The history of oppression of the Irish people by the British ruling class is long and bloody. This oppression has at once been economic, political and cultural; physical and psychological; subtle and overt. One of the many vicious examples of British imperialism’s lack of respect for human life in the 20th century, and a key event in the fight for Irish liberation, is the heroic struggle of the H-Block prisoners for political recognition that culminated in the hunger strikes of 1980-81.
Bobby Sands is famous as the first of ten Irish hunger strikers to die resisting the British campaign of criminalisation of republican prisoners of war. He spent nearly a third of his short life behind bars in British jails. At 19, he married in jail, and he was in jail when each of this two sons were born, the second of whom tragically died at just a week old. It was in jail that Bobby wrote his many poems, songs and political articles, smuggling them out on folded up pieces of toilet paper.
Born in Belfast, Bobby, a poor working-class boy from an Irish catholic family, grew up under the shadow of inequality and oppression. While he was growing up, his family were forced to move house several times as a result of loyalist intimidation, and Bobby was bitterly disappointed to find that his protestant friends joined in this sectarian victimisation. At the age of 18, after being forced out of his job as an apprentice coach-maker by unionist thugs, Bobby joined the republican movement, refusing any longer to live as a second-class citizen in his own country.
It was the summer of 1972, just six months after the British army had conducted its massacre of 14 unarmed civilians in Derry during Bloody Sunday. Bobby later wrote of his experiences as an IRA (Irish Republican Army) Volunteer at this time: “My life now centred around sleepless nights and stand-bys dodging the Brits and calming nerves to go out on operations. But the people stood by us. The people not only opened the doors of their homes to lend us a hand but they opened their hearts to us. I learned that without the people we could not survive and I knew that I owed them everything.”
Within six months, Bobby was interned. He spent the next three years in jail, but used the time to good effect, reading widely, discussing politics with his fellow prisoners and teaching himself Irish, which he was later to teach to the other blanket men in the H-Blocks.
On his release, Bobby set to work as a community activist, involving himself in all aspects of local life and politics and producing a paper, Liberty. According to Jim Gibney, writing in the Irish News this March, “Nothing was too small or big for his helping hand. He led by example and inspired those around him to follow.”
After less than six months of freedom, Bobby was arrested again and charged with taking part in a bomb attack at Dunmurry. After his capture, he and five other young men were taken to the notorious torture centre at Castlereagh. Despite being interrogated and tortured for six days, Bobby refused to answer any questions or give any information other than his name, age and address.
After nine months on remand, Bobby’s trial finally took place in September 1977. There was no evidence linking him and his comrades to the bomb attack, but the judge nevertheless sentenced them to fourteen years each for the possession of a single revolver.
Irish republican fighters have always maintained that they are not, as they have been branded by the British state, ‘criminals’, but a legitimate army fighting a national war for the independence of their land; for the right of the Irish people to self-determination.
In an attempt to undermine the IRA’s credibility, and as part of its propaganda war against republicanism, the British government decided in 1976 to remove the ‘special category’ status from republican prisoners. This meant that they would no longer be treated as political prisoners of war (POWs) but as ordinary criminals. They would no longer be allowed freedom of association within the prisons, nor would they be allowed to wear their own clothes or to educate and organise themselves. Instead they would be forced to wear prison uniforms and participate in prison work. The British ruling class hoped by its actions to deter others from joining the freedom fight, to brand the freedom fighters as criminals and cut off the support of the local communities, and thus break the morale of the prisoners. The imperialists planned to turn their specially-built H-Block prisons into the graveyard of the republican struggle.
“The Republican insistence on the importance of political prisoner status has nothing to do with contempt for the ‘ordinary criminals’ … From Thomas Ashe to Bobby Sands the concern has always been to assert the political nature of the struggle in which the IRA is engaged.” (Gerry Adams)
These tactics were not new. The apartheid government in South Africa tried by similar methods to criminalise the ANC, while the Israeli government has always sought to criminalise the various Palestinian resistance groups, from the PLO to Hamas, branding them as ‘terrorists’ and ‘criminals’ and denying the legitimacy of their liberation struggle.
In response to these tactics, the republican prisoners waged a determined struggle in pursuit of their five demands:
The right not to wear a prison uniform;
The right not to do prison work;
The right of free association with other political prisoners;
The right to organise their own educational and recreational facilities;
The right to one visit, one letter and one parcel per week.
Blanket and dirty protests
The struggle against criminalisation first took the form of the ‘blanket’ protest, in which republican prisoners refused to wear prison uniforms. Since they were denied any other clothing, they had no alternative but to wrap themselves in the blankets from their beds. Hundreds of men endured incredible hardships for five long years. They lived in unthinkably cold and dirty conditions with nothing to wear but a thin blanket in all weathers. The high windows of their cells were simply unglazed holes in the wall, which provided very little light and exposed the men to bitter cold winds and snow in the winter, while in summer the concrete cells were transformed into stinking furnaces.
The ‘blanket men’ were denied all ‘privileges’ and many basic human necessities. They were allowed no books, writing materials or music and not even a chair or bed to sit on, only a thin foam mattress on the floor and putrefying, maggot-infested food to eat. When the men left their cells to wash or exercise they were subjected to humiliation and vicious beatings by the prison guards. These beatings became so bad that the ‘no wash’ protest was begun in order to draw attention to the situation. The no wash protest soon escalated into the ‘dirty’ protest, so called because, since prisoners were unable to visit the bathrooms to slop out their chamber pots, they were forced to smear excrement on their cell walls and empty urine under their cell doors (only to find that the prison guards swept the contents back into their rooms).
Despite these inhuman conditions, and the health problems they caused, the spirit of the prisoners remained unbroken. Communicating through their cell doors, the men continued to organise, debate, learn Irish, tell stories, sing and write songs, and even to smuggle in news, tobacco and writing materials from outside the prison. Even so, the British government still tried to brazen it out, hoping that, by continuing the propaganda war and denying all publicity to the protesters and their demands, it would eventually succeed in crushing the will of the prisoners.
Mrs Thatcher, the then prime minister, ignoring the political violence meted out daily to the Irish nationalist population by the British army, the RUC and loyalist paramilitaries, stated with breathtaking hypocrisy: “There is no such thing as political murder, political bombing or political violence. There is only criminal murder, criminal bombing and criminal violence. We will not compromise on this. There will be no political status.”
The 1980 hunger strikes
Following the lack of progress in achieving their demands and the publicity blackout surrounding their long years of protest, the prisoners decided they had no option but to call a hunger strike, something that had always been held in reserve as a last resort. On 10 October 1980, they stated:
“We, the republican prisoners of war in the H-Blocks, Long Kesh, demand, as of right, political recognition and that we be accorded the status of political prisoners. We claim this right as captured combatants in the continuing struggle for national liberation and self-determination.
“We refute most strongly the tag of ‘criminal’ with which the British have attempted to label us and our struggle, and we point to the divisive partitionist institutes of the six counties as the sole criminal aspect of the current struggle …
“We declare that political status is ours of right and we declare that from Monday 27 October 1980, a hunger strike by a number of men representing H-Blocks 3, 4 and 5 will commence.”
The hunger strikes were started by seven men in the H-Blocks: Tom McFeeley, Brendan Hughes, Raymond McCartney, Leo Green, John Nixon, Tommy McKearney and Sean McKenna. Three women prisoners in Armagh joined them in the strike on 1 December: Mairead Farrell, Mairead Nugent and Mary Doyle, who stated that “We are prepared to fast to the death, if necessary, but our love for justice and our country will never die.”
Still the government would not budge. In the House of Commons, Thatcher said, “The British government will never concede political status to the hunger strikers or to any other person convicted of criminal offences in the Province.” Suddenly, however, on 18 December 1980, the hunger strike ended after 52 days, apparently as a result of a deal struck between the secretary of state, Humphrey Atkins, and the prisoners.
The prisoners claimed they had been shown an advance copy of a speech Atkins was going to make the next day in parliament conceding their demands. The deal meant that they would be able to wear the clothing of their choice, would be able to receive clothes and books from family and friends and would enjoy relaxed rules for their visits. However, the government reneged on its promises as soon as the strike was called off. Atkins denied that any last-minute deals had taken place, claiming that the prisoners’ decision to end the hunger strikes resulted from their acceptance of defeat.
The concessions granted to the prisoners were far less than had been promised. They were to be allowed to wear civilian-type clothing issued by the prison, free association for three hours on weekdays and five hours on weekends and increased letters and parcels. In the event, the government and the prison officers reneged completely on even these promises.
The hunger strikes of ’81
On 7 February 1981, the H-Block prisoners, led by Bobby Sands, announced that they were going to resume the hunger strike. The second hunger strike was begun on 1 March by Bobby Sands, who was joined two weeks later by Francis Hughes. Raymond McCreesh, Patsy O’Hara and many other IRA and INLA (Irish National Liberation Army) prisoners joined the protest in the ensuing weeks.
In a bid to draw the attention of the world to the Irish freedom struggle, Sands was put forward by Sinn Fein as a candidate in the parliamentary elections for Fermanagh and South Tyrone. On 9 April, the 40th day of his hunger strike (and just one month after his 27th birthday), Bobby Sands was elected as MP with 30,492 votes. The republican community was jubilant, feeling sure that Westminster would not allow an MP, elected against all odds to the British parliament and with 30,000 people behind him, to die in jail in the full glare of the world’s media.
But the government refused to move. Bobby Sands died a martyr and a hero of Irish independence on 5 May 1981. One hundred thousand mourners attended his funeral.
Francis Hughes died on 12 May and Raymond McCreesh and Patsy O’Hara died on 21 May, but the hunger strikes did not finish. As each man died, his place on the strike was taken by another republican prisoner. One of the replacements, Tom McElwee, stated:
“I believe that it is only in a continuation of the hunger strike that the pressure needed to break the British criminalisation policy can be obtained. I understand to the full extent with which my action involves the whole overall struggle for Ireland, freedom and self-determination. This … because criminalisation was introduced to break the freedom struggle. The weapon of the criminalisation policy must be removed from the British by achieving political status for republican POWs.”
After several months, no progress had been made in securing concessions from the British government (although tremendous progress had been made in gaining support for the republican movement). After several families had intervened to save their sons’ lives, and in the face of pressure from the Catholic Church, the hunger strikes were called off on 3 October 1981.
The strikes had done their work, however. Soon after they ended, James Prior, the new secretary of state for Northern Ireland, quietly granted most of the prisoners’ demands. The government still refused to recognise the war, but the hunger strikes had won the republican movement so much publicity and respect that even the formidable media machine could not easily blind the eyes of the British and Irish people to the true nature of the Irish struggle.
The British had hoped to turn the prisons into the graveyard of the republican movement and thus remove the impetus from the armed struggle going on outside, but they reckoned without the deep commitment and foresight of the protesters and their leaders, who understood that on this issue depended not just the physical conditions for republican prisoners, but also the future and vitality of the struggle for Irish liberation.
As a result of the H-Block struggles, a new generation of young Irish men and women was inspired to join the struggle for liberation. The election of Bobby Sands to the British parliament also marked the entrance of Sinn Fein into the political arena, as the new tactic of going forward with “an armalite [assault rifle] in one hand and a ballot box in the other” was born.
Bobby Sands, the leader of the heroic hunger strikers and the first of them to die, has become an icon of popular anti-imperialist resistance, not only in Ireland but all over the world. We in the British working-class movement revere the memory of Sands and his comrades, not only as freedom fighters generally, but also, and especially, because they stood up against the might of British imperialism. We make common cause with the Irish in their struggle for liberation because they are fighting our own oppressors and every victory for them brings the hour when we too shall be free of the chains of British imperialist exploitation a little closer.
Victory to the Irish struggle for self-determination!
Long live the memory of Bobby Sands and his comrades!
Extracts from the diary of Bobby Sands, written during the first two weeks of his hunger strike, March 1981
“Of course I can be murdered, but I remain what I am, a political POW and no-one (not even the British) can change that.”
“Total equality and fraternity cannot and never will be gained whilst these parasites dominate and rule the lives of a nation. There is no equality in a society that stands upon the economic and political bog if only the strongest make it good or survive. Compare the lives, comforts, habits, wealth of all those political conmen (who are allegedly concerned for us, the people) with that of the wretchedly deprived and oppressed.”
“Nothing else seems to matter except that lingering constant reminding thought, ‘Never give up’. No matter how bad, how black, how painful, how heart-breaking, ‘Never give up’, ‘Never despair’, ‘Never lose hope’. Let them bastards laugh at you all they want, let them grin and jibe, allow them to persist in their humiliation, brutality, deprivations, vindictiveness, petty harassments, let them laugh now, because all of that is no longer important or worth a response
“I am making my last response to the whole vicious inhuman atrocity they call H-Block. But, unlike their laughs and jibes, our laughter will be the joy of victory and the joy of the people, our revenge will be the liberation of all and the final defeat of the oppressors of our aged nation.”
“On a personal note, Liam Og, I just thought I’d take this opportunity tonight of saying to your good hard-working self that I admire you all out there and the unselfish work that you all do and have done in the past, not just for the H-Blocks and Armagh, but for the struggle in general.
“I have always taken a lesson from something that was told me by a sound man, that is, that everyone, republican or otherwise, has his own particular part to play. No part is too great or too small, no one is too old or too young to do something.
“There is that much to be done that no select or small portion of people can do, only the greater mass of the Irish nation will ensure the achievement of the socialist republic, and that can only be done by hard work and sacrifice.
“So, mo chara, for what it’s worth, I would like to thank you all for what you have done and I hope many others follow your example, and I’m deeply proud to have known you all and prouder still to call you comrades and friends.”