The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

"Let the Fight Go On"

Hunger Strike Commemoration Function in Dublin August 2006


Willie Gallagher • 12 August 2006

The practice of hunger striking has deep roots in Irish culture and was used as a method of protest and recieving justice by the Celts under Brehon Laws. Usually the hunger striker would go to the offenders door and carry out their protest there. It was considered a great dishonour to the offender if the hunger striker died and the offender would usually be ostracised after paying compensation to the family of the hunger striker.

The tactic of hunger striking has been used by Irish Republicans since the beginning of the 1900s and thousands of republicans have embarked on hunger strike throughout the 20th century culminating in the Great Irish Hunger Strike of 1981 which seen ten brave Irish freedom fighters give their lives in the pursuit of Irish freedom. We are here tonight to commemorate that particular period as the 25th anniverary has brought back a sharp focus on the sacrafices these men and their families made. But before we continue on let us reflect for a few moments on all those other Irish republicans who went before them and gave their lives on hunger strike.

  • Thomas Ashe, Cork, 5 days, 1917.
  • Terrence McSweeny, Cork, 74 days, 1920.
  • Michael Fitzgerald, Cork,74 days, 1920.
  • Joseph Murphy, Cork, 76 days.
  • Joe Witty, 1923.
  • Dennis Barry, Cork, 34 days, 1923.
  • Andrew Sullivan, Cork, 40 days, 1923.
  • Tony Darcy, Galway, 52 days, 1940.
  • Jack McNeela, Mayo, 55 days, 1940.
  • Sean McCaughey, 23 days, 1946.
  • Michael Gaughan, 64 days, 1974.
  • Frank Stagg, 62 days, 1976.
  • Bobby Sands, 66 days, Belfast, 1981.
  • Frank Hughes 59 days, Bellaghy, 1981.
  • Raymond McCreesh 61 days, South Armagh, 1981.
  • Patsy O Hara 61 days, Derry, 1981.
  • Joe McDonnell 61 days, Belfast, 1981.
  • Martin Hurson 46 days, Tyrone, 1981.
  • Kevin Lynch, 71 days, Dungiven, 1981.
  • Kieran Doherty 73 days, Belfast, 1981.
  • Tom McIlwee 62 days, Bellaghy, 1981.
  • Micky Devine 60 days, Derry, 1981.

The Long Kesh hunger strike in the H-Blocks, which focused world attention on the situation in Ireland, resulted in the deaths of ten young Irish freedom fighers between 5th May and 20th August 1981. Seven of the hunger strikers belonged to the IRA and three to the INLA. It has to be noted that the INLA paid a particularly high price in the hunger strike, as they had only 30 prisoners in the H-Blocks at the time, whereas the Provisional IRA had hundreds. The hunger strikes ended when, in October 1981, with mounting pressure on the prisoners' families from the Catholic church, some of the prisoners' families gave permission to administer food to the remaining hungerstrikers after they lapsed into a coma.

The hunger strikes of 1980/81 was the climax of what was known as the blanket protest which began after the denial of political status in 1976 when the British government introduced their failed Ulsterisation, Criminalisation and Normalisation policy and attempted to criminalise the republican struggle as a whole. Of course, those diretly affected were republican prisoners and their families. The prisoners five basic demands were:

  • The right not to wear prison uniforms
  • The right not to do prison work
  • The right to associate freely with other political prisoners
  • Restoration of remission
  • The right to a weekly visit, letter, parcel and the right to organise their own educational and recreational pursuits.

But it would be a mistake to think that what was at stake during the hunger strikes was fundamentally about the five demands. The hunger strikes were a struggle for the legitimacy of the Irish struggle for national and social liberation. It was about whether resistance to oppression was criminal in nature. The hunger strikes were an issue of great political importance because of the way they would affect the whole balance of forces between imperialism and anti-imperialist opposition. A victory for the British government would threaten all forms of opposition to partition and would legitimise and strengthen all forms of repression and reaction to it on which partition depends. It would present British imperialism as justified, and Irish republican opposition to it as criminal. A victory for the anti-imperialists would be of equal importance.

After the end of the hunger strikes, Maggie Thatcher portrayed it as a victory for the British government, boasting that they had not capitulated to 'murderers'. In fact it was nothing of the sort and withn a short period of time all of the demands had been implemented. The political consequences generated by the hunger strikes, especially in the international arena, and their impact upon the balance of forces were such that the British government and their allies were in effect the real losers.

The hunger strikes created widespread support for the cause of national and social liberation both within Ireland and around the world. The hunger strikes generated mass mobilisation and radicalised and politicised the youth of Ireland in particular. It exposed the brutaily of Britain on the world stage and exposed the brutal relationship Britain has had with Ireland over the centuries. The 100,000s of people who attended the hunger strikers funerals was an indication of the extent of the anger of ordinary nationalist people. The election of Bobby Sands to Westminster while he was on hunger strike disproved the British contention that the hunger strikers had little support and the people of Ireland had bestowed, through the ballot box, political recognition on republican prisoners. This was later reinforced by the election of Kieran Doherty and Paddy Agnew to the Dail and of Owen Carron in Fermanagh/South Tyrone.

The price of the British government's intransigence was massive resentment against British misrule in Ireland and its injustices. The IRA and the INLA came out of the hunger strikes with renewed and extensive support whilst British injustice in Ireland was internationally exposed . So-called British 'democracy' in the North of Ireland showed its true face. When the hunger strikes ended, the anti-imperialist forces were characterised by rising strength, whereas in 1980 they were on the defensive. The courage and determination of the hunger strikers and the British government's handling of the crisis definitely shifted the balance of forces in favour of the national liberation movements and put the British government and its allies on the defensive.

During this past few months, with the 25th anniversary of the hunger strikes, we have seen controversies raging within Republican communities about their legacy. So-called 'dissident' Republicans of all tendencies accuse the current leadership of PSF of having betrayed what the hunger strikers stood and died for. Recently, the RSM has publically accussed the leadership of PSF of manipulation of the sacrifices of the hunger strikers, particularly of the INLA hunger strikers, and of using their deaths for electioneering purposes. Recently, at a hunger strike march in Derry which took place from Micky Devine's old house to Patsy O Hara's old house, Martin McGuinness, ex-British Stormont minister and PSF chief negoiator, had the audacity to state that he had no doubt all of the hunger strikers were great political thinkers and would have supported PSF's position. This was a grave insult to the INLA hunger strikers in particular and many would, with justification, say a grave insult to the hunger strikers in general. We have refused to have joint commemorations with PSF and also refused to share platforms with the leadership of PSF over the issues that arose from this manipulation.

The RSM have also publically stated that they are actively investigating the claims by former blanket-man Richard O Rawe, who was a part of the prison PIRA leadership during the hunger strike, who alleged that the prison leadership accepted a British government offer on ending the hunger strike, shortly before Joe Mc Donnell died, and that the outside leadership had effectively over ruled their decision which led to a further six deaths. In a recent interview of O Rawe by Anthony McIntyre in a website called 'The Blanket', three key issues jumped out at us:

  • Who was in control of the hunger strike
  • O Rawe's cellmate's silence
  • The availability of evidence

We took up this challenge and requested this evidence be made available to us as the allegations, if true, had a direct bearing on the lives of two of the INLA hunger strikers. Preconditions, which we accepted, were imposed on us before permission was granted by those in possession of this evidence. Only selected members of our leadership were permitted availabilty of this evidence and they were not allowed to dicuss the content or nature of it, even to the rest of our leadership, but were allowed to express opinions. I was one of the agreed individuals selected and whilst the evidence we were presented with is not conclusive it was alarming and disturbing and gave strong weight to O Rawe's claims. When we reported back our findings the leadership of the RSM immediatedly initiated an investigation which is ongoing and may take some time to complete.

We informed our hunger strikers' families about this and Micky Devine, son of the last hunger striker to die, and myself then had a meeting with Richard O Rawe's cellmate. He informed us that he was still loyal to the PSF leadership but refused to either confirm or deny O Rawe's claims. He stated that there were some things that went on which he could not talk about. I told him that if what O Rawe is claiming is untrue then it is an outrageous, scandalous, lie which should be publicly exposed as well as privately. He again refused to confirm or deny the claims. In a recent article in the Irish News, PSF's Jim Gibney stated that Richard O Rawe was lying and that his cellmate would in effect contradict the claims that O Rawe had made. O Rawe later publicly challenged Gibney to produce his cellmate with the rebuttal which we are still waiting for Jim to do. O Rawe's cellmate certainly didn't support Gibney's claims to us, and kept repeating that he couldn't talk about it. We fully intend to investigate these claims and to publicly air our conclusions.

What was the legacy of the INLA hunger strikers vis-a-vis future INLA prisoners. An INLA demand during the 1981 hunger strikes was autonomy and seperate accomodation for our prisoners, in short an extensionof the structures from the Cages where prisoners from various affilliations were seperated. Unfortunately this was not granted until 1994 and caused INLA prisoners great difficulties from the mid-eighties until we were granted seperation. In effect the leadership of the PRM, from the mid-eighties, continued on with Maggie Thatchers criminalisation policy and demonised and criminalised INLA prisoners. They introduced a policy which was known as the 'undermine and absorb' campaign directed against INLA prisoners. We were treated as second class citizens and at one stage we were informed that we were no longer recognised as belonging to any organisation and were being viewed and treated as civilians. At one stage, in August 1988, the bulk of INLA prisoners led by Gino Gallagher walked off the republican wings in protest at this situation and didn't return until 15 months later. The leadership of the PRM then refused admittance to Gino Gallagher, the INLA O.C in the H-Blocks, into the republican wings as punishment for this walkout. But that is a story for a different day.

Our criticism and indeed that of other anti-GFA republicans is very valid, given that Sinn Fein exploits the anniversary of the hunger strikes purely for electoral reasons. Sinn Fein members are organising all sorts of commemorative events and collections under the slogan 'Remember the Hunger Strikers'. It is very ironic to see Sinn Fein commemorate the hunger strikers, while at the same time, the very rights for which the hunger strikers died, are being withdrawn without causing any protest from the leadership of the Provisional movement. After the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, all so-called 'dissident' prisoners are being treated like ordinary criminals. Republicans are being criminalised once again and it feels like we are witnessing a case of deja-vu. The GFA and the inevitabilty of PSF endorsing a British police force surely was not worth spending one day in jail over never mind the sacrafices we witnessed over the course of the conflict. Accepting and endorsing the police force of the North of Ireland is akin to putting on a screw's uniform in the H-Blocks shortly after the hunger strikes ended.

The hunger strikers died heroically twenty five years ago. Their spirit does not live in the hypocritical commemorations and tributes of those who are blind to the renewed attempts of the British government to criminalise Republican prisoners; but with those who resist oppression.

In conclusion, let me finish with the words of Patsy O Hara to his mother as he lay dying in the H-Blocks 25 years ago, ''Let the fight go on''.





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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



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Index: Current Articles

13 August 2006

Other Articles From This Issue:

Hunger Strike Anniversary
Martin Galvin

"Let the Fight Go On"
Willie Gallagher

Apology Owed
The Family of Volunteer Patsy O'Hara, INLA

Right the Wrong
Harry Boland

It's Who You Talk To
Dr John Coulter

As They Were Made They Were Matched
Liam O Comain

Poacher Turned Gamekeeper
John Kennedy

Criminality Figures Do Not Add Up
David Adams

The Siege of Derry
Anthony McIntyre

Repeat After Me: No Gods, No Masters
Mick Hall

Dual Presidency More Realistic
Nathan Dowds

Federal Unionism—Early Sinn Fein: Article 2
Michael Gillespie

Santa Coming Early
Dr John Coulter

Media Matters
Anthony McIntyre

Light, Freedom & Song: A Cultural History of Modern Irish Writing
Seaghán Ó Murchú

Pass the Gravy
John Kennedy

ILIR is Blowing the Green Card Game for the Irish
Patrick Hurley

From Belfast to the Middle East
Davy Carlin

Manifesto of the Third Camp
Anthony McIntyre

3 August 2006

A United Ireland or Nothing
Liam O Comain

Federal Unionism—Early Sinn Fein: Article 1
Michael Gillespie

High Noon
John Kennedy

Fest or Flop
Dr John Coulter

Irish and Republican Music
Ray McAreavey

Qana Massacre again: Foreign and Domestic Enemies of our Constitution
Mazin Qumsiyeh

Israel Murders UN Observers
Anthony McIntyre

Managing Debate
Mick Hall

4 Horsemen
John Kennedy

The Evil That Men Do
Anthony McIntyre

Chris Petit's Secret History: The Psalm Killer
Seaghán Ó Murchú

Soldier of the Legion of the Rearguard
Liam O Ruairc

Football and the Fifth Commandment
Eamon Sweeney

Don't Let Us Down
Dr John Coulter

Human Rights Forum
Meeting Announcement

Billy Mitchell
Anthony McIntyre



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