“Smashing H-Block” by F. Stuart Ross is the first book to be published about the H Block campaign.
True, there’s a shelf-load of books on the saga within the prison and the intricate interplay between British and Irish politicians, church representatives, prisoners’ leaders and so on. And there’s fierce controversy still raging in letters columns and the internet about the putative deal which might have ended the strike sooner and saved the lives of six of the 10 men.
What all of these publications ignore is the campaign outside the prison without which the hunger strike might have taken a very different course.
Probably the two most important people in the campaign in Derry were Mary Nelis and Paddy Logue. Across Ireland, the most significant figure was Bernadette McAliskey. But you could while away hours meandering through H Block analyses without chancing upon their names.
There’s nothing unusual about this.
The mass of the people are commonly relegated to roles as extras in the narrative of history. But Ross makes the people the main player. He quotes the 1981 annual report of RUC chief constable John Hermon estimating that there had been “1,205 demonstrations attended by some 353,000 people” in support of the prisoners.
The campaign brought bigger numbers onto the street than the civil rights movement of the late ‘60s or the Loyalist upsurge in 1974.
By way of comparison, a Human Rights Watch report in October 2001 noted that 33 prisoners had died in hunger strikes against prison conditions in Turkey. A further 14 perished the following year.
In all, 64 were to die. But, as Ross mordantly comments: “Few people know this”.
The hunger strikers in Turkish jails matched the men in Long Kesh for fixity of purpose and readiness to die. But the scale of oppression in their country was of a different order to oppression here.
No way would demonstrators have been allowed to gather on 1,200 occasions. Or 12 occasions for that matter.
The prisoners’ organisations were faction-ridden to a degree which made their Irish equivalents seem models of placidity. But even if that had not been the case, the absence of a mass campaign meant that Turkish politics were not sent into turmoil. The world shrugged and looked away.
The main reason that didn’t happen here is the main theme of F. Stuart Ross’s book. “Smashing H Block” is a necessary and long-overdue new look at a vital phase in our recent history.
Read more from Eamonn McCann in the Journal every Tuesday