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Lessons of the Irish Hunger Strikes - Part 6
The strategy of the republican leadership throughout the early phase of the hunger strikes was based on a simple foundation – the belief that, in extremis, all the classes of the nation would unite to achieve self-determination and democratic rights. It was a strategy in tatters as the second hunger strike came to a climax. Not only had it proved impossible to win Irish capital to support political status, the republican leadership had begun, through the Catholic church and Fianna Fail, to explore with the British the possibility of a settlement that would concede on the issue of political status.
Before the death of Bobby Sands it was always possible for the republican leadership to believe that the British might relent, that the mass movement would grow to overwhelming proportions or that it would allow the relaunch of the flagging military campaign. After Bobby Sand’s death this was no longer possible. The British had proved their ruthlessness and the republicans had failed to provide a response that would break the British will, having long ago rejected the possibility of organising the only force that could hope to be independent of the imperialists and their capitalist backers – the Irish working class. The British were not slow to push the point home, attacking republican colour parties at the funerals of the dead hunger strikers and using a mailed fist at street demonstrations that left a number of demonstrators dead.
Over one hundred thousand attended the funeral of Bobby Sands. There was mass sympathy – but that’s what it was, sympathy. It had not been organised or directed at Britain’s capitalist lieutenants in Ireland. Having expressed sympathy, the crowds began to decline. As the death-toll amongst the hunger strikers mounted and the H-block movement became more frantic the leadership increasingly found the terms of a settlement being dictated to it.
In a pattern that was to become increasingly familiar, the republican leadership dressed the concessions on work and clothing as victory. The facts were that ten prisoners were dead, that political status was gone, the mass movement that fought for it was disbanded and the British were left in control. A series of offensives saw Irish capital remove laws preventing extradition that were essentially based on the political status of the republican prisoners which the British had successfully removed. If the hunger strikes had successfully defended political status how come the Fianna Fail government were able to treat them as common criminals and send them to the British?
A similar offensive in the North saw Sinn Fein itself have legitimacy removed, with bans on TV interviews and on funding for community groups that did not meet British criteria. The Irish Government set up a Dublin forum. They had been badly frightened by the H-Block mobilisations and set out to kill the possibility of any democratic settlement, beginning the process that would lead first to de jure recognition of, and formal support for, the British occupation in the North through the Hillsborough agreement and then, finally, support for a sectarian settlement enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement.
Sinn Fein claimed their rising membership as victory, ignoring the fact that they had plundered the corpse of the much larger and much more vibrant and diverse H-block movement. The mass movement never returned, replaced by more local resident’s movements that allowed alliance with the Church and the SDLP and that could be centrally controlled by Sinn Fein. Republicans pointed also to the rising electoral tide in their favour, ignoring the extent to which votes were themselves a much more limited form of action than the direct mass action that had gone before. Above all they ignored the fact that their gains increased as they moved further and further away from their former revolutionary nationalist programme.
The electoral growth of Sinn Fein helped to make it appear that they were defying the onslaught from the British and their capitalist allies and to conceal the fact that Sinn Fein’s response was to constantly capitulate. Their response to the Fianna Fail attack on their traditional programme was to demand nationalist unity around the new programme. Their response to the British media offensive was lie about their links with the IRA. Their response to the British offensive on community funding was to lie again, gradually adapting, calling on their supporters to ‘screw the system’ while acting to maintain the system, gradually moving closer to the SDLP and the Catholic Church in demanding an increased Catholic share of privilege inside the Northern state.
The biggest lie of all was the republican claim to be the architects of the Good Friday Agreement. The Dublin government, as a result of the Hillborough agreement, had become junior advisors to the British in the North through the Maryfield secretariat. They then moved on to the Downing Street Declaration to look towards a permanent settlement that would remove any vestige of a claim to self-determination, stabilising partition and the sectarian statelet in the process.
Sinn Fein, given the chance to climb on board by their Finna Fail handlers, embraced the deal. They called it Peace. They called it Victory.
Nothing could more clearly illustrate the outcome of the Hunger strikes. The decade following had seen an unremitting offensive by the British and unswerving support for them by the Dublin government. The offensive had culminated in the negation of Irish democracy and the movement that led the hunger strike had made a 180o turn to support that which they had spent 30 years fighting against!