An uneven account of an historical dispute

Thomas Hennessey’s book on the Republican hunger strikes in Northern Ireland sides too often with the British establishment, writes JP O’Malley.

Hunger Strike: Margaret Thatcher’s Battle with the IRA 1980-81

Thomas Hennessey Irish Academic Press, €22.95

ON MARCH 1, 1981, a 27-year-old IRA prisoner entered the following words into his diary: “I am a political prisoner because I am a casualty of a perennial war that is being fought between the oppressed Irish people and an alien, oppressive, unwanted regime that refuses to withdraw from our land… I believe I am but another of those wretched Irishmen born of a risen generation with a deeply rooted and unquenchable desire for freedom.”

Just 66 days later, after a long and arduous hunger strike campaign, Bobby Sands became a Republican martyr, when his coffin was lowered into the ground at Milltown cemetery in west Belfast. Before his death, Sands had been elected an MP in Westminster.

Nine other young Republican prisoners would follow him into the grave shortly afterwards, one of whom was elected a TD in Dáil Éireann.

But over three decades later, two questions still remain: was there anything gained, politically, as these ten men sacrificed their lives? And for what, exactly, did these men die?

Thomas Hennessey, a professor of Modern Irish and British History at Canterbury University, attempts to answer these questions in Hunger Strike: Margaret Thatcher’s Battle with the IRA 1980-81. The book reveals new details about the secret backchannel that existed between MI6 and the IRA during this period. The book also draws heavily on archival evidence that was previously classified by Britain.

The reader is shown documents where Margaret Thatcher discusses government policy on the hunger strikes with people like Michael Alison, then minister of state in Northern Ireland, and Humphrey Atkins, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland.

The seeds of the hunger strike of 1981 were sown in 1976, when the special-category status that prisoners had been granted from 1972 onwards was stopped. From 1976, all paramilitary prisoners in the Northern were to be treated as common criminals.

The protest had many stages: It began with the blanket protest, where prisoners refused to wear their own clothes; it then became the dirty protest in 1978, when prisoners refused to wash or ‘slop out’; and finally, after one short-lived hunger strike in 1980, a second one began in 1981.

The prisoners’ refusal to co-operate with prison authorities was based around five key demands: The right for prisoners to wear civilian clothes; the right to refuse prison work; free association among political prisoners; the right to be able to organise educational and recreational facilities and receive one parcel per week; and the right to full remission of sentences.

At just under 460 pages, many may find Hennessey’s book contains too many historical documents, and not enough guidance from the distinguished historian. In fact, the author waits until the final chapter to offer a personal assessment of the political situation. Hennessy believes Sinn Féin’s present position on Irish unity is identical to Thatcher’s in 1981.

“The British government’s position from 1973 onwards was that Northern Ireland would remain part of the United Kingdom, as long as a majority of people in Northern Ireland wanted it to,” he says. “But today we still have a partitioned Northern Ireland.

“Martin McGuinness serves as a deputy first minister, where he is effectively a minister of the Crown. Sinn Féin’s [original manifesto] wasn’t about power-sharing in the North. It was about getting the Brits to go. I believe Sinn Féin lost the war because they didn’t achieve any of their aims.”

In a documentary on RTÉ in May 2006 about the 1981 hunger strikes, the Irish journalist Eamon McCann ends the programme by sardonically telling the viewer: “If you see Gerry Adams wandering around Washington, where [Irish] Republican leaders can now rub shoulders with the great and the good of the western world, it’s useful to remind yourself that it was the hunger strikers that [made] that [happen].”

The implication of this ambiguous statement is that Sinn Féin deliberately manipulated the hunger strikers for their own electoral advantage.

But Hennessy maintains such claims are not accurate. “It’s quite clear that Sands intended, and wanted, to die,” he says. “I don’t think he was being cynically manipulated.

“However, the outside leadership — led by Gerry Adams — had an opportunity to talk to the prisoners after there had been a series of deaths, and it was quite clear that the British weren’t going to move.

“In fact, when two prisoners, Kieran Doherty and Kevin Lynch, were on the point of death, Thomas McElwee — who subsequently died on hunger strike — suggested that the prisoners should make the first move. But Brendan McFarlane, who was the Officer Commanding of the IRA prisoners in the Maze, said it had to be all or nothing.”

There are moments when Hennessey’s thesis is misleading. For example, he reiterates Thatcher’s opinion that at the time, “the Maze was, in terms of facilitates, one of the best prisons in western Europe”.

Hennessy claims Republican prisoners had only themselves to blame for the filthy and squalid conditions they lived in. “The prisoners were embarking on a dirty protest which was self-inflicted. The prisoners actually took their case to the European Court of Human Rights in 1980. And the court agreed with Mrs Thatcher that the conditions were self-imposed by the prisoners themselves.”

Hennessy’s insistence that the Maze was a model correction facility seems less plausible when I ask him if Republican prisoners were beaten while serving their sentences. “Clearly individual officers did take the law into their own hands, and engaged in some level of abuse against the prisoners. But it was never sanctioned by the prison authorities,” he says.

I’m keen to point out the numerous flaws in Hennessey’s book not because I’m a supporter of the Provisional IRA. I’m aware of how barbaric and despicable many of the Provos’ crimes were over the course of the Troubles.

I believe it’s important to remember, and document, the emotive and contradictory events of a wartime situation. Indeed, with the benefit of history, we can now see that Thatcher’s declaration that “there is no such thing as political murder, political bombing, or political violence” is clearly incorrect.

How do we know this? By looking at the compromising politics of both the Conservative and Labour governments that followed Thatcher’s 11 years at Number 10. Both John Major and Tony Blair realised they would have to treat the IRA/Sinn Féin leadership as equals at the negotiating table. This eventually led to the Good Friday Agreement.

Hennessey doesn’t see this trajectory. “There is a danger of rewriting history here,” he says cautiously. “The Provisionals were a minority of a minority. The majority of nationalists in Northern Ireland aspired to a united Northern Ireland, and rejected IRA violence.

“The IRA’s argument [throughout the Troubles] was that you couldn’t reform Northern Ireland. Yet today they are now in government and part of a process that did just that. The politics of Northern Ireland was not the same as apartheid South Africa, where armed struggle was the only option.”

Hennessey says he agrees with “Mrs Thatcher’s position that there may be political motives but the act of killing or bombing someone was a crime”.

Technically Sinn Féin may be in the same position they were back in 1981 with regards to achieving a United Ireland. But would McGuinness have shook hands with the Queen publicly in 2012 if the IRA had put away their guns in 1973? Nobody will ever know the correct answer to that question.

In fact, there isn’t one. But Hennessy’s one-dimensional, and extremely conservative view of history, which too easily sides with the all-powerful Leviathan, will fail to convince many readers.

First published in the print version of the Irish Examiner on January 25, 2014.


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