British opportunists and the hunger strike

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! no.8 January/February 1981

hunger strikes

The hunger strike by Irish political prisoners begun by 7 men in the H-Blocks on 27 October, ended on 18 December. By then 37 men and 3 women were on hunger strike for political status.

In our Editorial Statement to FRFI 7 we wrote that the hunger strike:

‘ ... has become the central issue of the Irish people’s war against British imperialism ... winning political status will be a body blow to British imperialism in Ireland and a great step forward for the Irish people.

British Communists do not hesitate to declare complete and uncompromising support for the hunger strikers. Their struggle demands the consistent mobilisation of revolutionary forces in Britain.’

This mobilisation did not take place. In Ireland the revolutionary forces of the Irish working class came onto the streets in thousands and tens of thousands. International support for the hunger strikers grew more rapidly than anyone could have expected. Only in Britain, the one country where massive pressure and force against the British government was desperately needed, was there no campaign of any significance.

The responsibility for this disgraceful state of affairs rests entirely upon the shoulders of British petit bourgeois socialism. In particular upon the CP, SWP and IMG who claim to be the largest and most influential of socialist organisations in Britain. The Communist Party at the beginning of the hunger strike demanded that the IRA cease the armed struggle and refused to participate in any campaign.

One would have expected that with the end of the hunger strike socialists in Britain would undertake a severe analysis and criticism of the campaign in Britain in order to be better prepared for any future struggle in the prisons. Yet only two weeks after the hunger strike, and in their very first statements, the SWP and IMG say not a word about the British ‘campaign’ and their role in it! Instead, they unashamedly blame the Irish movement for the fact that the British government has not yet granted political status to Irish political prisoners.

The SWP wrote:

‘The four-year-long struggle for political status . . . has ended with what can only be described as a masterpiece of compromise . . .

Hunger striking has a long established and honoured place in republican struggle. But like the armed campaign it is ultimately an elitist tactic.

. . . a mass movement was built but its role was essentially supportive . . . a different thing from one that fights for self-liberation . . .’

The SWP like its bedfellow of the Communist Party, terrified of the revolutionary armed struggle of the oppressed, disgracefully exploits the end of the hunger strike to call on IRA to abandon the armed struggle. As it goes on to say

‘There will be pressure on the IRA to adapt its tactics to the new situation. A return to isolated military acts will be hard to justify.’

The IMG, too cowardly to speak up itself, endorses a statement from its Irish ‘co-thinkers’, The People’s Democracy:

‘The ending of the hunger strike represents a limited victory for the prisoners . . .

The British were able to hold out because the mass of the Irish people were held hostage by the SDLP and, in the South, by the Fianna Fáil government.

It must be said that the Smash H-Block/Armagh campaign did not have a central strategy of challenging the SDLP and Fianna Fáil . . .’

Such vile and disgusting lies! A mass movement in Ireland was built in spite of the opposition from the SDLP and Fianna Fáil. And in the face of this British petit-bourgeois socialism speaks of ‘compromises’ and ‘limited victories’ being the result of ‘elitist tactics’ and of failure to ‘challenge’ the SDLP and Fianna Fáil. This is nothing more than a treacherous cover-up for the betrayals of the SWP and IMG. They dare not state, that in Britain, it was the SWP and IMG which opposed, by any means possible, the campaign for a complete victory for the Irish political prisoners hunger strike. They dare not say that it was they themselves who pleaded with the British government for a compromise. Charter 80, fully backed by the SWP and IMG, grovelled before Thatcher, begging her in a personal letter:

‘The Northern Ireland Office has stated it will not compromise on this issue . . .

We appeal to you to compromise and avoid the death of these Irish prisoners.’

It was none other than these cowardly middle-class beggars who, in London, Manchester, Birmingham, Bradford and Scotland argued against and voted against hunger strike action committees mobilising on the basis of Victory to The Hunger Strikers! Political Status Now!. It was none other than Messrs Fitzpatrick (SWP) and Bell (IMG) who attended a Troops Out Now Contingent meeting for the Campaign for Withdrawal from Ireland demonstration, with the sole purpose of reversing an RCG proposed decision that it march under the banner of Victory to The Blanketmen! Political Status Now! It was none other than Des Tierney of Scottish IMG who threatened to walk out of the Scottish Hunger Strike Committee, if it did not abandon its slogan Victory to The Hunger Strikers.

The IMG and SWP right from the beginning of the hunger strike were yearning for compromise. Is that not why they grovelled before Thatcher? Is that not why they did not once call upon British workers to mobilise behind the slogans ‘Victory to the Hunger Strikers! Political Status Now!’? Not only did they seek compromise, but actively tried to prevent any campaign from developing in Britain. Fitzpatrick’s and Bell’s first step was to set up a Coordinating Committee, which they themselves decided would have no powers to issue statements, or leaflets, which had no powers to call meetings, pickets or demonstrations. They decided to divest themselves of all responsibility to organise and lead a campaign and in addition, at the meeting of 19 October, rejected an RCG proposal for a properly constituted committee. They threw their ‘efforts’ into mobilising the ‘broad forces’ of MPs, trade union leaders, bishops, professors and Soviet Dissidents on a humanitarian, liberal basis. They claimed to be building an open campaign. What was the result? Nothing! Nothing but inactivity by these ‘broad forces’ and when the prisoners were near death, a statement, clearly instigated by Fitzpatrick, which savagely denounced the Provisional Republican Movement:

‘But all that will result from the deaths of any of the hunger strikers is violence and misery now and fuel for violence far into the future. They will strengthen the hand of all those who favour force rather than democratic political campaigning.’

Did the SWP and IMG, who have the gall to attack the mass Irish movement for elitism and failing to ‘challenge’ the opportunists, ever themselves challenge the Labour Party? No, they did not. The very people who wanted to adapt the whole campaign to suit MPs, bishops and professors rejected proposals to force these elements into action. It was Fitzpatrick who at the London Committee argued and voted (with the IMG) against inviting Benn and the MPs who signed Charter 80 to attend a picket at the opening of Parliament. It was Bell of the IMG who argued and voted, after six weeks of Labour left inactivity, against an RCG motion to picket Benn’s home.

This was the sum total of the SWP’s and IMG’s campaign. Of course there were meetings, pickets and other events. But none of these mobilised even a small proportion of their members, let alone supporters. The SWP and the IMG who now criticise the Irish movement failed to mobilise their own membership for the demonstrations on 15 November and 7 December. Lest there be any doubt as to why, let it be noted that at the London Committee of 10 December, with Irish political prisoners about to die they voted against an RCG proposal for a national demonstration in the event of any death.

The SWP and IMG who now so eagerly criticise the Irish movement are doing nothing more than blaming the Irish movement for crimes of British petit-bourgeois socialists. Between the ‘elitism’ of the hunger strikers, the IRA and the mass movement in Ireland and the elitism of petit bourgeois grovelling British socialism British communists do not hesitate to choose the former. The former is a mass revolutionary movement directed against British imperialism. Petit bourgeois socialism in Britain is nothing more than a vacillating and cowardly political trend, whose every step is directed at seeking compromises between imperialism and the revolutionary forces of the working class. At every step they attempt to block revolutionary mobilisation of British workers against British imperialism. This much has again been proved by their actions during the Irish hunger strike.

Eddie Abrahams


The petit bourgeois socialists’ treachery during the Irish prisoners’ hunger strike was the culmination of their whole shameful history of betrayal of the Irish struggle. It was conclusively demonstrated during the hunger strike that the petit bourgeois socialists are in the camp of reactionary British imperialism and firmly tied to the imperialist Labour Party.

The shameless betrayals carried out by the CP, SWP, WIG during the hunger strike came as no surprise to revolutionaries. For years past they have shown the same vitriolic hatred of the Republican movement; the same willingness to abase themselves before Tony Benn and his like; the same thorough sectarianism whereby the SWP, IMG put their own skins, their own alliances and their own privileges way above the interests of both the Irish and British workers.

We have only to briefly sketch their record since the blanket protest began in 1976 to prove this.

1976 Whilst during the hunger strike the petit bourgeois socialists claimed that the slogan Political Status Now! would frighten away the ‘broad forces’, in 1976 they claimed that what frightened the broad forces at that time was the slogan Troops Out Now. The IMG and SWP were in those days trying to seduce the broad forces of the CPGB. So they dropped the principled slogan Troops Out Now and adopted instead Britain must withdraw! No British involvement! The CP remained unmoved, and more importantly, unexposed.

1977 By July (when the Irish prisoners had already been on the blanket for 10 months) the UTOM (ie SWP/IMG) decided that its major initiative should be an ‘International Tribunal on Britain’s crimes against the Irish people’. This they felt would mobilise, yes, those good old ‘broad forces’ so concerned with human rights. However, when the broad forces did not arrive, the petit bourgeois socialists decided that the very name of the Tribunal was frightening them away. ‘War crimes’ was prejudging the issue they felt. So, the name was changed to the much more neutral, and broad ‘International Tribunal on Britain’s Presence in Ireland’. This farce was to keep the SWP, IMG etc occupied for two years. It finally sank in 1979 having attracted 70 people to its final hearing.

1970 The IMG, SWP, TOM, UTOM, CPGB – all refused to support Provisional Sinn Féin’s Bloody Sunday Commemoration march. Instead they held a counter-demonstration at the same time, in another part of London. PSF had issued a clear call on the left to attend its march. The petit bourgeois socialists not only ignored this call but in holding a separate march, demonstrated their utter chauvinistic contempt for the Irish people and the PSF.

1978 also saw a determined and principled campaign by the Prisoners Aid Committee on the struggle for Political Status for Irish prisoners. Aided by the RCG, the PAC mobilised two of the biggest marches for years, and did so on an openly pro-Republican basis. No concessions were made to the petit bourgeois left and its ‘broad forces’ yet in July over 5,000 marched and in November between 6-7,000.

The petit bourgeois socialists’ contribution to the large PAC demonstrations consisted of determined and conscious sabotage. The CP and SWP offices had to be picketed before they would state their views on the PAC march. The CP refused to support it, the SWP said it would and didn’t. In the week before the July march, when they saw the unprecedented support for it, the SWP and IMG set up the ‘Irish Political Prisoners Support Committee’ (never heard of before or since) and tried to use publicity stunts to cash in on the work done by PAC and the RCG.

During the run-up to the November march the SWP launched a national speaking tour with Brendan Gallacher (father of H-Block prisoner Willie Gallacher) and counterposed a ‘free Willie Gallacher’ campaign to the overall fight. The IMG organised a counter demonstration in Glasgow. When Glasgow PSF opposed the counter march Socialist Challenge called them ‘saboteurs’.

1979 The petit bourgeois left enthusiastically supported the 12 August Young Liberals demonstration on Ireland. No wonder – the demonstration studiously avoided any mention of political status. Despite the appalling conditions of the H-Block prisoners, the petit bourgeois socialists did virtually nothing else in 1979.

1980 Finally, forced to move on the issue of Irish prisoners, the SWP, IMG invented Charter 80 – a campaign supposedly in support of the 5 demands for the Irish prisoners. Once again, as later during the hunger strike, they claimed that the call for political status would alienate ‘broad forces’.

This brief sketch of their history shows two things: first, that the ‘broad forces’ do not exist, and are the excuse whereby the petit bourgeois socialists try and avoid confronting British imperialism. Secondly, the petit bourgeois socialists have, all along the line, tried to sabotage principled work on the Irish question in the British working class.


Ireland: the key to the British revolution by David Reed

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