H -Block era bigger than civil rights

A new book by a Derry-based academic argues that the public campaign in support of the hunger strikers was “larger than the civil rights movement.”

F. Scott Ross makes the claim in his newly published book, ‘Smashing H Block,’ which was released this week.

The author grew up in Syracuse, New York, and first visited Derry twenty years ago and has lived in the city for the last ten years. He completed his masters and PhD at Queens University, Belfast.

He was 12 years-old during the 1981 hunger strike and said he became interested in the period during the 20th anniversary commemorations.

Mr Ross said he decided to write the book to tell the story of the popular movements that sprang up outside Long Kesh in support of the prisoners.

“It is a very detailed political history. It looks at the period before 1976 and the different groups that came together. A lot of what has been written about the hunger strikes has focused on the ten men and what happened inside the prison.

“So much of what has come out of commemoration events has focused on the prisoners and has been political. Politicians do not make good historians and you don’t expect them to be.

“I wanted to look at the other elements. If you want to learn from the past you have to learn from the things have been glossed over,” he said.

One of the main groups which led the protests in support of the hunger strikers was the Relatives Action Committee, largely made up of the families of prisoners. ‘Smashing H Block’ looks at the formation of this group and the myriad of different organisation which came together under its umbrella.

While Sinn Féin and the republican movement played a key role in the protests, the book also sheds light on the role of other groups such as the IRSP and People’s Democracy.

It also discusses the involvement of Derry-based group the Irish Front, which was active in the late 1970s and brought together a range of different nationalist and republican groups in one umbrella organisation and highlighted H-Block issues.

Mr Ross said many of the marches during 1981 were larger than the civil rights marches of the late 1960s. “What they did accomplish was to bring together a movement bigger than the civil rights movement. It was not as diverse but it was larger. A lot of marches were larger than those in 1968 and 1969. It mirrored the split within nationalism at the time.

“It was never a completely cohesive group however. All the various groups and organisations could agree about the issue of supporting the prisoners but the electoral issue caused problems,” he said.

The writer also said he feels it is important to record the history of the period. “Sometimes outsiders can take a different look at things differently. There is an appetite for a different type of information. First and second year students I have taught at Queens were not born when the hunger strike was on and while there is a great deal of interest, this is history that they do not have a real connection to. Some of what has been written and said about this period has been political but I wanted to write an academic version.

“However, while it may be academic it is written in a way that it is accessible.

“It is not just a history, it also makes people think and raises questions,” he said.

‘Smashing H-Block’ by F Stuart Ross is published by Liverpool University Press and is now on sale in local bookshops.