The Hunger Strikers

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…

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