23 April 2006

Remembering Bobby Sands

Village Magazine

by Gerry Adams
** From Thursday, January 12, 2006

It was around this time in early January 1981 that Bobby Sands sent word to me that it was his intention to go on hunger strike. This was at least the second time he had expressed this intention. The first time was immediately after the first hunger strike ended in 1980. That was just before Christmas. At that time Bobby made it clear that he did not believe that the British Government would honour the commitments it had made in a paper presented to the political prisoners. However, after strenuous lobbying from taobh amuigh (outside), he agreed that the prisoners would do everything they could to avoid such a course of action. This meant that they would work with the prison administration to tease out all the outstanding matters which caused the five-year-old prison protests in the H Blocks of Long Kesh and the Women's Prison in Armagh.

Many Irish people of my age, especially those of us who were close to the prisoners or active in support of their demands, probably presume that everyone knows about the hunger strikes of 1981. We tend to ignore the fact that these events happened 25 years ago. So anyone nowadays aged 35 or younger would have only a vague recollection of that time and the awful summer of 1981 when ten men died on hunger strike inside a British prison outside Belfast, while almost 50 other people, including uninvolved civilians, prison officers, republicans and members of the British Crown forces died outside the prison. Among those who died were seven killed by plastic bullets, three of whom were children and one a 30-year-old mother. Hundreds more were seriously injured.

So what do people think about the hunger strikes and the hunger strikers? I have tried to analyse my own feelings many times. Even now, a quarter of a century later, my emotions are still raw. Why is this so? I know many people who died violently in the conflict. Some were close friends.

Most of them were young people. Their deaths were sudden and shocking. Three were relatives. Yet even though I still miss some of them deeply I never feel the same emotion about these deaths as I feel when I think about the men who died in the Blocks.

Perhaps this is because of the bond which grew between us on taobh amuigh and the people on the inside. Maybe it is because of the huge generosity, self-sacrifice and unselfishness of the hunger strikers. Maybe it's because all the other deaths were sudden, usually abrupt and part of a cycle of killings. The hunger strikes were public. In censored times, the prisoners cut through all the spin and disinformation. They put it up to us. Whether we supported the prisoners or not, we became part of the equation. We were forced to take sides with either Thatcher or the prisoners.

The hunger strike deaths polarised Irish society. It was also an indictment of our society and our political representatives, particularly the Irish government of that time, that almost 500 hundred prisoners were held in conditions described by the late Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich after a visit in August 1978 as "the nearest approach to it that I have ever seen was the spectacle of hundreds of homeless people living in the sewer pipes of the slums of Calcutta. The stench and the filth in some of the cells with the remains of rotten food and human excreta scattered around the walls was almost unbearable. The authorities refused to admit that these prisoners are in a different category from the ordinary, yet everything about their trials and family background indicates that they are different."

It is a measure of the maturity of the political prisoners that this happened after the conditions described by Cardinal Ó Fiaich had been endured for five years. These developments were created when the British Government, supported by Dublin, brought in legislation as part of its efforts to criminalise republicans. The securocrats' logic was simple. A struggle could not be depicted as mere wanton criminality, if there were political prisoners (as there were at that time, and I was one of them) who were afforded a special status. So the Mother of all Parliaments decreed that this status would end on 1 March I976. From that point, conflict with the prisoners was inevitable. It became a reality when the first republican prisoner to be sentenced after this date, Kieran Nugent, refused to wear the prison uniform. The rest, as they say, is history.

The first hunger strike, involving women in Armagh prison and men in the H Blocks, started in October 1980. It ended just before Christmas. There existed the basis for a settlement and there was a huge effort by the protesting prisoners to make this a reality. But Bobby was right. Elements within the British system saw the ending of the first hunger strike as a sign of weakness. They saw the prison as a breaker's yard for the republican struggle. Like others today, they had no interest in a settlement.

The second hunger strike started on 1 March 1981. Bobby Sands, then an MP, died on 5 May after 66 days without food. He was followed by Francie Hughes, 59 days; Patsy O Hara, 61 days; Raymond McCreesh, 61 days; Joe McDonnell, 61 days; Martin Hurson, 46 days; Kevin Lynch, 71 days; Kieran Doherty, then a TD, 73 days; Tom McElwee, 62 days; and Michael Devine, 60 days.

After the strike ended, the British Government moved to bring about the prisoners' five demands. The prisoners won, but at a terrible price. Meanwhile, British Government policy, devised by securocrats, had failed.

The hunger strikes were a watershed in modern Irish history. They are credited with accelerating the growth of Sinn Féin. They did much more than that. They helped to create the conditions which later gave birth to the peace process. For that reason, if for no other, at the beginning of another new year and yet another effort to advance the peace process, the events of that time should be studied and discussed by anyone interested in learning lessons of our past. But for the privileged few who knew the hunger strikers, for former Blanket men or Armagh women, for their families and for all of us who worked for the political prisoners, this 25th anniversary of the deaths of the H Block hunger strikers will be a personal as well as a political remembrance.

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