‘We need a forward thinking leadership - former IRA prisoner’

Tonight The Pensive Quill carries an interview with former IRA prisoner Thomas Dixie Elliot. He was interviewed by Rory Mooney and the end product featured in the Sunday Journal 16th, Oct 2011. It is reproduced with the permission of Rory Mooney.

Thirty years ago this month the 1981 hunger strike ended. It’s legacy is one of debate to this day. In the end 10 republican prisoners from the IRA and INLA perished - five of them from the city and county of Derry.

Outside of Long Kesh mayhem abounded on the streets with the RUC firing almost 30,000 plastic bullets in the summer of 1981 and many innocent civilians dying across the north.

Shortly after the strike ended the five demands of the prisoners were in effect met by the Thatcher administration and in recent years the Sinn Fein leadership have strongly denied accusations that they prolonged the hunger strike to gain political advances.

What, however, is true is that the 1981 hunger strike was a seminal chapter in the history of Irish Republicanism and Nationalism. 30 years after the Hunger Strike the northern state is unrecognisable from 1981, but for those who endured that summer in the H-blocks the memories are still vivid.

Derry man THOMAS "DIXIE" ELLIOTT was a former cellmate of hunger strikers Bobby Sands and Tom McElwee.

The former republican prisoner had almost spent four years in Europe's so-called most "secure prison" before the summer of 1981. Dixie was sentenced to 12 years in the H-Blocks in June 1977 for attempted murder, hijacking and membership of the IRA. He was just six days shy of his 20th birthday. He would go on to serve nine of his 12 year sentence.

Upon his arrival in Long Kesh he was thrust into the 'blanket protest' where republican prisoners had been protesting for special status since 1976. ‘I went straight onto the blocks because I said I wasn't wearing the gear,’ he said. ‘They made me strip down and threw the monkey suit at me and I said "no" I wasn't wearing it. Then of course I got the kicking.’

When he arrived onto the blocks, Dixie and his fellow prisoners had not yet embarked on the “no wash” protest that sparked outrage across the world, leading Cardinal Tomás O' Fiaich to compare the H-blocks to the ‘sewer pipes in slums of Calcutta.’

The screws were trying to force us to wear prison issue trousers while we were leaving our cells to wash and slop out. This meant that men were on the receiving end of beatings each time we left our cells, the Dark (Brendan Hughes) came on, he had just got in to a ruckus in the cages and lost his status so he, and Bobby Sands said it (the protest) was going nowhere, so we started breaking windows and furniture but it backfired in a way because people would be waking up with snow or the rain on them.

With the blanket protest seemingly going nowhere and with no sign of resolution in sight, Dixie recalled when the order was given to escalate the protest from blanket to no wash. 'I would have been in H4 at the time when the Dark gave the order. That's when we started putting excrement on the walls. It was a long drawn out thing, with the screws retaliating against us', he said.

Republican prisoners were now locked in a bitter battle with the prison authorities, who had introduced forced wing shifts and forced washing. Dixie told of one incident of forced washing.

I was in the cell with Tom McElwee during the winter of '78, where we nearly froze to death. It was when they started forced washing.  The thing that stands out for me was when it was coming up to Christmas '78. Tom was a hard man and he said "look if these screws start hitting us, I'm going to hit back". I said no problem I'll hit back too. They took us to a clean wing where one of the screws started poking me and Tom with scissors. We both looked at each other and just started hitting. They battered us, nearly killed us and threw us in the back of a wagon, naked and sent us to the boards were we were put on a no.1 diet of bread and water, which was a starvation punishment.

Both sides were by now entrenched in a melting pot atmosphere. The prison authorities tried to break the protest by cutting the prison leadership off from the prisoners. Dixie found himself on the "leadership wing" in H6 with men who would play leading roles in the hunger strikes.

In early 1979 they thought they could break us by removing the leaders [and] by putting them on a separate wing and block. It was all the OC's but they took me and Tom because we had a reputation of hitting screws. We were the only ones who weren't on the staff that were moved to H6.

After months of cutting the leadership off from the rest of the prisoners. The prison authorities broke up the leadership wing, Dixie was put into a cell in H3 with leader of the second hunger strike Bobby Sands where the decision to hunger strike would be taken.'After they broke us all up I was put in to a cell with Bobby', Dixie said.

The thing I remember about Bobby, with being in the cell with him. Bobby was convinced that he would die in jail. He always believed that we had to go on hunger strike and he was going to be in it. Bobby was just one of these people who was very talented. We were convinced that he made up the book "JET" (the initials stand for the character's full name - Jonathan Eisenhower Truman) about the motor-biker. It was a fantastic story.

In 1980, following the collapse of the first hunger strike, led by the Dark. Dixie said of the moment when he realized the prisoners had got nothing. 'We all knew for a start, Bobby made it clear, that we had got nothing, that's when he sent out word that he would be starting another one.'

With the collapse of the 1980 hunger strike, Dixie said that Sands was determined to lead the second strike, which led to much thinking and soul searching for him.

At the time, I remember thinking about when they were asking for names, I was going over it in my head, to tell the truth, I couldn't do it. 'It was while they were collecting names that I considered going on it and decided that I quite possibly couldn't see it through until the end. And I couldn't put my parents through that ordeal.'

The Blanket protests and hunger strike were a defining period for Irish history, which led to a rethinking of republican and Dixie's thinking. 1981 was the springboard for Sinn Féin to become the dominant force in Nationalist politics in the north, for some former blanket men it’s been a bitter pill to swallow including Dixie.

I would say to those who still believe that armed struggle will remove the British, look at the failures of the past and show leadership. Violence alienates Republicanism from our own people, without whom we are going nowhere. I've turned my back on any form of violence because I've seen how those who were in leadership positions and who justified it then, now promote themselves as “Peacemakers”. They secretly went behind of the backs of their own volunteers seeking a way out of the war, while continuing to urge them to fight on. They try and distance themselves from actions that claimed innocent lives because it doesn't fit with their new found role as “Peacemakers”.  They claim that the deaths of ten brave men led us to where we are today. I say that's nonsense; who would willingly die a long drawn out death so that others would thread a path already well worn by the SDLP? No one can say whether or not those brave men would support the present strategy of the Sinn Fein leadership should they be alive today. However I'm certain no one would have died on hunger strike for it. Brendan Hughes showed leadership when he called off the first hunger strike to save the life of Sean McKenna. I say to those who still believe in armed struggle that they should show the same courageous leadership and call off their war in order to save lives. The taking of life cannot justify continuing with a war that is failing with each passing day, that is going nowhere, except to Maghaberry prison. And which is merely giving those in Stormont a smokescreen for their failures; highlighted by the fact they are doing the dirty work of the Tory government. Republicanism needs leadership that looks forward, not back to the failures of the past.


  1. Thank Dixie.

    With so many POWs speaking out now, how can the ShinnFein leaders continue the fiction of their politics in the 80's???

    Some blood never washes off.


  2. Dixie, powerful stuff. Nothing can ever diminish the pride that most of us feel when we read about that type of endurance.
    The fact that we were sold by a corrupt leadership can never detract from the purity of that type of sacrifice.

  3. good article but I think people need to look beyond the symplistic view of being sold out by the leadership. This is what Dixie is arguing in the interview. The leadership didnt just emerge out of thin air, but due to the fact that the movement is based on top-down centralised contol based on democratic centralism(bureocratic centralism)We also need to examine the republican ideology itself a is a very broad church which underpined the republican movement. I remember an ex-black panther Ashanti Alston spoke a few years ago in Belfast and put the demise of the BPP not just down to state repression but equally the top down centralised nature of the party which allowed for encouraged personality cults, obediance and stifling of debate and discusssion.

  4. Sean,
    I don't think sell out is a simplistic concept. Maybe to someone like yourself it is but certainly not to me.
    I don't feel I need to examine the republican ideology that underpinned the struggle, as far as I am concerned the ideology was a constant the leadership was not.
    I am not aware of any movement that operated on an non-centralised bottom up structure.

  5. Dixie,

    a good interview here with Rory. It brought back so many memories. And of course your concluding remarks are the most strategically significant.


    they sold out for sure. Even allowing for the factors suggested by you, their culpability is no less. To my mind their sell out came less in bringing about a defeat but in how they managed that defeat.

  6. Fionnuala

    You write you have no need to examine the republican ideology that underpinned the struggle, as far as I am concerned the ideology was a constant.

    Surely if that was true there would have been enough democratic checks and balances in place within it to remove long ago what you describe as a corrupt leadership which sold out.

    The sad fact is republican ideology and methodology that underpinned the struggle, has failed dismally twice. (Collins and Adams) To ignore this fact and simply cry one more heave, this time with an honest leadership, given the sacrifices this entails, is to my mind a negation of leadership.

    I agree with Dixie's point about showing the same leadership qualities displayed when Brendan Hughes brought the first HS to an end, not least the duty of care leaders must show to those they lead or command.

  7. I wasnt suggesting it wasnt a sell out but that things are more complicated than that which is alluded to in Brendan Hughes book and Tommy McKearney's books which goes into some detail but from a marxist perspective.

    The problem is that many of these groups which continue on the armed stuggle today would do exactly the same as the provos, given the same political conditions.

    The question for me is not a change in leadership or 'better leaders' but the internal organisational structure, strategy and the ideology which underpines it.

    And I do think you need to examine the republican ideology itself and its all embrasive common-class alliance. To many of the republican groups with the possible exception of Eirigi and IRSP define themselves in opposition to PSF or a private war with the PSNI, rather than what they are for.

  8. Sean,

    much of that seems fine. There is also the added factor of balance of forces and external constraints and opportunities. I don't think the Provisionals could have won regardless of what internal organisational structure they had. The leadership in conning so many drained them of any oppositional ethos to the point they were incorporated into the structure and ideology of the British state and rendered useless to any radical causes. I think you are right about the new groups. In many ways ‘born again Provos’ as they were recently termed.

  9. Mick,
    it really is Armistice Day if you are replying to something I have written.

    Ideologies constant or otherwise can not be held up as appendages to or pre-requites of democracy.
    When Adams faced the first challenge to his leadership in 83, it was quashed with an iron fist.
    The people involved were held up as MI5 conspirators and were quite lucky to escape with their lives.
    Naive as it may sound the majority of IRA volunteers had absolutely no idea what the leadership was doing.
    As Dixie rightly said, they rode two horses. Political bargaining behind closed doors, then publicly adhering to and actively sanctioning a military campaign.
    Failed ideology and methodology maybe your take. Manipulation abuse of power and sheer dishonesty is mine.

  10. Nuala,

    the volunteers, the community and activists in general deserved much better than they got from that leadership. Setting all the issues of ideology and methodology aside, they still screwed republicanism into the ground. Mimic men of the worst possible type.

  11. Fionnuala,

    The question I tried to pose in my hackneyed way was is there an inherent flaw in republican ideology which at critical junctions gives the leadership the space to act in the way you rightly condemn. You say no, I'm not so sure.

    I'm not suggesting this flaw is unique to Irish Republicanism, the Leninists implemented it with disastrous consequence for the socialist cause and millions of people, whilst proclaiming their democratic centralism was the highest form of democracy.

    The leaderships of both groups regarded themselves as the general staff of their cause. Like all military type hierarchy's they operated top down, need to know bases. (I am not talking about security issues here, but democratic accountability)

    The main problems I see in this type of structure is at critical junctions when the leadership becomes out of step with the rank and file and begins to act solely in its own interest, Irish republicanism of this type and DC offers no viable means for members to express their differences and attempt to call their leadership to account. Not least because the leadership controls all the levers of organisational power.

    Because this road is blocked off, what has historically happened periodically is people either walk away disillusioned, accept the inevitable and hunker down in the hope of better days, are brought on side by the leadership by fair means or foul, or leave and set up an alternative Organization from scratch and attempt the old one more heave, this time with clean hands.

    All the best

  12. Could agree more with yr Mackers and Mick in your last post.
    Its interesing how you rightly refer to Lenin. Too many modern day leninists and trots still sing from the same hymn sheet in terms of blaming the degeneration of the russian revolution expressed through the workers councils, rather than the vanguard 'democratic centralised' model itself. The reality is and truth is quite different. Stalin did not drop from the moon he just took it to its most logical conclusions which marx and bakunin warned against. It was lenin who established one party state from the central committee, crushed any opposition and criticism within the party and out, set up the cheka, subordinated the workers councils to the party, installed one man management, kronsdat etc- all before these external factors arose. The Maknovists in Ukraine (http://www.nestormakhno.info/)were quite different though. Carried out a social revolution from below while fighting the whites, foreign imperialism and later the reds.

  13. This article came about as a result of the fact that former prisoners and others involved in the H-Block protests at the time and now involved with or supportive of PSF were having their remembrances carried almost very week during this year's anniversary of the Hunger Strikes.

    Almost all give the party line that the deaths of the ten men led 'us' to where we are today.

    Rory Mooney is a student journalist and this is his very first published article. I know we all wish him the very best in his career as he often tunes into the Pensive Quill.

    I decided in doing the article to tell it as I believe it to be and for a while Rory thought they weren't going to carry it. He therefore asked me would Mackers carry it and I said I would ask him. However the Journal then phoned me asking for photos of me then and now as they were carrying it as a full page piece.

  14. Dixie-

    Every-one has their story and despite the songs,yarns,tales you paint the truth about P.o.w life- it was never easy-

    You also state the truth that the Hunger-strikers got the 5 demands-
    do you think any paper would print your story if you had of said that thatcher betrayed the brits position and sold out to the men and women behind the wire- when the p.o.ws won the brits lost-

  15. Dixie,

    the Thatcher government did not conceed the five demands as the direct result of the HS. If my memory servers me right the last demand to be conceeded was the work issue and that was as a direct conmsequence of the escape. After the HS republicans had to fight many aggressive battles in order to achieve segregation and an end to prison work. What we did have coming out of the HS was the basis for making all of the above possible i.e. our own clothes. Once we entered the system with a clear and determined attitude to achieve all of the demands for which our comrades died, we were unstoppable.

    Enjoyed the piece.

  16. michaelhenry,

    I think you are deliberately putting your own spin on what Dixie said. The five demands were not won through the HS. What was achieved was the right to wear our nown clothes which was the springboard for everything that followed. The system simply could not cope with a large disciplend body of men with cearly defined objectives.

    The Task Force paved the way for the blanket men to enter the system by forcing the loyalist behind the doors and ultimately off the wings. This was followed by a intensive campaign to close the prison workshops; the last of our demands.

  17. Indeed Dixie powerfull and thought provoking ,and isnt it wonderfull to see that those who meted out such horrendous treatment shall now be rewarded with around £120.000 payoffs and they are,nt even members of psf!!

  18. Alec-

    Don't know why you are trying to save the Thatcher image-she betrayed her brits- and as for the
    loyalists, segregation was not 1 of the 5 demands- but that was also

    After the hunger-strike the Provos
    still needed the work issue in the blocks to escape- You know all the storys- once the Volunteers escaped the work issue ended- now you see it now you dont- a little bit of Provo magic-

  19. michaelhenry,

    you are right when you say that segreation was not a specified demand, however, it was intrinic to the demand from free association. We were not protesting in order to freely associate with loyaliss or ODCs. Indeed, segration was won a lot easier than we thought at the time. The loyalists were terrified at the prospect of the Blanketmen entering the system hence they were ripe for the picking.

    To say that we stalled on the work issue is a tad revisionist in my view. Yes, freedom of movement in the jail greatly assisted the planning and excution of the escape. However, before that there were many serious incidents in the workshops which could have led to their closure. For example, loyalists were beaten and scalded, plant and machinery were wrecked, and screws were attacked.

    The HS destroyed the criminalisation policy, it did not secure the five demands.

  20. Michael Henry
    I direct my question towards you as you seem to have an insight into the granting of the so called 5 demands.
    I have never believed that the British government ever granted these 5 demands this was a complete lie chanted by the Provo leadership then and now , no where can I find any written document to satisfy that they were granted , all I have heard or read was the prisoners didn’t die unnecessarily that the 5 demands were granted .
    If they were granted and won how come in the year 2011 we still have republicans fighting for Political Status ????
    Surely a lesson to be learned from the sorry mess of 1981 is if its not written down and signed it means nothing.
    Maybe the current people incarcerated are not worthy of the 5 demands since the Provo’s restored power to Stormont as they see them as less than equal to them

  21. We can blame and castigate the leadership as much as we like but they wont care so long as they are still surrounded and enabled by those who acquiesced in the first place. And we all subscribed to the greatness of Martin and Gerry at some point. How do we prevent the same happening again?

  22. Boyne Rover-

    I don't need any offical documents to know the truth / un-truth about anything-nothing can beat the truth

    When Mo Mowlam visted the H-blocks a few years back did you not notice on T.V that the prisoners had their own clothes on [ no brit prison uniform ] and controled their own wings- the 5 demands and a lot more was won- so thatcher lost-get over it-

    The protest now in another prison is to do with strip-searching which the prisoners rightly opposed, they won the right to have a scanner installed so there is no need for screws to strip-search- this deal whilst agreed has still to be implemented-

  23. Eddie,

    You raise a fair point the fact that PSF “don’t care” does not excuse their detractors from conducting critical inquiry. You ask, “How do we prevent the same happening again? “ Putting the PRM leadership under the microscope is necessary in beginning to understand the failed policy of “leaders for life.”

    Boyne Rover politely asked Michael Henry for an explanation as to why the PRM restored power to Stormont I am confident if he asked the PRM leadership he would get no explanation. I would assume that republicans would have the right to be distrustful of a leadership who successfully bombed their way into Stormont and with great gusto they are more than content to reinforce the ramparts and defend the castle at the behest of our English landlords.

  24. Michael,

    Considering your leaders sign plenty of official documents does that mean you don't agree with them?

  25. Tain BO-

    Im sure they write plenty of official documents both in Irish and non Irish- i trust them-

    Keeping the unionists at normal up on the hill is not an easy task-
    Peter Robinson is on another huff-
    and its nothing to do with his wife

  26. Alec,

    I too think the clothes were the core demand. I think Denis O'Hearn takes a different view in his very good biography on Bobby but it was not my memory of it. At the end of the hunger strike we obviously never got the five demands otherwise why were we still on protest for a further year? Your point is right - once we got our clothes and out the doors the situation changed. That also meant that people who had no involvement in the blanket, they might not even have been in jail at the time and were arrested later, were part of the struggle for the demands that we did not get. We even had a discussion after the escape as to whether we should be demanding the right to work - due to the access it gave us. It was rejected because of the history of the hunger strikes. Do you recall that debate?

  27. Do you recall the exact date we ended the blanket protest and moved into the system?

  28. On the issue of segregation, It was interesting reading Brendan Hughes book when he basically came across as opposing segregation from the general ODCs on the basis that it was elitist and republican prisoners should be educating and politicising the wider prison population. Leftish prisoners in Germany and Spain also opposed segregation to on this basis.

    does anyone have any thoughts on this issue?

  29. Alec,

    the hunger strike ended at the start of October 81 and about a week later we had our own clothes. That got us out for some association and to the yard. The following spring we began the 'task force' policy of moving into the system in dribs and drabs to start the segregation battle. By November we had ended the protest completely apart from a few who held on until around the escape.


    the very same argument could just as easily have applied to the struggle for political status. Segregation was important for a number of policy reasons. I have never been persuaded by the argument that republicans going into integrated conditions would have won many amongst the ODCs over. In fact we took a number of them onto our wings in the jail where they did their time and never bothered much with the education end of things. I took the view that the Dark was idealistic on the matter even thoughg he was thinking outside the loop.

  30. AM

    It is an interesting point Sean has raised about segregation, as in some ways it does highlight the elitism of Irish Republicanism. Having said that if the republican prisoners had accepted integration with ODCs it could have weakened their arguments over prisoners of war status etc, especially in the public mind.

    Republican prisoners in England (not sure about in other countries) were not segregated and it would be interesting to hear their views on this, were there advantages, etc. Myself I feel any advantages would be outweighed by the disadvantages, especially those of solidarity and solidity.

    Having said that political prisoners when housed alongside ODCs have historically always managed to organise themselves, although I would 'guess' informers were a greater problem than on the republican wings.

  31. Mick,

    in the battle with the authorities the prison management wanted integration as it considered it a more manageable system from its point of view. It would have weakened republican structures, might have exposed individual republicans to assassination attempts by loyalists. The situation outside might not have lent itself to a safe environment, minimised republican operational security and decreased the chances of escape. Our view at the time was that the Brits would spread all the prisoners out throughout the blocks but by a process of gerrymandering would have given a few wings a massive republican majority and allow the rest of the republicans to have minority status in the bulk of wings where loyalists were housed. We were not willing to let that happen.
    Yes of course as political prisoners we could have organised whatever the circumstances but why invite difficulty? Integrated conditions were of no value to republican strategy on the ground. As it ended up, with segregation we created a safety zone which the screws did not control internally, only externally. No prisoners were beaten on our wings because the screws had no opportunity to do it. They could not spot search cells or bully prisoners. Moreover, it was from within the segregated wings that the big push for improved prison conditions would come. And these extended to prisons throughout the North.

  32. Accept your points Mackers. I was merely throwing this point out into the debate after reading and hearing about it.

  33. This issue has surfaced in some discussion today vis-a-vis republican prisoners in Maghaberry. Some have observed that the prisoners are using old tactics of prison struggle to crack a new nut. However, I think Mackers has raised some of the core benefits of having a republican wing that are also applicable today. I have never been convinced by the alternative argument even with its radical/revolutionary overtones. In the case of a relatively small number of prisoners - there are less than forty in Roe House - they would simply be swallowed up by the system.

  34. Michael,

    Within the confines of your own convoluted logic it would make no difference if they signed in Sanskrit or Hieroglyphics signing in Gaelic or in the Queens English was not my question.

    You stated you have no need for official documents which in turn runs contradictory to your answer.

    There is a major difference between trusting and agreeing. PSF agreed to the peace accord whereas the P.O.Ws trusted the leadership (I can’t say that is accurate as I was not there, then again the leadership where not confined within the H Blocks) therefore I can only rely on the documentation and accounts of those who were confined as a more reliable source rather than a political party who successfully ended the armed struggle which was no small feat yet could do little or nothing to negotiate an acceptable agreement to avert the inevitable yet completely unnecessary loss of those then young men’s lives who trusted the leadership even if they didn’t agree with them.

    It seems a little suspicious that a political party could not resolve a prison issue yet could trade in its arsenal for a more respectable position and considering they had the power to accomplish that then surely there would be reason to question their failure to resolve the prison conflict.

    I doubt they are keeping the Unionists at bay as they share the same castle and converse in the other “non-Irish” language under the watchful gaze of her Majesty the Queen and if Robinson is doing his job then fair play to him for making them earn their penny.