Irish Times’ Hunger Strike Series Gets Off To A Poor Start

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The Irish Times has today announced on its internet edition that it intends to mark the 35th anniversary of the 1981 IRA/INLA hunger strikes in 2016 by publishing a series of articles throughout the year, some written by academics and some culled from the paper’s archive from 1980 and 1981, aimed at ‘re-thinking’ the historic protests.

These will appear only on the web edition of the Times and will culminate in what the paper calls ‘a symposium’ on the subject.

This is how it described the mission:

Over the course of the next year, The Irish Times online will be publishing a series of articles by established and upcoming academics, exploring the strikes and their legacies from a huge range of perspectives, as well as republishing articles from its own archive and looking back from today’s standpoint with the intention of shedding new light on a seminal event in recent Irish history and familiarising a younger generation with this complex and contested episode.

I am sure regular readers of this blog will be very interested in what appears and thebrokenelbow.com will therefore ensure full coverage and analysis of the series. The Times lists some twenty-four topic headings that their academic experts will write about, ranging from the ‘Hunger strikes and the Catholic church’ to ‘Hunger strike murals’ and, intriguingly, ‘Gerry Adams in Long Kesh/Maze’. You can read the full list here.

Doubtless much will depend on the calibre of the academics and their political slant (and don’t tell me academics don’t have political views which influence their work!). Much of the key parts of the history of the hunger strikes are still a matter of huge disagreement which ought to be fully explored in the Times. Let’s hope that happens.

It doesn’t help, therefore, to see the Irish paper of record immediately offer an explanation for the ending of the 1980 hunger strike which is seriously at odds with the known facts, and the recorded memory of the leader of that protest.

This is how The Irish Times describes the finale:

On December 18th, 1980 the hunger strikers ended their first protest when strike leader Brendan Hughes called off the strike as Sean McKenna grew close to death, believing the British government had conceded on several demands. When the prisoners realised all five demands were not being met, they began to organise a second hunger strike.

The hunger strike did not end that way. It ended when Brendan Hughes made good on a promise he gave to Sean McKenna earlier in the protest not to let him die. When Hughes was informed by trusted medical staff that McKenna was close to death and could not survive much longer he took the unilateral decision to permit his transfer to hospital where his life was saved.

The British offer arrived afterwards and had nothing to do with Hughes’ decision.

This is what Hughes told Anthony McIntyre during his interview for the Boston College archive:

…After Sean asked me, I gave him a guarantee that I would not let him die. A few days later – now, I want to try and get the sequence correct here. Dr [David] Ross –he was the main doctor looking after the hunger strikers – came and informed me that Sean had only hours to live. It’s possible they were playing brinkmanship with me at this stage. And it’s possible that the cells were bugged and that they picked up what I had said to Sean. And they knew that if Sean went into a deep coma, that I would intervene. And that’s exactly what happened. Dr Ross came to me and told me that Sean would die within hours and he wanted permission … to take Sean to hospital. And this took place. There was a sudden rush of activity; prison orderlies took Sean on a stretcher up the wing. I was standing in the wing with Father Toner, Father Reid and Dr Ross … and I shouted up after Dr Ross, ‘Feed him.’ I had no guarantee at that point that anything was going to come from the British, no guarantee whatsoever. We all knew that they had offered us this deal (made at an earlier stage in the hunger strike) we had no guarantee that the deal would go through. We only had their word for it. The hunger strike was called off before the British document arrived. It was only later that night, I think; it was very late at night that Father Meagher*** and Bobby [Sands] arrived at my cell with the document. (Voices From The Grave – p 239)

There is another aspect of The Irish Times proposal, as described, that gives me cause for greater dismay. As any serious student of the period knows, a huge controversy has raged for many years now about the account of events dealing with a British offer to settle the protest given by Richard O’Rawe, a former IRA prisoner and public relations officer for the IRA prisoners during the hunger strike.

O’Rawe’s version, which he has written about in two widely acclaimed books, describes how a British proposal to resolve the hunger strike after the first four deaths was first accepted by the the prisoner’s leader, Brendan MacFarlane, but then rejected after an intervention from Gerry Adams, who headed a special Provisional Army Council committee charged with overseeing the protest.

Two members of the Army Council have told O’Rawe that they knew nothing about the exchange between Adams and MacFarlane or any of the negotiations with the British, which, if true, suggests that Adams kept all this secret from his comrades.

The truth of this is crucial. Because the British proposal was declined and the hunger strike thereby carried on, Owen Carron was able to stand for Bobby Sands’ vacated Fermanagh-South Tyrone seat unopposed by the SDLP, thereby guaranteeing his victory.

Had the protest ended with the British proposal, the SDLP surely would have ended its self-imposed ordinance not to oppose any hunger strike candidate in the constituency, the Nationalist vote would have split and almost certainly a Unionist, and not Owen Carron, would have triumphed at the by-election.

So accepting or refusing the British offer, as described by Richard O’Rawe, did more than determine whether hunger strikers woud die; the decision could and would determine the outcome of the Fermanagh-South Tyrone by-election and with it, the future direction of Sinn Fein’s political journey.

When the hunger strike finally did end, a Sinn Fein leadership proposal to adopt the strategy of electoral intervention at the party’s annual ard-fheis was immensely strengthened by the sight of Owen Carron, an elected Westminster MP, sitting with the platform leadership, visible evidence of the effectiveness of the strategy.

More importantly, had the Provos lost Fermanagh-South Tyrone – Bobby Sands’ seat – to the SDLP, the blow to republican morale would have been grievous, and support for electoralism proportionately damaged. But Carron’s victory meant that the move was overwhelmingly approved by Sinn Fein delegates. Logic suggests that continuing the hunger strike protest strengthened the hand of those in the Provo leadership who saw electoral politics as the way ahead.

From that SF decision to stand in elections on a strategic rather than a tactical basis, i.e. like all other normal political parties, was planted the seed of the peace process. And it would be no exaggeration to say that the seed was fertilised and made ready for planting when the proposed British deal to end the protest much earlier was turned down thanks to the intervention of the outside leadership.

Sinn Fein, of course, vigorously rejects O’Rawe’s account and so any treatment of the subject has to examine the argument the party makes – mostly by Danny Morrison and not at all by Gerry Adams who has remained silent on the matter. But all this should be aired. It is beyond argument, surely, that this episode is a stand alone candidate for inclusion in The Irish Times series.

It is such an important chapter not just in the history of the hunger strikes but in the history of the Troubles, and the subsequent peace process, that it merits a separate slot in any serious discussion of the 1980-1981 prison disputes.

But The Irish Times has managed to ignore it, at worst – or, at best, bury it in a wider discussion.

Whatever the reason this is not the most auspicious start to a series aimed at getting us all to re-think the hunger strikes!

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