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From Borderline magazine 1986.
The Hunger Strike On-off-on again?
Jimmy Brown, one of the 27 convicted by Justice Carswell on the sole uncorroborated evidence of informer Harry Kirkpatrick, outlines the circumstances surrounding the recent hunger strike in Long Kesh. Bobby Tohill, Gerard Steenson and Thomas Power joined the hunger strike on successive weeks. The strike which began on Stephen’s Day, within a week of the vicious verdict, lasted 19 days.
According to the prisoners, assurances were given that they would get an early appeal date unlike previous supergrass cases, and that a review of the supergrass system would take place. Relatives are concerned, however, that there could yet be a considerable delay in the appeal hearing due to the backlog of appeal cases involving supergrass evidence.
The Anglo-Irish conference has established a sub group involving the British and Irish Ministers for Justice and both Attorney Generals. In their discussions on the judicial system, the supergrass system have been discussed but there has been no commitment on the part of the British government to scrap it. On the contrary, indications are that a further refinement of the system involving more judges in the Diplock Courts and a more acceptable number of defendants in the trials seems a more likely concession.
Meanwhile support is being sought by the I.C.C.L. in England for a parliamentary bill preventing the British judges from convicting people on the sole uncorroborated evidence of accomplices.
The conviction in December in Belfast of over 20 men on the uncorroborated evidence of the paid perjurer, Harry Kirkpatrick, proved to be a focal point and catalyst in relation to the administration of the law and “justice” in the six counties. Since 1981 the supergrass system has claimed victim after victim, sowing dissent and distrust in communities. In this it is little different in essence to internment, torture or Diplock Courts, except perhaps in the level of broad based opposition it generated. However, the supergrass system, as a social alternative provides a microscope under which the collusion between the RUC, NIO and judiciary can be examined and exposed.
This writer has long argued the need for a revolutionary, socialist critique of the law in these islands as a tool – historically rationalised and refined in the hands of the ruling class. The decision by the Kirkpatrick prisoners to embark upon a hunger strike – an event that compelled many social forces to re-examine their position – was strongly influenced by the flawed analysis and consequent relative inactivity around the role of the law in general and the supergrass system in particular. During the hunger strike the various “left” and “constitutional” forces found it necessary to firm-up their statements of concern and occasional protests, and for a time a powerful dynamic was unleashed. Whether these forces will maintain their sense of importance around the role played by the law remains to be seen.
It is important to note that while not one political organisation, revolutionary or constitutional, endorsed the decision to hunger strike they each sought to appropriate aspects of it for their cause. The logical consequences of such – even partial appropriation is the adoption of a policy and strategy designed to “resolve” the issue. Just where the various forces stand now in practice on this issue will be revealed during the coming months which will see the trail of those held on the uncorroborated testimony of Owen Connolly and Angela Whoriskey and the appeals of those convicted by Black, Mc Grady, Quigley and Kirkpatrick.
None of those who volunteered to take part in the hunger strike harboured any doubts as to the importance or difficulty of their task. That a situation quickly evolved which allowed the hunger strike to be terminated after only 19 days was undoubtedly due to the political climate surrounding the recently signed Anglo-Irish Accord and the by-elections it caused. However, we are rarely far from elections in this country and the Accord itself is an imposition on all the workers of this country.
In Packaging and selling the Anglo-Irish Deal, John Hume and his “constitutional” partners made frequent references to the philosophy of Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen. It is worthwhile nothing here certain observations of the United Irishmen like those of Bob Purdie in his article “Republicanism and Socialism” “The social content of their nationalism was circumscribed by the assumption that abolition of aristocratic (read unionist for the SDLP analysis) privilege and equal political rights for all would be sufficient to abolish oppression and reconcile all social classes”. How far “Equality before the law” in the 6 counties will go towards ending the social, economic and political “alienation” of workers in Dublin, Limerick or Galway caused by British imperialist domination of the 32 counties is one question the Anglo-Irish deal was designed to side-step. The question for radical republicans and revolutionary socialists viz the role of the law – in all its manifestations is does it promise to change “the relationship between workers and their labour and production so as to put the workers in control of these and their distribution”.
For each of the supergrass victims and their relatives the “law” has assumed a clear and distinct political character. In the ghettos of Belfast, it is not necessary to have read Bob Fine’s book “Democracy and the Rule of Law” in which he states “Classical political economy and classical jurisprudence form the two inseparable wings of a single movement, classical jurisprudence arose in close conjunction with studies of the economic foundation of capitalist society conduction by political economy… the administration of justice under the old order rested in the hands of bodies which subordinated justice to their own private interests”. These historical facts are everyday realities now to those on the receiving end of British “justice” in Ireland.
The decision to embark upon the hunger strike following such a blatantly political verdict was formed by so many aspects of our own direct experience. The validity of the action will not be judged by those who opposed it for their own narrow sectional interest but by future generations in struggle who will identify the role of the law for the oppressive yoke it is on the necks of the Irish people.