A broken deal meant ’81 fast was inevitable

Andersonstown News

Lurgan man Leo Green went without food for 53 days during the 1980 hunger strike. Currently working as part of Sinn Féin's Assembly support team at Stormont, he was arrested in 1977 and sentenced to life imprisonment. He spent over 17 years in prison.

“Coming up to the 30th anniversary there's a natural focus on the hunger strike but the story of the prison struggle was about much more than that,” he said. “It's a story about hundreds of prisoners in both Armagh and Long Kesh and a story of thousands of relatives and activists on the outside. That hundreds of prisoners endured such confinement, conditions and brutality over a protracted period is always worth thinking about before you come round to thinking about what happened next. It sets the context and to some degree explains the rationale behind the decision to go on hunger strike.”

Leo explained that on a personal level his biggest concern was about how his mother and father would take the news that he had volunteered to go on hunger strike.

“I knew they would be supportive but I was particularly worried about the impact my decision would have on my father who had a history of stroke-related illness,” he said.

“As it turned out, within days of hearing I would be on the hunger strike he did take another serious stroke. His health went rapidly into decline thereafter and he died a few years later.”

Leo said the decision to begin a hunger strike was only taken after almost five years of the blanket protest by prisoners in the H-Blocks and in Armagh.


“Those were five years of brutality, confinement, terrible conditions for hundreds of prisoners. Hundreds of support demonstrations took place on the outside including a significant international focus on what was happening in the prisons. And all of this had not brought sufficient pressure for a resolution,” he said.

“And while I didn't think of it like this at the time, with each passing year of protest, with each wave of brutality from the prison administration, and with each deterioration in conditions, the prospect of hunger strike was increasing all the while.

“The decision to escalate the protest to a hunger strike was made in the prison and by the prisoners and against all the advice from outside. It wasn't taken lightly. It was only taken when it was felt we had exhausted all other forms of protest and when we had witnessed a number of interventions on the outside coming to nothing.”

Seven republican prisoners went on hunger strike on October 27, 1980. The seven men were Brendan Hughes, Tom McFeeley, Sean McKenna, Leo Green, Tommy McKearney, Raymond McCartney and John Nixon. They remained on hunger strike for 53 days.

“I spent the early few days in the wing in H4,” recalled Leo. “All the hunger strikers were then moved to a wing in H3, which was converted into a sort of hospital wing. After a few weeks there we were moved to the prison hospital,” he said.

As Sean McKenna neared death the prisoners struck a deal with the authorities – only for the British government to renege on the promises made.

“When the first hunger strike ended I was relieved that no-one had died. I really thought that it meant the end of the protests and a resolution. I wasn't surprised to learn about the initial messing about by the jail administration – but I thought that was to be expected and that it would pass.

“Gradually it began to sink in that the Brits had no intention of working to a solution that they had sought only to defuse the growing support for the prisoners' demands.

“This realisation was quite depressing, particularly as I knew it might mean another hunger strike. I knew also that the prospect that someone might die on hunger strike would now be significantly higher.

“But the determination to go for a second hunger strike was high. I realised that immediately when we moved back on to the protest wings from the prison hospital.

“All the ingredients that had made the hunger strike inevitable in the first instance were still there – the intransigence of the Brits, the attitude of the screws and the determination of the prisoners not to be broken.

“Dozens had volunteered to go on hunger strike. And this remained the case even after each death during the 1981 strike.

“I thought the right decision was made to end it when it did eventually end. And although we had lost ten comrades and friends, I knew we hadn't lost. We all knew we hadn't lost.”

Leo reflected on the huge changes in the political situation that have taken place over the past decades.

“It was certainly a bit strange coming to work here in Stormont initially. And presumably it was the same for other Sinn Féin people who had experienced imprisonment,” he said.

“The situation in the North has changed enormously and it continues to change. Change never comes easy or quickly enough. But there is no doubt it is happening. The Orange State as we knew and experienced it has gone.

“This is not to say that everything is okay. Far from it – much more change is needed. But change has to be worked at, it doesn't happen of its own accord and it doesn't always come in the form we would like.

“I think teaching our history is very important. It is important that young people know about these events and it is equally important that they learn about them from republicans.”

Leo said that the key lesson learned by republicans during the period of the hunger strikes was that “to get what you want politically you have to be determined, resilient and have an ability to adapt”.

“What brings delivery is resilience, determination and hard work. On the day the second hunger strike ended we knew we hadn't lost.

“We had secured the key demand on the right to wear our own clothes. That opened up a space within the prisons to make further progress. And within a short space of time, the rest of the five demands followed.

“The price was enormous. But we hadn't just not lost – we had won.”

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