Peter Hadden Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Peter Hadden

Worker’s unity can end repression – H-Block

(May 1981)

From Militant Irish Monthly, No. 93, May 1981.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

The brutal intransigence of the Tory government in Westminster has resulted in the death of Bobby Sands. His funeral, which drew crowds of between 70,000 and 100,000, either all spectators or participants, showed the disgust felt amongst Catholics in the North at Thatcher’s refusal to grant even the slightest concession.

The Tories have succeeded in bringing about an escalation of violence and sectarian tension, especially in Belfast. Three other hunger strikers, at the time of writing are continuing their fast and at least one other prisoner is set to join them. One, Francis Hughes, already weakened by a gunshot wound in the leg, cannot have more than a few days to live.

As always it will be the working class people of Northern Ireland, Protestant and Catholic, who will pay the price of the Tories refusal to resolve the issues behind the hunger strike.

The position of Militant on the question is clear. We stand for the unity of the working class around socialist policies as the only way forward in Northern Ireland. We oppose both the policies and the methods of all the paramilitary groups. The campaigns of the Provisional IRA and the INLA have increased sectarianism and have also provided the British Ruling Class with the excuse to intensify its repressive measures.

Should either the Provos or the INLA, or both, choose the hunger strike as a justification for a renewed military campaign, the people who will suffer most will be the people in the Catholic areas and the prisoners in the H-Blocks. Bombing, shootings and assassinations would detract from any mass opposition to the Tories, would give Thatcher and Atkins an excuse to stand firm and could lead to a temporary but dramatic resurgence of sectarian violence.

For five years the prisoners in H-Blocks have been involved in some form of protest. Almost every day in the last twelve months one or more prisoner has been on hunger strike. Yet at every turn the response of the prison authorities has been that of repression. Punishments amounting to torture have been meted out.

Last December a hunger strike was ended when concessions on prison conditions were offered. Had these concessions, especially on clothing, association and work, been implemented by the authorities without any fuss there would have been no second hunger strike, Bobby Sands would be alive and the dangerous situation which now exists in the North would not have arisen.

At any point during Sand’s fast, the Tories could have acted with concessions on prison conditions for the H-Block prisoners and all prisoners in jails in the North. Last March the NEC of the British Labour Party adopted a policy on prison conditions in Northern Ireland which made a number of basic demands. These included the right of prisoners to wear their own clothes and the right to negotiate a choice of work, education and training. Together with the granting of association on the wings and of full remission, these concessions would have, and could still, break the H-Block deadlock.

In the minds of most workers in Northern Ireland, H-Block has become a sectarian issue. Views are now sharply polarised. This is because of the totally sectarian manner in which it has been raised during the campaign of the National H-Block Committee. Leaders of these bodies have, from start to finish, called only for “the unity of the Nationalist community”. Bernadette McAliskey, having completely discarded her socialist roots, has even stated that the one positive thing that will emerge from the hunger strike is the “unity of the Catholic population against Britain”.

But the H-Block campaigns have been ineffective. They failed to put sufficient pressure on the government and to mobilise mass support even in the Catholic areas precisely because of their naked sectarianism and close association with the Provisionals. The huge crowds at Sands funeral and at other most recent demonstrations represent a genuine sympathy with the plight of the prisoners, anger at the brutish stand of the Tories, but do not represent widespread support for the Provisionals or sectarianism.

A campaign based only on one side of the community is by necessity limited in strength. Had the Labour Movement been mobilised the hand of the Tories could have been forced. Only the Labour Movement, drawing together Catholic and Protestant workers, can successfully resist repression.

It is true that the sectarian nature of the H-Blocks committees have made this a difficult issue to raise in the trade unions and in the movement generally. But there can be no excuse for a continuation of a position of silence which unfortunately has been the only stand of the leaders of the ICTU. The repression today directed against the paramilitaries can tomorrow be directed at the organisation of the working class.

North, south and in Britain the Labour Movement must immediately take up the H-Block situation and press the Tories to introduce the necessary reforms for all prisoners.

Already a start has been made. Derry Trades Council has taken a principled, class stand on the question. At the May meeting of the Belfast Trades Council it was decided to issue a statement and directly press the government to introduce reforms in the prisons. In the South the Labour Party leadership must be pressed to take a class position completely independent of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.

One of the most disgusting episodes during the 66 days of Bobby Sands fast and that which aroused much genuine fury amongst Catholic workers, was the spectacle of the British Labour Party’s spokesman on Northern Ireland, Don Concannon, visiting the dying hunger strikers simply to tell them that he backed the Tories against them. Concannon claimed to speak on behalf of the Parliamentary Labour Party. The party leader Michael Foot has also supported Thatcher.

Already this has provoked opposition inside the party from Labour MPs, within the NEC and amongst the rank and file. Tony Saunois, Young Socialist representative on the NEC has tabled a motion for the NEC re-iterating the Party’s stand.

Beyond the immediate question of prison conditions, the Labour Movement must take up the question of political status and of repression in general. The movement must immediately set up an inquiry to review the cases of all those convicted on offences arising out of the Troubles. This would establish who has been convicted on the basis of a frame up or torture through the police interrogation centres or the Diplock “non-jury” Courts. It would also determine who, in the view of the Labour Movement, is a political prisoner. The designation by either Loyalist or Republican organisations of all of their members’ political prisoners cannot be accepted. The Labour Movement must decide for itself on this question. The movement would then campaign for the release of political prisoners and those falsely imprisoned, but the proviso that it would not fight on behalf of sectarian murderers.

Independent class action by the Labour Movement North, South and in Britain on H-Block and against repression is now essential if a further escalation of sectarian tension is to be avoided. There is a danger that the anger of Catholic workers and youth at the Tories could be misdirected into futile violence or even behind the paramilitaries. It is the responsibility of the Labour Movement to see that this is not the case by channelling this anger along class lines. Working class unity against unemployment, low wages, squalid housing, sectarianism and repression, must be developed in action through the Labour Movement. Catholic and Protestant workers have been moving together to fight the policies of Thatcher. It is vital that this unity be maintained and strengthened.

Peter Hadden Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 24 April 2015