"We got nothing" by Thomas 'Dixie' Elliott
This is an unedited version of what was carried in the Irish News
I often look back to the time I spent on the blanket protest and feel privileged that I had the honour of spending some of those dark and more often than not, cold and brutal days sharing a cell in the company of Tom McElwee and Bobby Sands. These patriots, like the other brave hunger strikers, dreamt that they would live to bear witness to the unity of the Irish people within the political framework of a thirty-two county socialist republic, and it was for that reason alone that they had been imprisoned. Having spoken to Tom and Bobby and other hunger strikers, I know that they also looked forward to getting out of Long Kesh after completing their sentences and returning to their families. Tragically, it was not to be.
The darkest of those days were the periods of the two hunger strikes and I clearly remember the night of 18 December 1980, when the first hunger strike ended, after Brendan ‘The Dark’ Hughes called it off in order to save Seán McKenna’s life. I was in the leadership wing with Bobby, Bik McFarlane and Richard O’Rawe at that time. Bobby had been to the prison hospital and I looked out the window of my cell and saw him alight from the prison van with shoulders hunched and I knew immediately that something wasn’t right. This was confirmed when he walked down the wing and told us: ‘Ní fhuaireomar faic,’ [we got nothing]. In fact the only thing coming from the British, and it was handed to Gerry Adams by Father Meagher in Belfast, was a document that wasn’t worth the paper it was written on and which would never had ended the hunger strike even had The Dark chosen to let Seán die and continue with the fast.
In regards to clothing and work, the most important of our five demands, the document stated: ’As soon as possible all prisoners will be issued with civilian-type clothing for wear during the working day’. We Blanketmen realised instantly that civilian-type clothing was nothing more than a modernised prison uniform and that Bobby had been spot-on when he told us ‘Ní fhuaireomar faic,’ out of the 1980 hunger strike. That being the case, why do Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness, and others persist with the claim that the Brits reneged on a deal during the first hunger strike when that is demonstrably untrue? Even more perplexing was the fact that former hunger striker, Bernard Fox, recently supported this claim in an interview with the Irish News.
While I have the greatest respect for Bernard as a former comrade and republican, he nonetheless said something in his interview with profound implications:
I wasn’t in the hospital at that time [when Danny Morrison met the hunger strikers on 5 July 1981] and I don’t know what the men were told or not told but I do know there was no deal.
He is right, of course; there was no deal between the prisoners and the Brits in early July; had there been a deal, Bernard would not have had to go on hunger strike. But what is astonishing is that he had been on hunger strike for thirty-two days, yet Bernard says that no one had informed him about the Mountain Climber offer which Danny Morrison allegedly relayed to the hunger strikers on 5 July 1981. It goes without saying then that Bernard never set eyes on the Secretary of State, Humphrey Atkins’s statement that incorporated the offer, and which was to be released upon the hunger strike ending. That begs the question: how can Bernard reconcile being deliberately kept in ignorance about the potentially life-saving Mountain Climber offer, and still lend his unqualified support for those who took a decision to keep that knowledge from him?
Bernard said he was deeply distressed by allegations that a deal which could have ended the hunger strike was vetoed in order to maximise electoral support for Sinn Féin. I too am deeply distressed, but the more I looked into these claims the more I see that there was a lot more being discussed at the time than a resolution to the hunger strike. In a comm to Gerry Adams, dated 26.7.’81, reproduced on page 334 of Ten Men Dead, Bik talks about ‘examining the possibility of contesting elections and actually making full use of seats gained i.e. participating in the Dáil’. He continues: ‘Such an idea presents problems within the Movement. How great would the opposition be and what would be the consequences of pursuing a course which did not enjoy a sizeable degree of support?'
Then on August 20th the same day that Micky Devine died, Owen Carron retained Bobby’s Fermanagh/South Tyrone seat. Just three days later on August 23rd, Sinn Féin announced that in future it would contest all Northern Ireland elections. The Hunger Strikes ended on October the 3rd and on October 6th Prior implemented exactly what was on offer from July 5th.
On October 31st at the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis Danny Morrison gave his famous ballot box/armalite speech in which he addressed the issue of the party taking part in future elections.
This time-line can be viewed at http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/issues/abstentionism/chron.htm
It shockingly appears that while men were dying and even when the Hunger Strike was still on-going that they were discussing and even pushing through electoralism.