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Monday, 20 October 2008


picture: Peter Marlow

The Bath Film Festival comes around once a year - one of the highlights this year is Serious Steve McQueen's Hunger, which the story of the IRA Hunger Strikes of the 1980s. The Troubles have been reinvented a little (they gave warnings bless!) in the wake of the London Tube Bombings and 911 - an event characterised at the weekend by Stella Rimington, ex-head of MI5, as a normal terrorist incident, but one which had a response that was a huge overreaction.

Anyway, it's always good to cast one's memory back a few years and remember the days when bombing campaigns almost annihilated the entire British government and the terrorism threat consisted of rather more than the vulnerable individuals bearing incompetent bombs of the present.

In connection with all that, in the weekend's Observer, Sean O'Hagan writes a fascinating article on the Dirty Protest and Hunger Strike, and connects it to current security conditions. As Dostoyevsky said, "The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons."

"Back then, the most vivid description of their conditions came from Cardinal O'Fiaich, the then-Roman Catholic Primate of All Ireland, who visited the prison in 1978. 'I was shocked by the inhuman conditions prevailing in H Blocks 3, 4 and 5, where over 300 prisoners are incarcerated,' he said. 'One would hardly allow an animal to remain in such conditions let alone a human being.' O'Fiaich compared the H Blocks to 'the slums of Calcutta', adding: 'The stench and filth in some of the cells, with the remains of rotten food and human excreta around the walls, was almost unbearable. In two of them I was unable to speak for fear of vomiting.'

His public statement prompted a response from the Northern Ireland Office, which began: 'These criminals are totally responsible for the situation in which they find themselves. It is they who have been smearing excreta on the walls and pouring urine through the cell doors. It is they who by their actions are denying themselves the excellent modern facilities of the prison.'

The conflicting tone and message of those two statements, the one emotive and outraged, the other detached and clinical, prefigured the coming battle of wills between Republicans and the British state. In the eyes of the British government, led by Margaret Thatcher, the prisoners were simply murderers and gangsters and were to be treated accordingly. To the Nationalist population of Northern Ireland, who were becoming increasingly agitated about conditions inside the H Blocks, they were political prisoners standing up for a defining principle of Republicanism."

Read whole article here

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