practice of hunger striking has deep roots in Irish
culture and was used as a method of protest and
recieving justice by the Celts under Brehon Laws.
Usually the hunger striker would go to the offenders
door and carry out their protest there. It was considered
a great dishonour to the offender if the hunger
striker died and the offender would usually be ostracised
after paying compensation to the family of the hunger
tactic of hunger striking has been used by Irish
Republicans since the beginning of the 1900s and
thousands of republicans have embarked on hunger
strike throughout the 20th century culminating in
the Great Irish Hunger Strike of 1981 which seen
ten brave Irish freedom fighters give their lives
in the pursuit of Irish freedom. We are here tonight
to commemorate that particular period as the 25th
anniverary has brought back a sharp focus on the
sacrafices these men and their families made. But
before we continue on let us reflect for a few moments
on all those other Irish republicans who went before
them and gave their lives on hunger strike.
Ashe, Cork, 5 days, 1917.
McSweeny, Cork, 74 days, 1920.
Fitzgerald, Cork,74 days, 1920.
Murphy, Cork, 76 days.
Barry, Cork, 34 days, 1923.
Sullivan, Cork, 40 days, 1923.
Darcy, Galway, 52 days, 1940.
McNeela, Mayo, 55 days, 1940.
McCaughey, 23 days, 1946.
Gaughan, 64 days, 1974.
Stagg, 62 days, 1976.
Sands, 66 days, Belfast, 1981.
Hughes 59 days, Bellaghy, 1981.
McCreesh 61 days, South Armagh, 1981.
O Hara 61 days, Derry, 1981.
McDonnell 61 days, Belfast, 1981.
Hurson 46 days, Tyrone, 1981.
Lynch, 71 days, Dungiven, 1981.
Doherty 73 days, Belfast, 1981.
McIlwee 62 days, Bellaghy, 1981.
Devine 60 days, Derry, 1981.
Long Kesh hunger strike in the H-Blocks, which focused
world attention on the situation in Ireland, resulted
in the deaths of ten young Irish freedom fighers
between 5th May and 20th August 1981. Seven of the
hunger strikers belonged to the IRA and three to
the INLA. It has to be noted that the INLA paid
a particularly high price in the hunger strike,
as they had only 30 prisoners in the H-Blocks at
the time, whereas the Provisional IRA had hundreds.
The hunger strikes ended when, in October 1981,
with mounting pressure on the prisoners' families
from the Catholic church, some of the prisoners'
families gave permission to administer food to the
remaining hungerstrikers after they lapsed into
The hunger strikes of 1980/81 was the climax of
what was known as the blanket protest which began
after the denial of political status in 1976 when
the British government introduced their failed Ulsterisation,
Criminalisation and Normalisation policy and attempted
to criminalise the republican struggle as a whole.
Of course, those diretly affected were republican
prisoners and their families. The prisoners five
basic demands were:
The right not to wear prison uniforms
right not to do prison work
right to associate freely with other political
right to a weekly visit, letter, parcel and the
right to organise their own educational and recreational
But it would be a mistake to think that what was
at stake during the hunger strikes was fundamentally
about the five demands. The hunger strikes were
a struggle for the legitimacy of the Irish struggle
for national and social liberation. It was about
whether resistance to oppression was criminal in
nature. The hunger strikes were an issue of great
political importance because of the way they would
affect the whole balance of forces between imperialism
and anti-imperialist opposition. A victory for the
British government would threaten all forms of opposition
to partition and would legitimise and strengthen
all forms of repression and reaction to it on which
partition depends. It would present British imperialism
as justified, and Irish republican opposition to
it as criminal. A victory for the anti-imperialists
would be of equal importance.
After the end of the hunger strikes, Maggie Thatcher
portrayed it as a victory for the British government,
boasting that they had not capitulated to 'murderers'.
In fact it was nothing of the sort and withn a short
period of time all of the demands had been implemented.
The political consequences generated by the hunger
strikes, especially in the international arena,
and their impact upon the balance of forces were
such that the British government and their allies
were in effect the real losers.
The hunger strikes created widespread support for
the cause of national and social liberation both
within Ireland and around the world. The hunger
strikes generated mass mobilisation and radicalised
and politicised the youth of Ireland in particular.
It exposed the brutaily of Britain on the world
stage and exposed the brutal relationship Britain
has had with Ireland over the centuries. The 100,000s
of people who attended the hunger strikers funerals
was an indication of the extent of the anger of
ordinary nationalist people. The election of Bobby
Sands to Westminster while he was on hunger strike
disproved the British contention that the hunger
strikers had little support and the people of Ireland
had bestowed, through the ballot box, political
recognition on republican prisoners. This was later
reinforced by the election of Kieran Doherty and
Paddy Agnew to the Dail and of Owen Carron in Fermanagh/South
The price of the British government's intransigence
was massive resentment against British misrule in
Ireland and its injustices. The IRA and the INLA
came out of the hunger strikes with renewed and
extensive support whilst British injustice in Ireland
was internationally exposed . So-called British
'democracy' in the North of Ireland showed its true
face. When the hunger strikes ended, the anti-imperialist
forces were characterised by rising strength, whereas
in 1980 they were on the defensive. The courage
and determination of the hunger strikers and the
British government's handling of the crisis definitely
shifted the balance of forces in favour of the national
liberation movements and put the British government
and its allies on the defensive.
During this past few months, with the 25th anniversary
of the hunger strikes, we have seen controversies
raging within Republican communities about their
legacy. So-called 'dissident' Republicans of all
tendencies accuse the current leadership of PSF
of having betrayed what the hunger strikers stood
and died for. Recently, the RSM has publically accussed
the leadership of PSF of manipulation of the sacrifices
of the hunger strikers, particularly of the INLA
hunger strikers, and of using their deaths for electioneering
purposes. Recently, at a hunger strike march in
Derry which took place from Micky Devine's old house
to Patsy O Hara's old house, Martin McGuinness,
ex-British Stormont minister and PSF chief negoiator,
had the audacity to state that he had no doubt all
of the hunger strikers were great political thinkers
and would have supported PSF's position. This was
a grave insult to the INLA hunger strikers in particular
and many would, with justification, say a grave
insult to the hunger strikers in general. We have
refused to have joint commemorations with PSF and
also refused to share platforms with the leadership
of PSF over the issues that arose from this manipulation.
The RSM have also publically stated that they are
actively investigating the claims by former blanket-man
Richard O Rawe, who was a part of the prison PIRA
leadership during the hunger strike, who alleged
that the prison leadership accepted a British government
offer on ending the hunger strike, shortly before
Joe Mc Donnell died, and that the outside leadership
had effectively over ruled their decision which
led to a further six deaths. In
a recent interview of O Rawe by Anthony McIntyre
in a website called 'The Blanket', three
key issues jumped out at us:
was in control of the hunger strike
Rawe's cellmate's silence
availability of evidence
took up this challenge and requested this evidence
be made available to us as the allegations, if true,
had a direct bearing on the lives of two of the
INLA hunger strikers. Preconditions, which we accepted,
were imposed on us before permission was granted
by those in possession of this evidence. Only selected
members of our leadership were permitted availabilty
of this evidence and they were not allowed to dicuss
the content or nature of it, even to the rest of
our leadership, but were allowed to express opinions.
I was one of the agreed individuals selected and
whilst the evidence we were presented with is not
conclusive it was alarming and disturbing and gave
strong weight to O Rawe's claims. When we reported
back our findings the leadership of the RSM immediatedly
initiated an investigation which is ongoing and
may take some time to complete.
We informed our hunger strikers' families about
this and Micky Devine, son of the last hunger striker
to die, and myself then had a meeting with Richard
O Rawe's cellmate. He informed us that he was still
loyal to the PSF leadership but refused to either
confirm or deny O Rawe's claims. He stated that
there were some things that went on which he could
not talk about. I told him that if what O Rawe is
claiming is untrue then it is an outrageous, scandalous,
lie which should be publicly exposed as well as
privately. He again refused to confirm or deny the
claims. In a recent article in the Irish News,
PSF's Jim Gibney stated that Richard O Rawe was
lying and that his cellmate would in effect contradict
the claims that O Rawe had made. O Rawe later publicly
challenged Gibney to produce his cellmate with the
rebuttal which we are still waiting for Jim to do.
O Rawe's cellmate certainly didn't support Gibney's
claims to us, and kept repeating that he couldn't
talk about it. We fully intend to investigate these
claims and to publicly air our conclusions.
What was the legacy of the INLA hunger strikers
vis-a-vis future INLA prisoners. An INLA demand
during the 1981 hunger strikes was autonomy and
seperate accomodation for our prisoners, in short
an extensionof the structures from the Cages where
prisoners from various affilliations were seperated.
Unfortunately this was not granted until 1994 and
caused INLA prisoners great difficulties from the
mid-eighties until we were granted seperation. In
effect the leadership of the PRM, from the mid-eighties,
continued on with Maggie Thatchers criminalisation
policy and demonised and criminalised INLA prisoners.
They introduced a policy which was known as the
'undermine and absorb' campaign directed against
INLA prisoners. We were treated as second class
citizens and at one stage we were informed that
we were no longer recognised as belonging to any
organisation and were being viewed and treated as
civilians. At one stage, in August 1988, the bulk
of INLA prisoners led by Gino Gallagher walked off
the republican wings in protest at this situation
and didn't return until 15 months later. The leadership
of the PRM then refused admittance to Gino Gallagher,
the INLA O.C in the H-Blocks, into the republican
wings as punishment for this walkout. But that is
a story for a different day.
Our criticism and indeed that of other anti-GFA
republicans is very valid, given that Sinn Fein
exploits the anniversary of the hunger strikes purely
for electoral reasons. Sinn Fein members are organising
all sorts of commemorative events and collections
under the slogan 'Remember the Hunger Strikers'.
It is very ironic to see Sinn Fein commemorate the
hunger strikers, while at the same time, the very
rights for which the hunger strikers died, are being
withdrawn without causing any protest from the leadership
of the Provisional movement. After the Good Friday
Agreement of 1998, all so-called 'dissident' prisoners
are being treated like ordinary criminals. Republicans
are being criminalised once again and it feels like
we are witnessing a case of deja-vu. The GFA and
the inevitabilty of PSF endorsing a British police
force surely was not worth spending one day in jail
over never mind the sacrafices we witnessed over
the course of the conflict. Accepting and endorsing
the police force of the North of Ireland is akin
to putting on a screw's uniform in the H-Blocks
shortly after the hunger strikes ended.
The hunger strikers died heroically twenty five
years ago. Their spirit does not live in the hypocritical
commemorations and tributes of those who are blind
to the renewed attempts of the British government
to criminalise Republican prisoners; but with those
who resist oppression.
In conclusion, let me finish with the words of Patsy
O Hara to his mother as he lay dying in the H-Blocks
25 years ago, ''Let the fight go on''.
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