seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Long Kesh Prison Hunger Strike Ends

The Irish Republican Army (IRA) hunger strike is called off at Long Kesh prison – later known as HM Prison Maze –  on October 3, 1981. While the IRA does not win immediate concessions, in some ways it is a Pyrrhic victory for Margaret Thatcher’s government. It galvanises support and membership for the IRA and generates huge sympathy for the strikers in the United States where fund-raising is a major priority. The death of the first hunger striker, Bobby Sands, creates a martyr and an iconic figure.

In January 1981, prison authorities begin to supply the prisoners with officially issued civilian clothing, whereas the prisoners demand the right to wear their own clothing. On February 4, the prisoners issue a statement saying that the British government has failed to resolve the crisis and declares their intention of a hunger strike. The hunger strike begins on March 1, when Bobby Sands, the IRA’s former officer commanding (OC) in the prison, refuses food. Unlike the first hunger strike the previous year, the prisoners join one at a time and at staggered intervals, which they believe would arouse maximum public support and exert maximum pressure on Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

The republican movement initially struggles to generate public support for the second hunger strike. The Sunday before Sands begins his strike, 3,500 people march through west Belfast. During the first hunger strike four months earlier the marchers had numbered 10,000. Five days into the strike, Independent Republican MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone Frank Maguire dies, resulting in a by-election. There is debate among nationalists and republicans regarding who should contest the election. After negotiations they agree not to split the nationalist vote by contesting the election and Sands stands as an Anti H-Block candidate against Ulster Unionist Party candidate Harry West. Following a high-profile campaign, the election takes place on April 9, and Sands is elected to the British House of Commons with 30,492 votes to West’s 29,046.

Sands’ election victory raises hopes that a settlement can be negotiated, but Thatcher stands firm in refusing to give concessions to the hunger strikers. The world’s media descends on Belfast, and several intermediaries visit Sands in an attempt to negotiate an end to the hunger strike, including Síle de Valera, granddaughter of Éamon de Valera, Pope John Paul II‘s personal envoy John Magee, and European Commission of Human Rights officials. With Sands close to death, the government’s position remains unchanged.

On 5 May, Sands dies in the prison hospital on the 66th day of his hunger strike, prompting rioting in nationalist areas of Northern Ireland. More than 100,000 people line the route of his funeral, which is conducted with full IRA military honours. Margaret Thatcher shows no sympathy for his death.

In the two weeks following Sands’ death, hunger strikers Francis Hughes, Raymond McCreesh and Patsy O’Hara die. Following the deaths of Joe McDonnell and Martin Hurson, the families of some of the hunger strikers attend a meeting on July 28 with Catholic priest Father Denis Faul. The families express concern at the lack of a settlement to the priest, and a decision is made to meet with Gerry Adams later that day. The following day Adams holds a meeting with six of the hunger strikers to outline a proposed settlement on offer from the British government should the strike be brought to an end. The six men reject the settlement, believing that accepting anything less than the “Five Demands” would be a betrayal of the sacrifice made by Bobby Sands and the other hunger strikers who had died.

The hunger strike begins to break on July 31, when the mother of Paddy Quinn insists on medical intervention to save his life. The following day Kevin Lynch dies, followed by Kieran Doherty on August 2, Thomas McElwee on August 8 and Michael Devine on August 20. On September 6, the family of Laurence McKeown becomes the fourth family to intervene and asks for medical treatment to save his life, and Cahal Daly issues a statement calling on republican prisoners to end the hunger strike.

The strike is called off at 3:15 PM on October 3, 1981. Three days later, James Prior, the new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, announces partial concessions to the prisoners including the right to wear their own clothes at all times. The only one of the “Five Demands” still outstanding is the right not to do prison work. Following sabotage by the prisoners and the Maze Prison escape in 1983, the prison workshops are closed, effectively granting all of the “Five Demands” but without any formal recognition of political status from the government.

(Pictured: A Belfast mural of the Long Kesh hunger strikers)

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Northern Ireland Falls Under Direct Rule from Westminster

Northern Ireland is brought under direct rule from Westminster on May 29, 1974 following the collapse of Northern Ireland’s first power-sharing assembly the previous day.

The power-sharing assembly’s leader, Brian Faulkner, and fellow members resign on May 28. The collapse follows a seven-day general strike organised by militant unionists opposed to the Sunningdale Agreement. Over the week leading up to the collapse industrial production comes to a halt with power cuts of up to eighteen hours. Rubbish is not collected and there are reports that undertakers refuse to bury the dead.

In 1973, the British Government under Edward Heath held talks at Sunningdale in Berkshire with the government of the Irish Republic and three political parties – the Official Unionists led by Faulkner, the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), and the non-sectarian Alliance Party. They agree to set up a power-sharing executive for Northern Ireland and, eventually, a Council of Ireland involving the Republic with limited jurisdiction over issues of joint concern between north and south.

The declaration also recognises the wishes of unionists to remain within the United Kingdom and nationalists for a united Ireland. Both sides agreed the will of the majority should be respected. But hardline loyalists, led by Harry West, Ian Paisley and William Craig, do not attend most of the talks at Sunningdale, and when the proposals are announced, they criticise them strongly.

The new executive formally comes into power on January 1, 1974 but soon runs into trouble. Anti-power sharing unionists do their best to disrupt proceedings and eighteen members including Paisley are forcibly removed by the police.

In February, a general election sees Labour returned to power in Westminster and eleven of the twelve seats in Northern Ireland won by unionists opposed to the deal under the umbrella of the United Ulster Unionist Council. Of those supporting the executive, only Gerry Fitt is elected as the UUUC wins more than 50% of the vote.

With the Sunningdale executive teetering on the edge, the coup de grâce is delivered by the loyalist Ulster Workers’ Council, which organises a seven-day strike after the assembly approves the agreement in the week prior to the collapse of the power-sharing assembly. Devolved government is not re-established in Northern Ireland until 1998.

(Pictured: Ulster Workers’ Council (UWC) strike outside the Northern Ireland Parliament Buildings, commonly known as Stormont)


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The Sunningdale Agreement

council-of-irelandThe Sunningdale Agreement, an attempt to establish a power-sharing Northern Ireland Executive and a cross-border Council of Ireland, is signed at Sunningdale Park in Sunningdale, Berkshire, England on December 9, 1973. Unionist opposition, violence, and a loyalist general strike causes the collapse of the Agreement in May 1974.

On March 20, 1973, the British government publishes a white paper which proposes a 78-member Northern Ireland Assembly, to be elected by proportional representation. The British government would retain control over law, order and finance, while a Council of Ireland composed of members of the executive of the Republic of Ireland, the Dáil Éireann, the Northern Ireland Executive and the Northern Ireland Assembly would act in a consultative role.

The Northern Ireland Assembly Bill resulting from the White paper becomes law on May 3, 1973, and elections for the new assembly are held on June 28. Republicans boycott the elections and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) continued its campaign of opposition throughout the outcome.

After the Assembly elections, negotiations between the pro-White Paper parties on the formation of a “power-sharing Executive” begin. The main concerns are internment, policing, and the question of a Council of Ireland. On November 21, an agreement is reached on a voluntary coalition of pro-agreement parties. This new power-sharing Executive take up office and have its very first meeting on January 1, 1974. The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) is deeply divided – its Standing Committee votes to participate in the executive by a margin of only 132 to 105.

Provisions for a Council of Ireland exist in the Government of Ireland Act 1920, but these have never been enacted. Unionists resent the idea of any “interference” by the Republic of Ireland in their newly established region. In 1973, after agreement has been reached on the formation of an executive, agreement is sought to re-establish a Council of Ireland to stimulate co-operation with the Republic of Ireland. Talks are held between December 6-9 in the Berkshire town of Sunningdale between the British Prime Minister Edward Heath, the Irish Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave and the three pro-agreement parties. On December 9, a communiqué announcing the agreement is issued, which later becomes known as the “Sunningdale Agreement.”

On December 10, the day after the agreement is announced, loyalist paramilitaries form the Ulster Army Council, a coalition of loyalist paramilitary groups, including the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force, which oppose the agreement.

In January 1974, the Ulster Unionist Party narrowly votes against continued participation in the Assembly and Brian Faulkner resigns as leader. He is succeeded by the anti-Sunningdale Harry West. In March 1974, pro-agreement unionists withdraw their support for the agreement, calling for the Republic of Ireland to remove the Articles 2 and 3 of its constitution first. These Articles are not revised until the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

Following the defeat of a motion condemning power-sharing in the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Ulster Workers’ Council, a loyalist organisation, calls a general strike for May 15. After two weeks of barricades, shortages, rioting, and intimidation, Faulkner resigns as chief executive and the Sunningdale Agreement collapses on May 28, 1974.

(Pictured: Unionist Party leader and designated leader of Ulster’s new executive, Brian Faulkner, sits with SDLP leader Gerry Fitt and John Hume, during talks at Sunningdale, Berkshire, to establish a Council of Ireland.)


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The 1981 Irish Hunger Strike Begins

hunger_strike_memorialThe 1981 hunger strike begins on March 1, 1981, when Bobby Sands, a former commanding officer of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and prisoner at Long Kesh prison, refuses food. Other prisoners join the hunger strike one at a time at staggered intervals, which they believe will arouse maximum public support and exert maximum pressure on Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

The movement initially struggles to generate public support for the hunger strike. The Sunday before Sands begins his strike, only 3,500 people march through the streets of west Belfast as compared to 10,000 marchers during a previous hunger strike four months earlier.

Five days into the strike, however, Independent Republican Member of Parliament (MP) for Fermanagh and South Tyrone Frank Maguire dies, resulting in a by-election. There is debate among nationalists and republicans regarding who should contest the election but they ultimately agreed not to split the nationalist vote by contesting the election and Sands stands as an Anti H-Block candidate against Ulster Unionist Party candidate Harry West. Following a high-profile campaign the election takes place on April 9, and Sands is elected to the British House of Commons with 30,492 votes to West’s 29,046.

Sands’ election victory raises hopes that a settlement can be negotiated, but Thatcher stands firm in refusing to give concessions to the hunger strikers. The world’s media descends on Belfast, and several intermediaries, including Síle de Valera, granddaughter of Éamon de Valera, Pope John Paul II‘s personal envoy John Magee, and European Commission of Human Rights officials, visit Sands in an attempt to negotiate an end to the hunger strike. With Sands close to death, the government’s position remains unchanged and they do not force medical treatment upon him.

On May 5, Sands dies in the prison hospital on day 66 of his hunger strike, prompting rioting in nationalist areas of Northern Ireland. Over 100,000 people line the route of his funeral, which is conducted with full IRA military honours. Margaret Thatcher showed no sympathy for his death.

In the two weeks following Sands’ death, three more hunger strikers die – Francis Hughes on May 12, and Raymond McCreesh and Patsy O’Hara on May 21. The deaths result in further rioting in Northern Ireland, particularly Derry and Belfast. Following the May 21 deaths, Primate of All Ireland Tomás Ó Fiaich criticises the British government’s handling of the hunger strike. Despite this, Thatcher still refuses to negotiate a settlement.

On July 28, following the deaths of Joe McDonnell (July 8) and Martin Hurson (July 13), the families of some of the hunger strikers attend a meeting with Catholic priest Father Denis Faul. The families express concern at the lack of a settlement and a decision is made to meet with Gerry Adams later that day. At the meeting Father Faul puts pressure on Adams to find a way of ending the strike, and Adams agrees to ask the IRA leadership to order the men to end the hunger strike. The following day Adams holds a meeting with six of the hunger strikers to outline a proposed settlement on offer from the British government should the strike be brought to an end. The strikers reject the settlement, believing that accepting anything less than their original demands will be a betrayal of the sacrifice made by Bobby Sands and the other men who had died.

On July 31, the hunger strike begins to break when the mother of Paddy Quinn insists on medical intervention to save his life. The following day Kevin Lynch dies, followed by Kieran Doherty on August 2, Thomas McElwee on August 8, and Michael Devine on August 20. On September 6, the family of Laurence McKeown becomes the fourth family to intervene and asks for medical treatment to save his life, and Cahal Daly issues a statement calling on republican prisoners to end the hunger strike.

A week later James Prior replaces Humphrey Atkins as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and meets with prisoners in an attempt to end the strike. Liam McCloskey ends his strike on September 26 after his family says they will ask for medical intervention if he becomes unconscious. It also becomes clear that the families of the remaining hunger strikers will also intervene to save their lives. The strike is called off at 3:15 PM on October 3. Three days later Secretary of State Prior announces partial concessions to the prisoners including the right to wear their own clothes at all times. The only one of their original five demands still outstanding is the right not to do prison work. Following sabotage by the prisoners and the Maze Prison escape in 1983, the prison workshops are closed, effectively granting all five of the demands but without any formal recognition of political status from the government.

Over the summer of 1981, ten hunger strikers die. Thirteen others begin refusing food but are taken off hunger strike, either due to medical reasons or after intervention by their families. Many of them still suffer from the effects of the strike, with problems including digestive, visual, physical and neurological disabilities.