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Peter Hadden

Lessons of H-Block – Only Labour can end repression

(9 January 1981)

From Militant [UK], No. 534, 9 January 1981.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

After 53 days the H-Block hunger strike was called off [on 18 December]. Most workers in Northern Ireland will have greeted the news with considerable relief.

The sectarian upheaval and violence which would have followed the death of a prisoner has been avoided.

The settlement terms have been accompanied by claims of victory on both sides. The government document on prison conditions uses extremely conciliatory language and represents considerable concessions on such issues as clothing and association.

However, these concessions do not meet the original demands of the prisoners. Above all, the demand for political status, despite the claims of the Provisionals to the contrary, has not been granted. And because this demand was made the focus of the H-Block campaign, the government has been able to disguise its partial retreat on the issue of prison conditions as a total victory.

Should the 4½-year-old blanket protest end on the basis of the existing offer on work and clothing it will represent a considerable climb down on the part of the prisoners. In this sense, no matter what immediate concessions are given, the immediate effect is one of victory for the government.

Understandably, the attitude of many workers inside and outside Northern Ireland will now be to push H-Block to the back of their minds. But it would be a considerable mistake on the part of the labour movement if the lessons of the hunger strike and the wider issue of repression were to be ignored.

H-Block was posed in the most poisonous sectarian terms in Northern Ireland. The very mention of the issue now carries sectarian connotations. Nevertheless, repression is a class question, and the chance that all of the methods used by the state to quell para-military opposition today will be used against the labour movement in the future should not be taken.

Relief at the end of the hunger strike should not become euphoria on the part of anyone, because of the partial victory won by the government. This victory inside the prisons on the question of status will help reinforce the apparatus outside and this in turn can be used against the labour movement in the future.

Leon Trotsky once explained that the false methods of struggle of individual terror was a blind alley which eventually serves to strengthen the hand of the state. Four and a half years of the H-Block protest has underlined this in red.

It was the campaign of the Provisionals which gave the British ruling class the excuse to introduce the elaborate system of judicial frame-up, out of which emerged the H-Block protest. The growing isolation of the Provisionals rendered them incapable of resisting this repression both inside and outside the prisons.

In March 1976 the blanket protest was begun. Retaliation by the prison authorities, further protest and further retaliation, led to the creation of the most barbaric prison conditions in Europe.

Yet the fact that the outside support organisations were connected with the Provisionals prevented them from drawing mass support. The impotence of these organisations, the silence of the labour movement, the determination of the authorities to break the prisoners and the determination of the prisoners not to be broken – these factors produced the 4½-year H-Block stalemate.

Before the hunger strike began most Catholic workers were sympathetic to the plight of the prisoners, but were held back from openly expressing sympathy in case it would be interpreted as a gesture of support for the Provos.

Sectarianism must be fought

When the hunger strike began this changed. For a period the reluctance of Catholic workers to be seen in the company of the National H-Block Committees was overcome by their outrage at the stubborn intransigence of the Thatcher government.

Overnight, the H-Block demonstrations were transformed from paltry meetings to huge rallies and meetings. Almost 20,000 people twice paraded through West Belfast. Similar crowds, mainly from the North, also marched through the streets of Dublin. In Derry the protest stoppage packed an enormous crowd of 10,000 into Guildhall Square.

This mass movement expressed itself through the H-Block Committees only because there was no alternative, particularly from the labour movement. It took this course despite, not because, of the leadership of those committees, and above all despite the association of these bodies with the Provos.

On the H-Block platforms from the outset, there poured an undiluted barrage of blatant sectarianism. The call was made for complete “nationalist unity” behind the hunger strikers.

But it was not only Protestant workers who were alienated. Towards the end of the hunger strike there was a distinct drawing back by sections of the Catholic community. It was not that people were any less sympathetic to the plight of the hunger strikers, but rather were repelled by the sectarian poison pouring from the platforms.

On 10 December the National H-Block Committee called for a general strike in Ireland. Even by their own subsequent claims, the strike was a flop.

In Derry the attendance was only half that of the previous stoppage. It was this failure and the partial ending of the protest movement which permitted the government to limit the concessions.

It was also clear throughout all H-Block activity that the call for “political status” was by no means universally supported, even in former Provisional strongholds. Many statements of support for the prisoners made it clear that this support was offered on humanitarian grounds.

The international support which came from many countries was also expressed in these terms. This was the key factor permitting the ruling class to adopt a position of total intransigence on the demand for political status.

Against the H-Block protesters imperialism did not have to resort to its favourite weapon of divide and rule. The H-Block Committees did it for them. By their every word they increased sectarianism, and by so doing scared away an ever more hostile Protestant community.

H-Block could have been take up in a non-sectarian way by the labour movement. Throughout the hunger strike and indeed throughout the course of the H-Block protest, this newspaper has fought against the sectarian manner in which the issues were posed. Instead we fought for a class approach, with the labour movement taking up the issue in class terms.

We called for a programme of prison reform to cover all prisoners which would have included the right to wear their own clothes, to negotiate choice of work and training and education, access to the media, unrestricted numbers of letters and trade union rates of pay.

We did not support the call that was raised by the Provos and the UDA for political status for all their members. Instead we called for a review by the labour movement of the cases of all those convicted on charges arising out of the Northern Ireland troubles, in order to determine who is, in the eyes of the labour movement, a political prisoner.

Inside H-Block are many people convicted on the basis of frame-ups or torture, or who joined organisations like the Provos in the mistaken belief that they were fighting against the present economic system.

While a great number of such individuals would be regarded as political prisoners, those who consciously set out to divide the working class along sectarian lines and who were responsible for sectarian atrocities are clearly not political prisoners in any sense in which the labour movement internationally uses the term.

This class programme should still be taken up and campaigned for by the labour movement, irrespective of the immediate H-Block situation. Action on the basis of our programme could have ended the horror of H-Block years ago.

This is the key lesson of the entire episode. Only the labour movement can effectively resist repression. In Northern Ireland this means united and joint action by Protestant and Catholic workers, for which there can be no substitute.

It is not clear whether the blanket protest will now end. The immediate response of the ruling class to the prisoners was extremely concessionary, in attempts to get them off the protest. But there are no guarantees that this approach will be made again. The original concessions won in 1972 were unceremoniously removed by the ruling class.

Their approach in Northern Ireland will be in support of repressive government. Changes of prison conditions do not resolve the question of the use of repression legislation and the existence of non-jury courts.

The outcome of the hunger strike will ultimately strengthen the government’s hand in using its sophisticated apparatus of repression. It is now clear that only the labour movement can provide a challenge to this, and that in its own class interest it must now begin to do so.

[This is a shortened version of the article which first appeared in the January 1981 issue of Militant Irish Monthly.]

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