Everybody knows that ten men have starved themselves to death in the Maze Prison near Belfast in the past few months, but the reasons for those deaths are not universally understood.

On June 13, 1972, leaders of the Provisional IRA invited William Whitelaw, secretary of state for Northern Ireland, to discuss the possibility of making peace. The invitation was publicly rejected, but a conversational line was held open, mainly because John Hume of the Social Democratic Labour Party acted as mediator. Within two weeks a truce was effected. The British government agreed to five demands: 1) the prisoners would have the right to wear their own clothes; 2) they would not be required to do “penal labour”; 3) they would have the right to associate freely with their colleagues within their own prison area; 4) they would receive certain educational and recreational facilities; and 5) prisoners who had lost remission of sentence because of their protesting behavior in prison would have it fully restored. In return, the IRA agreed to stop its campaign of violence.

The agreement was brief. The truce ended on July 9, mainly because the situation involving the British Army, the IRA, and the Loyalist Ulster Defence Association was too confused to be contained for long. But “special category status” had been conceded, if only as a matter of expediency. When the truce ended, the British government let the concession persist, but it was soon clear that Whitelaw and his Labour successor Merlyn Rees had made a blunder. The British had achieved nothing, and they had acknowledged, in effect, that the IRA prisoners were not ordinary criminals but political prisoners.

In 1973 and 1974 a new policy was ordained: the IRA was to be confronted and defeated by the army, the normal work of security was to be taken over by the police and the Ulster Defence Regiment; acts of violence by the IRA were to be treated as ordinary crimes. The report issued by Lord Gardiner on January 30, 1975, concluded “that the introduction of special category status was a serious mistake.” On November 4, 1975, Merlyn Rees announced that special category status would end on March 1, 1976: any prisoner sent to the Maze Prison after that date would be treated as an ordinary criminal. The five demands were made again.

Of course it is an embarrassment to the British government to be reminded that what they now regard as matters of principle were treated by their predecessors as negotiable. The present government’s attitude is: we won’t make the same mistake twice. It has also become clear to the government that the five demands are merely ostensible, and that the real cause of the hunger strike is elsewhere.

It is naïve to think that the prisoners in the Maze are starving themselves to death to improve the conditions of daily life for their colleagues. Conditions in the Maze are already far easier than in most other prisons. There has been some talk of humanitarian considerations that the British government is urged to take into account, but the talk is wild. Cruelties are no longer practiced in the Maze. The prisoners, in fact, have not complained on humanitarian grounds; they have not protested about food, visiting hours, or any other empirical conditions which might be improved. The issue is special category status, though the phrase is no longer used.

But why are the prisoners (both the IRA and the smaller but even more violent Irish National Liberation Army) so insistent upon special category status or political status? It is not that they feel morally superior to the ODCs (ordinary decent criminals). In the event of amnesty, all political prisoners would at once be released, whatever their crimes. But the larger reason is that the IRA leaders are determined to take possession of the entire Republican tradition from the Rising of 1798 to the Fenians and the Men of Easter Week in 1916.

Irish education has a bearing on this matter. Teachers in Irish Catholic schools, in the North and the South, have until recently taught their pupils that the history of Ireland is one story and one story only, the determination of the Irish people to get rid of the British presence in Ireland. In every generation, according to this interpretation, there has been a revolt; a small, heroic group has risen to drive the British out of Ireland. The revolt has been put down, but the spirit of the revolt has lived on. And in 1916 the spirit triumphed at last. Against British power and native ridicule, the heroes became martyrs, executed by Asquith’s government. Those whom the Irish ridiculed were now seen for the heroic figures they had always been. So the freedom of Ireland was at last achieved, but only in part. Lloyd George conspired with Sir Edward Carson to keep six northern counties permanently under British control, with a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people. There is still, then, a revolution to be fought, the last Rising, which will complete the struggle of 1916.


So we come back to the Provisional IRA. The Provisionals want political status so that they can present themselves as the legitimate heirs to the great Republican tradition. Until very recently most people in Ireland have regarded them as nothing of the kind. In the South, successive Irish governments have repudiated the IRA leaders, and rejected their claim to be the true heirs of the Men of 1916. Irish governments have taken the position that unity is still the aspiration of the Irish people, but that it is to be achieved by peaceful means and with the consent of all; it is not to be sought down the barrel of a gun or with the detonator of a bomb. So the Provisionals have been disowned, and are regarded as usurpers of a noble tradition. Political leaders like Jack Lynch and Sean MacEntee of the Fianna Fail party, who have an indisputable claim to be known as Republicans, have denounced the Provisional IRA for usurping and perverting the tradition of Wolfe Tone, John O’Leary, and Padraic Pearse.

I speak of governments and, on the whole, of citizens. Support for the IRA comes and goes in Ireland. When they bombed the Abercorn Restaurant in Belfast in 1972 and injured many innocent people, they lost much of what support they had at the time. But people who are not the victims of such violence have a way of forgetting it. Support for the IRA also comes from America, where many Irish-Americans have grown up on the legends of heroic Ireland. And there are many people in Ireland who feel subliminal kinship with violence as a political means. Most people here are content to live with the common bourgeois life, but there are some who have residual feelings for a nationalism construed as militant and Republican. When Sean Lemass succeeded Eamon de Valera as prime minister in 1959, he turned Irish eyes toward a new ideal—economic development, planning, foreign investment. Lemass made Republicanism compatible with the pursuit of money and to such an extent that Ireland today is largely his creation. But there is still, in some people, nostalgia for the aboriginal form of Republicanism, as if we could take the harm and the guilt out of bourgeois life by resorting to the gun.

These are the feelings to which the Provisionals appeal. In the Maze, the leaders have had time to prepare the current phase of their campaign. What they seek is to have themselves accepted as the only legitimate heirs to the true Republican tradition; accepted as soldiers, heroes, rather than as terrorists. Strictly speaking, at this moment the IRA is not in conflict with Britain or the British government; the declared conflict is merely nominal. The real conflict is with those Irish people who regard the IRA as perverts, corrupters of a great tradition. The Provisionals have only one aim at the moment: to compel the Irish people to acknowledge them as their true, legitimate sons.

The IRA can hardly hope to achieve this aim by force of argument, definition, and reason. They must transcend the terms of any such discourse. The only way to do that is by taking some morally intimidating course of action, something that requires courage, passion, and selflessness. Discourse can only be transcended by action: inside a prison, action can only take a symbolic form, all the more potent for being irrational and exorbitant. There is no gesture more compelling than the hunger strike, and ideally the hunger strike until death.

It seems to me fair to conclude that the H-block hunger strikes have nothing to do with conditions in the Maze, and everything to do with the IRA’s claim to be the only true descendants of our Republican martyrs. For the moment, the British government is only nominally a party to the conflict. Britain has only the same status as discourse itself, a notional presence, and one that is transcended by the real motives of the Provisionals.

If this is so, it must be conceded that the IRA campaign has already been extraordinarily successful. The several deaths by hunger have made “the damnable question” of Ireland news again. They have intimidated the Irish government into a whirl of misjudgments, including the foolish demand that President Reagan exert pressure upon Mrs. Thatcher to “resolve” the situation. The deaths have exacerbated the relation between the governments of Britain and Ireland, a relation not at all helped by Governor Carey’s predictable delineation of Mrs. Thatcher as “implacable, obstinate, and stubborn.” The well-meaning Social Democratic Labour Party has been knocked out of the political scene, at least for the time being. The deaths have also induced, in the leaders of the Catholic Church in Ireland, something close to hysteria and the folly that accompanies it. The relation between politics and discourse has been broken. And all this has been achieved by the carefully planned deaths of men who have shown that they regard the deaths of other people as casual events.


This much is clear. Many peaceable people in Ireland, who would like to see Ireland united but would not break anyone’s head to achieve it, have now accepted, apparently, that the IRA hunger strikers, by dying, have transformed their cause. The text regularly quoted to endorse this attitude is W.B. Yeats’s poem “Easter 1916.” The poem tells of ordinary, inconsequential people, including one, “a drunken, vainglorious lout,” who were transformed by their Republican dream and by its “excess of love” until they died. In another poem, Yeats wrote of “all that delirium of the brave,” and he was ready to find, in what they did, delirium and self-bewilderment to the pitch of frenzy.

But it makes no difference. What remains, in many people, is a feeling that these men, and now the IRA and the INLA hunger strikers, have transformed their lives by the way in which they willed their deaths. Bobby Sands’s death by hunger has achieved what he could never have achieved by his prowess with a gun. And it has been achieved not by reason or argument but by the primitive force of a symbolic act. The point of a hunger strike in the Maze is to ensure that the particular death will have the aura of sacrifice: a sacrificial death can then be represented as having transfigured the life it ended and the cause it served.

The hunger strike is a weapon of extraordinary potency in Ireland, where there is a long tradition to enhance it. In one of Yeats’s plays Seanchan starves himself on King Guaire’s threshold, and at one point the king says:

He has chosen death:
Refusing to eat or drink, that he may bring
Disgrace upon me; for there is a custom,
An old and foolish custom, that if a man
Be wronged, or think that he is wronged, and starve
Upon another’s threshold till he die,
The common people, for all time to come,
Will raise a heavy cry against that threshold,
Even though it be the King’s.

When Terence McSwiney died in Brixton Prison on October 25, 1920, that being the seventy-fourth day of his hunger strike, he gave Republicans a weapon they already knew how to use. A hunger strike forces ordinary people to feel guilty. They are alive, the hunger striker is dead or dying, so he has the moral advantage.

In practical terms, hunger strikes in Ireland have rarely achieved their immediate object. De Valera’s government let Jack McNeela die after fifty-five days, and Tony d’Arcy after fifty-two days, on hunger strike in 1940, and Sean McCaughey after thirty-one days in 1946. Liam Cosgrave’s coalition government of 1973-1977 was unanimous, according to Conor Cruise O’Brien’s recent account of it, in facing down a serious hunger strike in Portlaoise Prison. But it remains true that an IRA man’s death by hunger provokes in many people feelings of shame and outrage, and certainly does much to sustain the tradition of Republican violence. Many people feel that a cause is transfigured when someone has died for it, all the more so when he has chosen his death.

The present position is that the British government has announced, as a matter of principle, that it will not treat the Republican prisoners as political: their crimes are to be regarded as secular, not spiritual. It is widely thought that Mrs. Thatcher’s hatred of the “men of violence” was rendered definitive by the terrorists’ murders of the Conservative spokesman on Northern Ireland Aircy Neave and Lord Mountbatten. In any case she is not going to concede the five demands. One or two of them, perhaps; clothing is no longer a real issue, and the question of work can be fudged to some extent. But so long as the prisoners insist on the five concessions as a whole, there is no room for movement.

Besides, Mrs. Thatcher is not under any great international pressure on the matter. In the Maze, the Republican leaders have problems. When Owen Carron of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, was recently elected MP for Fermanagh/South. Tyrone, several parents of the prisoners demanded that he take over the H-block issue and release the hunger strikers from their bond. Carron refused, on the grounds that the hunger strikers must continue to be seen, all over the world, as willing to die for their cause. But many of the parents remain dissatisfied, and some have called in the prison doctors and taken their sons off the hunger strike. There has been an arrangement between the IRA and the INLA by which the INLA would supply one hunger striker for every three supplied by the IRA. The INLA has only twenty-eight prisoners on the protest, compared to the IRA’s 380, so the arrangement can’t last for long. It is possible that the INLA will back out of its commitment and let the IRA go the rest of the way alone.

Carron’s refusal to let the hunger strikers give up their fast was probably a mistake. It was not his decision, however: he is merely a puppet, the brain of the movement is the Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams. But Adams, too, has made blunders. Carron was elected specifically and solely on the H-block issue. Adams could have presented Carron’s victory as showing that “the common people” wanted to see the struggle carried beyond the Maze into the world at large, with Carron speaking on radio and TV. It would have been possible then to end the hunger strike and represent Carron’s election as the next phase of the crusade. Adams chose otherwise. He evidently concluded that the strike still carries an emotional charge worth the cost. My own sense of the matter is that he is wrong. The Irish government, having blown hot, is blowing cold. Garret FitzGerald, the prime minister, now regards the IRA leaders as bearing, far more than Mrs. Thatcher, responsibility for the deaths. And the Catholic bishops are now emphasizing the futility of the hunger strike rather than Mrs. Thatcher’s alleged intransigence in dealing with it. But even if the hunger strikes were to end tomorrow, it would not mean peace in Northern Ireland. The strike will be replaced by new intensity with the gun. Many Armalite rifles can be bought with the $250,000 collected during the last six months by Noraid, the IRA’s support group in the US.

What, if anything, should the British government do? It can enlarge the context. The British and Irish governments should immediately resume the discussions which were silenced by the recent change of government and the H-block crisis. The two governments should take up the discourse and refuse to be driven beyond the reach of syntax. I am aware that there are ideological issues at work even in such an innocent proposal. I have already argued that one of the main purposes of the hunger strikes has been to defeat discourse: this purpose has a minor variant in the abstentionist policy traditional to Irish nationalists. Nationalists elected to the old Stormont Parliament normally refused to take their seats in the House, and their abstention was understood as a permanent gesture of protest against a government they and their constituents regarded as unacceptable. Owen Carron, too, has undertaken to abstain from taking his seat in Westminster.

So it is a well-understood policy in Irish nationalism to refuse discourse with the enemy.’ Governments, however, are committed to discourse, till the wars are declared and communication takes a more sinister form. Roland Barthes has argued, in The Eiffel Tower, that the petite bourgeoisie has a particular interest not only in continuous discourse but in a specially agreeable form of it, the speech of statement and counter-statement, the rhetoric of retaliation, the reduction of the world to pure equality the observance of quantitative relations between human actions. These gestures are congenial to the petite bourgeoisie, according to Barthes, because they close the world safely upon itself, proclaim the accountancy of good sense and the euphoria of a conventional identity.

It may be true. But even if we grant that the British and Irish governments are indisputably petit bourgeois in Barthes’s formulation, it is difficult to see what else they can do but talk, and keep up the talk of an admittedly limited good sense, when they are faced with acts of Republican violence which,like abstention and hunger striking, are designed to defeat discourse.

If the two governments start talking, what are they to talk about? The agenda must include three items, possibilities which at least should come up for consideration. One: the question, recently sponsored by The Sunday Times of London, of constituting Northern Ireland in its present boundary as an independent country, with due assistance and guarantees of civil rights for all citizens. It must be reported that this idea has attracted little positive response.

Two: Conor Cruise O’Brien’s recently defined idea of a revised Northern Ireland, the boundary between North and South to be re-drawn along more satisfactory lines, taking into account the dominant feeling in each border area, with mainly Catholic areas becoming part of the Republic. Again, the idea has not been well received, even by the northern Loyalists for whom it is chiefly intended. Besides, it partially contradicts O’Brien’s other admonition, that the South must renounce every territorial claim upon the North, a claim made in Articles 2 and 3 of our constitution. If we are to renounce every claim, why should we exert a claim upon the counties to be given up by the North on the putative occasion of a second Partition? Still, changes in the border and exchanges of population are certainly worth talking about.

Three: a declaration of intent, on Britain’s part, to withdraw from Northern Ireland at some stated or unstated time and meanwhile to work persuasively toward the unification of Ireland. In the long run, this option seems to me the one to work for. British presence in Northern Ireland is not immutable: no law of nature requires it. It would be reasonable for a British government to advise northern Unionists to make their peace, to define their future in union with the South, and to see what guarantees of Protestant identity and interests can be worked out. The common people of Britain want to get out of Northern Ireland. Increasingly, politicians in Britain are committing themselves to this end: not only Michael Foot, Denis Healey, James Callaghan, and Tony Benn, but, whisperingly, several Tory ministers.

Conor Cruise O’Brien has warned against this course: it will inevitably result, he says, in a civil war between Protestants and Catholics. Can anyone guarantee that there will not be such a war? No, indeed. But that kind of prophecy is yet another way of making discourse afraid of itself. What is needed now are negotiating voices to break through the appalling silence.

This Issue

October 22, 1981