25 years on from the hunger strike – Irish prisoners still resisting

On 5 May 1981, Bobby Sands, an IRA volunteer and elected MP, died in Long Kesh prison following 66 days on hunger strike as a result of Britain’s refusal to reinstate political status for Republican prisoners. He had refused to concede to demands from visiting dignitaries to abandon his protest. Sands explained why the Republican prisoners of war were political prisoners: ‘I believe and stand by the God-given right of the Irish nation to sovereign independence, and the right of any Irishman or woman to assert this right in armed revolution.’ At his funeral in Belfast 100,000 people marched in defiance and solidarity.

Following the slow deaths of the 10 IRA and INLA hunger strikers, working class youth took the lead in battling the British forces and their collaborators. However, the National H-Block/Armagh leaders had adopted a ‘broad support’ strategy designed to appeal to prominent people in the South, which meant that in practice the campaign was tailored to the demands of middle class leaders who did very little to publicly support the prisoners. This and the lack of any effective solidarity movement in Britain meant that Margaret Thatcher could stick to her pronouncement that ‘a crime is a crime’ and refuse to concede that Republican prisoners were political.

After the hunger strike was called off in October 1981, the British government quietly conceded some of the demands of the prisoners, allowing them to forego prison work, wear their own clothing, freely associate and engage in educational activities within their wings but without publicly granting political status.

Although the 1998 Good Friday Agreement effectively recognised the political status of Republican prisoners already in gaol, in order that their release could be part of the deal, this was specifically not extended to those arrested after the signing of the agreement. In 2006, Irish political prisoners are still being abused in British gaols.

Real IRA prisoner Aiden Hulme, currently held in Full Sutton in northern England, may have to have his leg amputated following deliberate neglect and the withholding of medical treatment by the prison authorities. Prison medics at Belmarsh recommended amputation but when Aiden’s family obtained an independent second opinion their doctor said that his leg could be saved. Prison doctors in Full Sutton are continuing this cruel punishment by withdrawing Aiden’s painkillers claiming that his suffering is ‘purely psychological’. Aiden is suing the Home Office for mistreatment and his supporters are campaigning for him to serve the rest of his sentence in Ireland. He has been on hunger strike and no wash protest in his fight to defend his rights.

The British prison authorities have shown a similar vindictive attitude in relation to the issue of the segregation of Republican and Loyalist prisoners from one another in British gaols in the Six Counties. Continuity IRA prisoners have accused the authorities of punishing those who had opted to go on the Republican wing in Maghaberry prison. Prisoners are on alternating days of 22 and 18-hour lock-up, are strip-searched at least once a week and have to eat meals in cells, which measure 8ft by 12ft and contain a toilet. Rooftop and no-wash protests have already taken place and if political rights continue to be removed there could be further protests and strikes.

Sectarian murder in Ballymena

The murder of Michael McIlveen, a 15-year-old Catholic youth, who was kicked to death by a Loyalist gang in Ballymena on 8 May, has highlighted the frightening situation faced by Nationalists who live in small enclaves in towns with a Loyalist majority. Michael was on his way home from the local cinema when he was set upon by a Loyalist gang wielding baseball bats and knives. The Sunday Business Post reported that life for Ballymena’s Nationalist youth ‘is punctuated by sectarian attacks and pervaded with a sense of despair, growing anger and resentment at their impotence in the face of sustained attacks’. In recent months, the attacks have become more organised, with Loyalists cruising in cars, armed with baseball bats and knives, on the prowl for Nationalists.

Jim O’Rourke

FRFI 191 June / July 2006


Ireland: the key to the British revolution by David Reed

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