Hunger strikes and politics of republican memory: complex and contested legacies

The legacy of the strikes has become a potent weapon in the battle over the Irish republican movement’s past but also over its current and future trajectory

The legacies and memories of both the 1916 Easter Rising and the 1980-81 republican hunger strikes continue to be invoked on a regular basis by almost all strands within the “republican family”. In a speech in Pettigo, Co Fermanagh, on Easter Monday 2016, the former IRA man and SF MLA, Seán Lynch, argued that the Provisional movement’s “armed struggle” had the same legitimacy as the “men of 1916”. “There are those who would have us believe that these men and women cannot be equated with those of 1916. They are hypocrites. Bobby Sands was a revolutionary and visionary in the same vein as James Connolly and Pádraig Pearse.”

Richard O’Rawe, the public relations officer of the IRA prisoners at the time of the hunger strike, argued in his memoir, Blanketmen (2005): “we existed in an idealistic time warp, wallowing in the vision of historical Irish heroes struggling for freedom. There was an almost biblical reverence for the 1916 Proclamation […] sometimes elevating the sacrifice of the signatories to a hallowed act.”

However, the politics of remembering what Seamus Heaney described as a “sacred drama” is no longer pristine and uncomplicated. The Provisional republican commemorative landscape had been based around a unifying and compelling narrative of heroic resistance, self-sacrifice and ultimately victory regarding the “criminalisation” of republican prisoners, faced with a heartless and intransigent UK government, epitomised in the hate figure of prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

In the last decade, however, this struggle for control of the memory of the hunger strikes has been framed not simply by the expected disputes between the republican narrative and those memories associated with the Protestant/unionist/loyalist communities or the “official” British state narrative. In large measure, as a result of allegations made by O’Rawe, the legacy of the strikes has become a potent weapon in the battle over the past of the movement, but also over the current and future trajectory of Irish republicanism.

A contemporary political conflict within republicanism has developed with many “dissidents”, including ex-Provisionals and republican socialists, utilising the controversy as evidence of the compromises (or “betrayals”) of the Adams/McGuinness leadership in the post-1998 era.

If the SF leadership has largely been willing to permit a degree of latitude to the republican socialist movement (IRSP) in carving out space for a sectional narrative of the hunger strikes, the same cannot be said for the challenge posed by an erstwhile Provisional to the established “master narrative”. When O’Rawe published Blanketmen, this was the catalyst for a long-running and intensely bitter dispute amongst SF supporters and ex-members, which has thrown the previously settled interpretation of the hunger strikes into confusion and doubt.

O’Rawe was intimately involved in the events, and helped to draft many of the prisoners’ statements during 1981, including one that softened the stance of the prisoners on July 4th (after four republicans had died on the protest). In his book, he accused the leadership outside the jail of effectively scuppering the possibility of bringing the hunger strikes to an honourable end, when the UK government appeared ready to offer a compromise deal on the five demands.

The “think-tank” or “kitchen cabinet”, which liaised with the IRA leadership inside the prison, was headed by Sinn Féin vice-president Gerry Adams. Critics allege that informal, but authentic power rested with this group, established outside the public channels of party accountability (for Sinn Féin) and outside the conspiratorial, but supposedly democratic, structures of the IRA Army Council. Much of the subsequent controversy has turned on the question of whether decision-making on the republican side was essentially in the hands of the strikers and prisoners inside the jail, or whether in the hands of this self-selected “kitchen cabinet”.

O’Rawe alleged that, as the by-election to fill the Fermanagh-South Tyrone Westminster seat (left vacant after the death of Bobby Sands) was scheduled for August, the outside leadership ensured the potential deal of early July was rejected, even though O’Rawe claimed the IRA leadership in the jail believed the offer was acceptable.

Thus the hunger strike continued, with the hope that the sympathy generated in the broader Catholic nationalist population would permit Owen Carron (Sands’ electoral agent, standing as a “proxy political prisoner”) to win the seat once more. Although Carron did win the seat, in the meantime five more republicans had died.

There could hardly have been a more damaging allegation, which, if true, would clearly undermine comprehensively the prevailing Provisional “master narrative” of heroic sacrifice, and British duplicity and intransigence. However, it must be recognised that there is no clear proof offered by O’Rawe for his speculation as to the motivation of the “kitchen cabinet”, and this interpretation has been vehemently denied by those close to the Adams leadership.

Key protagonists at the time, such as Brendan McFarlane (the “officer commanding” IRA prisoners) and Danny Morrison, have regularly traded metaphorical blows with O’Rawe in the decade since Blanketmen was published. Although O’Rawe had been a highly respected member of the Provisional “resistance community” and “community of remembrance”, once he had made this break, it was complete and irrevocable: he was cast into outer darkness by the movement, subject to vilification and ostracism. In short, O’Rawe was treated as a dissident, and he has been critical of the contemporary politics of Sinn Féin:

“The leadership had better get used to the idea that this debate is going to expose them. [...] Did you ever think back then, as we debated socialism and republicanism, that we’d see the day Republicans would be nominating Ian Paisley for First Minister in a Stormont Assembly? Jesus, what a debacle! Bobby Sands, socialist, secularist, Republican bears no resemblance to any of this. None of the boys did.”

In terms of commemorative politics, it might be argued that O’Rawe’s allegations have profoundly disturbed or ruptured the pristine memory of the hunger strikes which had prevailed within the republican “community of remembrance” up until that point. Since the 25th anniversary in 2006, the annual commemorations of the hunger strikes have often taken place against the backdrop of a tense atmosphere of recrimination.

The hunger strikers were for republicans a modern, and Northern, incarnation of the Easter martyrs. Adams has argued that “the hunger strikes were the beginning of the end of spectatorism in republican politics”. Once Sinn Féin signed up to the GFA in 1998, controlling the historical narrative and commemorative landscape of the hunger strike became of huge significance, for two reasons: as the movement altered its ideological outlook in critical ways, so reassuring the rank-and-file with regard to the direction and ultimate destination of the movement became vitally important.

However, this end to spectatorism cuts both ways: internal and external opponents of the recent direction travelled by Sinn Féin are also galvanised by the memory of the hunger strikes, and this challenge has instituted a competitive dimension to the “ownership” of these memories.

The hunger strikes, which had been understood and experienced for so long as a force for internal cohesion within the broad republican family, have instead over the course of the last decade been the site of traumatic conflict. As with Sinn Féin’s contemporary commemoration of the Easter Rising, the hunger strikers’ legacy has become a double-edged sword for the movement. The leadership is determined to lay claim to the mantle of historical legitimacy, and asserts its continuity with previous manifestations of revolutionary republicanism. Yet, the very act of commemorating the sacrifice of the martyrs of 1916 or 1981 serves to draw attention to what critics deride as the failure of the movement’s strategy to make significant headway towards Irish unity in the present era.

Stephen Hopkins is lecturer in politics in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Leicester. His book, The Politics of Memoir and the Northern Ireland Conflict, was published in 2013 by Liverpool University Press

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