A large crowd assembled at Dublin’s Liberty Hall on Saturday October 1to mark the 30th anniversary of the 1981 hunger strike. The strike was formally called off on the 3rd of October that year. The meetings recalled the events of that momentous year both in the H-Blocks and Armagh women’s prison as well as on the streets. It also addressed the current situation in Maghaberry prison where republican prisoners continue to be denied political status and basic human rights.
Máire Drumm and Tommy McKearney both provided powerful personal testimonies of their time in Armagh and the H-Blocks respectively, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Máire recalled how the arbitrary date of 1 March 1976, which marked the ending of political status, resulted in considerable differences in the treatment of those sentenced before and after that date. The withdrawal of political status that year resulted in an epic prison struggle involving hundreds of republican prisoners engaging in the blanket and no-wash protest, culminating in the hunger strikes of 1980 and 1981.
One of those who participated in the 1980 hunger strike was Tyrone man Tommy McKearney, author of the recently published and well received book The Provisional IRA: From Insurrection to Parliament. Tommy chose to focus on how republican prisoners displayed staggering levels of ingenuity, simply in order to survive the brutal conditions then pertaining in the H-Blocks. He recounted numerous stories of how the republican POWs maintained their morale during this time and the close bonds that still hold the community of ex-blanketmen together.
Mandy Duffy from Lurgan, active with the Family and Friends prisoner support group provided a comprehensive update on the situation in Maghaberry, drawing parallels with the treatment of republican prisoners in the H-Blocks. She urged people to support the prisoners in Maghaberry, who continue to be forcibly strip searched and beaten, and called for the implementation of the deal agreed earlier this year with the prison regime.
Other speakers on the day included éirígí general secretary Breandán Mac Cionnaith, who looked back at the events that precipitated the hunger strike and the lessons that can be drawn from that momentous year. Also keen to draw lessons from the past was F Stuart Ross, author of a new study Smashing H-Block – which assesses the movement that was built on the streets in support of the prisoners. Ross posed many pertinent questions for his audience, arguing it wasn’t enough simply to look back at the events of the past, rather it is crucial that we learn from it.
éirígí spokesperson Daithí Mac An Mháistir, who chaired several of the discussions on the day, thanked all of those who participated in the event at Liberty Hall and paid tribute to the men and women of the H-Blocks and Armagh. “Today was about paying tribute to the tremendous sacrifice and selflessness of the H-Block hunger strikers. It was also an opportunity to discuss the lessons to be learned from that period of our history. Given the level of participation in the discussions throughout the day it is clear that there still exists considerable interest in the events of 1980 and ’81.
“Prison struggle of this kind is not unique to Ireland, as news emerged this week that Palestinian prisoners of the PFLP, left with no option, have embarked on hunger strike in order to assert their rights. It is also clear that the mistreatment of republican prisoners in Ireland is by no means a historic event. Mandy Duffy powerfully illustrated Britain’s continued attempts to deny political status to republican prisoners in Maghaberry. Solidarity to the prisoners on hunger strike in Palestine and republican prisoners in Maghaberry fighting for political status was expressed from the meeting.”
Daithí continued, “We also extended solidarity to Basque political prisoners. Many of the flags on display at the meeting here today expressed support for an end to the Spanish state’s oppressive dispersal policy, which sees the many hundreds of Basque political prisoners sent to prisons hundreds of miles from their home. The plight of the Cuba Five, victims of US imperialism, was recalled and people encouraged to support the demo at the US embassy in Dublin.
“So today’s event presented an opportunity to look back at the past, to cherish the memory of the H-Block martyrs and crucially to learn the lessons of that period. The struggle in the prisons was not simply about the five demands, it was, in the final analysis an assertion of the right of the people of Ireland to national self-determination. As Bobby Sands wrote on the first day of his hunger strike:
“I believe I am but another of those wretched Irishmen born of a risen generation with a deeply rooted and unquenchable desire for freedom. I am dying not just to attempt to end the barbarity of H-Block, or to gain the rightful recognition of a political prisoner, but primarily because what is lost in here is lost for the Republic and those wretched oppressed whom I am deeply proud to know as the ‘risen people’.”
Daithí concluded, “Those sentiments were at the core of the politics that drove ten young IRA and INLA volunteers to withstand the torture of the H-Blocks and to place their bodies on the line in defence of the republican struggle. Thirty years on, imperialism both at home and abroad continues to be challenged in the prisons and on the streets. The ‘risen people’ continue to assert their rights whether in Ireland, Palestine, the Basque Country or Cuba. We salute all of those who struggle to end the tyranny of imperialism.”