"We got nothing"

Today The Pensive Quill carries an article by guest writer, blanketman Thomas 'Dixie' Elliott on the topic of the 1981 hunger strike

"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.


  1. Insightful article by Dixie! Fair play to him and the fearless truthseekers who are delving into the past to unravel the tangle of untruths about the 1981 stailc that professional politicians have profitted from, both fiscally and in terms of electoral gain.

    "Question Everything."


  2. All these contributions, from both 'sides' of the debate are very interesting to read, and each of them in their own way is an important contribution to the patchwork of narratives that make up the 'whole story', even if that whole story will never be as unified within republicanism as it once used to be.

    I think the average person is now bewildered by the descent into internecine nitpicking, and is lost in the confusion of dates, personalities, offers that weren't deals, and deals that weren't mere offers, and conversations that never took place yet were overheard by others...

    Most republicans know that the hungerstrike did not happen in a void... that its origins and development occurred in a political struggle, of which electoral engagement was one part (and not only Gerry Adams was interested in electoral engagement... see Ó Brádaigh's interview in the same paper).

    I don't take any particular side in this story, no matter how strongly each side claims to own the truth. Trying to isolate certain aspects of the decisionmaking process around the hungerstrike, and trying to quantify 'political' decisions in comparison to 'humanitarian' decisions, so that blame can be laid, will not benefit anyone. The hungerstrike narrative is now doomed to be an eternally contested and slighty vicious narrative... with no winners, with former comrades claiming to be 'astonished' and 'shocked' at each other. The Irish News is allowing everyone to be 'King of the Castle', and to call everyone else the dirty wee rascals, for a day.

    Both sides of this argument have made very good points, but those points fade into insignificance when compared to the overall damage being done to the memory of the hungerstrikers. For me, the losers are the memory of the hungerstrikers (and that's all they have left), and the distress of their families. I, of course, cannot speak on behalf of the families, and it is clear that they all have their own positions on this too, but I think with the passage of time that this whole episode will come a close second to the tragedy of the hungerstrike itself.

  3. fair play dixie,what matters is the truth...adams and co. seem to be the only ones who dont like their narrative being challenged!

  4. The debate regards the Hunger Strikers being cynically used by "Leadership" for electoral gain was very much discussed during and after the events. The element of surprise, or something new being discovered, is something that I find somewhat contrived. Specific details may be "new" but the interpretation of events are not.

    This is an old story - pre-O'Rawe. On the outside, in Belfast, there were many Republicans who were openly questioning the morality and strategy of what the "Leadership" were up to. Were the lads in the Blocks so naive as to not suspect this themselves? That I would find hard to believe. Lions led by Donkeys? No doubt about it.

  5. Will you be posting a review of Rogelio Alonso's book?

  6. Seán Mór, what is it exactly that is being done to the memory of the hunger strikers? It strikes me that a lot is being done to the memory of others but not the hunger strikers themselves.
    When such a topic comes onto the agenda for discussion it will always be contentious and divisive. It can be about anything not just the hunger strike.
    There is no such thing as an organised truth that is truthful and this type of process is the best we will get. More evidence and interpretations thrown up and people reach judgements accordingly.
    The outcome of your apprehensions would be no more discussion which you won't be happy with either.
    There is no peace of mind to be gained from this for you whatever way it goes. The whole thing is challenging. I feel most uncomfortable about some of the challenges posed by it to someone like Bik who I always felt was a great guy. I don't envy him. I would like it to be some other way, some answer that would allow us all to say 'fine' and focus on something else. But these things are not like that. Discovery is not always a pleasant experience.

    If we are to understand the past better this is the way such understanding is reached. No fairytales, no happy endings. And a lot of bile thrown in along the way from every quarter.

    I think it is what they once said about democracy, the worst possible choice apart from all the rest.

  7. Thank you. I have read and re-read both the "Insider" and 'Border Crossing"-both books have important information which is easily missed and very informative to an outside,and perhaps for a few of the inside persons, who are looking for some of the intricate pieces of this puzzle we call history-can't thank you enough for the direction. Aimless searching of the printed material is not only expensive,but also confusing. Best, WM

  8. Anthony

    I believe that Sean Mór referred to the families of the hunger strikers in expressing his concerns about the ongoing and never to be resolved or proven versions of what excatly went on almost 30 years ago, and these people should never be forgotten in this 'debate'.

    It appears to me that many contributors on this issue were actually in the Blocks in 1981, for example ISKRA talks about unravelling the untruths about the 1981 stailc that professional politicians have profitted from both fiscally and in terms of electoral gain,

    That is quite a statement and I just wonder if the likes of Pat Sheehan were to publish his version of 1981, would ISKRA come in with the same response?

    People believe what they want to believe, mainly motivated by who they most dislike or disagree with rather than anything objective.

    I will remember 1981 for the 10 men who died in 1981, not for the bickering of 2009.



  9. Hello Westie,

    Sean Mor has referred to both the strikers and the families.

    The families of people who died during any conflict or questionable circumstance are not in a position, even were they so inclined to veto discussion, of the circumstances which led to the deaths. It would neither be right or desirable that they should be placed in such a situation and then made vulnerable to manipulation of others who want any public discussion stopped. This applies to any circumstance in the world. But closer to home were the families of the three North Armagh people killed in 1992 for informing to demand an end to any discussion of the events that led to their death and insisted on their own version being the standard one, few would find them justified or respect their wishes. Yet by not respecting their wishes and claiming that there are other circumstances where the wishes of some families should trump public discussion, only leaves us open to playing the hierarchy of victims card.

    Pat Sheehan, were he to publish his account of the 1981 hunger strike, would be quite justified in doing so. Were he to come up with evidence that showed Richard O'Rawe's account to be wrong Pat's contribution would be no less valid and would remain a welcome contribution.

    'People believe what they want to believe, mainly motivated by who they most dislike or disagree with rather than anything objective.'

    If that is why you choose to believe then there is little point in trying to persuade you of the merits of an alternative argument whatever it may be in relation to anything. Which is unfortunate because reason is a great human value whereas prejudice and bias (which we all harbour to varying degrees) are much less so.



  10. WESTIE,
    There was obviously some sort of point being made there among those vast clairvoyant presumptions