Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 309

Looking Back in Anger

This article is over 17 years, 7 months old
Interviews with those involved in the hunger strikes
Issue 309

Bik McFarlane spent more than half of his adult life imprisoned by the British. During the hunger strikes of 1981 he was the OC (officer commanding) in the H-Blocks. He was one of 38 Republican prisoners to escape from the prison in 1983.

“The British government intended the H-Blocks to be the ‘breakers’ yard’ for the Republican movement,” says McFarlane. “They saw prisoners as the most vulnerable section of the movement and they set out to break them.

“The maturity of the prisoners’ analysis underpinned their ability to resist. We were confronting a prison regime but we were exposing British rule in Ireland.” McFarlane has countless memories of 1981. “For [younger people] this is an element of history. For the families of the hunger strikers and for us who were at the coal face of it, this was last week. And it is as sharp and as raw as that,” he says.

“We had these smuggled crystal [radio] sets and at night we would fix it up with a wire to the window for an aerial and we would listen in to the Radio Ulster news. On the early morning that [Bobby Sands] died I had the radio wired up. I actually heard it on the 2am news. I remember distinctly… ‘Bobby Sands, hunger striker, MP for Fermanagh & South Tyrone, died at 1.17am today.’ And even though we were waiting for it, it still shocked. I woke up Paul Butler, who is a councillor in Lisburn now, and told him. We rapped down at the heating pipes beside each cell and passed the word quietly.”

McFarlane identifies the emergence of Sinn Fein’s electoral strategy during this period as a fundamental breakthrough.

“The reluctance of Republicans to engage in electoral politics in the 1970s left the field open for the SDLP [the moderate Catholic nationalist party] to exploit,” says McFarlane. “Since then we have constantly had to deal with the potential of the SDLP being co-opted into a British agenda.”

The election of Bobby Sands “opened the door for building a political movement which played the Brits at their own game”.

Brendan Hughes was approached to join “the movement” in 1969. He went on the run in Belfast in 1970. Very few members of the IRA have such a dramatic record of activism as the man known as “The Dark”.

Today Brendan Hughes is a man who gets by on income support and feels bitter about what happened in the period after the hunger strikes. He believes that the Republican movement to which he has devoted his life has drifted from its base, betraying its principles and its working class roots.

“On a normal day in the 1971-2 period, you would have had a call house [a safe meeting place] and you might have robbed a bank in the morning, done a float [gone out in a car looking for British soldier] in the afternoon, stuck a bomb and a booby trap out after that, and then maybe had a gun battle or two later that night.”

When Hughes arrived in Long Kesh in 1973, he thought his war was over. Instead he soon escaped, rolled up inside a mattress that was left out as rubbish. The bin lorry that served the camp unwittingly took Hughes to freedom. He was arrested again, convicted of possession of firearms and explosives, and sentenced to 15 years. He was sent back to Long Kesh.

When he was moved from the old POW-style compounds to the new jail, he refused, as others had also done, to don the prison uniform. In the autumn of 1980 Hughes decided the only option was hunger strike. On 27 October 1980 he refused food, as did six other prisoners.

“The first day I went on hunger strike, I was still in this shitty cell. But I remember thinking to myself that night, ‘The cell doesn’t look that bad.’ Because that is the day you start to die. After a while you can actually smell your body wasting away.”

By 18 December negotiations were at a critical point. But Sean McKenna, one of the hunger strikers, was close to death. Believing that the prisoners’ demands had been met, Hughes called the strike off.

“I blamed myself for years,” says Hughes. “I used to believe that if I had let Sean die, that would have ended it, which would have stopped ten men dying [in the second hunger strike]. During one period I was almost at the point of jumping off a bridge.

“I don’t think it’s been worth it. If someone had told me 20 years ago, you’re going to go to jail, you’re going to get tortured, you’re going to go on hunger strike, you’re going to watch loads of men dying to get this… I’d have told them to forget it.”

“We were decommissioned with nothing,” says Hughes. “IRA men and women, who gave everything to this struggle, got poverty, premature death, and mental problems in return.

“People stay quiet out of loyalty to the movement.” Money never mattered to him, he says. “I was offered £50,000 to become an informer. I told them £50 million wouldn’t sway me. But it’s hard to see ex-prisoners destitute when the leadership are so wealthy and have holiday homes.”

He was released from prison without skills or qualifications. He began labouring. “A big west Belfast contractor paid us £20 a day. I tried to organise a strike but the other ex-POWs were so desperate, they wouldn’t agree. One of the bosses said, ‘Brendan, we’ll give you £25 a day but don’t tell the others.’

“I told him to stick it up his arse, and I never went back. I wrote an article about it for Republican News but it was heavily censored. People we’d fought for exploited us, and the movement let them.”

Pedram Moallemian was part of a group of young people who in 1981 changed the name of Winston Churchill Street in Tehran, the capital of Iran, to Bobby Sands Street.

“Shortly after the revolution of 1979 Iranians were busy changing names,” says Moallemian. “Names of thousands of streets, buildings and even cities that had been named after the Shah, his family or others close to the former regime needed to be changed and replaced by new idols and symbols of the revolution.

“So by that fateful day in May of 1981, when the news of Bobby Sands’ death was received in Iran, we had plenty of experience and there was no way that the memory of someone we considered a great revolutionary – who had stood up to the British – could be forgotten.

“It happened more on a fluke. I was part of a small circle of friends, all under 15 years of age, who were always attending speeches together, covering the local streets with political graffiti, distributing flyers and occasionally getting beat up by those we pissed off.

“One of us lived on a street that backed onto the British embassy in the heart of Tehran and because of this central location and his parents’ more liberal approach, we’d often gather at their flat.

“Our original plan to honour Sands was far more risky. From their windows you could see the Union Flag flying prominently in the embassy’s yard. We wanted to sneak in at night and replace it with an Irish flag.

“If there was a place to buy an Irish flag in Tehran, the 13 and 14 year olds in our gang had no luck finding it. We made one, but it looked horrible and as colours we had used were closer to the Iranian flag, we were worried it would be taken as the wrong flag and maybe the wrong message. We finally decided on a big white sheet and wrote IRA across it. Even that was problematic, as we tried it once on the roof and it was so heavy, and there was also a concern about guard dogs.

“With all that, the flag plans were abandoned. Then somebody within the group suggested we rename the street. I honestly wish I’d remember who said it first to give him full credit, but I just don’t after so many years. The plan wasn’t as exciting and adventurous, but we were desperate at this point. We all agreed and had soon bought large white construction paper and navy magic markers to make signs. I was the most graphically gifted of the bunch, so I’d draw the shape of the actual signs, copying the real ones made by the city and the rest of the gang would colour and cut them. We made about 20 of them and got out when it got dark to cover the old signs.

“Next evening we returned to see if any of them were left and to our surprise there were a few new ones made by others too, and thanks to the glue we had used, even the ones very close to the embassy compound had remained in place. Soon the entire street had new signs and the city officially changed the name also.

“To me, the first big victory came a few months later when at another Tehran street corner, where passengers holler their destinations to passing cabs in hope of being picked up by someone feeling the route is profitable enough, I heard a woman yell, “Bobby Sands!” The name had stuck and it was now certified and far more official than the city putting up actual metal signs.

“The larger victory, however, was when we discovered the embassy had been forced to change their mailing address and all their printed material to reflect a side door address to avoid using Bobby’s name anywhere.”

Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Latest News

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance