Did Gerry Adams believe in hunger strikes as a weapon? The record suggests not
In his prison writings Adams offered a subtle critique of the spiritual, sacrificial strand of republicanism which had dominated republican discourse for decades since 1916
Gerry Adams and Brendan Hughes in the Maze prison: In Adams’ eyes, the use of hunger strike as a form of republican struggle had been somewhat discredited; he had read about it failing, experienced it failing, and thus saw such action as a relatively ineffective form of political protest
“The eejit in the next bed is doing his staunch Republican bit – ‘McSwiney [sic] taught us how to die’ he is saying to the locker at the moment”. So wrote Gerry Adams in his article, Inside Story, which appeared in Republican News, the primary Provisional republican organ, on August 16th, 1975.
This piece was the first in a series of articles Adams produced during confinement as a sentenced prisoner within Cage 11 of Long Kesh/Maze Prison between 1975 and 1977. Collectively known as the “Brownie” articles – in reference to Adams’ pen-name – the youthful Provisional ideologue produced more than 40 prison writings in which he progressed from constructing the prison in his readers’ minds in articles such as Inside Story to articulating a relatively sophisticated and influential strand of republican thought in articles such as Active Abstentionism, The National Alternative and Active Republicanism, written in October 1975, April and May 1976 respectively.These articles were smuggled out of the prison and published in Republican News by its editor Danny Morrison and, in so doing, Adams’ thoughts, conceived within a walled environment, were disseminated throughout the wider republican community.
In his prison writings Adams offered a subtle critique of the spiritual and sacrificial strand of republicanism which had dominated republican discourse throughout much of the twentieth century, particularly in the wake of the 1916 rebellion in Dublin, and which underpinned Provisional republican philosophy. He simultaneously argued for a materially-orientated, effectively “civic” form of republicanism. The movement could bring its ideal republic into reality immediately by concerning itself with the social and economic welfare of nationalist communities: “Active Republicanism means hard work…We fight for men having a jar in public houses…the old age pensioner up the street…Our Republic must therefore serve their needs…we must become servants of the people…”
As Brownie, Adams frequently referenced the writings of Terence MacSwiney, who died on hunger strike in Brixton Prison in October 1920. Through his writings and actions MacSwiney, much like Patrick Pearse, had done much to develop and consolidate spiritual, sacrificial republicanism. Yet Adams believed that MacSwiney had not merely taught republicans “how to die”. Importantly, MacSwiney had also urged republicans “to take their philosophy into life”. Oddly enough, the civic republicanism Adams articulated as “Brownie” was in many ways inspired by one of the chief architects of sacrificial, spiritual republicanism.
The fact Adams referred to his cage-mate as an “eejit” for referencing MacSwiney hints at his own ideas about republicans being too quick to embrace the sacrificial dimension of MacSwiney’s thinking at the expense of its practical aspects. Indeed, Adams saw no irreconcilable tension between the republicanism advanced by MacSwiney and the strand of socialist republicanism advanced rather unsuccessfully by anti-Treaty republicans such as Peadar O’Donnell during the inter-war period. In fact, one of the reasons why Adams’ prison writings are so important within the history of Irish republican thought is that he successfully fused these two typically divergent strands of republicanism – the material and the spiritual – together. For example, he wrote of the “spiritualism of active republicanism”. For Adams, there was no reason why republicans could not make their ideology relevant to people’s lives and still maintain their spiritual aspiration towards a united republican Ireland.
One would assume Adams had been a supporter of the tactic of hunger strike while confined within Cage 11 during the mid-1970s. He had been on hunger strike himself during his first period of internment at the prison during the late spring of 1972; an ultimately unsuccessful strike spearheaded by leading Provisional Billy McKee, then in Belfast Prison, for political status. Adams, who was reading republican history while in Long Kesh, would have also been well aware that a mass hunger strike launched by anti-Treaty republican prisoners in the Free State in the autumn of 1923, including O’Donnell, failed to facilitate their immediate release. In Adams’ eyes therefore, the use of hunger strike as a form of republican struggle had been somewhat discredited; he had read about it failing, experienced it failing, and thus saw such action as a relatively ineffective form of political protest.
In Inside Story and other Brownie articles, such as Active Republicanism, Adams asserted that a more constructive form of republican self-sacrifice would be for republicans to consistently address social and economic problems experienced by nationalist communities rather than engaging in dramatic feats such as hunger strikes. As Adams viewed it, the movement’s attraction to spiritual, sacrificial and thus heavily militaristic republicanism had rendered it socially and economically apathetic and politically under-developed. He felt republicans had not made a constructive contribution to the lives of Irish communities. Through their embrace of sacrificial republicanism, republicans had failed to develop “people’s Republicanism” and so take their philosophy into life.
By producing the Brownie articles, Adams was demonstrating that there were other tactics republicans could utilise besides hunger strike to bring their republic into reality. O’Donnell had seen his pen as “a weapon” and it seems Adams thought similarly. He began his article, Active Abstentionism, by explaining he was trying “to do something constructive for a change”. He then outlined ways in which republicans could help people help themselves, developing primitive structures of local government in the process, and thus creating their republic within the context of partition as opposed to waiting for its removal or destruction. He was calling for a republicanism of the head and not solely the heart. While the “eejit” thought MacSwiney had taught him “how to die” in pursuit of a future ideal republic, Adams was encouraging republicans to live their philosophy and so start creating that Republic immediately.
It is ironic that the more politicised, socially conscious mode of republicanism that Adams hungered after in Cage 11 was consolidated by perhaps the most extreme example of sacrificial republicanism in Irish history – the 1981 hunger strike. The purely sacrificial republicanism Adams once seemed to reject as Brownie ensured the supremacy of his more politicised and worldly strand of republicanism throughout subsequent Irish history.
Thomas Dolan is a postgraduate history student at the University of Edinburgh