seamus dubhghaill

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


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Birth of Northern Ireland Politician Gerry Fitt

Gerard Fitt, Northern Ireland politician, is born in Belfast on April 9, 1926. He is a founder and the first leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), a social democratic and Irish nationalist party.

Fitt is educated at a local Christian Brothers school in Belfast. He joins the Merchant Navy in 1941 and serves on convoy duty during World War II. His elder brother Geordie, an Irish Guardsman, is killed at the Battle of Normandy.

Living in the nationalist Beechmount neighbourhood of the Falls, he stands for the Falls as a candidate for the Dock Labour Party in a city council by-election in 1956, but loses to Paddy Devlin of the Irish Labour Party, who later becomes his close ally. In 1958, he is elected to Belfast City Council as a member of the Irish Labour Party.

In 1962, he wins a seat in the Parliament of Northern Ireland from the Ulster Unionist Party, becoming the only Irish Labour member. Two years later, he left Irish Labour and joined with Harry Diamond, the sole Socialist Republican Party Stormont MP, to form the Republican Labour Party. At the 1966 general election, Fitt won the Belfast West seat in the Westminster parliament.

Many sympathetic British Members of Parliament (MPs) are present at a civil rights march in Derry on October 5, 1968 when Fitt and others are beaten by the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Fitt also supports the 1969 candidacy of Bernadette Devlin in the Mid Ulster by-election who runs as an anti-abstentionist ‘Unity‘ candidate. Devlin’s success greatly increases the authority of Fitt in the eyes of many British commentators, particularly as it produces a second voice on the floor of the British House of Commons who challenge the Unionist viewpoint at a time when Harold Wilson and other British ministers are beginning to take notice.

In August 1970, Fitt becomes the first leader of a coalition of civil rights and nationalist leaders who create the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). By this time Northern Ireland is charging headlong towards near-civil war and the majority of unionists remain hostile.

After the collapse of Stormont in 1972 and the establishment of the Northern Ireland Assembly in 1973 Fitt becomes deputy chief executive of the short-lived Power-Sharing Executive created by the Sunningdale Agreement.

Fitt becomes increasingly detached from both his own party and also becomes more outspoken in his condemnation of the Provisional Irish Republican Army. He becomes a target for republican sympathisers in 1976 when they attack his home. He becomes disillusioned with the handling of Northern Ireland by the British government. In 1979, he abstains from a crucial vote in the House of Commons which brings down the Labour government, citing the way that the government had failed to help the nationalist population and tried to form a deal with the Ulster Unionist Party.

In 1979, Fitt is replaced by John Hume as leader of the SDLP and he leaves the party altogether after he agrees to constitutional talks with British Secretary of State Humphrey Atkins without any provision for an ‘Irish dimension’ and then sees his decision overturned by the SDLP party conference. Like Paddy Devlin before him, he claims the SDLP has ceased to be a socialist force.

In 1981, he opposes the hunger strikes in the Maze prison in Belfast. His seat in Westminster is targeted by Sinn Féin as well as by the SDLP. In June 1983, he loses his seat in Belfast West to Gerry Adams, in part due to competition from an SDLP candidate. The following month, on October 14, 1983, he is created a UK life peer as Baron Fitt, of Bell’s Hill in County Down. His Belfast home is firebombed a month later and he moves to London.

Gerry Fitt dies in London on August 26, 2005, at the age of 79, after a long history of heart disease.


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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.