Anger, opportunism, grudging respect: how unionism reacted to hunger strikes
While unionist leaders resented the propaganda value of the hunger strikes, loyalists were conflicted as their prisoners had also fasted and sought the same demands
Hugh Smyth and Billy Hutchinson of the PUP at Belfast City Hall. Many loyalists “would have secretly admired the courage of the Bobby Sandses of this world,” said Smyth. Photograph: Hugh Russell
The prevailing Ulster Protestant view of the hunger strikers of 1981 remains that of former first minister – then-MP for East Belfast – Peter Robinson, in his pamphlet Self-Inflicted: “Society properly deals with them like the low and common criminals they are.” The seemingly relentless march of Sinn Féin ever since further bolsters establishment unionism’s view that the events of 1981 represent a grim propaganda victory for the republican movement, with further insult to injury added by the 64 people (including 34 civilians) killed by the Provisional IRA and INLA outside prison walls during the 1981 protest.
On the other hand, it is often forgotten that loyalist prisoners played a complementary role in gaining “Special Category” status for members of all paramilitary groups in June 1972 (amounting to prisoners being housed in compounds, not having to work or wear prison uniforms, more food parcels and visits, and access to better facilities than ordinary prisoners). While it would be an exaggeration to say that loyalist prisoners led the agitation – the concession had of course been secured by the hunger strikes of the IRA’s Billy McKee and Proinsias MacArt’s in Crumlin Road prison in May 1972 – secretary of state William Whitelaw points out in his memoirs that the initial batch of prisoners who received the new designation numbered considerably more loyalist than republican prisoners – 40 loyalists against eight republicans. Two years later, UVF prisoners received an additional standing order that they should refrain from ever wearing prison uniform.
The dilemma over the issue was encapsulated in loyalist chief Gusty Spence, who undertook three separate fasts: twice in early 1967 – to reopen his own legal case, then as a protest against the conditions in Crumlin Road – and finally as UVF officer commanding when he joined McKee on hunger strike. But, as the Troubles wore on, republican prisoners became indelibly associated with the tactic, entailing that Spence’s initial stand, and that of loyalism as a whole, was subjugated to the wider unionist constituency.
Aside from the “clean” protest for segregation from republicans by a small number of loyalists in the late 1970s – when they refused to wear a prison uniform, but kept cells orderly – there was also a lesser-known hunger strike by six UDA prisoners in December 1980. The late Hugh Smyth, then chairman of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), was involved in mediations between prisoners and authorities to avert the situation, confirming when I met him in January 2012 that loyalists had been prepared to go all the way. As republican prisoners were pushing for the same “political” recognition, “the worry was that the loyalists would have been near enough forced into it. Because people were beginning to whisper behind their backs, ‘well,are you gonna get in on Bobby Sands’ back, like?’ Is he gonna die to get us what we want?’ My fear was that they’d have been goaded into ‘right, we’re doing this’.”
Smyth also endorsed Richard O’Rawe’s subsequent claims that the republican hunger strikers were offered a favourable deal, but were allowed to perish to boost Sinn Féin’s political profile.
Though most Ulster Protestants were undoubtedly petrified by the furious energy generated by the prison protest, with the skeletal imagery of the hunger strikers beamed nightly into homes through news updates, some unionist leaders saw the increasingly febrile atmosphere as something of an opportunity. The Rev Ian Paisley embarked on a series of rallies which he self-reverentially dubbed the “Carson Trail”. Addressing 900 men who paraded militaristically before him in the little village of Sixmilecross, Co Tyrone, he invoked Winston Churchill in promising to “fight them in the lanes and on the highways”. Though these gatherings were to become progressively smaller, his question to loyalists whether they would wait to be attacked or “go out to kill the killers” brought wry recognition from those loyalist prisoners already inside, many of whom were incarcerated for acting on precisely this kind of rhetoric.
This period also witnessed the emergence of a more judicious voice within unionism, constituting something of an antidote to Paisley’s bombastic tendencies. Harold McCusker, MP for Upper Bann, remarked how he had “watched the television channels of this province given up to politicians and clerics apparently so concerned about the civil rights of Sands that they forget the ongoing murder campaign being waged against the rest of the community”. Following the killing of a member of the Ulster Deference Regiment, McCusker took a European Commission on Human Rights action – with the backing of the UDR man’s widow – against both the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom, asserting that neither government had adequately protected victims in Northern Ireland.
One of the main problems with official unionism generally is that it has rarely written impressive accounts of its own history. In contrast to some excellent histories of the hunger strike period and books from a diversity of republican players, unionists have not delivered their own written remembrances of the era. At the same time, however, the perspective of prison officers has been surprisingly well-highlighted. Interestingly these have appeared via cultural portrayals in plays such as Martin Lynch’s Chronicles of Long Kesh (2009) – featuring the chorus of Freddie, a sympathetic prison officer – and Steve McQueen’s Hunger (2008), a complex and ambivalent film that is initially anchored by the perspective of prison guard Ray Lohan (superbly played by Stuart Graham, who researched his role by interviewing numerous ex-Long Kesh wardens). The image of Ray checking under his car as part of his daily routine offers an acute insight into the world of a Long Kesh “screw” during the time, a detail the polemical critics of Hunger frequently miss.
Hugh Smyth believed that the association of Irish republicanism with hunger striking gave loyalists the opportunity to opt out of the protests of 1980 and 1981, “much as they wanted the same things”. Claiming that many loyalists “would have secretly admired the courage of the Bobby Sandses of this world”, Smyth also recalled that loyalists had been aware of the offer from the British authorities (prior to the death of fifth hunger striker Joe McDonnell) which effectively granted the prisoners their demands. And in the same way as republican prisoners were alleged to have initially accepted the deal, loyalists too concurred: “That’s what we’re fighting for: no uniforms, to be recognized.”
Dr Connal Parr is a writer and academic based at Fordham University (London Centre)