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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: January 9, 2012 @ 12:15 pm

    An Avoidable Tragedy: Long Kesh 1981

    Deaglán de Bréadún

    Every year I am assigned with colleagues to peruse the newly-released State Papers. It’s a pity to have to absent oneself from the current political scene for a while, especially when there is so much happening in the contemporary world. But it is also quite informative to read through the internal government documents of yesteryear and you frequently gain a fresh insight into events that, in the present writer’s case, you actually lived through.

    As expected there is a mountain of documentation on the Maze/Long Kesh hunger-strike. I have already filed a post on this issue but it is worth taking a second bite at the cherry.

    The first thing that should be said is this: Hunger-striking is a deadly and fearsome act. You damage yourself and bring pain to all your loved ones. It is not something to be embarked upon lightly. It is generally accepted that even the IRA leadership did not want their associates in the H-Blocks to set out on that fateful fast. Hunger-striking is an action that is very hard to justify under most circumstances.

    The Long Kesh hunger-strike was somewhat different from other such fasts one has read about. The prisoners were not being oppressed in the normal sense, as conditions appear to have been good for conforming inmates. The problem here was the denial/withdrawal of political status, exemplified primarily in the right to wear one’s own clothes at all times.

    There was a document in the Irish archive about a senior Vatican diplomat expressing wonderment to a British representative that Her Majesty’s Government would not allow the prisoners to wear what they liked. What was the big deal?

    Perhaps it was a reflection of the obsession with status in British society which was then mirrored by a counter-obsession on the part of  the prisoners.

    There has been controversy over the visit by Father John Magee, the Pope’s Secretary, to Bobby Sands, shortly before the IRA prisoner died.  An internal British document – the claim is also reported in the Irish archive – tells us Fr Magee informed the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Humphrey Atkins, that Sands was prepared to suspend his fast for five days to allow direct negotiations.

    The reaction of republicans has been shock and denial. They insist their friend Bobby would never have offered a concession like that. But what’s the big deal?

    Sands was insisting on fellow-prisoners being present (IRA commanders in the Maze), the document states. So that bit of what one might call republican protocol was being preserved. He would have had direct negotiations with the British – a major propaganda coup. Even if the talks fell through, he would still have emerged a winner and might even have come through the whole thing alive. As an aside, one can say that a person of his determination and strong will could have made a significant contribution to the peace process and subsequent political developments.

    Fr Magee gave what amounted to an order from the Pope of Rome that Sands should give up his fast. That has to have made a strong impression on a young Belfast Catholic, unversed in the ways of the world and in a very weak state physically. It is amazing that he did not obey.

    But it may have been as a concession to the head of his church – a personage regarded as infallible in matters of faith and morals – that he offered to suspend his fast in return for direct talks.

    Atkins turned down the offer. HMG could not be seen to be in direct public talks with an IRA man. Status again.

    Yet we know that the British were in direct contact with senior republicans through the later-to-be-famous Michael Oatley. We know that even Margaret Thatcher was not as hardline in private as she proclaimed herself in public.

    There was a serious lack of trust, arising from the previous hunger-strike of 1980 where the prisoners thought they had won the right to wear their own clothes but, in fact, were offered “civilian-type” clothing. The republicans were all over the place and pretty confused, judging from the documents. Securing Red Cross or European Commission of Human Rights intervention would have been an international propaganda victory; haggling over any issue other than clothing was essentially irrelevant.

    There is controversy, too, over last-minute contacts between the British and the republicans shortly before Joe McDonnell died in early July. A row has been going on for years now as to whether or not the republican leadership turned down an offer that was acceptable to the prisoners, so that Sinn Fein’s Owen Carron would retain the Westminster seat won by Bobby Sands. This argument will probably never  be settled, as there are differing political perspectives as well as contrasting versions of events involved.

    Now we have the Boston College imbroglio. Republican and loyalist activists gave interviews about their past deeds on the basis that these would not be published in their lifetimes. This promise now appears to have proven unsustainable, at least in the case of one interviewee.

    The past may be another country but we keep making involuntary visits there.

    • John O'Driscoll says:

      ” What was the big deal?

      Perhaps it was a reflection of the obsession with status in British society which was then mirrored by a counter-obsession on the part of the prisoners”

      Seems clear to me. Forcing IRA prisoners and internees to wear prison uniform was to essentially create an equivalence between them and the ordinary/common class of criminal subjected to the ordinary/common class of discipline and punishment in the penal system.

      Furthermore, as we see in the treatment of ”unlawful combatants” in places like Gitmo and Abu Ghraib today, prisoners forced to wear jumpsuits denoting their compliant or non-compliant status (orange, white, black) in the exact same way that common criminals in US gaols are, even though said prisoners in Gitmo and Abu Ghraib are outside the writ of US criminal law, are in effect in legal limbo (and deliberately so placed), it was a way of controlling and demeaning those who believe(d) that their cause, thoughts and actions were those of legitimate honourable combatants.

      In essence, the discourse so created by the forced use of ordinary prison uniforms changes the prisoner from ”lawful combatant” qua freedom fighter to ”common criminal” qua terrorist.

      In this way the State sought to exact upon the body of the individual a punishment greater than that which the individuals saw themselves and their thoughts/actions as legitimately meriting.

      And they were prepared to die to oppose this perceived injustice and die they did. It would, of course, have been entirely avoidable had they been allowed the simple dignity of wearing their own clothes, freighted as it was with such enormous implications.

    • John O'Driscoll says:

      Third Geneva Conventions 1949
      Art. 3 – In the case of armed conflict not of an international character occuring in the territory of one of the High Contracting Parties, each Party to the conflict shall be bound to apply, as a minimum, the following provisions:
      1) Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria. To this end the following acts are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever with respect to the above-mentioned persons:

      a) violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture;
      c) outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment…”’

      Art. 18 – All effects and articles of personal use, except arms, horses, military equipment and military documents, shall remain in the possession of prisoners of war…Effects and articles used for their clothing or feeding shall likewise remain in their possession, even if such effects and artlces belong to their military equipment…

      Art. 27 – Clothing, underwear and footwear shall be supplied to prisoners of war in sufficient quantities by the Detaining Power, which shall make allowance for the climate of the region where the prisoners are detained. Uniforms of enemy armed forces catured by the Detaining Power should, if suitable for the climate, be made available to clothe prisoners of war.

      The regular replacement and repair of the above articles shall be assured but the Detaining Power.”

    • John O'Driscoll says:

      In an Ireland such as today’s, where every value and principle that ever meant anything here and/or to the Dead Generations who fought here, on both ”sides” as it were, has been traded for 30 pcs of foreign despot’s silver and a mess of ECB dead-tree pottage, it might be hard for many to understand. But even the IRA had values; had a moral framework within which it operated one might say, or at least, beyond which it would not allow itself to be pushed. And when the British government tried – as any Apparatus seeking to preserve the status quo, the means of control and the consolidation of many individual bodies into a single massive force that results from that, a Leviathan, would reasonably be expected to do – to reduce the IRA by attacking its core value, that of a force of resistance against an occupying power qua a belligerent in a legitimate war, well, up with that some of its members at least would not put. And so an irresistible force met with an immovable object and the result as always was the annihilation of one or the other or both. In the sense at least that following the hunger striker’s deaths all had changed, changed utterly, and more bloody terrible ”beauty” was born. Or ugliness. Depending on your Perspective. As ever.

    • arbera says:

      “Perhaps it was a reflection of the obsession with status in British society which was then mirrored by a counter-obsession on the part of the prisoners.”

      A most interesting reflection/suggestion by D deB and which shines a light on that whole area of the intricacies involved (and how almost insanely delicate they can become) in any attempt at diplomatic relations between opposing factions where one side believes itself to be “the oppressed” and sees the other side as “the oppressor.” Mediation was the answer to this but as far as I can see from Deaglán’s analysis (which is based on examining the newly-released State Papers) some of the best mediators got involved and at the highest levels but there was to be no backing down and these young rebels, with a cause, went slowly, painfully and, when all is said and done, needlessly, to their sad deaths.

      Sad, very, very sad the whole business……..and especially for the mothers of all those young men of twenty…or thereabouts.

    • Danny Morrison, who was very involved on the republican side at the time, sent me this comment by email:-

      Richard O’Rawe claims that the republican leadership on the afternoon of 6th July ordered the prisoners not to accept the offer from the British [which wasn’t sent to the Movement until 11.20pm Monday night!] in order to allow Owen Carron to get elected in F & S Tyrone and thus the leadership condemned six men to die.

      Given that the writ for the by-election had to be moved in the House of Commons and voted upon by a majority [which was Tory], and that SF had no influence over this process, and the writ wasn’t actually moved until 28th July [weeks after the death of Joe McDonnell], how can the leadership have known the future on the 5th & 6th July? Or known that the SDLP would not stand or know that Owen Carron would get elected?

    • jaygee says:

      I know that there is a serious difference of opinion between Mr. Morrison and Mr O’Rawe on the events surrounding the death of some of the hunger~strikers, but it is surely disingenuous of the former to suggest that Sinn Fein could not know in advance , the result of the by~election.

      Such a tide of emotion had been generated by the death of Bobby Sands and his comrades that SF could not fail to win. Any other Nationalist party opposing SF in this instance would have destroyed its credibility forever.

    • Biffo says:

      Like what later happened when the SDLP tried to split the Gildernew vote? The last SDLP seat standing will be South Belfast, because the SDLP vote there comprises a lot of soft unionist and Alliance voters.

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