The legacy of the hunger strikes
Bobby Sands and nine other republican prisoners died on hunger strike in Long Kesh 25 years ago. What became of those who survived? Melanie McFadyean finds seven of them and asks: was it all worth it?
Saturday March 4, 2006
In a layby on a country road a few miles outside Belfast are some high, padlocked gates. Beyond the gates, the deserted compounds of Long Kesh jail stretch bleakly into the distance. These days, you can push your way through brambles and disconnected barbed wire and climb into its eerie, grey expanses. The jail is empty, closed in September 2000, its maximum-security fence breachable, its searchlights dismantled. But its fearsome reputation lives on.
For many years, this was the epicentre of the Northern Irish war, the front line where 53 republican prisoners engaged in two hunger strikes, the second of which, in 1981, resulted in the deaths of 10 men.
But what of those who survived? As they look back on its legacy, a quarter of a century on, they say the strikes paved the way for the republican movement's shift from militarism into electoral politics and peace. The catalyst was the Fermanagh and South Tyrone byelection on April 9 1981: Bobby Sands, then in his sixth week of hunger strike, stood as an Anti-H-Block/ Armagh Political Prisoner and won with more than 30,000 votes. He died 26 days later, but the nationalist community, identifying with the prisoners' cause, had taken a crucial step towards electoral politics.
Perhaps Sands had an intimation of the reverberations his election and subsequent death would set off. It was a turning point in Northern Ireland's war that culminated last April when Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams called on the IRA to commit to "purely political and democratic activity", a resolve he underlined two weeks ago at the party's annual conference. But the sense of achievement felt by the survivors is tempered by regret. One, Laurence McKeown, says, "Time numbs little of the sorrow and sense of loss we experienced as, one by one, our friends and comrades died on the hunger strike."
In 1969, when British soldiers were drafted on to the streets of Belfast, they were welcomed fleetingly by some nationalists. That mood soon changed. The Provisional IRA came to the fore and stepped up the campaign against the Northern Ireland security forces and British troops. A country whose jail population had been less than a thousand suddenly found its numbers swelling exponentially and Long Kesh, a former RAF base, was opened as a jail in 1971. By 1976 it had expanded into eight H-shaped blocks with a capacity for nearly 800 men. When it closed 24 years later, 10,000 prisoners had been through its gates.
All the prisoners were connected to the armed struggle - or were assumed to be - and republicans always heavily outnumbered loyalists. In 1972, Billy McKee, an IRA prisoner at Long Kesh, initiated the first hunger strike. He was determined not to be treated as a criminal: he won - the then Tory government granted "special category status", PoW status in all but name. In 1976, as the H-blocks were filling up, the Wilson Labour government reversed this decision. Kieran Nugent, a 19-year-old republican, in September 1976 was the first to be denied special category status. He refused to wear prison uniform, saying they'd have to nail it to his back. He was left naked but for a blanket; so began the "blanket protest".
The protest escalated in March 1978 when prisoners were told to remove the towels wrapped around them when they went to slop out. They refused. When prison officers kicked over slop buckets in the cells, the men began to throw their faeces through the bars of the windows. This was the "no wash", or "dirty" protest as the outside world called it. Each prisoner had only a blanket and a sponge mattress, no reading or writing materials, radios, letters. Unless they put on prison clothes, they didn't get their monthly visit. For every day on the blanket, one was added to their sentence. In December 1979, prime minister Margaret Thatcher made her position clear: the prisoners, she said, wanted to establish "that their crimes were 'political', thus giving the perpetrators a kind of respectability, even nobility. This we could not allow."
On October 27 1980, the first hunger strike began. It ended 53 days later, on December 18, following an appeal from the Catholic Primate of Ireland, on the assumption that the British government would make some concessions to the prisoners. It didn't. Nothing was to change.
Three months later, on March 1 1981, Bobby Sands, OC of the IRA in Long Kesh, began the second hunger strike; the blanket protest was called off the day after, to avoid detracting attention from him. Sands died on May 5, 100,000 attended his funeral and his name is now known internationally. The nine who died after are not, but their faces look down from murals in republican Belfast. There were 13 other prisoners who survived that hunger strike (two, Pat McGeown and Matt Devlin, have since died). Seven agreed to be interviewed: Laurence McKeown, Paddy Quinn, Pat Sheehan, Jackie McMullan, Brendan McLaughlin, Gerard Hodgins and Brian (not his real name - his workmates know nothing of his past and his job takes him to loyalist areas). They pass unnoticed in the street; they have slipped into ordinary lives.
All of them grew up amid the civil rights campaign of the 1960s and were in their early teens when the British troops arrived. The army was on their streets, they were regularly searched and their homes raided.
Laurence McKeown is from Randallstown, outside Belfast. He is an intelligent man of great presence. His father was a van driver, an SDLP voter. In his teens, McKeown had ambitions to be an architect and at 15 got a job in a quantity surveyor's office. He grew up with Protestants: "It was a mixed area and we had excellent relations with them. I still did, in jail, in later years." When the Ulster Defence Regiment was set up in April 1970, as a successor to the hated B-Specials, it was, recalls McKeown, "just a larger Protestant militia... Suddenly one side of the community was armed and had the power to harass me, which they did."
McKeown didn't join the IRA lightly. "I was 16. There was a lot of soul-searching. It's not like joining a state army, where someone signs their name, gets a uniform and rifle, and the chaplain blesses them." In 1976, aged 19, McKeown was charged with causing explosions and the attempted murder of a Royal Ulster Constabulary man; he got life.
Pat Sheehan's experience was similar. On the street where he grew up, there were only three other Catholic families. One day, two men came to look for him and fired a revolver. The family moved out. After that attack Sheehan joined the Fianna, the IRA youth wing, and then the IRA. Like McKeown, by the age of 19 he was behind bars after taking part in a bombing - there were no casualties - at a cash-and-carry.
The street where Jackie McMullan lives, near where he grew up, is quiet now; but, as he dandles his baby on his knee, he remembers when the nearby Falls was burning, Kashmir and Bombay Street were torched by loyalists, and he watched as troops put up barricades around the blackened streets. In August 1971, 2,000 people were interned without trial, all but 107 of them from the nationalist community. It made a deep impression on McMullan. "In my teens I was arrested maybe 20 times. Every male aged 13 to 65 would have been arrested, the vast majority for screening. And every single one of my friends joined the Fianna. We'd be scouting; you wouldn't have participated in firing guns or in ambushes. After school there were riots. The Brits, probably bored out of their skulls, used to drive down the Glen Road every day as schools were getting out."
McMullan arrived in Long Kesh in September 1976. He got life for attempted murder. Like many others, he had refused to recognise the no-jury, special Diplock courts.
Brian joined the IRA at 16. "Every day the army was there, stop, up against the wall, slapped about. I had been reading books my grandfather gave me about Michael Collins and James Connolly." At 19 he was convicted of attempted murder.
In his childhood, Gerard Hodgins was burned out of his home by loyalists. The family moved. He left school at 16 with no O-levels. When he joined the IRA, he was given a warning: within a year, or two, he would be dead or in jail.
You'd imagine a 20-year-old facing a life sentence would be devastated. That's not how McMullan recalls it. "It was September 1976 and the longest anyone was in was five years. You had no conception of life. You were young and full of beans, all your friends were going to jail. There was an air of rebellion, and everybody thought it'd be over in a couple of years." For McKeown, being taken to prison was "that moment when teenage things were gone for ever".
All these men went on the blanket and dirty protests. "The circle [the administrative centre in each block] was where the officers would beat you," says McMullan. "You're made to strip naked, you have eight screws telling you to put your uniform on, you get a slap in the face. You're naked, humiliated, cornered and getting beaten up by these big men in uniform while other screws watched."
Paddy Quinn remembers buckets of scalding water and Jeyes fluid thrown at him in his cell; others describe forced washes in freezing water with hard brushes. Every two weeks, cells and prisoners were forcibly hosed down. "What made it possible to live like that," says McMullan, "was that we were in it together. It was powerful. It was unbreakable in spite of the no wash, and it was absolutely freezing. We had no windows." They smashed them so they could communicate and later to throw out the faeces. Amid the repulsive surroundings of shit-smeared walls, says Quinn, "You'd be sleeping on the sponge mattress on the floor, you'd wake up in the morning and maggots would be stuck to you. You'd have to pull them off. Then they'd turn into flies."
The prisoners looked out for each other. There was bingo and quizzes, shouted through the gaps in the doors. They taught each other Gaelic, gave history lectures, sang songs, recited stories. Bobby Sands relayed the whole of Leon Uris's novel Trinity. It took him eight days.
Every day when McMullan woke up, he would speculate on whether he would get a beating. And there was the nightmare of the monthly visits. He did not see his family for the first 30 months of the protest, because he refused to wear the uniform. "The screws standing beside you, hating you, hating your relatives. Your eyes are bulging because you're locked in a cell 24 hours a day, you have matted hair, you're filthy, you look like a deranged maniac. You go out and try to act normal to your family, putting on a brave face, and so are they."
On the next due visit, he waited to see his mother, Bernadette, who supported the men - she had chained herself to the railings in Downing Street. A priest came instead to tell McMullan she had died.
The pressure was intense and some cracked. These seven endured. The prison officers, Sheehan says, had no restraint. "If a screw was fair, he'd get abuse from his own people. They had orderlies who brought the food round and one who was sympathetic squeezed a half-ounce of tobacco through the door. The screws caught him and gave him a beating. Another orderly was told to do his 'party piece', and got on the table and urinated into the tea urn."
Outside, republican and loyalist groups took revenge - between 1974 and 1993, some 29 prison service employees were murdered. During the Long Kesh years, 50 prison service employees committed suicide. The pressure, recalls one warder, led to "irrational behaviour and heavy drinking". "You could smell it on their breath," Quinn says.
The first hunger strikers had what became known as the Five Demands: the right not to wear prison uniform, the right not to do penal work, the right to associate freely with other prisoners, the right to get one visit, one letter and one parcel a week, and the restoration of the remission lost on protest. Quinn joined the fast in June, by which time four men were already dead - Sands, Francis Hughes, Raymond McCreesh and Patsy O'Hara.
On his 19th day, Quinn was taken to the prison hospital. There he heard Joe McDonnell dying and his wife, Goretti, weeping. He remembers Martin Hurson's death on July 13: "I could hear his brother shouting, 'Martin! Martin!' I could hear Martin saying that the lights were out. Then it went quiet. The next day they put me into Martin's cell."
By that time Quinn couldn't keep even water down. "Maybe it crossed your mind to go off the hunger strike, but I wouldn't give up. You always had this thought - Maggie Thatcher wasn't going to criminalise me. Some time around then I came round in the intensive care unit. My lips were swollen, chapped and cut. They said I'd been biting them. I remember hyperventilating, my heart was going that fast, I could hear the scraping and screeching of the blood on the back of my brain, I could feel this terrible pain. A medical orderly was helping me to breathe, but I was hallucinating that the screws were trying to kill me, I could hear the noise in my throat, gasping for breath. You were watching the deterioration of your own body, thinking, 'I have to do this; I'm going to keep going.' It was just pain, day after day. Then one day I went for a shower, I collapsed in the shower, then there was the sickness.
"I remember looking at the jug of water and repeating to myself, 'I'm going to keep it down.' And it did stay down. That's when the walking stopped, I was in a wheelchair. My eyes had gone, all I could see were shadows. I had reached that point that I was looking forward to death. I felt a real sense of contentment. I had accepted I was going to die and I was happy with my decision. That was maybe after 43 days, in and out of consciousness at that stage."
Quinn had told his mother not to take him off the hunger strike when he lapsed into coma: "I says, 'You either back me or you back Maggie Thatcher.' I was weak, it was hard to talk, and she said there was no point going on with it."
McKeown describes the moment when he thought his death was a certainty: "It's like someone who has been on their feet for days without sleep and then gets the chance to lie down but is awakened to be told the house is on fire. They don't want to know, they just want to sleep."
Encouraged by the Catholic clergy, the families intervened, Quinn's mother and McKeown's relatives among them. Quinn thinks his mother was deliberately brought into the hospital when he was close to death. "She heard me roaring. [They] thought I had a couple of hours to live." When he went into a coma, she ordered that he be saved. A few days later he met his mother - he was blind and angry. He's never discussed it with her.
McKeown joined the strike two weeks after Quinn, on June 29. It was a time of waiting, he says. He was hoping someone would materialise with a resolution to the demands. "Nobody on the hunger strike wanted to die," he says. "This martyr notion is nonsense, we were caught in circumstances where we were going to resist to the death rather than capitulate to the criminalisation." When he became unconscious after 70 days, his family took him off the strike.
On July 4, when four men had died and McDonnell was four days from death, the hunger strikers sent out a document. They were not asking for privileges, it said, their five demands should apply to all prisoners. It sparked renewed contact between a representative of the government, known as the Mountain Climber, and the IRA leadership. A source close to the events of that weekend told me that the Mountain Climber was "a high-ranking, unelected Tory".
Thatcher held the public line - "We are not prepared to consider special category status." Meanwhile, the Mountain Climber told Adams that if the hunger strike ended, there would be concessions.
Despite their refusal to negotiate openly, the British wanted an end to the hunger strike. As Sir Ian Gilmour, a minister at the Foreign Office, put it, the hunger strikes were "a great propaganda coup for the IRA". Under Secretary to the Northern Ireland Office Sir Kenneth Stowe said, "Northern Ireland is not a place to grow martyrs if you can avoid it. We were anxious to try to find some way of enabling the hunger strikers to get off the hook."
The Mountain Climber had insisted on secrecy. However, Adams felt compelled to tell the Catholic bishops, who were themselves trying to broker an end to the hunger strike. Once again, there was no deal. The deaths continued.
In his book, Blanketmen, published last year, former prisoner and hunger strike public relations officer Richard O'Rawe maintains that the IRA army council wanted the hunger strike prolonged until the second Fermanagh and South Tyrone byelection, to be held on August 20 and to be contested by a Sinn Féin man. There is no corroboration of O'Rawe's assertion, and other senior republicans deny it.
The strike went on. On August 10, Sheehan refused food. "The hardest part was starting it," he says. "There's all kind of self-doubt... You had to be focused on your own hunger strike, nothing else matters - what's going on in the outside world, what happens within your own family. You have to blank out everything."
Four days before the hunger strike was called off, when Sheehan was on his 51st day, a doctor told him he was jaundiced and might not live even if the strike ended. By the time McMullan began his hunger strike on August 17, nine men had died. "With each death," he says, "we became more angry, more steely. You knew those guys, you were close to them. Closer to them than you would be to your own brothers." For the first 20 or 30 days he was alone in his cell. "There were people on either side, so you'd be up talking at the window or you'd lie down on the floor and speak into the pipe that ran from cell to cell - the sound carried."
By the end he was in the prison hospital, wasting away, sleeping more, always lucid, warding off fear with memories of those who had died and his reasons for going on the strike. He had been on the strike for 48 days when it ended on October 3.
Brian, whose ebullience suggests he could survive anything, joined the strike because he didn't see why "someone else should do something for me if I wasn't prepared to do it myself". He wasn't alone. "You'd be surprised that about 100 put their names forward." But how could he give his life away? "Ask my wife - she'd say it's because I'm bloody thick."
In retrospect, these men say the hunger strikes and the sacrifices were worth it. "If the British had succeeded in criminalising us, we would never have got over it," says Quinn. "If Sinn Féin had remained hard-line and military, then I think the sacrifices made on the hunger strike would have been a complete waste. It was Sinn Féin going into politics that made it worthwhile."
Only one of the men fails to welcome the political path taken by the republican movement. Brendan McLaughlin is still fighting the war in his head. He was on the hunger strike for 20 days, but had to abandon it due to a perforated ulcer. He is confined to a wheelchair in his council house in Gobnascail near Derry after a stroke six years ago. His fresh-faced 12-year-old son comes in and out. McLaughlin's former wife lives a few houses along but they're barely speaking. He's not complaining about that, he's complaining about Gerry Adams. "The Brits have no right to be in this country, never have, never will. McGuinness, Adams, I know 'em all - scum bastards. I fought for a 32-county republic, a united Ireland. They're selling out. I'll never change. The war will never end."
Sheehan disagrees. "There is no need for the IRA any longer. I grew up in a state that was unjust and oppressive. I was vulnerable to attacks because of the area I grew up in. I am proud that I took up arms; I believed it was the right thing to do. The situation is a lot different now." Sheehan got a first in philosophy from the Open University during a second stint in jail. He now runs a small business and is married with a young child.
McKeown works for a national network of republican ex-prisoners. He got together with a woman who visited him during his last years in jail and they have two children. He got a social science degree in jail, and 10 years after the hunger strike compiled numerous prison testimonies. Since then, he's written plays and screenplays, made a documentary, and writes a newspaper column for Daily Ireland. I bumped into him at the opening night of the Belfast Film Festival (which he co-founded), glass in hand, standing beside one of the Corrs, a world away from the seven-stone skeleton he was after 70 days on hunger strike; he was rescued from death by his family, against his will.
Paddy Quinn can't work - he's had a kidney transplant. He lives in a farmhouse in County Down with his wife and their two little girls. His eyesight was permanently damaged by the hunger strike. Has he regrets? "I remember somebody saying to me once, 'You lost 10 years.' I said, 'In those 10 years I probably had more experience than you'll ever have.' "
Gerard Hodgins lives in a flat that looks for miles across Belfast to the hills. When the hunger strike ended, he had been on it for 20 days. He looks back on the four years of protest as a "terrible, despairing time". He occasionally has flashbacks. In and out of jail, he says, "I had hatred and a desire for payback, for revenge against the whole system - screws, RUC, the British army." In 1995, when the prisoners got 50% of their remission back, two years were chopped off his sentence and he was due a week's parole. It was then he met Lorraine, who is now his wife.
After his release in 1996, he got into community work, which led to a post with the Department of Learning and Education as a mentor in a job assistance scheme for people who lack basic skills.
When Jackie McMullan left Long Kesh in 1992, he said it was like arriving from Mars. He found it hard to be in company. He was most at ease with former prisoners. As for women, in his head he was still 20, and women his age - 35 - were married with kids. He was in and out of relationships, couldn't settle. He's not complaining, though. "I've had a brilliant time since I got out," he says, chuckling. Four years ago he met his partner, a teacher. He worked with Sinn Féin on education programmes for ex-prisoners and is still involved with community work.
The hunger strike is always with them, but they have survived, even flourished. "Winning leaves you OK," says McKeown. "They tried to criminalise us but failed - they politicised us." Within days of the end of the hunger strike, James Prior, Northern Ireland secretary, announced a series of measures that went a long way to meeting the five demands.
A Long Kesh mission statement published just before it closed reads: "We will operate a secure, safe and humane regime which recognises the individual and the organisations to which he or she claims allegiance." If that had been the mission in 1976, many lives would have been saved.
Politics in Northern Ireland
26.09.2005: Northern Ireland: 1922-2005
Northern Ireland: A brief history of the Troubles
Watch the IRA statement (MP4)
Watch the IRA statement (Realplayer)
Ireland before partition: a brief history
The Troubles 1968 - 1995
The peace process
28.07.2005: IRA statement on disarmament
28.07.2005: Tony Blair's response
The Good Friday agreement
Northern Ireland assembly
Northern Ireland Office
Northern Ireland executive
Police Service of Northern Ireland
Democratic Unionist party
Progressive Unionist party
Social Democratic and Labour party
Ulster Unionist party
CAIN (Conflict Archive on the Internet)
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