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Lessons of the Irish Hunger Strikes - Part 1
Near the Beechmount area, in Belfast’s Falls Road, there is a mural of the ten prisoners who died in the 2nd great hunger strike of 1981. What strikes you, as you approach from afar, is the beaming smiles they share. The subliminal message is that they would have approved the outcome that we live in today. Inevitably there is a battle about who inherits the mantle of the hunger strikes and about the interpretation of their significance.
Many years after the hunger strikes, in the later phases of the implementation of the good Friday agreement, the first shot was fired in that battle. A local luminary in West Belfast who was both a member of Sinn Fein and a strong supporter of the agreement, remarked that the hunger strikers has died of because they lacked negotiating skills.
The resulting fury was quickly glossed over by the republicans, but in fact the remark was indicative of a commonplace view - that behind the hunger strike was a hidden battle of diplomacy between Irish nationalism and the British. It's a view that justifies and underpins a whole secret history of the hunger strike which eventually led Sinn Fein first to capitulate to Irish nationalism and the church and then, in alliance with the nationalists, reach an accommodation with imperialism.
Another view, perhaps the most widespread, views the hunger strike as essentially an act of heroism and the struggle as essentially the continuation of a military conflict between the IRA and the British.
There is a further, forgotten view. This was that, although the hunger strike was at the centre of the struggle, its essential dynamic was mass struggle - the mobilisation and organisation of a significant section of the Irish population, attempting to broaden out its base to the point where the majority of the Irish population mobilized against the British and called into action working-class support around the globe.
Within this mass campaign was hidden critical class tensions. The struggle could either shift to the left and move into conflict with Irish capital and its policy of collaboration with capitalism or it could shift right, join with the capitalist parties and seek an accommodation with imperialism.
This forgotten history of mass and class struggle is important.
It’s important because it both explains the history of the hunger strike within a wider struggle and links the strike to the reality of people’s everyday lives. Joining in the campaign was not simply an act of solidarity. It was an act of self-defence – an attempt to push back a British offensive that was never meant simply to attack prisoners but also to silence mass struggle and delegitimise resistance to British rule.
This history situates the hunger strike within the ebb and flow of earlier struggles within the 30 years of the troubles and identifies it as a decisive moment when the maximum weight available to the republican milieu was locked in a decisive battle with the full force of British imperialism. The battle cost Britain a great deal, but at the end imperialism still stood and the mass movement was dispersed and demobilised. What was left was electoral gains for Sinn Fein – a pale shadow of the energy, organisation and consciousness there before. This was all the more so as Sinn Fein at the end of the hunger strike had already applied to be junior partner to the nationalist family and was moving steadily to the right.
When we understand this we see the link between the hunger strikes and the Good Friday agreement. The hunger strike campaign was the maximum that the republicans could muster. They had already abandoned the inflated claims of militarism by recognising that IRA actions had no real place in the campaign. A movement, supposedly with the power to force Britain out of Ireland, was unable to change British policy on prisoners. In fact, armed actions would have to be suppressed to build the movement. The mass movement that was built was enough to damage the British and make it worthwhile to make some concessions to the republicans but insufficient to win, to force the British back. When Sinn Fein and the IRA faced up to that reality and began a process of secret diplomacy with the church and Fianna Fail they broke with their tradition of irreconcilable opposition to imperialism and adopted a policy of accommodation and reform. Defeated in their attempt to build revolution, they were equally unable to win genuine reform. The outcome was the solution favoured by Irish capital – an undemocratic settlement that aimed for stability.
A class history of the Hunger strike is important above all because it points a way forward. The radicalism of the H-block movement tended to stop at the border. In elections we asked southern workers if we could borrow their vote and abstained on all the issues directly affecting them. Not surprisingly we got mass sympathy but only a limited direct support. A new starting point is to rebuild the self-organisation of the masses and this can only be done if we appeal above all to the working class. The Good Friday agreement is the outcome of defeat. It represents the interests of imperialism and capitalism. A new resistance will be built by opposing the agreement, by adopting the irreconcilable support for democracy and opposition to imperialism represented by the old demand “Smash Stormont” and by ruling out any front with an Irish capital which shows itself both unable to support genuine democracy and all too willing to further exploit and divide the Irish working class in the interests of imperialism.