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Chris Bambery

Some notes on Northern Ireland
a year after the Hunger Strikes

(Spring 1982)

First published in International Socialism 2 : 16, Spring 1982, pp. 89–96.
Transcribed by Marven James Scott, with thanks to the Lipman-Miliband Trust.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

One year after the second H-Block Hunger Strike reached its bitter climax with the death of Bobby Sands, the memory of the 10 dead Hunger Strikers has cast a dark shadow over the Catholic ghettoes of Northern Ireland. The mass demonstrations lie in the past as does the belief of 12 months ago that surely Britain’s days in Ireland were now numbered.

The very way the Hunger Strike ended, with the prisoners being forced to come off under moral pressure from their families, carefully orchestrated by the Catholic Church, led to bitter recriminations and deflected the focus of anger away from the British government. At one level the campaign in support of the prisoners’ demands for political status failed: in isolation the anger within the Northern ghettoes has given way to despair. After 12 years of struggle, after all the mass marches, climaxing in the 100,000 turn out at Bobby Sands funeral, exhaustion set in; an exhaustion which turned to despair with the failure to prevent the deaths in H-Block. It was a vicious circle which could only be broken by the mobilisation of the southern working class, something the H-Block Campaign failed to achieve. A limit had been reached which the H-Block Campaign had to cross: ‘the limit of what could be achieved by mass mobilisation within the boundaries of the six counties’, as International Socialism put it 13 years ago. [1]

Here we present an interim set of notes about the state of the struggle in the North twelve months after the Campaign, to be supplemented in the next issue of International Socialism with a discussion about the impact in the South.

The significance of the H-Block campaign
When the then Labour government withdrew political status at the beginning of 1976 and Keiran Nugent launched the blanket protest by refusing to wear prison uniform, the struggle in the Six Counties was at a low ebb. In the North the rise of the Peace People had been coupled with the reintroduction of the hated RUC into Catholic areas while in the South a vicious anti-Republican Coalition government was in power. The support for the H-Block protestors was almost entirely limited to their families grouped in the Relatives Action Committees. But by 1978 as the numbers turning out on the protest marches grew it was clear that something more was at stake than simply another Republican call to ‘support the Prisoners’. H-Block lay at the heart of the British government’s strategy to smash resistance ‘legally’ through special laws, the sanctioning of torture in interrogation centres like Castlereagh, lengthy periods on remand in gaol and the non-jury Diplock Courts. Not only was it clear that if the prisoners were labelled as criminals it would also brand the independence struggle as criminal too, but more importantly the demand for political status became the focus for all those in the ghettoes facing daily British repression.

The attitude of the Provisionals
That was something the Provisionals never grasped. Initially they thought the matter could be settled by negotiations with the British government as part of the 1975 truce talks. When that failed they attempted to solve the matter by shooting a sufficient number of prison officers! By 1978 a broad-based conference of the forces from which the National H-Block Campaign would be formed was held at Bernadette McAliskey’s initiative in Coalisland, with the Provisionals demanding it vote its support for their military campaign as a condition for unity. But by the onset of the first Hunger Strike they swung to claiming that the issue was essentially humanitarian.

A month before Bobby Sands death the Provisionals spelt out their attitude: ‘Victory or defeat in the prison struggle would not determine the course of the armed struggle but would be of more importance to the nationalist people and those who support the prisoners.’ [2]

In simple terms what counts is the military struggle not the mass demonstrations. Such militarism lies at the heart of Republican belief, for after all the aim of the Republican movement is to ‘restore’ the 32 County Republic by military means. Even for those on the Provo ‘Left’ grouped on Belfast, that was their essential framework. They favoured ‘mass action’ but always subordinate to the armed struggle, while holding back from breaking with the essentially right wing leadership in the South because of the need for the ‘Army of the Republic’ to be united in the face of the enemy.

The limits of militarism
Unfortunately not only could political status not be won by military means but it became clear last summer that although the Provos could carry out isolated military actions successfully they could not defend the ghetto areas from the terror the British army was unleashing.

By placing the military struggle on such a pinnacle it also automatically sidelined the thousands who were marching on the Falls Road for political status.

On the night the second hunger striker Francis Hughes died the angry crowds in west Belfast were told to clear the streets so the IRA could have a go. Not only were the military actions carried out ineffectual but as the Volunteers withdrew the Army and RUC flooded into the Catholic areas.

The weeks following the deaths of Ray McCreesh and Patsy O’Hara An Phoblacht, the Provisional paper stated: ‘On top of frustration there is a feeling of outrage – which will find no satisfactory channel until its conversion to IRA support’. [3]

Both the Provisionals and the Irish National Liberation Army stepped up their recruitment, particularly amongst the youth – but at the cost of political organisation in the ghettoes. For after all if defence of the ghettoes was in the hands of the IRA there was no need to organise mass harassment of British patrols, or mass pickets of British forts, both of which were carried out very effectively during the Hunger Strikes.

The weaknesses of the H-Block Campaign
In the absence of any clear strategy what became stressed within the National H-Block Campaign was the need for broad support. Whilst Provisional spokespersons could claim the mass demonstrations were proof of mass support for the Provo military campaign, in reality the focus was put on Fianna Fail in the South and the SDLP in the North in this search for broad support. The message seemed to be that if you won enough Fianna Fail TDs or SDLP Councillors then Thatcher would concede. It obscured the fact that Fianna Fail was the major capitalist party in the South with leaders who were not Republicans who’d gone off the rails by accepting partition; and that in the North the SDLP was the prop for British rule within the Catholic community – a prop that had to be destroyed.

What transformed the Campaign during the second Hunger Strike was the election of Bobby Sands as MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone; which demonstrated both the support for the prisoners and the depth of resistance to British repression. However the SDLP in a traditionally weak area had stood down rather than face humiliation. A month later in the local elections after the deaths of both Bobby Sands and Francis Hughes the SDLP emerged strengthened from the local elections. The Provisionals had blocked moves to stand H-Block candidates claiming they were bound in principle to boycott partitionist elections. In Belfast those candidates who did stand in support of the Prisoners succeeded in removing both Gerry Fitt and all four Republic Clubs councillors (’Official’ Republicans who viciously attacked the Hunger Strike) from Belfast City Council.

At the height of the Hunger Strike in April, May or June the SDLP was either quiet or expressing ‘concern’ about the H-Block situation. By September and October they were spearheading an attack on the Hunger Strike claiming Britain had offered sufficient concessions and that the Provo leadership simply wanted to keep it going to create martyrs.

But traditionally the Catholic population has swung between identifying with Republicanism at times of crisis (Internment and Bloody Sunday) but as the struggle ebbed: ‘electorally backing the main party committed to the reformist road, the SDLP’. [4] It was a pattern seen before. The Catholic middle class emerging as the smoke of rioting cleared to start negotiating with the British, the path cleared for them by the Republicans failure to organise politically when they were at the centre of events.

The weaknesses of the Hunger Strike itself
With all their heroism there was a limit to what the Hunger Strikers could achieve. The power to win political status lay outside Long Kesh. The peak of the campaign was always going to be around the first death in H-Block and that was the time limit within which a mass movement had to be built. Bernadette McAliskey spoke for many when she told 30,000 demonstrators in Belfast shortly before Bobby Sands’ death that one death in H-Block would unleash an explosion similar to that which followed the 1916 Easter Rising.

The truth, however, was that a movement unable to prevent deaths in H-Block was a movement unable to win.

Bobby Sands’ death did lead to an explosion of rioting on the streets of Northern Ireland but it was an explosion that the British state could isolate within the ghettoes until it burnt itself out. Such rioting quickly began to alienate many in the Catholic areas as damage mounted. The British army and the RUC then swamped areas like west Belfast, creating an atmosphere of terror with their indiscriminate use of plastic bullets. This very soon affected the level of street protest. While the pressure of the Hunger Strike meant there was opposition to attempts to organise against the use of plastic bullets or the right to demonstrate over H-Block.

In the end pressure could be put on the Hunger Strikers themselves – isolated as they were in the prison wing of Long Kesh and understandably open to the pleas of their families to end the Strike.

Trade union opposition to H-Block in the North
Within the H-Block Campaign the trade unions were always listed along with the Churches, cultural and sporting bodies; as areas in which to build support. For many Republicans and even socialists, the Catholic workers in the North were seen as economically peripheral and therefore having no economic power at all.

That was to ignore the fact that even with massive Catholic unemployment and the decline of traditional Catholic workplaces like Derry’s textile plants and Belfast’s deep sea docks, there were new concentrations of Catholic workers in places like the De Lorean car plant and the Royal Victoria Hospital on the Falls Road, where from being a tiny minority 15 years ago Catholics now fill most ancillary grades.

As support for the Hunger Strike declined, in Belfast at least trade union support grew with walk-outs spreading to civil servants, building workers and government trainees. At DeLorean the Hunger Strike Committee was set up only after Bobby Sands death and industrial action grew to involve most Catholic workers.

Whilst the H-Block Campaign saw all this as just another strand of support, the Trade Union Hunger Strike Committees in the North, realising the real limits of their power, attempted to organise delegations to major workplaces in the South. A cross-border march to Dublin modelled on the Right to Work Marches and Peoples March, was held in August, although the National H Block Campaign didn’t fully take it up.

The Protestant response during the Hunger Strike
During the weeks before Bobby Sands died the Provisionals focused attention on possible Loyalist attacks on the Catholic ghettoes. It was an attack which never came. Throughout the Hunger Strike the threat came not from the Loyalists but from the presence of the RUC and the British Army. It was not difficult to see why.

Firstly, the period of both Hunger Strikes saw the further splintering of the Loyalist organisations with Ian Paisley directing his ‘Carson Trail’ and Third Force more at his rivals in the Official Unionist Party than the Anglo-Irish talks between Haughey and Thatcher. The major Loyalist military grouping, the Ulster Defence Association, was also distancing itself from Paisley, whose Democratic Unionist Party they had helped hoist to electoral prominence. The savage infighting within the Loyalist organisations confused and divided the Protestant community.

Secondly, for the first time the Protestant working class is having to take the full force of an economic recession which stalks the Protestant heartlands of South Antrim and North Down; a recession which is eating away the marginal economic privileges they have traditionally had over Catholic workers in terms of job security. The old unity of Protestant employer and employee as enshrined in the Orange Order and the Orange State is being undermined.

The general feeling within Protestant areas was one of uncertainty and confusion. When the UD A threatened to unleash an assassination campaign they quickly had to withdraw and issue a statement calling for a need for calm.

Why was there no sectarian response?
If in Northern Ireland, as many socialists have claimed, ‘Two class interests have opened – the interests of the Protestant working class and the interests of the Catholic working class’ [5], the question must be asked, why, given economic uncertainty amongst Protestant workers coupled with a mass upsurge in Catholic areas in support of the Hunger Strike, there was no upsurge of sectarianism amongst Protestant workers?

One answer might be that there was no need to do so as the British army and the RUC were dealing well enough with Catholic resistance. But that is to ignore the growing belief in Protestant areas that not only was Britain economically disengaging from the North but that the Anglo-Irish talks did herald a United Ireland.

Alternatively one can say sectarianism is not the automatic response of Protestant workers. The years 1907, 1919 and 1944 saw massive strike waves by Protestant workers; 1932 the unemployed riots. True, those struggles were defeated by Loyalism, with Protestant workers being drawn back into the Orange Order. The problem there is that the reformist leaders of Northern Ireland’s trade unions consciously failed to challenge Loyalist beliefs, seeking solely to build up union membership. Thus you can have the phenomenon in Shorts Engineers in east Belfast of both the Communist Party and the UDA having an important base, or ‘Loyalist’ workers from Kilroot Power Station visiting a Dublin minister to discuss a cross border power link to guarantee their jobs (a link the IRA promised to destroy).

Can the Protestant working class be dismissed?
To say of Protestant workers: ‘No way the chains will be broken until the state itself is broken’ [6], is to substitute another stages theory for that of the Militant and the CP (’unity around bread and butter issues must come first’).

There is no guarantee that a deeply divided Loyalism will maintain its hegemony over the Protestant working class. The closures and redundancies affecting British Enkalon in Antrim, Courtaulds in Larne and Carrickfergus, the Kilroot power station and Shorts, Mackies and Harland and Wolff in Belfast, has created anger amongst Protestant workers, many of whom have crossed to Liverpool and Glasgow to join unemployment marches. But while workers in Britain and the South cannot stop the jobs slaughter, class politics offers little attraction for Protestant workers.

Naturally those trade union leaders who set up a ghettoised Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and gave full backing to employers like John DeLorean, won’t win much backing on the Shankill Road. Neither will the attitude of uninterest adopted by the trade union leaders in Dublin and London towards their union members in the 6 Counties. Thus it is no surprise that there have also been moves to set up an Ulster TUC to fight Protestant unemployment.

But a lead can be given from those jobs fights that are taking place. For example by organising support for the occupation of Clondalkin paper mills in Dublin which has won some blacking in Northern docks (with the important exception of Larne which is notorious for scabbing, or the the Lee Jeans occupation in Scotland where work was being transferred to the VF Corporation’s two plants in the North). It means pointing out that it is the same multinational company that is sacking workers in British Enkalon in Antrim, which closed Ferenka in Shannon, where workers did launch a fight back.

To dismiss Protestant workers until the 6 County state is smashed is to turn one’s back on the possibility of Protestant workers organising a fight back in opposition to the policies of the British government. It is to turn one’s back on the historical lesson that during the 1907 general strike in Belfast and the 1932 riots, important sections of Protestant workers were won in action to class politics.

When redundancies hit DeLorean a section of the Shop Stewards Committee, both Protestant and Catholic, suggested an occupation. Not only were they attacked by the TGWU and AUEW officials but they were left to fight that battle alone. No section of the Republican Movement or any of those socialists in Belfast leafleted the plant (which is in west Belfast) or even offered support to those stewards.

Downturn in the North
With the failure of the Hunger Strike there is a deep demoralisation amongst the Catholic ghettoes. But despite the absence of mass mobilisations the Republican’s military struggle can continue, pinning down large numbers of the security forces, while in turn being contained by those very security forces themselves. The military struggle, organised conspiratorially as it is by a relatively small number, can continue in the absence of any mass movement for some time. The growing number of informants at the beginning of this year and the undeclared feud within the Irish Republican Socialist Party are evidence however of deep demoralisation within the Republican organisations.

In contrast confidence will only be restored by rather modest campaigns against, for instance, the use of plastic bullets, around which support can be re-grouped. In contrast the Provisionals have suggested directing the H-Block Campaign towards the organisation of commemorations for each Hunger Striker, a recipe for increasing demoralisation. Operations like the assassination of Robert Bradford helped the British government go on the offensive over security and merely increased nervousness in the Catholic ghettoes.

And whilst the military struggle remains dominant, even for many socialists, there is no possibility of addressing Protestant workers.

Within the Loyalist organisations the crisis deepens, as shown by the bitter infighting during the South Belfast by-election and the repercussions from the scandal around the Kincora Boys Home, which has badly dented the Calvinist morality of the Loyalist North.

But for the British government there can be little comfort yet. James Prior’s attempts to create a new Assembly in the North by playing off the different parties threatens to come to naught. The Unionist fragments are split between those who prize Union with Britain most and favour full integration and those who wish to try and piece an Orange State together again via a new Stormont. To even gain talks with the Unionists, Prior had to say there was no all-Ireland element in such an Assembly and then was forced to backtrack when the SDLP threatened to oppose his plans and his allies in Dublin put pressure on to gain the minimum concession they had to have to salve nationalist sentiment.

Obviously a situation of both political impasse in the North and of downturn in the anti-imperialist struggle cannot continue indefinitely. Yet without a class perspective it remains true that the impasse cannot be broken.


1. International Socialism (first series), No. 40, 1969.

2. IRIS, Vol. 1, No. 1: Interview with a member of IRA General Headquarters Staff.

3. An Phoblacht/Republican News, Saturday May 30th, 1981.

4. Chris Harman, Ireland After The Hunger Strike, Socialist Review, No. 1, 1981.

5. Geoff Bell, The Protestant Working Class – Still No Surrender, Irish Socialist Review, No. 7, Spring 1980.

6. Ibid.

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