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International Socialism, May 1977


Notes of the Month

Ireland: The republican hunger strike


From International Socialism (1st series), No. 98, May 1977, p. 7.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg, with thanks to Sally Kincaid.
Marked up for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.


IT MAY never be known precisely what tactical judgement led 20 Provisional republican prisoners in Portlaoise prison, in the 26 Counties, to start an indefinite hunger strike in support of demands for restoration of ‘privileges’ which they had previously enjoyed. But if it was their hope that this action – a hallowed, almost sacred, gesture in the republican tradition – would galvanise public support for those demands, then the Provisionals’ reading of the political balance has not progressed at all since they were established seven years ago.

Their prisoners, both in Northern and Southern gaols, have been in the front line of the state’s physical and ideological offensive against their organisation, but they have been unable to sustain any political effort in their defence outside the prisons. After nine months of uneven campaigning on behalf of prisoners in the North from whom ‘special category’ status has been removed, and on behalf of prisoners in the South who have had an increasingly strict regime imposed on them since several prisoners who had been taken from Portlaoise to the Special (i.e. jury-less) Criminal Court in Dublin blasted their way to short-lived freedom from the cells, the Provisionals are being forced to recognise their isolation and their political ineffectiveness.

While the heroism of the prisoners who have for many months refused to wear prison clothing in Long Kesh; and of those who fasted over six weeks for their demands in Portlaoise will be saluted and applauded at Provisional meetings, ‘the Movement’, as it is known, is increasingly unable to match their sacrifice on the streets, or in mass organisations. It faces an ever higher wall of misunderstanding and hostility.

Yet this most inscrutable of organisations also maintains the most successful urban guerilla campaign seen. It is a long way from the eclipse so often predicted for it. It is only six months since a difference within the Southern Irish political elite, which boiled down to a difference about the appropriate methods for handling the Provisionals, led to the resignation of the head of state. Even as the British police and courts were preparing to deal the Provisional IRA its most severe blow at the ‘Balcombe Street trial’, bombs were set off in Oxford Street shops. Just as the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) was claiming, with some justification, that their re-reorganised force was getting on top of the IRA, the assassination campaign against policemen and British soldiers found a new lease of life – or death.

The Provisionals refuse to go away, and they will be at the centre of many more crises to come, both in the North and in the South.

The removal of political status was aimed at removing from them any shred of political legitimacy – and. the response has underlined that fewer people than ever before recognise any such legitimacy. The Portlaoise hunger strike, and the enormous difficulty experienced by anyone arguing in support of the prisoners’ demands in trade unions, never mind in the disappearing liberal circles, tended also to emphasise the Provisionals’ isolation.

The left-wing jargon which has characterised Provisional republican publications, particularly Republican News – published in Belfast –, represents a verbal accommodation to the fact that support for the Provisionals’ anti-imperialist aims or defence of their organisation comes only reliably from those whose political perspectives go beyond those of the Provisionals to socialism. But the verbal leftism has virtually no practical consequence – unless the assassinations of businessmen is seen in that light. The moves towards political co-operation with left groups either in limited defence campaigns, or in wider anti-imperialist fronts, has, outside Derry, been hesitant and inconclusive. But, most importantly, the job of convincing Irish workers that the attacks on the Provisionals, the accelerating build-up of repressive resources in the hands of the state, represents a threat to all forms of radical politics, and, potentially, to workers’ struggles, falls to the slender body of socialists in the trade union movement and in the Catholic ghettoes

There is little reason to believe that the Provisionals might learn from their recent defeats.

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