Then and Now: 1980 Hunger Sriker Raymond McCartney
In an interview with An Phoblacht, former Republican POW and H Block hunger striker Raymond McCartney spoke of his experiences on `the Blanket' and outlined the situation in the H Blocks in the run up to the first hunger strike, which began on 27 October 1980, 20 years ago this week.
McCartney, a former OC of the republican prisoners in Long Kesh who now works with the Derry-based ex-prisoners group, Tar Abhaile, also expressed his views on the development of republican strategy since the hunger strikes.
On 12 January 1979, McCartney and fellow republican prisoner Eamon `Doc' MacDermott were sentenced to life imprisonment and sent to the H Blocks.
Arriving in the H Blocks the next day, McCartney, explaining his apprehension upon arriving in Long Kesh, said: ``The stories coming out of Long Kesh at the time were frightening and we were expecting to be beaten at every point of contact with the screws. We were sent, however, to H5, which we knew wasn't the worst Block and we were relieved to arrive there unscathed.
The experiences of the blanket protest, culminating in the deaths of the ten men, had a lasting effect on us all. I believe it provided the dynamic on which the prison struggle was based right up to the releases on 28 July of this year
``In the `Circle' we were stripped and handed a towel and brought to our cell. Within 30 seconds a voice, coming through the pipes, made contact with us. That night we were `given an RD', - briefed on what was happening in the Block - and I suppose we just settled in after that.''
The Derryman explained that even at that time, after three years of protest, the general mood was that the only way to resolve the protest was through hunger strike. Despite the view from the prison, however, the leadership was resisting a hunger strike. So when the Pope visited in 1979 and there was an expectation that he would comment on the prison situation, talk of a hunger strike was put on the long finger.
When the Pope didn't say anything, talk again turned to hunger strike. Yet when the late Cardinal Ó Fiaich and Bishop Daly from Derry engaged in a series of meetings with the then British Secretary of State, Humphrey Atkins, hope was held out that the protest could be resolved short of hunger strike.
It can be annoying to hear people, who know otherwise, say that no provision is made for discussion and debate. People do oppose the strategy but they have singularly failed to make the argument to counter it and provide a viable alternative
With the collapse of these talks, mostly due to British duplicity, hunger strike became, said Raymond, ``almost inevitable''.
Reluctantly, the prisoners decided to go on Hunger Strike. Raymond was one of those who, after a great deal of `soul searching', volunteered.
I find it disgraceful when former comrades revert to tabloid-type cliches, and trot out the Armani suits, big houses, big salaries stuff
After being selected to go on the strike, along with six others, Raymond had a visit from his parents who expressed their backing: ``They said that if I was prepared go on the hunger strike for what I believed then they were prepared to support me.''
On 1 December women prisoners in Armagh jail joined in on the strike. After 37 days, the seven male hunger strikers were moved to the hospital wing, but it was clear that Sean McKenna was deteriorating quicker than the six others.
``After 40+ days it was clear that something was happening behind the scenes; a priest who was acting as a `go between' would have been in and out of the hospital wing more often,'' McCartney recalls.
``On 18 December, the priest came in at midday and immediately after he left, `The Dark' (Brendan Hughes, OC of the H Block prisoners at the time), explained that the British had produced a document that could be the basis of a settlement and that he was relatively content that the priest would develop a working settlement from the document.
``It was around tea time that night when the priest left to meet the British representatives to get the document and as everyone believed the document was the basis of an agreement, the hunger strikers, after consultation with the Camp Staff, called off their protest and demanded immediate medical attention for Sean McKenna, who was critically ill.
``It was against this backdrop of British duplicity that the stage was set for the 1981 Hunger Strike.''
Phoblacht: Looking back now at the events of 20 years ago, can you share your thoughts on that period and the intervening years?
Raymond McCartney: It remains a source of great disappointment that the first stailc did not achieve its stated objective of achieving a settlement to the blanket protest, despite the optimism that the `document' provided.
I have linked the experience to that of the footballer, who through no fault of his own drops the ball and someone else comes behind you, picks it up and carries it forward. Ten other men took up that challenge and in doing so made the ultmate sacrifice. One of the most enriching aspects of all this was the great comradeship shown by everyone at the time and since. I have never heard a whisper of personal criticism directed at any of us. The first time I used the footbal analogy in a public forum was at a function in the GAA club in Ardoyne. Immediately after the event, a former blanket man said to me that it was not a case of dropping the ball but more that it was punched out of your hands. That to me best epitomises the comradeship of that period and I regret it when republicans diminish themselves by showing no regard to basic comradeship.
One of the things that I often reflect on was this feeling of thinking I was being single-minded or focused, when in actual fact it bordered on being selfish. I took a decision to go on hunger strike without a single word of discussion with my family, never asking them how it would affect them. It was as if I know what I am doing, why I am doing it, and nobody or nothing else matters. Indeed, because of the lack of visits prior to going on hunger strike, I announced my intentions to a brother and two sisters-in-law, who were asked to inform my parents. Thankfully, the starting date was put back a week and I was able to speak to my parents and try in some way to explain it to them. There was an enormous burden put on families. I have much to be grateful to my family for, and consequently I have an immense appreciation and respect for the families of all those who went on hunger strike with me and in partcular the families who experienced the 1981 stailc.
I have no doubt that the experiences of the blanket protest, culminating in the deaths of the ten men, had a lasting effect on us all. I believe it provided the dynamic on which the prison struggle was based right up to the releases on 28 July of this year. It was our task to have in place conditions that befitted our political imprisonment, and it is with a degree of pride and contentment that I can state that we achieved those conditions and more. No one was required to tell us that we were political prisoners but the release programme under the Good Friday Agreement was a very public admission of that by the London and Dublin governments.
It is difficult at times to explain what the experience of Long Kesh has meant to me. The night before I was released, Jim `Flash' McVeigh made the traditional farewell speech to me in the canteen. When I was asked to speak, I think for the first time in my life (and I hear all those who know me say that it was the only time) I could not speak a word. At that moment, I realised that despite the obvious feeling of happiness that I was going home after 18 years, I was leaving behind me what had been an important part of my life. I took with me many valuable lessons and I hope that I have used them to good stead since returning home to Derry.
AP: You were released in 1994. What is your assessment of the current political strategy and how people have related to it?
RMcC: One of the things that I have noticed since my release in 1994, which coincided with the first cessation, is the level of debate among activists and for the want of a better word, among the base. People are not afraid to articulate their concerns, and do so in a very strident manner. I have witnessed this for myself at numerous public meetings I have attended in my travels around the place as the chair of Coiste na nIarchimí and in less formal settings.
Republicans are aware of what is at stake here and are not shy at voicing their concerns and searching out the answers to those concerns. In Derry I suppose we have been fortunate, in that Martin McGuinness and Mitchel McLaughlin, who have been at the core of this strategy since its inception, have made themselves available for the public meetings and take every oppertunity open to them to explain the various twists and turns that come with this political process.
So, it can be annoying to hear people, who know otherwise, say that no provision is made for discussion and debate. People do oppose the strategy but they have singularly failed to make the argument to counter it and provide a viable alternative. Sometimes, rather than accept this, they use as cover the excuse that discussion and debate does not take place, and run to a ready made audience in certain sections of the media. I suppose it is a lot easier to be a self-pronounced intellectual and point out to the rest of us where we are going wrong again and again.
I discovered in the blocks, as part of a collective leadership, that for every situation there will be three or four varying options as to what is the best way forward. Ultimately, only one can be pursued and the role of a leadership is to determine which one to employ, and to ensure that it is pursued to its optimum and in the best interests of the struggle.
A god example of this was in the summer of 1982, when the leadership in the Blocks, in consultation with the leadership on the outside, decided that the best way to secure the remaining unresolved demands from the hunger strike was to enter ``into the system''. This was less than a year after the deaths of ten commrades, and a big part of that debate was the soul-searching queston: Was entering ``into the system'' a betrayal of the hunger strikers? There were men who opposed the strategy. They did so in a cogent and disciplined manner but never permitted emotion to cloud their analysis. In my own opinion, good leadership was provided and rather than being curtailed by the here and now, a long term view was taken and what unfolded over the years is testimony to that judgement.
Of course, no two situations are identical and I am not trying to compare like with like. However, the underlying principle is clear: that one should critically analyse the situation as it is, not as you want it to be, and act accordingly.
There is no real measure as to the level of political awareness but to me the drive and commitment shown in five elections in the North and two in the South is one indicator of the belief in the current strategy. If people did not believe in the direction of this struggle then it would be noticed, not in the number of votes won on the day of an election, but in the number of people, and in their work rate, who came together to make up the election machine.
I have no doubt that the current strategy is the correct one and one which has strengthened the struggle qualitatively. Like any new initiative, it came with parts that required persuasion and explanation.
As I have stated earlier, there are those who are opposed to the current strategy and that is fine. They are entitled to articulate that opposition. However, what I will say, and I say it very clearly, is that I find it disgraceful when former comrades revert to tabloid-type cliches, and trot out the Armani suits, big houses, big salaries stuff. One of the major reasons why I find it disgraceful is that I personally know a number of women who for the last 20 years or more have worked noght and day for wages well below any semblance of a minimum wage to allow their partners to continue working unimpeded in this struggle. It is a bit much to read otherwise in the columns of the Sunday Observer and the like.
Over the last 20 years, various media outlets have interviewed me, but none of them have ever offered me the facility of an unedited column. Yes, I am a bit cynical that it appears relatively easy to acquire the column inches if you are prepared to be critical of the Sinn Féin leadership and the quality of their suits. There were few column inches 20 years ago for any of us to explain why we were embarking on the hunger strike.
In recent days, you have former prisoners actually taking part in felon-setting in what appears to be a desperate attempt to grab the media's attention. It was very noticeable that their ``initiative'' did not recieve a mention from one of their well-known allies in the Sunday Tribune. When you are not popular, you are not popular!
If people can only mount a position using this type of nonsense, then it is difficult to take their criticisms in any light other than chip on the shoulder stuff or trying to fight a battle which they lost within themselves a long time ago.
Hunger Strike meetings
Belfast Sinn Féin is hosting a public commemorative debate on Friday 27 October at 7pm in Conway Mill in West Belfast. The debate is the first in a series of events commemorating the 20th anniversary of the 1980 hunger strike.
1981 Hunger Strike OC Brendan `Bik' McFarlane will be the main speaker at a public meeting in Dublin the same night at 8pm in the Irish Film Centre, Temple Bar. Other speakers include Sean Crowe, Finian McGrath and Vincent Doherty.