IRA Hunger Strikes

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IRA Hunger Strikes

Book excerpt

By: Gerry Adams

Date: 2003

Source: Adams, Gerry. A Farther Shore: Ireland's Road to Peace. New York, N.Y.: Random House, 2003.

About the Author: Gerry Adams is the president of Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army. He has been an active player in the Ireland peace process since the 1980's, representing the republican position which advocates the unification of all segments of Ireland under one authority.


As one of the world's most watched territorial disputes, the conflict over the future control in Northern Ireland has been waged for many decades as a battle between the unionists, who support British control over the region and the republicans or nationalists, who call for a unification of Ireland and complete independence from Great Britain. Both within Irish circles, and often internationally, the debate over authority in Ireland is referred to simply as "the Troubles."

The conflict over control over Northern Ireland can be traced back to the twelfth century when the Norman Conquest led to the English king Henry II declaring authority over much of the area that makes up Ireland. In 1916, many movements aimed at unifying Ireland under Irish rule had failed, and the Irish Republican Brotherhood, which would become the Irish Republican Army, the IRA, was born. Led by Michael Collins, the IRA would institute a War for Independence, which by 1920 was quieted enough to allow for negotiations with the British government.

In December of 1921, the area was officially divided into two countries, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The southern portion of the country became an independent nation, whereas Northern Ireland remained a part of the United Kingdom. Despite this resolution, which appeased many and reduced tensions, the efforts of the IRA to unite all of Ireland continued to be carried out throughout the twentieth century. At times the IRA resorted to acts of terrorism including attacks aimed against British interests and carried out on English soil.

In the early 1980's, the IRA's political party Sinn Fein, led by Gerry Adams, began to hold negotiations aimed at developing a peace process to bring an end to the conflict. Talks resulted in a cease-fire declared by the IRA in 1994, which later fell apart but was reinstated in 1997 with the signing of the Belfast Agreement. This agreement created a framework to end the conflict without providing specific details for implementation. Following the agreement, even while tensions remained, there was a dramatic decrease in violence and peace talks that have continued on occasion aimed at discovering a final resolution to the conflict.


In February '78, I was back in prison again. After a particularly horrific IRA bombing at the La Mon Hotel in which twelve people were killed, there was a roundup of Belfast republicans. I was among them. I wasn't questioned at all about the La Mon bombing. All my interrogation was about Sinn Fein activities. After seven days' detention I was charged with IRA membership. I was held for seven months and then, after a fiasco of a trial, the charges were dismissed. My solicitor P.J. McGrory's submission that I had no case to answer won the day and set an important legal precedent.

I spent part of my imprisonment in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh where I joined the protesters on the remand wing. I also met with some of the men whom I knew from Cage 11. I was shocked by the conditions they were living under and the extent of the brutality by the administration. I came out of prison determined to change that. We organized the Sinn Fein POW department and formed a small committee to concentrate on the prisoner issue.

We moved to provide a more effective lobbying support for the prisoners. They were persuaded to adopt five demands which expressed in a humanitarian way the substance of their required conditions. Our objective was to try and make it easier for the British government to compromise, while at the same time opening the prison issue up for support from a broader range of people. It was from these initiatives that the prisoner campaign, organized mainly by family members in the Relatives Action Committees, moved into a broad front phase with the establishment of the H-Block/Armagh Committee.

At that time, Cardinal Tomas O Fiaich was the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland. He was a popular Church leader, scholarly but down-to-earth and close to his native South Armagh roots. It was Father Reid who suggested that we meet with Cardinal O Fiaich on the prison issue, and myself, Father Des, Danny Morrison (then editor of the Belfast-based Republican News), and Kevin Hannaway traveled regularly to Ara Coeili—the Primate's residence in Armagh—to discuss the situation. The Cardinal informed the British Secretary of State, Humphrey Atkins, of these meetings and tried to mediate a resolution of the prison protest.

In August 1978, Cardinal O Fiaich visited the H-Blocks at our request. After the visit he said: "One could hardly allow an animal to remain in such conditions, let alone a human being. The nearest approach to it that I have ever seen was the spectacle of hundreds of homeless people living in the sewer pipes of the slums of Calcutta. The stench and the filth in some of the cells with the remains of rotten food and human excreta scattered around the walls was almost unbearable. The authorities refused to admit that these prisoners are in a different category from the ordinary, yet everything about their trials and family background indicates that they are different. They were sentenced by special courts without juries. The vast majority were convicted on allegedly voluntary confessions obtained in circumstances which are now placed under grave suspicion by the recent report of Amnesty International. Many are very youthful and come from families which had never been in trouble with the law, though they lived in areas which suffered discrimination in housing and jobs. How can one explain the jump in the prison population of Northern Ireland from 500 to 3,000 unless a new type of prisoner has emerged? The problem of these prisoners is one of the great obstacles to peace in our community. As long as it continues it will be a potent cause of resentment in the prisoners themselves, breeding frustration among their relatives and friends and leading to bitterness between the prisoners and prison staff. It is only sowing the seeds of future conflict."

The Cardinal's public intervention was the first major breakthrough on the prisoner issue. It occurred against the background of ongoing conflict and at a time in which the British government was pushing ahead with its other counterinsurgency strategies.

Sinn Fein was also being radically overhauled by the leadership at that time, led by Ruairi O Bradaigh. We were reviewing our attitude to a wide range of issues. Debating and discussing ways to make political advances. Speaking at the annual Bodenstown commemoration at the grave-side of republican Wolfe Tone, I acknowledged, "Our most glaring weakness to date lies in our failure to develop revolutionary politics and to build a strong political alternative to so-called constitutional politics.

The revamped prisoner campaign intensified its out-reach, publicity, and street campaigning. Despite all of the efforts publicly and privately, the British government remained unmoved. The possibility of such a strategy had been canvassed by the prisoners for some time. It was mainly pushed by some of the older or more experienced men, like Bobby Sands and Brendan Hughes. The Sagart was close to both of them and was often visiting them in their cells. Brendan Hughes was the officer commanding (or OC) of the prisoners at that time. He became the leader of the first hunger strike and Bobby Sands replaced him as OC.

Father Reid was devastated by the commencement of the first hunger strike. He had lobbied ferociously for an end to the dispute. He wrote reams of letters, including a number of appeals to the British authorities. Not long after the beginning of the first hunger strike, he took seriously ill. The stress of trying and failing to get a resolution of this issue took its toll and the Sagart was moved by his superiors out of Belfast. I used to visit Father Alex in Drogheda Hospital. On one occasion, Colette and I found him in a very distressed state as the health of the hunger strikers deteriorated. Paradoxically, while the plight of the prisoners and their families and the ongoing conflict continued to wear him down, he took great comfort from the messages of support which the blanket men smuggled out to him.

The Sagart was almost a year out of commission—an awful year for all of us. The first hunger strike ended just before Christmas. By then, three women prisoners in Armagh and the seven men in the H-Blocks had been joined by thirty more H-Block prisoners. The condition of one of the original seven, Sean McKenna, deteriorated quickly.

But with the commencement of the hunger strike, the British government opened up contact with republicans. Through this contact in the British Foreign Office— code-named "Mountain Climber" —a channel of communication which had been used during the 1974 IRA-British government truce was reactivated. Father Reid's role had been filled by another Redemptorist priest, Father Brendan Meagher. The British said they wanted a settlement of the issues underpinning the protest and committed to setting out the details in a document to be presented to all of the prisoners formally and publicly after they came off their hunger strike.

Mountain Climber brought the document to Father Meagher, who delivered it to Clonard Monastery where I and a few people who were assisting the prisoners were waiting for him. As he was briefing us, Tom Hartley, the head of our POW department, burst into the room where we were meeting to tell us that the hunger strike was over in the Blocks.

Sean McKenna's condition had continued to deteriorate. As the leader of the hunger strike and, knowing that a document was on its way, Brendan Hughes had intervened in order to save Sean's life. The women in Armagh ended their fast later when they got news of the H-Blocks' decision.

In this new situation, without the pressure of a hunger strike to focus them, the British moved away from their commitments and from the document. The channel of communication was once more closed down. The prisoners were furious. Bobby Sands had wanted to recommence the fast almost immediately after there was evidence of British duplicity. We persuaded him to hang on. He manfully tried to work with the prison administration to find a way through the difficulties.

But someone somewhere somehow within the British system had decided that the prisoners were defeated. This was best illustrated by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on a visit to Belfast on May 28 when she declared that the hunger strike "may well be their [IRA] last card." A sensible, more strategic administration would have kept to its commitments and defused the prison issue by building a settlement. But the stakes were high. This had never been solely a prison dispute.

Criminalization was but one element in an integrated British strategy. The prison was the battlefield because the British system was intent on making it the breakers yard for the republican struggle. They were intent on defeating that struggle, not on finding a political and peaceful settlement.

So despite all our efforts, despite the Herculean efforts of Bobby Sands and his comrades, the die was cast. In March of 1981, the second hunger strike commenced. It was led by Bobby Sands. When it ended seven months later on October 3, ten hunger strikers were dead. Bobby Sands had been the first to die on May 5. He was followed over the following four summer months up to August by Francis Hughes, Raymond McCreesh, Patsy O'Hara, Joe McDonnell, Martin Hurson, Kevin Lynch, Kieran Doherty, Thomas McElwee, and Micky Devine.…

The events of that awful summer of '91 polarized Irish society, north and south.

The prisoners were perceived to be the soft under-belly of the republican struggle. The British thought they could be isolated, beaten, intimidated, and coerced into accepting the label of criminal. But republican prisoners are political prisoners—men and women of conviction, commitment, and determination. The H-Block and Armagh prisoners resisted. They endured horrendous conditions and bore great physical cruelty with fortitude and courage. At the end, when no other course of action was open to them, they went on hunger strike in defense of their integrity as republican political prisoners, in defense of this republican struggle, in defense of their comrades in the prison, and to assert their humanity.…

In the course of the hunger strike, Bobby Sands was elected as MP (Member of the British Parliament in London) for Fermanagh and South Tyrone in the north. In the south of Ireland, other hunger strikers were elected. The hunger strike had a particular impact there. It raised a fundamental moral question about the role of the south in Britain's' war in Ireland. It made a political impact that shook the system to its foundations. It was not just the fact that one hunger striker, Kieran Doherty, was elected TD (Teachta Dala, elected Member of the Irish Parliament, the Dail) for Cavan-Monaghan. Or that another prisoner, Paddy Agnew, was elected TD for Louth, and other prisoners, including Joe McDonnell and Mairead Farrell, attracted substantial electoral support. It was the fact that the hunger strike unmasked the unwillingness of the south's political establishment to do anything for the hunger strikers, or indeed do anything to challenge British rule in a part of Ireland.

The stories of the hunger strikes have been told elsewhere. For those of us who were part of that period, it is hard to imagine that it was over twenty years ago. It is as if it was yesterday. It can be understood only if we appreciate the incorruptibility, and unselfishness and generosity of the human spirit when that spirit is motivated by an ideal of an objective greater than itself.

People are not born as heroes. The hunger strikers were ordinary men who in extraordinary circumstances brought the struggle to a moral platform which became a battle between them and the entire might of the British state. In the course of their protest, the hunger strikers smashed British policy. Efforts to criminalize the political prisoners failed. When ten men died in the H-Blocks, Margaret Thatcher and her regime were seen to be the criminals. The hunger strikers were rightly viewed by most fair-minded people as highly idealistic and politically motivated young men. Today, years later, it is clear to me that their legacy is still unfolding. The idealism of the hunger strikers and the other prisoners in the blocks and Armagh remains an example to republicans, even those who were only children during that terrible time.


Having killed more than 3,000 people and injured more than 30,000, the conflict over Northern Ireland has become one of the most watched territorial debates, and many international leaders and diplomats have committed themselves towards developing a comprehensive and lasting peace plan. While the number of casualties is low in comparison to other current conflicts, for a nation with a smaller population like Ireland, these numbers are viewed as quite substantial, and the conflict has a dramatic effect on the political and social environments throughout Ireland and many parts of the United Kingdom.

Gerry Adams, as the head of Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), has become the principle figure from the side of the nationalist camp working towards finding a peaceful resolution to the ages-old conflict. While the IRA has been largely portrayed as a violent organization, and often viewed as a terrorist entity, Adams's actions and statements, including this passage, have attempted to legitimize the positions of the IRA, and have the world better appreciate the position of the organization. The hunger strike as a form of protest that has been used on many occasions by protest movements throughout history, is often designed to help increase public support for the positions of the protesters. As Adams describes it, the strike successfully made the general public, particularly those in southern areas of Ireland, relate to the republican arguments.

As a result of the strike, which became, according to Adams, one of the more significant efforts of the IRA to gather public support for their cause, sentiments about the IRA began to change. Adams, in this section, argues that rather than the IRA activists being viewed as criminals, the British were faulted for a situation which allowed ten political prisoners to die. As a result of this new perception and a slow development of empathy with the IRA's stance, some question how long British rule might be able to withstand these types of protests. In achieving these types of successes, the IRA and Sinn Fein became more integrated into the political process allowing for the commencement of negotiations and the hopes for a final and peaceful resolution to the conflict.



Tonge, Jonathan. Northern Ireland, Conflict and Change. New York, N.Y.: Longman, 2002.

Web sites

Community Dialogue. "Community Dialogue: Understanding In the Northern Ireland Conflict." <> (accessed June 3, 2006).

University of Ulster. "Conflict Archive on the Internet; Northern Ireland Conflict, Politics and Society." <> (accessed June 3, 2006).