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Lessons of the Irish Hunger Strikes - Part 2
One of the most unusual events in the initial hunger strike campaign was a meeting held in Andersonstown where survivors of a hunger strike in the 1940's told the story of their struggle. What was evident was that these people had been involved in a struggle involving supreme heroism. This was all the more remarkable when we consider that the suffering of an extended hunger strike had taken place in complete silence. War time censorship had prevented knowledge of their struggle from reaching outside of the prison. The Hunger strike ended in failure.
One of the messages we in socialist democracy where trying to bring to the H-block campaign, with limited success, was about the absolutely central role of mass action. In the absence of mass action neither the heroism of the prisoners nor militarist illusions could bring victory.
This is borne out by the way in which political status was established in the first place. In a sense political status was initially established by the British, in that all the prisoners were initially internees. the British rapidly realised the international embarrassment that this involved and the political concession that they were making to their opponents. They quickly moved to criminalise the prisoners, using emergency laws and special no-jury Diplock courts. However this was on the still rising tide of a mass movement. A hunger strike by the prisoners, mass mobilisations on the streets, mass support in the 26 counties and internationally led to a quick capitulation by the British. Political status was initially restricted to long-term prisoners but, following a second hunger strike by Peoples Democracy members Mike Farrell and Tony Canavan, it was extended to cover short-term prisoners as well. This was important because most of those on demonstrations were sentenced to short terms in prison. Willie Whitelaw, then Secretary of State, was to claim ever after that the granting of political status was the greatest mistake of his life. He ignores the fact that at the time he really had no choice.
So the fact that the British were removing political status was an indication that the tide of the struggle was running in their direction. The reasons for this were quite complex. In essence what had happened was that the struggle had become isolated within the north and isolated within the Catholic working class. Once it became isolated it no longer had the potential for victory. Much greater forces would be needed to defeat the British. The early phase of the struggle had involved mass sympathy among the working class in the south, but the movement had been unable to turn that into an active mobilisation because it had found itself unable to politically confront Irish capital.
One of the main expressions of this political weakness was the militarist ideology within the republicans. This served a dual purpose. On the one hand physical force was an absolute necessity to defend the nationalist areas against the state. On the other hand it fostered the illusion that a willingness to use physical force was by itself the hallmark of the revolutionary. In reality this insistence on militarism allowed the republican leadership to duck all the questions on class that it was unwilling to answer, continuously wavering between a search for revolutionary alliances around the world while at the same time conducting episodic unity offensives aimed at Fianna Fail and the SDLP.
As the mass movement declined so the influence of militarism increased. True to form the militarists first tried to answer the attack on political status by killing prison warders. It was only when this failed that Gerry Adams was able to pursue a strategy of building a mass mobilisation.
So the H-block campaign was built. It was a turn to mass mobilisation, but it was taking place a long time after the primacy of mass struggle had been rejected and after a long bout of militarism had isolated and weakened the movement.