07 May 2006

Lasting legacy of the H-Block hunger strikers

Sunday Business Post

By Vincent Browne
07 May 2006

Bobby Sands had a more telling influence on Irish affairs than he could have anticipated. It was also an influence that he may not have welcomed.

His decision to die in the struggle for ‘political status’ for republican prisoners has resulted in the peace process we enjoy today and that has involved the expiration of the organisation he served and died for.

It was Roy Mason, secretary of state for Northern Ireland in James Callaghan’s Labour government of the late 1970s who removed political status for republican prisoners.

At the time, IRA suspects were systematically tortured, a tactic which almost defeated the IRA. Indeed, during the 1980 and 1981 hunger strikes, the IRA was in disarray. It was losing volunteers and arms at an alarming rate. Its capacity to continue the ‘struggle’ was being diminished.

Parallel with the attrition on the outside, a crisis was emerging within the prison for the republican movement over the removal of political status.

There was talk of a hunger strike from 1979 onwards, and the prospect of a hunger strike was viewed with apprehension by the IRA leadership for a simple reason.

A hunger strike would divert the focus and energies of the movement from the armed ‘struggle’, and the IRA leadership would have, and could have, no control over the course of the hunger strike.

A hunger strike was always going to be a matter for the prisoners and, more particularly for the hunger strikers themselves. The IRA leadership could order the prisoners and the hunger strikers to a course of action but, in reality, the IRA leadership had no control over what was happening in the prisons. It should also be remembered that three of the hunger strikers who died were INLA members.

I had known several IRA leaders over the previous decades, and they all had expressed opposition to hunger strikes. They feared the movement as a whole would be hijacked by hunger strikers and the ‘struggle’ could be compromised by a failed hunger strike.

I recall talking to the person who was leader of the IRA in 1980 and 1981, and he was hugely apprehensive about the prison protest. Of course, he was opposed to the removal of political status, but he believed a hunger strike would inevitably fail and that the movement as a whole would be damaged.

The removal of political status was a major issue for republicans because it depicted their ‘struggle’ as ‘criminal’.

Prisoners could do little in jail to help the cause, but at least they could resist the criminalisation of the ‘war’ and they could and would resist it irrespective of the views, preferences or commands of the leadership outside.

There was an objective absurdity to the removal of political status for IRA prisoners, and it was that objective absurdity that involved many outside the ambit of the republican movement to support the demands of the hunger strikers.

Prisoners were in jail because of their involvement in activities that manifestly had a political purpose, whatever one thought of the purpose or of the activities engaged in to advance that purpose. So, manifestly these were political prisoners.

Aside from this, there was the reality that the prison authorities regarded these prisoners as different from other prisoners. They had allowed republican prisoners to operate independently within the prisons.

They even allowed them to have their own leadership with whom the prison authorities negotiated on a regular basis.

Furthermore, outside the jail, the authorities negotiated in secret with the leadership of the movement, both with regard to prison conditions and other matters.

So, the claim that this was not a political struggle and that the people involved in it were not engaged in political action was absurd.

The contention that the hunger strike was manipulated from the outside by Gerry Adams and others is another absurdity.

Adams was opposed to the hunger strike at the time, although he does not now acknowledge this. He was opposed to it for political and tactical reasons, but as the hunger strike went on, he was opposed to it for personal reasons as well, for he was close to one of the hunger strikers, Joe McDonnell.

I write this not on the basis of any recent conversation with Adams, but on memories of the conversations I had with him at the time.

It is true that the British government offered to meet almost all the demands of the hunger strikers and that that convinced the IRA leadership to support the ending of the hunger strike.

But the leadership did not want to get caught in another breach of faith: the British had acceded to these demands in the face of another hunger strike the previous Christmas, but they then reneged on these concessions after the hunger strike was over.

The IRA leadership, who were in direct contact with Northern Ireland Office officials at the time, wanted the officials to go into the jail and tell prisoners face-to-face that the demands were being met, but the Northern Ireland Office refused to sanction that.

In agreeing to stand in the Fermanagh South Tyrone by election of April 1981, Sands was breaking the fixed strategy of the republican movement of the time. They were opposed to contesting elections and even opposed to supporting candidates from outside the movement who supported many of the objectives of it.

For instance, there was a bitter conflict with Bernadette McAliskey in 1979 when she stood in Mid-Ulster in the Westminster elections in support of the prisoners’ demands.

The republican movement forbade its members to support her and discouraged its supporters from voting for her.

But Sands broke through that. His success in that election followed by the success in the by-election that followed his death of his election agent, Owen Carron, catapulted the republican movement into the political arena.

It started the process whereby the armalite was eventually abandoned for the ballot paper.

Arguably, without Sands’ sacrifice, there would have been no peace process, no Good Friday Agreement and no abandonment of the armed struggle, at least not in the timeframe that all these things have happened.

Yet Sands was a terrorist, though that word does not capture all there was about him.

He was loyal, committed and courageous - loyal to his comrades, committed to the republican cause and courageous in the face of death.

He might have joined his sisters in being appalled at what flowed from his sacrifice. Most of the rest of us are or should be grateful to him.


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