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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent


Anthony McIntyre • 1 July 2006

BBC's recent documentary The Hunger Strike was a vivid depiction of a most emotionally challenging era in the history of the Northern conflict. The spectral depiction of Lawrence McKeown walking through the prison hospital in which ten men died caused me to convulse with an involuntary shudder. It brought home how close Laurence came to being the 11th man, having gone 70 days without food, the longest any of the surviving hunger strikers managed. Most of those who died succumbed short of Laurence's 70 days. That he is alive and well and able to take us though that terrible place of dying, ward by ward, helps cushion the reality of the awful events that occurred in the vicinity of that small corridor along which he retraced his steps.

Margo Harkin of Besom Productions who directed the documentary stated her purpose:

The hunger strike was a momentous event in our recent history. Unravelling the inside story of what went on was totally compelling for the whole production team. The programme will give viewers a fascinating insight into what actually happened through the eyes of the key people who were involved at that time.

Unravelling the inside story of any major event is never an easy task. No one yet has managed to do it in relation to the hunger strikes. The best that can be hoped for is that the conditions are created whereby a multiplicity of accounts can emerge through which people can learn more rather than learn everything. The definitive 'truth' will elude us forever.

In her bid, Harkin pulled together a disparate band of interviewees. Viewers by now know what to expect from Bernard Ingham; a rattling out of the standard British line that Thatcher was angelic and the hunger strikers demonic. It was therefore refreshing to learn that Lord Gowrie would wade in. Potentially a valuable voice that could add texture and additional meaning to any history maker's reconstruction of the hunger strikes, he undermined his own contribution by glibly and incongruously describing the enjoyment he derived from the food laid out on Cardinal O'Fiaich's table. Even amongst the most liberal of Thatcher's Conservatives, there was a gross insensitivity to Irish concerns. Thatcher was hardly alone in seeing Ireland as remote as Sri Lanka. Such indifference goes a long way in explaining why violent conflict lasted for as long as it did. Thatcher's successors, displaying considerably more interest have demonstrated how little political ground needed to be ceded in order to satisfy her most determined opponents.

There were a number of intense emotional moments captured by Harkin. The mother of Bobby Sands emerging from a prison van to tell reporters that 'my son is dying' was one of them. As too was Dr John O'Connell's description of Sile de Valera sitting at the bedside of Bobby, crying at the sight of life ebbing away from someone she deeply respected as heroic.

This helped make The Hunger Strike riveting viewing. Yet, far from providing the inside account, it prompts questions to which answers will be sought. These concern the negotiations between republicans and the British government during both the 1980 and 1981 strikes.

Gerry Adams, in what may be seen as an implicit criticism of the leader of the 1980 strike, suggested it failed as a result of the decision by Brendan Hughes not to allow Sean McKenna to die. This was a view articulated much more forthrightly and honestly by Bernadette McAliskey. Adams compounded his critique by arguing that the document delivered by the British as a basis for a settlement was so weak that a coach and horses could be driven through it. Yet Jim Gibney elsewhere has written that 'the negotiations during the hunger strike between Gerry Adams and the British government had produced a document which on paper had the potential to end the prison protests in the H-Blocks and Armagh Women's prison.' If true, Sean McKenna came to the brink of death and Hughes intervened to save his life, because the substance of what Adams negotiated with the British had no potential to solve the five year long prison dispute.

Another aspect of this which requires further investigation is the precise role of those negotiating on behalf of the British. One strand was between NIO minister Michael Allison and the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace. As Harkin demonstrates, Allison was halted by Thatcher, not because she was sabotaging a conclusion but because, through MI6, her government was dealing directly with the IRA leadership. So, Danny Morrison, in frequently making the relevant point that on six occasions Allison was asked to send in a British representative to explain what was on offer through the ICJP to the prisoners, does not address the more important question of what went on in the more substantive negotiations between MI6 and the IRA leadership. Both Adams, by his own admission, and Thatcher too, seemingly, wanted the ICJP-Allison strand to be 'butted out.'

This is important because it does not really matter how many times or how strenuously Morrison demanded of Allison that he send a representative into the prison to clinch a deal. From Sinn Fein's perspective the Allison-ICJP initiative was not the deal that needed to be clinched. What we really need to know is what similar demands were made of the Mountain Climber and MI6. Clearly Adams wanted the ICJP involvement scuttled. This, we are told by Morrison, was premised on a view that the Mountain Climber offer was more substantive than what the ICJP were being promised. There seemed little point, therefore, in asking Allison to send in a representative to explain a deal that Sinn Fein did not want implemented on the grounds that it may have undermined a better deal. Nobody seems to have presented any evidence that demands, similar to those made of Allison, were made of the Mountain Climber to send in a representative to explain what was in his offer to the prisoners.

This makes a fuller account of the communications between the IRA leadership and MI6 indispensable to any fuller understanding of the hunger strikes. So, far the guardians of that particular information on both sides have given no indication that they will let go of it.





























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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



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Index: Current Articles

2 July 2006

Other Articles From This Issue:

Anthony McIntyre

Salvaging History from Defeat
Forum Magazine Editorial

Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome
Dolours Price

Monsignor Denis Faul: Tribute
Ruairí Ó Brádaigh

Protest Continues in Maghaberry
Republican Prisoners Action Group (RPAG) statement

Where the Wind Blows
Dr John Coulter

What's Shaking
John Kennedy

Left, Right, Left, Right Wrong
Mick Hall

Irish Democracy, A Framework for Unity
Francis Mackey

The Peace Progress and the State
Davy Carlin

'The Church Brought to its Knees': Two books on Catholic Ireland's retreat
Seaghán Ó Murchú

Somme Battle Conspiracy
Dr John Coulter

March March March
John Kennedy

What's Good for the Goose is Good for the Gander!
Patrick Hurley

Sovereignty Movement Condemns Racist Attacks
Andy Martin, 32 CSM

Greens Propose Plastic Bag Tax to Help Fund Environment Watchdog
Green Party Press Release

The Framing of Michael McKevitt: Introduction
Marcella Sands

The Framing of Michael McKevitt: Garda Harassment & Eventual Sitch-up
Marcella Sands

Dolours Price

Judas 118 or DUP Strategy of Subversion?
Anthony McIntyre

22 June 2006

The Framing of Michael McKevitt
Marcella Sands

Foreward to 'The Framing of Michael McKevitt'
Fr Des Wilson

Demagogues and Demigod
Tommy Gorman

Getting It Tight
John Kennedy

The Restoration of Restorative Justice
Marcel M. Baumann

DUP Analysis
Dr John Coulter

Father Faul
Fr. Sean McManus

Aiden Hulme Repatriation Picket
Paul Doyle

Prison Protest Begins
Republican Prisoners Action Group (RPAG), Republican Sinn Fein, Newry

New Hero, and a Legacy
Dr John Coulter

Charlie's Angel
John Kennedy

The Letters page has been updated.

Profile: Mehdi Mozaffari
Anthony McIntyre

The Blanket, the Cartoons and the End of Left and Right
Gabriel Glickman

The Blanket and the Cartoon Controversy: Anthony McIntyre Interviewed
Martyn Frampton

A Welcome End
Mick Hall

Anthony McIntyre

Freedom of Speech index



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