03 March 2006

Prisoners’ resolve is strengthened in the face of increasing adversity

Daily Ireland

In the fifth excerpt from the Denis O’Hearn biography Bobby Sands: Nothing But an Unfinished Song, the brutality of the screws makes a second hunger strike inevitable


On the morning of New Year’s Day, Bobby’s family visited him. He intended to tell them that he would be leading a new hunger strike. But he couldn’t. Instead, he asked Adams to get someone to tell them.

Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.usA week later, Bobby was finalising the details of a new hunger strike where he would undoubtedly be the first to die. He even sent out a short biography of himself for use in publicity. Threats of a hunger strike began to have an effect on the authorities, however. On January 15, Governor Hilditch came to Bobby’s cell to talk to him about the situation. He said he needed some time to think about how to respond to the prisoners’ offer to come off of the no-wash protest in order to test how far the authorities would change the regime. He asked for a week’s moratorium on any new protest by the prisoners while he considered the situation. (click photo to view)

Bobby gave the governor one further by saying that “as an indication of our good will and willingness and sincerity” he would move ten men from his own wing and ten others from H5 off of the no-wash protest. They would wash, shave, and slop out. Bobby and Bik MacFarlane thought that they, too, could use a bit of time to re-examine their position. In the meantime, they could test what Hilditch meant when he told Sands that the “prison regime was not static and was indeed developing”.

The blanketmen gave Governor Hilditch his week. A wing of prisoners from H3 (Bobby’s wing) and another from H5 (Séanna Walsh’s wing) moved into clean cells with furniture and beds. They began washing. Bobby sent out word to the families to bring their clothes the following Friday. If the governor let them in, things could proceed further, step-by-step. If the authorities failed this first test, protest would be back on the agenda.

Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.usDid Bobby seriously think that the prison authorities would move on the clothing issue? Clearly not. Rather, he had to prove to his own people that he had gone the last mile before calling on them to mobilise once again for a hunger strike. By taking the step of moving into clean wings and forcing the governor’s hand, Bobby’s primary goal may have been to move his own comrades, not his enemies. (click photo to view)

After shaves and haircuts, the prisoners were new men.

“Bed’s breaking my back,” Bobby wrote Liam Óg. “We’re not used to such comforts . . . writing on a table is strange, sitting on a chair. Men saw themselves in the mirror last week for the first time in almost three years. It was frightening, especially for Rasputin, or I mean Bik.”

Beginning on Friday, January 23, families arrived at Long Kesh with packages of clothes. On Sunday, Bobby sent a message to Séanna Walsh to have his men ready for Tuesday night. If they did not have their own clothes by then, they would smash their furniture and trash their cells at 9pm. He wrote to the movement, telling them his plans for Tuesday night. They were not amused. Liam Óg frantically sent comms to Bobby on Monday and Tuesday, instructing him to call off the protest. Bobby got the comms but he never gave Walsh the message.

“The sagart [priest] didn’t appear,” he wrote to Liam Óg as an excuse for not passing on his instructions.

Technically, this was true. But the missing priest was convenient. Bik MacFarlane is definitive that he and Bobby decided to send a clear signal to the authorities that they “meant business”. They also wanted to put their own people into a clear frame for action.

The movement was on a completely different wavelength. They thought that smashing the furniture was the beginning of a transition period back into the dirty protest. They were so opposed to the second hunger strike that they did not realise how far into that strategy the prisoners had already moved.

Tuesday came and there were no clothes. Since Séanna Walsh had not heard the instruction to cancel the protest, Bobby decided he also had to go ahead. He wrote the movement that “H5 were going to move. So, rather than halt on the move, we all moved”.

At nine o’clock on Tuesday night “the lads gave the furniture the message”. They broke up their wooden beds, the tables, and chairs. Some tried to break out their windows. After half an hour, ten warders came to Bobby’s wing. Whatever the prisoners expected, what happened was even worse. The warders moved them from B-wing to C-wing, and “they didn’t allow them to walk over, instead they grabbed them by the hair and run them over, kicking and punching the whole time”.

According to Bobby, six men were thrown over a table. The cheeks of their behinds were torn apart by screws.

“Comrade, this is sexual assault,” he wrote to Liam Óg.

The same thing was happening over in H5. The screws organised a gauntlet between the clean wing and the dirty wing. Each prisoner was beaten to a pulp as he ran from his clean cell to the new dirty cell. Men who were waiting to be moved listened to the shouting and the screaming, waiting in horror for their own turn. Bobby described the scene that awaited them: “C-wing has just been vacated . . . The cells were bogging, covered in excreta, also puddles of water on cell floors where the cleaner had begun work.”

The prisoners were left in darkness in filthy cells, with no water to drink, no beds, and “not even a bloody blanket”. All they had was the towel they wore around their waist. The men who went through that night agree that it was the worst night of their lives. They were freezing. They were sore. And it was one thing to live in your own shit; being thrown into another man’s shit was positively sickening.

Bobby organised a singsong to keep them going. Each man walked up and down his cell, trying to keep warm, singing along to the songs. But before long, they’d had enough. They just tried to concentrate on getting some heat into themselves – walking up and down, sitting down and then getting up, rubbing their bodies and hopping from foot to foot. But Bobby kept going, trying to take everyone’s mind off of the conditions. All night long he just kept up a constant banter, singing away on his own, shouting down: “Are you all right? C’mon boys!”

All night, while Bobby kept up their spirits, prisoners rang the buzzers to call the warders. No one came. One prisoner took sick twice in the middle of the night but no one came to help. It was eight o’ clock the next morning before the warders came back on the wing. When they arrived, six men had to go to the doctor.

The PO finally came at 10am and gave the men, in Bobby’s words, “half a fuckin’ blanket each!” The governor came at 11am. Each man asked for a complaint form so that their lawyer could charge Governor Hilditch with breaches of prison rules. That afternoon, the warders left the dinner sitting until it was cold and then distributed it to the men. It was nearly 1:30am when they finally received bedding.

“We sat all night naked, up until five minutes ago, before the bastards found it in themselves to give us blankets and mattresses,” Bobby complained to Liam Óg. “The boys are exhausted, the wing’s like a morgue, all asleep . . . I’m away for a sleep, think I’m sleeping now!”

Tomorrow’s excerpt describes how Bobby Sands informed his family about the next hunger strike.

Bobby Sands book launches:
Belfast: Thursday, March 9, 7pm, St Mary’s College, Falls Road.
Dublin: Friday, March 10, 7pm, Pádraig Pearse Centre, Pearse Street.
Dundalk and Drogheda: Monday, March 13, Barlow House, Drogheda, 5.30pm; Imperial Hotel, Dundalk, 8pm.
Derry, Tuesday, March 14. Details to be confirmed.
Mid-Ulster, Wednesday, March 15, 7pm, Mid-Ulster Republican Centre, Gulladuff.

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