Belfast mural commemorating the Blanket Protest for recognition of political prisoner status. On the left, Kieran Nugent, clad in a blanket; on the right, portraits of the 10 hunger strikers who died in 1981. Photo by Hajotthu via Wikimedia Commons

 

Recently, I read a collection of reminiscences on the hunger strike of 1981 carried out by republican prisoners in the north of Ireland. The hunger strike began March 1 and ended October 3. During those seven months, 23 young men joined the hunger strike and 10 perished. It was a spectacle of high drama played out on a world stage. What follows reflects my memory of that time. Looking back more than four decades on, there is reason to believe that out of the ashes of that experience, a new, more promising future may yet emerge for the people of Ireland.

 

Ireland was England’s first colony, and six of its 32 counties remain under British control to this day. Despite successive efforts over hundreds of years to establish a sovereign Irish nation, British rule continues in the northeast portion of the island.

In the 1960s, a movement arose in Northern Ireland demanding equal access to voting rights, housing, employment, and basic civil liberties for the minority Catholic population. When that movement was met with force by the authorities, it opened the way for a resumption of armed struggle and the return of British troops. The ensuing conflict claimed almost 3,500 lives between 1969 and 1998, when a military stalemate between armed republican groups, on the one hand, and British troops and their local allies on the other, led to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.

In 1981, I spent two memorable weeks in the north of Ireland. International attention was focused on that part of the world because of a hunger strike by republican prisoners. Four had died by the time I arrived: Bobby Sands, aged 27; Francis Hughes, 25; Raymond McCreesh, 24; and Patsy O’Hara, 23. Four other men had joined the hunger strike to replace them. And more began refusing food while I was there.

I had been participating in weekly pickets outside the British Airways office on Bloor Street in Toronto, demanding that the government of Margaret Thatcher admit that these men had been jailed for actions that were politically motivated, regardless of whether one agreed with the actions themselves or not. Their goal was the ending of British rule in the north of Ireland as a way of winning equal treatment and rights for all.

They had been convicted in juryless courts, where the burden of proof was shifted to the accused, and statements extracted by physical abuse were often used against them. The prisoners were demanding not to be forced to wear prison uniforms, not to do prison work, for the right of free association, including the right to organize educational and recreational pursuits, the right to receive one letter, one parcel, and one visit a week, and restoration of any reduction in time served due to good behaviour, which had been lost as a result of the protest. Winning these demands would amount to recognition of their status as political prisoners.

I knew no one in Ireland but obtained the address of a bookshop in West Belfast and wrote a note saying I was arriving on a specific day and would appreciate any help they could offer.

On my way into Belfast from the Aldergrove airport, I noticed slogans painted on the walls of buildings. One said, “Victory to the Blanket Men. Grant the Five Demands.” Further along, another replied, “Let them die!”

I didn’t know how to reach the bookshop, and after arriving at the bus station, was directed to the Linen Hall Library. A person at the front desk offered to phone a local newspaper, The Andersonstown News. I was handed the receiver and spoke with a man who told me to get a black taxi and tell the driver to let me off at the Busy Bee.

I walked back outside and saw two men lounging against a black taxi. After I explained where I wanted to go, both men stared at me for a moment. Then one of them pointed down the street at a line of black vehicles in the distance and said, “You want to get your taxi in Castle Street. This one goes up the Shankill.” I thanked him and headed off with the newly acquired understanding that these men only drove into the unionist areas of Belfast. That was not where I was headed.

From the rear seat of a black taxi, I peered out at the Falls Road as we made our way to Andersonstown. After the driver pulled over, he tapped the glass partition separating him from those of us in the back and announced, “The Busy Bee.” I scrambled out, paid him my fare, and noticed a supermarket set back from the roadway. Along its right flank, several smaller stores extended towards me. One had a sign that said, “Connolly Books.”

The bookshop was run by a political group called People’s Democracy, a socialist organization that was part of a broader coalition supporting the prisoners’ demands. In a surprising development, two of its members had been elected to Belfast city council a couple of months earlier, at a time when Sinn Féin was still boycotting the elections.

As I entered the sparsely furnished shop, I was greeted by a woman who told me they had received my letter. Shortly after, a young man named Brendan dropped by and said he would be looking after me for the rest of the day. He’d just completed his first year of studies at Queen’s University and wanted to check his examination results posted on campus.

After a long walk to the university, we entered a building and joined others gathered around a board in the hallway. Brendan seemed pleased with what he read. On our return, he suggested heading over to a place called the PDF before meeting up with his brother later in the evening.

We made our way down a narrow alley and emerged in an area of waste ground. He pointed to a squat, single-storey structure in the distance. As we approached it, a husky young man with red hair and a bushy beard was coming towards us wearing a black jacket.

“Kieran,” Brendan said.

The man looked over. “Brendan,” he replied, before giving me a nod.

As we walked on, Brendan said, “That was Kieran Nugent, the first blanket man.”

In 1972, a hunger strike by jailed republicans had forced the British government to recognize them as political prisoners who did not have to wear a prison uniform or do prison work. In an effort to criminalize the struggle for Irish reunification, the Labour government ended that policy in 1976.

Kiernan Nugent was still a teenager when he was sent to the H-Blocks as the first sentenced republican prisoner after the withdrawal of political status. He refused to put on the prison uniform and was dragged naked into a cell with only a blanket to cover himself. For several weeks, not even his family knew where he was or that he was refusing to wear a prison uniform. By the time he was released in 1979, hundreds of republican prisoners were on the blanket. Their protest culminated in the hunger strike of 1981.

After passing Kieran Nugent, we continued on to the PDF, which I learned was a republican bar. We seated ourselves and had just been served when a squad of armed British soldiers entered. Brendan leaned over and whispered, “They’re going to ask your name and address. Use this one.” Then he mentioned a street number on Donegall Road.

A soldier approached our table and held out what looked like a microphone. He asked each of us our name and address. I responded with the address I’d been given. The soldiers spoke with everyone before departing. The last one backed out, holding his weapon with the barrel pointed at the floor, his eyes scanning the room. Brendan explained that the information they recorded was fed back to a central location and used to plot the movements of people in the area.

 

British soldiers in South Belfast, 1981. Photo by Jeanne Boleyn, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

 

As we finished our drinks, he checked his watch and said it was time to go and meet his brother at the Felons Club on the Falls Road. Brendan mentioned that normally only men who had “done time” were allowed entry there.

We walked a short distance to a two-storey building. He pushed the buzzer beside a heavily fortified door, and after a few seconds, a small peephole opened covered by a grill. A voice asked what we wanted. Brendan explained that his brother had been invited to celebrate the release of a republican prisoner and had told us to meet him there. After we were allowed inside, I walked up several steps and found myself in a brightly lit bar with a high ceiling and stained-glass windows.

I was introduced to Brendan’s brother Tommy and his mate Scottie who invited us to join them. Tommy had already picked up my bag from the bookshop and stuffed it in his car. Brendan told me I would be put up at Tommy and Scottie’s for the night. When we parted, I thanked him for acting as chaperone during my first day in Belfast.

We drove west, and after a few minutes, Tommy parked in front of a line of row housing surrounded by vacant land. At the entrance to his flat, he pointed to several black smudges above the doorknob and asked if I could guess what they were. I shook my head. “They’re tread marks from the boot of a British soldier,” he said and explained the door had been kicked in the week before.

I spent the night in a sleeping bag on the floor and the next morning discovered there was no hot water, so shaved and washed as best I could. After some tea and a bun, I headed off with Tommy, who was driving to the Royal Victoria Hospital where he worked as an orderly. He dropped me by the bookshop with my bag, and I headed down the road to a small hotel I’d noticed. It seemed to be the only one in the area. I took a room and discovered it too lacked hot water. But I had a bed to sleep in, and breakfast was included.

The only other guest I ran into was an American. In the midst of the hunger strike, West Belfast was not the place to be if you were looking for a relaxing vacation. Exactly the opposite. Throughout the time I was there, you could never escape the tension, a foreboding feeling that something was about to happen over which you had no control.

One time I was walking along the Falls Road towards the city centre when I glanced to my left and was startled to see a British soldier squatting in an alley with his weapon pointed in my direction. On another occasion, I watched as several children suddenly emerged from a narrow laneway and hurled stones at a passing British armoured vehicle. The driver swerved towards the youngsters who retreated and escaped.

Early one morning, I came upon the charred ruins of a car that must have been highjacked the night before. Later that day, while I was at the home of one of the city councillors from People’s Democracy, there was a loud explosion nearby. We raced outside and discovered that the Irish Republican Army had fired a mortar at a Royal Ulster Constabulary barracks a few streets away.

From the window of my hotel room, I could see the letters “FTQ” in white paint on a red brick wall that ran alongside the roadway. I found that perplexing because those were the initials of the largest trade union federation in Québec. I knew the hunger strike had generated a great deal of international solidarity in the preceding months, including from some labour organizations in Québec. Nonetheless, I was surprised to see the FTQ’s initials on a wall in West Belfast. One day I mentioned this to someone. When the laughter subsided, I was told, “FTQ stands for Fuck the Queen.”

During my stay, the local H-Block committee that was campaigning in support of the prisoners’ demands decided to stage a demonstration in front of Belfast city hall. Any such action was likely to meet with swift repression. The demonstrators chose not to march down the Falls Road towards city hall because they would be stopped before they got there by the police or British soldiers. Instead, people entered the city centre in small groups, and then at the appointed hour, emerged in front of the city hall for a rally where a sound system suddenly appeared.

I arrived just as people converged on city hall. Fergus O’Hare, one of the PD councillors and a spokesperson for the national H-Block committee, approached the microphone. Before he said more than a couple of sentences, police emerged from all directions. He was grabbed and tossed in the back of an armoured police van. Someone else began to speak and he, too, was nabbed. O’Hare tried to escape from the rear of the vehicle but was roughed up and pushed back inside.

I had borrowed a friend’s camera for my trip and brought it along to get some photos of the rally. I’d just taken some shots of Fergus being manhandled by the police when I heard a voice yell, “Get that man’s camera!”

Someone grabbed my left hand and dug his nail into the top of my thumb. The pain was intense. Before I could speak, the man said, “Give me the film or I’ll smash your camera.”

I was using a telephoto lens and feared my friend’s expensive equipment was about to be ripped from my hands and destroyed. “I’m just a tourist,” I said. “I was only trying to focus the camera on a telephone pole behind the police van.”

The policeman noticed my accent. “It’s illegal to take photos of the police,” he said while continuing to press his nail into my thumb.

I rewound the film, opened the camera and gave him what he wanted. As he put it in his pocket, I said, “How can I get my film back? I have some photos on there I don’t want to lose.”

The man eyed me for a moment. “My name is Inspector Turklington,” he said. “I’ll be out of the province for the next few days, but you can come by Musgrave Street RUC barracks on Thursday afternoon around two o’clock and get your film after we’ve looked at it.”

In the midst of our exchange, police were driving the remaining demonstrators back towards the Falls Road under a hail of plastic bullets. When I finally met up with Brendan half an hour later, he cautioned me not to go to the RUC barracks. “That could only lead to more trouble,” he said. But I was determined to recover my film and convinced I’d done nothing wrong.

On the appointed day, I made my way to Musgrave Street barracks and explained that I had an appointment with Inspector Turklington. I was ushered into an office and found him seated behind a large desk. His secretary asked if I would like some tea and soon returned with cups and saucers. While we sipped our tea, the inspector asked what brought me to Belfast. I explained that although I no longer had any family there, I’d come over to visit my father’s birthplace in the village of Ballygally, on the Antrim coast, and to see a house he had lived in on Percy Street off the Falls Road.

Turklington shook his head and said he doubted I would find the house on Percy Street because a number of buildings in that district had been destroyed some time ago. He was referring to August 1969, when groups of loyalists invaded several streets in the area and threw petrol bombs into Catholic homes, forcing their residents to flee. In fact, I had already found the house, and though the windows were boarded up and no one was living there, the building was still standing. I kept that to myself.

He handed me an envelope and said they had developed the film from my camera, and I was welcome to keep the enclosed contact sheet of photos. I thanked him, glanced at the sheet, and noticed that all the shots of the rally had been blacked out. He then handed me a new roll of film to replace the one that had been confiscated and wished me a pleasant stay.

Towards the end of my two weeks there, the health of Joe McDonnell worsened. He was a local man from West Belfast and one of the hunger strikers. By this point, he had been without food the longest. A rally was organized in front of the Busy Bee shopping centre to highlight his deteriorating condition. As the large crowd assembled, a British army helicopter circled low overhead. Police and British troops remained at the ready but out of sight.

Most of the hunger strikers were young men and single. But Joe McDonnell was married with two young children. His wife, Goretti, addressed the rally. She made a moving appeal, calling on the Thatcher government to grant the prisoners’ demands and save the life of her husband and the father of her children. Her plea fell on deaf ears. Joe McDonnell died a few days after my return to Canada, and other men joined the hunger strike.

One of the provisions in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended the most recent phase of armed conflict, provides a pathway to the reunification of Ireland. A referendum on the future status of Northern Ireland can be held if there appears to be majority sentiment for such a move. Based on recent opinion polls and demographic changes, it now seems possible that within the next decade, a majority of people could vote to end the century-old partition of the island. That would be a fitting tribute to the 10 men who died on hunger strike in 1981.

 

Commemorating Joe McDonnell and the other hunger strikers. Photo via Wikimedia Commons