29.9.09

Chain of events that led to deaths

THE HUNGER STRIKE

By Seamus McKinney
Irish News
28/09/09



Between May 5 and August 20 1981 10 men died on hunger strike at the Maze prison in a protest which attracted worldwide media attention.

On the surface the Hunger Strike, and its 1980 predecessor, was in pursuit of five demands by republican prisoners.

However, it is accepted it was about much more than that. It was about a refusal by republican prisoners to allow the British government to officially criminalise them.

Prisoners started their protest for ‘special category status’ when it was removed in 1976.

Refusing to wear prison clothes, they wore blankets and fashioned blankets into clothing, earning approximately 350 inmates the title ‘blanketmen’.

In 1978 the protest was escalated after some prisoners were attacked when they left their cells to slop out.

Prisoners subsequently refused to leave their cells to wash and spread excrement on the cell walls in a dirty protest.

The IRA and INLA prisoners made five demands which they considered vital to re-establish their political status.

These were:

• the right not to wear prison uniforms

• the right not to do prison work

• the right of free association with other prisoners and to organise educational and recreational pursuits

• the right to one visit, one letter and one parcel per week.

• full restoration of remission lost through the protest.

In 1980 seven prisoners went on hunger strike in pursuit of the demands.

The protest was called off after 53 days with Sean McKenna close to death.

The prisoners believed a British government document -- which they had not seen -- had conceded the essence of their demands.

However, when the 34-page document was studied, the prisoners found it fell far short of their demands.

This was realised within days of the end of the hunger strike when prisoners were issued with civilian-style prison uniforms instead of their own clothes.

Some observers believe that the British government had genuinely thought it had dealt with the problem but that subsequent problem arose in its implementation by prison management and staff.

The second Hunger Strike began when former IRA prison OC Bobby Sands refused food on March 1 1981.

This time prisoners joined the Hunger Strike at staggered intervals.

In April 1981 Sands defeated Ulster Unionist candidate Harry West to win a seat as an MP in Fermanagh and South Tyrone following the death of sitting Independent MP Frank Maguire.

Despite Sands’ election causing a diplomatic crisis for Britain around the world, then prime minister Margaret Thatcher refused to give in to the prisoners' demands.

In a now famous speech, she said: “We are not prepared to consider special category status for certain groups of people serving sentences for crime. Crime is crime is crime. It is not political.”

Sands eventually died on May 5 after 66 days on hunger strike. In a huge protest by nationalist Ireland tens of thousands of people lined the route of his funeral.

In the next four months nine more men died while on hunger strike before the protest began to break down following interventions by hunger strikers’ families.

On October 3 1981 the Hunger Strike was officially ended.

Four days later, new Northern Ireland secretary of state Jim Prior conceded four of the five demands.

The final demand, the right not to do prison work, was conceded when the British government agreed to allow prisoners to undertake educational study during prison work time.


Blanketman’s deal claim

THE controversy over the 1981 Hunger Strike began in 2005 when former prisoner Richard O’Rawe, above right, published his book Blanketmen.

He alleged that a possible deal which could have ended the Hunger Strike was rejected by the Sinn Fein committee which was managing the protest outside the prison.

O’Rawe, a publicity officer for the prisoners, believed there could be a number of reasons for this, including a strategy to make political gain from the protest.

He said the deal was offered after the death of Patsy O’Hara and just two days before the death of Joe McDonnell.

He said then OC of the IRA prisoners, Brendan Bik McFarlane shouted “Tá go leor ann” (There’s enough there) to him when he heard the details.

Both McFarlane and the Sinn Fein leadership have denied this version of events. Former Sinn Fein publicity officer Danny Morrison initially denied that any deal at all was offered.

However, through Freedom of Information a number of documents have since emerged which appear to support a possible deal.

These documents indicate that then British prime minister Margaret Thatcher was willing to give concessions on three and possibly four of the prisoners’ demands.

At the time the offer was released verbally to the IRA leadership by Derry businessman and go-between Brendan Duddy who was known by the code name The Mountain Climber. Nothing in writing was ever offered.

The offer was made after a statement by the prisoners in which they appeared willing drop the words ‘political status’ from their campaign while maintaining their five demands.

The Freedom of Information documents claim a draft statement was given to Sinn Fein to be released after the prisoners had called off thee Hunger Strike.

But Joe McDonnell died unexpectedly early and following serious rioting the Hunger Strike continued.

Sinn Fein claims a close reading of the documents shows the British were not willing to agree to a settlement favourable to the prisoners. The party says people should not confuse a deal with an offer.

Seamus McKinney

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