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Lessons of the Irish Hunger Strikes - Part 3
Gerry Adam’s support for mass action and for a broad-based H-block/Armagh campaign was, as with many republican U-turns in the battle for political status, an act of desperation forced by the impending defeat of the campaign. To a large extent that impending defeat was the result of a whole history of betrayal of their members and supporters by the republican leadership.
British decisions to withdraw political status were made immediately after the collapse of an earlier cease-fire and a series of negotiations with the republican leadership. The suspicion was that the republicans had negotiated away political status in return for a British promise to cut sentences by 50%. (The British later doubled the minimum sentence for most ‘terrorist’ offences).
No-one can prove complicity by the republican leadership in the removal of political status. However there are a number of things we can say. We can say that political status was not an issue of great concern to the militarists. What counted was active volunteers and the conditions in prisons were neither here nor there. The role of mass action was largely invisible to the military leadership and many believed that they needed no political justification for their campaign – the simple presence of British troops was enough. We can also repeat the criticisms of the then Peoples Democracy – that the military truce during the ceasefire was accompanied by an end to political opposition to imperialism and in fact the Truce Incident Centres set up at the time were used to police the political truce and suppress dissent (Does any of this sound familiar?). In the event the ceasefire broke down with a bloody battle in Lenadoon, West Belfast, which had more to do with rank and file discontent than with any real political shift by the republican leadership.
The British announced that they would press ahead with the removal of political status. What we can record with absolute certainty is the absolute indifference of Sinn Fein and their unwillingness, when approached by Peoples Democracy, to campaign around the issue.
The initial resistance to the removal of political status came from rank and file prisoners, with the first political campaign coming from relatives and socialist groups organised in Relatives Action Committees (RACs). The RACs developed in two phases. In phase one the republican leadership kept its distance. Individual republican militants were free to work in the RACs, but they did not attract mass resources or large scale support from the Sinn Fein leadership. Slowly the RACs grew and developed a national network and a wide international support. They developed a democratic united front structure, with local branches, a national leadership and the right to affiliation for political, trade union and community organisations supporting the right to political status. As the committees grew so to did the size and ferocity of the struggle in the prisons. The political status issue could no longer be kept at arms length and the republicans moved in to take the leadership of the Relatives Action committees. The result was a disastrous collapse in the political influence of the RACs.
In order to see why this was so we have to look at the major concern of the movement – the need to protect the supposedly all-powerful armed struggle. A core assumption of the militarist perspective was that the British really didn’t want to be in Ireland. If they wanted to stay then the disparity in military resources – a small guerrilla group versus a sizeable imperialist power – would mean that the IRA were impotent. If the British secretly wanted to go then a limited campaign would force them to the negotiating table and they would arrange the terms for departure.
The problem for the republicans was that the movement had been there and done that. They had brought the British to the negotiating table and the British had assured the IRA that they wanted to leave Ireland. Unfortunately the perfidious British had lied. When the truce ended the IRA found themselves in an extremely weak military situation, heavily penetrated by British intelligence, with their political base demobilised, largely through their own efforts and, above all, with no real perspective for their military campaign.
The movement was unable to adopt a new political perspective to the left of their militarist conceptions. As the militarist perspective moved into crisis the tendency was to assert it more stridently, to glorify it and to oppose any political challenge. The first such political challenge came spontaneously and unthinkingly from the republican’s own base in the RACs. The move into the RACs was designed to crush the alternative of mass political action and assert the primacy of armed struggle. Within weeks the left organisations were expelled. The whole concept of reaching out to political, community and trade union groups was replaced with an inward-looking defensiveness, where only individual membership was allowed. ‘Politics’ were banned – in essence a way on ensuring that only the republican leadership’s politics were legitimate and what militants unthinkingly acted on. Immediately after the expulsion of the left the RACs agreed that support for armed struggle was a condition of membership. At the urging of the republican leadership the RACs of phase one had committed suicide to leave the RACs of phase two – stalinoid organisations controlled by Sinn Fein thought police, isolated and totally unable to mount any serious campaign in support of the prisoners. The IRA had increasingly over this period attempted a military solution by killing prison warders. This was a totally ineffective campaign that further isolated the political opposition.
Despite involving the relatives in frantic rounds of activity it didn’t take very long for it to become evident that the campaign was going backwards. The British appeared to be the first to realise this and responded with a ferocious increase in the already unbearable conditions in the prisons. The prisoners realised that the constant brutality would eventually break them. It was all or nothing – surrender or stake all on a hunger strike. The hunger strike was a final challenge to the British – but it was also a challenge to the republican leadership to develop the resources and strategies that would resolve the situation in the interests of the anti-imperialist movement.
The result was the H-Block/Armagh movement. From the outside it looked like a resurgence of the mass democratic movement which had proved so effective in challenging imperialism in the earlier phases of the struggle. From the inside it still looked impressive, beginning to gather together the whole of the anti-imperialist movement across Ireland in a grim mass struggle. However it contained from the beginning a fatal weakness – the republican movement was building the movement from above, having initially strangled and emasculated the attempt to build a movement from below.