Smashing H-Block

Today The Pensive Quill features a book review by guest writer Sandy Boyer. The book is Smashing H-Block – The Rise and Fall of the Popular Campaign Against Criminalization, 1976-1982 By F. Stuart Ross. Reviewer Sandy Boyer was the Coordinator of the New York H-Block/Armagh Committee. He is currently the co-host of Radio Free Eireann broadcast Staurdays at 1pm on WBAI 99.5FM or and is helping to build a New York campaign for Marian Price.

Millions of people throughout the world know that Bobby Sands died on hunger strike. Very few people know that there was a campaign outside the prisons that mobilized hundreds of thousands of people throughout Ireland on behalf of the men in the H-Blocks and the women in Armagh Prison. The movement for the prisoners actually involved more people than the Civil Rights Movement which has received far more attention.

Smashing H-Block is the first book to document the campaign outside the prison. It is important both because that story needs to be told for its own sake and because it is extremely relevant to today when internment is back and political prisoners in Maghaberry are on a dirty protest.

Like the prison protest itself, the popular resistance began years before the hunger strikes. It started with the Relatives Action Committees, made up primarily of women - the mothers, wives and girlfriends and families of prisoners. Women protested wearing nothing but a blanket. They even chained themselves to the railings at Westminster.

By 1978 the RAC’s had a Central Coordinating Committee throughout the six counties. They organized a march from Coalisland to Dungannon, the route of the original civil rights march that drew 25,000 people.

In 1979 what became known as the National H-Block/Armagh Committee was formed. Its mission was to mobilize everyone throughout the 32 counties who would support the prisoners’ demands.

The campaign’s progress was anything but easy or automatic. It emerged from a series of often acrimonious debates over the way forward. But always the increasingly desperate situation in the prisons forced people to move forward and often re-think old positions.

Before the H-Block/Armagh Committee, both Sinn Fein and the IRSP said that no one who didn’t support the armed struggle could be allowed to campaign for the prisoners. After all, they were in prison because they waged an armed struggle so why should people who wouldn’t support that be allowed to speak on their behalf? There was a fear that organizations or individuals that had opposed the struggle might profit from participating in a broad campaign for the prisoners.

This attitude is reflected today in the refusal of organizations and individuals to build an inclusive, democratic campaign for the prisoners. Some republican organizations work only for their own prisoners. There are individuals who say that they have been put in charge if a campaign and only they can set its direction.

In the 1970’s these attitudes broke down out of sheer necessity. More prisoners were joining the protest and the situation in the prisons was getting steadily worse. It became clear to most people that it was impossible to build a campaign with just the people willing to commit to an armed struggle. Only a broad front, open to anyone who supported the prisoners’ demands had any chance to make an impact. 

For some in Sinn Fein, there were other considerations as well. Sinn Fein publicist Danny Morrison wrote that “the H-Block Committee, through its marches and other broad based protest activities provided Sinn Fein with an unprecedented opportunity to be outgoing and to build up its contacts and membership.”

At its height, during the 1981 hunger strike, the H-Block/Armagh Committee had 437 affiliated action groups throughout Ireland. The campaign’s most impressive achievement may have been electing two prisoners, Kieran Doherty and Paddy Agnew to the Dail. Joe McDonnell came very close to being elected.

Even this was a source of controversy within the H-Block/Armagh Committee. The IRSP, People’s Democracy, Bernadette Devlin McAliskey and a number of local activists argued for running candidates who would take their seats and refuse to vote for any government that wouldn’t support the prisoners.

But Sinn Fein, which always had the dominant voice in the Committee, insisted that only prisoners could be allowed to run. Sinn Fein still saw abstentionism as an inviolable principle.

The H-Block/Armagh Committee was dissolved in October of 1982, a year after the second hunger strike ended. Bernadette McAliskey, the IRSP and People’s Democracy argued that it should be converted into a movement that could campaign not only on prisoners’ and nationalist issues but social and economic issues as well.

Sinn Fein was having none of it. Their newspaper, AnPhoblacht/Republican News asked “whether or not a mass movement…[was] a feasible, desirable, or achievable mechanism upon which the struggle can progress.” Besides, Sinn Fein was recruiting a new corps of highly useful activists out of the H-Block/Armagh Committee.

Although Smashing H-Block started as a PhD thesis, it is clear, lively and highly readable. If you want to learn about this until now overlooked part of the history of the hunger strike or you want to explore its lessons for today’s prisoners’ struggles you owe it to yourself to pick up Smashing H-Block.

Smashing H-Block – The Rise and Fall of the Popular Campaign Against Criminalization, 1976-1982 By F. Stuart Ross, Liverpool University Press.
Distributed by University of Chicago Press
Available from Amazon.Co.UK and


  1. Sandy,

    thanks for a thoughtful review which has relevance for today. It is a book I have had on the horizon, never letting it slip out of view but at the same time never having made it to the point of reading it. I will in time but this certainy is a great appetizer

  2. From Helen McClafferty:

    Strong Irish Views at State Department

    Capitol Hill . April 24, 2012 --- Irish-Americans today voiced strong concerns at a State Department Briefing.

    The Briefing was “ off the record,” which means the State Department officials cannot be quoted.
    “ However,” explained Fr. Sean Mc Manus – President of the Capitol Hill-based Irish National Caucus – “ it can be said that Irish –American leaders from across the country expressed strong concerns.”

    He continued : “ When the meeting was thrown open for discussion, I was first to speak and I immediately raised the cases of both Marian Price and Gerry Mc Geough.

    Sean Pender, National Chairman of the Freedom of All Ireland Committee, followed up with the issue of collusion and the continued stonewalling of the British Government on many killings.

    Peter Kissel, leader of the Washington Chapter of the Irish American Unity Conference , weighed in on the Boston College tapes and cases like the Ballymurphy Massacre.

    Other issues raised were : immigration, the case of the deportees, the peace walls, the need not to ignore the plight of working-class or deprived Loyalists who feel left out of the political dialogue.

    Fr. Mc Manus explained : “ I also had intended to raise later in the discussion the need for a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights, but time did not permit. However, all of us were very pleased with the meeting. Our issues were listened to with attention and respect. We are very grateful and hope the State Department will continue these Briefings. I -- and several others -- expressed great confidence in, and respect for, Hillary and we hope she can help with these issues.”

    Fr. Sean Mc Manus


    Irish National Caucus

  3. From Helen McClafferty:

    Irish -Americans Urge Congress to Co-Sign Rep. Smith's Letter
    to President Obama

    Capitol Hill. Wednesday, April 25, 2012 --- Irish-Americans and all Irish organizations are urging Members of Congress to co- sign a letter that Congressman Smith ( R_NJ) is sending to President Obama.

    The Dear Colleague letter requests the President to, " vigorously urge the British government to conduct a public judicial inquiry into government collusion in the 1989 murder of human rights attorney Patrick Finucane, as it undertook to do in the 2001 Weston Park Agreement. "

    " This is neither a Democratic nor a Republican issue," explained Fr. Sean Mc Manus, President of the Capitol Hill-based Irish National Caucus. " It is, however, an issue of profound importance to Irish-Americans. We are urging all Members of Congress to show they are supporters of justice and peace in Ireland by co- signing this letter. We also anxiously wait to see what President Obama is going to do."

    Fr Mc Manus continued: " In this election year, Irish-Americans are watching the white House and Congress very carefully. We expect elected officials to ACT not just talk about Irish justice and human rights. The Pat Finucane case is perfect case for them to take a stand on. They must hold the British Government to account."

    Members of Congress who wish to co-sign this Dear Colleague-letter should contact Bill Hand in Congressman Smith's office:

    Fr. Sean Mc Manus


    Irish National Caucus

    P.O. BOX 15128

    Capitol Hill

    Washington, DC 20003-0849

    Tel. 202-544-0568

    Fax. 202-488-7537