Organising for struggle - The aftermath of the 1981 Hunger Strike
It was an astonishing story. It mostly happened behind the locked doors of the H Blocks of Long Kesh and so not everyone knows it. Jim McVeigh, released last summer under the early release scheme of the Good Friday Agreement, who had been OC in the blocks, was talking to a meeting of ex-prisoners and republicans, organised by Coiste na n-Iarchimí in Dublin. An Phoblacht's ROISIN DE ROSA was there to hear him share his experience of the prison struggle.
All of us are capable
``How did we go from standing naked in the cells with shite on the walls, to having full control of the wings in the H-Blocks? That's my question. It's not so much history as a way to learn from its lessons: how we got to where we are today, and how we may get to where we want to go tomorrow.
Ray McCreesh was 24 when he died on hunger strike, the second youngest of four brothers and three sisters. He went to technical college, was a sheet metal worker. He was caught in an ambush in Beleeks in June `76. He was 19. There was a shoot-out. He was taken to Bessbrook and charged with attempt to kill. He got 14 years in March 1977. He refused to recognise the court. He refused to conform and forfeited visits. The only time he saw his parents was the one visit he took to tell them he was going on hunger strike.
He was an ordinary person, young, like so many others. They were driven into positions of leadership. Difficult decisions, dealing with opponents, media and propaganda, negotiating with some of the most skilled and duplicitous politicians. The prison protest proved that all of us are capable.
Betrayal of Principle? The end of a phase
The no wash protest was ended. It was a very difficult period. It was hard. Some saw it as a betrayal of those who had died - even a capitulation to defeat. Others saw it as a protracted and indefinite protest which was going nowhere. We decided to end that phase, to move into mixed wings and fight for segregation.
We took a decision to avoid being locked behind the doors.
We fought and won the battle for segregation. It took a year of physical battles, bombs under beds, heavy stuff. It was a very intense period of struggle. The loyalists and crims were moved out.
A small group planned the 1983 escape. A guerrilla lesson is to know the enemy, to know their strengths and weaknesses, so you can concentrate a greater force at their weakest points. We set about to find these out
The screws loved the `dirty protest'. Naked men are vulnerable. But clothed, 30 or 40 men, moving about the wing, and 6 screws then they were outnumbered, intimidated, tension always there. One morning there might suddenly be 30 men around them.
False Sense of Security
The screws believed we'd been defeated, thought that `we can best them, walk all over them'. They were lulled into a false sense of security which opened the way to intelligence gathering. Who were the hard men, who weren't. Who would buckle. Enough information to compromise individuals. We confused them. The escape followed, from what the media described as the highest security prison in Europe.
This led us into a new phase, where the prison staff went on the offensive against republicans. Republicans were forced onto the defensive, against the constant effort to reintegrate the wings. The question was `How do we get the initiative back?' a sense of our own strategy.
Everyone was asked to set objectives, and set what was primary or secondary. Free Association was one. Education was another. It led us to ask questions: What did education mean? Our long term objective - a democratic socialist republic, that was clear, but we set 100 specific demands, from delph plates and steel knives to an end of the lock ups.
Experience told us that under pressure the British would move on some of the demands, a few Mickey Mouse concessions. We identified our primary objectives: end of lock-ups, end of the `red book' system, (where they picked on `high risk' prisoners and shifted them about, wing to wing, every couple of weeks) and the reintroduction of association between the four wings of each H Block.
Reform v Revolution
We decided not to let up until these objectives were won. This led to intense debate, Reform versus revolution. Did accepting concessions weaken our position?
For example, after some six months, they gave us Sony Walkmans - a typical British strategy. There would have been times we'd have said `Fuck off. We demand political status.' Instead it was `That was fantastic, but what about political status'. Where the answer was `No' to our demand, then we contested, we wanted to know why they were refusing so reasonable a demand. We had nothing to fear from accepting concessions, because we never lost sight of our objectives.
Range of Tactics
We needed to plan: what tactics would shift our opponents? This led to an integrated strategy - a range of different tactics, used in a flexible way over time. We drew up a document and gave it to everyone, the Board of Governors, the prison administration, to Church people, to screws, to everyone. We knew we'd not get them.
Then we moved to phase 2, a specific campaign of intimidation and psychological battles, destroying their morale. Maximum pressure on prison staff with minimum pressure on ourselves.
We kept the tension up on the screws, turning it on and off. It led to many nervous breakdowns amongst them. The screws went crying to the governor to concede, complaining they were in fear of their lives.
Then there were things outside of the jail. Perceptions were that the jail was calm. We needed to create a better understanding of how things really were. We decided the `red books' would refuse to move, so, when ten were told to go, one evening, in a coordinated protest, they refused. `This is a peaceful protest. No physical resistance.' So they trussed them up, beat them up, moved them in a van.
We were the victims. People were outraged as the story came out. Propaganda, getting our story out, is always critical. One PO called `red rat', a particularly nasty screw, from the Hunger Strike days, was killed. A number fled the country. And a number came to us and said how sorry they were at what had happened in the blanket protest years. How they hadn't wanted to do it. They'd had to follow orders.
The struggle goes on
By the 1990s, the NIO conceded our demands. Because the staff were demoralised, they became persuaded of the merit of the demands. `It would be best, or easiest to give them what they wanted,' was the attitude.
I returned to the blocks in 1992. The jail was completely transformed. The POWs ran the jail with full control of the wings, with free association. Our camp staff went formally to the prison administration to negotiate and discuss our points. It had become a POW camp.
It all makes us seem very clever. In fact, with hindsight we made some bad decisions, but there was also intelligent thinking and planning. People in the jail learned a great deal to continue the struggle today.''