Out of the H-blocks came determination
Out of the H-blocks came determination

By Danny Morrison (for Daily Ireland)

A few years ago the photographer Donovan Wylie published a book, The Maze, which contained page after page of depressing photographs of little variety and some explanatory text.

‘Inertias’ are 15-foot wide voids, containing movement sensors, running immediately parallel between the inside wall and inner fence of the H-Blocks. He published 26 of those. ‘Steriles’ are also prohibited areas running parallel to the perimeter walls but on the other side of the inner fence. They can also exist at different places within the prison. He gives us six tedious examples of these and eight examples of inner roads.

He also photographed H-5, 24 virtually identical cells in its B-Wing and the wings’ exercise yards.

All of the photography was carried out between 2002 and 2003, long after the release of the prisoners - so the jail is empty of human life, though nature is bubbling through and has begun its work in undermining the tarmac and concrete, and vines and ivy are slowly enveloping the fencing.

Wylie also publishes a photograph of a cell in the prison hospital.

The prison hospital.

It is bare, spotless and bright. Since then, it and the other cells in the hospital have become discoloured and the paint is being shed in flakes or as powder.

On May 5, a group, including former prisoners and activists, marked the 25th anniversary of Bobby Sands’ death by visiting the prison hospital. We had planned a quiet and private event but mid-week the press heard about it through the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister (OFM/DFM). So, at the entrance to the prison, before and after the visit, there were responses to questions from journalists about the impact and legacy of the hunger strike. These, in turn, became the pretext for yet another unionist attack on the memory of the hunger strikers.

Bobby Sands’ courage and sacrifice have been commemorated by republicans across Ireland. The occasion of his death was marked by television and radio documentaries and features in the media. Stalking Bobby Sands and the memory of the ten hunger strikers, no matter where you looked, was a diminutive, self-important character.

Richard O’Rawe was everywhere, cheered on by the very people who attempted to criminalise the republican struggle. His book should have been called, On Another Man’s Hunger Strike for he has diminished his own sacrifice as a blanket man. The fool.

IN Bobby Sands’ cell and in those of the other nine hunger strikers we held a minute’s silence. A few words were spoken - in Irish and English - but the solemnity, the sadness, said all there was to say. An extract from the last day of Bobby’s hunger strike diary was read and some stanzas from The Torture Mill - H-Block, including:

They lounge in might and glory bright
This empire once so grand.
With bloody fleets and dirty feats,
They built it without span.
But tank or gun they have not one
To break a blanket man.

The door at the bottom of the hospital wing, which gives onto an exercise yard, was open. We went out into it. The sky was blue but the compound was grey and grim, with a horizon of barbed wire fencing broken only by a deserted look-out post.

In 1981 the hunger strikers were moved off the wings around the 21-day mark and transferred here to the hospital where they waited for a settlement or death. At this stage they were still mobile and were allowed an hour’s exercise a day. They shuffled round this enclosed space in dressing gown, pyjamas and slippers. Laurence McKeown recalls there being some plastic chairs in the yard that summer. He brought out a pillow - his hips had shrunk and it was painful to sit on a hard surface - but the prison warders wouldn’t allow him to use the pillow and an argument broke out.

I remember being in jail in my late teens as an internee and how much we complained. There were, of course, legitimate causes for complaint: the failure of warders to respond to the emergency bell when someone fell seriously ill; the regular army searches, etc. Generally, internees felt so sorry for themselves that I am embarrassed thinking about the trifles we moaned about.

Internees and convicted political prisoners with status also had family worries and concerns, but the TV, the radio, a good book, a game of football, could act as a distraction. None of these were available to the blanket men. You couldn’t compare our prison world with their worries, concerns and fears, always waiting on the cell door opening and never knowing what size of screws were there to assault them. Contact with their family was down to one half hour a month.

Their morale went up and down. The numbers on protest also varied - as some became physically and psychologically exhausted, or because of family pressures and punitive loss of remission they left the protest.

Nevertheless, the protest never faltered and continued uninterrupted from September 1976 until 1981 when the prisoners were given their own clothes. From a position of unity and strength they then established a full return to political status.

The story of the protest in Armagh and the H-Blocks is incredible: it is epic. The suffering and endurance of the prisoners can never be taken away from them or their families.

Against the background of the commemorations, unionist politicians have renewed their criticism of plans to preserve the prison hospital and a H-Block as part of an International Centre for Conflict Transformation. Unionists are still involved in the old war of trying to criminalise the prisoners, a war that is over and which the authorities lost. They lost it as a result of the recognition which the political prisoners achieved, particularly by being elected. They lost it with the early release of the political prisoners under the terms of the Belfast Agreement. They lost it with every peace move the republican movement has made.

As far as many unionists are concerned the North was ‘a great wee place’ before 1969; there was no discrimination under Stormont; the RUC never murdered anyone; there was no torture in Castlereagh; loyalist paramilitaries only responded to the IRA and prisoners were never beaten. Those who deceive themselves the most are the DUP. They have imprisoned themselves in a maze, as grey and drab as Wylie’s pictures of the H-Blocks. Yes, definitions of Inertia and Sterile.

Unionist politicians, as well as being representatives, are meant also to be leaders. They can choose to merely represent prejudice and, by amplifying prejudices, reinforce them. However, showing leadership means grasping other concepts, viewing situations from other perspectives, allowing for other possibilities. Stating the truth can liberate another truth, and in that way liberate us all.

The hunger strike changed the nationalist community forever. It emboldened it, increased its self-confidence and determination.

For that we have to thank Bobby Sands MP, Francis Hughes, Raymond McCreesh, Patsy O’Hara, Joe McDonnell, Martin Hurson, Kevin Lynch, Kieran Doherty TD, Thomas McElwee and Micky Devine.

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© 2006 Irish Republican News