The Guardian July 11, 2001


H-Block hunger strike martyrs

Reviewed by Anna Pha
Towards 32 Special Hunger Strike Edition
Published by Australian Aid for Ireland Compiled and edited by Paddy Gorman
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The use of the hunger strike as a means of peaceful protest has a long tradition in Ireland, dating back to the seventh and eighth centuries.
During the civil war and the ongoing fight for independence since the partition of Ireland in 1920s, hundreds of men and women have endured years of horrendous conditions and deprivations in support of their political demands. In the 1970s and '80s, Irish Republican prisoners (in British and Irish jails) took part in hunger strikes to gain recognition as political prisoners and end their criminalisation (and hence the criminalisation of Republicanism) by the British authorities. During these struggles the prisoners refused to wear prison uniform (a symbol of their criminalisation), instead clothing themselves in the blanket provided in their prison cell. The first "Blanket Man", as they were known, was Kieran Nugent, an 18-year- old, sentenced in 1976. He refused to be treated as a criminal saying, "if they want me to wear a convict's uniform, they'll have to nail it to my back". The struggle came to a head in October 1980 when seven prisoners in the H- Block of Long Kesh (Belfast) embarked on a hunger strike. They were joined on December 1 by three women from Armagh Jail and another 23 H-Block prisoners two weeks later. The hunger strike was called off on December 18, on the basis of commitments from the British to meet some of their demands. As in the past, the British reneged, and on March 1, 1981, Bobby Sands commenced his hunger strike. Sixty-six days later Bobby Sands died on hunger strike, aged 27. In 1981 others joined the hunger strike. Ten men died, before the British Government backed down and granted some of their demands. Australian Aid for Ireland has published a Special Hunger Strike Edition of Towards 32 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the 1981 H-Block hunger strike martyrs. They were Bobby Sands (27), Francis Hughes (25), Raymond McCreesh (24), Patsy O'Hara (24), Joe McDonnell (30), Martin Hurson (24), Kevin Lynch (25), Kieran Doherty (25), Thomas McElwee (23), and Micky Devine (27). In this special commemorative edition Paddy Gorman gives a brief outline of the history of hunger strikes in the struggle for Irish freedom. Lawrence McKeown, a 1981 hunger striker, who refused food for 70 days before falling into a coma, gives a first-hand account of the hunger strike and its political aims. "We understood that our struggle was not just about prison conditions and recognition as political prisoners but about the broader issue of British rule in Ireland and the legitimacy of the Republican struggle. "When the hunger strike ended on October 3 1981, 10 comrades were dead and we had attained only one of our five demands the right to wear our own clothes. However, that was the most significant as it removed the badge of criminality, a prison uniform." The other demands were: * exemption from all forms of penal labour; * free association with each other at all hours; * the right to organise their own recreational and educational programs; * full restoration of remission. These were pursued in the years to come, with considerable success. "When the last prisoners to be released under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement walked out of Long Kesh on July 28 2000, the H-Blocks bore no resemblance to that for which they were originally designed. Prior to their release Republican prisoners wore their own clothes, did no prison work, were held in segregated conditions, were unlocked 24 hours a day, had access to education, sporting and recreational facilities, and much more. The prisoners' staff negotiated with the prison authorities on a daily basis regarding the management of the prison." The hunger strike also played an important role in internationalising the Republican Struggle. Chris Raleigh outlines the campaigns in Australia in support of the demands of the Hunger Strikers and the impact they had on the Australian public. There were rallies, marches, leafleting, symbolic (and one very serious) hunger strikes, formation of H-Block committees and many other activities to build awareness and support. Gerry Adams speaks of the grief at the death of Bobby Sands. A hundred thousand people lined the route of the funeral procession in silence. There were marches and protests around the world. In Australia, and around the world, thousands of people took part in other actions. When Bobby died he had, over the years, been subjected to periods of solitary confinement and brutal interrogations but never let up or lost his fighting spirit. "I was only a working class boy from a Nationalist ghetto, but it is repression that creates the revolutionary spirit of freedom. I shall not settle until I achieve liberation of my country, until Ireland becomes a sovereign, independent socialist republic", said Bobby Sands. During the hunger strike Bobby was nominated as a candidate and was elected as an MP to the British Parliament in a by-election. The commemorative publication gives a profile of each martyr each a sharp reminder of both the brutal, oppressive nature of British imperialism and the determination and courage of those fighting the Republican cause. Today in the six counties of the north, the Republican struggle continues, with Sinn Fein having made important advances in recent elections. In the south, in the 26 counties, the struggle also continues in another form. Sinn Fein has just played a leading role in preventing the Republic of Ireland from surrendering much of its sovereignty to the European Union with the defeat of the Nice Treaty. The 20th Anniversary of the 1981 H-Block Hunger Strike Martyrs is well worth reading. It is an important contribution to the Irish struggle for freedom.
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Copies are available from Australian Aid for Ireland,
GPO Box 327, Sydney 2001.
At only $5 a copy, buy one for yourself and a few for your friends.

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