The Irish in Britain, the British Labour movement and the hunger strikes
No ‘horde of proletarian Irish’ rose up in support of the hunger strikers on British streets, and IRA violence limited support among trade unionists and in Labour party
May 1981: a policeman talks to leftwing republican sympathisers bearing banners on behalf of the hunger striker Bobby Sands during a May Day march at Clerkenwell Green in London. Photograph: Central Press/Getty Images
In 1971 Eamonn McCann concluded that there was no ‘horde of proletarian Irish’ in Britain ready to rise up in defence of civil rights in Northern Ireland (Irish Times, March 22nd, 1971). Even before the creation of the Prevention of Terrorism Act in 1974, the response of both the Irish in Britain and the wider British Left was muted. Despite events such as Bloody Sunday no mass Irish subaltern resistance identity emerged in Britain. Would the hunger strikes provide the spark for a true mass Irish lobby in Britain?
Since the start of the modern Troubles the British Left, for the most part, had been supportive of the civil rights movement. As violence increased this drove away Labour MPs that had previously been supportive. Splits within the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) which had been distilling since 1968 reached full potency in 1974. Labour MPs broadly divided into two groups. One supported a utopian call for troops out and immediate British withdrawal. Others wanted a more nuanced response and rejected calls for a simple abjuration of British political responsibility towards Northern Ireland.
These splits continued and by April 1981 Michael Foot was under pressure to respond to the situation in the H-Blocks. This pressure came from a number of sources. He received telegrams from individual Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) and faced questions from Labour MPs. In British local elections some voters marked their ballot papers with either Bobby Sands or H-Blocks. There were noisy street protests. However, in comparison to the size of the Irish population in Britain, these were small and could not be regarded as anything that resembled a mass movement. Foot and a number of Labour MPs even received “comms” from within the H-Blocks and the women prisoners in Armagh.
The shadow cabinet decided to send Don Concannon to visit Sands and put forward the position of the PLP. This was to be one of the most controversial decisions of the shadow cabinet in their response to the hunger strike. Concannon informed Sands and the other hunger strikers that there was no possibility of the PLP supporting the hunger strikers. Concannon was not a popular figure with those on the far left of the party. Privately he was in favour of reunification. However, as an ex-soldier, he was doggedly opposed to the IRA. In an interview in 1998 he admitted that he was committed to political discussion. His view was that discussion should not take place from a position of duress. To be seen to be strong under pressure was important in wider British politics. These were violent times in Britain; the hunger strikes were frequently replaced on the front pages by rioting in British cities and the Yorkshire Ripper trial. To appear to be weak on issues of law and order was politically noxious for the majority of the British electorate.
When Sands was nominated as a candidate for Fermanagh and South Tyrone further pressure was applied to the PLP leadership as Labour MPs divided over his candidature. There were rumours of secret deals between the Labour Party leadership and the Conservatives. There were meetings between Foot and the prime minister. They agreed that political status for the hunger strikers could not be granted. Foot and Thatcher concurred that whilst these meetings were not to be kept secret, what was said at them was to remain private.
Some Labour MPs wanted an open, frank and wideranging debate within parliament, not only about the hunger strike, but about wider Northern Ireland policy. Many opposed this as they felt it would expose the splits within the PLP to public scrutiny.
Outside the PLP the British trades union movement was also split over the hunger strikes. The mainstream British trades unions rejected the violence of the IRA and as long as this violence continued they would not support the hunger strikers. Others wanted to use the hunger strikes as part of a broader campaign against the Conservative government. In London the National Union of Teachers threatened members that wanted official affiliation for Troops Out with disciplinary action and expulsion. Some radical trades union members wanted a revolutionary alliance to bring the war to Britain. To control its membership the TUC went as far as to disaffiliate trades councils that in its view went far beyond what was acceptable to the British trades union movement.
The National Union of Students was also having difficultly over its position. In 1980 scuffles broke out at conference when a collection was organised in support of the hunger strikers. The violence of the IRA was once again at the centre of divisions. The leadership of the NUS and the vast majority of its members would not offer any official support as long as the violence continued. In 1981 its new President, David Aaronovitch, on behalf of the NUS sent an open letter to the British government. He argued that to defuse the situation prison conditions should be improved for all prisoners. Despite some noisy and public dissent, no significant pressure on the PLP would be applied from British trades unions.
Once again no mass Irish subaltern resistance identity emerged in Britain. The radical British left tried to offer support to the hunger strikers but it was an incoherent mess. It was riddled with divisions over ideology and lacked a leadership that could bring together the assorted disparate groups in Britain that supported the hunger strikers. Within mainstream British politics the violence of the IRA made Sinn Féin a toxic brand. Public splits appeared between the PLP and CLPs. Sands’ election did increase the number of Labour MPs who recognised that Sinn Féin had a political mandate, but as long as violence continued any MP who wanted to talk to Sinn Féin would be persona non grata.
None of the protests in Britain had enough critical mass to change Labour Party policy. The radical left in Britain did offer alternatives to official Labour Party policy, but never gained enough support. As Eamonn McCann predicted there was no “horde of proletarian Irish” ready to rise up in Britain. The hunger strikes were one of many occasions that proved McCann’s prediction was correct.