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7 September 2006 Edition

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Remembering 1981: More families intervene and 21st man joins Hunger Strike

John Pickering

Crisis for Brits postponed


In early September 1981 the families of the men on Hunger Strike in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh faced horrendously difficult decisions as their sons lay dying while the British Government remained impassive.

On Friday 4 September, Matt Devlin's family authorised medical intervention. At 3pm that day, Matt was reported to have gone into an epileptic type fit and his mother and brother, summoned from their County Tyrone home and told of his dangerous condition, signed the necessary papers for doctors to give medical aid.

On Sunday 6 September, Laurence McKeown reached his 70th day on the fast and went unconscious. His family authorised medical intervention.

The plan to sustain a state of constant crisis and pressure on the British was therefore postponed at a time when the then leading Hunger Striker, Liam McCloskey, had reached his 38th day, an estimated three weeks before the most critical point. The families of Paddy Quinn and Pat McGeown had already intervened to save their sons' lives.

The British Government at this time was being encouraged in its attitude by the persistent, unhelpful interference in the Hunger Strike by certain members of the clergy and their intense emotional lobbying of prisoners' families. Nevertheless, the Hunger Strike continued and, on Monday 7 September, John Pickering, from Andersonstown in West Belfast, joined the fast at a time when Gerry Carville from Greencastle, County Down, was on his tenth day.

Bernard Fox was on his 17th day and Jackie McMullan on his 24th day; Pat Sheehan had completed 30 days; Liam McCloskey was on his 38th day.

The fact that McCloskey was an INLA Volunteer and leading the fast scuppered the media contention that the INLA prisoners had withdrawn support from the Hunger Strike. What the INLA had in fact decided to do was to reduce their participation from the one-in-four ratio to IRA hunger-strikers to be more in line with the one-in-ten ratio which corresponded with the size of their group among the protesting H-Block prisoners.

Statement from families

In the aftermath of the family interventions, the families of the remaining six men on the fast issued this statement:

"We, the families of the present Hunger Strikers in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh, wish to state our public support for the political prisoners' struggle for their 5 demands and for our loved-ones on hunger strike.

"We call upon the British Government to ensure a permanent ending to all the prison protests by implementing the conditions outlined by the prisoners. We request a public response from the British Government to this appeal."

Quinn critical

In late July that Mrs Catherine Quinn, unable to watch her son Paddy writhing in agony, signed for medical intervention.

Paddy Quinn, then 47 days on hunger strike, had reached a critical stage becoming dangerously ill much earlier than expected. His mother and sister, who arrived to visit him at 4.30pm on Friday, found him unconscious as a result of several epileptic attacks which had been caused by a shortage of oxygen reaching his brain. His family, seeing him screaming with pain, told doctors in the hospital to intervene to save his life. The Quinn family later pointed out:

"Had Paddy been conscious, we could not have taken the decision to give him medical treatment. He was determined to go on to the end. The brave men remaining on Hunger Strike are conscious and while they remain so only they can make the decision to end the Hunger Strike."

Mrs Quinn's understandable action in calling for medial intervention was seized upon by the Catholic Church hierarchy in an attempt to undermine the prison protest.

Despite the family intervention in Quinn's case, the trend for intervention was not yet established and the parents of Kevin Lynch and Kieran Doherty, along with the next-of-kin of Michael Devine, supported their loved ones on the Hunger Strike.

Even after the deaths of ten comrades on hunger strike, there was no demoralisation in the H-Blocks and the commitment to the Hunger Strike and the belief in it as the only weapon for achieving their 5 demands continued. But beyond the prison gates the Hunger Strike was being undermined by attacks from the Church.

After Mrs Quinn's intervention, the three other families did likewise and Pat McGeown, Matt Devlin and Laurence McKeown were taken off the fast.

Bobby Sands once wrote of how he suspected Fr Toner, the Long Kesh prison chaplain, of playing a disastrous role during the first hunger strike and of attempting to scuttle the second one. His suspicions were later verified by the behaviour of other clerics.

The medical interventions, pressure from the clergy and the decision by INLA prisoners not to continue with the Hunger Strike on the previous scale were all seized upon to support the case that the strike was collapsing.

However the Hunger Strike continued. During a period when supporters were not faced with the prospect of an imminent prison death, it was a time to be used to assess how best to overcome frustration and to build pressure once again on the British and on the Irish establishment.

Dundalk conference

On 6 September 1981, the day that Laurence McKeown was taken off the Hunger Strike, an important conference was held in Dundalk. This was an open event held by the National H-Block/Armagh Committee and it demonstrated that, despite the continued intransigence of the British Government after six months of hunger strike and ten deaths, the campaign activists were not demoralised. The conference was by far the committee's best-ever-attended with nearly 1,000 participants from all over the country.

A smuggled out message of thanks from the H-Block blanket men was read out. The men reaffirmed their commitment to Hunger Strike and declared that the intransigence of the British would be reversed when they realised "how counter-productive is their death policy".

Bernadette McAliskey delivered the committee's report, stating at the outset:

"The five demands have not yet been won... If we did not believe the prisoners' demands could be won, we would not be here. Our task here is to decide what we must do to win the demands and organise to do it."

She went on to say that the committee had made a central error.

"We have not politically convinced the campaign militants why, and how, we should make demands of such groups as the SDLP, GAA, etc, pressurising them and widening the support beyond the committed ant-imperialist.

"The campaign must be broadened. We must directly involve and integrate all those who support the five demands."

Meanwhile the Irish government, SDLP and Catholic Hierarchy all withheld the full pressure they could have placed upon the British. They judged that a victory for the prisoners would further damage British rule (and their own influence) and would promote republicanism.

The Hunger Strike was damaging the British image abroad and led to an upsurge in Irish-American support for the republican cause while destabilising the political establishment in Ireland.

John Pickering — 21st man joins 1981 Hunger Strike

John Pickering, from Andersonstown, West Belfast, was 25 years of age when he joined the 1981 Hunger Strike on 7 September. He was the 21st man to join the fast. He was a friend, comrade and cell-mate of Kieran Doherty.

After leaving school at the age of 15, John got a job as an apprentice joiner. Several months later, he was arrested and charged with riotous behaviour; he spent two months in St Patrick's juvenile detention centre in West Belfast.

John joined the Republican Movement as a young teenager. In August 1972, at the age of 16, he went on the run after being threatened during a two-day spell in Dunmurry RUC Barracks with being interned without trial when he turned 17 later that year. In fact, ten days before Christmas of that year, and just two months after his 17th birthday, John was again arrested. He was interned for three years, until November 1975.

Upon his release John once more wholeheartedly threw himself into the liberation struggle. In August 1976, he and three others (including Kieran Doherty) were captured on active service on the Malone Road. They were all charged with numerous operations including the killing of a UDR soldier.

After spending 17 months on remand in Crumlin Road Jail, John was sentenced to 26 years' imprisonment. He immediately joined the Blanket Protest and was also on the No-Wash Protest, during which time he developed a bad ear infection for which he had to undergo an operation.

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