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Lessons of the Irish Hunger Strikes - Part 5
The second Hunger strike began in a mood of quiet desperation. A mass movement which had been demobilised and sent home had to be cranked back into action. The fact that the prisoners staggered their entry onto hunger strike, with Bobby Sands as their leader going first, showed an understanding that the British were determined to defeat the movement and the that the battle in the prisons was likely to be a fight to the death.
Also significant was a shift in the H-block campaign's demands from political status to '5 demands' centering on the physical conditions of the prisoners and an accompanying debate surrounding the entry of republicans into electoral politics. In order to understand the importance of these developments it is important to understand the crisis that faced the republican leadership. The cutting edge of their movement had always been physical force, but the IRA, supposed to have the power to push the British into the sea, had been unable to resolve the issue of political status and had in fact to stand down much of its armed activity in order to make room for the H-Block campaign. The moral persuasion of the first hunger strike had failed. The leadership had no master plan. They had opposed both hunger strikes but had been faced down by the desperation of the prisoners. Quite clearly a political movement would have to be built but what kind of movement? The republican leadership wanted unity of the nation, unity of all the classes, behind the hunger strike. The working class were on the defensive and the republican leadership knew from experience that any left politics would scare the Irish capitalists away. The real difficulty was that the capitalists did not support political status.
Enter the church, specifically in the person of Cardinal Tomas O'Faich. A myth has grown up among republican supporters that the Cardinal, and the church, supported political status. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Church offered to lobby the British on a humanitarian basis if the issue of political status was taken off the table and to act as a conduit to the Irish and British governments. The change to '5 demands' allowed the republican leadership to move the right and to join with the church and Fianna Fail around their programme and their technique of secret diplomacy.
A member of the small left group, the Irish Workers Group, achieved fame when he denounced the five demands as reformist. He was asked by a H-block activist if that meant that Bobby Sands was a reformist. Driven by the logic of his position he immediately answered 'Yes' to howls of derision. The fact was however that the prisoners and the activists were never able to discuss the demands of the movement. The five demands came from the republican leadership who were able to approach Sands and tell him that the campaign required this change and were then able to approach the campaign and say that the prisoners required the change. The true significance of the five demands were, that with their adoption, there were two campaigns. One was the H-block campaign, committed to mass action and hostile to the collaboration of the capitalist parties. The other was a campaign of secret diplomacy involving the church and the Irish and British Governments searching for a settlement that excluded in advance any discussion of political status. In the middle, facing both ways, were the republican leadership. However when the dust settled it was the republican supporters who were in the dark, not the capitalists.
The republican rapprochement with Irish nationalism had a dramatic impact on the campaign's approach to elections. A radical campaign would have stood someone who was not a prisoner able to organise outside around a programme aimed at doing real damage to the Irish capitalist parties and denouncing their policy of collaboration with imperialism. Instead the republican leadership insisted on a prisoner candidate, a gesture no matter how dramatic, that rested on the same base of moral persuasion that had already failed in the first hunger strike. Much more significant was the fact that Bobby Sands was presented as unity candidate, with the republicans stressing that they want to borrow people's votes and not to break them from the nationalist parties who were collaborating with Britain. This policy of standing on humanitarian grounds, standing only prisoners, borrowing votes and avoiding any conflict with the nationalist parties was applied even more sharply in the elections in the 26 counties. To make things worse the campaign was strictly electoralist, standing to win seats rather than wherever it was possible to do so and organise a base of activists. Inevitably the alliance with capital and the methods of diplomacy began to strangle the possibilities of further mass organisation.
Peoples Democracy made one last desperate attempt to turn the spotlight on the capitalists by winning support for a march on Dublin. Mass demonstrations in Dublin earlier in the struggle had led to the burning of the British embassy and mass protests that had briefly threatened the Irish Government. When the march arrived in Dublin there was a mass mobilisation - but the IRA were stationed on every street corner with orders to prevent any disorder that would have threatened the new alliances that the republican leadership were building up behind the scenes.