By Jack Holland
This week carries two important anniversaries in the North’s calendar of the conflict, and both fall on the same day: March 1. Twenty-five years ago, on that day, the British government formally abolished special category status for prisoners and began its long and ultimately fruitless attempt to force imprisoned republicans to wear a prison uniform, do prison work, and conform to the other exigencies that in most jails are a sign of criminality.
Twenty years ago on March 1, having failed to persuade the authorities through various forms of protest that their efforts to "criminalize" republicans would not succeed, the IRA and INLA prisoners’ leadership in the Maze Prison launched a hunger strike that would go on for almost seven months and change the course of the North’s conflict forever.
Conventionally, the birth of the Provisional republican movement is dated to late 1969 and early 1970. But in a real sense, the events that began on March 1, 1976, and led to the hunger strike five years later, saw a rebirth of the Provisionals. In many ways, the movement as it exists today is more of a descendant of 1981 than of 1969.
"Our beginnings never know our ends," T.S. Eliot wrote. When Bobby Sands presented the IRA leadership with the prospect of a hunger strike, it was not welcomed.
The belief was that it would not work. But there was another objection, ironic in the view of what was to happen.
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According to Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams: "It must also be said that, in terms of the political priorities of the movement, we did not want the hunger strike. We were just beginning our attempts to remedy the political underdevelopment of the movement, trying to develop the organization, engaging in a gradual build-up of new forms of struggle and, in particular, we were working out our strategy in relation to elections. We were well aware that a hunger strike such as was proposed would demand exclusive attention, would, in effect, hijack the struggle, and this conflicted with our sense of the political priorities of the moment." (From "A Free Ireland: Towards a Lasting Peace.")
Since 1977, Gerry Adams and others had been striving to restructure the Provisionals and beef up the role played by its political wing, Sinn Fein. Since 1970, Provisional Sinn Fein had existed as a poor cousin to the Provisional IRA, a weak, largely ignored propaganda unit. No one conceived of it as a viable political party, probably not even Adams. In the secret plans that outlined the proposed changes (uncovered in 1977), Sinn Fein is seen as an extension of the IRA, a way of "increasing support for the [IRA] cell."
This attitude prevailed through the late 1970s and the different stages of the prison protests. Though support for the prisoners was stirring on the streets, the Provisionals’ leadership resisted trying to translate this into political capital via elections. When Bernadette Devlin McAliskey ran for the European parliament in 1979, she made the prisoners’ plight her single issue. But she was opposed by the Provisionals, who advocated a boycott. Even the fact that she won over 30,000 first-preference votes did not convince the Provisionals to move away from their hostility to constitutional forms of struggle. By 1981, most of them were still opposed to fighting elections.
There is another irony in that it was Daithi O Conaill, the republican traditionalist, who argued in favor of political intervention in April 1981 as Sands, the leading hunger striker, entered his second month of fasting. Local Provisionals were opposed, and Adams, it is reported, remained non-committal. But O Conaill carried the day.
In the end, the success of Sinn Fein as a political party led to the demise of many of the Provisionals’ founding members, O Conaill included, who left the movement in disgust in 1986 because it had decided to recognize the Dail. By this stage, the movement’s resources were shifting away from the IRA to the political party, so much so that one prominent Belfast leader, a close ally of Adams, tried to outflank the leadership when he became concerned that IRA would be run down. He ended up being threatened and kicked out of the movement completely. He has since remained silent.
This was hardly the legacy that the hunger strikers had envisioned. In so far as they had a vision at all, it was expressed in the Romantic nationalism of Sands, a far cry from the political pragmatism that characterizes the movement today. The propaganda battle being waged now is over who has the right to claim that legacy. Dissident republicans claim that the Provisionals have betrayed the hunger strikers’ struggle through compromise with constitutional politics. Several of the hunger strikers’ families have distanced themselves from Sinn Fein. Brendan Hughes, who led the first hunger strike (October through December 1980) and became an important go-between during the course of the second hunger strike, has been bitter in his criticism of the Adams leadership and the new-look Sinn Fein. As in all ideological battles, he who wants to control the present has to control the past.
This battle may well become acute in the upcoming months, as Sinn Fein faces into a British general election with the peace process more than likely stalled. The goodies that are most important to the party, like policing reform and the cross-border bodies, have either not been delivered or, having been delivered, have not been allowed to work to Sinn Fein’s benefit.
In what could be an unfortunate coincidence, the election is expected to fall on May 3, just two days before the 20th anniversary of Bobby Sands’ death. In West Belfast, Marion Price, herself a former hunger striker, is threatening to run against Gerry Adams, as is a prisoner linked to the Continuity IRA. Will Bernadette Sands-McKevitt, sister of the dead hunger striker and spokesperson for dissident republicans, campaign on Price’s behalf in the constituency? And what effect would she have if she did?
Perhaps anticipating such attacks, the Provisionals have gone back to basics, as evidenced by IRA leader Brian Keenan’s speech in south Armagh two weeks ago. He said: "The revolution can never be over until we have our country, until we have British imperialism where it belongs, in the dust bin of history."
When mainstream republicans start attacking British imperialism again, it can only mean one thing: the next election has well and truly begun.