The intractable fact is that 10 men starved themselves to death, and that is an emotionally tense atmosphere in which to explore the rights and wrongs of its commemoration. But it is in the nature of political acts of remembrance not just to mark a loss but to re-state a conviction, and that is where comment becomes unavoidable.
What a hunger strike does to the body is gruesome. It creates a cannibalizing effect, whereby stores of energy in fat and muscle are broken down. The hunger striker experiences dizziness, exhaustion and loss of motor control. He may vomit green bile. After six gruelling weeks, brain function is severely impaired, he may have hearing loss and blindness and from here his heart is at risk of total failure. Without vitamins and minerals he will have lesions throughout his nervous system. His skin bleeds. Death announces its approach from some distance away but takes its time to knock in belated mercy upon the door.
As much as it is inconvenient for those who dismiss the eulogising of the hunger strikers, it has to be accepted that they did not go through such torture for personal gain. They suffered this agonizing death for what they believed was a higher purpose. They stood to achieve nothing for themselves but the satisfying thought that they had advanced the cause of Irish freedom.
Hunger striking was already an established method of republican protest in Ireland, even led for a time in 1917 by Eamon De Valera himself. And martyrdom of various forms, in the perceived cause of a nation’s freedom, is not confined to Ireland. The Arab Spring, that surging force of uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East, was triggered when a Tunisian street vendor first released its clasp on 17 December 2010. Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire at 11.30am on a busy street, in protest at the corruption and oppression of the Tunisian authorities. Soon after, the sheer democratic weight of the Tunisian people forced their dictatorial President to stand down after 23 years in power.
But the Maze prison hunger strikes of 1981 cannot be explained in terms of the same simple protest against tyranny as the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi. The Maze protest was specifically about the removal of the prisoners’ special category status that had operated in various guises since the internments of the early 1970s. Broadly, having assumed direct rule, and the principle civil injustices against the nationalist community having been righted, the British Government sought to treat anyone newly convicted of terrorist offences more as common criminals, without the privileges prisoners had previously enjoyed.
Needless to say republican prisoners took a different view of their status. Collectively they were in the Maze for various offences including attempted murder, possession of firearms and explosives, a punishment shooting, hijacking, manslaughter and theft of guns. They came to be in prison because they had used violence against others in pursuit of their political project, and they wanted to be recognised as political, not criminal, prisoners.
So it was, in the hunger strikers’ eyes, entirely legitimate to sacrifice the lives and well-being of others for their political goals. It was in the assertion of that legitimacy, rather than national determination or an outcry against oppression per se, that they also sacrificed themselves. This was not a Bouazizi style of martyrdom where the sacrifice was confined to self. In Fermanagh armed republicans extended their idea of legitimate sacrifice to people like Emily Bullock, shot on her doorstep a few miles from Derrylin for no good reason than she was her husband’s wife and was there for the taking. No matter how sympathetic you are to the republican cause, it is inescapable that the hunger strike was about asserting that this violent way was the only way and the right way.
It was a position that the vast majority of nationalist people here had rejected before 1981. Owen Carron, speaking last week in Ballyconnell, recalled the time: “In 1980 myself and others met in Lynham’s Hotel in Derrylin to form Fermanagh’s H-Block committee. Lynhams was the only place they would let us in … The situation was completely different then to now.”
What Carron inadvertently confirms is that the power of martyrdom interfered with the moral compass. The nationalist people of Fermanagh and South Tyrone largely disowned Sands’ violent method when he was outside prison and trying to engage in it, but retrospectively (and perhaps in some cases unintentionally) they endorsed it under that old Irish spell of his imminent and pitiful death.
As always in our history, these events were echoes of our past. Yeats noted the terrible beauty born out of the sacrifice of Easter 1916, when the British Government of the time fatally misjudged the Irish emotion and its capacity in the Irish mind for legitimising violence retrospectively.
Whether history repeats itself yet again some time in the future only time will reveal, but it will depend on our ability to see the hunger strikes for what they really were. That may mean facing uncomfortable truths, even when the prevailing emotion offers suffering as payment for validity.