July 1981


Uncovering the Truth About the 1981 Hunger Strike

Irish News: Conflict is over but the battle for truth goes on

Conflict is over but the battle for truth goes on
By Tom Kelly

Nineteen-eighty-one was a seminal year. It didn’t just radicalise northern nationalism – it radicalised much more.

I was in lower sixth preparing for summer exams and my family, like many others, were worried about keeping teenagers out of trouble and ‘The Troubles’.

Most succeeded.

It’s funny the things we remember from that year but Newpoint Players had a production of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (insanity was not an inappropriate theme back then).

Also, long before we both worked for Seamus Mallon, the late John Fee and I were in an after-school project called the St Francis’s Youth Group.

Spurs won the FA Cup.

That was May, the same month Bobby Sands died.

Long before 1981 I decided the IRA and so-called republicans were doing nothing for Newry. Well let’s be honest; the remnants of Newry still standing.

In 1981 the scars of the conflict were all around. Hill Street and Monaghan Street were puckered with inexplicable architectural gaps courtesy of the IRA’s economic war. The town centre was a no-go area and the human cost was well evidenced by the thriving trade at the misnomer known as the Newry Labour Exchange, where thousands of people waited with their labour – with little in the way of any exchange going on.

But the Hunger Strike was not something to be ignored.

As a history buff, I knew of the most famous Irish hunger striker, Terence MacSwiney.

His memorial card was among the memorabilia of my grandfather who himself was a political prisoner in Crumlin Road Prison a mere nine months after MacSwiney died.

MacSwiney said that “victory is not won by those who can inflict the most but those who can endure the most”. (He was subsequently invoked by Indian nationalists like Nehru).

But MacSwiney was no pacifist resistance fighter.

He had the messianic zeal of Pearse. He understood not only the principle of personal sacrifice but the impact too. MacSwiney’s death no doubt would have impacted on the emotions of my 17-year-old grandfather.

But just as the madness of the Great War milked the life blood of an entire generation who fought in a conflict neither of their making nor in their interests, the rhetoric of zealots held no truck with me in 1981 and notwithstanding my emotional ties to my grandfather – who as his subsequent election posters said “has in civic affairs and national rendered valuable services” (sic) – to me Provisional Sinn Fein were like monkeys on backs of the nationalist community; with one hand on their throats and the other in their pockets.

But then there was Bobby Sands.

And to be honest, I too, got swept up in the emotion. I had not reckoned on my almost genetic and primitive antipathy against the British.

I even agreed with the then reported comments of Provisional propagandist Danny Morrison that Thatcher was “the greatest bastard ever”. Like many others, I was motivated enough to attend the funeral of Raymond McCreesh.

Reflecting on that day, I reckon until the Good Friday Agreement that was, politically speaking, the closest I ever got to Sinn Fein.

Having been given the greatest propaganda coup of the century, the reach of IRA recruiters was never far away for attendees of that funeral.

The most active recruiter in the vicinity was referred to locally as having neither “chick nor child”. That saying stuck with me for it meant they would never know the loneliness of widowhood, the vacuum of lost sons or the rearing children without fathers.

Yet the Hunger Strike struck a raw nerve in the psyche of nationalists generally and teenagers in particular. That Provisional Sinn Fein was the main beneficiary of the sacrifice of those hunger strikers and their families, there is no doubt.

In fact it launched careers.

I agree too with Sands’s sister that Bobby most likely did not envisage dying for cross-border bodies and a devolved UK administration in the north.

Nonetheless as iconic a figure as he is to republicans, modern Sinn Fein could never live up to Bobby’s Irish utopia of 1981 by 2009.

The British/Irish war is most definitely over.

What is not over is the truth about that period as former Provisionals now question whether the sacrifice not only of the hunger strikers but the hundreds of other victims who died between 1981 and 1994 was worth it, for a political settlement which was always on the table.


Sourced from the Irish News

Category: 2009, Commentary, Irish News, Irish News Special Issue, Media


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A day-by-day account of the events of early July, 1981.

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