Hunger strikes and contesting narratives in republicanism

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.”

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10 responses to “Hunger strikes and contesting narratives in republicanism

  1. ‘Flatly contradicted’ by what evidence? The evidence of a Sir John Blelloch which is contradicted by another NIO official Stephen Leach ?

    This is what contradicts your ‘evidence’….I’ve posted it as a reply on Jude Collins’ blog:

    The recently released documents in fact prove that ‘Sir John Blelloch’s’ previously released interview with Padraig O’Malley, five years after the Hunger Strikes, isn’t worth the paper it was written on…

    These recent documents are a memo written to Blelloch from NIO official Stephen Leach telling him that Padraig O’Malley wanted to question him, Blelloch, about the ‘existence of an intermediary.’

    Leach told Blelloch in this memo, about Gerry Adams telling the ICJP that a ‘good offer’ had recently been received via this channel’. Blelloch in a note replied… ”I did not myself believe that there were in effect two government positions, one being deployed by the NIO and one by somebody else.”

    But here was Leach confirming that another channel (The Mountain Climber) existed and had passed a ‘good offer’ to Adams. Therefore previous to his O’Malley interview Blelloch was either still unaware of it, five years later, or he was in denial of it thus making this interview invalid as a means of backing up any form of argument.

    Note: The NIO were in contact with the ICJP during the Hunger Strikes so it stands to reason that this body informed their NIO contacts of what Adams had told them at the time. This is in actual fact mentioned in ‘Ten Men Dead.’

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    • Blelloch, as Alison’s advisor and present during any talks, is clearly an authoritative source. He makes it clear there was no offer and there was no positions that suggested a deal was even remotely possible in the interview. He’s categorical about it. Leach was directly involved in disseminating disinformation in the 1980s (it was effectively his job), in that regard, it’s not even that he is not a reliable source, the motivation for anything he says needs to be interrogated.

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      • You clearly ignored what I wrote above John. The Stephen Leach memo completely destroys Blelloch in that it shows he knew nothing of the Mountain Climber channel. You say his job was disseminating disinformation in the 80s but why would he lie to a colleague in the NIO who apparently would know the ins and outs of of what went on himself? Thats clearly a very weak analysis.

        Regardless Padraig O’Malley, despite the lengths he went to get the interview with Blelloch, evidently saw no value in it as he didn’t use it in his book on the Hunger Strikes, Biting at the Grave. As the BST states it was an unpublished interview. Yet they hold it up as the be all and end all.

        What the BST didn’t state was where they sourced it from, the site merely states that it came into their possession. Rather unusual it that sources are normally acknowledged.

        Your whole argument hinges on the word of an MI5 agent whose interview was seen as having been of no value to the person, Padraig O’Malley who conducted it. Therefore we have the word of such a person being used against the person upon who Bik McFarlane relied for advise during the Hunger Strikes. That my friend is derisory no matter how you look at it.

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  2. Further, you stated that…” Blelloch, as Alison’s advisor and present during any talks, is clearly an authoritative source.”

    This completely destroys that. It refers to a meeting between Michael Allison and the ICJP and shows how far the Brits were willing to go in regards to finding a solution to the Hunger Strikes. Note: The Mountain Climber channel between the Foreign Office and Gerry Adams was completely separate to the NIO/ ICJP negotiations:

    Padraig O’Malley, Biting at the Grave, pg 90-92: “Both sides met again on 4 July for what the Commission members felt was a pro-forma exercise. Within minutes of the meeting’s beginning, however, Alison did a complete about-face. If the hunger strikes were to end, he told the Commission, the government would not appear to be acting under duress, in which case all prisoners would be allowed to wear their own clothes. Own clothing as a right, not a privilege, Hugh Logue asked. Own clothing as a right, Alison replied.”

    “After the meeting with Alison the Commission was given permission to go immediately to the Maze/Long Kesh prison. When they arrived, they were brought to the hospital wing […] The eight hunger strikers sat on one side of a table on which jugs of water had been placed; the five commissioners sat opposite them.”

    “For the next two hours the two sides went over the proposals the Commission had hammered out with Alison and which it now thought were on offer. Prisoners would be allowed to wear their own clothes at all times as a matter of right, not privilege; association would be improved by allowing movement by all prisoners during daily exercise time between the yard blocks of every two adjacent wings within each block and between the recreation rooms of the two adjacent wings in each block during the daily recreational period; the definition of work would be expanded to ensure every prisoner the widest choice of activities – for example, prisoners with levels of expertise in crafts of the arts could teach these skills to other prisoners as part of their work schedules, prisoners would be allowed to perform work for a range of charitable or voluntary bodies, and such work could even include the building of a church “or equivalent facilities for religious worship within the prison”.”

    Padraig O’Malley, Biting at the Grave, pg 96:

    “…Danny Morrison was allowed to go into the Maze/Long Kesh to see the hunger strikers on the morning of 5 July…to apprise them of what was going on, although he did not go into detail. Morrison says that he relayed information about the contact and impressed upon them the fact the ICJP could “make a mess of it, that they could be settling for less than what they had the potential for achieving.”

    (My note: He relayed information about the contact (The Mountain Climber?) in effect here we have proof that the Brits were offering the most important of the 5 demands the right to wear our own clothes through the ICJP, but Danny Morrison told the Hunger Strikers the following day that they had the potential to get more. Yet he didn’t go into detail about how much more they would get. Why not?

    More importantly this is proof if proof is needed that Stephen Leach was correct when he said that Gerry Adams told the ICJP that a ‘good offer’ had recently been received via this channel – The Mountain Climber.)

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  3. The detail available for the ‘back channel’ communications (as published) doesn’t really support that at all.
    A discussion through the ‘back channel’ at 2.30-5 am on 5 July recorded that the British government’s position specifically states that it was that only the eight hunger strikers that were being offered the right to wear their own clothes (implying that was going to be the British governments actual position after ending the hunger strike but isn’t clear whether they had clarified anything like to that to ICJP).
    Elsewhere in that record of calls there is not any offer being made via the ‘back channel’ (by the 5th) that was not already being made through ICJP. What is more, the offer was said to have been to the eight hunger strikers only and that was ‘…a genuine misunderstanding by HMG. He [presumably Duddy] said it was not possible to separate the hunger strikers from the remaining protesting prisoners. He said there was an agreement that the hunger strikers are standing as representatives of the total prisoner strength and that they should not receive preferential treatment…’ (this is all given in document YP/32614).
    So either those on the British government side who were communicating through the ‘back channel’ were very badly informed (or that it was even intended simply as a distraction as some allege), or, the British government, once the hunger strike ended, intended to interpret its own position on clothing on 4th/5th as only related to the eight hunger strikers and no-one else. In a memo of a meeting of Thatcher and her advisors on 3rd July it had been set out that in making an offer on clothing (a review of extending the right, subject to guidelines and approval, to own clothing during ‘working hours’), it was hoped that ‘It might be possible for the Commission (ICJP) to persuade at least one of the hunger strikers to give up his protest by exploiting this flexibility.’ It also very categorically says there is no change in government position on clothing (from the 30/6/81 Atkins statement). But it is clear from the various communications that the government position wasn’t clear on prisoners wearing their own clothes. The IRA’s position is given simply in the ‘back channel’ communications as ‘fully behind the statement by the prisoners and that is the only basis for a draft proposal’ (the 4th July statement).
    Another memo from the evening of the 6th July (by same group who met Thatcher on 3rd) finally clarifies the British government position that was to be sent to the IRA on clothes as it includes the wording of a statement to be sent via the ‘back channel’. This was worded as: “(i) extend to all male prisoners in Northern Ireland the clothing regime at present available to female prisoners in Armagh (ie subject to the prison governor’s approval).” This follows a meeting with Thatcher and others that started at 7.30 pm on 6th July (the time it was finalised isn’t given and presumably was a response to the confusion over the actual position during that day). The full proposed text of the draft statement is included in a memo on the morning of 8th July. Padraig O’Malley, in Biting at the Grave, pg 90-92, records that the ICJP had told the prisoners they “…would be allowed to wear their own clothes at all times as a matter of right, not privilege; association would be improved by allowing movement by all prisoners during daily exercise time between the yard blocks of every two adjacent wings within each block and between the recreation rooms of the two adjacent wings in each block during the daily recreational period; the definition of work would be expanded to ensure every prisoner the widest choice of activities – for example, prisoners with levels of expertise in crafts of the arts could teach these skills to other prisoners as part of their work schedules, prisoners would be allowed to perform work for a range of charitable or voluntary bodies, and such work could even include the building of a church “or equivalent facilities for religious worship within the prison”.”
    This goes a bit further in detail (on association) than the text of the draft statement recorded in the memo on 8th July as having been sent to the IRA (the alleged deal being offered on the 6th): It states that: “When the hunger strike and the protest is brought to an end (and not before), the Government will: (i) extend to all male prisoners in Northern Ireland the clothing regime at present available to female prisoners in Armagh (ie subject to the prison governor’s approval);
    (ii) make available to all prisoners in Northern Ireland the allowance of letters, parcels and visits at present available to conforming prisoners;
    (iii) allow the restoration of a forfeited remission at the discretion of the responsible disciplinary authority, as indicated in my statement of 30 June, which hitherto has meant the restoration of up to one-fifth of remission lost subject to a satisfactory period of good behaviour;
    (iv) ensure that a substantial part of the work will consist of domestic tasks inside and outside the wings necessary for servicing of the prison (such as cleaning and in the laundries and kitches), constructive work, eh on building projects or making toys for charitable bodies, and study for Open University or other courses. the prison authorities will be responsible for supervision. The aim of the authorities will be that prisoners should do the kinds of work for which they are suited, but this will not always be possible and the authorities will retain responsibility for decisions about allocation.
    3. Little advance is possible on association. It will be permitted within each wing, under supervision of the prison staff.
    4. Protesting prisoners have been segregated from the rest… only reason for segregating prisoners from others would be the judgement of the prison authorities.”
    The Thatcher archive doesn’t include any detail or transcripts on communications via the back channel which were flagged in the report on those of 4th/5th as likely to occur on the night of the 6th (the ones involving Duddy after 11.30 pm). On the 7th Atkins wrote a memo for Thatcher but without any detail on the communications. He also noted that they now needed to ‘…straighten out the prisoners who may have been mislead by the zeal of the ICJP for turning general statements into particular examples.’ The proposed text of the draft statement sent to the IRA on the previous evening is entirely consistent with O’Malley’s report of what the ICJP had told the prisoners was on offer (particularly the added detail on association). Much of this made it into the press by the 7th/8th too. In between, the confusion had led to the afternoon meetings on the 6th trying to resolve what appeared to be different positions being indicated to the ICJP and IRA. The draft statement was then sent some time after 11.30 pm on the 6th but provided no further movement on the position outlined by the ICJP.
    In none of that is there any other deal being offered in the interval between the prisoners statement of 4th July and Joe McDonnell’s death.

    But more to the point – we’re having to argue about this partly based on redacted British documents, often originating with spooks and other security personnel and what they chose to record and publicly release. None of which is ideal. The point of the original article was that in previous hunger strikes (certainly in the 1930s and 1940s), that was part of the government containment strategy.

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  4. Seriously John where did you get that one? “It was only the eight hunger strikers that were being offered the right to wear their own clothes…”

    That’s totally absurd to say the least. In fact the further pieces you use contradicts this in that…

    “This was worded as: “(i) extend to all male prisoners in Northern Ireland the clothing regime at present available to female prisoners in Armagh (ie subject to the prison governor’s approval).”

    Armagh Women prisoners could wear their own clothes at all times and the above was in reference that point.

    Look below, it says ‘all prisoners’…’as a right not a privilege.’

    Padraig O’Malley, Biting at the Grave, pg 90-92: “Both sides met again on 4 July for what the Commission members felt was a pro-forma exercise. Within minutes of the meeting’s beginning, however, Alison did a complete about-face. If the hunger strikes were to end, he told the Commission, the government would not appear to be acting under duress, in which case all prisoners would be allowed to wear their own clothes. Own clothing as a right, not a privilege, Hugh Logue asked. Own clothing as a right, Alison replied.”

    Then we have…

    THE CHANNEL: “MOUNTAIN CLIMBER”/”SOON” BRENDAN DUDDY’S DIARY NOTES: REPLY FROM THE BRITISH, 6 July 1981 http://archives.library.nuigalway.ie/duddy/web/

    The British Government is prepared to issue a statement only if there is an immediate end to the Hunger Strike.
    1. Prison regime in Armagh would become general in NI prisons i.e. civilian clothing.
    2. Visits as for conforming prisons.
    3. Remission as stated on June 30th by Secretary of State, Humphrey Atkins.
    4. On work – the prison administration must maintain the right to decide what work should be done. Within that rule, further kinds of work are added from time to time, i.e. Open University, Build a Church (O’Fiach’s idea), Toys for spastic children.
    5. Little advance is possible on Association as laid out on June Statement of 30th.

    If we receive a satisfactory reply by 9:00am Tuesday 07/07/81 we will provide full text of the full statement.
    If the reply is negative or if there is any public reference to this exchange we will deny it took place. Silence will be taken as an unsatisfactory reply.
    The full text will be available by 1:00am Tuesday 7th July

    (That’s the Mountain Climber’s own notes)

    You close with…

    “But more to the point – we’re having to argue about this partly based on redacted British documents, often originating with spooks and other security personnel and what they chose to record and publicly release…”

    But the BST are using a document from the spook Sir John Blelloch a spook as the be all and end all of their argument.

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    • That’s a direct quote from the Margaret Thatcher archive (as explained in the comment along with the context). It’s from the summary transcript of the communications through the back channel.

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  5. John lets just leave the spooks and their documents aside. My defense of Richard O’Rawe has stemmed from the fact that I was in that wing in H3 with Bobby, Bik, Richard and Big Tom McElwee, among others, throughout 1981. I knew that Bik depended heavily on the advice of Richard. I was further down the wing from the cells of Richard and Bik but it didn’t stop word filtering down that the Brits were moving and Joe McDonnell wouldn’t have to die.

    That came from those in cells closest to Richard and Bik who overheard them saying that the offer contained enough to end it. One of those who overheard it stood up and stated this in Derry’s Gasyard Center during a debate when Brendan Duddy (The Mountain Climber/Channel) who sat on the panel was shown a document. It clearly shocked him and he stated that it contained the offer he passed on to Adams.

    (The Bik/O’Rawe acceptance of the offer was overheard by others who fear the consequences of going public.)

    In fact Bik then went from telling Fergal McKinney, who was a journalist at the time, that there was no offer whatsoever to telling the Belfast Telegraph… ““Something was going down,” McFarlane said. “And I said to Richard (O’Rawe) this is amazing, this is a huge opportunity and I feel there’s a potential here (in the Mountain Climber process) to end this.”

    The Gasyard Debate had brought about a dramatic volte-face.

    So lets now look at what Bik was saying, his admission effectively confirmed what Richard was saying from the outset yet they continued to attack him…and lie.

    If you go to the part of ‘Ten Men Dead’ which deals with that time around July 5th/6th 1981 you’ll notice that one thing is missing. The comm from Bik to Brownie (Adams) discussing what Bik believed was something,’amazing’, ‘a huge opportunity’ ‘the potential here to end it.’

    The only comm around that date is one detailing a meeting with the ICJP a separate line of negotiation altogether.

    David Beresford wrote ‘Ten Men Dead’ around the comms sent between Bik and Adams yet the most important comm is not in the book. The comm either accepting the offer or saying it didn’t contain enough.

    What happened to that comm and why was it withheld from Beresford?

    Also because I was on that wing I know exactly how the first hunger strike ended and it wasn’t because the Brits reneged on an offer. There was no offer because Bobby returned to the wing after visiting with the Dark and told us, as he walked to his cell, “Ni fhuaireamar feic….We got nothing” This is mentioned in Denis O’Hearn’s biography of Bobby.

    Why say that if there was indeed an offer? He didn’t say, as claimed by Laurney McKeown, that the Dark had fucked up because the Dark didn’t fuck up he had no choice but to end it. The facts are known to other former Blanket Men because, love him or loathe him Tom McFeely made it clear after he returned to the wings what happened. In fact the reasons for how the first hunger strike ended convinced Bobby that he needed to change tactics for the second hunger strike and put periods of time between those going on it.

    I’ve written a piece on the Pensive Quill detailing what was happening in the Blocks leading up to the Hunger Strikes. The fact is it was either the Hunger Strike or conforming, the Likes of Bobby and the Dark were left with no other choice. Things were very bad but they got worse when a very prominent Blanket Man left the protest in May 1979. As I state in my piece, the clothes issue was our way out of the stalemate we were locked in. With our own clothes we could go into the system and wreck it from within. That’s exactly what Bik and Richard saw in the Mountain Climber offer…. A way out!!

    And they were willing to take it.

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      • They do support my case John, while you argue from a point of view that believes what they are being fed by others. I was not relying on an interview by an MI5 agent passed on, I might add, to the BST.

        In fact you and not I made the point we were relying on spook documents, seemingly not realising you had stated in your piece that the Blelloch documents flatly contradicted any claims we were making. So I merely let you know I was there just yards from what was going on. Clearly this halted you in your tracks.

        Of course you, as is common practice among members/supporters of SF, threw out the tired old… ‘who oppose the political strategy being followed by Sinn Féin.’ You lot need to seriously catch a grip if you think anyone, outside of SF, believes Ex-Blanket Men would make such serious accusations just because we don’t agree with SF. In fact it merely proves you and the others have no other argument.

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