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The Hunger Strikes: 25 years on

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This year marks the 25th Anniversary of the Irish Hunger Strikes. In 1981, 10 Irish Republican prisoners fasted to death in order to win political status for themselves and their comrades in British jails.

Their struggle was an attempt to smash Britain’s criminalisation policy. They refused to accept criminal status and demanded they be recognised as prisoners of war. The fact that they were prisoners of war had been accepted by the Tory Government of 1972 when they were forced to concede special category status in the face of mass demonstrations and riots in the six counties of northern Ireland. This allowed republican prisoners to wear their own clothes and organise their own education and recreation.

It was a Labour Government that withdrew special category status in 1976. The Tories enthusiastically followed this as Thatcher quickly stepped up the attempt to drive a wedge between the republican movement and the predominantly Catholic anti-Unionist population. Increased repression ensued and Catholic estates became saturated with British troops.

Britain’s criminalisation policy had also involved a massive restructuring of the legal system in Northern Ireland. Juries were abolished, as the notorious Diplock Courts were established, and rules of evidence were diluted to make it easier to gain convictions. By 1980, the British state had escalated its war on the anti-Unionist community; a war that has its origins in Britain’s age-old occupation of Ireland.

Hunger Strikes
This then was the backdrop to the Hunger Strikes of 1981. The withdrawal of special category status in 1976 had already seen blanket and dirty protests, a first hunger strike that had apparently secured a deal only to be broken by Thatcher. The subsequent Hunger Strike led by Bobby Sands knew full well what was at stake and issued a clear call for political status. They had been convicted by special courts, under emergency legislation, which specifically recognised the political nature of their offences, so why couldn’t they have special category status? The prisoners’ 5 demands were:
• The right to wear their own clothes
• The right to abstain from penal labour
• The right to free association within ones area
• The right to organise education and recreation
• Full restoration of remission

But Thatcher faced the strikers down and from March to October successive prisoners were let to die. Even Labour Party representative Don Concannon flew over to the dying Sands just to say he could expect no support from Labour!

The National H-Block Campaign was formed in Ireland to support the prisoners. Worldwide support was also forthcoming. The Hunger Strikers had massive support throughout Ireland. On his deathbed, Bobby Sands won a by-election in the north; Bobby Sands MP!

However, as Workers Power and the comrades of the Irish Workers Group active in the H-Block Campaign stated at that time, the campaign also had serious weaknesses. First, the Campaign pleaded on humanitarian grounds rather than explicitly for political status. IWG publication Class Struggle 8/9 July’81 said: “While we are not opposed to people taking part for humanitarian reasons, it must be understood that the fight to defend republican fighters, whatever the criticisms socialists and trade unionists have of their tactics and methods, is above all a working class fight against imperialism and its creation - Partition.” A victory for political status would also be recognition of the continued existence and legitimacy of the struggle of the anti-Unionist working class.

Second, the H-Block Campaign appealed to the hypocritical pacifism of the Catholic Church and Fianna Fail. The latter with its long history of jailing republicans would only be too happy to be wrapped in fake republican colours against a background of rising anger in Ireland.

Third, there was a refusal to develop a strategy for working class action to win political status. The IWG argued for a General Strike to win the prisoners’ demands and they called for an anti-imperialist united front that could mobilise against the whole array of repression that put the prisoners there in the first place. After Bobby Sands died there were massive demonstrations, 100,000 at his funeral and street fighting in many areas of the north. But no one was calling for strikes, aside from the IWG, the National Campaign failed in this regard despite a groundswell of anger throughout Ireland.

The Hunger Strikes failed to win their demands but equally the British were not able to criminalise the men in the eyes of the great majority of the nationalist population. But the system of emergency laws, arbitrary arrests, beatings and torture to extract confessions, trial by no-jury courts all remained intact.

Peace with no justice
One of the results of the Hunger Strikes was for Sinn Fein to embrace the electoral road at least to Stormont and Dublin. The realisation that their military strategy was not working made them sue for peace in the 1990’s. The last of their ceasefires in 1997 and the subsequent Good Friday Agreement in 1998 was recognition that the war was over. The dumping of arms in 2005 was also an historic statement but was done with no deal on policing even.

Is the peace deal a sell-out?
As socialists we always accepted that the Republican struggle was based on a real injustice, the denial of the right to self-determination of the Irish people. That denial accounts for a section of the Irish people being imprisoned against their will in the northern state. That’s why we supported the IRA’s goal and defended their right to fight British imperialism. But the GFA moves us towards that goal of self-determination not one jot; acceptance of the GFA formalises the Unionist veto over the future of Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein accepts this; they have accepted the Unionist veto.

Furthermore despite some alleviation of Catholic discrimination, the police and security services are all still Unionist controlled. Britain and its loyalist accomplices hold the monopoly of violence. No significant disarming of loyalists has taken place.

As the power sharing experiment is attempted again, let us not forget it is based on a sectarian head count - an attempt to stitch a compromise together between two distinct communities within the context of a united Northern Ireland. A pipedream that can only hold back the development of cross community working class politics.

Sinn Fein obviously see sectarianism as rampant in the north but believe “progress within the peace process will create opportunity, wealth, improve our standard of living and contribute to further progress. It will usher in equality and remove the causes of sectarianism.” (Gerry Adams). Apart from a naive view of how capitalism works for us all, this statement fails to address the roots of sectarianism in the north. The state itself is sectarian; no amount of Sinn Fein involvement in a power-sharing Executive will change that.

Indeed after nearly 10 years of peace sectarian attacks against Catholics are as common today as before the GFA. Whilst the Orange state remains intact no significant change will take place. The DUP will defend that state to the last and every concession Sinn Fein grant will never be enough. As Paisley and co continue to ward off Adams’ advances, time runs out for Sinn Fein’s strategy.

A Worker’s republic
A new strategy is required. The national question will not go away nor resolve itself through hopes of peaceful co-existence. We need to campaign for a constituent assembly where a socialist solution to the national question which appeals to Catholic and Protestant workers alike can be hammered out.

The recent postal strike in Belfast uniting both Catholic and Protestant workers is key to forging such unity in action. But lasting unity requires more than a just a militant fight for common economic goals.

A fight for a secular Workers’ Republic is a fight against sectarianism. A united socialist Ireland can dig out the roots of sectarianism and privilege in the north. That means a concerted struggle against any new Stormont style state, the withdrawal of British troops that guarantee that state’s existence and the formation of workers’/popular militias. It involves a struggle against the southern state and bosses, ensuring that the means of production and the state are in the hands of democratically elected workers organisations throughout the island.

A revolutionary workers party must be built in Ireland to ensure that the Irish working class is the agent that deals a double whammy to both the British imperialists and the southern bosses on the road to a Workers’ Republic thereby ensuring that Bobby Sands and the Hunger Strikers deaths were not in vain!

The creation of a sectarian state
This year also marks the 90th anniversary of the Easter Rising. In 1916 a few hundred Irish nationalists and socialists staged an armed rebellion in Dublin against Britain and declared an Irish Republic (See Workers Power, 304).

The rebellion was defeated and its leaders were executed. The aftermath of this opened up a revolutionary phase in Irish history that saw an overwhelming victory for Sinn Fein in a general election, massive strikes for example against conscription and transport of army munitions, and a guerrilla war waged by the IRA against British occupation. Sinn Fein set up a Parliament, Dial Eireann, that was promptly outlawed by the British.

The result of this struggle was a Treaty that drew up the present borders between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Partition divided Ireland but also the IRA. The Proclamation of the Irish Republic 1916 never envisaged a divided Ireland. No wonder many in the IRA cried “sell-out” on hearing the terms of the Treaty!

A civil war followed, whereby the British backed the new Free State Government of the south against the anti-Treaty forces of the IRA. The IRA was defeated and suffered heavier losses and repression to equal anything the British had levelled at them. The national revolution had been smashed and two vicious, reactionary, clerical states had been formed. James Connolly, one of the executed socialist leaders of the Easter Rebellion, had earlier predicted quite accurately “a carnival of reaction” if Partition occurred. Meanwhile in the north the minority Catholic population had been stranded and imprisoned under the jackboot of the fully armed pro-British Loyalists.

The aims of the Irish national revolution had not been fulfilled. Ireland was divided. The artificial states that had been created were a constant reminder to Irish people of an injustice needing to be righted. The northern state was to become a prison house for a third of its Catholic population. Discrimination in jobs and allocation of houses, repression by draconian laws like the Special Powers Act and suppression of all things republican and Irish ensured that struggle around the unfinished tasks of the national question would break out again.

And break out it did again with a vengeance! In 1968 the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement took to the streets demanding equality for Catholics, drawing on the experience of the Civil Rights Movement in the USA. It protested against the discrimination in housing and jobs, against gerrymandering, and for one man, one vote in local elections. The mass demonstrations drew the predictable violent response from the Royal Ulster Constabulary and other loyalists. Not only demos were attacked but in parts of Belfast Catholics were driven out of their areas in pogroms.

Catholics fought back with no-go areas; rent and rates strikes were declared. Defence Committees were established. A reorganised Provisional IRA was formed in response to the burning need for defence of Catholic areas; their credibility was thus gained. Britain’s credibility diminished as they reacted to justified Catholic resistance with internment without trial, torture, supporting a demoralised, battered and sectarian RUC and to cap it all paratroopers murdering 13 unarmed demonstrators in Derry in 1972.

Catholics’ original perception that the RUC was bigoted rapidly grew over into the perception that the troops were no better. Indeed both forces defended the state, a state that was seen to be irreformable in the eyes of Catholics and one that was deliberately designed with an inbuilt majority guaranteeing institutionalised sectarianism, or as NI Prime Minister Craig put it in 1934 ’we are a Protestant Parliament and a Protestant state’. Only its destruction and replacement with a united Ireland would justifiably satisfy the republican led Catholic population. The Civil Rights Movement having hit the sectarian brick wall of the northern state grew over into an unfinished national war of liberation.

Murder in a sectarian state
A 15-year-old Catholic was murdered in Ballymena on 8 May. Michael McIlveen was savagely beaten by a Unionist mob and died in hospital less than two days after the sectarian attack. The murder is one of a number of attacks on Catholics in the Ballymena area recently including paint, petrol and pipe bomb attacks on Catholic homes, schools and churches.

Ballymena is a notorious centre for sectarianism and it is the political heartland of the DUP. DUP council leader in Ballymena Roy Gillespie commented to the media “As a Catholic Michael McIlveen wont get into heaven unless he’s been saved. If he did not repent before he died he will not get into heaven. Catholics are not acceptable in heaven."

Such sectarian nonsense permeates Ballymena. A fifth of the town’s population, around 10,000, are Catholic. Sectarian intimidation is rampant and large parts of the town centre are effectively a no-go area for Catholics. Within the past month two other Catholics were attacked - one was held down by a gang attempting to carve a union jack on his stomach. The DUP have refused to accept Michael’s murder as sectarian, telling the media of parents’ concerns ’that a Protestant child will be killed’! The Police Service Northern Ireland accepts it was sectarian but it was tit for tat. Typically ignoring the fact that Catholics are overwhelmingly victimised.

The sectarian state that the DUP and PSNI defend wouldn’t have it any other way!