35 years ago this Thursday, May 5th 1981, Bobby Sands died on hunger strike after 66 days without food. He was the first of 10 men to die in the H Blocks of Long Kesh that terrible summer of 1981. For those republican political prisoners in the H-Blocks, in Armagh Women’s prison and in other prisons in Ireland and England there was a shared sense of grief and anger.
For the families of those who died and for the rest of us and the tens of thousands of ordinary citizens in Ireland and around the world who campaigned on their behalf, this was our Easter 1916. It was a transformative, watershed moment in our lives but also in the struggle for Irish freedom.
To their families and comrades and supporters the hunger strikers are heroes. They were courageous comrades who selflessly gave their lives that others might not experience the brutality and savagery of a vicious prison regime. And in their painful deaths, watched daily by families and friends, and reported by a generally hostile media, they defied the Thatcher government’s efforts to criminalise them and the struggle that they were part of.
When it ended in October 1981 it appeared that the prisoners had lost. But in reality that long and difficult summer resulted in a few short years with the demands of the prisoners being met. The hunger strike also internationalised the struggle in a way that nothing else had. It facilitated connections with other political and liberation movements and it saw a huge growth in the number of republican activists. It helped accelerate the acceptance by republicans of electoralism as part of strategy.
All of this opened up significant new opportunities, including within a decade secret contacts with the British government and efforts by Sinn Féin to explore the potential for a peace process.
Several years later David Beresford, the Guardian’s correspondent to the north, published the definitive account of the hunger strike – Ten Men Dead. David died last week and his funeral service took place on Tuesday. He was remarkable man and an exceptional writer, author and journalist. He arrived into the north in 1978 at a dangerous and difficult time.
The prison protests in the H-Blocks and in Armagh women’s prison had been going on for three years. There were some 500 protesting prisoners and hundreds more in other prisons in Ireland and England.
The use by the British state of widespread torture in the interrogation centres; of shoot-to-kill actions: and of collusion between state forces and unionist paramilitaries in the killing of political opponents and civilians was widespread. The IRA war against the British state showed no sign of abating.
There was also a major propaganda battle taking place. Many in the establishment media played the game. Their first port of call when anything happened were the numerous press officers working for Britain’s Northern Ireland Office or for the RUC or British Army. Frequently they went no further. The British line was their line. And their editorial bosses, whether in Belfast or London, were happy to sustain this relationship. Censorship, official and unofficial, was deep rooted and corrosive.
This was the north and the state of conflict into which David arrived. From the beginning he looked beyond the official spin. he travelled widely in the north; made a point of speaking to republicans, loyalists and community activists, and to those directly affected by the war.
He had a healthy scepticism; was a good listener; and his writing was insightful, informative and discerning. Occasionally I met him also to discuss the current politics of the moment.
All of us who knew him were struck by his commitment to truthful journalism. Consequently, when he broached the possibility of writing a book on the hunger strike there were no objections. He was trusted to tell an honest account of that very difficult time in our history and in our lives. To aid him in this we gave him access to the ‘comms’ – the messages that were smuggled out from the prison.
In the main these were written on thin tiny cigarette papers, or torn scraps of paper from the Gideon bible that each cell had, using the refill of biros hidden inside the bodies of the prisoners. They were then wrapped in cling film and smuggled out.
Ten Men Dead is probably the best book written about any aspect of the conflict in Ireland. It remains as potent a piece of journalism today as it was when first published. It is a compelling book; impossible to put down once you begin to read it. It is a passionate book that tugs at the emotions. It provides a harrowing and moving account of one of the most extraordinary events during the decades of war in the north of Ireland.
Its longevity; its’ honesty and David’s ability through his words to empathise with those he was writing about have combined to ensure that Ten Men Dead has never been out of print.
A few years after the hunger strike David moved back to South Africa to record the historic changes that were taking place in that country. In 1995 I had the good fortune to meet him again in South Africa when a Sinn Féin delegation travelled there to meet with Madiba – Nelson Mandela - and others in the ANC leadership.
The IRA had the previous year called a cessation and we want to discuss with the ANC their strategies, tactics and general approaches to their peace process and the lessons for ours.
By this stage David was suffering from Parkinsons. It is an awful disease but he faced it with courage and great dignity and wrote about his experience. I also watched the television documentary he made detailing the operation in 2002 to ease the symptoms.
David Beresford believed in the rights of people; in human rights. He wanted to tell their stories in a way that would help others understand what was happening.
As we in Ireland remember our friend Bobby Sands and his nine comrades it is appropriate that we also remember David Beresford who shone a light on the horrors of the H-Blocks.
Bobby was a fine writer also. A poet. From within the confines of his prison cell, naked and brutalised he smuggled out words that resonate today. Among them is his poem The Rhythm of Time. It applies equally to David Beresford:
Do you know this thing my friend?
It has withstood the blows of a million years,
And will do so to the end.
It is found in every light of hope,
It knows no bounds nor space
It has risen in red and black and white,
It is there in every race.
It lights the dark of this prison cell,
It thunders forth its might,
It is ‘the undauntable thought’, my friend,
That thought that says ‘I’m right!’
On behalf of Sinn Féin I want to extend my deepest condolences to David’s family. To Marianna, Belinda and Norman; and Ellen and their son Joris, and to David’s elder brother Garth. Ar dheis dé go raibh a anam dílis.