Trevor Ringland might learn something by watching 66 Days

Posted By: September 06, 2016

Letters to Irish News (Belfast). Fr Joe McVeigh. Tuesday, September 6, 2016

 Trevor Ringland, a man with very fixed unionist views, clearly does not like republicans or republicanism. As a unionist he is pro-monarchy and anti-republican. That’s his choice, which limits greatly his understanding of the world. He describes republicanism as a ‘flawed ideology.’ And suggests that the 10 men died for ‘a flawed ideology’.

Mr Ringland began his letter – ‘Hunger strikes sadly a recurring theme of Irish republicanism’ (August 29) – by stating “I probably won’t watch 66 Days…” Such a negative approach to begin with suggests that he is not open to learning and discovering the mind of republicans. He goes on to condemn the hunger-strikers for ‘taking their own lives for a political cause’.

The use of hunger strike as a weapon to obtain justice has a long history in Ireland and indeed in other countries like India where it was used by Mahatma Gandhi. In Ireland it was used as a means of protesting against injustice in Celtic times and was known as troscadh (fasting on or against a person) and cealachan (achieving justice by starvation).

It is important to put the hunger strike in context.

In 1976 the British Labour government introduced a new policy of criminalisation. From then onwards republican prisoners sentenced would be required to wear prison uniform and conform to new prison rules. When the prisoners refused to conform to this new regime they went on a protest of wrapping themselves in a blanket and refusing to be forcibly taken to the toilets.

In August 1978, Cardinal Tomás O’Fiaich visited the H Blocks in Long Kesh prison to see the situation for himself. Afterwards he stated: “I was shocked by the inhuman conditions prevailing in H Blocks 3, 4, and 5, where over 300 prisoners are  incarcerated. One would hardly allow an animal to remain in such conditions, let alone a human being…The stench and filth in some of the cells, with the remains of rotten food and human excreta around the walls, was almost unbearable. The nearest approach to it that I have seen was the spectacle of hundreds of homeless people living in sewer pipes in the slums of Calcutta. From talking to them it is evident that  they intend to continue their protest indefinitely and it seems they prefer to face death rather than submit to being classed as criminals. Anyone with the least knowledge of Irish history knows how deeply rooted this attitude is in our country’s past.”

The British condemned the cardinal’s remarks. The cardinal was ridiculed in the British press, where it was often noted that he came from Crossmaglen in south Armagh.

The refusal by Margaret Thatcher and the British government to respond to the cardinal’s appeal for justice and mercy led to the first hunger-strike in 1980. When it ended with the promise from the British to introduce reforms a second hunger strike led by Bobby Sands began. In his diary he outlined the reasons why they resorted to the second hunger strike in 1981. From his point of view to accept the new regime would have been to criminalise the entire struggle for Irish freedom. The protesting prisoners hoped that the British would be forced to change their attitude as a result of world opinion and introduce a humane regime in Long Kesh summarised in the five demands.

The prisoners on the fast were acting in solidarity and in the cause of justice and human dignity.

Mr Ringland, being a monarchist, would not understand. I think Mr Ringland should go to see 66 Days.

He might learn something and he might learn to be a little more respectful of others who differ from him politically.

Fr Joe McVeigh

Co Fermanagh