07 May 2006

Hunger strikes changed everything

Sunday Business Post

**This is one of the best comments on the hunger strikes I have read

By Tom McGurk
07 May 2006

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usTwenty-five years ago last Friday, the death of the honourable member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Bobby Sands, took all of us to places where, we hope, we will never have to go again. In many ways, even a generation on, the journey back continues.

All Irish people are products of our turbulent history. Though we may not be always aware of this, we are indelibly marked by it. The hunger strike by IRA and INLA prisoners in Long Kesh unleashed elemental responses in all of us that we hardly knew existed.

Was it mere emotion or was it race memory? Whether in support of them or bitterly opposed to them, those Jesus-like figures with their beards and blankets, looking gloomily out at us from the scene of their own desolation, set off these little drums.

Sixty years after partition, with the hunger striker deaths, the North crossed an emotional Rubicon and there was no way it could ever go back to being ‘the last colony’ again. I think the long-term effects were as significant for the politics of Ireland as were the events of 1916 in its time; if 1916 redefined for the Irish the exact nature of their colonial relationship, so too did 1981 for the North.

Indeed, as the Easter Rising changed the political expectations and the self-esteem of nationalist Ireland, the tide flowing from the hunger strike deaths profoundly changed everything it washed over.

Thankfully, the populist tide behind the hunger strikers eventually swept the republican movement away from its ghettoised armed resistance and into full-scale political organisation. That, in turn, created the ceasefire and the window of political opportunity for Dublin and London to arrive at the Good Friday Agreement.

Of course, the structures are not erected, but they are finished, neatly stowed and ready to go.

Like so many turning points in history, the hunger strikes began almost by accident.

But it was an accident waiting to happen. After a stroke of a Westminster pen turned ‘special status’ into ‘criminalisation’ one midnight in March 1976, a young man called Kieran Nugent from west Belfast happened to be first into the new prison regime.

Handed regulation prison clothes, he said: ‘‘You’ll have to nail them to my back.

“I won’t wear that.”

He was led naked into his punishment cell for breaking the rules. As the warder slammed the door, Nugent picked up a blanket and draped it around himself, hardly imagining what he was about to unleash.

Given that republicans fought a civil war over an invisible oath and subsequently ended it by the expedient method of pushing away the Bible as they signed the book in the Dail, who could underestimate the significance of symbolism? The answer, of course, was those who had always underestimated it.

Colonisation, in essence, is a process of reclassification. The weapons of language, such as the renaming of places, tangle dangerously with the semantics of the self.

In May 1920, the British prime minister David Lloyd George, in the face of the rapidly escalating War of Independence, called in Sir Warren Fisher, head of the British civil service, for an expert investigation and report on the crisis in Ireland.

Fisher’s subsequent report lit a torch under British policy in Ireland and, when that war reached its stalemate, it became instrumental in framing the treaty settlement.

Fisher described the then banning of Sinn Fein as an ‘‘indescribable folly’’ and wrote that British government policy was continually ‘‘expanding the area of conflict’’ and making universal martial law inevitable - ‘‘a counsel of despair’’.

Plus ca change...55 years later, when ‘‘criminalisation and ulsterisation’’ were brought in as an attempt to obscure the historical and political roots of the Northern conflict, the prison blanket became the dramatic signifier. By simple historical arithmetic, accepting prison rules equalled accepting criminalisation, accepting the legitimacy of the state and accepting the partition of Ireland.

So the blanket-men moved onto a planet of their own imaginary status. In their own Dantean hell, they sang for five years, wrapped only in blankets, lying in pools of urine on the floor, and with their faeces smeared on the wall, they endured years of deprivation – smashed windows, appalling food, anal searches, beatings, forced baths and 24-hour confinement.

They learned Irish, hid contraband in their anuses and survived by wrapping themselves up in a remarkable collegiality.

At night, each of them would take turns to educate or entertain the rest in the semidarkness, lit only by the glowing yellow fluorescent security lights. They would stand at their cell doors and shout out a ‘spiff’ on anything they knew about: eel-fishing on Lough Neagh, Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, the Gaelic poets of south Armagh, the Belfast blitz, making musical instruments, the history of Gaelic football, Trotsky and so on.

They sang songs and recited poetry.

Like shipwreck survivors cast onto the waters in an open boat, they had only themselves and what they were made of to ensure their survival.

But this subtext was always heading for a Greek drama: in the end, they knew only too well the disappearing contours of their own cul de sac. They had to end the protest for their own survival. And hunger strike was always going to be their last, desperate weapon to avoid capitulation.

What had begun as a row about prison rules had now become a battle of wills between the British government and the IRA. The blanketmen, whether by accident or design, had suddenly found themselves at the epicentre of what war is essentially about – who was unbreakable.

Ever since the partition of the North, the state had been underwritten by a massive armed force. Stormont had maintained, between regular and part-time security forces of over 40,000. In the early years, as the south plunged into civil war, loyalist attacks on nationalist areas displaced thousands and sent them fleeing south.

After that war was won, state-organised discrimination in housing, voting and jobs eventually smashed the morale of the nationalist community. Abandoned also by the south, despite the rhetoric, they were a broken people.

In the years that followed, cycles of internments, and the Special Powers Act, ensured the underlying armed status quo, while above the ground, single-party rule ensured social, economic and cultural disparity.

The discovery that, in the end, the hunger strikers were unbreakable, changed everything for the community from which they came. As they died, that secret context that had defined the Northern nationalist mentality since the foundation of the state disappeared.

Along with their emaciated bodies, their communities came out in their thousands and buried their emaciated past alongside them. In the primeval contest that the subtext of the North charged this event with, in the end, their deaths indelibly changed everything.

Image detail from CAIN - Postcards by Peter Moloney

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