A last resort: Prelude to hunger strike
BY MICHAEL PIERSE
As we ponder on the period of the Blanket protests and the Hunger Strikes, it is easy to allow the monstrous shadow of 1981 to overcast the hunger strike that brought seven men close to death the previous year.
Next week, 20 years ago, saw the commencement of a protest that agonizingly and reluctantly emerged from four years of the Blanket campaign. The Blanket protests that precipitated the hunger strikes were deemed by republican prisoners to be the most potent way, at that time, in which they could assert their rejection of the British policies that sought to criminalise them.
Our widely-recognised resistance has carried us through four years of immense suffering and it shall carry us through to the bitter climax of death, if necessary
Statement from republican prisoners, 1980
In 1976, when Ciaran Nugent became the first republican POW to refuse to put on the prison uniform that would have branded him a criminal, the Blanket protest had begun. The strategy by republican prisoners of attiring themselves in blankets was a simple one, aimed at maximising public knowledge of their plight and remaining austerely loyal to the principle that they, as political prisoners of war, would be categorised as nothing less.
The Blanket protest was soon followed by the no-wash campaign. Prisoners in Armagh and Long Kesh jails, who had been refused the right to leave their cells wearing their blankets to avail of washing and toilet facilities, were left with no option but to dispose of their excreta by smearing it on the cell walls. Although this campaign showed the limits to which human beings would go rather than deny their beliefs, by the end of 1979 the stategy seemed to have floundered on the arrogance of Margaret Thatcher's Conservative administration.
Cells hopping with fleas stank from the warm, suffocating smell of excreta-covered walls. The prisoners faced concerted attempts by the British Government to crack their resolve, enforced with beatings, strip searches, solitary confinement, almost inedible food, constant harassment and an intransigent, though publicly ambivalent, attitude from the entire the British establishment.
The experiences of women prisoners were often more excruciating than those of the men. They endured strip searches during menstruation, severe weight loss and beatings carried out on individual prisoners by up to eight female and male wardens, but their adversaries still did not manage to break their will to protest.
In September of that year, a Belfast teenager received one of the most severe beatings ever handed out in Long Kesh. Perry McLarnon, an English-born boy, had moved with his parents to the Ardoyne, in North Belfast, when he was just eleven years old. After four years living in the area, during which he became a member of the Fianna Éireann republican youth movement, Perry was arrested, charged and sentenced in a non-jury court to 40 years imprisonment. The most serious charge he faced, of involvement in a shooting, could not be substantiated with even the most frivolous of circumstantial evidence. Four years later, three of which he spent on the blanket, Perry was beaten to a pulp by warders, known to the prisoners as screws. Such beatings became a daily way of life for prisoners. Nevertheless, morale remained high as the blanket prisoners kept their spirits up by holding verbal classes on a wide variety of subjects and entertaiuning each other by singing songs and `telling' films and books they had read.
While maintaining the pretence of being at least willing to negotiate the notion of prison reform, Britain's secret agenda remained hostile to any significant changes in the prisons.
After four years of the Blanket protest, with no verifiable signs of progress, the possibility of a hunger strike was increasingly discussed. By now there were around 500 prisoners on the blanket and this number was increased on the announcement of a hunger strike.
The H-Block Committee had launched a campaign in which they petitioned prominent public figures worldwide for support. Amongst those was Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich, who agreed to lend his support by negotiating with British direct ruler Humphrey Atkins. He met with Atkins, and also, secretly, with high-ranking officials from the Republican Movement. In order to encourage the talks, the IRA prisoners desisted from attacks on prison warders - but to no avail.
The Cardinal's six months of talks were met with a statement from Atkins in which he said he would allow the prisoners to wear standardised prison clothing, which amounted to the same thing as a uniform. However, he added that Thatcher's line of `no talking to terrorists' was still that of her government, and that there would be no reform. The direct ruler had said from the outset that ``the government cannot concede on the principle that is at stake here''. While their secret position was less convinced than that which was to be construed from this rhetoric, they opted for a stance that left the prisoners without any further room for manoeuvre.
Prisoners in Long Kesh were encouraged in their demands to the IRA's Army Council that they be allowed begin a hunger strike, strangely, through the inspiration of a development in Wales. Gwynfor Evans, the President of Welsh nationalist party, Plaid Cymru, pledged to go on hunger strike when the Conservative Party reneged on a promise to launch a Welsh language TV station. When the 67-year-old MP announced that he would begin his hunger strike, to the death, on 6 October that year, it was followed by a capitulation on the issue from the British Home Secretary William Whitelaw, in September. The clear implication for the prisoners in Long Kesh was that they too could exert the same pressure. There was also the long tradition of republican hunger strikes, which in the 1970s had taken the lives of Michael Gaughan and Frank Stagg.
As the announcement of a hunger strike drew near, Blanketmen were left with the thorny decision of whether they were prepared to make that ultimate and arduously slow sacrifice of death by starvation.
On 10 October, Sinn Féin announced that a hunger strike would begin 17 days later. The aim of the prisoners was, in short, for political status during the term of their incarceration, though this was diluted to five basic demands, which they were prepared to accept, short of full status. The `five demands' were:
that the POWs be allowed to wear their own clothes;
to refrain from prison work;
to have free association with other prisoners;
to organise recreational pursuits freely - with one letter, parcel and visit per week;
to have remission lost as a result of the blanket protest restored.
``Our widely-recognised resistance has carried us through four years of immense suffering and it shall carry us through to the bitter climax of death, if necessary,'' the prisoners stated.
As we reflect on this period, 20 years ago, we know that many young Irish people, some of them older than those who took part in the hunger strikes 20 years ago, are neither aware of the details of the hunger strikes nor of their immense consequences. The attempts by Britain to depoliticise the struggle for Irish self determination, and the courageous rejection of this by seven brave men in 1980, and more the following year, ten of whom would die, remains one of the most neglected elements of our historical knowlege as a nation. It remains also one of the most frustrating examples of the effects of censorship on our people and the denial of our history.
Sinn Féin will shortly begin a national campaign to highlight the issues, effects and history of the hunger strikes, 20 years on. The party is urging people whose knowledge of this period might be vital, or even helpful, to this project to help in ensuring that the legacy of this period is not lost. In this vein, An Phoblacht will, in the coming year, keep readers informed of anniversary events and inform our readers of how to get involved in the hunger strike campaign. Your support will be greatly appreciated.