On the eve of the 24th anniversary of Bobby Sands' death

An Phoblacht/Republican News · Thursday 18 June 1998

[An Phoblacht/Republican News]


Reflections on the H Block/Armagh prison struggle

Sinn Féin's electoral strategy began 17 years ago during the 1981 hunger strikes. Since those painful days and emotional election victories - beginning with Bobby Sands's historic win in Fermanagh/South Tyrone - Sinn Féin's election successes have brought the prize of freedom ever closer. Now, as the party fights another historic election, Laura Friel reflects on the terrible prison struggle which gave birth to the republican electoral strategy.

``Do you remember asking me that March Sunday morning at Mass, ``Have you thought about what you'll do after I'm gone?'' That was painful. I didn't think you realised how much that tore through my emotions..... Yes, I know, I did look lost at the time. But could you blame me? Did you expect me to say that I'd always find someone to replace you? I could only say that you shouldn't be concerned about that and that I'd manage alright. Wish I hadn't had to manage.''

Reflecting on the death of Bobby Sands nine years later, Bik McFarlane addresses his late comrade as if in person. ``It seems like yesterday,'' says Bik, ``it will always seem like yesterday.''

On the eve of the 1981 hungerstrike, Bik McFarlane took over as OC from Bobby Sands. It was a position at the heart of one of the most intense periods of the current phase of the struggle.

``By 1980, death, and prison and grief, pain and loss were part of everyday existence for the whole community,'' writes Bernadette McAliskey in a foreword to `Nor Meekly Serve My Time' an eyewitness account of the H Block Struggle. Bernadette was a key activist in the political campaign outside the jails in support of the prisoners. Although we are all ``marked'' by the long struggle towards Irish freedom, says Bernadette. ``Nothing has marked me in all that long sorrow as indelibly as the deaths of 10 young men whom I didn't know personally. No deaths have been harder for me to come to terms with than the deaths of the hungerstrikers.''

In these extracts both Bik and Bernadette acknowledge personal truths, universal for many of those who lived through the nightmare of those days. It seems like yesterday to all of us.

It would be all too easy in retrospect to present the history of the Blanket struggle against the backdrop of careful prior analysis on our part. Such was not the case....Our response was more instinctive than analytical. We knew only that we would not be criminalised, and so began our protest.

Republican POWs H Blocks Long Kesh, March 1994

As Republicans move into another period of intense political struggle, they will draw upon many of the strengths and insights generated by the campaign around political status in the H Blocks of Long Kesh and in Armagh jail in the late 1970s and early 80s. If it seems like yesterday, it is not just because of the immediacy with which the hurt and anguish inflicted upon Northern nationalists is still recalled, but more significantly because the dynamic of contemporary Republicanism was spawned in the filth of British intransigence almost two decades ago.

In a poem about the Easter Rising, WB Yeats noted all had changed, ``changed utterly''. The 1916 rebellion, culminating in the brutal execution of its leaders, unleashed forces which drove British imperialism to the brink of outright capitulation. Sixty years later, a prison protest in the Six Counties, culminating in the deaths of ten hungerstrikers, marked a similar watershed in contemporary Irish history. Post hungerstrike the political landscape had been ``changed utterly'', weakening Britain's hold on Ireland and unleashing forces yet to be fully played out.

``We who believe in freedom cannot rest,'' runs the chorus of a South African resistance song. In 1981 the world watched as ten young people courageously gave their lives, minute by minute in the slow motion death of hungerstrike, so that others might be free. ``Let our revenge,'' wrote Bobby Sands, ``be the laughter of our children.''

Their emaciated bodies, we buried, but until the joy of future generations is ringing in our ears, we cannot lay them to rest. To borrow the words of our ANC comrades, ``We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.''

I am dying not just to attempt to end the barbarity of the H Blocks, or to gain rightful recognition as a political prisoner, but primarily because what is lost in here is lost for the Republic and those wretched oppressed whom I am proud to know as the `risen people'

Bobby Sands, March 1981


Owen Carron

As Principal of a remote rural school life has come ``full circle'' for Owen Carron, at least in a private sense. In 1981, Owen was a primary school teacher when fate unexpectedly plucked him from obscurity and thrust him into the forefront of a political struggle. Today, sitting amidst the 17 pupils of Drumnamore School, Owen remembers the moment which turned his life upside down as a pivotal moment in the continuing dynamic towards Irish reunification and democracy.

``If Frank Maguire hadn't died, if he had died a few months earlier or a few months later,'' says Owen, ``history would be different, I'm convinced of that.'' The by-election prompted by the sudden death of the sitting MP for Fermanagh/South Tyrone, called as Bobby Sands' hunger strike approached crisis point, was seized upon as an opportunity to save his life.

``We thought we could save him,'' says Owen, ``we thought if we could get Bobby elected, the British couldn't just let him die.''

As his election agent, Owen secured regular access to Bobby Sands during the last few weeks of his life. ``I don't think Bobby was ever naive about his chances of survival. I remember him as unwavering, committed and very focused. I think he knew the Brits would let him die.''

The decision to stand Bobby Sands as a candidate was taken at a time when even the idea of standing a Republican as a candidate, let alone an imprisoned IRA Volunteer, was anathema to the Republican movement. Developing an election strategy required ``a leap of faith'', says Owen. ``For some Republicans it was a leap they initially couldn't quite make.''

Sinn Fein's election strategy was born in the front room of a tiny house in Enniskillen. Denied access to the town's commercial premises, Maud Drumm offered Sinn Fein the use of her parlour as an election headquarters.

The labour was short (there were only ten days in the run up to the election), intense (as republicans flocked into the area to assist the campaign) and at times painful (as disagreements within the party were slowly resolved). The delivery was euphoric. Danny Morrison was roaring and shouting. The hall was in uproar as the electoral officer announced Bobby's election victory,'' says Owen, ``it was a victory but it didn't save his life.'' Bobby Sands' death less than three weeks later was a ``bitter pill''.

Retrospectively Owen sees the election of Bobby Sands as a watershed in the current phase of the struggle. Within Republicanism it was a decisive break with the past, it overcame the movement's psychological fear of electoral defeat, and it demonstrated the power of popular mobilisation around Republican demands, says Owen. ``In time I think we'll look back and identify the struggle around political status and the subsequent election of Bobby Sands as a defining moment in the struggle against British rule in Ireland. Since 1981 Sinn Fein's electoral strategy has developed from strength to strength. Thatcher's criminalisation strategy never recovered and subsequent British governments continue to pay the price of that defeat.''

Mary Nelis

When Mary Nelis says she remembers the first visit with her son Donnacha after he was sentenced to sixteen years imprisonment, ``as if it were yesterday'', the blink of tears in her eyes confirms that she is speaking quite literally.

In the small constituency office of Derry's Cable Street, Mary packs documents into an oversized briefcase, ``I've a full council meeting at two,'' she says. Today, as a Sinn Fein councillor, Mary's timetable is very busy but still not as hectic as the punishing schedule of pickets and rallies with which her political life emerged almost two decades ago.

It began with a telephone call from a Catholic priest. Sentenced just two months after Ciaran Nugent, Mary's son Donnacha was one of a handful of protesting Republican prisoners jailed immediately after the removal of Political Status. Prisoners refusing to wear a uniform were not only left naked and confined to their cells, they were also denied contact with their families. Donnacha was barely eighteen and no one had seen him for months. ``Fr Cahal told me he hadn't been allowed to see Donnacha and the other protesting prisoners, other prisoners were worried because they hadn't seen any of them either.''

The priest's worst fears were later confirmed. Donnacha was brought before him naked, he was badly bruised from head to toe with what appeared to be cigarette burns to his back. As a mother she must do something, Fr. Cahal told Mary. It was an act of desperation but one which would be repeated by Mary, and many other mothers, wives and sisters, thousands of times in towns and cities throughout Ireland, Europe and America during five years of intense political campaigning. For women who had previously lived all their lives within the modest confines of home and church, it was an act of great personal courage which transformed their relationships both within the family and with the Catholic heirarchy.

``There were three of us,'' says Mary, ``we took off all our clothes, wrapped ourselves in a blanket and called a taxi.'' As Derry's Cathedral bells rang out in support of a rally organised by the Peace People, the three women protested at the chapel gates. ``My son is lying naked in a cell. Do you care?'' read Mary's placard. And at first it seemed as if very few people cared.

Looking back, Mary sees the key lessons to be drawn from that period as the ``long hard haul'' of building mass support around a political issue and strategic flexibility which allowed the Republican campaign for political status to align with the humanitarian agenda of five just demands.

Mobilisation was door to door, street by street, village, town, city. The campaign took Mary throughout Ireland, across Europe and to the United States. ``There were no short cuts,'' says Mary. ``For months at a time we thought we were making no headway.There was a wall of silence surrounding the protest in the jails, it was demolished brick by brick.''

As a candidate in the forthcoming Assembly elections, Mary has no illusions about the Good Friday document. Sinn Féin is facing another ``long hard haul'' and Mary Nelis is ready to meet that challenge.

Bik McFarlane

Travel anywhere in Ireland with Bik McFarlane and there will be people there eager to greet him. The publication of `comms' (communications written on tissue paper and smuggled out of the jail) written by Bik as OC during the hungerstrikes remain the most poignant testimony of the unfolding tragedy in which ten men lost their lives.

In the tenderness of a note written immediately after the death of Bobby Sands from ``Bik to Brownie'', the personal and political are inextricably intertwined. In itself this tells us more about the struggle in the H Blocks than many thousands of words of annalysis written retrospectively.

When Bik's words recently appeared painted two storeys high on a gable wall in Dublin city, it seemed wholly appropriate. Bik McFarlane belongs where the private and public domains collide. We may not know him personally but our knowledge of him is personal. No wonder he evokes the affection of strangers.

``Nothing in the history of the Anglo-Irish conflict has ever been conceded by the British or attained by the Irish without recourse to long, arduous and often bitter struggle,'' says Bik, ``the hungerstrike of 1981 was no exception.''

Bik McFarlane has spent more than half of his adult life imprisoned by the British. In over two decades, he has known only three short years of relative freedom. Bik was one of 38 Republican prisoners to escape from the H Blocks of Long Kesh in the Great Escape of 1983. He was recaptured in Amsterdam in 1986. Only recently released after serving a life sentence, Bik's future still remains uncertain. On the day he was officially released on license by the British, Bik was arrested by the Garda in Dundalk. He is currently signing bail.

The implementation of the British government's criminalisation policy in the late 1970s became a living reality for Bik McFarlane one April morning in 1978. Bik was ``on the boards'' in the punishment block following an escape attempt when he was told his `special category status' had been withdrawn by the NIO. Instead of returning to the cages Bik was trailed into the Blocks. The no-wash protest had begun a month earlier. He was naked and the wing stank. The transition from political prisoner to the brutality of criminalisation had taken less than five minutes, the time it took to cross from Cage 12 to H3.

``The British government intended the H Blocks to be the `breakers' yard' for the Republican Movement,'' says Bik. ``They saw prisoners as the most vulnerable section of the movement and they set out to break them.''

Naked in a prison cell, vulnerable, isolated and subjected to a brutal prison regime, the British imagined the prisoners had been stripped of all means of resistance. They were wrong. In what still remains one of the most remarkable stories of human endeavour, the prisoners organised and maintained a collective campaign of defiance.

``The maturity of the prisoners' analysis underpinned their ability to resist,'' says Bik. ``We were confronting a prison regime but we were exposing British rule in Ireland.''

Bik identifies the emergence of Sinn Féin's electoral strategy during this period as a fundamental breakthrough. ``The reluctance of Republicans to engage in electoral politics in the 1970s left the field open for the SDLP to exploit,'' says Bik. ``Since then we have constantly had to deal with the potential of the SDLP being co-opted into a British agenda.''

The election of Bobby Sands ``opened the door for building a political movement which played the Brits at their own game. By standing candidates in the Assembly elections Sinn Fein is undercutting any attempt by our opponents to retreat and retrench. Republicans have the ability and the confidence to pursue their objectives in all arenas,'' says Bik, ``the struggle continues.''

Chrissy McAuley

When Chrissy McAuley began working for Republican News in 1978 it was a punishable offence. In her early twenties and a political prisoner just released from Mountjoy, Chrissy was tasked with thwarting British attempts to curtail the production of the Republican Movement's weekly underground news sheet. ``It wasn't easy. It was my job to keep the paper resourced despite constant raiding by the British army who were determined to locate and close us down,'' says Chrissy.

Although continually under pressure, the paper appeared every week and always met its printing deadline. The handful of staff who doubled as journalists, photographers, typesetters and distributors, were well known by the Crown forces and they were routinely targeted for harassment. ``They tried to follow us everywhere,'' says Chrissy.

Today, sitting in the comfort of her back room, Chrissy can laugh about the antics of those early days, forgetting just for a moment the hardship of those difficult years. ``The no-wash protest had already begun and it was clear that we were facing a protracted prison struggle,'' says Chrissy. Of the hunger strike period Chrissy primarily recalls the anguish of the families with whom her role in the paper meant she had personal contact. It remains ``too painful to think about,'' says Chrissy. ``I still consciously block it all out.''

It was a time not only of deep emotional turmoil but also of intense ideological struggle as British propaganda tried to redefine the conflict as a ``criminal conspiracy''. With state censorship both sides of the border, Republican News played a key role in ``getting the truth out,'' says Chrissy. Copies of the papers printed in 1981 remain a fitting record of the dedication of the staff who reported with meticulous detail not only the lives and deaths of the hunger strikers but also the impact of that unfolding tragedy within nationalist communities across the North.

In the end British propaganda collapsed under the weight of contradictions exposed by the steadfast refusal of Republicans to be criminalised. ``By the time Bobby Sands was elected his name was known throughout Ireland and the world,'' says Chrissy. The electoral mandate Sands secured shattered the myths perpetuated by British propaganda. ``Britain's criminalisation strategy lay in tatters,`` says Chrissy. The subsequent deaths of the hungerstrikers were ``the price Thatcher extracted,'' says Chrissy. A vindictive act of revenge.

Chrissy sees the genesis of the current Peace Process in the hungerstrike period. ``The emergence of the Peace People in the late 1970s was used by the British as a counter-insurgency tool,'' says Chrissy. Peace was defined in terms of defeating republicans and was used to legitimate mass repression. Sinn Féin peace strategy developed out of this period, renegotiating the popular understanding of peace, in terms of `a lasting peace'. ``A lasting peace is secured by addressing the causes of conflict,'' says Chrissy, ``it involves dialogue and a dynamic for change.''

As a candidate in the forthcoming Assembly election, Chrissy sees Sinn Fein's role as confronting the denial of real democracy. ``British interference in Ireland has created a democratic deficit,'' says Chrissy, ``nationalists will not tolerate second class citizenship.''

It is difficult to imagine how the slow agonising tactic of a hunger strike could be seen as inevitable, but that was how it was in the H Blocks in 1980-81. The resort to hunger strike was a measure of the intensity of the battle for the Republic. The desire for justice, the courage and the undiluted determination never to give in were awe-inspiring.

Editors of `Nor Meekly Serve My Time', Belfast July 1994

Peadar Whelan

``My resentment...,'' writes Peadar Whelan recalling the end of the second hunger strike in `Nor Meekly Serve My Time', ``was as great as my relief.''

Sentenced to life imprisonment in January 1978, Peadar had joined protesting prisoners in the H Blocks on the eve of the no-wash protest. Four years of intense struggle was to follow, escalating into two periods of protracted hunger strikes and the death of ten prisoners. Confessing to the ambiguity he felt after the end of the hunger strikes, Peadar mirrors the response of many Republican prisoners at that time. ``Despite my relief that no one else would die I still felt gutted because ten men had died and we had not won our demands,'' writes Peadar. ``My morale was never as low.''

But the story didn't end there. In its own way what followed was as remarkable as the struggle which preceded it.

The eldest boy in a family of seven, Peadar was reared in one of a row of narrow terraced houses built directly under the shadow of Derry's city walls. Until it was demolished by an IRA bomb in 1974 the view was dominated by a statue of George Walker, Governor of Derry during the Siege and icon of the Apprentice Boys.

Growing up in a nationalist city gerrymandered to secure unionist domination, Peadar was always aware of sectarian discrimination. It was brought into sharp focus in October `68. ``My family's life was shaped by the routine of work, home and chapel,'' says Peadar. When his relatives - ``aunts and uncles'' - decided to support the first civil rights march in Derry, it ``spoke volumes about the legitimacy of their grievances''. When they were beaten off the streets it ``spoke volumes about the legitimacy of the Unionist state''. Drenched by water cannon and chased by the RUC, they returned in relative safety to their homes. It was a defining moment for their 11-year-old nephew. Fourteen years later that same sense of resentment and relief would revisit Peadar, this time in a H Block cell. ``In the immediate post hungerstrike period there was constant discussions to find answers to the questions we faced,'' says Peadar. ``It boiled down to two choices, should we stay on protest or go into the system and work it to our advantage.''

Confounding their enemies, Republican prisoners began entering the system. Their strategy of subversion gained such a momentum that within less than 12 months they had not only secured more concessions than their initial expectations but had gained sufficient knowledge of the jail to implement a successful mass escape.

Long Kesh was the most secure prison in Western Europe. In a skilfully executed plan, prisoners secured H7, commandeered a lorry and drove through three security checks undetected. When a fracas developed outside the perimeter tally hut, prisoners abandoned the lorry, opened the main hydraulic gate, breached the outer gate and made their getaway on foot. It was the largest escape since the Second World War. If morale had reached an all-time low at the beginning of 1982, it was spectacularly restored in 1983.

Released on licence in 1992, Peadar Whelan joined the staff at An Phoblacht. Today, now Northern Editor, Peadar sees a parallel between the tactical flexibility which thwarted the operation of one of the most brutal prison regimes in the 1980s and the challenges facing Sinn Féin following the forthcoming Assembly elections. ``In the H Blocks and Armagh jail we began by confronting a prison regime but in the end we exposed the myths of British rule in Ireland,'' says Peadar, ``in the Assembly Republicans will be challenging a unionist regime and exposing the sectarian legacy of British interference in the Six Counties.''

Colm Scullion

``The key to the door,'' is how Colm Scullion describes the acquisition of the Irish language as a fundamental prerequisite in the exploration of his cultural heritage. Colm was lying naked in a H Block cell when he learned his first few words of Irish vocabulary.

When Colm had been captured with Thomas McElwee in 1976, he was barely 17 years of age. In the H Blocks of Long Kesh he was one of many young SOSP prisoners held in H3. The prison regime was systematicaly brutal in its dealings with the youngest prisoners. ``We were the guinea pigs,'' says Colm, ``any change in policy was tried out on us first. They thought the youngest prisoners would be the easiest to break but we held together and they never succeeded.''

The Irish language, both in its teaching and learning, played a key role in maintaining unity and morale. ``It was a way of keeping hold of your sanity,'' says Colm. ``We were locked in a cell with nothing to occupy us.''

Colm remembers listening to a lecture, delivered from behind his cell door, by Tom McKearney on the importance of the Irish language. Colm became ``determined'' to learn. ``Most of my Irish was taught to me by Bobby Sands,'' says Colm. A copy of the Bible was the only written material allowed in each cell. ``Bobby and Jake Jackson would shout out the reference to a passage in the Bible and we'd try to translate it into Irish,'' says Colm. When Colm and Bobby shared a cell, ``we made it a rule to speak Irish all day.'' Only after 11pm each night did they allow themselves to lapse back into speaking English.

In the isolation of the H Block cells the Irish language not only played a significant role in maintaining the prisoners' morale it was also a key organisational tool. ``Messages shouted in Irish wing to wing and cell to cell, allowed the prisoners to overcome their isolation, maintain a command structure and organise collective resistance,'' says Colm.

The utilisation of Irish within the jail impacted on the wider community outside. Once remote to many ordinary nationalists, the acquisition of their native language became a popular demand. In a survey carried out in the early 1990s, over 90% of parents in West Belfast said they would prefer their children to be taught through the medium of Irish. The seeds of that aspiration were germinated during the conflict within the jails.

Today, as a local historian and archaeologist, Colm Scullion devotes much of his time to restoring the cultural heritage within his community. For thousands of years generations of the Scullion family have lived in and around the town of Bellaghy. The name of the townland, Ballyscullion, reflects the long association the family has with the area. It's evidence of the kind of continuity which delights Colm. ``Traditional culture has always been preserved within rural communities,`` says Colm. ``Popular interest in the Irish language and culture reflects the optimism with which Irish nationalists see their future.''

In the past nationalists living in the Six Counties felt they should obscure their Irish identity, says Colm, now people are choosing Irish names for their children. ``It's an indication of growing confidence,'' he says, ``a confidence which is being reflected both culturally and politically.''

I wonder sometimes how many people stop to count how many seconds make up the minutes that make up the hours of the 66 days of Bobby Sands's dying or the 73 of Kieran Doherty's or the 46 of Martin Hurson's. How many seconds did it take all 10 to die? I think of the power of such love as will lay down its life so resolutely, and I am in awe and perhaps fear of it....

Bernadette McAliskey, 1994


March 1976: British end `Special Category Status'.

September 1976: The first Republican prisoner sentenced after the removal of political status refuses to wear a prison uniform. Ciaran Nugent is left naked with only a blanket. In the next five years over 1000 men in the H blocks and 30 women in Armagh will participate in the protest.

March 1978: Increased brutality and harassment by prison wardens escalates into a no-wash protest.

October 1980: Seven protesting H Block prisoners go on hungerstrike. They are later joined on hunger strike by three women in Armagh jail.

December 1980: The British present prisoners with a document which appears to offer a resolution to the crisis. First hunger strike ends.

January 1981: The ending of the no-wash protest by a section of the prisoners, as a gesture of good faith, is met by British intransigence on the clothing issue.

February 1981: A second hunger strike is announced in a joint statement by the blanketmen and women of Armagh.

March 1981: Bobby Sands begins his hunger strike as thousands of nationalists take to the streets of Belfast to demonstrate their support. The no-wash protest ends. Within a fortnight Bobby is joined on hunger strike by Francie Hughes. A week later Raymond McCreesh and Patsy O'Hara begin their hunger strike.

April 1981: Bobby Sands is elected as MP with almost 30,500 votes in a by-election in Fermanagh/South Tyrone. Paul Whitters from Derry is shot dead by a plastic bullet.

May 1981: The death of Bobby Sands prompts widespread rioting in nationalist areas. Tens of thousands of mourners attend Bobby's funeral. A week later a second hunger striker, Francie Hughes dies. Within five days two more hunger strikers lose their lives. Patsy O'Hara dies just a few hours after Raymond McCreesh. In Belfast Julie Livingstone (14) and Carol Ann Kelly (12), and in Derry, Harry Duffy, are shot dead by plastic bullets. IRA Volunteers George McBrearty and Charlie Maguire are killed on active service.

June 1981: The struggle is further endorsed as tens of thousands of nationalists vote in the 26 Counties general election in support of the prisoners' demands. Hunger striker Kieran Doherty is elected TD for Cavan/Monaghan and blanketman Paddy Agnew is elected TD for Louth.

July 1981: Fifth hunger striker, Joe McDonnell, dies. Within hours of Joe's death, a member of the Fianna, John Dempsey (16) is shot dead by the British army in West Belfast, Nora McCabe (29) is fatally wounded by a plastic bullet and Danny Barret (15) is shot dead by the British army in North Belfast. Sixth hunger striker Martin Hurson dies.

August 1981: Seventh hunger striker, Kevin Lynch dies swiftly followed by hunger stiker Kevin Doherty who dies a day later. Within a week another hunger striker, Thomas McElwee dies. Liam Canning from West Belfast is murdered by loyalists. In North Belfast Peter Magennis is shot dead by a plastic bullet. Tenth hunger striker, Mickey Devine dies as Bobby Sands's election agent Owen Carron is elected MP for Fermanagh/South Tyrone.

September 1981: Ending the hunger strike becomes inevitable as families begin to authorise medical intervention as more hunger strikers become critical.

October 1981: After 217 days of consecutive hunger strike involving 23 hunger strikers, many reaching the brink of death and ten dying, protesting prisoners announce an end to the hunger strike. Within weeks the blanket protest also ends as Republicans develop an alternative strategy of subversion which will eventually secure all their five demands and leads directly into the Great Escape of 1983.

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