Mickey Devine: The last hunger striker to die

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By Kevin Rooney

 

“For this day a broken body, will live through trial and fear, and feel the pain of hunger, and shed a silent tear.”

 

Michael James (Mickey) Devine was born on 26 May, 1954. His only sibling was an older sister Margaret, born in 1947. His parents were Patrick and Elizabeth. He was born in the Springtown Camp. It was an abandoned US naval base from World War II on the outskirts of Derry city. It consisted of prefabricated Nissen [corrugated steel] huts that had no running water, electricity or heat. They were in disrepair, rusted, and leaky.

One of Mickey’s earliest memories was lying in bed with coats bundled over him to protect him from the rain. His sister Margaret remembered that the huts were bearable only in summer. The rest of the year they were cold and damp. Mickey himself called it “the slum to end all slums”.

Mickey’s father Patrick had served in the British Merchant Navy during the Second World War, and married Elizabeth shortly after the war. They were both from Derry City. Patrick was a coal man by trade, but was unemployed for years. When first married, they lived with Elizabeth’s mother in Ardmore, a village outside Derry City, where Margaret was born.

In early 1948, they moved to Springtown, where Mickey was born. The housing there was supposed to be only temporary, but was used for twenty years due to official neglect rooted in sectarianism; discrimination against Catholics, who were the vast majority of the residents in Springtown, including the Devine family.

In 1960, when Mickey was six, the family moved to a flat on Circular Road in the Creggan, then a Catholic ghetto within Derry City. Mickey attended Holy Child Primary School and St. Joseph’s Secondary School, both in the Creggan. His first job was a newspaper delivery route he shared with his best friend Noel Moore.

On Christmas Eve, 1965, when Mickey was eleven, his father fell ill. He died of leukemia two months later, in February 1966. Mickey, who was very close to his father, was devastated. In July, 1966, his sister Margaret married Frank McAuley, a local coal man, and left home. Mickey now lived with his mother and grandmother.

Among the Catholic community there was a civil rights movement very much influenced by that led by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the USA gaining momentum in the North of Ireland, and especially in Derry. The movement was strictly non-violent, but were met with violent repression.

The people of Derry, who were mostly Catholic, like the Devine family, had suffered systematic discrimination in housing and employment although they were actually in the majority in Derry City. This was the result of gerrymandering, or creative drawing of districts to produce a controlled result. This was also because until 1969, voting in local council elections had requirements that denied votes to some while granting multiple votes to others, such as business owners. This invariably ran along sectarian lines and favoured unionists, a set-up which made the Catholic and nationalist people feel that the system was stacked against them. It also made many people in Derry see socialism as the solution to problems rooted in economic and political inequality.

In Derry on 5 October, 1968, a peaceful march for civil rights was viciously attacked by the RUC and B-Specials with batons and water-cannon causing over 30 injuries. That incident in particular is cited by many as the beginning of the conflict in the north of Ireland, as television images were widely seen.

Mickey said of his experience: “Like every other young person in Derry, my whole way of thinking was tossed upside down by the events of October 5th, 1968. I didn’t even know there was a civil rights march. I saw it on television. But that night I was down the town smashing shop windows and stoning the RUC. Overnight, I developed an intense hatred of the RUC. As a child I had always known not to talk to them, or to have anything to do with them, but this was different. Within a month everyone was a political activist. I had never had a political thought in my life, but now we talked of nothing else. I was by no means politically aware but the speed of events gave me a quick education.”

The year of 1969 began with civil rights marchers being attacked at Burntollet bridge on 4 January outside Derry city, where a loyalist mob of 300 who attacked the marchers included 100 off-duty B-Specials. The peaceful marchers were beaten with pipes and cudgels with nails driven through them. The RUC did nothing to stop them while arresting peaceful protesters.

The tensions between the RUC and the Catholic and nationalist people of Derry boiled over on 12 August of 1969 and erupted into what became known as “The Battle Of The Bogside.” It was sparked by an antagonistic and provocative loyalist Apprentice Boys parade. The route of the parade, which ran close to the Catholic Bogside, saw sectarian clashes.

For three days the people of the area, led by the Derry Citizens Defence Association (DCDA) fought police and loyalist incursions into the area they cordoned off to hostile outsiders called “Free Derry”. Nobody was killed, but over 1,000 were injured, 350 of them policemen. Many homes were damaged.

That same week, there were sectarian riots in the Falls Road in Belfast which saw the B-Specials escort loyalist mobs into the area who attacked the homes of the residents, burning many out. The B-Specials recklessly sprayed gunfire at the Divis tower housing project, killing a 9-year old boy in his bed. The events of those few days, particularly the Battle of the Bogside, caused the decision to be made to call in British troops to the streets in August 1969. The year of 1969 would also see Mickey hospitalised on two separate occasions from the batons of the RUC.

Mickey left school that same summer. He got a job as a shop assistant at Hill’s furniture store on the Strand Road, later in Sloan’s store in Shipquay Street, and finally to Austin’s furniture store in the Diamond. Each time he moved on it was to gain experience to get a better job.

In 1970 and in 1971, he became involved in the civil rights movement, and the Young Socialist Group, which was the youth wing of The Northern Ireland Labour Party. They were a Trotskyist organisation which later became the Workers Revolutionary Party. He also became a member of the James Connolly Republican Club. For his politics as well as his ginger hair, he was known as “Red Mickey.”

In August of 1971, Brian Faulkner, Prime Minister of ‘Northern Ireland’, introduced internment -- imprisonment without trial. On the morning of 9 August, 342 men in the Catholic and nationalist community across the north of Ireland were arrested and held without charge or trial. This was part of Operation Demetrius carried out by the British Army. They worked often from outdated lists, which is why many of the men arrested had no current involvement. Many convictions were obtained by torture, thus many innocents were imprisoned for years. The policy would remain in place until 1975. Their aim was to break the IRA (Irish Republican Army) which had risen in response to the violence against the catholic and Nationalist community.

Immediately after the introduction of internment, the barricades were put up again in Free Derry. The Young Socialists saw this shift toward traditional republican thinking as sectarian. Mickey disagreed, and so he broke with them and joined the Official IRA. He was highly motivated to do anything he thought necessary, even to taking menial tasks without complaining.

Internment also sparked anger and protest. A peaceful march was planned for the city of Derry by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) for Sunday, the 30th of January of 1972. Its purpose was to protest internment without trial in particular, and to protest for civil rights in general. It was to run from Creggan through the Bogside, the area known as “Free Derry” to Guildhall Square in the City Center. The peaceful marchers were fired upon by British soldiers, killing 14 and wounding another 14 unarmed protesters, and became known as “Bloody Sunday”. The soldiers claimed they acted in self defence; although no soldiers were injured and none of the dead and wounded were armed. Many of the dead were shot in the back as they ran or were shot as they tended the wounded.

Bloody Sunday had a deep effect on Mickey, who was there. He had attended the march with his brother-in-law Frank McAuley, who remembered: “When the shooting started we ran, like everybody else, and when it was over we saw all the bodies being lifted.” Mickey would rhetorically ask, “How can you sit back and watch while your own Derrymen are shot down like dogs?”

Mickey wrote: “I will never forget standing in the Creggan chapel staring at the brown wooden boxes. We mourned, and Ireland mourned with us. That sight more than anything convinced me that there will never be peace in Ireland while Britain remains. When I looked at those coffins I developed a commitment to the republican cause that I have never lost.”

Mickey then took part in several offensive as well as defensive operations against the British Army, including gun attacks. This was until the Official IRA declared a ceasefire in May of 1972, which Mickey opposed. His activities from then were of a propaganda nature, such as writing slogans on walls at night.

On September 1972, Mickey came home to find his mother dead, with his grandmother (her own mother) trying to revive her. She died from a brain tumour. Her sudden death at 45 years of age was a shock and a deep blow to him. He then lived for a while with his sister and brother-in-law. After an argument with his sister, he moved out and took a room at the home of Norman Walmsley, from an old Republican family. Mickey starting dating Norman’s daughter. She was also named Margaret, called Maggie. She stood 5’1, and was thin with long hair.

Maggie became pregnant, and she and Mickey were married in 1973. She was 17 and Mickey was 19. His best man Noel Moore remembered it is a very informal affair, since Mickey had no money. The Wedding feast consisted of sandwiches and a bottle of vodka, but was great fun with a lot of singing. Mickey’s sister Margaret had not been invited, but later brought a gift and was back in his life. Mickey and his new wife lived in Ranmore Drive in Creggan. In 1974, they had a son named Michael, after his father. Two years later they had a daughter named Louise. Mickey was working as a shop assistant in a draper’s shop.

In December 1974, The IRSP (Irish Republican Socialist Party) was formed by members of the Official IRA like Mickey, who were opposed to that organisation’s ceasefire from May 1972. Mickey referred to the Officials as “Fireside Republicans”; disgusted at their lack of offensive action, which he felt was necessary. A paramilitary wing of the IRSP was also formed, first called The People’s Liberation Army (PLA); which Mickey helped to found. It would later become the INLA (Irish National Liberation Army). Mickey was a founding member.

The founding leader of the IRSP/INLA (together known as the IRSM-Irish Republican Socialist Movement) was Seamus Costello, who was a veteran of the IRA border campaign of the 50’s. Costello advocated a combination of socialist politics on economic issues and traditional physical force Irish republicanism, which was music to Mickey’s ears. Mickey’s friend and comrade Patsy O’Hara was also a founding member.

The INLA were isolated and were lacking in weapons and funds. On 20 September, 1976, Mickey was involved in an INLA operation to procure arms along with John Cassidy in Lifford, Co. Donegal. They were driving in a Tan Fiat. Patsy O’Hara was also with them, but on a motorcycle, acting as a lookout. The target was a private gun collector. The owner was not home, so they broke in easily and made off with 17 firearms, including rifles, shotguns, 3,000 rounds of assorted ammunition, 4 bayonets and 7 telescopic sights.

They headed back to Derry. By the time they arrived, the security forces already had descriptions of the vehicle and the men. Cassidy was driving, Mickey was in the passenger seat with “ginger hair and wearing silver-framed glasses” as his description went. They successfully unloaded the weapons, but when they were stopped and arrested, a pair of binoculars from the house in Lifford was found in the car. Patsy O’Hara got away.

They were taken to Strand Road barracks for interrogation. They were held for three days during which time Mickey gave a statement admitting his role. He was transferred to Crumlin Road Jail in Belfast and held on remand for nine months until his trial. On 20 June, 1977, Mickey was convicted and sentenced to 12 years by a “Diplock” special court with one judge and no jury for political offences.

Earlier, on 1 March, 1976, new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Merlyn Rees announced that anyone convicted of a scheduled offence after March 1976 would be treated as an ordinary criminal and would have to wear a prison uniform, do prison work and serve their sentence in the H-blocks of the new Maze Prison, which replaced the Nissen hut cages of Long Kesh. So called because each block had four wings joined by a center, in the shape of the letter H. This coincided with the phasing out of internment. The intent was to erase the distinction between political prisoners and ordinary criminals, despite the fact that they had set up a special court system for political offences.

This was part of a British government policy of criminalisation. The aim was not only to break the will of the prisoners, but to label the republican movement itself as a criminal conspiracy, without popular support. The republican prisoners saw themselves as prisoners of war. As such, the command structure of the paramilitary organisations were preserved, morale made imprisonment more bearable and the prisoners were treated relatively decently. With the revocation of Special Category Status, that all changed.

On 14 September, 1976, Kieran Nugent became the first prisoner sentenced after the revocation of special status. When he arrived at The Maze, he was asked his size for a prison uniform, he refused to wear it, and told told them they would have to nail it to his back. Since he was forbidden to wear any other clothing, Nugent went naked, wrapping himself in a blanket. Thus, the Blanket Protest was born, and by 1978, 300 Republican prisoners were refusing to wear prison uniforms, for which they were confined to their cells and lost the right to fifty percent remission of their sentences for good behaviour. Such were the conditions on Mickey’s arrival at Long Kesh. He immediately joined the Blanket Protest.

The No-Wash Protest began in April, 1978. Since the withdrawal of political status in 1976, The animosity between the prisoners and the prison officials escalated. The prisoners endured brutal beatings for things like refusing to address prison officers as Sir and their refusal to cooperate in general with rules for criminal prisoners. The IRA leaders in prison requested of the IRA Army Council to assassinate prison officials, which they did, starting with Patrick Dillon in April of 1976 and several other followed.

Some prisoners were refusing to leave their cells to shower or use the toilet due to the beatings. They were being beaten when trying to empty their chamber pots. After a prisoner was badly beaten and sent to solitary confinement, the Blanketmen now refused to leave their cells, smearing their excrement on the walls. This was also because spiteful prison officers would empty the pots back in the cells.

Since Mickey had been in prison, Maggie began seeing a local ice cream man named Seamus McBride, and began skipping visits to Mickey. Maggie’s affair with McBride became a local scandal. The INLA took matters in hand by sending two men to push them about and cut off their hair as a mark of disgrace. Within the nationalist and republican communities; prisoners’ wives were expected to remain faithful, and others were supposed to stay away from prisoners’ wives out of respect. It was a code that was unwritten, but taken very seriously. Women were also shorn for consorting with British soldiers. In December, 1979, Maggie gave birth to a daughter that was obviously not Mickey’s. Mickey was heartbroken.

On 27 October 1980, Brendan Hughes O.C. (Officer Commanding) of the IRA prisoners, Tommy McKearney, Raymond McCartney, Tom McFeeley, Sean McKenna, Leo Green, and INLA member John Nixon went on Hunger Strike simultaneously, called by Brendan Hughes. As Sean McKenna was in and out of a coma after 53 days, The Hunger Strike was called off on a decision taken by Brendan Hughes on a promise of concessions. At the beginning of this Hunger Strike, Patsy O’Hara had become O.C. of the INLA prisoners. Patsy had come to Long Kesh in January of 1980 after being arrested for possession of a hand grenade in May 1979. Mickey was next in the line of the INLA prisoners to replace Nixon on the strike.

The Hunger Strike was intended to secure the Five Demands, which were: The right not to wear a prison uniform; The right not to do prison work; The right of free association with other prisoners, and to organise educational and recreational pursuits; The right to one visit, one letter and one parcel per week; Full restoration of remission lost through the protest.

When it had become obvious that the British government had no intention of granting the concessions it promised, a second hunger strike began on March 1, 1981 when Bobby Sands refused food. Unlike the previous hunger strike, where seven men started at the same time; Sands, who was O.C. of the IRA prisoners, thought it wiser to stagger them at intervals this time. This would also prolong the protest. Francis Hughes, the second in line, began his on March 16. Patsy O’Hara decided to lead the Hunger Strike for the INLA prisoners this time. It was decided that he and IRA prisoner Raymond McCreesh would begin their fast on the same day, March 22. Mickey then became O.C. of the INLA prisoners as Patsy O’Hara stepped down when joining the strike.

Bobby Sands died on 5 May. Francis Hughes died on 12 May. Raymond McCreesh and Patsy O’Hara both died on 21 May. Bobby Sands was succeeded on Hunger Strike by Joe McDonnell. Francis Hughes was succeeded by Brendan McLaughlin, then Martin Hurson after McLaughlin was forced to come off after a few days due to a stomach ulcer. Kieran Doherty succeeded Raymond McCreesh. Patsy O’Hara was succeeded by his INLA comrade, Kevin Lynch.

Of his brave comrades, Mickey wrote: “There is nothing that any human being values more than life. Every man clings to it with every ounce of strength of his being. To willingly surrender it is acknowledged as the greatest sacrifice any man can make. Not only to die, but to choose a death which is slow and agonizing, further serves to illustrate the depths of courage and sincerity among the men in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh. What it takes to willingly undergo this ordeal, willingly undergo suffering, none of us can possibly imagine ... We here are helpless. All we have to give is our lives.”

In an escalation of the protest, IRA prisoner Tom McElwee joined the Hunger Strike on 8 June. Instead of four men, there would be eight men on; including IRA prisoners Laurence “Lorney” McKeown, Matt Devlin, Pat McGeown, Paddy Quinn. Mickey began his hunger Strike on 22 June, though he did not step down as O.C. Of the INLA prisoners. Mickey wrote this poem on the eve of beginning his Hunger Strike:

“If Jesus Christ appeared tonight, with his body bruised and bare, and he said he lived in H-Block, and asked you did you care,

If he asked you would you help him before he went insane, to help him bear his burden of suffering and pain,

I wonder would it stir you, to raise your voice and cry, to tell the world of torture, and all the reasons why?

But what about his children, who suffer day and night, have you raised a hand to free them, from their lonely hell-like night?

For this day a broken body, will live through trial and fear, and feel the pain of hunger, and shed a silent tear.

He’ll take a look around him, and to heaven make a plea, ‘They crucified you, Jesus, now they’re doing it to me.’

But even through his anguish, when nothing seems worthwhile, the thought of home and family, will always raise a smile.

The efforts of his loved ones, his friends and comrades too, they’ve tried their best to help him. The question is, will you?”

On 8 July, Joe McDonnell died. Martin Hurson died on 13 July. On Wednesday 15 July, Mickey was moved to the prison hospital. Earlier, in February, Mickey began divorce proceedings against Maggie. She now wrote to him, begging him to see her. He refused, but asked to see his children. Because of his marital separation, the IRSP recruited Theresa Moore, who worked with them helping dependents of the INLA prisoners; to act as Mickey’s family, along with her husband Patsy. She remembered: “Mickey didn’t have much of a family left so I was asked to act as his ‘aunt.’ I went to meetings with the other hunger strikers relatives and, eventually as the weeks wore on, went to Long Kesh to the prison hospital. I started going up to Long Kesh with Mickey’s sister, Margaret, and I stayed with republicans in west Belfast.”

On 28 July, Father Dennis Faul called a meeting of the relatives of the Hunger Strikers in Toomebridge Hotel, Co. Antrim. He had been nicknamed “The Menace” by Bobby Sands. The two had argued about the theology of the Hunger Strike, with Fr. Faul seeing it as a form of suicide. Sands made his point by quoting the words of Christ himself (from John 15:13): “for a man hath no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends”. Fr. Faul admitted: “I can’t argue with that, Bobby.”

Fr. Faul’s aim by this meeting was to persuade the families that the campaign would not change the minds of Margaret Thatcher and the British government and nothing could be gained by more deaths. His idea was to have the families bring pressure on the IRA to end it. He contacted republican leader Gerry Adams, with whom he knew Bik McFarlane had been conferring. Adams pointed out that the IRA Army Council were against it in the first place, but were forced to support the prisoners who were so adamant. Adams promised to pass along their concerns to the prisoners.

The next day, 29 July, Adams went to Long Kesh along with Owen Carron and Seamus Ruddy of the IRSP to confer with the men who were on Hunger Strike. They offered the prisoners an outline of a proposed settlement by the British government should the Hunger Strike be brought to an end.

The proposed terms were:

-Prison uniforms would be abolished;

-Prison Work would redefined to include educational courses and handcrafting;

-Free association all weekend and three hours every weekday. Also there would be unofficial but practical segregation from Loyalist prisoners.;

-The right to one visit, one letter and one parcel a week.

They didn’t believe the government would concede any more, including remission.

They met with Mickey, and IRA prisoners Tom McElwee, Laurence “Lorney” McKeown, Matt Devlin, Pat McGeown, Paddy Quinn, and IRA O/C Bik McFarlane. Kieran Doherty and Kevin Lynch of the INLA were too weak to attend. Doherty was spoken to later, Lynch was too ill to see them. The men were encouraged to understand that the republican movement would welcome a decision to end the Hunger Strike, and for any man to take himself off.

The prisoners felt that anything less than the full Five Demands was a betrayal of those who died before them. On 31 July, Hunger Striker Paddy Quinn’s mother invoked medical intervention to save his life. On 1 August, Kevin Lynch died. On 2 August, Kieran Doherty died. On 8 August, Tom McElwee died.

As Mickey was in the last stages of the hunger strike, he finally saw his children; Michael, Jr. and Louise; who were 7 and 5. They were brought in by Mickey’s sister Margaret. By this time, his eyesight had gone. He felt the shapes of their faces as tears streamed down his cheeks.

Soon afterward began the bedside vigil. Mickey’s sister Margaret took the day shift with Theresa Moore, who remembered: “I went into the prison hospital every day from 8am to 8pm and my husband, Patsy, went in from 8pm to 8am. As soon as I came out of the prison I was out speaking about the hunger strike around west Belfast.”

“Uncle” Patsy Moore took the night shift with brother-in-law Frank McAuley. Mickey also made a confession to Father Pat Buckley and received the last rites, taking comfort in his faith. On Thursday August 20, at 7:50am, Mickey died after 60 days on Hunger Strike. He was buried next to his friend and comrade, Patsy O’Hara.

Naomi Brennan, chairperson of the IRSP gave the oration at his funeral: “While Ireland brings forth young men and women such as him there is hope now and for the future – a certainty that the cause for which Michael Devine gave his young life is just, and is necessary, and we must see it through to the end. And we will.”

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