40 years since the Irish hunger strikes: the struggle for a Socialist United Ireland continues

On this day 40 years ago, in the face of Tory intransigence, the hunger strike by Republican political prisoners in Ireland came to an end. Decades on, only revolutionary class struggle can provide a future free from oppression and sectarianism.


On 3 October 1981, the remaining Irish Republicans on hunger strike in the North of Ireland were ordered to stand down. The last six, out of twenty-three prisoners who refused food throughout 1981, were given life-saving medical intervention.

The strike had ended after a seven-month campaign of cruelty from the British state, allowing ten men to starve to death, by refusing to grant the elementary democratic rights they demanded as prisoners of a political conflict.

The youngest to die were Patsy O’Hara (Irish National Liberation Army, ‘INLA’) and Thomas McElwee (Provisional Irish Republican Army, ‘PIRA’), both at the age of 23. Like many others, they had joined the Republican cause so young because they saw no way out of the oppressive sectarian Six County state other than through struggle.

They had seen their friends and relatives imprisoned without trial, tortured and abused, and innocent civilians massacred by British soldiers and loyalist paramilitaries. In the Republican cause they found a way to fight back, and once in prison joined the only means of resistance they felt they had left: the hunger strike.

Irish prisoners’ struggle

The Irish Republican movement has a long history of hunger strikes and prisoners’ campaigns. In 1917, President of the Irish Republican Brotherhood Thomas Ashe died from attempts to force-feed him and break his hunger strike in Mountjoy Prison. Ashe’s funeral was attended by 30,000 people at the dawn of Ireland’s 1916-23 revolutionary period.

There were Republican hunger strikes in British prisons and internment camps throughout the War of Independence and after, when control was passed over to the Free State. The youngest hunger striker ever, May Zambra, joined a 1923 hunger strike at 17 years old. Due to the Civil War, some anti-Treaty prisoners were not released until 1932, and many found themselves interned again during the Second World War.

The common thread throughout these campaigns was opposition to ‘criminalisation’: demanding recognition of the political basis for their imprisonment. Those who were interned without trial through Operation Demetrius in 1971, or convicted by juryless Diplock Courts after 1973, demanded and won the right to be treated as prisoners of war.

In 1976, however, the British government under Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson announced the withdrawal of political status for new Republican prisoners. In the Long Kesh prison, internees had been allowed to freely associate, maintain a command structure, and wear their own civilian clothes. It was these rights, under the title ‘Special Category Status’ that Irish Republicans imprisoned in the H-Blocks would fight the prison regime to restore.

Wilson’s policy meant the re-introduction of criminalisation: new Republican convicts would be classified as ‘ordinary decent criminals’ and not as political prisoners. They would have to wear a prison uniform, do prison work, and have the ‘privileges’ of education and visitation curtailed.

At the time, the British establishment was reeling from the collapse of the Sunningdale Agreement, forced by the reactionary ‘general strike’ called by militant loyalists. They demanded a ‘Protestant state for a Protestant people’ and no power-sharing with nationalists, rejecting the terms brokered by the British government.

The situation was getting out of control, and the British state stepped-up repression of Republicans to appease Paisley’s ‘No Surrender’ mobs – who were preparing for all-out civil war.

The Blanketmen

The first convicted under the new policy was Kieran Nugent, who began the ‘Blanketmen’ protests in September 1976. Offered a prison uniform, he refused, declaring that the guards would have to “nail it to my back”. Instead, he wore only a blanket, and hundreds of other prisoners followed suit. By 1979, up to a third of Republican prisoners had joined the protest.

Through relatives and sympathisers, a campaign on the outside was formed, headed by the National H-Block Committee. It was supported by Republicans, socialists, trade unionists and human-rights campaigners. The movement’s five basic demands were:

  1. The right to not wear a prison uniform.
  2. The right to not do prison work.
  3. The right to free association with other political prisoners.
  4. The right to access education material and courses.
  5. The restoration of remission (i.e., no additional time in jail as punishment for the protests).

The protest led to a war within the prisons. The Blanketmen were beaten by the guards whenever they left their cells to use the bathrooms. Republican women in Armagh prison were allowed to keep their own clothes, but still suffered mistreatment. To protect themselves, the prisoners then refused to leave their cells, and protested assaults from prison guards by smashing furniture.

Denied new washing facilities and having all their possessions confiscated, they were left with only blankets, mattresses, and a bucket for a toilet. When the prison guards ceased emptying the prisoners’ buckets, these medieval dungeon-like conditions became host to the ‘dirty protest’, as excrement and menstrual blood was daubed on the blank prison walls.

On the outside, the National H-Block Committee would also suffer a campaign of terror, with six members murdered by loyalist death squads. Bernadette McAliskey (née Devlin), the widely-known socialist and civil rights campaigner, narrowly survived an attempt on her life in January 1981. The likelihood of British state collusion in these killings and attempted murders has been covered up.

The British government’s attitude would only harden after 1979, with the election of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. She would refuse any concession of political status, insisting, “crime is crime is crime, it is not political”. Her government would go on to obstinately blame the IRA for the prisoners’ tragic deaths, while also labelling them all terrorists.

Escalation

After years ‘on the blankets’, the prisoners decided that they would have to escalate their campaign. The idea of a hunger strike was proposed, and initially refused by PIRA and INLA commanders.

Thatcher Image The National ArchivesAfter Thatcher's election in 1979, the attitude of the British government toward Republican prisoners hardened to the point of callousness / Image: The National Archives

Only a few years earlier, Republican prisoners Michael Gaughan (d.1974) and Frank Stagg (d.1976) had died in English jails while on hunger strike for political status and repatriation to Ireland – the former as a consequence of brutal attempts to force-feed him. It is a considerably dangerous form of protest, and having Volunteers slowly die in prison after years of fighting had the potential to depress the movement rather than inspire it.

Moreover, the leadership of the Provisional IRA had considered the prisoners’ struggle a secondary issue to their plan of bombings and armed attacks. The conception of the leaders of the PIRA Army Council was essentially apolitical and militaristic – they thought their key task was to beat the British militarily, and questions like prisoner status would be resolved automatically. Other forms of struggle were considered a potential distraction.

The prisoners carried a tremendous authority and symbolism for the Republican struggle, however, and their determination to fight could not be so easily sidelined. The Irish Republican Socialist Movement was also split over whether to prioritise mass political struggle or force of arms.

In October 1980, after hundreds had volunteered, seven H-Block prisoners began a hunger strike that would last for 53 days. They were joined by three prisoners in Armagh Women’s Prison, who refused food for 54 days. Starving in a bare jail cell with only blankets to cover themselves, the hunger strikers suffered greatly through the freezing winter.

The symptoms of starvation include hallucinations and delirium, diminished sight and speech, and unbearable headaches and stomach pains.

PIRA prisoner Sean McKenna was on the brink of death before the British government agreed to negotiate on the prisoners’ demands. The British government played a cruel psychological game, cutting other prisoners off from being able to contact McKenna, and then dangling the carrot of negotiations in front of the prisoners.

The strike was called off and McKenna’s life was saved, but Thatcher still refused to fully concede. The promise to negotiate was merely a callous ruse by the British to dent the will of the prisoners. Instead of civilian clothes, the prisoners were given ‘civilian-type’ uniforms. A new hunger strike would begin again next year.

1981 hunger strike

Despite the reservations from Republican leaders, PIRA prison commander Bobby Sands began the 1981 hunger strike on 1 March. Sands joined the Provisionals at the age of 18, after he lost his apprenticeship and his family was forced to move home due to intimidation from loyalist gangs.

While on hunger strike, Sands was chosen to stand in the Fermanagh by-election in April. Facing a consolidated Unionist vote behind the Ulster Unionist Party, nationalist parties agreed a united front around the prisoners’ campaign, with Sands as the ‘Anti H-Block’ candidate.

Winning the election, Bobby Sands became the MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone. The Tories’ rejoinder was to ban prisoners from standing for parliament. Twenty-six days later, however, Sands died in prison on 5 May. He was 27 years old.

Bobby Sands’ death provoked a wave of anger, with riots and protests across the North. 62 were killed by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and the army on Anti H-Block demonstrations in the following months. 100,000 mourners attended Sands’ funeral in West Belfast on 7 May. While Thatcher condemned him as a criminal, the barbarism of her policy in Ireland was exposed before the eyes of the world.

There were mass protests in solidarity with the hunger strikers in several countries – from America to Europe to Asia. Thousands marched in Milan and Paris. The International Longshoremen’s Association trade union in New York City boycotted unloading British ships for 24 hours. A march of thousands burned a blood-stained effigy of Thatcher on the British Embassy’s doorstep.

After the death of a second hunger striker, Francis Hughes, on 12 May, a crowd of 8,000 people stormed and burned the British Embassy in Dublin. Two hunger strikers were elected to the Dáil Éireann in June, causing a hung parliament. The relationship between the British and Southern Irish Governments reportedly deteriorated to new lows as Thatcher refused to relent.

One by one, eight more men would die after Sands and Hughes: five more members of the PIRA and three from the INLA. Their hunger strikes lasted from forty-six to seventy-three days; the oldest to die was only 29.

Legacy

While Sinn Féin and the PIRA leadership had initially opposed the action, they quickly saw the potential of the burgeoning mass movement around the National H-Block Committee. Sinn Féin had become divided over the question of whether to prioritise political or military means to remove the British from Ireland: ‘the ballot or the bullet?’

The anger generated by the deaths of the hunger strikers had led to a whirlwind of calls for retaliation. PIRA Volunteers demanded action, and there was a sharp increase in activity. 600 extra British troops were posted in the North of Ireland to deal with the guerrilla offensive. The INLA was also swept up in this mood, despite attempts within the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP) to subordinate it to the party’s political activity.

Contrary to the militarists’ policy, however, were leaders in Sinn Féin who wanted the end of the policy of abstention (refusing to take seats in British or partitionist legislatures) and give the party more focus on winning elections.

This conflict would result in a ‘compromise’ in 1986, with the party resolving to combine the two methods – ‘the ballot and the bullet’. But this was only a stepping stone to the complete acceptance of reformist methods. It would mark the beginning of Sinn Féin’s pursuit of the ‘peace process’ and tacit acceptance of the sectarian state.

Sinn Féin has since turned much of the history of the 1981 hunger strike into a legend, placing itself at the middle of the struggle and airbrushing out the involvement of the IRSP, socialists like Bernadette McAliskey, trade unionists, and others.

H Block Memorial Image public domainThe hunger strike generated tremendous sympathy for the H Block prisoners. On the back of its electoral success after the hunger strike, Sinn Féin increasingly turned towards reformist methods / Image: public domain

Once Sinn Féin had seized control of the movement, they limited its scope to supporting the basic Republican demands, and marginalised the trade unions and socialists. What could have been a genuine solidarity movement against British imperialist oppression was channelled into support for the Provisional IRA.

Much of the Irish left found it difficult to connect with the anger surrounding the hunger strikes. They tended to view support for the hunger strike as support for the PIRA and reactionary sectarian violence, and rejected the idea that the movement could have broad working-class support beyond Northern Catholics.

The Workers’ Party (Official IRA) – which had split from the Provisionals in 1969 over the rejection of armed struggle and the question of socialist versus sectarian politics – went so far in the opposite direction as to shamefully condemn the hunger strikers as common sectarian criminals!

Sinn Féin and the PIRA leadership declared victory when the hunger strike was called off in October 1981. The families of the prisoners had asked for it to end, and the British government had secretly offered to partially fulfil their demands. Thatcher had called the hunger strike the Republican movement’s “last card” to play. But what she and the British ruling class really feared was the rising mass movement.

Sinn Féin used the momentum of the Anti H-Block movement to contest the 1982 NI Assembly election (despite calls for a Republican boycott) and to win the 1983 election in West Belfast for Gerry Adams. It was clear they were on the up – trending towards replacing the moderate Social Democratic and Labour Party as the top nationalist party. They had stood aside for Bobby Sands in the 1981 by-election, and twenty years later were overtaken by Sinn Féin.

The ‘peace process’

The subsequent legend is that after the hunger strike, Gerry Adams led the party and the Provisional IRA down the path of peace, winning a power-sharing government that all the martyrs for Irish freedom can be proud of. The reality is that the Provos were forced to admit that a military campaign against Britain was never going to be victorious, and that the working class were exhausted by the conflict.

Across the sectarian divide the working class had an honest desire for peace. This does not mean it was ‘neutral’ in the conflict or passive, but tired of tit-for-tat sectarian bombings and killings that led nowhere. Only a genuine Marxist revolutionary tendency could have explained the way forward then, as now.

Despite Sinn Féin’s apparent ‘turn’ after the hunger strike towards ‘democratic’ methods, and radical leftist posture, it never broke its sectarian line of only appealing to Catholic or Nationalist voters. The new ‘community’ politics paradoxically strengthened sectarianism, as it became institutionalised in the new Stormont Assembly after 1998.

The leaders of Sinn Féin were not wrong to drop the abstentionist policy in the wake of the 1981 hunger strike. But rather than the mass movement being used as a mere launchpad for electoral success, the new platform provided by seats at Westminster and the Dáil ought to have been used to spread, enhance, and radicalise the mass movement.

Many of the leaders of Sinn Féin and the PIRA had drawn the conclusion that the tactics of armed struggle had failed. Instead of encouraging a political reassessment within Republicanism and a return to the revolutionary socialist ideas of James Connolly, these leaders attempted to nudge the movement towards electoralism.

Forty years after the hunger strike ended, the idea that reform through Stormont can achieve an end to sectarianism, genuine equality and improved living conditions for the working class – much less a 32 county socialist republic – has been completely shattered.

This reformed partitionist legislature, and many of its features like a ‘Unionist veto’ over laws and mandatory coalition, were staunchly opposed by the 1981 hunger strikers. Now, however, the ‘petition of concern’, power-sharing with the DUP, and an entrenched (but ‘equal’) sectarian divide are hailed as signs of ‘progress’ by Sinn Féin.

It is a blockage on progress, as the dismal history of the Assembly over the past 20 years will attest. The ‘petition of concern’ has been a reliable weapon for the DUP to try and prevent the Assembly legalising abortion, equal marriage for same-sex couples, or passing an Irish language act.

Sectarianism vs socialism

Sectarian division has only worsened, with frequent hate crimes and riots leading to so-called ‘peace walls’ erected between neighbours.

The promised ‘peace dividend’ of the Good Friday Agreement has not materialised, as the North of Ireland continues to be economically stagnant, with record poverty and deprivation. The Assembly collapses whenever there is a political crisis or the parties renege on their commitments.

Bobby sands mural Image Shermozle wikimedia commonsBobby Sands and his comrades made the ultimate sacrifice in the struggle against oppression and imperialism. Only the establishment of a Socialist United Ireland can put an end to these scourges once and for all / Image: Shermozle, wikimedia commons

Young people feel they have no future in this sectarian state and many choose to emigrate.

No honest person wants a return to the violence and terror of the Troubles. But young people are entitled to ask if the peace process has delivered what was promised. Irish Republicans are entitled to ask if Sinn Féin politicians have betrayed what the hunger strikers died for, in order to get ministerial offices and cushy privileges for themselves.

Most Republican prisoners, and especially the INLA Volunteers, saw themselves as fighters for a revolutionary cause that would establish a democratic socialist Republic across the whole of Ireland. While we may not have agreed on every tactic or detail in their programme, we cannot doubt the sincerity and bravery of those who died on hunger strike while locked up in a British jail.

It has been said before that Ireland has too many martyrs. Countless lives have been lost trying to break the chains of imperialism and capitalism, which continue to cause so much pain and anguish. Ireland can have a future free from poverty, exploitation, oppression and sectarianism. But this is only to be found along the path of revolutionary class struggle.

In joining this cause we honour those who have made heroic sacrifices, whilst taking up the struggle for the overthrow of imperialism, the establishment of a Socialist United Ireland, and the world-wide emancipation of the working class.