The Jayne Lecture
TWENTY-THREE YEARS AGO, in May 1981, there was a gathering at once solemn and dangerous in the village of Toomebridge in Northern Ireland. The name of the place comes from the Irish word tuaim, meaning, as you would expect, a burial mound, and in the circumstances that meaning was most appropriate. The bridge at Toome links Co. Antrim, on the east bank of the River Bann, to Co. Derry, on the west bank, and a lot of the crowd that were gathered in the main street of the village on this particular occasion had crossed from the Co. Derry side. They were there to meet a hearse that contained the body of a well-known Co. Derry figure, and once the hearse arrived they would accompany it back to a farmhouse on a bog road some six or seven miles away, where the body would be waked in traditional style by family and neighbours. They had come to Toome to observe custom and to attend that part of the funeral rite known in Ireland as "the removal of the remains."
But before the remains of the deceased could be removed that evening from Toome, they had first to be removed from a prison some thirty or forty miles away. And for that first leg of the journey the security forces deemed it necessary to take charge and to treat the body effectively as state property. The living man had, after all, been in state custody as a terrorist and a murderer, a criminal lodged in Her Majesty's Prison at the Maze, better known in Northern Ireland as the H Blocks. He was a notorious figure in the eyes of Margaret Thatcher's government, but during the months of April and May 1981 he was the focus of the eyes of the world's media.
His name was Francis Hughes and although I did not know him personally, I knew and liked other members of his family. They were our neighbours and during the 1950s I had walked the road to Mass with his sisters and had worked in summertime in the bog side by side with his father. Now, however, his world and mine were far apart. For the last fifty-nine days of his life Francis Hughes had been on hunger strike, one of a group of IRA prisoners ready to make the ultimate sacrifice for what were known at the time as the five demands. Basically these demands constituted a claim by the prisoners to political status, a rejection of the demonizing terminology of criminal, murderer and terrorist, and an assertion of their rights to wear their own clothes, to abstain from penal labour and to associate freely within their own cell block. Faced with all this, Margaret Thatcher and her government were predictably inflexible and between 5 May and 30 August 1981, ten hunger strikers died, resulting in a steady issue of emaciated corpses from the gates of the prison and repeated processions of miles long funeral crowds through the gates of cemeteries.
It was a cruel time, but especially so for those on the nationalist side of the Northern Ireland divide, all those who sought fundamental political change, who wanted to break in the Unionist Party's monopoly on power, but who nevertheless did not think it an end worth killing for. It was possible for them, as for everyone else, to regard hunger strikes both as an exercise in realpolitik and an occasion of sacred drama. Undoubtedly there were huge propaganda rewards for the IRA in the spectacle of their volunteers fasting to the end for a principle. Even so, many on the nationalist side still felt cautious about expressing public support for them, however noble their sacrifice. Support for their fast could be read by the IRA and others as support for their violent methods, so many people hesitated. But in their hesitation they were painfully aware that they were giving silent assent to the intransigence and overbearing of Margaret Thatcher, who stated with a too brutal simplicity that "Crime is crime, is crime. It is not political." And Thatcher greeted the news of the death of the first hunger striker, Bobby Sands, with a statement in the House of Commons to the effect that "Mr Sands was a convicted criminal. …