Historically, hunger strikes and prison protests have been a recurring aspect of conflict in Ireland. Generally, increasing rates of incarceration have coincided with the continuation of a campaign of resistance to the status quo inside the prisons by demanding recognition of the political status of imprisoned republicans (as an overt and highly public critique of the legitimacy of the various administrations in Ireland). Republican writing provides some quite intimate insights into the realities of such protests and the impact on the body of refusing food (and at times liquids). The use of the body to articulate resistance to challenge the status quo, historically at least, has had deep resonance in the public psyche in Ireland.
Critically, though, it highlights that the theatre of conflict here is the media and public discourse. A prison protest behind (literally) closed doors, for all the bravery and resilience of its participants, can be readily ignored by the authorities without a coordinated publicity campaign to apply pressure. In a hunger or thirst strike, the protestors try and trade increasing public concern as to their physical well-being against mobilising that public opinion to bring pressure on the authorities to reach and settlement, and by doing so, achieve some of their demands.
This is clear in the various protests I’ve blogged on here, from the 1936 hunger strike, through to the Armagh hunger strike in 1943, the 1944 hunger strike and 1946 strikes involving Sean McCaughey and David Fleming. Another significant hunger strike had taken place in 1940 (in which Jack McNeela and Tony D’Arcy died). The failure of newspapers like The Irish News to provide publicity and the role of nationalist and other politicians in undermining the protests. The cumulative impact was to give republicans a greater grasp of the necessary interplay of strategy and publicity that was evident both in the absence of major prison protests in the 1956-62 campaign and in the role of Republican News in reporting on the hunger strike led by Billy McKee in 1972.
This appreciation of publicity and propaganda shouldn’t be a surprise, since wider republican strategy consistently relied on mobilising public opinion, rather than being expected to culminate in a military victory, to achieve its aims. The extent to which that strategy was conscious or subconscious is perhaps a different argument. What makes this contentious for some, too, is that it centres on a key republican narrative that violence was political rather than some inchoate urge to simply commit ‘criminal acts’ (as its opponents would consistently claim). I would argue that, retrospectively, IRA strategy from the 1920s to (at least) the 1960s, was largely political only with little or no actual military dimension.
All this does, to some extent, explain why some have tried to contest the narrative around the 1981 hunger strike. Currently The Irish News is promoting a reading of events that is pushed by republicans and others who oppose the political strategy being followed by Sinn Féin, despite it appearing to be flatly contradicted by the evidence. While others can tease out the details of this elsewhere, my point is simply that the dispute illustrates the extent to which republicans (both on and off the Sinn Féin bus) understand the centrality of publicity and narrative. Ironically (in light of me having this blog), contesting historical legitimacy is a zero sum game of interest to less and less people as it progresses. To paraphrase the political scientist, Wallace Stanley Sayre, “Historical politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.”