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Peter Hadden

H-Block crisis – Tories to blame

(July 1981)

From Militant Irish Monthly, July–August 1981.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

As we go to press the H-Block hunger strike remains unresolved. The deaths of two more prisoners and the collapse of the peace initiative of the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace have underlined the brutal intransigent stand of the Tories.

In the North, as in the South, the reaction to these latest deaths has been relatively muted. However eight prisoners remain on hunger strike. If the issue remains unresolved, and there should be more deaths, there could be a strong and violent reaction throughout the country. In the North, the result of fresh upheaval, set against the background of the traditional Orange parades, and as the 10th anniversary of Internment approaches, could only be to increase sectarian polarisation.

At a time of attacks on the living standards of Catholic and Protestant workers and in particular of the rise of unemployment to unprecedented levels, sectarianism represents a threat which the Labour Movement must resist.

The first responsibility for the deaths in the H-Blocks rests with the Tory government. In the past, Thatcher has defended her refusal to grant basic concessions by stating that the prisoners will accept only political status, nothing more, nothing less. This lie has been formally nailed. The prisoners themselves, in a statement before the death of Joe McDonnell, quite explicitly dropped the call for political status as a precondition for the ending of their protest. They said “It is wrong for the British government to say we are looking for differential treatment form other prisoners. We would warmly welcome the introduction of the 5 demands for all prisoners”.

Even the precise details of a settlement acceptable to the prisoners were worked out by the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace and, according to reports, virtually agreed in total by Government representatives prior to McDonnell’s death. The final agreement did not come, only because the Tories, at Cabinet level, refused to make a clear statement on what was on offer and delayed sending an official into the prisons until a few hours after McDonnell was dead.

It is the policy of the British Labour Party’s National Executive Committee that all prisoners in Northern Ireland should, among other rights, have the right to wear their own clothes and to negotiate a choice of work, education or training. The labour Movement as a whole should take up these demands which could provide the basis of a settlement.

The silence of the Labour movement in Ireland on this issue must end. It is a scandal that the last public statement made by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions on H-Block was issued in December 1980, during the last hunger strike. No less disgraceful has been the position of certain of the parliamentary leaders of the British Labour Party who have backed Thatcher’s every move. Labour’s rank and file must see to it that bi-partisanship on H-Blocks is ended. All it means is that Labour is seen to share in the responsibility for the deaths of prisoners.

The sectarian manner in which H-Block has been raised in the North makes it doubly urgent that the Labour movement takes the question up. Undoubtedly one of the factors which has permitted Thatcher to maintain her obstinate stand has been the sectarian nature of the campaign conducted by the leaders of the National H-Block Committees.

Sectarian Appeals

Their propaganda has been entirely nationalistic and sectarian. Their appeals for nationalist unity’ and their association with the Provisionals and the INLA have alienated the entire Protestant community and have given the Loyalist bigots like Paisley all the ammunition they require.

H-Block has shown that the false methods of individual terror of the Provos and the INLA, although aimed against the state, inevitably strengthen the state. They provide the excuse for repression and when repression hits them, they are always incapable of resisting it. In addition, the one sided sectarian nature of the H-Block campaign has been one of the factors which has permitted the government to ride out six deaths so far. This campaign, since the H-Block protest began in 1976, has alienated Catholic as well as Protestant support. Only a tremendous feeling of sympathy for the prisoners has more recently pushed the Catholic population onto the streets, despite, not because of, the poisonous propaganda of the H-Block spokesmen. Despite this sympathy there has been a marked reduction in mass activity, North and South. Joe McDonnell’s funeral drew hardly one tenth of the enormous mass of people who filled the streets of West Belfast when Bobby Sands was buried. If the Tories do grant concession, it will primarily be because of the international reaction to H-Block, especially from America, or because of moves within the Labour Movement and not because of the H-Block activities in the North.

The Labour movement alone can effectively resist repression by mobilising all sections of the working class and by using its industrial muscle. The repression now used against the paramilitaries can in the future be used against the trade unions and working class organisations in Britain and Ireland. This makes it doubly important that the movement take up the demand for decent conditions for prisoners and link this to a fight against sectarianism poverty and also other forms of repression.

A Labour movement inquiry into all aspects of repression in the North must be established. This could be the launching pad for a campaign for the repeal of all repressive legislation, the scraping of the non-jury courts, the closure of the interrogation centres and to end army and police harassment on the streets.

Review of Cases

Part of such an enquiry should be a review of the cases of all those convicted of offences arising out of the Troubles. This could establish who, in the eyes of the Labour movement, has been imprisoned only because of frame-up and torture and also who is a political prisoner. Both loyalist and republican, who have been guilty of conscious sectarian atrocities could not be described as political prisoners and would not be defended by the Labour movement.

Poverty, sectarianism and also repression – these are the enemies of all that the labour and trade union movement stands for. None can be ignored. Rather a campaign to unite against all three, must be begun and, in the light of the explosive situation which could emerge from the H-Block deadlock, must be begun immediately.

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