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Jim Cusack: Hunger strike posed a real threat across the country

IN THE summer of 1981, travelling on holiday from Belfast to Wexford, I recall being struck by the number of black flags in towns along the route.

On a hillside in Wicklow there was a huge 'H', made out of stones, for the H Block protest. The hillside monument remained there for years. In Northern Ireland, there were black flags in republican areas but not many, if any, in ordinary Catholic, nationalist areas where the IRA had little support. It was a surprise to see so many in the Republic.

It is forgotten now, or airbrushed out of Sinn Fein history, but the intention at the time of the hunger strike was to "seize power" not only in Northern Ireland but also in what the party termed until very recently the "26 Counties". Danny Morrison, the Sinn Fein propagandist, told the party at its ard fheis that the intention was to seize power with an Armalite rifle in one hand and a ballot box in the other. The front cover of Christmas edition of the SF newspaper, An Phoblacht, was a cartoon depicting an Armalite coming out of a ballot box, bizarrely set in front of a decorated Christmas tree.

The IRA (Sinn Fein was a dormant entity until this stage) had been encouraged to believe it could actually mount a coup d'etat in the Republic based on a false hope generated by running hunger striker candidates in the 1981 general election which denied Charlie Haughey an overall majority and created the Fine Gael-Labour coalition government. The IRA hunger strike was gripping the public imagination in a way never seen before. In 1981, when Garret FitzGerald visited Tralee, all the statues in the town were covered in black plastic. On a visit to Dungloe in Donegal during the election campaign, he was physically attacked.

The challenge to the authority of the State came to a climax in July that year when a mass demonstration, involving the bussing of hundreds of IRA supporters from around the island, descended on Dublin. Around 500 gardai faced several thousand demonstrators who rained bricks and broken paving stones down on the garda lines.

This is an account, previously published in the Sunday Independent, by a garda officer who was present with Chief Superintendent John S Robinson who led the defence of the British Embassy: "He was the man in charge of the operation on the ground, and I hope history records with thanks what he did. The Government issued a direction to the Commissioner that [in] no way were the rioters to get to the British Embassy and perhaps burn it again like after Bloody Sunday. It is my understanding that the Government was anxious that if the gardai came under sustained attack that the matter be handed over to the Army at as early a stage as possible. This involved the signing of a request from the garda operations commander to the Army for aid. The Army drew up a simple but drastic plan. It involved taking up a position behind the garda line on Merrion Road and drawing a line across the road. They would then inform the rioters by loudhailer that gardai were withdrawing and they were taking over and if any rioters crossed the line, they would be shot."

But Chief Supt Robinson was acutely aware, friends said, that giving way could diminish the authority of the Garda, and the country would be plunged into crisis if multiple gunshot deaths ensued.

"The necessary form was dispatched for Robinson to sign," a source said. "Robinson blew a fuse and told him [to] 'F' off and wouldn't sign. Instead he called a few big angry sergeants, inspectors and superintendents who were virtually buried in stones at this stage and ordered a charge."

Although injured himself, Robinson rallied some 350 of his men who were still standing after 25 minutes of intense stoning and gave the order to draw batons and charge.

"That day was a turning point in that if the embassy had been burned, we would have been pariahs in the eyes of the world. No country can allow foreign embassies to be burned. I think the only other country in the world where that happened at that time was Indonesia. Anarchy would have prevailed," one former senior officer said.

The funerals of the hunger strikers starting with Bobby Sands in Belfast and daily rioting attracted world media attention and created a real sense of crisis on both sides of the Border. The IRA killings continued apace. From the start of Sands hunger strike on March 1 to the death of the last hunger striker, Michael Devine, on August 20, the IRA killed 36 people, mostly Protestant policemen but also four Catholic civilians caught in crossfire during nightly gunbattles. Seven Catholics, including three children, Julie Livingstone, aged 14, Carol Anne Kelly, aged 12, and Stephen McConomy, aged 11, were killed when they were struck by plastic bullets fired by police and army during the riots. During riots in the republican New Lodge area of Belfast three days after Sands died, a milkman, Eric Guiney, and his 14-year-old son Desmond died after stones were thrown at their lorry, hitting Eric on the head and causing the lorry to crash.

The year had already started with some savagery from the IRA. Sir Norman Stronge, 86, former unionist speaker of the Stormont Parliament, was shot dead along with his son, James, at their home in Tynan Abbey in south Armagh by an IRA squad. Joanne Mathers, a 25-year-old Protestant mother of one, was shot dead in Derry as she collected census forms -- the IRA campaign also called for a boycott of the census in Northern Ireland.

What was happening inside the Maze prison and at the top echelons of the IRA, who were directing the campaign on the outside, was at the centre of the debate prompted by the release of the mainly British government documents at New Year. The most intense debate was over whether or not the British had conceded the majority of the prisoners' demands for 'political status', the wearing of civilian clothing as opposed to prison uniform and free association, that is not having to share wings with loyalist or 'ordinary' prisoners well before the hunger strike ended.

A former senior IRA figure in the prison, Richard O'Rawe, has written two books in which he has stated that a British offer after the death of the fourth hunger striker met those demands and that the subsequent six deaths were futile.

O'Rawe, who was effectively the second-in-command of the prisoners, says, "Thatcher and her government weren't as rigid as they had been portrayed by Adams and co. She had made an offer on July 5th, 1981, to end the hunger strike (four strikers had died by that stage and Joe McDonnell was in the critical zone)." Sinn Fein's Danny Morrison, a key figure on the outside campaign, contends that this offer was not made or was insufficient to meet the demands.

As the protest went on, however, it visibly began to lose momentum. Compared to the massive turnout for the funeral for Bobby Sands, there was a relatively small turn-out for the funeral of Michael Devine in August.

Also, the families of the remaining 11 prisoners, some of them close to death, stood up. They were helped by the prison chaplain and civil rights campaigner Fr Denis Faul who had a history of exposing ill-treatment of republican prisoners. He was also one of the original campaigners for the release of the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four -- the IRA and Sinn Fein had been silent on this.

Faul gathered the families and, adroitly using trusted contacts in the media, brought their views to public attention. He also publicly stated that the hunger strike was not "moral" at meetings which he made sure were given public coverage. Faul had unassailable credibility among the Catholic nationalist community and his public stance was of major significance.

The family of Paddy Quinn, from south Armagh, who was close to death after 47 days without food, were the first to move. As he slipped into a coma, his mother directed the prison medical authorities to save his life. Two other prisoners who had developed medical complications were also taken off the hunger strike. In all, before and after the death of Michael Devine, 11 prisoners were saved at the direction of their families.

On the outside, the IRA appeared furious at Fr Faul's intervention. Once known in the British media as the 'Provo priest', Fr Faul was vilified by republicans. An IRA statement described him as a "conniving and treacherous man" and "reprehensible", even "Mrs Thatcher's priest". (Ironically, the same UVF unit responsible for dozens of murders including members of the Miami Showband had once plotted to murder Fr Faul ).

The hunger strike was the springboard for Sinn Fein's entry into politics. The party failed to gain significant ground until it finally dropped the 'Armalite' part of the dual-politics-and-terrorism strategy, eventually defeating the SDLP to become the biggest nationalist party in Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein's best hope of power in the Republic is some possible future part in a coalition government.

One of the great ironies is that from its poor and working class roots, it is now the richest party in Irish politics, raising more money among the Irish diaspora, particularly in the US, than all other parties put together. Prominent party members fly club class across the Atlantic on a regular basis. Last year, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the hunger strike, Sinn Fein hosted dinners in two expensive restaurants in New York.

Sunday Independent