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What's behind the hunger strikes and violence in Northern Ireland

It's an age-old question: Can murder be excused because it is said to have a political motive? Can setting a booby trap to explode a bomb and perhaps kill a woman or a child be excused? Hurling a bomb into a crowded restaurant?

The Provisional wing of the illegal Irish Republican Army (IRA) and its political wing, the Provisional Sinn Fein, has insisted for decades that the answer is yes.

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"We want the British out of Ireland as the first step to a united country," argued young Irish Republican spokesman Joe Austin in an interview in his headquarters on the Falls Road in west Belfast.

"Obviously we don't have the same motives as a robber or a rapist. We use physical force because the British have ignored peaceful methods."

If the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and Israeli groups after world War II could kill for political ends, why not grant the Provos (IRA gunmen and bombers) the same political justification, Mr. Austin asked.

British officials here and in London respond with a mixture of weariness and passion that the IRA does not represent any significant force in Northern Ireland. It has no leaders of national stature. Its socialistic platform is vague, unrealistic, and largely unknown.

The IRA is, the British say, a tiny band of youngsters, armed to the teeth, tragically hardened by violence and unemployment from their early teens, and sustained by past grievances and the skillfull use of Irish nationalist and Roman Catholic pressure groups around the world (not least in the United States).

Officials estimate some 250, not more, young, working-class Provo gunmen are terrorizing Catholic neighborhoods. Officials concede past British failures to build adequate housing for Catholics. They acknowledge years of discrimination in jobs and in other ways. They do not condone counterviolence by Protestants.

But they refuse to agree that the IRA can solve grievances by the use of terrorist blackmail. They insist that 90 percent of the people of Northern Ireland simply want to be left alone.

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Finding a political formula to give Ulster self-rule in a way that will satisfy the region's 1 million Protestants and half million Catholics is likely to take many years. Irish unification would take even longer, if in fact North and South do seriously want it. Many people here and in Dublin privately doubt that the practical problems blocking unification can ever be solved.

British officials at Stormont Castle have provided the Monitor with a specially prepared statistical breakdown of crimes committed by IRA prisoners in the Maze prison.

Four hundred sixteen refused to wear prison clothing or perform prison work as part of their long effort to achieve "political status."

Seventy-four of them were convicted for murder (the IRA points out many convictions were by special courts without juries). Forty-five were sentenced for attempted murder, 118 for setting bombs or other explosives, 96 for possessing firearms, and the other 83 for robbery and other crimes.

The nature of the violence is indicated by looking closely at the four hunger strikers now in the news.

Robert Gerard Sands was sentenced Sept. 7, 1977, to 14 years for possessing firearms and ammunition with the intent to endanger life.

He is a tragic case, exposed to terror and violence since 1969, when he was 15 years old.

His record is far more serious than the bald charge sheet suggests.

In 1973, at the age of 18, a jury found him guilty of two armed robberies of service stations, and two attempted holdups. He was given five years in jail.

In Northern Ireland, the standard, reduction of prison sentences for those who obey prison rules is 50 percent (reduction is only one-third in England and Wales). So Sands was released in April 1976.

Significantly, he served his time in a compound rather than a cell. He enjoyed the so-called "Special category" status the British established in June 1972 as a concession to end a prolonged hunger strike.

Sands wore his own clothes, did not work, lived with about 80 other IRA prisoners in his compound, helped run the compound, set his own rules, and regarded himself as having political status in everything but name.

Six months after his release, he war arrested again.

He was in a car stopped by police as it tried to drive away from a factory belonging to the Balmoral Furnishing Company in the Catholic area of Dunmurray, after a number of bombs had exploded there. Three other men were also in the car, and a gun was on the floor. Two others were arrested after an exchange of gunfire.

All six were convicted a year later. The judge cleared them of bombing charges saying police had produced too little evidence.

Sand's sentence of 14 years in fact meant six years -- seven years off for the standard 50 percent reduction, and one more year for the 12 months between his arrest and trial.

But Sands went back into a cell instead of a compound. In 1975 after an investigation by Lord Gardiner, the British decided that "special category" status had been a mistake. It yielded too much control to prisoners. By granting de facto political status the British concluded they were encouraging more terrorism. The IRA compounds had become centers of terrorist training and resistance to prison authorities.

So "special category" was abolished for all offenses committed after March 1, 1976. At the time about 1,500 IRA prisoners were still in the compound; today the number has dwindled to about 360. Those 360, retaining their old privileges next to the new H-shaped block of cells, constantly reminded Sands of what he had lost.

Sands became chief or IRA prisoners. He took part in talks that led to the end of a long hunger stike by seven prisoners last December. Early this year he accused the authorities of failing to allow prisoners to wear their own clothes. He started his own hunger strike soon afterward.

Says one British offical here: "The IRA needs heroes, legends, martyrs. So they took Sands and created a Celtic-Gaelic legend out of him: young, tough, violent, courageous, ready to die. There is even a collection of writings circulated by the IRA, said to be by Sands, but almost certainly fabricated to fit the hero image." The IRA insists Sands smuggled the writings out of prison himself.

Two weeks after Sands began refusing food, Francis John Sean Hughes also began to fast. Once described as "one of Ulster's most wanted men," Hughes was sentenced to life imprisonment Feb. 18, 1980, for ambushing and shooting a British soldier in a field on St. Patrick's Day, 1978.

He was given a concurrent sentence of 20 years for rigging up a booby trap -- a length of fishing line attached to a bomb -- designed to explode by the next person to open the back door of a policeman's home. That person was the policeman's wife, who pushed open the door at breakfast time one day in January 1977. The doorstep deflected the blast and the wife suffered only shock. The judge called it a "particularly vicious crime" that could have killed a child.

Another of the current hunger strikers, Raymond Peter McCreesh, is serving 14 years after a gun battle with troops on June 25, 1976. He and two other IRA members were found guilty of attempted murder, conspiracy to murder, and possession of firearms and ammunition.

Joseph Patrick O'Hara, the fourth of the current hunger strikers, was found guilty of possessing a hand grenade. He was sentenced to eight years on Jan. 17 , 1980. Officials explained the long sentence by the general background of terrorism and violence and the court's presumption that a man found with a grenade intends to use it.

Altogether the Maze prison houses about 1,000 prisoners. About 660 are Catholic, and 320 Protestant. Only a handful of Protestants refuse to obey the rules, hoping to go free if a general amnesty is ever declared for "political" prisoners. The British say no such amnesty will ever be granted.

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