I have been somewhat nostalgic this week on Organized Rage, what with the anniversaries of the deaths of Anna Politkovskaya and Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, but I make no apologies for this as revisionist historians are hard at work distorting the lives and work of those who served the cause of truth, justice and equality. In keeping with this theme I have rounded off the week with a short piece about the 1981 Irish Republican Hunger Strikes that took place in the north of Ireland’s Maze Prison. I will return to current affairs next week with a look at the very worrying political developments in Turkey.
After reading in an An Phoblacht article that a wreath laying ceremony had taken place in a street in Paris that had been named after Óglaigh Na hÉireann [IRA] Volunteer Bobby Sands, who along with nine other Republican hunger strikers sacrificed his life in a titanic and unequal struggle against the Thatcher government, when it refused to concede to the hunger strikers five demands which centered around political status for all Republican prisoners, I started thinking back to those heroic, tragic and terrible days. For those who were either to young to understand or not yet born in 1981; or those who had not invested in the struggle for a 32 County Socialist Irish Republic it will I am sure be difficult to understand just what an emotional roller coaster experience the Blanket protest and Hunger Strike period was.
All of us who back then supported the protesting Republican prisoners, bar the hunger strikers themselves, their command structure and the British authorities were in reality powerless to influence events. Tens of thousands of people, many of whom did not support the IRA’s armed struggle did what they could to raise the public profile of the hunger strikers, but in reality we were mere spectators. When in the early hours of the morning of May 5 1981 the death of Bobby Sands was announced on the radio after 66 days of being on a hunger strike, we all went through our own private and personal grief.
Many wept in disbelief, others raged at the sheer callousness of the Thatcher government and plotted revenge, many socialists were outraged at the adamant refusal of the British Labour Party to intervene on the side of the hunger strikers, as even the Vatican had done. I was in London at the time working at the TUC’s head quarters Congress House, helping to organize the first ‘Peoples March for Jobs’. When I went into work that morning life seemed to go on as if nothing of importance had occurred over night.
As it happened I and some fellow trade unionists had a meeting arranged with a Labour MP who had accompanied the shadow northern Ireland Minister Don Concannon MP into the Maze Prison to tell Bobby Sands that he should give up his hunger strike as the Labour Party was four square behind the Tory Government on this matter. When the MP in question turned up at Congress House for our meeting, she was full of herself about how Don Concannon with her support had put Sands firmly in his place, never mind that when these gallant Laborites met Bobby he was laying on a prison hospital bed, almost blind and in the last days of his life.
Her opportunist bleating was beyond human decency and for me her wretched behavior was the final straw and from that day to this I have never forgiven Michael Foot, then Party leader, nor the Labour Party for that cowardly betrayal of the weak against the strong. Even if they believed Sands was way out of line and they were unwilling to support the five demands of the Hunger Strikers they should have stayed quiet. Especially when you look at who Sands and his comrades in the Maze were up against, the Thatcher Government in all its cruelty and vindictiveness, instead the British LP chose to give succor to Margaret Thatcher’s administration.
For even those in Ireland who had opposed the IRA and the hunger strikes with some vigor, like Father Denis Faul who was the Maze prison Catholic chaplain at the time, recognized that Bobby Sands and his nine comrades were brave and honorable men. During the course of his hunger strike, Fr Denis Faul was to plead with Bobby Sands in the name of Jesus Christ to give up his hunger strike, as according to the Priest to continue would bring violence and death in the wider community. But when Sands replied with lines from St John’s Gospel: ‘‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Fr Faul responded in a way that might have surprised some of his middle class political friends, ‘‘Bobby”, he said, “I’m not going to bother you any more. You’re obviously in good conscience.” For Denis Faul new that as far as his hunger strike was concerned Bobby Sands conscience was clear and he was prepared to face his maker in a heroic and admirable manner and when the time came he was prepared to answer to a greater authority than a reactionary government in London.
As to the UK Labour Party, its betrayal of the Ten Republican hunger strikers was the first of many, Kinnock’s refusal to support outright the NUM in the miners strike was next, followed by countless others until we had the advent of New Labour and its refusal to annul the Thatcherite anti trade union legislation; and the criminal invasion and occupation of Iraq in support of a right wing Neo-conservative President.
None of which has surprised me for that Party’s despicable behavior during the 1981 hunger strikes exposed it as a disgraceful dung heap. Apologies to those I still consider comrades who have remained in the British LP, but you deserve better, and so to does the mass of working class people who today vote for what is little more than cadaver of a social democratic political party.
Sinn Fein MP Conor Murphy and Séanna Walsh, one of Bobby Sands’s comrades in the Maze prison and subsequently Commanding Officer of the Republican prisoners in that jail, laying a wreath in memory of the H-Block hunger strikers at Bobby Sands Street in Paris in a ceremony hosted by the Mayor of Saint-Denis.
The ten dead Republican hunger Strikers
The H blocks [Maze prison]
* Photo first published in An Phoblacht/Republican News [http://www.anphoblacht.com/]