May 5th is an important day for Irish republicans as it was the date in 1981 when Bobby Sands died after 66 days on hunger strike.
It was also the date in 1977 when Derry republican Pius McNaught was arrested, a move that would lead him to the prison protests in Long Kesh. Like many young republicans, he refused to wear a prison uniform and immediately joined the blanket protest.
The jail dispute began in 1976 when Kieran Nugent refused to wear prison uniform. The protest escalated over the next four years through the ‘no wash’ and dirty protests, before seven republicans went on hunger strike in 1980. Their hunger strike ended when they the prisoners thought they had secured a deal from the prison authorities, however, the British Government reneged on the deal.
In March 1981 Bobby Sands began another hunger strike which eventually led to his death and that of nine other prisoners, including Derry men, Patsy O’Hara and Mickey Devine.
Explaining how he came to be in Long Kesh, Mr McNaught said; “I was 20 years of age when I was arrested on 5th May, 1977 along with four other men. Just four years to the day before the death of Bobby Sands. I was charged with possession of explosives and bomb making materials and kept on remand in Crumlin Road Jail and the H-Blocks. After a year and a half, I was sentenced to twelve years imprisonment through the non-jury Diplock Courts.”
After he was sentenced, the Derry republican had to face the realities of life ‘on the blanket.’
“Two days later, when we were taken again to the H-Blocks, we were told to put on the prison uniform and conform to prison rules, but we all refused.
“We were then taken to H4, one of the ‘Blanket Blocks’, where our clothes were taken from us and we were handed a towel to cover ourselves.
“I was put into a cell with one of the men I was sentenced with, Thomas Starrs, who is still one of my closest friends today. The cell had a window, which we soon realised we would have to smash because of the smell,” he said.
It wasn’t long before he got his first taste of the brutality of the prison regime. “The next morning the screws came to our cell to take us out to the Governor.
“We were beaten the whole way to his office and again in front of him. I remember him telling us about all the privileges we were missing out on, and how great a prison it was. I also remember his parting shot to me as we were taken from the room, he told us not to believe the lies about the bad beatings that went on in the blanket blocks, as they weren’t true.
“He then directed the screws to take me to the medical officer for treatment to the cuts I received during the beating,”
Mr McNaught said the experience of the beating was an introduction to what became the norm for many republican prisoners in the jail at the time.
“Back in the cell, Thomas asked me if I thought it would be like this all the time, I didn’t know, but I hoped not. In the years that followed however, it didn’t really get much better for us. We were tortured, beaten and degraded, and we endured forced washes, wing shifts and mirror searches,” he explained.
Mr McNaught also said the prison protest also created problems for the families of prisoners, including many from Derry who made the journey to Long Kesh where they faced rigorous searches in a effort to stop them smuggling items in to the prisoners.
He said during his first two years of imprisonment he did not see any members of his family. “I just didn’t want them to see me wearing the prison uniform, which you had to wear in order to receive a visit. I only started taking visits when the first Hunger Strike took place in 1980,” he said.
Mr McNaught described the second hunger strike as one of the most important events in Irish history. “The 1981 Hunger Strike was a catalyst, a truly historic moment in the struggle for Irish freedom.
“The election of Bobby Sands as MP for Fermanagh South Tyrone on April 9th, 1981 effectively ended the British Government’s policy of criminalisation, and his 30,000 votes reverberated across the world showing the support that existed for republican prisoners and it provided hope and inspiration for oppressed peoples across the world.”
The Derry man said he still struggles with memories of his experiences during the hunger strike.
“The years that followed are well documented, but some things that happened during this time still feel very raw at times, and hard to talk about. Today my wife, my three grown up children, and my extended family, are a great comfort to me in dealing with this period of my life.”
Mr McNaught is still involved in republican politics and works with the ex-prisoners’ support group, Tar Abhaile.
“I now volunteer in Tar Abhaile, the Republican Former Prisoners Centre. Tar Abhaile work hard to support former prisoners and their families and they have helped me and many others.
“I still have very strong political beliefs and I am active in Sinn Féin and fully endorse the strategic path it has taken.
“Looking back at my time in prison, especially the period that followed the 1981 Hunger Strike and comparing it to the political path we are now on, I can see parallels. I believe change has come. There is a better way forward and it is through peaceful democratic means. No-one should be afraid of peace. Things are changing for the better as each day goes by, but it takes everyone to embrace this change for the sake of future generations.” he said.
The former blanketman also encouraged as many people as possible to take part in hunger strike commemoration events.
“I feel it’s very important to continue to commemorate the sacrifice of the Hunger Strikers and that of all republican prisoners during the conflict, their families, friends and supporters.
“I would urge everyone to attend the major Hunger Strike march planned for Derry next month on Sunday, May 1st and make it truly a momentous event,” he said.