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The 1981 Hunger Strike and its lessons for today’s fight against imperialism

30 years ago this week, hunger striker Bobby Sands died in prison on 5 May after 66 days on hunger strike. Here Fiona Edwards explores the lessons of the Irish Hunger Strike for today’s fight against imperialism.

This year has seen a deepening awareness among sections of students and young people of the need to oppose imperialist wars and the racism which accompanies it. The struggle for peace, justice and self-determination in the Middle East – and in particular Palestine – and opposition to the current intervention in Libya has to be at the centre of the progressive political agenda.

This year also sees a significant anniversary, and a conference in London on 18 June, marking a struggle against imperialism much closer to home. It involves one of the most sustained and brutal conflicts, indeed the longest struggle of resistance of its kind anywhere in history: for Irish self-determination from British colonialism.

It is thirty years this year since the 1981 Irish Hunger Strike, when Bobby Sands and nine other republican prisoners died in Long Kesh jail, protesting against the Thatcher government’s policy of `criminalisation’. The prison protest for political status took place against the most brutal and inhuman treatment of prisoners, graphically depicted in Steve McQueen’s recent film, Hunger. The Thatcher government’s attempt to deal with the conflict in Ireland by denying it was in any way political, and imposing this with brute force in the notorious H-blocks, was yet the latest in a long line of strategies to put down and subjugate Ireland’s resistance to British rule.

The resistance to this began after Kieran Nugent, the first republican prisoner that refused to wear a prison uniform, was stripped naked, beaten and his bedding and mattress removed. With only a blanket to wear, the five-year long blanket protest began, with a `dirty’ protest lasting for three years. Prisoners on the protest were kept in such conditions in cells 24 hours a day, subjected to beatings and forced searches which can only be described as torture, and yet still managed to communicate with the outside world and develop a political strategy of resistance and advancement of their political aims. All of this is well documented in Bobby Sands’ books (he was prolific and talented writer), and in books such as David Beresford’s Ten Men Dead, Danny Morrison’s collection of writings Reflections on the Hunger Strikes and books written by former prisoners themselves, Out of Time and Nor Meekly Serve My Time.

The subsequent hunger strikes for political status, over 7 months, saw ten men die. Yet despite Thatcher’s intransigence, the demands of the Hunger Strike were ultimately won and prisoner’s demands granted afterwards. Prisoners continued to organise and played a key role in the peace process negotiations, and many are now leading figures in the Assembly and in Sinn Fein, and speaking at the forthcoming conference.

International impact – from Robben Island to Havana

More widely, the heroism and commitment of those struggling in the H-blocks – and also the struggle of the women prisoners in Armagh jail – drew support and inspired people around the world.

Cuban President Fidel Castro used the occasion of international assemblies to condemn Britain’s atrocities in the north of Ireland outright – click here to read Fidel’s speech. In Havana, as the street sign on O’Reilly St declares: “Cuba and Ireland, two island peoples in the same sea of struggle” the city also built a dedicated monument to the Hunger Strike, which was opened by Fidel and Gerry Adams in 2001.

In South Africa in 1981, in Robben Island jail at the time, Nelson Mandela led a group of young prisoners from the ANC armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe on a hunger strike directly inspired by Bobby Sands. A monument to the Irish Hunger Strike stands on Robben Island today. The role of the ANC in assisting the peace process subsequently is also well documented. And elsewhere in the world, such as in Paris, the Mayor of St Denis renamed a street Rue Bobby Sands. And, in turn, murals throughout Belfast and Derry identify with struggles around the world, including Palestine, Latin America and those against slavery and racism.

Indeed, the Hunger Strike shone an international spotlight on the role of the British state in the north of Ireland and led to a seismic shift which shaped developments for decades to come.

Advancing a political agenda

The election of Bobby Sands as an MP to Westminster, in a by election in April 1981, and of other Hunger Strikers to the southern Irish parliament sent shockwaves through Britain and Ireland. As Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams put it, the election success of Bobby Sands, Ciaran Doherty and Paddy Agnew `changed modern Irish history’, adding `for Sinn Féin it was the acceleration of a process of internal debate which saw the party embrace electoralism. And it was the commencement of a conversation which ultimately led to the party’s peace strategy and the peace process.’

Bobby Sands won the seat in Fermanagh South Tyrone while on Hunger Strike (the British subsequently made it illegal for prisoners to stand in elections), proving the breadth of support the prisoners had won, and showing the possibilities of building electoral strength.

Today, at the last Westminster election, Sinn Fein emerged as the largest party, evidence of the advancing political process which has happened since. The development of the peace process was evidence that the British state could not physically crush the opposition to what was happening in the north of Ireland.

The civil rights protests against the discriminatory and sectarian nature of the state, which culminated in the late 1960s and early 70s, had also been met with brute force, after British troops were sent onto the streets – symbolised most starkly by the massacres on Bloody Sunday and in Ballymurphy. It took 4 decades of struggle to get the truth about Bloody Sunday to be acknowledged and the Ballymurphy families have yet to get truth about the murder of their loved ones. The subsequent response to those events was met with further brute force, from banning and restrictions of political rights, the denial of political mandates, to collusion with loyalist death squads and the criminalisation strategy in the jails.

All of this failed, and as Sinn Fein’s political strength began to grow, the British government were forced to acknowledge a political solution was the only way forward. Sinn Fein advanced its peace process strategy and one which progressed and recognised the legitimacy of Irish unity. The Good Friday Agreement acknowledges this, and, as an international agreement between Britain and Ireland, commits the British government to leave Ireland should a majority in the north wish it.

This defining moment in history will be marked here with a conference on 18 June (see below – full details). People will have the opportunity to hear speakers who were directly involved at the time, including the leader of the prisoners during the Hunger Strike, Bik McFarlane; and Jennifer McCann, today a Sinn Fein Assembly Member, and former prisoner in the Women’s jail in Armagh. Joining Tony Benn, the former South African Minister in Nelson Mandela’s government Ronnie Kasrils, himself a veteran of the anti-apartheid struggle, and many others including writers, historians and activists at the time, the conference promises to be a unique opportunity to learn about the struggle and how it applies to today’s critical fight against imperialism!

Indeed, thirty years on we should honour and remember the momentous events during the Hunger Strike by renewing our support for Irish unity and self determination; and also by drawing inspiration to redouble our efforts to campaign against imperialist wars and interventions today.

1891 – A turning point in Irish History

A conference to mark the 30th Anniversary of the 1981 Hunger Strike

Saturday 18 June 1pm-5.30pm
London Irish Centre, 50-52 Camden Square, London NW1 9XB

Sessions:

The impact of the Hunger Strike – an event which shaped history
Speakers: Brendan `Bik’ McFarlane, leader of Republican Prisoners in Long Kesh; Bairbre de Brun MEP, Sinn Fein and former Member Anti-H-Block/Armagh committees; Roy Greenslade, writer and contributor to `Reflections on the Hunger Strike’; Kevin McNamara, former MP who spoke out on the Hunger Strike in Westminster

How 1981 shook the World
Speakers: Ronnie Kasrils, ANC Minister in Nelson Mandela’s government and leading figure in struggle against apartheid; Francis Wurtz, former French MEP present at Bobby Sand’s funeral; Prof Christine Kinealy, writer and historian and activists at Trinity college in anti-H Block campaigns; Cuban Embassy speaker (tbc)

The future: legacy and lessons for today’s political process
Speakers: Jennifer McCann, Sinn Fein Assembly member and former political prisoner, Armagh women’s jail; Tony Benn

Registration email london1981conference@yahoo.co.uk
Phone 07940 565123 for information

Check out the facebook event here.

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