Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 July 2014

How ordinary people really shaped the events of 1981

The 1981 hunger strike immortalised Bobby Sands and led to splits among republican figures such as Bernadette McAliskey

Historians, paramilitaries and journalists have this in common: they are all acutely vulnerable to demophobia. It is not that they are fearful of crowds in the sense of being nervous of large numbers, but in their reluctance to acknowledge the role of the masses in shaping significant events.

Take the 1981 hunger strike. The local figures now involved in bitter controversy over the way the strike ended were prominent in the events at the time.

But the dispute in which they are involved, although passionately felt and of vital importance to themselves and their allies, refers to battles fought on narrow ground. The broad terrain on which vast numbers mobilised and shifted the axis of Northern politics figures only as background.

The hunger strike was the focus for the biggest campaign of the Troubles. In terms of numbers taking to the streets, it was more formidable than either the civil rights movement of the late-1960s or the 1974 loyalist onslaught against the Sunningdale Council of Ireland and power sharing Agreement.

It was through the experience of the campaign, rather than in the interplay between prisoners and paramilitary and political leaders that lasting change came about.

The rank and file of the campaign were far more than mere extras. This is the central theme of F Stuart Ross's Smashing H-Block, published by Liverpool University Press. This is an important book for the light it throws on the politics of the period and, in particular, in restoring the plain people to their proper place in the narrative.

Ross subtitles his work The Rise and Fall of the Popular Campaign against Criminalisation 1976-1982. 'Popular' is the key word here.

What the account makes clear is that the movement against the H-Blocks wasn't whistled up by republican leaders but was - like many other significant developments, including the peace process - a bottom-up affair.

Sinn Fein leaders were suspicious of the campaign from the outset and remained wary throughout. The irony is that "it was what happened outside the prisons during these years of protest that reshaped and revitalised modern Irish republicanism."

The Provisionals' response to the announcement, in March 1976, of the end of political status was to order the killing of prison officers.

The following month, Patrick Dillon became the first of 19 to be assassinated during the protest. Two weeks later, with no encouragement from organised republicans, prisoners' relatives in Belfast formed an 'action committee'.

However, its chances of broadening its base were severely curtailed by republicans' implacable insistence that any campaign for political status necessarily required acceptance "that a war of national liberation is being waged in Ireland".

Republican News laid it out for the first major conference designed to shape a campaign, in Coalisland in January 1978: "The revolutionary leadership of any mass movement must accept the need for armed struggle. The clock [cannot] simply be turned back . . . much as People's Democracy and Bernadette McAliskey might wish it to be."

Betty Sinclair, of Belfast Trades Council, was vilified in the most strident terms for suggesting that the prisoners' cause might be enhanced by an IRA ceasefire.

McAliskey was denounced when she stood on a 'Smash H-Block' ticket in the European election in 1979: on polling day, some of her canvassers were physically assaulted by Provisionals. However, her respectable showing - 34,000 first preferences - prompted Jim Gibney to suggest at the following Sinn Fein ard fheis that the party contest the next northern local election.

Gibney's initiative was rejected, but can now be seen as a significant straw in the wind.

By May 1980, with the first hunger strike imminent, An Phoblacht/Republican News (the southern and northern papers had merged) signalled that the message had been received and was beginning to be understood: the "marches and other broad-based protest activities provided Sinn Fein with an unprecedented opportunity to be outgoing and to build up its contacts and membership."

However, Bobby Sands' entry in his diary on the first day of his hunger strike in March 1981 suggested the beginning of a gap between these political conclusions of Sinn Fein leaders outside and the prisoners' adherence to an uncompromising republican position.

Sands cited "the God-given right of the Irish nation to sovereign independence and the right of any Irish man or woman to assert this right in armed revolution."

The most intriguing conundrum of the Troubles lies in the fact that the election campaign mounted for Sands in Fermanagh-South Tyrone explicitly eschewed any link between the prisoners' cause and armed struggle and led to Sinn Fein's decisive move away from violent revolution and into the constitutional arena.

F Stuart Ross's book is essential for an understanding of what really happened in the hunger strike.

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