Ireland: Republicanism and Revolution - Part Ten

The prisoners' struggle

Before 1976 republican prisoners had what was called "special category status," allowing them to be treated as prisoners of war, and providing them with the ‘privileges’ of POWs such as those specified in the Geneva Convention. Special category status had been won through a long hunger strike in 1971 by republican prisoners in Crumlin Road Jail and included:

1. The right to wear their own clothes;
2. The right to abstain from penal labor;
3. The right to free association;
4. The right to educational activities; and
5. The restoration of remission.

In order to undermine the morale of Republicans, London decided to attack the prisoners. In 1975, the British government began phasing out this status, declaring that anyone convicted after March 1, 1976 was to be treated as a common criminal - an ODC, or "Ordinary Decent Criminal" (!).

The relatives and supporters of the prisoners formed the Relatives' Action Committees to protest against this policy of criminalization. But the strongest protest came from inside the prisons, from the prisoners themselves. On September 15, 1976, the "blanket protest" began, when Republican prisoners refused to wear prison uniform. By March 1979, a quarter to a third of all sentenced Republican and Republican Socialist prisoners had joined the blanket protest.

Prison guards tried to halt the protest by beating the Blanket Men when they went to shower or use the toilets. In March 1978, the prisoners responded by refusing to leave their cells, no longer washing and using buckets as toilets. The guards then stopped bringing buckets to the cells, the prisoners replied with the "Dirty Protest".

The Relatives' Action Committee's campaign soon drew broad-based support and what had began as a struggle waged within the isolation of the jails, by the prisoners themselves, was developing into a mass movement. On October 21, 1979, the National H-Block/Armagh Committee was established at a conference held in the Andersontown area of Belfast. The new organization swiftly grew into a mass organization, which attracted the support of the IRSP, People's Democracy, Sinn Féin, Trade Unionists, and independent activists of various political stripes in the campaign previously waged almost exclusively by the prisoners' families.

Despite the participation of many of its rank-and-file members, Sinn Féin initially remained somewhat aloof from the growing movement at an organizational level, until the H-Block/Armagh struggle had gained such widespread support that to remain outside it threatened to eclipse their dominance on the Irish republican political landscape.

The H-Block prisoners prepared to take whatever steps were necessary to win their five demands.


Knowing that the only means to avert a hunger strike was to force Britain to concede the prisoners demands, the activists of the National H-Block Armagh Committee waged a tireless struggle to increase the political pressure on Britain to relent. The mass movement began to score notable successes in exposing the brutality of the authorities. This led to reprisals both by the British imperialists and the Loyalist death squads.

The 1980 Hunger Strike

To attain their five demands, which fundamentally reinstated special category status, the prisoners in the H-Blocks prepared to begin a hunger strike, but on October 23, 1980, the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) announced that the men would be permitted to wear civilian clothes (the women in Armagh had never lost this right, but had joined the protest to demonstrate their solidarity). However, the concession was a sham, the clothes intended were to be prison-issue civilian clothes, simply exchanging one uniform with another. Outraged over Britain's attempt to deceive them, seven prisoners embarked on a hunger strike.

Both the IRSP and Sinn Féin were opposed to the hunger strike, believing it to be too dangerous a form of protest. They had believed that a broad front protest was the only way to focus worldwide attention on the prison struggle and embarrass London into renewing political status, thereby ending the protest. Despite the H-Block/Armagh Committees having been able to focus international attention on the prisons, the British remained unrelenting, and the prisoners decided, over the objections of their movements outside, that the hunger strike could no longer be delayed, as no other option seemed available to them.

On Sunday 1 March 1981 a new Hunger Strike Began with the refusal of Bobby Sands, then leader of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) in the Maze Prison, to take food. It later became clear that the Provo leadership outside the prison was not in favour of a new hunger strike following the outcome of the 1980 strike. The main initiative came from the prisoners themselves. The strike was to last until 3 October 1981 and was to see 10 Republican prisoners starve themselves to death in support of their protest. The strike led to a heightening of political tensions in the region. It was also to pave the way for the emergence of Sinn Féin (SF) as a major political force in Northern Ireland.

Thatcher decided that no concessions must be made to the prisoners. With cold, calculated cruelty, she and her clique decided to allow them to die. On Tuesday 3 March 1981 Humphrey Atkins, then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, made a statement in the House of Commons in which he said that there would be no political status for prisoners regardless of the hunger strike.

Eventually the leadership of Sinn Féin (SF) decided to put forward a candidate for election to highlight the situation, and on 26 March 1981 Bobby Sands was nominated. Margaret Thatcher, the then British Prime Minister, paid a visit to the North and denied claims that the constitutional position of Northern Ireland would be threatened by the on-going talks between the British and Irish governments.

Even when Bobby Sands was elected to Westminster in the Fermanagh / South Tyrone by-election, the Thatcher administration remained obdurate. Margaret Thatcher stated: "We are not prepared to consider special category status for certain groups of people serving sentences for crime. Crime is crime is crime, it is not political." The only change it made was to publish proposals to change the Representation of the People Act making it impossible for prisoners to stand as candidates for election to parliament. The hunger strike continued to grow, and on May 5, Sands became the first of the prisoners to die, after 66 days on hunger strike. He was 26 years old.

This act of wanton cruelty on the part of Thatcher and her government showed not only callousness but also crass stupidity. Far from intimidating the Republican community, it provoked a wave of revulsion and fury.. Following the announcement that Bobby Sands had won the Fermanagh / South Tyrone by-election there were celebration parades in many Republican areas across the six counties. In Belfast, Cookstown and in Lurgan these celebrations ended in rioting. The announcement of his death sparked riots in many areas of the north, and even in the south.

Other deaths followed. Three members of the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), Michael Devine, Patsy O’Hara and Keven Lynch, died in the hunger strikes. Proportionate to their numbers, their losses were heavier than those of the Provisional IRA.

On Thursday 7 May 1981 an estimated 100,000 people attended the funeral of Bobby Sands in Belfast. The size of the crowd reflected the impact the hunger strike was having. The hunger strikes continued. Joe McDonnell, then a Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) prisoner in the Maze Prison, joined the hunger strike to take the place of Bobby Sands. On Tuesday 12 May 1981, after 59 days on hunger strike, Francis Hughes (25), a Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) prisoner in the Maze Prison, died. Hughes' death led to a further surge in rioting, particularly in Belfast and Derry. In Dublin a group of 2,000 people tried to break into the British Embassy.

Events were laying the base for a mass movement of protest. Unfortunately, the Provo leadership had no use for the mass movement, except as an auxiliary to the "armed struggle". They still had the delusion that the British army could be forced to pull out by bombing and shooting. The mass movement around the hunger strikes showed enormous promise, but once again the opportunity was thrown away.

Results of the hunger strike

One prisoner after another was allowed to die. Margaret Thatcher, then British Prime Minister, paid a visit to the north where she claimed that the hunger strike was the "last card"' of the Provos. In reality, by taking the stand it did, the British government was acting as the best recruiting sergeant for the Provisionals, who gained a new lease of life from these tragic events. The Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) also stepped up its attacks on members of the security services. The British government had to send in 600 extra British troops. To make matters worse the British government faced extensive international condemnation for the way in which it had handled the hunger strike. The relationship between the British and Irish government was strained to breaking point.

A hunger strike is a desperate measure, which should only be undertaken when there is no other alternative. The death of cadres in the prisons is a very high price to pay. There also is a limit to how far a hunger strike can go. This hunger strike finally ended in October 1981, when those Republican prisoners who had been still refusing food decided to end their fast. The prisoners took their decision when it became clear that each of their families would ask for medical intervention to save their lives. Ten Republican prisoners had died inside the Maze Prison as a result of the strike. Another 62 people were killed in demonstrations and clashes with the police.

Despite the high cost in lives, the Republican movement had achieved a huge propaganda victory over the British government and had obtained a great deal of international sympathy. More importantly, the hunger strike shook masses of people in the 26 Counties out of their lethargy, and brought huge crowds out onto the streets of the North. The hunger strike also won large numbers of new recruits to the PIRA and INLA, as well as Sinn Féin and the IRSP. International support organizations for the Irish national liberation struggle sprang up where they had not been before, and grew where they had already existed. The struggle also got an echo in Britain. In September 1981 the British Labour Party's annual conference a motion was passed committing the party to "campaign actively" for a United Ireland by consent.

The hunger strike of 1981 had very important and far-reaching consequences for and proved to be one of the key turning points of "the Troubles". The heroism of the hunger strikers had had a big effect, and the Thatcher government was forced to make concessions. On 6 October 1981 James Prior, then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, announced a series of measures which went a long way to meeting many aspects of the prisoners' five demands.

Prior announced a number of changes in prison policy, one of which would allow prisoners to wear their civilian clothes at all times. This was one of the five key demands that had been made at the start of the hunger strike. Prior also announced other changes: free association would be allowed in neighbouring wings of each H-Block, in the exercise areas and in recreation rooms; an increase in the number of visits each prisoner would be entitled to; and up to 50 per cent of lost remission would be restored. The issue of prison work was not resolved at this stage but there were indications that this issue too would be addressed.

The obstinate stupidity of Thatcher had the most negative results for British imperialism. They had helped the Provisional IRA. Support for Sinn Féin (SF) was demonstrated in the two by-elections and eventually led to the emergence of SF as a significant political force. The British government now feared that SF would overtake the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) as the main representative of the Catholic population of the North. This was a key reason for the Anglo-Irish Agreement (AIA) of November 1985.

Armalite or ballot box?

Having failed to crush the movement by brutal repression, London tried a different tactic: to entangle the PIRA in parliamentary politics. In this they were enthusiastically encouraged by the bourgeoisie of the South. Garret FitzGerald, then Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister), held talks with Margaret Thatcher, then British Prime Minister, in London. As a result of the meeting it was decided to establish the Anglo-Irish Inter-Governmental Council, which would act as forum for meetings between the two governments.

There were now serious differences over tactics in the ranks of the Provisionals. One wing of the Sinn Fein leadership was more inclined towards parliamentarianism while others favoured the continuation of the armed struggle. The result was an uncomfortable compromise, which went under the name of the ‘Armalite and ballot box’ tactic. After the hunger strike, Sinn Féin began fielding candidates for local councils and the European parliament. In the autumn of 1981 Sinn Féin (SF) held its Ard Fheis (annual conference) in Dublin. Danny Morrison, then editor of An Phoblacht, gave a speech in which he addressed the issue of the party taking part in future elections:

"Who here really believes we can win the war through the ballot box? But will anyone here object if, with a ballot paper in one hand and the Armalite in the other, we take power in Ireland"

This tactic was intended to paper over the cracks in the Provos. But British imperialism was not willing to play games. It decided to crush the PIRA, fighting with no holds barred. Immediately following the hunger strike, the British tried several tactics to break political activists and those under arms against the occupation. The attempt of the Provisionals to renew their bombing campaign in the 1980s was met with a ferocious response on the part of the security services, involving the notorious shoot-to-kill tactics. These were used mostly against members of the PIRA and INLA, but on occasion, civilians were also killed. In an official investigation, the killings of six men were examined, three were in the PIRA, two in the INLA, and one was a young civilian. A chief constable from England, John Stalker, was appointed to head the investigation. He was stonewalled by the RUC, and allegations of impropriety were made against him. The "shoot-to-kill" investigation became "Stalker-gate" after he was removed from the investigation.

It came as no great surprise to anyone that the RUC and British Army were found innocent of any deliberate attempt to kill PIRA and INLA members. In a separate case, the European Convention on Human Rights ruled that Britain should be taken before the European Court on Human Rights, and tried for the deaths of Provo volunteers and staff officers Mairead Farrell, Seán Savage and Danny McCann, known as the Gibraltar 3. The trio were assassinated by the British Army on Gibraltar, after which the British government attempted a cover-up, stating that a bomb was found in their car. When this failed, Thatcher's people tried to blame the Spanish security forces, who refused to be the fall guys for the cold-blooded murder of the three. Again, the British courts found those involved in the killings innocent of wrongdoing.

The full extent of the involvement of the British security services in these events is only now coming to light. The collusion of the British state with loyalist murder gangs, the killing of lawyer Pat Finucane and many others, has been exposed in recent months. Even more recently the allegations of the existence of an agent reporting to British intelligence at the highest levels of the PIRA, the Stakeknife affair, has dealt the Provos a further blow.

By 1993, elected representatives of both Sinn Féin and the SDLP increasingly became targets for attack. The British organized the wholesale arrest of members of the Republican and Republican Socialist movements, on the word of a "reformed terrorist," that is, a paid perjurer. Most times, these "supergrasses" ("grass" being slang for informer) would be given a list of names and "crimes" to sign. Although eventually many of these cases were thrown out on appeal, they had a demoralizing effect on activists. As a smaller organization, the Irish Republican Socialist Movement was particularly hard hit. Unlike during the hunger strike, a mass, organized opposition to the informers tactic failed to materialize, in part due to Sinn Féin's insistence on political domination of any mass group.

To boycott or not to boycott?

Sinn Féin began its foray into electoral politics as a direct result of the hunger strike campaign. In 1983, Gerry Adams, Sinn Féin president, was elected as MP for West Belfast, and held the seat until April 1992. Sinn Féin members were elected to county and city councils in the North and South. The party even went so far as to restructure its Cummain (branches) on the basis of electoral districts. In 1986, after much debate over several years, Sinn Féin dropped its policy of abstentionism in Dáil Eireann. Ironically this had been the ostensible reason for the split from the Officials in late 1969/early 1970, though the real reasons were more profound.

The decision to abandon the abstentionist line was a correct one. As a general rule of thumb, a revolutionary party only has the right to boycott elections when it is in a position to offer something superior - i.e. soviet power, a genuine workers’ democracy. Otherwise it is duty bound to participate in elections, the extent depending on the means at their disposal - this does not necessarily involve standing candidates, but not standing is not the same as a boycott - as a means of reaching the masses. To refuse to participate would mean the party boycotting itself. However, in this case, this reflected a change in principle as well as tactics. The dropping of abstentionism led to a split in Sinn Féin, when hard-line abstentionists walked out of the Ard Fheis and formed Republican Sinn Féin, a political party with little politics, which supported armed struggle, but had no army. The PIRA had declared its support for the new order in a convention held several weeks before the Ard Fheis.

In 1982, elections were held for a new assembly in the North. The British tried to bring in "rolling devolution," but the attempt failed utterly. The Unionist parties supported the Northern Ireland Assembly, but the nationalist community was divided over the issue. The body would have very limited power, as a sop to the Loyalists. The bourgeois nationalists of the SDLP supported the assembly, and sought election with the intention of taking seats. The IRSP advocated a boycott, and initially, Sinn Féin supported the idea.

After the SDLP announced it would run, Sinn Féin changed its mind, deciding to also field candidates, but on an abstentionist platform. The IRSP, with the Irish Independence Party, continued to advocate boycotting, but if voting, to vote Sinn Féin. During the election campaign, the INLA engaged in a bombing campaign to disrupt the election. The bombing campaign was criticized by Sinn Féin. The whole mess came to an ignoble end after several years, when the Unionists pulled out over the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and the only party left participating was the SDLP.