09 March 2006

Immortalised on the lips of old and young

Daily Ireland

**Published 1 March 2006

Danny Morrison

When recalling the 1981 hunger strike, people often preface their memories by saying: “You wouldn’t think it was 25 years ago. It seems like only yesterday.”
Even thirtysomethings who were just five or six in 1981 have vivid recollections of mass funerals and street rioting or of their distraught parents in front of television screens, watching with feelings of helplessness. Or they sensed the anger, the palpable anger of people at the injustice inflicted on the prisoners over so many years and at British double standards even within the same prison.
The hunger strike seems as if it happened just yesterday because those seven months from March to October were of such a magnitude — emotionally, historically, and politically — that they are seared in the memory.
Twenty-five years is a long, long time. For the families of the hunger strikers, it represents a continuum of constant, unmitigated pain, desolation and longing. Their sons experienced not instant death but death stretched out over weeks while they and the families were teased with empty promises and taunted.
I was trying to put an expanse of 25 years into perspective, into an alternative perspective by thinking that, when I was born, my mother was 28 — the same age I was during the hunger strike. Twenty-five years before that, when she was a child, what had been happening in the world around her, in the year 1929? The Wall Street Crash triggered the Great Depression. Penicillin was first used to fight infection. Bingo was invented. The restored GPO in Dublin was officially opened. And the unionist government in the North, not content with its gerrymandering of local government, abolished proportional representation in parliamentary elections.
Twenty-five years has the appearance of being an instant only when it is behind you. Imagine serving a sentence of that length.
There were among our prisoners men and women serving 25 years, 20 years, 14 years, and they were mostly young people. Had they been born into a democracy or normality, they would have established careers, travelled, married, built homes and raised families. In all probability, they would have had long and fulfilling lives.
The real crime was that all of this was stolen from them by a power that does not belong here and has no right to be here.
Under the most liberal prison conditions, even two or three years in jail can crush and represent a lifetime to the alienated social offender. However, it has often been said of political prisoners that they serve time more easily because of their beliefs, because of their selflessness and with the knowledge that they have the support of their community. Strength of conviction, the right of one’s cause, solidarity, sympathy do all offer a degree of succour. But in the end, each individual must draw deep upon personal resources to face the enemy seen and unseen, day and night.
Prison is meant to punish and does punish, and all prisoners suffer, regardless of their status.
In the H-blocks and Armagh women’s prison, we had something especially cruel at work. In the prisons where there was political status, there was little friction between warders and the political prisoners. No prison officers were targets or lost their lives.
However, new standards and no standards applied to the criminalisation programme. Many prison officers were ex-service personnel and had a political axe to grind. Other elements of the prison service, mostly unionist in outlook, became fanatical and behaved as if they were on a crusade. All of them were paid large bounties for working in the protesting blocks and wings of the jails.
They were empowered to break the law, were encouraged to use thuggery in order to capture the big prize — the defeat and humiliation of Irish republicanism.
Their work was showered in lies by British ministers and administration officials, words and propaganda that suited those in society who didn’t want to know or who knew but didn’t let on.
Each time the door of a cell opened, the protesting prisoner faced the threat of a beating if not a battle, and it went on for years and years until the prisoners had had enough and decided to go on hunger strike in support of their demands.
I know that Bobby Sands — who began his hunger strike one quarter of a century ago today, two weeks in front of the other hunger strikers — tends to overshadow his nine comrades. That can be explained by the fact that he was the first to die at a time when the international coverage was at its height. He was a jail veteran, already a well-established leader and prison spokesman. He devised the strategy of the staggered hunger strike. He was elected to the British parliament, and his name has been immortalised by his prose and poetry.
But go to the counties, the local areas, the home places, the townlands of the other hunger strikers; go to Camlough, Galbally, Bellaghy, Dungiven, Derry or Andersonstown, and there you will find each local hunger striker immortalised on the lips of old and young alike, and a fierce pride in the memory of each man and the detail of each man’s life passed down the generations.
So, it began 25 years ago today. The seven-month-long 1981 hunger strike.
At the end of it, Britain took the lives of the hunger strikers but not their spirits.
At the end of it, the jurors of world opinion knew who the real criminals were and the heroes.
At the end of it, there tower ten incredibly courageous Irish men.
Bobby Sands, Frankie Hughes, Raymond McCreesh, Patsy O’Hara, Joe McDonnell, Martin Hurson, Kevin Lynch, Kieran Doherty, Tom McElwee and Mickey Devine.
Now and forever.

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