Saturday, June 25, 2011

The legacy of the H-Block hunger strikers

By New Worker

THE LONDON Irish Centre in Camden last Saturday was packed to hear an array of powerful speakers at an event organised by Sinn Féin to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the hunger strikes in the notorious H-blocks of Long Kesh prison.
The hunger strikes saw 10 courageous young men starve themselves to death in 1981 in protest at the inhumane conditions in the prison.
Their deaths caused consternation and won support from all around the world, marking a watershed moment in the struggle of the nationalist community in the occupied six counties of northern Ireland, paving the way for the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process.
Foremost among the speakers was Brendan “Bik” McFarlane, who had been the Officer Commanding of the republican prisoners in the H-Blocks. He had a pivotal role and negotiator and liaison officer between the hunger strikers, the prison authorities, the IRA Army Council, the families and the outside world in general.
He took on the role of OC from Bobby Sands when Sands began his hunger strike – a role he did not want but knew he had to carry.
He told the meeting that the battle over prison conditions began in 1976, when the Labour Home Secretary Merlyn Rees withdrew political status from the IRA prisoners.
“It was British imperialism’s choice of a political basis to fight by pretending it was not a war and that the IRA were ordinary criminals. In demonising the IRA they effectively criminalised hundreds of years of Irish struggle for freedom from Britain.
“In this they were supported by the media, who described the IRA as gangsters and mobsters.”
When Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979 she continued this policy with a vengeance.
“It was a hard, hard time. Hundreds of prisoners were brought in for interrogation in torture centres,” McFarlane continued. “We had the Diplock Courts, without juries, we had forced confessions. They were trying to crush our power to resist.”
Most of those arrested were very young, in their teens and some as young as 16. Hundreds of families in the nationalist community saw their sons and daughters arrested on almost any pretext.
The prisoners in the H-blocks decided to fight back by resisting criminalisation. They refused to wear the prison uniforms that carried the status of criminal and demanded prisoner-of-war status, the right to association and to conduct their own education programmes within the prison.
The prison authorities responded by stripping them and locking them in freezing cells with nothing to wear but old and dirty blankets.
“The regime tried to physically break people and resistance built up. Increasing numbers became involved – and the brutality also increased. Some pretty awful things happened.
“We decided to go for a hunger strike because the political ramifications of failure for both sides were huge…
“We ended up with a 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week lock up. We had no access to toilets or washing facilities.
“So first the urine went out of the window. Then the shit followed. We had no choice. Then they boarded up the windows. So the shit went on the walls. That is the truth of the ‘dirty protest’.
“When Cardinal McPhee visited to see the conditions he was physically sick. He made a hard-hitting statement to the media about the conditions.”
Pressure for reform began to build but Thatcher would not be moved. A first hunger strike by prisoners came to an end when the British government offered some reforms, which in effect turned out to be a lie.
So a second hunger strike was agreed and a number of volunteers came forward and the then OC, Bobby Sands was the first. That is when he passed on his position to Bik McFarlane with some harsh instructions – not to allow the prison authorities to resuscitate hunger strikers who had fallen into a coma.
They decided to stagger the hunger strikes; volunteers began at weekly intervals so their deaths would have maximum impact in the media.
At first the IRA Army Council outside the prison opposed the hunger strikes on a humanitarian basis but the prisoners convinced them there was no other way.
As the prisoners started dying outwardly the British government did not move but behind the scenes informal channels of negotiation began to open, involving MI5, businessmen and Sinn Féin.
The election of Bobby Sands as an MP to Westminster while he was in prison and on hunger strike was another big blow to the British government – it gave the lie to propaganda claims that the IRA were a bunch of criminals with no popular support.
The European Commission for Human Rights started to take notice.
Families were brought in to visit the dying men – and try to persuade them to give up their hunger strikes.
“That’s what pressure is,” said Bik McFarlane. “What sustained us was the example of the lads in the hospital, their courage, determination and their humour. Seeing them up to 60 days into the strike, the change, the deterioration was appalling.”
McFarlane brought them offers of reforms from the authorities that the hunger strikers rejected because they were not enough.
Bobby Sands began his hunger strike on March 1st and died on 3rd May.
As the men died the pressure on the Government grew. On the surface nothing seemed to change but the hunger strikes ended on 1st October 1981. Three days later all the reforms they had demanded were granted.
At enormous cost, the Irish republican movement had forged its way into the political processes of the occupied north of Ireland – from which they had previously been totally excluded.
Other speakers included Bairbre de Brun, Sinn Féin MEP, who had been outside, organising H-Block support committees who spoke of how the nationalist community fought to defend its imprisoned youth and tell the world their children were not criminals.
She also spoke of the rising involvement of women in the struggle – and how they broke the convention that only men could play a role in funerals.
Dr Kevin McNamara was also there. He was a Labour MP during the hunger strikes and Shadow Secretary of State. He played a pivotal role in shaping Labour policy on Ireland.
Francis Wurtz, an MEP from the French Communist Party, spoke of his battles inside the European Parliament to raise the plight of the prisoners in the H-blocks. He attended Bobby Sands funeral.
Jenny McCann, now a Sinn Féin Assembly Member, gave an account of the struggles of women prisoners involved in protests in Armagh and Maghaberry prisons, where she had been imprisoned.
Ronnie Kasrils played a leading role in the freedom struggle against apartheid in South Africa in the ANC’s armed wing, “Spear of the Nation”. He spoke of the impact the news of the hunger strikes had in Africa. He declared that the hunger strikes were “one of the most heroic acts in the struggle for freedom in human history”.
Kevin Ovenden reported that throughout the Middle East and North Africa freedom fighters regard Bobby Sands and the hunger strikers as their own heroes.

photo: Bik McFarlane

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