Are hunger strikes effective as a political strategy?
This was one of the questions explored yesterday at a day-long conference on ‘Prisoner Hunger Strikers in Northern Ireland and Palestine: Examining the Long Term Effects.’
Republican hunger strikers and ex-prisoners Tommy McKearney and Laurence McKeown were part of a panel for a session on ‘Hunger Striking as a Strategy of Political Resistance for Political Prisoners.’
Neither man would be drawn on whether hunger striking would be an effective strategy in Northern Ireland today. But both (unsurprisingly) insisted that the republican hunger strikes of the 1980s had been necessary in laying the foundations for the later achievements of the republican movement.
Dr Julie Norman, a Research Fellow in the Institute, provided a framework for the panel discussion with a brief comparative history of hunger striking, pointing out that in most contexts they are most effective when 1) they are collective, and 2) when they can leverage outside actors to put pressure on the state.
Aouda Zbidat, a lawyer from Addameer, a prison support and human rights organization in Palestine, spoke about the effectiveness of Palestinian hunger strikes in the past. Palestine/Israel is a context where about 800,000 people (including about 40% of the male Palestinian population) have been imprisoned since the start of occupation.
She said that between the 1970s and 1990s most strikes were collective, with thousands of prisoners involved across many prisons. These strikes yielded small victories such as being allowed to sleep after the 6 am headcount, the right to wear civilian clothes, a full egg for breakfast, their own pens and teacups, and extra bread and jam. ‘Most achievements in prisons flowed from hunger strikes.’
But now, most strikes in Palestine are individual rather than collective, happening among people on ‘administrative detention’ – those who have been detained without trial. These have not been as effective (if effectiveness is measured in terms of concessions by the prison authorities or the state).
McKeown’s assessment of the Northern Ireland hunger strikes was that they were inevitable and necessary:
We realized the power we had as a disciplined group of people. After the hunger strikes, by a range of other means, we were able to undermine the system. We only achieved what we did because of that struggle beforehand.
McKearney based his remarks around what he called ‘two misinterpretations’ of the Northern Ireland hunger strikes in the 1980s.
The first was a ‘tendency to use hunger strikes to endorse current practices by political parties – both pro and anti-Sinn Fein parties.’
The second was ‘to see 1981 as a Pauline conversion within the republican movement … when all of a sudden republicanism found itself with a political party.’ McKearney emphasized that the roots of party politicization went back further than the hunger strikes:
The infrastructure and support base was already there. The republican movement knew it had widespread support and could turn it into electoral support. The hunger strikes just clarified thinking.
He elaborated that a hunger strike ‘is not a determination to commit suicide’ and as a political strategy, should be evaluated in two ways: 1) will it impose moral pressure on an opponent – and will moral pressure work in your situation?; and 2) can it lead to consequences that the authorities have to take on board – ranging from protests in the streets to international pressure.
McKearney noted that now that US forces in Guantanamo seem to have ‘perfected force-feeding,’ this ‘poses questions over the efficacy of hunger strikes. Hunger strikes are only effective if there’s a possibility of dying.’
It’s important to note that this panel discussion was sharply focused on the effectiveness, not the morality, of hunger striking as a political strategy. Morality was mentioned, but only briefly to point out that hunger strikes were often seen as a way to apply moral pressure on a more powerful opponent.
Disclaimer: I am a Research Fellow in the Institute