1981: Fighting Britain's Guantanamo

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Twenty five years ago Irish Republicans in British jails were fighting for the right to be considered political prisoners. Brutalised and abused they turned to a weapon of last resort, a hunger strike. Simon Basketter tells the story of their struggle.

The Guantanamo Bay prison camp - where orange jump-suited prisoners lie caged, blindfolded and held without trial - sums up the brutality of the "war on terror". Yet this regime has failed to crush the spirit of resistance among the detained. Their hunger strikes so terrified those who control the camp that they described them as unfair, an act of "asymmetric warfare". Most British politicians, even those who are still pro-war, have been forced to call for Guantanamo's closure, suggesting it is an aberration that would not occur under any British command.

Yet 25 years ago Irish Republican prisoners felt forced to begin a hunger strike in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh prison in Northern Ireland. The British government imagined its prisoners, naked in their prison cells and largely isolated from outside contact, had been stripped of all means of resistance. It was wrong. The prisoners organised and maintained a collective campaign of defiance that won support from Belfast to Tehran.

Various British governments liked to pretend that Northern Ireland was a normal society that was being disturbed by the "Republican gangsters" of the IRA. In fact, rather than causing the strife in Northern Ireland, the IRA had emerged when the movement for civil rights and democracy had been beaten off the streets. Instead of addressing the reasons why people were in revolt, the British government simply shuffled through various methods of repression. In 1972 it used internment without trial and filled camps with Catholic prisoners, many arrested at random.

In that year Billy McKee, an IRA prisoner at Long Kesh, initiated a hunger strike. He was backed by huge protests and demonstrations, and after five weeks the British government conceded "Special Category Status" to Republican prisoners. Later Michael Alison, the British minister for the prisons, said that "Special Category Status was won not just by a hunger strike, it was won by an enormous outburst of lawlessness".

Criminalising the struggle

By the mid-1970s the British government believed that the mass insurrection in Catholic areas was weakening. They embarked on a strategy of "Ulsterisation" and "Normalisation". Ulsterisation meant pushing the local police, the Loyalist RUC, to the fore, rather than the army, so that the conflict was seen as a civil matter rather than a political affair. Normalisation meant setting up a system of justice whereby Republicans were taken to holding centres, such as Castlereagh, where confessions were beaten out of them. They would then be put on trial in front of special Diplock courts, which had judges but no jury. Once jailed, prisoners were to be denied political status and treated like "common criminals".

In 1975 the Labour government introduced a policy of trying to criminalise the Republican movement. It had been embarrassed by international criticism of the number of political prisoners in Northern Ireland's jails - which had reached over 3,000. In response, Northern Ireland secretary Merlyn Rees withdrew political status from prisoners. Protests against the denial of political status were organised by the prisoners' families who grouped themselves into a Relatives Action Campaign.

In September 1976 Kieran Nugent, a 19 year old Republican, refused to wear a prison uniform, telling the prison officers, "You must be joking - you would have to nail it to my back." As a result, he was forced to sleep on a concrete floor with only a blanket. Hundreds of other prisoners joined him "on the blanket", and two years later nearly 400 Republican prisoners began a "no wash" protest. Prison officers deliberately spilt shit and piss from the cells' chamber pots on the floors. The prisoners responded by breaking their cell windows to throw the shit out.

Each prisoner had only a blanket and a sponge mattress, no reading or writing materials, radios or letters. Unless they put on prison clothes, they didn't get their monthly visit, and for every day on the blanket, one was added to their sentence. The prisoners' attempts to discard the waste out of their windows resulted in their windows being blocked. As a final resort, the Republican blanketmen were forced to smear their excrement on the floor and walls of their cell.

Jackie McMullan was on the blanket protest and is one of survivors of the 1981 hunger strikes. "In my teens I was arrested maybe 20 times. Every male aged 13 to 65 would have been arrested," he says. McMullan arrived in Long Kesh in September 1976 with a life sentence for attempted murder. "The circle [the administrative centre in each block] was where the officers would beat you," says McMullan. "You're made to strip naked, you have eight screws telling you to put your uniform on, you get a slap in the face. You're naked, humiliated, cornered and getting beaten up by these big men in uniform while other screws watch."

Prisoners had buckets of scalding water and bleach thrown at them, while others described forced washes in freezing water with hard brushes. Every two weeks, cells and prisoners were forcibly hosed down. "What made it possible to live like that", says McMullan, "was that we were in it together. It was powerful. It was unbreakable." Paddy Quinn, another surviving hunger striker, describes how "you'd be sleeping on the sponge mattress on the floor, you'd wake up in the morning and maggots would be stuck to you. You'd have to pull them off. Then they'd turn into flies."

The prisoners looked out for each other. There were quizzes and political discussions, shouted through the gaps in the doors. They taught each other Irish, gave history lectures, sang songs and recited stories. Bobby Sands relayed the whole of Leon Uris's novel Trinity. It took him eight days. Every day when McMullan woke up, he would speculate on whether he would get a beating. And he did not see his family for the first 30 months of the protest because he refused to wear the uniform. When he did get a visit, "the screws were standing beside you, hating you, hating your relatives", he recalls. "Your eyes are bulging because you're locked in a cell 24 hours a day, you have matted hair, you're filthy, you look like a deranged maniac. You go out and try to act normal to your family, putting on a brave face."

In December 1979 Margaret Thatcher, the newly elected Tory prime minister, made clear her determination to crush the idea that the prisoners' crimes "were 'political', thus giving the perpetrators a kind of respectability, even nobility".

As a result, a hunger strike began on 27 October 1980. The strikers had five key demands: the right not to wear prison uniform; the right not to do penal work; the right to associate freely with other prisoners; the right to get one visit, one letter and one parcel a week; and the restoration of the remission lost on protest.

Mairéad Farrell, Mairéad Nugent and Mary Doyle, Republican prisoners in Armagh jail, joined the hunger strike. Women were subjected to repeated strip searches as a form of humiliation. This process involved women being thrown to the ground, beaten, kicked, and, more often than not, sexually violated.

Bobby Sands MP

Outside the prisons, thousands of people mobilised in support of what became known internationally as the H-Block campaign. In the first week of the hunger strike workers in Derry walked out in solidarity and over 10,000 people demonstrated in the city centre. The strike ended 53 days later, on 18 December 1980, with the belief that the British government would make some concessions to the prisoners. But it reneged, and three months later Bobby Sands began the second hunger strike.

Surprisingly it soon had an effect in the world of Westminster politics. Frank Maguire, the MP for Fermanagh & South Tyrone, had made little impact when he died in 1981 - he had not made a single speech in parliament. Before the hunger strike Republicans posed no electoral threat in Fermanagh, and Sinn Féin was weak in the area. Its local leader, Owen Carron, had started a local H-Block committee, and had arranged some fairly successful meetings, marches and pickets in support of the 1980 hunger strike. However, when the second hunger strike started campaigners found it almost impossible to generate any local interest.

All this was to change. On 26 March it was announced that hunger striker Bobby Sands would be standing for the now vacant seat. Owen Carron recalls frantically collecting signatures for the nomination papers, and getting everyone to sign two sets of papers because he was terrified there would be a technical hitch when he handed them in - the returning officer would no doubt be a Loyalist. The Fermanagh & South Tyrone seat had a small Catholic majority, and yet, despite the other Catholic candidates withdrawing to give Sands a clear run, it was still going to be a difficult campaign. The Northern Ireland Office refused to allow Sands any freedom to campaign. The Loyalists also united around a single candidate, Harry West.

The election campaign lasted only nine days and the pace was frenetic. People poured into the constituency from all parts of Ireland to help, and this had an extraordinary impact on the Catholic community there. Fermanagh & South Tyrone was an area where Catholics were not accustomed to public demonstrations of support for the Republican cause, so the sight of convoys of cars flying the tricolour flag and blaring Republican songs from loudspeakers as they roared through little hamlets, created a sense of euphoria.

Polling day arrived. In the House of Commons Don Concannon, the Labour spokesperson on Northern Ireland, made an impassioned bid to swing the vote, warning that "a vote for Sands is a vote of approval for the perpetrators of the La Mon massacre, the murder of Lord Mountbatten, and the latest brutal and inhuman killing of Mrs Mathers". The following day, at the Fermanagh College of Further Education in Enniskillen, the returning officer took the microphone: "Sands, Bobby, Anti-H-Block/Armagh Political Prisoner... elected." Sands had won Fermanagh & South Tyrone with 30,492 votes to West's 29,046.

The confusion created in Britain political life was captured in a headline in the Daily Express, "Elected: The Hon. Member for Violence."

On 5 May 1981 Bobby Sands died and anger exploded on the streets of Belfast. The British army shot two Catholic teenagers. The next day hospital workers, dockers and car workers across Belfast struck. In southern Ireland there were extensive official and unofficial strikes. In New York dockers boycotted British ships, and there were protests outside British embassies across the world.

Sands was the first of ten to die. The funeral of fellow hunger striker, Francis Hughes, took place in the countryside and going by bus from Belfast meant running the gauntlet of Loyalist stone throwers and having to march across fields when the RUC halted the coaches. Martin Hurson died suddenly and shockingly after 46 days. Joe McDonnell's funeral procession was attacked by troops with plastic bullets. Kieran Doherty died after an agonisingly long 73 days. The others to die were Patsy O'Hara, Raymond McCreesh, Joe McDonnell, Kevin Lynch, Vol Thomas McElwee and lastly Michael Devine on 21 August 1981.

Laurence McKeown joined the hunger strike on 29 June 1981. He had joined the IRA aged just 16. At 19 years old McKeown was charged with causing explosions and the attempted murder of an RUC man - and was sentenced to life. McKeown says, "Time numbs little of the sorrow and sense of loss we experienced as, one by one, our friends and comrades died on the hunger strike." He describes the moment when he thought his death was a certainty: "It's like someone who has been on their feet for days without sleep and then gets the chance to lie down, but is awakened to be told the house is on fire. They don't want to know; they just want to sleep." McKeown says, "Nobody on the hunger strike wanted to die. This martyr notion is nonsense - we were caught in circumstances where we were going to resist to the death rather than capitulate to the criminalisation."

During the hunger strike a major debate opened up in the ranks of the National H-Block Campaign, the umbrella organisation that campaigned on the prisoners' behalf. An emerging Sinn Féin leadership, grouped around Gerry Adams, argued against a left wing minority who were for strikes and workers' protests. Adams argued that victory would be achieved by playing down militancy, and winning support from the Catholic church and the southern Irish government - although he acknowledged that both were reluctant to take this stance. He believed that a more respectable movement was needed if Thatcher was to be forced into making concessions.

On 4 September 1981 Matt Devlin went into a coma and his mother intervened to feed him. Two days later Laurence McKeown's mother followed suit. The strike began to end when relatives started insisting on medical treatment when their sons slipped into comas. The families had been the ones who had begun the protests when the first H-Block Republican prisoners refused to wear prison uniform or accept prison discipline. They had seen their loved ones live for months, and even years, with only a blanket to wear in an empty cell. They had gone through the fears of the first hunger strike, and the brief elation when it seemed to have achieved a successful conclusion.

Finally, on 3 October 1981, the prisoners reluctantly called off their fast. They said that they had been robbed of the hunger strike as an effective weapon because of the "successful campaign waged against our distressed relatives by the Catholic hierarchy, aided and abetted by the Irish establishment".

Yet the British strategy had failed. The huge public support for the hunger strikers and the election of Sands had destroyed forever the idea that Northern Ireland was a normal society troubled by a terrorist conspiracy. And although Thatcher claimed victory over the hunger strikers, her government conceded most of their demands soon after the protest ended. As a result Irish Republican prisoners in the 1990s experienced starkly different conditions from the period of the blanket protest.

For some in the Republican movement, the lesson of Sands' election was to move away from militancy and simply embrace traditional electoral politics. The real lesson was that the hunger strikes showed how people can resist, even in the worst of conditions. Irish Republicanism was forced to expand its base, often against its traditional instincts, as pressure from below turned the campaign into a mass movement. They also showed that it was impossible for the British establishment to crush resistance to imperialist occupation - instead they would have to negotiate.