Chapter 6 – From the H Blocks to Hillsborough

An interlude is just that, and if the opportunity were not taken it was certain that some form of new sectarian upsurge would follow.

It was the crude repression of the state, carried beyond the point where it was effective, which was to change things. Merlyn Rees had decided to clamp down in the prisons to try to break the morale of prisoners. Concessions, such as the right to wear their own clothes and avoid prison work, were withdrawn from those convicted on offences arising out of the Troubles committed after 1 March 1976.

This triggered a protest in the prisons. Republican prisoners first of all refused to wear prison uniforms and were left naked in their cells except for a blanket. Humiliating restrictions imposed by the prison authorities meant that this was escalated in March 1978 into a ‘no-wash’ protest. From then protesting prisoners lived in intolerable, inhuman conditions, forced to sit naked and filthy in stinking cells, the walls smeared with their own excreta.

The difficulties faced by the IRA outside, meant that they were not able to mount an effective support campaign, this despite a mood of considerable sympathy among Catholics for the prisoners’ plight.

Feeling that they were isolated after years of protest, and with no movement from the government, the prisoners decided, against the advice of the outside leadership, to mount a hunger strike. In October 1980 seven prisoners began to refuse food. Their fast ended in December with one prisoner near to death. In return for vague promises from the government they called it off.

If concessions had then been implemented the matter would have ended there. But Thatcher, in characteristically intransigent fashion, sensed victory and the concessions were not given.

Thatcher underestimated both the desperation and the determination of the prisoners. A second fast began on 1 March 1981, when the Provisionals’ commanding officer in the H Blocks, Bobby Sands, refused his meals. Sands stayed on hunger strike until his death in May.

His courageous and defiant stand angered and inspired the Catholic community and the H Block protests drew mass support across the North. When the independent nationalist MP for Fermanagh / South Tyrone died suddenly, Sands was nominated to fight the seat. His victory with over 30,000 votes registered the deep chord of sympathy and support which had been struck among the Catholic community.

A general election in the South in June showed the support which also existed there. Of nine prisoners who stood, two were elected and an impressive total of 40,000 votes was polled.

After Sands, nine other prisoners were to die before the hunger strike was called off. No concessions were given but neither had the government won any real victory. Thatcher’s refusal to give way had alienated the Catholic community and prepared for the political rise of Sinn Fein.

The Rise of Sinn Fein

The hunger strikes restored the morale of the movement. There was no mass turn of the youth to the Provisionals but there were enough recruits to sustain a long campaign. Its most important effect was the rise of Sinn Fein.

At the 1981 Ard Fhéis, Sinn Fein’s Director of Publicity, Danny Morrison, explained the new dual strategy which, through the votes for H Block candidates, the republican movement had stumbled upon: “Who here really believes we can win the war through the ballot box? But will anyone here object if with a ballot box in this hand and an armalite in this hand we take power in Ireland?”[15]

Thatcher’s government made a doomed attempt to create yet another local administration. Elections to this Assembly were held in 1982 and Sinn Fein, seriously contesting elections in the North for the first lime since the 1950s, took 10% of the vote. In the 1983 Westminster elections their vote went up to 13.4% and, in a notable victory, Gerry Adams won the West Belfast seat.

Sinn Fein’s vote was more the angry reply of an alienated Catholic community, especially of the Catholic working class, to the hunger strikes land to Tory economic policies, than it was a calculated support for the IRA campaign. Still, its effect was to reinforce the sectarian political impasse. Overall, although there was no return to the levels of violence of the early ’70s, there was a new and deep sectarian polarization. The leaders of the labor movement bore a heavy responsibility for this. Just as ten years earlier the trade unions had pulled out of the civil rights struggle and had ignored internment and Bloody Sunday, so during the long H Block protest they refused to campaign for decent conditions for these prisoners.

Their argument was that this, and other aspects of repression (shoot to kill, supergrasses, etc.) were sectarian issues which would split the unions if they touched them. But the truth is that repression is not a sectarian issue. It only becomes so if it is left to people who take it up in a sectarian manner.

Yet Militant was able to take up the issue of the H Blocks within the labor movement and the working class both in Britain and Ireland. Militant’s call for an end to oppression in the prisons, for the right of all prisoners to wear their own clothes, have a choice of work or study and for a labor movement review of the cases of all those convicted of offences arising from the Troubles to determine who, in its eyes, is and is not a political prisoner, found a ready echo among both Catholic and Protestant workers. A resolution moved on the British Labour Party National Executive Committee by the Young Socialist representative, a Militant supporter, committed that party to this position.

The trade union leaders should have led the campaign outside the prisons from the start. In doing so they should have explained that they stood for decent conditions for all prisoners. They should have attempted to link this issue with the industrial battles then taking place first against Labour and then against the Tory government. If they had done all this, the labor movement, not Sinn Fein, would have been in position to draw the political capital.

But this would have meant that the nonsense that the trade unions are not political would have had to be put to the side. To conduct strikes and other forms of industrial struggle against government policies without also conducting a political struggle was like wielding a knife without a blade. A conference of trade union and community activists should have been called to build a socialist Labour Party which could have united the working class against all forms of Toryism.

None of this was clone and the result was sectarian polarization and the rise of Sinn Fein. Yet even during and after the hunger strikes there were strikes over pay which united Catholic and Protestant workers.

Civil servants conducted a protracted struggle over pay in 1981. In 1982 it was the turn of health workers, among the most lowly paid section of the working class. The most abiding memory of that year is not of sectarian confrontation but of regular demonstrations, all of them noisy, colorful, vibrant and angry, of health workers and other workers who supported them.

Eventually it was events in Britain, not the North, which drew the most decisive line across this movement of opposition to Tory policies. The magnificent year long miners’ strike of 1984/5 inspired millions of workers not only in Britain, but in Europe and further afield. There were continuous street, workplace, and door to door collections, regular meetings and other solidarity activity in Northern Ireland. It was therefore a cruel blow when, largely because the British Trades Union Congress refused to defy Tory anti-union laws and organize effective blacking and sympathetic strike action, it ended in defeat. This defeat sapped the will of other workers to struggle for a period. ‘New Realism’, in other words the doctrine which said ‘we must always capitulate to employers demands’ and ‘we must always sell out and betray our members’ became enshrined as the philosophy of the roc and most union leaders.

Thatcher’s defeat of the miners did not rescue her government’s policy in Northern Ireland. Two attempts to try to gel local parties to agree to a new local Assembly ended in failure. Early discussions with the Dublin government proved fruitless. The lasting effect of the hunger strike was to partially undermine the SDLP, the one ‘moderate’ voice in the Catholic community with whom the government might hope to ‘do business’.

The danger that the SDLP might come apart in the government’s hands forced a somersault. In November 1985 Thatcher met with the heads of the South’ s Fine Gael – Labour coalition government at Hillsborough, a few miles outside Belfast and the Anglo Irish Agreement was signed. Today those who signed it, both Prime Ministers included, regard it as having failed. It is therefore worth noting that at the time it was hailed as an historic breakthrough by the entire political establishment, the Irish and British Labour Parties included; Militant was the only voice raised which explained that it would solve nothing but would make things worse and which counterposed a socialist alternative.

Like what was discussed at Sunningdale, twelve years and over seventeen hundred deaths earlier, the preamble to the Agreement setting out the status of Northern Ireland, echoes closely the more recent ‘breakthrough’, the Downing Street Declaration.

It says “The two governments (a) affirm that any change in the status of Northern Ireland would only come about with the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland (b) recognize that the present wish of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland is for no change in the status of Northern Ireland (c) declare that, if in the future a majority of the people of Northern Ireland clearly wish for and formally consent to the establishment of a united Ireland, they will introduce and support in the respective parliaments, legislation to have effect to that wish”[16].

The Anglo Irish Agreement allowed the Dublin government a consultative role in the North. The changes it proposed were all largely window dressing, minor sops to the SDLP to try to restore their credibility among Northern Catholics.

Thatcher was a particularly unsubtle, particularly hamfisted, representative of the British ruling class. Her idea of diplomacy, which was to stomp around in political hob-nailed boots, was especially unsuited to the delicately balanced politics of Northern Ireland. Having already alienated Catholics, she succeeded in antagonizing virtually the entire Protestant community with the Anglo Irish Agreement, above all with the manner in which it was imposed without any prior consultation with unionists. A protest rally held one week after the Agreement was signed, drew close on 300,000 people to the front of Belfast’s City Hall.

Loyalist Backlash

In March 1986 loyalist workers forced the leaders of the two main unionist parties, the OUP and DUP to call a one day strike which was well supported by Protestant workers. Sectarian violence became widespread. Catholics were threatened and intimidated in some workplaces. Many Catholic homes were petrol-bombed. The UDA and UVF had their hands in all this. They managed to draw a layer of new recruits to what had been largely exhausted and discredited organisations.

New Protestant paramilitary organisations sprang up. The Ulster Clubs, based in Portadown, soon claimed 10,000 members. A shadowy umbrella organisation embracing a number of paramilitary groups and calling itself Ulster Resistance was set up, with prominent DUP politicians at the helm. The effect of all this was to render the Agreement stillborn. The Anglo Irish structures stayed in place but they were never built on. A few changes were introduced – repeal of the Flags and Emblems Act, which had made it an offence to fly the Irish tricolor in the North and the re-routing of Orange parades – but these would probably have come anyway. It did not take the elaborate construction of an inter-governmental agreement, a permanent secretariat, not to mention the turmoil it provoked, to produce these paltry changes.

By the autumn of 1986 the sectarian reaction had begun to subside- for two main reasons. Firstly the working class began to react against the intimidation. In August DHSS workers in Lisburn, 10 miles west of Belfast, walked out after Catholic members of staff received threats. The Broad Left and Militant led DHSS section of their union called out its 4,000 members in support. The UDA, which had made the threat, withdrew it. This was a signal to other workers to answer threats in the same way.

Secondly, the fact that the Agreement was in reality put on ice by both governments, lessened Protestant worries that they were about to be delivered into a united Ireland by a deal struck behind their backs. The level of protest dropped away.

The net result for the government was a deeper political impasse than before. The SDLP, with Sinn Fein still breathing down their necks, had to hang on to the idea of Dublin involvement and would only enter talks on the future of the North on this basis. The Unionists would not enter talks so long as the Agreement and Dublin involvement stayed in place.

It was a stand off. And it would be seven years before the Tory government, now led by John Major, dared produce another ‘grand’ initiative to ‘solve’ the problem.


  1. O’Brien, Brendan. The Long War (The IRA and Sinn Fein – 1983 to Today). O’Brien Press, 1993. p 127.
  2. The Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985.