentor who had practical suggestions about a way forward. Here was something that he could take from Long Kesh and put into practice back in Twinbrook.

Tomorrow’s excerpt describes the end of the first hunger strike in 1980.

Bobby Sands book launches:
Belfast: Thursday, March 9 at 7pm, St Mary’s College, Falls Road.
Dublin: Friday, March 10 at 7pm, Pádraig Pearse Centre, Pearse Street.
Dundalk and Drogheda: Monday, March 13. Details to be confirmed.
Derry, Tuesday, March 14. Details to be confirmed.
Mid-Ulster, Wednesday, March 15 at 7pm, Mid-Ulster Republican Centre, Gulladuff.

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