Relatives and former prisoners reflect on legacy issues surrounding Hunger Strike Commemorations…

Bill Breathnach is  Writer and TV researcher based in Connemara. Interested in economics, politics and all things cultural…

Sinn Féin held their National Hunger Strike Commemoration in Cork nearly a fortnight ago. Even before it took place, the event sparked controversy and heated debate. Writing in the Irish Examiner, journalist Mick Clifford excoriated Sinn Féin for using imagery of Terence MacSwiney, the former Lord Mayor of Cork who died on hunger strike in 1920. In promotional material for the commemoration, pictures of McSwiney featured prominently alongside images of the 10 Provisional IRA and INLA hunger strikers who died in 1981 in The Maze Prison.

Clifford accused Sinn Féin of “rewriting history” and claimed they had “robbed” MacSwiney’s grave. In a rebuttal posted on social media, Cork City Councillor Eolan Ryng of Sinn Féin claimed that Clifford’s article “smacks of Establishment Ireland”, before making various comparisons between MacSwiney and Bobby Sands.

So, how do some of the relatives of these historical figures view the controversies associated with their commemoration? “Some of the accounts in the newspapers [saw] people taking extreme positions against one another and using his name. I wouldn’t be jumping onto any one side of the see-saw” says Cathal MacSwiney Brugha, grandson of the former Lord Mayor. “People will use his name to justify particular positions. Terence MacSwiney and his memory belongs to all of us, particularly the people of Cork”.

MacSwiney Brugha also emphasises the prominence of reconciliation in Terence MacSwiney’s writings. “A lot of the things he said are very relevant. One of the things I like in his book Principles of Freedom, he said our enemies are brothers from whom we are estranged. I want to see a lot of reconciling”.

Given the various competing conceptualisations of Irish nationalism in the present day though, MacSwiney Brugha recognises that there are certain challenges attached to commemoration.

“I think people should be remembered and commemorated. I think it’s just a little bit tricky [when people] claim somebody on their side and then use it for an extreme political position…Yes, it’s a good idea to talk about the people that inspire you, …[but] if it becomes a bit of a hijacking, it’s not going to look well”.

He has no issue though with people drawing parallels between Terence MacSwiney and Bobby Sands. “Sands was a very wonderful person. Like Terence MacSwiney [he was] a writer and author, and a very genuine and gentle person. He was hunger striking because of the conditions. They were being treated like common criminals, whereas in fact they were political prisoners”.

Ultimately, McSwiney Brugha believes that politicians should be judged on their records. “Working for the public good, really that’s what politics should be about. They [politicians] should really be focusing on their policies and how they’re going to solve the problems of the time. And maybe banging the drum about some of our heroes doesn’t show them up in a good light”.

However, this does not mean that MacSwiney’s legacy is not relevant today. “If he were engaged in any campaign today, I think it would be to be warning against the temptation to align Ireland in any way with NATO who are keen to get a war going with Russia. NATO are the descendants of the British Empire… If we continue to be neutral, Ireland could be involved in Conflict Resolution negotiations. That is what Terence MacSwiney would likely to be doing, if he were alive today” MacSwiney Brugha states.

Tony O’Hara is another relative who is willing to share his perspectives. He is a former republican prisoner and brother of Patsy O’Hara, one of the 10 who died during the 1981 hunger striker. Despite this, Tony O’Hara says that he is now shunned by Sinn Féin due to his criticisms of the party.

One of the main sources of disagreement consists of an account from Richard O’Rawe, who was PRO (de facto second in command) of the Provisional IRA prisoners in the Maze during the hunger strikes.

O’Rawe claims that four days before hunger striker Joe McDonnell died, the British offered significant concessions on all the hunger strikers’ demands, except for free association within the prison. According to him, this deal was acceptable to the prison leadership, who were willing to end the hunger strike, but rejected by the IRA leadership outside the prison.

This version of events is contested by other hunger strikers’ families and has been vehemently rejected by Sinn Féin, including by Brendan “Bik” McFarlane, who was OC (de facto first in command) of the prisoners during the hunger strikes.

However, Tony O’Hara does not accept this rejection. “My take on it was that there was an offer there that could have ended the hunger strikes … and saved five, maybe six hunger strikers…My family was involved, along with the Devine family and lots of other republicans, in looking for Sinn Féin to come out and tell the truth”.

Papers donated to the University of Galway by Derry businessman Brendan Duddy document an offer from the British on the 5th of July 1981, containing concessions on all demands except for free association. Codenamed “The Mountain Climber”, Duddy was an intermediary between the Provisionals and the British during the hunger strikes.

Both O’Hara and O’Rawe feel they are of ostracised within republican circles for their views. O’Rawe who lives in the Falls Road area of Belfast, states there are pubs in the vicinity that he can’t enter.

O’Hara also alludes to the welfare of ex-Provisional IRA prisoners; “Lots of ex-prisoners suffered greatly from the effects of [long-term imprisonment and subsequently] getting released. There’s huge alcoholism and depression and you name it, and they need help. And it’s as if they [Sinn Féin] didn’t care.

For O’Hara, the commemoration represents a form of electioneering by Sinn Féin to consolidate support among its republican base. “The only thing Sinn Féin care about now is getting votes and nothing else…They’d use the hunger striker’s names to get votes. They came out a few years ago and said, ‘Bobby Sands needed your vote back then, we need your vote now’. Lots of people like myself were fairly angry with that.”

He believes that the party’s republicanism is in a perpetual state of being “watered down” as the party positions itself to enter government in Dublin. “People like Martina Anderson there got pushed to the wayside because she would come out with republican rhetoric that Sinn Féin no longer want to use”. O’Hara also notes that the party has recently “cut back on lots of commemorations”. He predicts the party’s National Hunger Strike Commemoration will eventually come to an end and that the public “won’t hear of a 32-county socialist republic ever again”.

O’Rawe has no issue with the commemoration; “Why wouldn’t they commemorate them? I think everyone has a right to commemorate their dead and those who they hold in the highest esteem… I’m not going to start preaching to another generation how they should behave”.

When asked if the commemoration promotes an understanding of events that he regards to be inaccurate, he responds, “Certainly, they are partially right, and they are partially wrong. I don’t ever think these things are black or white… Those who hold that electoral politics was the prudent way forward are right that the hunger strike was the bedrock of Sinn Féin going into constitutional politics”.

“Where they’re wrong is to say that the hunger strikers acquiesced in this process. Bobby Sands didn’t die for Sinn Féin to be the premier political party in the North or the South. He died for a socialist republic… He certainly didn’t believe that electoral politics was the way forward and none of the hunger strikers did, yet that’s exactly what the leadership [under Gerry Adams] had in mind even during this whole process”.

Sinn Féin was invited to reply to various issues discussed in this article however no response was provided at the time of publication.

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