Revisiting the Irish prison struggles

imageSmashing H-Block (The rise and fall of the popular campaign against criminalization 1976-82) – University of Liverpool by F. Stuart Ross reviewed by Liam Mac Uaid

The conventional account of the prison protests in the north of Ireland in the 1970s and 80s which culminated in the 1981 Hunger Strike runs something along the lines of:

“The British withdrew political status as part of a counter insurgency strategy with the aim of criminalising IRA members in prison. This would allow the London government to portray the anti-imperialist struggle as little more than armed criminality. The prisoners resisted this by refusing to wear prison uniforms in 1976. After almost four years of refusing to accept that they were anything other than political prisoners they went on hunger strike in 1980 and again in 1981. Sinn Féin were initially opposed to the hunger strike but organised the mass protests which resulted in the party seeing the merits of seeking election and led to them initiating the “peace process”.

Given that Sinn Féin, the British and Irish ruling classes and a majority of public opinion in Ireland strongly support the current imperial settlement in Ireland it’s a view which is rarely challenged. But it’s an ahistoricial summary which fails to locate the prison protests and Sinn Féin’s subsequent yielding to British imperialism in the context of the defeat of two mass movements. The first of these was the Civil Rights Movement and the second was the collapse of the mobilisations against the policy of criminalisation.

This welcome new addition to writing on recent Irish history adds a great deal to that narrative for there was a lot more at stake than simply the prisoners’ demands. Both sides understood that a victory for the prisoners and the mass movement behind them would be a gain for the anti-imperialist movement in Ireland to rival the destruction of the sectarian Stormont parliament in 1972. Defeat would be a massive setback and while much of the propaganda on either side focussed on humanitarian issues or the “rule of law” the politics of the struggle were always obvious. The backdrop to what was happening in the jails was a mass movement which may have exceeded in scale the Civil Rights Movement from 1968 to 71. All over Ireland there were pickets, lobbies, demonstrations organised by rooted local activists organising in their communities. The largest of these was at Bobby Sands’ funeral which was attended by 100 000 people. Based on relative population sizes this would be the equivalent of over a million in England showing support for a self declared enemy of the state. Impressive as this mobilisation was it was as much an expression of sympathy and the Republican leadership was satisfied that it remain only that.

F. Stuart Ross’ book can be read on a number of levels. At its simplest it is a straightforward telling of what happened and when. It reeks of countless days spent in archives and innumerable cups of tea drunk while interviewing the people who participated in the events.

It is also a primer on how you build a national campaign in the face of utter hostility from the mainstream press and virtually every elected politician in the country. To which opposition would later be added a programme of targeted murders of key activists with the express support of the state.

It is also a month by month account of how a united front drawing in thousands of activists can be made and unmade. This is arguably where its enduring value is to be found and it is a constant thread in Ross’ history which is written from a perspective sympathetic to the prisoners’ struggle but unafraid to challenge some of the later myths.

In the mid 1970s Sinn Féin was not a political party in any meaningful sense. Its function was to produce routine propaganda in defence of IRA actions. Support for Republican prisoners who were being tortured while held for interrogation and maltreated while in prison was chiefly organised by family members who organised in Relatives Action Committees (RACs). These committees, while strongly influenced by Republicanism, were marked by a willingness to work with anyone who was willing to help them. Sinn Féin had, and retains, a dismissive attitude to organisations with a different political framework beyond that of bourgeois parties. The RAC collaborated with Peoples Democracy (as the Irish section of the Fourth International was then called), the Republican Movement, Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP), feminist organisations and a range of trade unionists. It organised a conference on the theme how to achieve political status. At that emerged what was to be a major debate between the component organisations. “Should support for the prisoners and their demands also mean that activists had to support the armed struggle which put them in prison in the first place?” Supporters of the IRSP and Republican Movement argued that you could not back one without the other. Peoples Democracy argued strongly that this would narrow the base of support for a mass campaign. In view of the fact that during the period covered by the book IRA actions included burning twelve people to death in an attack on a hotel and shooting the elderly former speaker of the Stormont parliament this was as politically correct as it was prescient. Every united front before and since has had a similar argument about what the minimum and maximum requirement should be on supporters.

Even after support for the prisoners was eventually disconnected with support for the armed struggle this was an issue that continued to rankle with militarists. At the time the Republican response was initially to drive out the left organisations arguing for a mass orientation. “Politics” were banned; only individual membership was permitted and support for armed struggle was a condition of membership of the RACs. In effect this meant that the only political voice allowed was that of the Republican leadership.

The “theoretical” basis of Republicanism’s attitude was that it was possible to have an alliance with major sections of the Irish ruling class and the Catholic church to put pressure on the British government. This was repeatedly shown to be an illusion. Fianna Fail, the church, Fine Gael and the SDLP were terrified of anything that had a radical dynamic.

The next sacred cow to be slaughtered was standing in elections and taking seats in the north of Ireland. Bobby Sands was famously elected to Westminster while on hunger strike. This was an indication that nationalists were willing to back the prisoners while not supporting their preferred method of struggle even if Sinn Féin affected to believe so. Almost immediately after they announced that they would contest all future elections in the north but without taking their seats. This taboo was broken in Belfast where IRSP and Peoples Democracy candidates were elected and did take their seats. Arguably this paved the way for Martin McGuiness to wind up as deputy first minister of the Belfast assembly and plugging six county tourism in the Picture Gallery State Room at St James’s Palace with Van Morrison and the hard right Peter Robinson of the Democratic Unionist Party.

The conventional version holds that Sinn Féin’s entry into the electoral process was a slow motion victory. However ten prisoners died; in the period immediately after the Hunger Strike the level of repression against Republicans was stepped up by both the London and Dublin governments; Sinn Féin was banned from television and the Irish; the mass movement collapsed and British governments set up a talking shop which excluded them. That is not victory.

Sinn Féin grew exponentially during and after the Hunger Strikes. It was and largely is hegemonic in its heartlands and in the 26 counties it is emerging as a major political force. But what this book lays bare is that it identified its interests with those of the anti-imperialist struggle and consistently failed to see that what was good for Republicanism was not good for a revolutionary struggle against British imperialism. The proof of that is that Sinn Féin is now gleefully administering the northern colony.


  1. Is it the book or this review which ignores the role of Bernadette McAliskey, the Coalisland conference and the National H-Block Committee?

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