Shock Waves Through The Blanket Protest

Thomas Dixie Elliot provides insight into the mindset of the blanket protest prisoners in the lead up to the hunger strikes. Dixie Elliot is a former blanketman.

I think that in order to fully understand what exactly was going on inside the H-Blocks at the time of the two Hunger Strikes we need to give an honest look at the build up to them.

The Blanket Protest had begun in September 1976 when Kieran Nugent refused to wear the prison uniform, others followed him and the number of men on protest grew. As the years passed things got increasingly worse in regards to beatings etc. Eventually the protest escalated to such an extent that we were living in our own shit, to put it mildly.

The escalation in the protest merely gave the authorities another weapon with which to attack us, this came in the form of brutal wing shifts and forced washings; a living nightmare.

Throughout the protest, men were gradually leaving; being unable to endure what was in effect a hellish existence. No one can judge anyone in this situation unless you lived through it and those of us who did could understand fully why they left.

I remember word coming to our wing in May 1979 that one of the most prominent men on the protest had left. This sent shock waves throughout the protest. Many even speculated that he had been sent to the conforming wings to talk men into coming onto the protest.

The Dark and some others knew otherwise. They knew things were getting bad, that morale was dipping alarmingly. A change of tactics was even proposed in which we went into the system and wrecked it from within. This was rejected because of the prison clothing aspect. We simply could not wear the convict's uniform.

There was only one other alternative, the Hunger Strike. Leading up to this men were encouraged to return to the protest and many did.

Rather than go into the two Hunger Strikes in detail I will simply move forward to July 4th 1981. By this time four brave men had died, Bobby had won the Fermanagh/Tyrone by-election and 100,000 people had attended his funeral. Down South shock-waves had been sent through the system with the election victories of Kieran Doherty and Paddy Agnew as well as a few other close runs. The world could no longer be fed the lie that we were criminals.

The pressure from across the globe was building on Thatcher.

In H3 the leadership saw all this yet no end was in sight. Four men were dead and from what I've since been told they had not intended it to go beyond four deaths. They were also aware of the strong possibility that men would once again leave the protest if no gains were seen to be achieved.

Desperate measures were called for. Richard O'Rawe drew up a statement effectively pulling back from political status, saying that all prisoners in the North could avail of the Five Demands.

This statement was released on July 4th and it gave Thatcher the way out she needed. Her response was immediate, the Mountain Climber Channel was opened between the Foreign Office and Gerry Adams and an offer was made on July 5th/6th which had the most important of our demands included, the right to wear our own clothes at all times.

Before the Hunger Strikes it was accepted that if we were to get our own clothes we could go into the system and make it ungovernable. And who would argue with that? It was a scenario not only feared by the screws but the loyalists who had made it clear on numerous occasions that there would be hell to pay if the authorities attempted to put them in wings with Blanket men because, quite frankly, they seen us as headcases given what we had put ourselves through.

The right to wear our own clothes effectively smashed the Criminalisation policy, there was no ifs or buts about it. The Thatcher offer gave us a way out as the Convict's Uniform was gone.

This is exactly why Richard O'Rawe and Bik McFarlane agreed, within earshot of other prisoners, that the offer contained enough to end it.....


  1. Anthony,
    Since this article concerns the blanket protest, I will ask you a question. You pulled out of the so-called gfa, but you are against the RAs resistance to British/PSNI imperialism. You say the RAs can't win because the Provos couldn't. Could you please elaborate on this? What is your idea of how the Irish people can attain freedom in the Six Counties?

  2. The Bobby Sands Trust March 19, 2009:
    "An unpublished interview with Sir John Blelloch, a member of MI5 who had been seconded to the NIO as a Deputy Secretary at the time of the 1980 and 1981 hunger strikes, has come into the possession of the Bobby Sands Trust. The interview was conducted at the British Ministry of Defence in late September 1986 [where Blelloch was Permanent Under Secretary] by the author of ‘Biting At The Grave’, Padraig O’Malley, professor at the University of Massachusetts, Boston."

    "An unpublished interview" So in fact Padraig O'Malley didn't see the interview as being of any value as to be included in his book he was writing about the Hunger Strikes at the time, 'Biting at the Grave.'

    Yet Sinn Fein are holding it up as evidence that no offer existed.

  3. Thank you Dixie for this - I cannot for one moment imagine what it was like for you and your comrades - if ever an event needed the truth to come out, this is it - but alas it seems too often like those of you who try are like voices in the wilderness or treated like some annoying crazies talking to yourselves - however, please keep writing and speaking because some of us are listening and encouraging others to listen for what that is worth.

  4. Ronnie,

    the current armed republicans are a very weak version of the Provos. There is not a hope that they could move the British.

    Partition is with us until such times as a majority in the North decide otherwise. There is no republican solution.

    None of this is new - I have said it countless times before

  5. Padraig O’Malley, Biting at the Grave, pg 90-92: “Both sides met again on 4 July for what the Commission members felt was a pro-forma exercise. Within minutes of the meeting’s beginning, however, Alison did a complete about-face. If the hunger strikes were to end, he told the Commission, the government would not appear to be acting under duress, in which case all prisoners would be allowed to wear their own clothes. Own clothing as a right, not a privilege, Hugh Logue asked. Own clothing as a right, Alison replied.”

    “After the meeting with Alison the Commission was given permission to go immediately to the Maze/Long Kesh prison. When they arrived, they were brought to the hospital wing […] The eight hunger strikers sat on one side of a table on which jugs of water had been placed; the five commissioners sat opposite them.”

    “For the next two hours the two sides went over the proposals the Commission had hammered out with Alison and which it now thought were on offer. Prisoners would be allowed to wear their own clothes at all times as a matter of right, not privilege; association would be improved by allowing movement by all prisoners during daily exercise time between the yard blocks of every two adjacent wings within each block and between the recreation rooms of the two adjacent wings in each block during the daily recreational period; the definition of work would be expanded to ensure every prisoner the widest choice of activities – for example, prisoners with levels of expertise in crafts of the arts could teach these skills to other prisoners as part of their work schedules, prisoners would be allowed to perform work for a range of charitable or voluntary bodies, and such work could even include the building of a church “or equivalent facilities for religious worship within the prison”.”

    Padraig O’Malley, Biting at the Grave, pg 96:

    “…Danny Morrison was allowed to go into the Maze/Long Kesh to see the hunger strikers on the morning of 5 July…to apprise them of what was going on, although he did not go into detail. Morrison says that he relayed information about the contact and impressed upon them the fact the ICJP could “make a mess of it, that they could be settling for less than what they had the potential for achieving.”

    (My note: He relayed information about the contact (The Mountain Climber?) in effect here we have proof that the Brits were offering the most important of the 5 demands the right to wear our own clothes through the ICJP, but Danny Morrison told the Hunger Strikers the following day that they had the potential to get more. Yet he didn't go into detail about how much more they would get. Why not?

    More importantly this is proof if proof is needed that Stephen Leach was correct when he said that Gerry Adams told the ICJP that a ‘good offer’ had recently been received via this channel - The Mountain Climber.)

  6. Ronnie Austin. What has what this got to do with the Hunger Strikes? I would write a separate piece on your ideas of how the Irish people can attain freedom in the Six Counties and post it here on the Quill.

  7. Dixie,

    by this stage there is no doubt an offer was made. Danny Morrison has admitted so often to bringing it in that his attempts since to resile from it have merely reinforced the view that he is covering up. All he ends up doing is creating the situation whereby Danny Morrison calls Danny Morrison a liar ... and for once everybody believes him.

    The issue to be addressed and resolved is not whether there was a substantive offer: that is now a given, but why it failed to materialise in an outcome that would have prevented six deaths.