I’d also note that on this day in 1981, the Irish Republican Army called off its hunger strike at a Belfast penitentiary the British call Maze Prison, and the Irish know as Long Kesh. I usually write about U.S. history in this morning note, but America figures in this story, as do American presidential politics.
The I.R.A. hunger strike took place in a wing of Long Kesh known as H-block, and it shocked people on both sides of the Atlantic – and around the world. Ostensibly, the central issue was a demand by I.R.A. inmates that they be treated as prisoners of war, not common criminals. The larger context was a test of wills over Northern Ireland policy between the armed leaders of the Irish nationalist movement and the British government headed by Margaret Thatcher.
The infamous “hard men” of the I.R.A. considered themselves soldiers. To Thatcher and the majority of people in Great Britain, they were terrorists. Either way, they were certainly not ordinary felons, and the hunger strike gave the hard men the upper hand in international public opinion.
The first to die was Bobby Sands, who began refusing food on March 1, 1981. On April 9, a weakened Sands was elected to the British House of Commons as a member of the Sinn Fein party. Less than four weeks later he was dead. Nine other hunger strikers would follow him to the grave. Sands’ funeral attracted a huge crowd, led to a surge in recruitment for the I.R.A., and attracted global media attention.
One of those in attendance was Richard Ben Cramer, a London-based foreign correspondent for the Philadelphia Inquirer, who was making his name as an astute observer of politics and a gifted prose stylist. The opening sentence to Cramer’s story on that funeral march is taught in journalism schools to this day:
“BELFAST, Northern Ireland - In a grimy gray drizzle, under ragged black flags that lifted and waved balefully in the fitful air; to the wail of a single piper, on streets winding through charred and blasted brick spray- painted with slogans of hate; by silent tens of thousands, past fathers holding sons face-forward that they might remember the day, past mothers rocking and shielding prams that held tomorrow's fighters, past old men who blew their rheumy noses and remembered their own days of rage . . . Bobby Sands was carried yesterday to a grave of raw Ulster mud.”
Today, the “days of rage” have largely receded into the past, a merciful casualty of courageous diplomacy, the aftermath of 9/11, and a willingness on the part of Northern Ireland’s protagonists to imagine a better future for themselves and their children. They were assisted in this effort by an American president, William Jefferson Clinton, whose claims of Irish heritage are sketchy, but whose commitment to peace was quite real.
Bill Clinton originally entered the ancient fray on the most banal of instincts: He was trying to one-up California’s once-and-future Gov. Jerry Brown at an Irish American dinner in New York during the 1992 Democratic presidential primary season.
Both candidates were asked at that event if, as president, they would send a special envoy to Northern Ireland, favor an increase in Irish immigration, and grant Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams a visa to visit the U.S. They agreed to all three, with Clinton volunteering that perhaps it was time to investigate the British for human rights violations in their long war of attrition against the I.R.A. This comment garnered headlines in Dublin, and ensured that if elected Clinton would be under some pressure to follow through.
Once in the White House, Clinton did indeed approve a visa for Adams, and the president then personally involved himself in the painstaking peace process that ensued. Irish nationalists had long dreamed of playing the American card in this way – just as British nationalists knew that such a card would be a hard one to trump.
As far back as 1867, William Gladstone had spoken of the “American dimension” to Britain’s Irish problem. In the 1880s, Home Secretary William Harcourt had worried about the precise form that dimension would assume. When Irish rebellions were confined to Ireland, he noted, it was easy enough to quash them. “Now,” he added, “there is an Irish nation in the United States, equally hostile, with plenty of money, absolutely beyond our reach.”
By 1993, neither the leading members of the Irish diaspora in the United States, nor the president they had enlisted in their cause, were interested in armed insurrection. Clinton was interested in demonstrating how U.S. influence had grown and matured in the ensuing century -- and could be used to solve the most intractable of political problems. The new president and his foreign policy advisers were more in sync with the aspirations espoused by Irish writer Tim Pat Coogan.
“Given American support, Ireland and England could be at peace,” Coogan wrote. “Ireland and England are both mother countries. There is a time in life when parents look to their children for support. That time is now.”