The 1981 protest was the second hunger strike to have taken place (the first was in October 1980). Vicious repression and torture were commonplace in the H-block prison (also known as The Maze prison) and Armagh (women’s) jails. These protests were the peak of a struggle which had been escalating since 1976 – when the Labour Party was in government.
The forerunners of the Socialist Parties in Ireland and Britain fought against the repression and methods being used by British imperialism in Northern Ireland. In 1980 a campaign was launched on this question, the Labour Committee on Prison Conditions in Northern Ireland, initiated by Militant supporters, which won the backing of leading Labour left-wingers at the time, like Tony Benn, Eric Heffer and Joan Maynard, and trade union leaders, such as Sam McCluskie (National Union of Seamen) and Emlyn Williams (National Union of Mineworkers).
While opposing the repression and holding the British government responsible for the situation, Militant supporters in Britain and Ireland also opposed the methods of individual terrorism used by the IRA. These gave British imperialism the excuse it needed to deploy such repressive measures. It would have been a mistake to simply demand political status for all prisoners irrespective of the activities they had been involved in. Militant supporters called for an investigation by the workers’ organisations to determine who should be given political status. At the same time, as the articles we republish below explain, we demanded an end of the repression and torture, and the introduction of decent conditions for all prisoners.

Approaching in a class, non-sectarian manner

By approaching the question in a class and non-sectarian manner it was possible to win support from Catholic and Protestant workers in Northern Ireland and also in Britain. This position was fought for in the trade unions and Labour Party. To the horror of the capitalist class, it was adopted by the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the Labour Party in 1980 following a resolution moved by the then representative of the Labour Party Young Socialists (LPYS) on the NEC, Tony Saunois. It was denounced in the British media and provoked a furious reaction from both the Tories and Labour’s rightwing, especially former Northern Ireland ministers, Merlyn Rees and Roy Mason.
An NEC delegation to Northern Ireland, which included Tony Saunois, was refused permission to visit H-block – although Tony had previously made a visit and met with one of the prisoners. We republish an article by Peter Hadden, a leading Marxist in Ireland, who sadly passed away one year ago [see obituary] and material written by Tony Saunois at the time, including a report of his prison visit.
The resolution adopted by the NEC noted with concern reports “that women prisoners in Armagh jail have been beaten by male warders and locked up for 23 hours a day and denied proper sanitary and medical facilities” and that male prisoners in Long Kesh H-blocks, “because they refuse to wear prison uniform or do prison work, are locked up for 24 hours a day wearing only a blanket in a cell with only a damp mattress and are denied reading and writing material and are subjected to body searches, including probing of the anus”.
It went on to argue that the NEC was implacably opposed to terrorism. “Equally, however, we are opposed to repression and torture in the prisons of Northern Ireland. Such repression could, under certain circumstances, be perfected for possible use against the labour movement in Britain in the future”. The resolution demanded: the right of all prisoners to wear their own clothes; prisoners to be allowed full access to newspapers, TV, books and writing material, with no restriction on letters; prisoners to be allowed a minimum of two unsupervised visits and two food parcels per week; prisoners to have the right to negotiate choice of work, training and educational facilities; prisoners to be paid trade union rates [for prison work] and have the right to trade union membership; prisoners to be allowed to elect their own representatives to negotiate on their behalf; the scrapping of the non-jury Diplock courts and the closure of the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) police interrogation centres.

H-block crisis – Tories to blame

Peter Hadden, Militant Irish Monthly, July-August 1981
AS WE GO to press the H-block hunger strike remains unresolved. The deaths of two more prisoners and the collapse of the peace initiative of the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace have underlined the brutal intransigent stand of the Tories. In the north, as in the south, the reaction to these latest deaths has been relatively muted. However eight prisoners remain on hunger strike. If the issue remains unresolved, and there should be more deaths, there could be a strong and violent reaction throughout the country.
In the north, the result of fresh upheaval, set against the background of the traditional Orange parades, and as the tenth anniversary of internment approaches, could only be to increase sectarian polarisation. At a time of attacks on the living standards of Catholic and Protestant workers and in particular of the rise of unemployment to unprecedented levels, sectarianism represents a threat which the labour movement must resist.
The first responsibility for the deaths in the H-blocks rests with the Tory government. In the past, Thatcher has defended her refusal to grant basic concessions by stating that the prisoners will accept only political status, nothing more, nothing less. This lie has been formally nailed. The prisoners themselves, in a statement before the death of Joe McDonnell, quite explicitly dropped the call for political status as a precondition for the ending of their protest. They said: “It is wrong for the British government to say we are looking for differential treatment from other prisoners. We would warmly welcome the introduction of the five demands for all prisoners”.
Even the precise details of a settlement acceptable to the prisoners were worked out by the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace and, according to reports, virtually agreed in total by government representatives prior to McDonnell’s death. The final agreement did not come, only because the Tories, at cabinet level, refused to make a clear statement on what was on offer and delayed sending an official into the prisons until a few hours after McDonnell was dead.
It is the policy of the British Labour Party’s National Executive Committee that all prisoners in Northern Ireland should, among other rights, have the right to wear their own clothes and to negotiate a choice of work, education or training. The labour movement as a whole should take up these demands which could provide the basis of a settlement.
The silence of the labour movement in Ireland on this issue must end. It is a scandal that the last public statement made by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions on H-block was issued in December 1980, during the last hunger strike. No less disgraceful has been the position of certain of the parliamentary leaders of the British Labour Party who have backed Thatcher’s every move. Labour’s rank and file must see to it that bipartisanship on H-blocks is ended. All it means is that Labour is seen to share in the responsibility for the deaths of prisoners.
The sectarian manner in which H-block has been raised in the north makes it doubly urgent that the labour movement takes the question up. Undoubtedly one of the factors which has permitted Thatcher to maintain her obstinate stand has been the sectarian nature of the campaign conducted by the leaders of the national H-block committees.

Sectarian appeals

THEIR PROPAGANDA HAS been entirely nationalistic and sectarian. Their appeals for ‘nationalist unity’ and their association with the Provisionals and the INLA have alienated the entire Protestant community and have given the loyalist bigots like Paisley all the ammunition they require.
H-block has shown that the false methods of individual terror of the Provos and the INLA, although aimed against the state, inevitably strengthen the state. They provide the excuse for repression and when repression hits them, they are always incapable of resisting it. In addition, the one-sided sectarian nature of the H-block campaign has been one of the factors which has permitted the government to ride out six deaths so far. This campaign, since the H-block protest began in 1976, has alienated Catholic as well as Protestant support.
Only a tremendous feeling of sympathy for the prisoners has more recently pushed the Catholic population onto the streets despite, not because of, the poisonous propaganda of the H-block spokesmen. Despite this sympathy there has been a marked reduction in mass activity, north and south. Joe McDonnell’s funeral drew hardly one tenth of the enormous mass of people who filled the streets of West Belfast when Bobby Sands was buried. If the Tories do grant concession, it will primarily be because of the international reaction to H-block, especially from America, or because of moves within the labour movement and not because of the H-block activities in the north.
The labour movement alone can effectively resist repression by mobilising all sections of the working class and by using its industrial muscle. The repression now used against the paramilitaries can in the future be used against the trade unions and working-class organisations in Britain and Ireland. This makes it doubly important that the movement take up the demand for decent conditions for prisoners and link this to a fight against sectarianism poverty and also other forms of repression.
A labour movement inquiry into all aspects of repression in the north must be established. This could be the launching pad for a campaign for the repeal of all repressive legislation, the scrapping of the non-jury courts, the closure of the interrogation centres and to end army and police harassment on the streets.

Review of cases

PART OF SUCH an enquiry should be a review of the cases of all those convicted of offences arising out of the Troubles. This could establish who, in the eyes of the labour movement, has been imprisoned only because of frame-up and torture and also who is a political prisoner. Both loyalists and republicans who have been guilty of conscious sectarian atrocities could not be described as political prisoners and would not be defended by the labour movement.
Poverty, sectarianism and also repression, these are the enemies of all that the labour and trade union movement stands for. None can be ignored. Rather, a campaign to unite against all three must be begun and, in the light of the explosive situation which could emerge from the H-block deadlock, must be begun immediately.

End prison repression in Northern Ireland

Tony Saunois (LPYS representative on the Labour Party NEC), Militant, 26 September 1980
THE LABOUR COMMITTEE on Prison Conditions in Northern Ireland was established to campaign against the appalling conditions which exist in the prisons of Northern Ireland, particularly in Long Kesh (the Maze) and Armagh women’s prison, and against the brutal treatment of prisoners in RUC interrogation centres like the notorious Castlereagh. The labour movement must take a clear stand on this issue. While firmly opposing the methods of individual terrorism used by sectarian organisations like the Provisional IRA and the loyalist UVF [Ulster Volunteer Force], the labour and trade union movement cannot remain silent over the repression and torture conducted by the state. It would do so at its own peril.
The British ruling class is responsible for centuries of exploitation and repression in Ireland. The divide-and-rule policies of the British state created the sectarian divisions which have again erupted in violent conflict. But far from fighting imperialism, as they claim, the Provisional IRA by adopting the tactics of individual terrorism, have actually strengthened the hand of the state, and created a climate of acceptance in Britain for repressive policies. This poses the very real danger that the methods now being used in Northern Ireland will in the future be turned against the labour movement in its fight against the bosses’ assault on its living standards and trade union and other democratic rights.
The Labour Party National Executive Committee’s decision to condemn the prison conditions in Northern Ireland and to draw the attention of the labour movement to this issue was an important step forward. The hysterical reaction of the capitalist press to this move, when Fleet Street excelled itself in misrepresentation and distortion, confirms just how much the capitalist class fears this issue being taken up by the labour movement from a class standpoint. In an effort to blind workers to the real situation, the capitalist media tried to portray the NEC’s decision as backing for the Provisional IRA – in spite of the resolution’s clear statement that the NEC was “implacably opposed to the programme and methods of individual terrorism”, and the clear statements of the campaign.
There is now a mass of well-documented evidence of the brutally repressive methods being used in Northern Ireland, and of the fact that the harsh prison regime is being used not for normal judicial punishment, but as an additional method of repression. Because of their horrified reaction to the Provisional IRA’s bombings and assassinations, many in the labour movement have had doubts about the allegations of brutality. But reports from Amnesty International and government’s own Bennett Commission provide enough information to dispel such doubts.
The Bennett Report, for example, said: “clearly great caution is called for in dealing with prisoners’ complaints if unsupported by other evidence. Unhappily, in such instances, there is such evidence”. Even the Northern Ireland Police Surgeons’ Association asked for a meeting with the chief constable to express their concern at what was taking place, a development which must surely give the labour movement cause to raise its own voice in protest.

Evidence of brutality overwhelming

Allegations of beatings of the stomach, ears, head; of hair-pulling, wrist-bending, cigarette burns; and prolonged interrogation using relays of detectives, together with threats to prisoners’ families, have all been documented. Amnesty International’s report, moreover, points out that solicitors handling cases before the non-jury ‘Diplock’ courts stated that “ill-treatment of suspects by police officers, with the object of obtaining confessions, is now common practice…”
The evidence is overwhelming. Only such methods could produce the 94% conviction rate of those appearing before the Diplock courts, a statistic produced by the Law Department of Queen’s University, Belfast. Of these convictions, a staggering 70-90% were wholly or mainly based on admission of guilt obtained through police interrogation. It is through this repressive ‘star chamber’ system that most of the prisoners in the Maze and Armagh have been sentenced. This in itself would explain protest by the prisoners, and the extreme forms that their protest have taken is undoubtedly the result of the extremely brutal pressure of the regime inside.
The authorities in Northern Ireland, the Tories, and regrettably some former Labour ministers, have vigorously repudiated allegations of brutality. So far, however, they have upheld a steel wall of secrecy around the treatment of prisoners. If former Labour ministers are so confident that the prison conditions are fair and humane, why will they not support a full independent enquiry by the labour movement?

Political prisoners

THE CALL HAS come from some quarters for H-block prisoners convicted during ‘the troubles’ to be granted political status. But the labour movement, while opposing oppression and brutality, cannot write a blank cheque declaring all those in the H-blocks as political prisoners and thereby campaigning for their release. Some of the prisoners have undoubtedly been convicted on false evidence. Others, on both sides of the sectarian divide, were driven, in the absence of any clear alternative, into the various paramilitary groups, mistakenly believing that they were defending their community and fighting repression. Many of these have never been involved in any sectarian atrocities, and those the labour movement could generally defend.
However, on both sides there have also undoubtedly been vicious murderers responsible for sadistic killings, the loyalist Shankill butchers and the republicans responsible for the desperate Bessbrook murders being two of the most notorious examples. These people, who could easily pose a threat to the labour movement itself, could never be classified as political prisoners and be defended by the labour movement.
However, we can rely only on independent bodies set up by the labour movement itself to conduct a thorough review of convictions and to review the cases of individual prisoners. The labour movement has a duty to fight for decent conditions for all prisoners, irrespective of their crimes or alleged crimes. We call on the labour movement to oppose all forms of repression in Northern Ireland. The movement must campaign for the repeal of all repressive legislation, the scrapping of the non-jury ‘Diplock’ courts, and the closure of the special police interrogation centres.

Extract from ‘Labour Party Executive barred from H-block’

Tony Saunois, Militant, 25 July 1980
I WAS ABLE to visit a prisoner in H-block myself. Any member of the labour movement seeing the prison would be convinced that it houses a horror story. Relatives and friends, as well as prisoners, are subject to humiliation and suffering. Entering the compound in the visitors’ bus is enough to make even the toughest apprehensive. Passing through a turnstile, you are eyed up and down by a prison guard. As soon as you enter the room to register and show identification, from behind the screens come the voices of warders singing offensive songs. Without identification, your journey is wasted. While I was there a young girl of 16 or 17 who had forgotten hers was refused admission to see her brother.
Once accepted, you sit in rows, males on one side, females on the other. When your turn comes you go into a small room occupied by two warders. One moves behind you and shuts the door. The other asks if you object to being searched. You accept or are turned away. I was warned beforehand to be polite to the warders, or they take it out on the prisoners. After being searched and asked to leave your identification and other personal belongings behind, you join other visitors in a larger room. A short wait and the name of the prisoner you are visiting is called.
We climb into a van, with all its windows frosted out and the view through the windscreen blocked by a wooden panel. From the rear ventilation window, it’s possible to catch a small glimpse of what’s outside. I saw watchtowers with two-way mirrors, corrugated iron fences with barbed wire on the top and Alsatian dogs at the side of the road. There are ramps across the roadway.
After a few minutes the van slows and turns. Gates open and the van stops. A warder looks in. Another gate opens and the van drives on a short distance. The doors open and this time everyone gets out. Through another turnstile and into yet another room, watched all the time by warders. The name of the prisoner being visited is read out. Escorted by a warder, we are shown into a hall full of cubicles separated by wooden partitions. Within seconds another warder comes into our cubicle and sits at the end of the table – for the duration of the visit.
A few minutes later the prisoner was brought in. We shook hands and he sat down. What do you say to someone in these conditions?
He looked about 35 (1 learned later he was much younger). He was thin and clearly had been beaten. I had 15 minutes: I wanted to tell him of our work in the labour movement and to ask of the conditions and morale of the other prisoners. He told me that he had been beaten and mirror searched before seeing me and the same would happen to him after I had gone. Looking at him there was no reason whatsoever to doubt he was telling the truth.
I then explained that the NEC Home Policy Committee had carried the resolution on prison conditions (later endorsed by the NEC). I told him that the Labour Party Young Socialists were raising the issue in local Labour Parties and trade union branches. He explained that each evening discussion groups were held on the history of the labour movement and politics. Suddenly another warder came in: ‘Time up’. We shook hands and wished each other well.
These conditions are barbaric. They must not be tolerated by the labour movement. It is essential that a campaign is launched against the prison conditions in Northern Ireland and for the repeal of all repressive legislation, including the non-jury Diplock courts.

Repression – Chile, South Africa and Northern Ireland

Workers in Britain have been ringed by the media’s wall of silence surrounding events in Northern Ireland, broken only by horrific reports of sectarian violence and outrages. Some, even among our readers, will ask, ‘didn’t these prisoners bring it on themselves?’ Or attempt to dismiss the shocking accounts of conditions in the Maze, H-blocks and Armagh prisons as ‘exaggerated’.
As we will show in future articles, this is, at the very least, debatable. For every thinking worker, the mounting evidence of state repression will sound a warning. The only conclusive way to determine the truth is through a genuinely independent investigation, carried out by the labour movement, to cut through the web of secrecy and propaganda. If, as Northern Ireland minister Atkins claims, there is nothing to hide, why were the Labour Party NEC delegation to Northern Ireland refused entry to the Maze prison? Are we seriously expected to believe that this top security prison was ‘inadequately staffed’ for such a visit?
It is essential that the NEC resolution is thoroughly discussed by every Labour Party and union branch. The demands for elemental rights guaranteed for all prisoners, must be supported. This initiative must act as a catalyst for a campaign throughout the labour movement for an end to the inhuman treatment of prisoners in Northern Ireland. We cannot afford to ignore this systematic repression – in Chile, South Africa or Northern Ireland.