Seventy-five years ago this week, IRA sentenced prisoners in Crumlin Road ended a hunger-strike that had begun just over forty days earlier, on the 22nd February 1944. The hunger strike was the latest in a sequence of prison protests that had included a strip strike in mid-1943 and an earlier hunger strike by the female prisoners in Armagh Gaol in the winter of 1943. After the IRA finally began its long delayed campaign in England in January 1939, it had failed to reinvigorate the campaign by transferring its focus to the north. By the middle of 1943, in the face of the loss of key personnel and lack of resources and with no imminent prospect of a Versailles style post-war conference, the emphasis shifted to the prisons and publicity coups in what IRA Chief of Staff Hugh McAteer later described as an attempt to ‘preserve the spirit’ of the movement.
The circumstances of the IRA in the north, at this point, were now considerably removed from that of the generation who were active from 1916 to 1922. From the Easter Rising onwards, conflict with the British authorities and then Free State and Northern Ireland authorities had indeed seen many republicans interned or sentenced to terms in prison. Despite the widespread republican experience of internment and imprisonment between 1916 to 1924, the typical period of incarceration was more often measured in months than years and few faced extended periods in prison. Only a handful of republicans were imprisoned for longer periods, some serving terms in prisons in Britain for a number of years after the general amnesties that followed the signing of the treaty in 1921.
The existing sentencing policy applied in the north from the mid-1930s onwards saw republicans given prison terms for offences that only warranted a fine for others. This discrepancy increased wildly after 1936, first when Eddie McCartney was given a ten year sentence and then when the Treason Felony Act was invoked to hand lengthy prison sentences to the northern IRA leadership. That Act hadn’t been used since the 1880s, which was the previous period in which republicans experienced similarly long terms of imprisonment with the likes of Tom Clarke serving fifteen years in jail.
Long term prisoners create a particular set of circumstances. Using ‘criminalisation’ as a tactical response to present insurgency as illegitimate isn’t exactly new but it does bring its own complications. It may not be explicit state policy but long term insurgent prisoners are designed to be hostages with the prospect of early release held out as an incentive to ending an active insurgency campaign. While the immediate benefit to the state is removing key insurgents from active involvement for extended periods of time that has to be balanced against other factors. Once imprisoned they are able to take part in in-depth internal debates on strategy and tactics with other imprisoned leaders, are able to engage with an audience outside the prisons and often attract support as a prisoner from individuals and organisations who wouldn’t otherwise openly support the insurgency itself. As had happened in the 1890s, the publicity attracted by long term prisoners began to far outweigh any tactical purpose in holding them in jail.
By early 1944, the republican prisoners in A wing in Crumlin Road included the likes of Jimmy Steele and Hugh McAteer who had been imprisoned on multiple occasions and already spent six or seven years each in jail (Steele had first been in prison in 1923). Many others had served various short terms prior to receive lengthy sentences since 1940. Internees, housed in D wing in Crumlin Road, Derry Gaol, Armagh Gaol and (in 1940-41) on the Al Rawdah, had to contend with the uncertainty of internment – no trial or charges also meant no defined period of imprisonment. The internees’ only (vague) salvation was that political pressure or events would eventually bring their release. The fear for sentenced prisoners was that they would not get released in the same way. The creation of two separate prisoner communities (interned and sentenced) created the potential for internal dissent and conflict over strategy and tactics inside and outside the prisons that might bring their release.
In March 1943, the IRA’s Adjutant-General Liam Burke issued an edition of An t-Óglach for the first time in many years (it’s circulation was confined to IRA members). This included an article on ‘Unity’ with the prisons specifically mentioned: “Too often in the past we have allowed ourselves to be divided by some petty grievance or worse still by some false rumour manufactured by enemy agents. In order to satisfy personal spites or ambitions we have allowed that element of disunity to creep in among us. This is very often obvious in the Prisons where Volunteers, living together in confinement for long periods, find too much time to brood on every petty grievance that arises.” There is also an article on Guerilla Warfare that pointed out the legitimate status accorded to ‘Guerillas’ since the 1899 Hague Conference.
Burke (who had escaped from Crumlin Road in 1941) was re-arrested and returned to Crumlin Road in April 1943. There were of course IRA prisoners and internees held at various locations on either side of the border and a number of long-term sentenced prisoners from the sabotage campaign in British prisons. By 1943, the IRA’s leadership had mostly relocated to the north and, from early summer, became increasingly focused on the prisons.
Both the 1943 strip strike and Armagh Gaol hunger strike had delivered sharp lessons in terms of mobilising political support outside the prisons. The key focus on the prison campaigns was to obtain political status (eg see Republican News, July 1943 below). So in February 1944 a hunger strike began, with teams of three joining in stages, first beginning with McAteer, Liam Burke (by now O/C of the republican prisoners) and Pat McCotter. The prison authorities delivered food and milk to their cells every day, hoping to tempt the prisoners to come off the strike by leaving the food there in front of them. The will power required to continue the strike, in the cold cells of Crumlin Road, with food in easy reach, must have been formidable.
The prison staff also continued to subject the strikers to two to three searches a week, including strip searches, despite the fact they were no longer allowed out of their cells. On day four of the strike (26th February), David Fleming and Jimmy Steele joined the hunger strike with the second team, Steele had participated in previous hunger strikes including in 1936, Fleming was to participate in later hunger strikes. The first of the hunger strikers had already been moved to the prison hospital by the 16th March, by which time eighteen men had joined the strike, including Joe Cahill on the 9th March. On the 16th March, William Lowry, the Home Affairs Minister in Stormont, reported to Stormont that the “…condition of these men is only what could be expected after such a prolonged period without food. The Government cannot accept any responsibility for the actions of these men whose present condition is solely due to their own voluntary abstention from food“. He described hunger striking as a malignant and criminal practice and insisted that the medical treatment the prisoners were receiving was entirely satisfactory. Lowry went on to say, “…Their own relatives at an appropriate time, for example when death is imminent, will be duly notified.”
The hunger strikers were joined for a week by 100 internees in Derry prison in mid-March. By the 22nd March, the Irish Times was reporting that Liam Burke, Pat McCotter, Hugh McAteer and Jimmy Steele were all weak after 30 days on hunger strike and had abandoned the strike. That story was not true but, as it was the latest in a series of inaccurate reports on the strike, it was becoming painfully obvious to the IRA prisoners that the censorship was preventing the strike having any impact on public opinion. When the forty day mark was passed, the IRA staff debated the futility of continuing when the chance of fatalities was now growing ever higher. On the forty-fourth day (6th April), the strike was called off. It seems, from Joe Cahill’s account in his biography A Life in the IRA, that the decision was not made by the hunger strikers themselves, as he puts it that a decision was “…taken to bring them off.” One key failure of the hunger strike was to secure parallel political status for internees and sentenced prisoners as there was no concurrent release of internees and sentenced prisoners in 1945. It wasn’t until 1950 that the last three sentenced prisoners, McAteer, Burke and Steele, were released.
The 1944 hunger strike may well never be commemorated or receive any significant attention yet it marks a significant stage in the development of republican tactics. A number of those involved in hunger strikes and prison protests of the early 1970s, such as Billy McKee and Prionsias MacAirt, had been in Crumlin Road at the time of the 1944 hunger strike. Others prominent activists in the early 1970s were also veterans of the 1940s, like Jimmy Drumm, Joe Cahill, Albert Price, Charlie McGlade and Harry White. The 1943/44 protests were Irish republicans first real experience of long term imprisonment in the twentieth century. They contain the roots of later republican thinking and experience that provides a context for prison protests, including the structure of hunger strikes and the role of publicity that became central to events in the 1970s and 1980s.
Thanks to Dr Breandán Mac Suibhne for the discovery of the March 1943 edition of An t-Óglach.