Former hunger striker Laurence McKeown, in a powerful analysis of 1981, writes of the legacy of that historic period, how it informs today’s struggle for freedom and independence and how republicans and unionists can attempt to come to terms with the past. Laurence also pays tribute to the nationalist community for its unswerving support for the hunger strikers throughout the battle for political status.

In this, the 30th anniversary of the 1981 hunger strike, writes Laurence, there will be many talks, debates, exhibitions, and discussions in local communities, nationally and internationally. I always regard such events as an opportunity to thank those who did so much for us at the time; those in the Republican Movement, in the Relatives Action Committees, the National Anti-H-Block/Armagh Jail Committee, and most importantly, the ordinary men and women from our communities who came out time and time again in support of our demands. It was only in later years I fully realised the enormity of what they did; the extent of the courage they showed; going out onto the streets with nothing more in their hands than a placard to face the might, open hostility, and frequent brutality of the RUC.

In most cases these people were not republicans, not staunch IRA supporters. My family wasn’t republican; the overwhelming majority of those I met in the IRA did not come from republican families. We were of a generation that responded to the circumstances and conditions we grew up in rather than being steeped in a republican tradition. Some of those who rallied to our support were totally opposed to the armed struggle and no doubt felt uneasy standing shoulder to shoulder with those they knew or suspected of being IRA volunteers. What would their (Protestant) neighbours think? How would the state intelligence and security services now regard them? What implications would it have for their careers and family life? But they came out nevertheless because they believed it was wrong that people should have to die on hunger strike.

I felt that sense of unease myself the other week as I stood in a rally outside the city hall in Belfast’s city centre. It was a rally called by the Trade Unions to protest against the killing by a republican military faction of PSNI officer, Ronan Kerr. I attended because I felt it was the right thing to do. But it felt uncomfortable. I was standing alongside people who had often been condemnatory of the IRA. I wondered if they now felt vindicated, or morally righteous, that republicans now joined them to condemn the actions of other republicans. But actually that’s okay; because it’s always been okay for republicans to condemn or criticise the actions of other republicans. In fact that has been the strength of the Republican Movement down through recent decades. Such criticisms were rarely voiced openly, people not wanting to give a hostile media yet another opportunity to condemn those from their own community, but they were voiced nonetheless, and more importantly, taken on board.

That’s how the Movement kept in step with the community from which it came and from which it got its strength. We are in different times now and such matters need to be more open and public. That’s why republicans were at the rally.

Directly after the gathering I went to the site of the former prison, Maze/Long Kesh. I went there as part of a delegation from Healing Through Remembering, a very diverse organisation of people from a range of backgrounds looking at how we deal with the legacy of the past, or how the past lives on in the present. We were going to Long Kesh to learn how plans to develop the site, including the construction of an iconic peace building and conflict transformation centre, are advancing. As we walked around the prison I spoke about my experiences there; the site was familiar to me but strange territory to the others. And it meant different things to us. For me, it was the prison first opened as an internment camp in the early 1970s because that’s how the Unionist one-party state dealt with demands for reforms and civil rights. It comes as some surprise to people today living in England (and elsewhere) that Britain operated an internment camp here for over 4 years at the latter part of the twentieth century. That was meant to be something that happened in Stalin’s Soviet Union or China but not in Europe.  However it was normal for us as internment had been used in every decade since the setting up of the Northern Ireland state. It was but one element of an extensive range of powers, forces, and institutions that held the Orange state intact. And when internment became too much of an embarrassment it was phased out and replaced by the H Blocks, a more brutal regime but with the same intention – to deny and distort the reality of what was going on in the North and to crush republican resistance. Five years of protest by republican prisoners and ten deaths on hunger strike in 1981 thwarted those attempts.

Others who accompanied me into the prison that day would have had different opinions and perspectives about what the site meant to them. It wasn’t uncomfortable for me to be there, far from it, other than for the emotions that being there always stir up for me. But I’m sure it was uncomfortable, to say the least, for others. For one man in particular it was the prison that held the IRA man who killed his wife in a bomb explosion. How did he feel walking alongside someone who had previously been in the IRA and spoke proudly of his time in prison? For another it was the prison that held those republicans who had fought against him and his comrades in the British Army. Same place, different interpretations, different meanings, but people trying to think their way through it all and trying to accept that all those contradictory understandings and truths exist alongside one another. And that is uncomfortable, and painful.

As I drove home from the prison that evening I thought of two of the families who showed great support for me and were a comfort to my family while I was in prison and on hunger strike; the Heffron and Totten families, two very well respected and extended families. John Heffron, a member of the Irish Independence Party, spoke at rallies organised in the area. Peggy Totten lived just across the road from my parents and was always there for them – especially for my father when my mother passed away suddenly, less than two years following the end of the hunger strike.

Last year I had cause to visit two particular members of the Heffron and Totten families, husband and wife, parents of Peadar Heffron, the PSNI officer seriously injured in a booby-trap explosion. I went to offer my sympathy and support. I’d never met Peadar but, given his family background and upbringing, I know he never joined the PSNI to ‘crack Fenian skulls’. In fact everything I’ve heard about him since, privately and publicly, is that he was proud of his roots, his community, his Irish culture – both games and language, and that he proudly took those into the PSNI with him, organising a GAA football team and conducting Irish language classes. I’m sure that wasn’t easy for him. The PSNI is not the RUC but it’s still not an organisation you immediately think of as being ‘republican-friendly’. But that’s the task today, to make it so, just as republicans have taken their culture and politics into the council chambers and into Stormont and transformed those institutions. Former IRA volunteers, former prisoners, former hunger strikers, and a whole new generation of republicans who thankfully will never hold an assault rifle or see the inside of a prison cell, comfortably, proudly, and confidently tread the corridors of all government institutions now in the North. They’re not there because they’ve abandoned the struggle; they’re there to continue it, and what guides them is their collective experience and lessons learned from the past. Likewise other institutions of the state have to be transformed and that will not happen unless republicans and nationalists are in them and engage with them.

The hunger strike was a significant battle in a long struggle. It changed the course of that struggle in many ways, both inside and outside the jails. But it is critically important to recall that it did not get us our five demands, nor did the blanket protest, or the no-wash protest. They all contributed to us ultimately achieving those demands many years later but on the 3rd October, 1981 when the hunger strike ended ten men were dead and we only had one of our five demands; the right to wear our own clothes. It was a long struggle after that and a very much different one – because it had to be different. We were never again going to be able to wage the type of protest we had carried out between 1976-1981, nor would we have wished to. Those days were over. That form of struggle was gone. Likewise today; the war is over, the armed struggle is over. It took us a long way but not to our final objective. It has still to be built upon but the struggle today is of a different form because it has to be different. The political, cultural, legal, social, psychological, and material conditions dictate that it must be different. It’s not 1969, nor 1981, nor any other date from history. It’s 2011 and things have changed; changed utterly.

Some years ago I took my young daughters into Long Kesh. They knew I had spent many years there and one of them was fearful that I might end up there again. So I took them to show that buildings with open doors and grilles, with rust forming on the locks and plants growing up through the tarmac do not make a prison and should hold no fear for anyone. The past should hold no fear for us. In the yard of the prison hospital I asked them to run to the far end of it. They did so and as they ran they laughed, as I expected they would, in competition with one another. Bobby (Sands) had written, “Let our revenge be the laughter of our children.” I heard their laughter that day; I hope Bobby heard it too.

The hunger strikers were selfless. They died that others might live with dignity, if still imprisoned. They died because there were no options available to us other than surrender and total capitulation to the system, or hunger strike. If there had been an alternative course of action we would have taken it. We would have been right to take it. That’s the difference between today and 30 years ago – having another option. It may be less dramatic but it is no less challenging and requires the same courage and commitment. It takes us into strange company in unfamiliar streets where we hear challenging words and often want to shout out, “No, that’s not how it was; here’s how it was,” but then remember that no, that’s not how it was for the other. Not right or wrong; just different. And that’s where we are today in the North; tentatively sharing experiences, exploring how the war looked and felt to others and what it has left in its wake. But the war is well and truly over.

The struggle begins where you are and in the conditions that exist – not in conditions you would ideally like to exist, nor in some period from the past. You either engage with that or disengage, and attacks on young Catholics will not stop the ongoing transformation of the PSNI or any of the other institutions north or south. The role of the revolutionary and successful leadership is to identify the tide of historical development, tap into the psyche of the people, and to help channel both in new directions; it is not to try and get the people to support a position, strategy, and tactic a miniscule number of people have devised and which history and material circumstances tell us has long since had its day.

And it’s ok to feel uncomfortable or uneasy at times because that way you know you’re being challenged. It makes you more thoughtful, more reflexive, self-critical of your deeply-held opinions and assumptions. Feeling uncomfortable or uneasy is much better than someone else feeling grief.