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Peter Hadden

Lessons of the hunger strike

(November 1981)

From Militant Irish Monthly , No. 98, November 1981.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

The first time in more than twelve months no hunger strike is either in progress or threatening in the H-Blocks. While it is not yet certain that the five and a year old prison protest is over, it is clear that the prospect of a further hunger strike has been put back. It is also clear, despite the claims of victory from all sides, that the prisoners have suffered a defeat.

The strike was ended unconditionally. Political status was not granted. The running of the prison rests with the prison authorities who can take away tomorrow any mild concessions they may grant today. Those prison reforms announced by Prior have been on offer for months.


In a different sense the hunger strike has also been a setback. The polarisation and tension it gave rise to has made more difficult the task of uniting the working class on a political basis, at least for a period. For this reason the experience of the hunger strike cannot be simply brushed aside. Rather, the lessons of this period need to be learnt.

The prison protest began in 1976. Its commencement signalled the bankruptcy of the methods of individual terrorism practiced by the Provo’s. The campaign of bombing and shooting had on the one side provided the state with the excuse to vastly increase repression, while on the other it isolated the Provo’s and proved incapable of resisting this repression.

It was because of the failure of these methods that the prisoners were forced to rely on their own resources and resorted to the blanket and eventually the no-wash protests. After four and a half years these tactics had produced only stalemate. Neither the prisoners nor the prison authorities could move each other. Mainly because of the Provo’s methods and the sectarian nature of the H-Block campaigns, mass support had not been aroused.

The hunger strike was begun as a desperate attempt to break this deadlock. That it should have taken the protracted and convulsive form it did was primarily the responsibility of the Tory Government. At any stage the fast could have been ended through the introduction of basic prison reforms, particularly on clothing and work, which could have been applied to all prisoners. While the initial demand was for political status the issue could have been settled for less. The mass support which showed itself at the beginning of the first hunger strike and at the time of the death of Bobby Sands was born out of sympathy for the terrible conditions of the prisoners. Prison reform would have satisfied this movement.

At the beginning of July, six deaths ago, the prisoners dropped the call for special status. They said: “It is wrong for the Government to say that we are looking for differential treatment from other prisoners. We would warmly welcome the introduction of the five demands for all prisoners. ”

Yet the Tories refused to budge. Thatcher demanded unconditional surrender, nothing less. Having ended the first hunger strike with promises of reform, they managed to provoke the second by hedging it at every stage on the implementation of these reforms. The Tories could have averted or ended either hunger strike at any stage.

But if Thatcher and Co. bear the prime responsibility for the disastrous events of the last year, the tactics of the Provo’s/INLA and of the H-Block committees also contributed to the development of sectarian polarisation and to the defeat of the prisoners.

Traditionally the British ruling class have used the tactic of divide and rule in Ireland. They have found that it is easier to hold in check a divided community or a divided working class. During the hunger strike they did not need to weaken their opponents through this tactic. The H-Block committees did the job for them.

From the very beginning these bodies campaigned for what they called “anti-unionist”, “anti-imperialist”, or “nationalist” unity against the H-Blocks. Less politely, these terms can be translated as an appeal for Catholic unity.

At the time of Bobby Sands’ death these groups called a conference which aimed to build a “broad based movement. ” They invited what they termed “major political organisations on the anti-imperialist side.” Apart from right wing nationalist councillors in the North, invitations went to Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, the Irish Independence Party and the SDLP. Opponents of coalition within the Irish Labour Party will note with interest that Labour was also asked to sit alongside these Tories and reactionaries.

Such orientation and propaganda applied a straightjacket of sectarianism to the H-Block committees and protests. In March this year, when the second hunger strike began, the Provisionals newspaper, Republican News, boasted:

“As sure as Stormont came down and as sure as political status was wrested from the Tory Government in June 1972, political status can be won again. And it can be won before any prisoner dies, if the work is done, if the people are mobilised into a political force which threatens the balance of power in Ireland and threatens to tap opinion on the side of overwhelmingly anti-British feeling.”

Between the publication of these words and the end of the strike ten prisoners and ninety four civilians died. Political status was not won. This failure to move the Tories was not due to any lack of sympathy for the prisoners within the Catholic areas, in the South or internationally. Initial huge demonstrations, the enormous funeral of Bobby Sands, the Fermanagh election results – these events demonstrated the deep sympathy which was felt.


The real failing was that the H-Block committees, coupled with the military activities of the Provo’s/INLA, proved incapable of developing or even sustaining this sympathy in the form of mass activity. If anything, the rabid sectarianism of these committees alienated support. This failure was acknowledged by the Provo’s themselves. Republican News in March 1981 admitted that the protest committees “burnt themselves out in frenetic activity during the last hunger strike by the time it had reached a critical stage.”

Likewise the huge movement at the time Bobby Sands died was never repeated. Between 70–100,000 attended his funeral. Two months later there was less than 10,000 following the coffin of Joe McDonnell. It was this decline in active support which ended the hunger strike. The action of priests and relatives was only effective given the, by then, hopelessness of the prisoners’position.

Sectarian based organisations, isolated from the Labour Movement, have not the muscle to force concessions from such an inflexible Government as this. Likewise, the methods of individual terror only give an excuse for increased repression and are impotent in opposing it. It is only the Labour Movement, uniting Catholic and Protestant workers, which can successfully put an end to repression. These are the lessons of H-Block.

Repressive methods are used today primarily against paramilitary groups. In the future these methods, if unchecked, can be used against the Labour and Trade Union Movement.

For this reason the unions must fight on these questions. Also the experience of H-Block has shown that when the Labour Movement fails to intervene against repression some sectarian group will always be ready 10 take up the challenge. Their activities, as happened over H-Block, can turn repression into a completely divisive issue which can damage the unity of workers within the trade unions.

The leadership of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions issued one statement on H-Block during the course of the hunger strike. It was produced before the ending of the first hunger strike last year. Since then they have produced a resounding silence.

This disastrous stance only left the field clear to the sectarians. It allowed the H-Block committees to damage shop floor unity through their calls to “nationalist workers” to participate in strikes.

But there were honourable exceptions to this position of silence. These did not come from the H-Block committees or the so-called Trade Union sub-committee of H-Block who, by raising the issue in a sectarian manner only alienated trade union activists. Rather it was left to supporters of this paper in Britain and both parts of Ireland, to the Labour and Trade Union Group and to the Young Socialists to put forward a class position on H-Block.

It was, for example, Tony Saunois, the Young Socialist representative on the NEC of the British Labour Party who, months before the first hunger strike, successfully moved a resolution to the NEC opposing the ill-treatment of prisoners and outlining a programme of prison reforms.

What happened over the H-Block issue should be a warning that the Labour and Trade Union Movement cannot afford to ignore the explosive issue of repression. It alone can take up this question in a manner which would unite Protestant and Catholic workers and which could not be interpreted as giving any support to either sectarian or paramilitary groups.

The repressive apparatus out of which the H-Block crisis developed is still intact. The prison question is not resolved. What is required is an enquiry established by the Labour Movement into all aspects of repression. This could be a preface to a campaign to end repression, repeal the repressive legislation, scrap the non-jury courts, and close the interrogation centres. Part of such an enquiry would be a review of the cases of all prisoners convicted as a result of the Troubles. This could establish who has been framed or tortured and who, in the eyes of the Labour Movement, are political prisoners. Sectarian murderers, for example, could not be viewed as political prisoners.

It must be the organisations of the working class, as part of the overall struggle to unite Catholic and Protestant workers against the reactionary Tory Government, and the sectarian based groups who fight on the issue of repression in future.

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