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1 May 1997 Edition

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The hunger strikers' constant champion

This is the sixteenth anniversary of the Hunger Strikes of 1981 when ten Republican prisoners died seeking the restoration of their political status as prisoners of war.

One person who had a crucial role in helping the prisoners in the campaign was Sinn Féin councillor Marie Moore. She spoke to An Phoblacht about the efforts that she and a handful of other women made, about their vital part in highlighting the prisoners' plight, and in sustaining their campaigns and their families through the years 1976-81.


At the time I was a member of the POW Department. After we received news of very severe beatings being inflicted in the H-Blocks we set up a Relatives Action Committee to widen the prisoners' campaign. There was a group in each area, specifically highlighting the plight of the prisoners in the Blocks. It was mostly made up of mothers, wives and sisters of the prisoners.

Conditions worsened and the `No Wash' protest started after the men were not allowed to wash, or if they did leave their cells to wash they were very badly beaten.

Prisoners were allowed a monthly visit, and the prison authorities stopped those visits, and it became extremely hard to get any communication out of the jail. It was also very hard for prisoners to communicate from wing to wing, and block to block. My job was to keep the communication flowing between wings and blocks.

To arrange that, we had the help of the relatives of the prisoners, and we also had a team of women - girls - who undertook regular visits to the jail, some three visits a week. Prisoners gave up their monthly family visits to the POW Department to keep communications flowing. It was sometimes very difficult, because communications were coming out in the morning, and they needed a response to go back that afternoon. So you had all the problems that involved trying to get an answer back within hours.

As conditions worsened the prisoners notified us that they wanted to go on hunger strike. They felt this was the only option open to them, what with the cell movements and beatings and forced washes when they were scrubbed with deck-scrubbers in ice-cold, or sometimes boiling, water.

All of that needed to be publicised so that a campaign could be mounted.

The last resort, the prisoners believed, was to go on hunger strike. At that point the campaign went up a gear with people dashing about, trying to convince them that we would need a massive campaign to help them get their five demands.

The National H-Block/Armagh Committees were set up as the RAC waned. They were also locally based, and eventually had branches in the 32 counties, the US and Europe.

The POW Department and Sinn Féin's job was to mobilise the people. It wasn't easy. The campaign began with about twenty women at the Falls Park, organising a picket then marching up the Falls Road, and it grew from then. They organised into Six-County areas, with an Executive which met regularly and which filtered information on pickets and protests down into the areas.

``After the end of the first Hunger Strike, conditions were so bad that trying to get communications in and out was nearly impossible. And because sometimes they are forgotten, I would like to congratulate the women and the relatives who came to the POW Department every day, and brought information in and out, keeping people outside informed of events and each wing and block informed about the campaign.

After the first Hunger Strike ended with the British government reneging on what they had promised, the second started. It was a very traumatic time for everyone, inside the jails and outside.

Every day we had meetings with families of the hunger strikers. It was a terribly sad time for myself and the two others who were working in the office.

When the prisoners were moved to hospital the families could visit them every day. It was very sad. They would come into the office and give us information about weight loss, the content of the urine, and all of that information that was being documented, on charts, daily.

The `comms' that were coming out of the prison were small, rolled-up, clingfilmed, and came from all parts of the body, and the women who took these comms in and out had a very hard job to do. Especially with the state of the prisoners they visited, with the heavy smell that came off them, long beards, gaunt expressions and staring eyes, an image which came to symbolise all of the men inside.

And then three women, acting in support of the men, also went on hunger strike, and the women suffering the `No Wash' protest. Although they had their own clothes, they were much worse off than the men, because they weren't even given sanitary protection, or allowed any protection during their periods, and they had much worse body odour.

The network of keeping contact with the jails from the office on the Falls Road was down to about 12 women, plus relatives, who took visits to all the Blocks and Armagh, to bring information in and tell the prisoners how the campaign was going.

Sometimes there were good results, and people were out in their thousands, and sometimes poor results, which was demoralising for everybody.

Mal Carey was one of the greatest characters I visited, and he never refused to take any communications. He always had a smile and a laugh and a joke when we went on a visit. No matter what was asked of him, no matter what was brought in, he never refused to take it, even though on some occasions he was very, very badly beaten.

Another person I remember very much for that would be Gary McNally, who they called `The Elephant'. He also never refused to take something, no mattter what was being brought in.

There were also some good characters amongst the women visitors, especially Maggie McCullough and Andrea Connolly, who took visits practically every day.

The time that sticks out most in my mind is visiting Bobby Sands and also Bik McFarlane, who was OC when Bobby went on hunger strike, and sometimes feeling their desperation at the continuing plight within the jail, and being unable to give them a guarantee that things outside would change so dramatically that it would finish and that nobody would die. As it moved on, we talked to the families, and watched how they were used, and indeed abused by other political parties, especially in the 26 counties, and by the church, who gave all sorts of promises to the families, but nothing ever materialised to help the situation.

It was so sad to see men dying, and so many funerals, and the families who were so strong, so very, very strong at that time, and them being systematically taken over by Fr Faul, who visited the families of the rest of the hunger strikers continually and pressurised the families.

There was a a lot of talk that people were being pressurised to go on hunger strike by Sinn Féin, but the most pressure that was brought on the families was by Fr Faul and the Catholic Church, who continually, for months, went round individual families, coaxing and coercing them to bring their sons, husbands, brothers, off hunger strike. He put such pressure on them it was unbelievable. When we spoke to them after Fr Faul had been there they were heartbroken, they felt guilty, under a moral obligation to take their relatives off hunger strike.

Our main job was support to the families, to give them as much support as possible, and to keep track of the campaign.

There was a very good POW Department at that time, led by Jim Gibney, who helped, with others, to mobilise the H-Block/Armagh Hunger Strike Committees throughout the 32 counties, and indeed promoted and arranged for people to travel all over the world to highlight conditions in the prisons at that time.

Today it does my heart good to see the thousands of people who turn out every year for the Hunger Strike Commemorative march. People were inspired by the hunger strikers and I think they always will be.

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An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1
Ireland
 

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