1981: a struggle to the death
IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands died 25 years ago today. BRIAN ROWAN talks to leading republicans and a loyalist about the legacy of Sands, the protest and the H-Blocks
Published 05/05/2006 | 00:00
It was a battle that was about so much more than a prison regime.
For republicans this was the moment in 1981 when their struggle - and the legitimacy they attach to it - either lived or died.
The men at the coalface of the Maze hunger strike will tell you today that back then, they destroyed and buried Margaret Thatcher's "criminalisation policy", but they also buried ten republicans.
"That whole summer almost blurs at times into one long funeral procession."
This is Seanna Walsh speaking – the man who last July read the IRA statement formally ending its armed campaign, and a man who 25 years ago was a key figure alongside Brendan McFarlane in the IRA jail leadership.
The two men are still hugely influential figures in the republican leadership.
Walsh was also Bobby Sands' closest friend. Today marks the 25th anniversary of his death – a death that came after he had refused food for 66 days.
In 1981, there were many more deaths and many more funerals as victims of the IRA were buried, and during those turbulent months both inside and outside the hunger strike, this place lost its way of normal life.
Did republicans really win the battle of 1981 as they claim – a battle that has it roots several years earlier in the scrapping of special category status for prisoners and the introduction of what was seen as a "criminalisation policy".
The hunger strike grew out of the blanket and dirty protests inside the jail.
"The British designed the battleground," Seanna Walsh told this newspaper. "They decided that the prisoners were the soft underbelly of the republican struggle and that they were going to criminalise the prisoners and therefore criminalise the republican struggle.
"If it had simply been about prison conditions, we could have put a strategy together to win prison conditions without the hunger strike, without putting it onto the big stage.
"But the big stage was because the British had put it there and we had to step up to the mark."
Others from outside the republican family looking in on this developing crisis questioned the decisions and the policy of the government.
The loyalist David Ervine argues that "the British did themselves untold international damage".
"I would argue that that criminalisation process,which actually started with a Labour Government and was then carried on with some venom by Margaret Thatcher, was a destructive process," the leader of the Progressive Unionist Party told the Belfast Telegraph.
Ervine – a former prisoner – was released from the Maze in May 1980, one year before the hunger strike and Sands' death.
"The one thing that the loyalists had in common (with republicans) was the sense that the conflict in Northern Ireland was politically inspired and therefore people who were involved in the conflict were political prisoners," Ervine said.
"We went from the smallest prison population in Europe per capita to the highest prison population in Europe per capita within three years.
"Something happened to us as a people ¿ I think those who advocated political status are seriously vindicated because we are asking now to clear the path for ex-prisoners in government."
Brendan McFarlane, who was serving a life sentence, describes the hunger strike year of 1981 as a "watershed in terms of the politics on this island".
"It was the watershed that the political pundits said it was and it developed and it expanded politics within republican structures," he said.
But he also described it as the worst year of his life as he watched the hunger strikers die one after another.
As families began to intervene to end the strike, McFarlane, Walsh and others in the IRA jail leadership realised and accepted that the protest had become "absolutely untenable".
The republican fight was with the Thatcher Government and not the relatives of the men who were dying.
When McFarlane and Walsh spoke to this newspaper yesterday, they emphasised the point that when the hunger strike ended in October 1981 there was no deal with the British.
Yes, soon afterwards, a concession was made on the clothes that prisoners could wear, but it took another year to win the demand for segregation – for IRA prisoners to have their own wings.
"And then what happened was that in 1983 we had created the conditions to allow for the complete takeover of H (Block) 7 and the emptying of H7."
This is Seanna Walsh describing how republicans used those changing conditions within the jail to plan the mass IRA escape of September 1983.
McFarlane was one of those who escaped. He was later recaptured and returned to the Maze and by the late 1980s, he says the prisoners were enjoying conditions "far in excess" of those being demanded in the hunger strike period.
Twenty-five years on from that period, a claim persists that there was a deal on offer from the British in the summer of 1981 – a deal known to McFarlane and the republican leadership - that could have saved the lives of some of the hunger strikers.
The suggestion first emerged in a book by the former IRA prisoner Richard O'Rawe – a suggestion some believe was corroborated in more recent comments by Denis Bradley, the recently retired Vice Chairman of the Policing Board.
When I raised this issue with Brendan McFarlane yesterday, there was more than a hint of anger in his response.
"There was absolutely no deal whatsoever," he insisted – no deal in October 1981, no deal in the summer of that year.
The O'Rawe book, he claimed, was an attempt to "do down Gerry Adams".
"I think it's despicable and absolutely reprehensible that he should even attempt to do anything of the sort," McFarlane said.
He said Denis Bradley's more recent comments "should just be dismissed".
"He certainly couldn't be in any sort of a position where he would have any knowledge of anything at all happening inside the prison or from outside the prison which was directly involved with the hunger strike period," McFarlane insisted.
"He wasn't there inside, and he certainly wasn't there outside, and I cannot understand why this is being used as a corroboration of what Richard (O'Rawe) has written."
So the detail of a battle, now twenty-five years old, is still being argued over.
It is discussed by republicans in the context of its contribution to a bigger "war", and like everything here, it is discussed in terms of victory and defeat.
"You are talking about who would succeed in maintaining struggle, in winning through in struggle, or who would be defeated. It could have dealt an exceptionally hard blow to republicanism, to the republican struggle, if the challenge hadn't been met ¿ prisoners took up that challenge."
Brendan McFarlane believes the battle for political status was won in 1981 and confirmed many years later in the prisoner releases that flowed from the Good Friday Agreement.