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Lessons of the Irish Hunger Strikes - Part 4
The establishment of the H-Block/Armagh committees followed a long debate about strategy in the republican movement. Gerry Adams had earlier led a revolt against an older and more traditional leadership, partly on the grounds that in the absence of a republican politics the Dublin government and the Social Democratic and Labour party (SDLP) in the North made political gains on the backs of the sacrifices of republican militants. In the way of such debates in the republican movement, there was no split. The majority militarist position was adopted and then Adams was given his chance - but only when the military solution had failed utterly and only on condition that any political development did not threaten the militarist ideology of republicanism.
It also put Adams on the spot. His writing had been about organisation, not about programme. He now had to demonstrate what a republican politics would look like in practice. But there was a very strong reason for the absence of a distinct republican politics. Historically and politically the republican movement had been a petty-bourgeois movement, veering between capitalism and the working class and without a distinct politics of its own, claiming to represent the nation as a whole.
This was exactly the vision that the republicans brought to the H-Block/Armagh committees. Marxists saw united front structures at a way of uniting the working class and breaking other sectors of society away from the control of capitalism. Because class struggle was the fundamental form of struggle, it was unrealistic to expect that capitalists would unite with workers. Republicans, on the other hand, saw the committees as a way of uniting the nation behind the prisoners. Where we wanted to challenge the capitalists and expose their support for British rule, the republicans wanted to lobby them. That automatically ruled out any appeal to the working class that might have alienated the capitalists. Typically there was no direct confrontation on the class orientation of the campaign. What happened was that work in the trade unions became the work of a specialist commission and clearly not a major concern of the campaign as a whole. Attempts to build industrial action were often difficult to build in the campaign itself, let alone in the working class. What we were able to demonstrate, even in these conditions, was that there was a mass sympathy within the Irish working class, but that an immense amount of work needed to be done to overcome the hold of capitalism, the malign influence of the trade union leadership and to convince workers that the issue was of central importance to them and justified the massive effort of self-organisation and industrial action.
What the republicans were able to demonstrate was that there was absolutely no possibility, even under immense pressure, of Irish capitalism supporting the hunger strikers and opposing Britain.
The campaign was able to build itself, but the unity it built was of the whole republican milieu, of all those who had ever been associated with the republicans or the revolutionary left in past campaigns. Also as I have already said, it was able to draw on a mass sympathy within the working class in the South which fell short of self-organisation by the class but was deeply worrying to all the conservative forces in Irish society.
It wasn't enough.
What the first hunger strike demonstrated was that the movement of the resistance, of republicanism and of those willing to ally with the republicans around democratic demands, was a major force, able to inflict very significant political damage to the British and their allies but falling well short of the massive mobilisation that would have directly threatened the stability of Britain's political and economic structures in Ireland and forced a British retreat.
Faced with an ambiguous British text and
with the prospect of the prisoners’ deaths approaching rapidly the first
hunger strike was ended. The various elements of the campaign withdrew
to consider. They came to very different conclusions about the lessons
of the first hunger strike and the strategy that could be brought to bear
in the coming second hunger strike.
One other ominous feature came to the fore at the end of the first hunger strike. That was the long-standing tendency of the republican leadership to engage in secret diplomacy. The fact that there was any British offer, the nature of that offer, reasons for accepting or rejecting it, all were kept from the campaign and the prisoners. The activists were never given any information about the negotiations even when the deal had collapsed and they were asked to begin again and risk lives and freedom confronting the British on the streets. The arrogance of militarism was demonstrated by the attempted murder of Bernadette McAliskey at the beginning of 1981. She was the sixth H-block militant to be shot since the beginning of the first hunger strike, but she and all the other political militants still had a second-class status. Hidden decision-making rested with the militarists.