15 June 2006 Edition
Remembering 1981: Two H-Block prisoner TDs elected
BY Aran Foley
The Hunger Strike election
The 26 County general election of June 1981 provided the protesting prisoners in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh with an opportunity to demonstrate the wide level of public support for the Hunger Strikers and the 5 Demands.
Accordingly nine republican prisoners were put foward as election candidates and in a stunning victory for the anti-H Block/Armagh campaign two of them were elected to the Dáil while others attracted very significant support at the polls.
Combined with the election of Bobby Sands in Fermanagh/South Tyrone during the Westminster election, the result demonstrated that the British strategy of criminalisation was in tatters and had been rejected by nationalist Ireland.
In Cavan/Monaghan Hunger Striker Kieran Doherty with 9,121 first preference votes was elected with just 303 votes short of government mnister and sitting Fianna Fáil TD John Wilson. The result flew in the face of media predictions that Doherty would secure a maximum of 5,000 first preferences.
The count had gone into a second day before Kieran Doherty was declared elected. Speaking on his behalf, his election agent and Cavan town Sinn Féin councillor, Charlie Boylan told supporters that the victory was "a clear indication of the concern of a great many Irish people at the sad situation which exists in the Northern part of our country and more especially in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh itself."
In Louth, another H-Block prisoner, Blanket Man Paddy Agnew was elected with a first preference vote of 8,368 votes. Fianna Fáil had complacently dismissed Agnew and the party was genuinely shocked by the outcome. Agnew had been arrested by British forces on the southern side of Carlingford Lough by a British military patrol boat. The refusal of the Irish Government to protest this breach of sovereignty had aroused much local anger.
There had been widespread support for the Hunger Strikers in the Louth constituency with Dundalk totally shut down by anti-H-Block industrial action on several occasions. This had prompted local Fine Gael councillor and general election candidate Brendan McGahon to blame the success of such actions on intimidation but Agnew's victory exposed this for the lie that it was. McGahon was eliminated on the fourth count after receiving virtually no transfers. His defeat was largely attributed to his open hostility to the republican prisoners.
Local election workers estimated that the vast majority of the constituency's 3,000 first time voters had voted for Paddy Agnew indicating the widespread support amongst the youth, not just in Louth, but across the country.
As in the Cavan/Monaghan victory it was Fianna Fáil that paid the price by losing a seat. The H-Block election victories and the huge support given to other H-Block candidates denied Charles Haughey's Fianna Fáil an overall majority in Leinster House and was a political price for the government's spineless attitude throughout the Hunger Srike.
In Sligo/Leitrim, the third border constituency, Hunger Striker Joe McDonnell received a very impressive 5,634 first preference votes but failed to take a seat. When his votes were redistributed 2,000 went to Fianna Fáil and nearly 3,000 went to Fine Gael demonstrating the broad base from which prisoners were receiving support. The desperate economic plight of Leitrim at the time and a determination to be locally represented - there had been no one from Leitrim elected in the previous election - saw two candidates returned from Leitrim, one for Fianna Fáil and one for Fine Gael. Campaigners believed that this was a significant factor in the failure to have Joe McDonnell elected. The result was nevertheless very significant and again indicative of the widespread support that the Hunger Strike had aroused.
Another Hunger Striker, Martin Hurson stood in Longford/Westmeath where he demonstrated that, as in Sligo/Leitrim, the Hunger Strikers drew support from a wide base. The largest proportion of his transfers actually went to Fine Gael. He had attracted 4,573 first preference votes which represented 10%of the first preference votes and was a very strong showing. Hurson remained in the race until the sixth count when he was eliminated and his transfers shared out.
In Kerry North former Hunger Striker, Sean McKenna received 3,860 first preferences showing that support for the Hunger Strikers was not just confined to the border area. Again his transfers went across party lines. Signicantly Des Foley was returned for Fianna Fáil over the outgoing Fianna Fáil TD. Foley had been a prominent member of the local anti-H-Block/Armagh Committee. Foley's record of support for the Hunger Srikers played a significant role in his election.
In Waterford, Hunger Striker Kevin Lynch got 3,337 first preferences. The vast majority of his transfers went to the Workers' Party, indicating how that party's supporters were rejecting its negative stance on the Hunger Strike.
Transfers from Fine Gael's Austin Deasy pushed Lynch above the Fianna Fáil contender and he remained in the running for two more counts after the Fianna Fáil man had been eliminated.
The constituency of Dublin West provided a surprising 3,034 first preference votes for Blanket Man, Tony O'Hara, brother of the late Hunger Striker Patsy. This placed him at a respectable seventh of 15 candidates. Support was particularly high in working class areas such as Ballyfermot. Workers' Party leader Tomás Mac Giolla was defeated with the largest amount of his transfers going to Tony O'Hara.
O'Hara reached half the quota before being eliminated leaving his supporters to wonder what could have been achieved if the local campaign had not been adversely affected by internal divsion.
Former Armagh Prison Hunger Striker and the only woman prisoner to stand as a candidate, Mairéad Farrell secured 2,751 first preference votes in the constituency of Cork North Central ahead of one Fine Gael candidate, one Workers' Party candidate and one Independent.
This was a significant achievement in an area far from the North and with only single channel TV news provided by RTE's enthusuiastic implemntation of Section 31political cesnoship legislation that prevented republicans being interviewed in the broadcast media.
The humiliation of Fianna Fáil in Jack Lynch's former constituency was emphisised in that only their four candidates remained unelected when Farrell was eliminated with two of them being elected on her transfers.
There was dissension within anti-H-Block/Armagh camp in Clare which hampered the election campaign. Neverthless Blanket Man Tom McAllister had a creditable result with 2,120 first preferences.
His transfers went mainly to Fianna Fáil whose candidate, Bill Loughnane scraped in on the eleventh count.
In addition to the nine prisoner candidates four other candidates stood on the anti-H-Block issue. In Dublin North Central Vincent Doherty of Peoples Democracy received 1,481 first preferences. Joe Harrington, also of People's Democracy stood in Limerick East gaining 844 first preferences. Paddy Healy of The League for a Workers' Republic ran in Dublin North East and got 1,063 first preferences and in Cork South West, the local H-Block Action Committee were early in the field with Sean Kelleher who took 1,097 first preferences.
The anti-H-Block campaign had transformed the 26 county General Election resulting in the defeat of the Fianna Fáil government. Facing defeat Haughey had made his strongest statement yet on the Hunger Strikes placing the responsibility to find a solution firmly on the shoulders of the British. However, this was widely seen as cynical politicking, offering an excuse to three independents, Neil Blaney, John O'Connell and John Loftus to support him. As it turned out only Blaney offered his support.
When the shape of the new government finally emerged it was to be a Fine Gael/Labour coalition, supported by one Independent- the anti-republican Limerick TD Jim Kemmy. Labour had suffered serious setbacks during the election and many put this down to the party leadership being out of touch with its base on the issue of the Hunger Strikes- mass defections in Louth had been echoed to a lesser extent around the country.
Although Fine Gael leader Garret Fitzgerald immediately began making noises about the need to find a solution to the Hunger Strike, even going as far as to say it was his most urgent priority, many commentators felt that this was just recognising the reality that the election had exposed. It was also felt that he saw an opportunity to eat into the base of the so called green wing of Charlie Haughey's Fianna Fáil who had clearly been drifting because of the Hunger Strike.
His appointment to the post of Minister for posts and Telegraphs, may have more accurately reflected what was in his heart however. Paddy Cooney, a vitriolic anti-republican from the infamous 1970's Fine Gael/Labour coalition, which witnessed the use of beating of republicans in custody by the 'Heavy Gang'. That Cooney was to be given responsibility for broadcasting and the implementation of Section 31 censorship at such a sensitive time did not augur well for the future. It was perhaps indicative of the corrosion that Section 31 had engendered within RTE that anchor man of the Today Tonight current afairs programme, Brian Farrell, felt compelled to launch into a sycophantic defence of Cooney in response to criticisms in Magill magazine.
The election results had rattled the establishment who had failed to realise the levels of support for the prisoners. It had also severely embarrassed the British Government internationally by further giving the lie to their criminalisation policy.
The vice chair of the SDLP, Seamus Mallon, had been forced to declare that it was highly unlikely it would contest the Fermanagh/South Tyrone seat left vacant by the death of Bobby Sands and the Catholic bishops were openly expressing their worries about the rise in support for republicanism. They had issued a blatantly one sided statement calling on the Hunger Strikers "and those who direct them" to reflect deeply on the "evil of their actions". This gave comfort to the British Government who described it as helpful while once again re-iterating that there would be no compromise with the prisoners. The irony was that the statement had been issued to exhort the prisoners to support proposals by the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace (ICJP) to end the Hunger Strike. It was in stark contrast to a statement by Fr Pierre of the French Commission for Justice and Peace who had said that "The courage of the Hunger Strikers illustrates the nobility of their cause."
The proposals were at best woolly and in any case the British ignored them prompting Cardinal Ó Fiaich to point out that once again the British had chosen to pick out only what suited them.
Reacting to the Bishop's statement the then Sinn Féin Vice-President Gerry Adams said the bishops "failed to mention the presence of the British government and its military forces, as being in any way instrumental or responsible for the situation. That the Irish bishops making comment about political instability in Ireland have omitted to do this or to examine the effects of the British-imposed partition of our country, cannot be but regretted by many Irish people."
In the immediate aftermath of the elections the British Government felt compelled to send two senior Stormont civil servants to the United States in a vain attempt to offset the negative impact the Hunger Strike was having on its image. A visit to the US by Britain's Prince Charles had been a shambles, even according to the rabidly pro-Tory Sunday Express. Also at this time a US visit by British Princess Margeret was called off, an open admission of the damage that had been inflicted.
All this coincided with a hugely successful tour of the States by John Sands, Elizabeth O'Hara and Malachy McCreesh, all relatives of three of the deceased Hunger Strikers. The election results had clearly invigorated support for the prisoners in America. In Canada, also, ex-Blanket Man Fra McCann was finding increasing support as he toured the country and the prisoners' election victories were a big factor.
In Britain the effect the prison protest was having on the Labour Party was best evidenced by the raft of constituency party organisations which had adopted a position of calling for British troops to be withdrawn from Ireland. On 25 June the 'Don't let the Irish prisoners die Committee' announced that a wide range of trade union, journalistic, labour and theatrical people had signed its petition on the issue. Meawhile pickets on the offices of MPs were mounted. Also 25 June Prince Charles was reminded of his recent trip to New York when 40 Hunger Strike protestors greeted him on a visit to Central Middlesex Hospital.
Republican morale was boosted at this time also by an increasingly effective and intense IRA campaign. Crown forces were being hit all across the Six Counties with gun, bomb and mortar attacks.
On 10 June republicans throughout Ireland were ecstatic when four IRA volunteers shot their way to freedom from Crumlin Road Prison in Belfast. The morale boost was amplified when one of them, Dingus Magee turned up giving a defiant victory salute from the podium at Bodenstown on 21 June.
All these events occurred against the backdrop of a situation where the condition of Humger Striker Joe McDonnell was deteriorating rapidly. Unable now to leave his bed unaided, he could only be moved about the prison hospital in a wheelchair. He had gone from 15 stone to eight stone and was unable to open his eyes without feeling nauseated. Doctors had made it clear to his family that time was running out.