By Jim Gibney (for Irish News)
“I’m not going back to the blocks without the five demands,” Tom McElwee told his mother, sister and me. Tom was confined to bed; moving about his cell in the prison hospital easily tired him. Implied in his words was a desire to end the harrowing reality of day-to-day life for the blanketmen, in particular the administrative brutality they experienced at the hands of prison warders.
When Tom McElwee was speaking to us he did so in the knowledge that eight of his comrades had already died on hunger strike - Bobby Sands, Francis Hughes, Patsy O’Hara, Raymond McCreesh, Joe McDonnell, Martin Hurson, Kevin Lynch and Kieran Doherty. Michael Devine died on August 20 1981, 12 days after Tom.
Watching the award-winning film Hunger and the scenes of unrestrained brutality by the prison warders against naked and defenceless prisoners, Tom’s words came back to me. I saw the bedside scene in Tom’s cell. I had experienced it before in Bobby’s cell and in Francis and Raymond’s. In their own words all the hunger strikers had to say or think what Tom said before they crossed the line between life and death.
The five demands amounted to political status, to recognition by the British government that the prisoners in the H-Blocks and Armagh Women’s Prison were political prisoners prisoners of war; imprisoned as part of an ancient conflict over the right of the people of this country to live free from British military occupation.
The five demands - the right of the prisoners to wear their own clothes, not to do prison work, to associate with each other, to have a weekly visit and restored remission lost through the protest, were also about creating a way of life in which the prisoners could be safe to do their time.
Hunger is an epic tale of human endurance; a classic David and Goliath contest; gut-wrenching bravery on the prisoners’ part; unsurpassed ingenuity and dedication to survive living entombed in an excrement- covered cell.
Steve McQueen’s film is a relentless portrayal of the degradation of the British government and in particular Margaret Thatcher who permitted a prison administration to preside over an inhumane order in which human beings - IRA volunteers, at their most vulnerable, inside a prison cell - were psychologically preyed upon and brutalised.
Back then Thatcher waged war against the IRA on many fronts in the mistaken belief that she could defeat them. But her greatest folly was her belief that she could defeat the IRA by opening up a new front in her war - inside the prisons.
Her attempts to defeat republicans by a criminalisation policy stirred deep wells of historical connections to other periods of conflict inside the psyche of republican prisoners. As I walked C Wing yard in Crumlin Road prison in September 1976 with Kieran Nugent - the first blanketman - and others, the talk was about Portlaoise in the 1940s when republicans wore blankets and died on hunger strike rather than be criminalised.
Hunger’s distinction, compared to other films about the hunger strike, is the use of the camera and its attention to detail - the blood-stained knuckles of the warder caused by beating prisoners; his meticulously ordered life; his killing by the IRA; the prisoner playing with a fly to ease the monotony; maggots roaming the cell floor; Bobby Sands’s (superbly played by Michael Fassbender) ulcerated and emaciated body slowly dying.
The prolonged absence of dialogue, the slow pace of the film and the use of silence effectively create an intense and menacing atmosphere in which the viewer is locked into the prisoner’s hellish world of deprivation and violence.
The debate about Hunger has produced an opportunity long awaited - for the north’s prison authorities to apologise for the brutality they inflicted on naked prisoners - brutality which played a significant part in the decision which led to the deaths of the hunger strikers.
This is a true-to-life film, not propaganda, as claimed by its unionist critics. Watch it. It says a lot about the human condition: heroic and debased.