The situation in 1980 in the non-conforming H-Blocks was best established by Bik McFarlane, who was to assume a key leadership role in the second hunger strike:
“With the growing awareness that the Brits now had the measure of us as far as the no-wash protest was concerned, we looked of necessity to out ultimate protest action. Our situation was impossible to resolve successfully without recourse to hunger strike. We could not, nor would not submit to criminalization of ourselves and, by extension, of the liberation struggle. We discussed the hunger strike option and raised it with the leadership of the Republican Movement. It was felt that an excellent opportunity was on the horizon with the forthcoming papal visit to Ireland -- a hunger strike, reaching a crisis period around September, when the Pope would be here, would sure to cause a furor and provoke responses from political and religious circles.”
The men debated when a hunger strike might reach health crisis to determine when to begin. Some considered a limited, 30-day hunger strike ending just before crisis would provide the Brits with some room to bargain and demonstrate that the Republicans were flexible. The prevailing view among the men, however, was that there would be little sense in a hunger strike that was not undertaken with intention to take it to the limit, death or victory. For one thing, it would send the wrong message to the Brits and any future hunger strike would not be taken seriously leading to increased likelihood of fatalities if this were a half-hearted effort. No, it had to be all or nothing.
According to Bik, the Republican Movement on the outside were against the hunger strike idea because it would call for intense diversion of effort and resources in mobilizing support, taking away form the armed struggle against British occupation. Cardinal O Fiaich made overtures to the men to against hunger strike because it would embarrass Pope John Paul II and he promised to pursue the British government on the issue of the Five Demands.
As it happened, the Pope came and went and the Cardinal’s efforts came to nothing. The prisoner leadership who were moved to H-Block 6 were now dispersed throughout the other protesting blocks where they came to see first hand the full horrors of that these men were subjected to for the past 18 months. McFarlane recounted moving to H3, “... men related nightmarish experiences of barbarous treatment. I listened helplessly as men were repeatedly beaten during mirror searches after their visits. Men were doggedly resisting here, refusing to be broken, but morale was anything but high. It was a depressing place indeed.”
Brits Target H-Block Political Activists
Along with the POWs themselves, their relatives, and the Republican Movement per se, the National H-Block/Armagh Committee was bringing international attention to the situation since 1979. A large march in support of the prisoners’ demands took place in January 1980 and was banned by the RUC but could not be stopped. Most such protests were greeted by the RUC and Brit army with beatings and baton charges. But the protests in Ireland, America, England and elsewhere began to have some effect. At one point the Brits made a concession to the men: an extra visit per month, a letter per week and they would be allowed to exercise in “training gear”. These were rejected by the men as insulting. The extra visit was just two more beatings and cavity searches -- going and returning; letters would be censored into meaninglessness; and prison training clothing would be a backslide into wearing official prison clothing, or so it would be portrayed.
Not only did the British propaganda machine mobilize against the Committee, they also brought in the SAS and loyalist murder squads. On June 6th, 1980, an independent councillor for Larne, John Tully, was shot dead by the UDA. At the subsequent trial, 3 UDA men were convicted of murder; one stated that they had been trained by the SAS and were directed to target H-Block/Armagh activists. Miriam Daly was murdered on June 26th, 1980 in Belfast. Ronnie Bunting and Noel Lyttle were murdered on October 15th 1980 also in Belfast. Bernadette McAliskey and her husband Michael were critically wounded in their home near Coalisland, Co. Tyrone on January 16th, 1981.
The Inevitable Arrives
By the fall of 1980, after months of talks between Cardinal O Fiaich and Humphey Atkins and the Northern Ireland Office, after months of protests outside and four horrible years inside the prison, the Brits never made a single move towards resolving the situation.
Hunger striking was nothing new to the Republican struggle. Sometimes it had been successful. Often it was not. Death was very likely to be the only result.
The men now prepared a head-on confrontation with the Thatcher government to the death if necessary. Exactly how this was to be handled tactically and strategically became the sole compulsion of the men in the Blocks, whose strength had swelled to 500 men once the hunger strike was announced. First they needed to decide exactly who would be on the hunger strike and how it would be organized. As Bik said, “The inevitable had finally arrived.”