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Peter Hadden

Sectarianism and the hunger strike

(November 1980)

From Militant Irish Monthly, Issue 88, November–December 1980.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

The hunger strike by prisoners in the H-Blocks (at the time of writing in its third week) has heightened sectarian tensions in the North. The UDA have threat to “eliminate” those involved in supporting the hunger strikers. There have been a number of sectarian assassinations and attempted assassinations, mostly claimed by the Ulster Freedom Fighters. On the other side many of the statements from nationalist politicians and Republican groups, as well – as the speeches at the H-Block demonstrations have talked in terms of the unity of only the Catholic community behind the prisoners.


As a result many trade union activists look with grave concern at the possible repercussions of the hunger strike, They fear the prospect of a return to the sectarian violence of a few years ago when the lives of workers were clouded by a daily round of assassinations and when the very unity of the working class organisations were threatened. For this reason it has been difficult to raise this question within the Labour Movement.

However it is important, from the point of view of the unity of Catholic and Protestant workers, that the hunger strike is taken up. The Labour movement in Ireland, North and South and in Britain also, must oppose repression. The very methods which are today used against republican and to an extent Loyalist prisoners could, if unchecked, be used against the Labour Movement in the future. That a number of trade unionists who went from Belfast to lobby the Tory Conference in Brighton in September were arrested and held in Liverpool under the Prevention of Terrorism Act should serve as a warning in this regard.

It is possible for the Trade Unions and Labour organisations to take up the question of the hunger strike and to do so in their own class terms, not in the terms of the Provisionals or the National Smash H-Block Committees. Militant has always opposed the methods of individual terror used by the Provisional IRA and would be opposed to participation by the Labour Movement in the H-Block Committee which is seen by workers merely as a Provisional front.

However, the conditions endured by the prisoners in H-Block and Armagh can only be described as torture. In previous articles, we have explained in detail how the present situation of the no-wash protest arose. Fundamentally, it developed from the attempts by the ruling class to break the morale of the Republican prisoners and smash their organisations.

Prisoners’ rights

Thus, after 1976, they withdrew the basic rights the prisoners had won. The refusal of the prisoners to wear prison uniforms and do prison work was answered by the authorities in the most severe manner – with a 24 hour lock-up, loss of remission, beatings, denial of access to reading materials, removal of cell furniture, etc. After 1978 further harassment by the authorities, especially restrictions on visits to the toilet and the showers, gave rise to an escalation to the no-wash phase of the protest. The main reason why events took-this turn at this stage was because the outside support organisations, such as the H-Block committees, were so closely associated with the Provisional movement that they could not give effective support. The prisoners were left to fight on their own, with a limited choice of methods.

The hunger strike is a desperate attempt to break the deadlock of H-Block. For the prisoners who have been living in conditions of unimaginable horror, many of whom face long sentences, there has been no alternative but to escalate yet again their protests in order to resolve the question one way or another.

Trade Union unity

The key issue at stake is the living conditions of the prisoners. It is a responsibility of the Labour and Trade Union Movement to oppose torture in the prisons and to fight for decent conditions for these and for all prisoners. Recently, the National Executive Committee of the British Labour Party adopted a resolution outlining a programme of demands for prison reform which it proposed should be implemented for those in the H-Blocks as well as for all other prisoners. The main demands made by the NEC were for the right of prisoners to wear their own clothes, full access to newspapers, TV, writing materials, no limit on the number of letters, two visits and two food parcels per week, right to negotiate choice of prison work, training or educational facilities, right to join trade unions and receive trade union rates of pay, and the right to elect their own representatives to negotiate on their behalf with the prison authorities.

This programme should now be passed by trade union and Labour Party branches throughout Britain and Ireland and presented to the Government for immediate implementation.

The further call raised by the hunger strikers and by the Provisionals for political status is not something to which the Labour Movement could give blanket support.

The Labour Movement in opposing repression in Northern Ireland must campaign for the repeal of repressive legislation, ending of the. Diplock Courts, closure of the ponce, interrogation centres. Ninety percent of present convictions are based on statements made by prisoners while in police custody. It follows that there should be a review of the cases of all those who have been convicted on offences arising out of the troubles in Northern Ireland, this review to be conducted by the Labour Movement.

If the Labour Movement decides that a prisoner is in jail because of torture or on false charges, or on a political offence, the movement would have to campaign for that person’s release. But the movement would obviously not fight on behalf of sectarian murderers. It is the organisations of the working class, not the paramilitaries, loyalist or republican, who must decide who is and who is not a political prisoner.

Unions must act

It has been recognised by many of the H-Block prisoners that it is essential that the trade unions and Labour Movement take up their case. Four years of protest has taught that the Labour Movement is the only movement capable of opposing repression.

In addition, genuine sympathy for the plight of the hunger strikers exists within the Catholic areas of the North. There has been one demonstration of more than 20,000 in Belfast. In Derry almost 10,000 took part in a protest during working hours which shut many factories and businesses. These large turnouts have been, in spite of the Provisionals and in spite of many of the sectarian speeches from the leaders of this campaign, rather than because of these.

However, it has been because there has been no alternative that the sympathy for the hunger strikers has been channelled in this direction. This is a warning to the trade union movement. Not to take up this issue leaves a clear field to sectarians who, if unchecked, can do nothing but damage to the unity of the working class. The protest in Derry was called for over the heads of the trade unions in the city. No resolutions in support of this protest were passed at trade union branches. No shop floor meetings at which votes could be taken were held. As a result the shop floor in all the major factories was split with only Catholic workers, and in many cases only a minority of these, coming out.

This type of division along sectarian lines, if extended and repeated, would weaken the ability of the unions to fight on behalf of their members on all the basic economic issues such as wages and unemployment. It also lessens their ability to fight on the questions of the conditions in H-Block and for prison reform.

In the South and in Britain the hunger strike can be more easily and immediately taken up by the Labour Movement, and this must be done. In the North also, provided the issue is explained in class terms, it is possible to gain the support of Protestant and Catholic trade unionists. Resolutions on the demands set out above should be passed in the union branches and the Trades Councils, and then explained in meetings on the shop floor.

Firm action by the Labour Movement is now required both against the repression in the prisons and against the sectarians, Loyalist and Republican, who would use this issue to sow division between Protestant and Catholic workers.

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