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Chris Bambery


A time of dying

(December 1994)

From Socialist Review, No. 181, December 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Nor Meekly Serve My Time – The H Block Struggle 1976–1981
Brian Campbell, Laurence McKeown and Felim O’Hagan
Beyond the Pale Publications £9.95

The date will remain with me for ever. In the early hours of Tuesday 5 May 1981 I was woken by the sound of dustbin lids being beaten on the small streets off Belfast’s Falls Road. After a few moments the realisation of what had happened sank in. Bobby Sands, MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, had died on the 66th day of his hunger strike. As the senior IRA officer in the H Blocks he had volunteered to lead the second hunger strike demanding Republican prisoners were given political status.

Over 100,000 people attended Bobby Sands’ funeral two days later. When he had won the Fermanagh and South Tyrone seat with 30,492 votes a few weeks before it had been a slap in the face to Margaret Thatcher who had boasted that Sands and his fellow hunger strikers had little or no support.

Throughout that spring and summer people took to the streets, workplaces walked out on strike, two prisoners (one the hunger striker Kieran Doherty) were elected to the Irish parliament, while Sands’ election agent Owen Carron held his parliamentary seat. None of it was enough. Nine more would die.

Francis Hughes’ funeral took place in the countryside. Going by bus from Belfast meant running the gauntlet of Loyalist stone throwers and having to march across fields when the RUC halted the coaches. Martin Hurson died suddenly and shockingly after just 46 days. Joe McDonnell’s funeral procession was attacked by troops with plastic bullets. Kieran Doherty died after an agonisingly long 73 days.

As the weeks dragged on there was more and more a sense of powerlessness. If this was true on the outside it must have been a hundred times more so inside the H Blocks. The prisoners knew comrades and friends were dying just a few yards away in the hospital block. This book tells of the hunger strike as they experienced it. I cannot do it justice. Their words speak for themselves.

What remains with everyone active over the hunger strike is the bitterness towards Britain’s political establishment. Margaret Thatcher coldly watched ten men die while Labour’s Don Concannon flew in to spend a few minutes with a dying Bobby Sands, tormenting him with the information that Labour was backing Thatcher’s line.

These men and women – women in Armagh jail joined the first hunger strike which was called off when the Tories seemed to offer concessions which were withdrawn – were not acting on orders from ‘the evil IRA godfathers’ the British press bleated on about. The leadership of the Republican movement argued against the hunger strike. It was the prisoners who decided on this course of action.

In the end the hunger strike set its own deadline. Once Bobby Sands and the other three original strikers had died it was difficult to see how victory could be achieved.

The strike ended when relatives started insisting on medical treatment when their sons slipped into comas. This must have been a terrible decision. The relatives had been the ones who had begun the protests when the first H Block Republican prisoners refused to wear prison uniform or accept prison discipline. They had seen their sons and husbands live for months and even years with only a blanket to wear in an empty cell (a mattress was only thrown in at lights out) and suffering beatings. They had gone through the worries of the first hunger strike and the brief elation when it seemed to have achieved a successful conclusion.

This book began as a pamphlet for the tenth anniversary of the strike. It is a tribute, as are Bobby Sands’ writings, to how ordinary people can not only take everything the establishment throws at them, but how in the process they blossom into fuller human beings.

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