Learning from the Irish Hunger Strikes of 1981 and the Palestinian Challenge
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 21 May 2012
John Hurson in Ireland has been keenly conscious of the affinities between the historic Irish hunger strike of 1981 and the ongoing Palestinian hunger strikes. He has travelled to Gaza on several occasions on humanitarian aid convoys, and is the founder of the on line Gaza TV News service. I suggested that we collaborate on an article that might recall the Irish experience, especially the parallels and the potential implications for the future of the Palestinian struggle.
John Hurson ends his reflective essay with a comparison between the hardheartedness of Netanyahu and the British leader at the time, Margaret Thatcher. Although more than 30 years have passed since Bobby Sands and his nine fellow prisoners died as a result of carrying their prison protests to their ultimate point of no return. I hope and pray that no Palestinian hunger strikers die. Their moral authority and political energy is needed to galvanize further these glimmerings of a Palestinian awakening. The impact of Khader Adnan and later Hana Shalabi, after their release from Israeli prisons is illustrative, and helps us all understand that although abusive arrest and administrative detention is the immediate cause of the hunger strikes, their agenda was always far broader than seeking personal relief. Their intention, already partially effective, was to shine a bright light of truth on the manner in which Israel has used administrative detention, as well as on broader concerns about Palestinian imprisonment more generally, and beyond this, to call attention to the unlawful and immoral denial through decades and across generations of fundamental Palestinians rights under a structure called internationally ‘occupation’ but experienced as a lethal blend of annexation, apartheid, and settler colonialism.
At this time present medical condition of at least six long-term hunger strikers has been reported to be grave for the past several days. The respected Palestinian NGO, Addameer, gave details in its May 9th release entitled “Update: Situation of Long-Term Hunger Strikers Becomes Increasingly Urgent.” Those in critical condition include Thaer Halahleh and Bilal Diab (74 days); Hassan Shafadi (68 days); Omar Abu Shalal (66 days); Mohammad Taj (55 days); Jaafar Azzedine (51 days).
There have been calls made for a worldwide empathy and solidarity hunger strike on Tuesday, May 15, the day that the Nabka is observed by Palestinians and their friends worldwide. I intend to make this gesture of support, and hope many others will join, and send a further message that the cause of Palestinian justice is rising to the top of the moral agenda of the peoples of the world even in the face of the awful complicity of Western governments with an intolerable situation of prolonged occupation and exile.
The featured cartoon, suggested John Hurson, is by Carlos Latoof, the award winning Brazilian cartoonist who has so ofter memorably depicted the torments and tormentors of Palestine.
RECALLING THE IRISH HUNGER STRIKE OF 1981
By John Hurson of County Tyrone, Ireland
In 1980, 7 IRA men in the H Block prison embarked on a hunger strike seeking to re establish their political status, which the British Government had ended 4 years before. After 53 days, and the men close to death, a deal was apparently on the table from the Thatcher led British Government, and the men called of their hunger strike. In the days that followed, it became clear that there was no deal. 2 months later, another hunger strike was announced, and on March 1st, Bobby Sands began his hunger strike. As part of their strategy, different men would join at later stages. Several men would follow Bobby, and by the end of the summer, 10 men had died before the hunger strike was called off.
The prisoners had 5 demands:
1. The right not to wear a prison uniform;
2. The right not to do prison work;
3. The right of free association with other prisoners, and to organise educational and recreational pursuits;
4. The right to one visit, one letter and one parcel per week;
5. Full restoration of remission lost through the protest.
In the months that followed, several of the demands were met, and within 2 years, all 5. A few weeks after Bobby started his fast, the MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone died, and an election was called. A decision was made to run Bobby as a candidate in order to gain more attention to their plight, and on his 41st day on hunger strike, he was elected MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone. His election lit a spark where the Republican movement saw the impact of electoral success. The rise of Sinn Fein to where they are today can be traced back to this victory. Today, Sinn Fein are a major political force in Ireland, and have elected representatives in all corners of Ireland. During the negotiations that led to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, Sinn Fein played a major role. Today, Martin McGuiness is the Deputy First Minister in the Stormont Executive, and meets world leaders on a regular basis. Gerry Adams, the party leader, is an elected TD (Teachta Dala, Gaellic designation for Member of Parliament) in the Irish Parliament. There is no doubt that the hunger strike of 1981 changed things forever, not only for the prisoners in the H Blocks, but politically. The names of the 10 men are ingrained forever in Irish history, and the dark days of 1981 are now a beacon of hope for the future. February 21st, 2012,
Khader Adnan ended his hunger strike after 66 days, the same length of time Bobby Sands endured before he died on May 5th 1981. Throughout Khader’s hunger strike, he was compared to Bobby Sands, the first of ten men to die in the Hunger Strike of 1981. Forever, the 2 men will be talked about in the same breath for their courage, determination, and in Bobby’s case, ultimate sacrifice. At the beginning of March 1981, Bobby Sands began his Hunger Strike. He died on May 5th. Following Bobby, Francis Hughes, Ray McCreesh, Patsy O’Hara, Joe McDonnell, Martin Hurson, Kevin Lynch, Kieran Doherty, Thomas McElwee, and Mickey Devine all died before the strike was called off.
As Khader Adnan approached the 50 day mark, I contacted Tommy McKearney and he recorded a message for Khader and his family. Tommy’s message carried a unique understanding of Khader’s condition as Tommy had gone 53 days without food in 1980. I contacted Oliver Hughes in South Derry. Oliver’s brother, Francis, died after 59 days, and his cousin Thomas McElwee after 62. Oliver recorded a very powerful message . As Khader was on his 64th day, I got in contact with the family of Ray McCreesh. They sent a statement of support for Khader and his family. Ray McCreesh (61 days), died on the same day as Patsy O’Hara.(61 days) Patsy ’s brother Tony sent a message of support on behalf of himself, and his mother Peggy. Mickey Devine was the last of the 10 men to die in 1981. Mickey’s children, Michael og and Louise, sent through a heartfelt message,. considering they were the same age as Khader’s children when their father died, their voices added a special meaning. Mickey Devine, (27), died on August 20th 1981 In addition to these messages, two other former hunger strikers added their voices. Pat Sheehan(55 days), and Ray McCartney (53 days), sent a video message. Danny Morrison, who was a friend of Bobby Sands also issued a statement.
On day 66, Khader reached an agreement with the Israeli Government to end his strike on the condition that they would not renew his Administrative Detention order, and release him on April 17th. Following Khader’s hunger strike several other prisoners followed his example, and began hunger strikes in protest at their incarceration under the Administrative Detention policy. On April 17th, over 1,500 Palestinian prisoners initiated a mass hunger strike. The plight of the Palestinian prisoners was set to take centre stage, and their struggle brought to the worlds attention. In the days that followed, hundreds more joined them Adding a voice of support for Bilal Diab and Thaer Hallahla who were on day 70 of their hunger strike, was Laurence McKeown. Before ending his fast, he had gone 70 days without food. He knew only to well the dangers facing both men, and he recorded a message of support. Two days later, Pat Sheehan, MLA, issued a statement on behalf of Sinn Fein calling for an immediate end to Administrative Detention, and support for the prisoners. Bilal and Thaer are on day 74 day of their hunger strike.
Ireland has a long history of the use of a hunger strike as a form of protest. It has been used for centuries. Palestinian prisoners have been inspired by Irish hunger strikes in the past, and this one is no different. In 1981, Palestinians prisoners sent a message of support to the families of the 10 men who died. Their memory burns bright among current prisoners on hunger strike. This hunger strike has resonated widely in Ireland. . The voices have roared around the world, playing a pivotal role in bringing international awareness and pressure on the Israeli Government, and their treatment of Palestinian prisoners. Historically, Ireland has had its fair share of tyrants. Amongst them, Margaret Thatcher is in a league of her own for allowing 10 Irish men to die on hunger strike before granting their 5 demands.
Judging from his past behaviour, Netanyahu, like Thatcher in 1981, is unlikely to step in to avoid having any of these Palestinian die during their hunger strikes.
Is the fuse being lit for a 3rd Intifada? Only the future will give us an answer.
Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, an international relations scholar, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, author, co-author or editor of 40 books, and a speaker and activist on world affairs. He is currently serving his fourth year of a six-year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian Human Rights. Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies, and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent book is Achieving Human Rights (2009).
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