``I don't think I have ever gotten over that year''
Danny Morrison - Memories of 1981
In the second of his series of articles on the 1981 Hunger Strike, Eoin O'Broin talks to Danny Morrison about his role as Sinn Féin spokesperson during that period.
Danny Morrison, a former editor of An Phoblacht and Sinn Féin spokesperson during the hunger strikes of 1980 and 1981, played a central role both within Sinn Féin and publicly throughout the struggle for political status. Following the establishment of the National H Block/Armagh Committee, a new emphasis was placed on securing the five demands of clothing, association, remission, no prison work and education. After four years of the Blanket and No Wash protests, the situation for the prisoners was reaching a crisis point.
Throughout 1980, Morrison was the Sinn Féin liaison with the prisoners in Long Kesh, working with Bobby Sands, who had responsibility for publicity. Morrison recalls: ``At this time I was quite aware that if the campaign for political status failed we would be faced with the demand for a hunger strike from the prisoners.'' And he was right. By the start of the autumn of 1980, Brendan Hughes, OC of the prisoners in Long Kesh, informed Morrison that the hunger strike would begin by October.
I had this really divided feeling of intense love, intense loyalty and solidarity but at the same time this selfish side of your personality which was saying, thank fuck it's not me
``We had great difficulty to mobilise initially, although we got incredibly large numbers out in the end,'' recalls the former publicity director. The strike provided a focus for both campaigners and the media, as well as the international community. But for Morrison, who visited the prison and witnessed at first hand the impact on the men, emotions were more mixed. ``On one Sunday night, I went in to see Sean McKenna with his mother, and he had just lost his sight. The doctor was trying to put pressure on his mother, but Sean was adamant that he should not be taken off the fast.''
During this time, there was ongoing direct contact between Sinn Féin and the British government and ``the Brits were saying that they were going to offer a progressive regime including the prisoners' own clothes, and a staged approach to the other demands.
``We received a document which was the text of a speech which Humphrey Atkins was prepared to give the following day if the Hunger Strike was called off. It was not an entirely satisfactory situation. It was late in the evening when the document arrived. It was sent in to the prisoners, they called the strike off, and we called a press conference at midnight. Already by that stage, the Brits were on the offensive, saying that the Hunger Strikers had caved in.''
Despite the fact that a solution to the political status issue was within grasp, the British government was more interested in attacking and defeating the republican movement than it was in resolving the issue in a manner acceptable to both sides. Thatcher had offered a deal only to renege on its contents for narrow propaganda purposes. The stage was already set for the second Hunger Strike.
After the end of the first hunger strike, Danny Morrison was banned from the jail. His last visit was with Bobby Sands, and at that point, only one day after the first strike had ended, Sands was talking about a second strike. This was the last conversation Morrison was to have with Sands.
The second Hunger Strike was announced to begin on 1 March 1981. For Morrison, there was a more serious atmosphere the second time around. The unwillingness of the Thatcher administration to work for a solution, the triumphalism of the prison warders and the propaganda during January and February 1981 made the prisoners determined to make any second strike achieve their demands. Whatever naïvete may have existed during October 1980 had vanished by the time Bobby Sands began his hunger strike, and in his heart Morrison knew that this time friends and comrades would die before political status was achieved.
Morrison recalls a passage from Ernie O'Malley's book `On Another Mans Wound', which describes meeting a man who O'Malley instantly knew to be special: ``Sands was like that; I had that emotion and feeling when with Sands; he was extremely determined, nothing would deter him and the Brits wouldn't be able to break him.''
In July 1981, two months after Bobby Sands died and two days before Joe McDonnell died, Morrison had his first visit to Long Kesh and met with the hunger strikers. He recalls his feelings at that time: ``I had this really divided feeling of intense love, intense loyalty and solidarity but at the same time this selfish side of your personality which was saying, thank fuck it's not me. And after I got out of the visit you just thanked God you were alive. And that memory has always stayed with me.''
Morrison recalls: ``Throughout the second hunger strike, we were getting reports that the British Foreign Office were panicking and divided over what to do, but Thatcher was adamant that no concessions would be made.'' Throughout this period, the Press Office on the Falls Road was open 24 hours a day and Morrison and others slept, worked and lived from it. The level of mobilisation across the country was massive and the Hunger Strike was having ``an electrifying impact on the consciousness of people at home and abroad''. The campaign and election of Bobby Sands was the high point of the period.
However, as the hunger strike came to a close with the manipulation of families by members of the Catholic Church and others, it was clear that although the five demands were not going to be delivered overnight, both the British government and the prison administration were broken. It would only be a matter of time before the five demands, and indeed full political status, would be a reality.
Morrison, speaking about the impact of the period on his life said: ``I don't think I have ever gotten over that year. I even find it hard talking about it because it brings back a lot of emotions. I had the job of going around to tell the families that their sons were going on hunger strike. It is still a very powerful memory and it changed everybody, because you could never match up to those people.''