As the 40th anniversary of the death of Bobby Sands approaches, Politics Today interviewed Danny Morrison, a journalist, author, a spokesperson for the IRA hunger strikers and Secretary of the Bobby Sands* Trust on the history and progress of the decades-long struggle in the North of Ireland, and the legacy of Bobby Sands of the Irish hunger strikes of 1981.
Q. The Irish struggle in Northern Ireland… You have been a part of the struggle. Could you please tell us about that?
Sure. I was born in West Belfast where I still live. I became involved in the struggle in the 1960s. I have been a political activist from my mid-teens when I became interested in the Vietnam War anti-war movement and then the civil rights movement in North America. That movement, together with the student’s movement in Europe in May 1968, had an influential effect on the nationalist community in the North of Ireland.
We do not refer to it as ‘Northern Ireland’ because we do not recognize its legitimacy, as we were the victims of partition when the British divided our country and handed over a significant portion of the north. When the British army was reintroduced into the North of Ireland in 1969, it became our main oppressors. Eventually, an armed struggle developed, and not for the first time in the history of our subjugated country.
Q. So, you mean that the struggle has already been there.
Yes, in fact, Irish people have been rising against British rule for centuries. From 1798 onwards, six major uprisings took place, including the 1916 Rising in Dublin when the Irish Republic was declared. The leaders of that rebellion were executed by the British, and afterwards, a guerrilla war began, towards the end of which the British government divided the Irish people and put a border around six counties in the north-east which they handed these over to the pro-British Unionists, descendants of those who had been part of the sixteenth-century colonization.
Although there were legislative and legal protections for the minority initially, the Unionists quickly took over and so we ended up being an artificial minority in this partitioned part of our country. Our people were forced to emigrate in large numbers to America and other places. Very few houses were built or industries located in the poor areas where we lived.
We were being attacked, pulled out of our houses, killed by the police, which led many to believe that passive resistance was no longer working, and so people turned to the IRA, which was a traditional militarist organization with its roots going right back into Irish history.
And every time we protested; we were beaten into the ground by the paramilitary Unionists. We were being attacked, pulled out of our houses, killed by the police, which led many to believe that passive resistance was no longer working, and so people turned to the IRA, which was a traditional militarist organization with its roots going right back into Irish history.
Q. What exactly has prompted your active involvement in the Irish struggle in the late 1960s?
Although I was a student myself, I became actively involved shortly after the introduction of internment without trial by the British. I had earlier participated in setting up Radio Free Belfast in August 1969, which was a pirate radio station that broadcasted what the BBC did not. In my late teens I was interned in the Long Kesh prison camp. When I come out of the prison on one of those occasional ceasefires offered by the IRA in 1975, not by the British government nor the Unionist government, I was asked to edit the Republican News, which was the weekly Northern paper of Sinn Féin**, so, I jumped into publicity although I have never had any experience. I wrote some papers for Sinn Féin. I made their election broadcasts. Later, I became the national director of publicity for Sinn Féin.
VIDEO: Bobby Sands remembered by fellow hunger striker Pat Sheehan
Q. So, this is how your career as a journalist has started.
Yes. When I was young, I was very much interested in literature and had seen myself as becoming a writer, possibly via journalism. But I devoted whatever talent I had into the republican cause and communicating the republican cause. I was in prison in the 1990s and wrote two books. The IRA ceasefire was called while I was in jail. When I came out I did some work for Sinn Féin but decided that it was now or never for me to become a full-time writer. Gerry Adams, who was the president of Sinn Féin supported my decision even though it was a bit of a loss to the publicity department of Sinn Féin. So, over the last 20 years, I have been a writer and editor and a political and cultural commentator.
Q. Alongside your career as a journalist and an author, you have also been a spokesperson for the IRA hunger strikers and the Secretary of the Bobby Sands Trust. Could you elaborate a little bit on that?
Bobby Sands was the leader of the hunger strike of 1981 and he was elected to the British parliament while he was on hunger strike. Kieran Doherty, another prisoner, and a hunger striker, also was elected to the Irish parliament, but both died on the hunger strike along with eight other young men in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh. I had been Bobby Sands’ spokesperson when he stood for election, and I had represented him on party political broadcasts on television and radio. A year after the hunger strike, I was elected to the Assembly in Belfast in 1982, together with Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness.
Q. What was the hunger strike of 1981 about?
We need to highlight that the first IRA hunger striker did not die in 1981 but in 1917. Thomas Ashe, who had taken part in the 1916 Rising, insisted on being treated not as a criminal wearing a criminal uniform and being enforced to do onerous penal and humiliating work, but as a Prisoner of War. So, there has always been this tradition of hunger-striking if an injustice is done against the prisoners.
The British government was well aware that Irish republicans would not accept the criminal status. They knew that when they imposed these conditions in 1976, stripping prisoners naked and trying to force them to wear a British criminal uniform. In a previous hunger strike in 1972 the British government had agreed to recognize them as political prisoners. But instead of using that terminology, it said it would recognize them as “special category prisoners”.
When Kieran Nugent was arrested, they told him to take off his clothes and wear the criminal uniform and he refused. He was then beaten and thrown into a cell, and the only thing in the cell was a blanket. So, Nugent put the blanket to wrap himself, and that is how he served out his sentence.
Under special category, prisoners were allowed to wear their own clothes, look after their own cages, make their own beds, do their own laundry, and there was relative peace in jail and there was also strength in numbers. Of course, the British army continued to raid the Cages every few weeks and assault prisoners, but the IRA, at this stage, never carried out any retaliatory attacks on prison officers.
After a few years the British government realized that the world viewed these prisoners in Long Kesh, who had POW status, as a legitimate guerrilla army. So, they decided to renege on the earlier deal and impose a policy of criminalization of the IRA. The IRA then retaliated by shooting prison officers.
َQ. So is it this policy of criminalization that paved the way to the hunger strikes of 1981?
According to the new arrangement, if you were arrested for what was called a ‘scheduled political offense’, that is, using guerrilla warfare, armed struggle, to overthrow the government, then you would no longer have a special category. So, when Kieran Nugent was arrested, they told him to take off his clothes and wear the criminal uniform and he refused. He was then beaten and thrown into a cell, and the only thing in the cell was a blanket. So, Nugent put the blanket to wrap himself, and that is how he served out his sentence.
The prison administration escalated the punishments. When it would not allow the men out of their cells to go to the toilet without wearing the uniform, the prisoners went in their cells. When they could not get rid of the waste, they put it on the walls. Though it was a huge protest campaign, it did not shift the British so a hunger strike under the leadership of Bobby Sands was started with fairly simple demands. The right to wear their own clothes, to be given visits, to write and receive letters and so on. Eventually, 10 young men died over a period of seven months, starting with Bobby Sands on May 5, 1981.
Q. What impact did the hunger strike in which Bobby Sands died have both domestically and internationally?
We know that especially during the 1981 hunger strike, there were huge protests all over the world, including in the Basque Country, in Paris, in Amsterdam, and Tehran. In solidarity with our struggle, the street where the British Embassy was Tehran, Winston Churchill Avenue, was renamed Bobby Sands Street, and it remains with that name to this day. International solidarity has been very important to us at times in our struggle, so, we know the value of it, and we profess it, and we act on it.
We care about what is going on in the world to other people and stand in solidarity with them. As editor of Republican News I dedicated pages to the struggle of the African National Congress (ANC), which worked to help end apartheid in South Africa. Sinn Féin has recently had a motion passed in the Irish parliament, to recognize the state of Palestine.
There was also solidarity between the Irish Republican movement and those in Central America, fighting against the CIA-sponsored gangs and murder squads. Solidarity is extremely important because it means that you are not on your own. It means that someone will raise their voice on your behalf, even if you are behind barbed wire or wrapped up in blanket in a prison cell and will be campaigning for your freedom.
Q. As the 40th death anniversary of Bobby Sands is approaching, is there anything that you wish to add with regards to your struggle and movement?
There are numerous books written and films made about the hunger strikers. I have been involved in the editing of many of these books. Bobby Sands’ poems and prison writings have never gone out of print. His songs are recorded all over the world by artists.
The price of freedom comes at a heavy cost. Not just in the lives of IRA members, but there was also a large number of civilian deaths, and this is deeply regrettable.
Many of the conditions that our prisoners experienced, which created the circumstances where they felt they had to go on hunger strike have been replicated for example for Palestinian prisoners under Israeli rule, where the daily suffering, the aggression, and the insults are relentless.
To engage in armed struggle you have to weigh up the magnitude of your suffering and oppression and if such a step would justify you taking up arms, which is a bold step because you have to be prepared to die, you have to be prepared to go to prison. And you also know the risk to civilians in crossfire. So, there are all of those things that have to be added up. Peace is the objective, but it has to be peace with justice. False peace only postpones conflict and often makes the subsequent conflict much worse.
*Bobby Sands, a prominent figure of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) and a former member of the parliament of the U.K., died on a hunger strike on May 5, 1981, at the age of 27 while imprisoned.
**Sinn Féin is an Irish republican and democratic socialist political party active throughout Ireland.