July 1981

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Uncovering the Truth About the 1981 Hunger Strike

Derry Journal: Hunger-strike – look at the facts

Hunger-strike – look at the facts

Derry Journal
Published Date: 07 July 2009

A chara,

Please allow me to respond to the letters from Willie Gallagher and Dixie Elliott.

Let me start with a few facts rather the opinions, rumours and speculation that have charactarised correspondence to date.

Both Willie and Dixie will be aware that Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiach and Bishop Edward Daly were involved in protracted discussions with the British Government during 1980. When these talks ended in failure in September, Brendan Hughes announced that seven men would commence a hunger strike on 27th October 1980.

On 24th October Ó Fiach and Daly announced that they had won a major concession from the British Government: from now on all prisoners would be able to wear their own clothes. However, when the British released a press statement on the issue, they stated this would be ‘civilian-type uniform’. Either the two clergymen had misinterpreted what was on offer or the British had deliberately misled them. Most republicans and nationalists believed the latter.

The key point is that you could not trust the British.

Secondly, when the first hunger strike was nearing its climax with Sean McKenna close to death, the British made an ‘offer’ through the Mountain Climber. Apparently, this offer amounted to three-and-a-half of the five demands, which sounds familiar. While Brendan Hughes and the other hunger strikers waited on written confirmation of exactly what was on offer, Brendan decided to end the hunger strike. Bobby Sands was cut out of the negotiations.

The proposals finally produced by the British were a rehash of the 1st December document, open to all sorts of interpretation. As we know, the British interpreted them rigidly and reportedly told Bobby Sands that they would give us a number of weeks to build up our muscles before sending us to work. Indeed, it is stated in Denis Ahearn’s book that Bobby Sands wanted to immediately re-commence the Hunger Strike. It is reported that the republican leadership persuaded Bobby to ‘test’ the Brits’ willingness to be flexible.

At Mass that Sunday I witnessed heated exchanges in the canteen between Bobby and other prisoners, notably Pat Mullan from Tyrone, who apparently wanted to start a hunger strike there and then. Brendan McFarland would have been acutely aware of the danger of a split among prisoners if a satisfactory settlement was not achieved. Again, this emphasised the danger of taking the Brits’ word rather than arriving at a clear, unambiguous and negotiated settlement.

Thirdly, when the second hunger strike commenced in March 1981, it was decided that each hunger striker would be their own OC and would make their own decisions on whether to proceed to the death in the absence of a settlement. The Camp OC, Brendan McFarland, would decide whether or not we had a settlement.

These are all facts which I am sure neither Willie nor Dixie will dispute. I mention them to set the context in which any contact with, or ‘offer’ from, the British Government would be viewed – with caution and suspicion.

I am also aware of a ‘rumour’ that went around the blocks after the first four hunger strikers had died that the leadership on the outside felt that if the British withstood the pressure up to then, they would withstand further pressure and that the hunger strike should end. The prison leadership rejected this saying that to end the hunger strike at that stage would be a betrayal of our dead comrades. I don’t know if this is true but I do know that there was a mood among the prisoners that we could not end the hunger strike unilaterally. It is my opinion that at that time, the end of May 1981, nothing less than the five demands would have been acceptable and anything less might have resulted in a third hunger strike.

I stated in my previous correspondence on this issue that I would have accepted concessions the ICJP claimed to have wrested from the British. Fortunately, I had the luxury of not having to make the hard decisions that people like Brendan McFarland had to take.

Finally, in relation to Bloody Sunday, the organisers of the meeting in the Gasyard Centre invited a journalist, Liam Clarke, to be part of the panel. This is the same journalist who promoted Paddy Ward, who gave evidence to the Enquiry about his one-man fight with the entire British Army on Bloody Sunday and who together with Liam Clarke tried to place the blame or part of the blame for what happened at the door of the republican leadership. In that context, I think it is relevant to what he, Liam Clarke, along with others, is trying to do now – place the blame or part of the blame for the deaths of hunger strikers at the door of the republican leadership instead of where it really lies: with the British Government.

Is mise, le meas
Donncha Mac Niallais

Sourced from Derry Journal

Category: 2009, Blanketmen, Derry Journal, Media, Statements

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One Response

  1. […] his most recent letter (Tuesday Journal, 7/7) Donncha McNiallais dismissed my questions as being opinions, rumours and speculation while pushing what he claimed to […]

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