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24 August 2006 Edition

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Remembering 1981: Owen Carron retains Bobby Sands seat

Victory repeated in Fermanagh/South Tyrone

Thursday, 20 August 1981 was a day of both immense sadness and resounding triumph for the H-Block/Armagh campaign. At 7.50am Michael Devine, the 10th Hunger Striker to die, passed away. Later on that day Owen Carron, who had been Bobby Sands's election agent, took the Fermanagh/South Tyrone Westminster seat left vacant by the death of Bobby Sands.

Although it wasn't known at the time, Devine would be the last to die as mounting support for the Hunger Strikers put pressure on both the Dublin and London political establishments - as evidenced by Owen Carron's election.

The British had hoped the intervention of Seamus Close of the Alliance Party and Tom Moore of the Sticky 'Republican Clubs' would snatch enough of the nationalist vote to deny Carron the seat. In the event, Ulster Unionist Party candidate Ken Maginnis managed to increase by only two the number of votes taken by the previous UUP candidate, Harry West - this despite the alleged support of Ian Paisley's DUP. Tom Moore, with a little over 300 votes, was utterly humiliated.

At a tense count, the deputy returning officer, Ken Patterson, had announced an 80% turnout as opposed to 86% when Bobby Sands was elected (traditionally a higher turnout in the constituency tended to favour nationalist candidates), only to have to revise the figure up to 88%. This blunder had led to speculation that Maginnis could win, but this was mere wishful thinking and Owen Carron romped home with 31,278 votes - a 2,300 lead on Maginnis, his nearest challenger.

In an acceptance speech during which he was continually heckled by infuriated unionists, Carron pledged that British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's brutal and unjust policy in the H-Blocks would be brought to an end. News coverage of the speech did not record the heckling, completely changing the context and allowing the Irish Times to declare high-mindedly: "There was a vehemence and vituperation about the post declaration speech of Mr Carron which may hearten some of his supporters, but promises no great future for the politics of Northern Ireland."

Carron immediately demanded a meeting with Thatcher to discuss the ongoing crisis at which his press officer, Danny Morrison, would also be in attendance. She refused, saying that they could meet Stormont Minister Michael Allison instead. Carron accepted on the basis that he would pursue all avenues to resolve the H-Block crisis.

Unionist reaction was bitter in the extreme, with Paisley's DUP concluding ominously that the constituency contained 31,000 IRA supporters, in what many at the time viewed as a thinly veiled threat. The following Tuesday the home of Owen Carron's brother Seamus was bombed in Maguiresbridge, Fermanagh.

Amid reports that Sinn Féin were to contest some seats in the next elections, including West Belfast (then held by the SDLP's Gerry Fitt), Ulster Unionist Harold McCusker declared that Sinn Féin had now overtaken the SDLP as the predominant nationalist party in the North. Sean Farren of the SDLP was stung into declaring that they would oppose Sinn Féin at every election while the SDLP deputy leader Seamus Mallon, belatedly accusing the British of "mishandling" the H-Block crisis, attempted to explain away Carron's stunning victory.

RTÉ television programmes began on Friday evening, 21 August 1981, with the returning officer for Fermanagh/South Tyrone reading out the votes gained by each of the candidates in the previous day's by-election.

As Owen Carron moved to the microphones to make his acceptance speech he was abruptly cut off - and thus ended the total news coverage, for those in single channel areas of the 26 Counties, of an indisputably significant event in Ireland. The ludicrous injustice of Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act, which banned republicans from the airwaves, was exposed like never before, prompting new protests by journalists and others against the outrageous censorship legislation.

The Dublin government's response to the death of Michael Devine and the election of Owen Carron was to attempt to ignore these events. In stark contrast to the previous nine deaths, the Dublin government did not send a message of condolence to Devine's family. Garret Fitzgerald also ruled out meeting Owen Carron. The day after Carron's election victory the Dublin government convened a two-day meeting, the main outcome of which was to rule out meeting Carron or any of the Hunger Strikers' families. The transparently bogus reason given, without a hint of embarrassment, was that anti H-Block demonstrators had staged a sit-in at Government Buildings a couple of weeks previously.

Thatcher's refusal to meet Carron was thus mitigated by Dublin's refusal to meet him. British attempts to isolate the Hunger Strikers and their supporters and to stonewall all attempts at a solution were effectively endorsed by the Fitzgerald-led coalition whose main priority seemed to be to avoid a diplomatic confrontation with London at all costs.

Criticism of the British policy continued to mount, however, and from some unlikely places. IRA arch-critic Fr Austin Eustace of Donaghmore, County Tyrone accused Thatcher of seeking to exact revenge on the prisoners for the death, two years previously, of her friend and mentor Airey Neave in an INLA bomb attack outside Westminster.

The Irish Press portrayed the 26 County Government response as confused and contradictory. Their refusal to meet Carron was all the more unjust considering that Government representatives had held a meeting with the UDA just a week previously.

The futility of this stance was evidenced by increasing support for the prisoners. A picket outside the British Consulate in New York was attended by the city's Attorney General.

Amidst unusual reports that republicans were actively encouraging supporters to register to vote, the shape of both British and Irish policy in the future was beginning to emerge - namely, to prop up the SDLP and marginalise republicans.

Despite all the hardship and adversity, the Republican Movement was becoming increasingly confident as the republican people of the Six Counties and beyond mobilised in ever increasing numbers. The die had been cast for the emergence of Sinn Féin as a major political force.

19th prisoner joins the Hunger Strike: Bernard Fox replaces Paddy Quinn

On Monday, 24 August 1981, Belfast republican Bernard Fox became the 19th prisoner to join the Hunger Strike protest. It was now six months into the Hunger Strike and Fox replaced Paddy Quinn, whose family had authorised medical intervention after he had fallen into a coma.

Bernard Fox was the youngest member of his family, hailing from the St James's area of West Belfast. Like Bobby Sands, he had served an apprenticeship as a coach builder, and had worked for more than a year at the same firm as Sands.

He joined the Republican Movement in 1969, becoming deeply involved in the resistance to British occupation.

Fox went 'on the run' after the introduction of internment in August 1971. A measure of his standing within the Movement can be inferred from the fact that, during the 1972 truce, he took part in talks with British Army officers in Broadway billet.

Arrested in November 1972, he was interned until March 1974 and was then free briefly before being interned again, this time until the end of internment in December 1975. Immediately on his release, Fox went on the run again, finally being captured in November 1977 when he was charged with possession of timing devices and causing an explosion at the Grennan Lodge Hotel in Belfast the previous month.

He spent 14 months on remand before a Diplock court convicted him on an alleged verbal confession and he was sentenced to 14 years. He immediately joined the blanket protest.

An Phoblacht Magazine

AN PHOBLACHT MAGAZINE:

  • The first edition of this new magazine will feature a 10 page special on the life and legacy of our leader Martin McGuinness to mark the first anniversary of his untimely passing.
  • It will include a personal reminiscence by Gerry Adams and contributions from the McGuinness family.
  • There will also be an exclusive interview with our new Uachtarán Mary Lou McDonald.

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