30.6.06

Laurence McKeown Joins the Hunger Strike - 29 June 1981

CAIN

Monday 29 June 1981

Laurence McKeown, then an Irish Republican Army (IRA) prisoner, joined the hunger strike.

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Image Hosted by ImageShack.usLaurence McKeown was born in Randalstown, County Antrim. He was arrested in August, 1976 for alleged IRA activities and in April, 1977 he was sentenced to life imprisonment. McKeown spent the next four and a half years on the Blanket and the No Wash Protest in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh. (Photo from Larkspirit)
In October, 1980 he volunteered for hunger-strike but the strike was over before he was called as it was believed the British Government were going to satisfy the republican prisoners' demand for Political Status. When a second hunger-strike was called for March, 1981 McKeown again volunteered and commenced his strike on June 29th, 1981. McKeown fasted for seventy days before his family intervened to authorise medical attention. In 1991 McKeown contributed an article with Felim O'Hagan to Éirí na Gealaí: Reflections on the Culture of Resistance in Long Kesh. He was released from Long Kesh in 1992.

This extract is from McKeown's recollections of the Blanket, No Wash protest and Hunger Strikes in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh entitled Nor Meekly Serve My Time (1994) which he co-edited with Felim O'Hagan and Brian Campbell.

When a comm [communication] came round explaining the situation, outlining the attempt we had made to resolve the deadlock [after the first hunger strike of October - December, 1980] and detailing the manner in which we had been arrogantly rebuked at every turn, I was delighted we would be embarking on a second hunger strike. For a while it had seemed as if we would just give up or be forced to concede defeat. I knew that wasn't how the majority of the men felt. We had been through too much to accept that we had gained nothing.
A large number of those who had returned to the protest for the duration of the hunger strike had already begun to leave, realising that the situation was no different from that several months previous. That didn't concern me so much. I had been glad to see them return as it had bolstered our numbers for a while, but at the end of the day it wasn't numbers on the protest that was going to win our demands, but our resolve to see our struggle through to a successful conclusion.
We knew the hunger strike was the only way out of the impasse. The NIO were not prepared to yeild an inch, and all the politicians, churchmen and pseudo-liberals who had been vocal during the hunger (asking that we end it in order to allow the British Government to negotiate free from pressure) were all suddenly mute. Faced with this intransigence, the feeling was that we should take them on and show them that we were not beaten, nor could we be. Our integrity was at stake. We felt that some of our pride was restored the day that volunteers were once again asked to forward their names for hunger strike. We were back in the fight and hitting back....
Bobby [Sands] was now an MP. What clearer sign could there be that the people regarded him - and by extension all of us - as political prisoners than by voting for him as their parliamentary representative? We felt that this would cause the British all sorts of problems and put them in a dilemma as to how to treat an MP who they were condemning as a criminal. We felt the contradictions would be hard for them to overcome.
Once again we underestimated the Brits' capacity to blatantly change the rules to suit themselves. They simply enacted a Bill which barred prisoners from standing for future elections. That taught me a lot about the brits and politics and about power and the misuse of it. It taught me a lot about the facade of democracy which cloaks a very unjust and deep-seated system of privilege and power in the hands of a few....
On Wednesday morning [July 8th, 1981] Joe MacDonnell died after 61 days on hunger strike; then the recriminations began. The ICJP [Irish Commission for Justice and Peace composed of Catholic clergy and SDLP delegates who had mediated between the NIO and the prisoners] claimed publicly that the NIO had promised them such and such, the NIO said they hadn't and the British government, to back up this position, pointed out that no junior minister could have promised anything of the sort. The whole episode appeared very messy.
That was possibly the last serious attempt the Church or the Dublin government made at intervention in the stalemate. After this their public pronouncements became more weighted against the hunger strike, calling on the hunger strikes to come of it and more or less agreeing with Thatcher's line that 'no government could be seen to concede to such pressure'. I think it was at this stage we began to realise we were very much on our own and that our actions were having a wider political effect than we had first imagined. We were exposing the so-called nationalist politicians and cutting through their rhetoric. We were posing a threat to the status quo, no longer prepared to bend the knee and accept moral control from the Church, thinking for ourselves and acting in our own best interests. We had to be stopped. Soon Fr. Faul stepped up his anti-hunger strike campaign of vilification of the Republican Movement and its leadership...

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