ESCLUSIVA. INTERVISTA A GERARD HODGINS, DA HUNGER STRIKER A SOSTENITORE DEI POWS
Gerard Hodgings risponde in esclusiva alle domande di Flavio Bacci, in un’intervista che percorre le tappe della vita dell’esponente repubblicano, dalla militanza nella Provisional IRA, all’hunger strike del 1981 a Long Kesh, alle considerazioni sulla figura di Gerry Adams e lo Sinn Fein, al repubblicanesimo oggi fino ai pows, vittime degli stessi soprusi del passato. Ecco la prima parte dell’intervista, in cui Gerard Hodgins ripercorre la sua militanza nella Provisional IRA
“Gerard Hodgins is currently not a member or supporter of any political party, but he remains one of the most respected voices in Irish Republicanism.
Forced to leave his birth house due loyalist threats and intimidation, he joined the IRA. He became an active volunteer for the Provisional IRA throughout the troubled 70-80′s. Hodgins was then convicted and sentenced to long term imprisonmen, nd was sent to the infamous Maze prison (also known as Long Kesh). In jail, he refused to wear the prison uniform and joined the blanket protest. On the 14th September 1981, he took the place of one of his fallen comrades and went on hunger striker. The strike was aimed at acheiving political prisoner status, set out according to the famous “Five Demands”. After 10 IRA men had starved themselves to death the strike was called off after 20 days of fasting for Gerard.
Unlike many former prisoners and hungerstrikers, Hodgins has never held any public office nor senoir position within Sinn Feins ranks. Although he retired into private life, rarely giving media interviews, he still remains one of the most critical voice against Adams-McGuinness leadership and a strong supporter of old and new Republican political prisoners.
I would like to thank Gerard Hodgins, for his time and courtesy in granting me the following interview, but mostly for his friendship which means a great deal to me”. (Flavio Bacci)
F.B. When did you make the decision to join the IRA? Was it as the result of a specific event or it was the consequence of a lengthy thought process?
G.H. My involvement with the IRA was a consequence of living in a failed state. My childhood environment was not a political one, I was not brought up learning hatred or politics but when I was 12 years old and the British had just introduced internment my family was forced from our home by pro-British Unionists and from that moment I suppose I was destined to be an IRA volunteer since the IRA was the only institution challenging the injustices of the sectarian state we lived in.
Northern Ireland was partitioned off from the rest of Ireland in 1922 and from the beginning people like me were excluded from full participation in the political process on the grounds of our perceived religion. In terms of housing, employment and education we were second class citizens. At no time over the following 50 years did the Unionist regime make any attempt to develop normal, pluralist democratic structures like the rest of Europe; instead it developed more and more repressive legislation to suppress dissent and maintain its grip on power.
Partition poisoned our political structures from birth and our politicians have always been more focused, as politicians invariably are, on personal aggrandizement and status elevation within the circles of power than on radically championing social, political and economic justice.
While the Unionist regime abused power in the North, the Dublin government didn’t distinguish itself through enlightened policies either. Corruption became the main ideology of the Southern state which culminated in the loss of economic sovereignty to faceless financiers and bankers in the world of international capitalism; while the Catholic Church was afforded a special status in the Constitution which gave it absolute control over the lives of children, a control that church abused to an extent that the orphanages and institutions under its control became brothels for predatory paedophilic priests over generations of unacknowledged and unaddressed horror.
F.B. Many IRA men stated that they received a handbook from the leadership (the ‘green book’) to educate the new volunteer to war. In particular, it seems that it contained some specific instructions to avoid breakdowns under police interrogations. Did you get or read the Green Book after your recruitment? Can you explain to us some of those rules?
G.H. The Green Book was the rules and regulations of the IRA covering General Army orders and the Constitution of Oglaigh Na h-Eireann (IRA), along with instruction for appropriate behaviour and treating people with respect. It also included such stuff as things we could expect from the enemy – like interrogation, and mechanisms for resisting interrogators. Interrogations could be violent and frightening experiences but the basic rule for survival in such situations is keep your mouth shut and control the fear. All interrogations are ultimately based on deception, if an interrogator had the proofs necessary to put you in prison that is precisely where they would have you.
F.B. After the GFA, some ‘disappeared’ bodies have been returned to their relatives. One of the most infamous cases is that relating to Jean McConville, whose remains were found in 2003. The IRA execution of this mother of ten in 1972 raised several condemnations from within the republican movement. Do you think the murder was necessary in order to discourage informing? If so, why was the body secretly buried and not exhibited as deterrent, as was the norm for other people found guilty of informing?
G.H. The Disappeared are a source of great shame for Republicans and the onus is on those who implemented such a policy to explain their motivations and give up the remaining Disappeared so their families can have some closure.
F.B. The IRA past is dotted with cruel attacks with a high number of civilian causalities (Donegal Street, Bloody Friday, La Mon, etc). Do you believe some of these may have been due to mistakes intentional or otherwise by IRA members or the RUC deliberately neglecting the bomb warnings?
G.H. Undoubtedly many IRA operations were compromised by agents of the state who had a duty to undermine IRA operations and sap the will of the people who supported us. Black operations were as common to us in Ireland then as they are today in Iraq and Afghanistan. Frank Kitson’s book, Low Intensity Operations, had just been published in 1971 and Ireland provided a perfect testing ground for his theories on counter-insurgency tactics and strategy and the mechanics of their implementation. Kitson had accumulated his experiences fighting in colonial wars in Africa and Asia during the latter part of the 20th Century and had a reputation for ruthless suppression of revolution.
The state plays with people’s lives and is usually the biggest killer in the political equation; the British state certainly is and ran killer-gangs here through its police and intelligence agencies to eliminate opponents they couldn’t otherwise neutralise. Today they are doing precisely the same ignoble things in Iraq, Afghanistan and other areas. Killing opponents, promotion of sectarian animosities and conflicts, poisoning the discourse and running spies and informers is the modus operandi of the British state in conflict.
Some of our tragedies though were also attributable to inexperience and faulty technology. IRA volunteers like most guerrilla soldiers were normal day-to-day people one day and a soldier the next. We did not have the extensive training facilities that would be available to state armies with their infinite resources and ability to operate openly; we were a secret army and learned a lot of our lessons through failures and experience.
F.B. Like many seasoned republicans, you no longer agree with the strategy of the provisional movement for Uniting Ireland, was there a single instance which started you to question the motives or feasibility of their chosen path?
G.H. Two things occurred which finally compelled me to recognise the great con trick that Adams has pulled. Firstly a strike by local classroom assistants here over pay and conditions was being supported by Sinn Fein until Sinn Fein got the education ministry in the local parliament and thus responsibility for settling the classroom assistants’ dispute: at that precise point the striking workers were abandoned and denounced by Sinn Fein. Secondly, around this time the death occurred of one of humanity’s greatest people: Brendan Hughes.
I watched the spectacle of Gerry Adams spinning his lies to the media about Brendan Hughes and using Brendan’s death to build his own personal image and profile while Adams’ black propaganda people were targeting the integrity and memory of The Dark through vile whispering-campaigns.
Alongside this I observed too how a few former comrades from a similar socio-economic background to me were suddenly very wealthy and capable of driving around in £60,000.00 motorcars and own multiple properties across Europe while our areas largely remained the ghettoes of poverty they had been throughout the conflict; any pretence to socialism was jettisoned by a leadership which sought to jump into bed with a Celtic Tiger that was soon to run out of steam. The allure of power and the trappings of power became more important to the Sinn Fein leadership than utilising that power for the benefit of the people: at the end of the day they just wanted to become another tier of the middle-classes maintaining the institutions of the state and being rewarded for their services to the state. Perhaps the most telling example of how far Adams and Co. have travelled from their republican origins is their appalling lack of any movement in remedying the ongoing crisis within Maghaberry Prison where republican prisoners are being brutalised and degraded in scenarios reminiscent of the worst days of the Blanket-protest in the H-Blocks.
F.B. You are a former hunger strikers and Blanket man, while on the protest you lived with just a blanket to clothe yourself. Can you explain to us the symbolism behind the refusal to wear the prison uniform or the ‘prison civilian style clothes’?
G.H. We always considered ourselves to be politically motivated soldiers, we fought for our freedom and while we voluntarily gave our times and our services to the cause of Irish freedom we never profited from our endeavours. The British declared in 1976 that captured soldiers of the IRA and INLA would no longer be accorded political status while imprisoned; instead the British declared we would be treated as common criminals and forced to wear prison uniforms.
Our identity as Irish republican volunteers was under attack, our historic claim to sovereignty and independence was under attack and our integrity as human beings was under attack. We refused to wear any criminal uniform and fought the prison system over the next six years to reassert our rights. They were hard times in the prison struggle and we faced much brutality from the screws.
Irish republican history is littered with poignant tales of prison struggle and the sacrifices of ordinary men and women in extraordinary situations. Twenty-two republican prisoners died on hunger strikes during the 20th Century in British and Irish prisons, conditions have always been harsh for our people in the prisons but the repression only made us more defiant and determined to fight rather than surrender.
F.B. You started your hunger-strike on 14th September until its end. What was your main fear? Were you sure to going to die like your ten comrades?
G.H. Paradoxically it was not fear that was in my mind. If anything I felt a surge of relief once I was short-listed to join the hunger strike; sitting about waiting for my turn was difficult for me, I felt like an impotent bystander. When I was on the hunger strike I was no longer a bystander watching my friends waste away.
F.B. In 2008, Richard O Rawe’s book ‘Blanket men’ was published. In that book he claimed that the British government made substantial offers on 5th July 1981 in order to end the hunger strike. According to his assertion, four of the five demands were effectively being conceded. Bik McFarlane and the Sinn Fein leadership have denied these allegations. What is your position regarding this issue? Were you aware of negotiations with the British officials around this time?
G.H. The revelations about the clandestine talks between Gerry Adams and the British is an area which needs more openness and scrutiny; this stuff is a tightly guarded secret which neither Adams nor the British are too willing to discuss. To answer your question unambiguously: no, I was not aware of these contacts while on the hunger strike and none of the hunger strikers were made aware of the extent of the British offers either.
This information was kept to a tight circle of people with Adams at the apex; in essence Adams run the hunger strike for his own political objectives and this is demonstrably clear from not only his rejection of the 5TH July offer, but his failure to inform all men on hunger strike the extent of his communications with the British and the nature of the offers the British had been making.
F.B. In 1972 Sean MacStiofain, former IRA chief-of-staff, suspended his hunger-strike, under IRA pressures. It’s believed the IRA leadership were not in favour of hunger-strike at the time, but if the Army Council had given a direct order to suspend the hunger-strike, would you have done so?
G.H. The Army Council ordered us off the hunger strike on 3rd October 1981. We obeyed. Why would we not obey the Army Council, they were the supreme authority of the IRA.
F.B. Your abstinence from food ended with the hunger-strike suspension with 5 other comrades on 3rd October 1981. Before this however, 5 men had been taken of the hunger strike by their family. What was your family’s mentality at the time, were they ready to stop your strike? How do you think you would have reacted in the hypothetical scenario that they had taken you off?
G.H. The family interventions were a major stumbling block to the efficacy of the ongoing hunger strike and something we had no real power or control over. We made our families aware we did not want them to authorise medical intervention once we lapsed into a coma, we explained our motivations and reasons to them and asked them for assurance they would abide by our wishes, but it is surely a very hard thing for a family to watch a son/husband slowly starve to death.
It was a tragic time in our history and it put families in an impossible position. Right up to the end though the dynamic amongst us was still one of defiance and a forlorn willingness to fight on, we didn’t want to suspend the hunger strike and towards circumventing the family interventions I had suggested to our O.C. that we arrange marriages of convenience with female volunteers in the IRA who would then become our immediate next of kin and thus the ones with the responsibility of either sanctioning medical intervention, or standing by our express wishes.
F.B. Every surviving hunger striker has had or is still suffering from health problems as a result of their hunger strike. Can you describe what kind of ailments or problems the legacy of hunger strike has had on your health?
G.H. 1981 is a year that never ends; inside my head it is yesterday. I have difficulties with it sometimes but deal with it in my own way.
F.B. Your former comrades now have a spectrum of political opinions, even those that grew up in the same environment and circumstances. What is your relationship with your ex brothers-in-arms? In particular can you explain to us your current feelings towards some of the other republicans who survived the hunger-strike?
G.H. I have been critical of the leadership and open about the extent of British penetration of that leadership so they naturally do not like what I say and instruct their support base not to listen. Like many other republicans who served for many years in the struggle the Sinn Fein leadership will denounce me in off-the-record briefings with media and supporters as “anti-peace”, a “dissident” and a “drug dealer”. This is a common theme from the Sinn Fein spin machine towards anybody critical of their project – rather than address the issues which people raise they instead attack the credibility and mental health of the critic: anybody critical of Gerry Adams has to be anti-peace, an alcoholic, a drug addict or a dissident. It is slightly reminiscent of the battle for identity fought in the H-Blocks all those years ago only in a perverse twist of history instead of the British government calling me all those bad names, it is now the former leaders of the republican struggle who are now denouncing republicans.
It is a sad way for a struggle in which so much was invested by so many to end as a parody of Animal Farm. Each man who survived the hunger strikes has his own demons and memories of those times and each can only speak for himself, I for my part hold no animosity towards those former comrades who still believe in the leadership of the Provisionals; but I hold that leadership in contempt for their lies, deceit and betrayal
While Adams is secured a place in history as the man who delivered an IRA ceasefire I feel that in the fullness of time when the hidden detail of the Dirty War becomes more available to historians and researchers Adams and those closest to him will be seen in a different light. Those who fought for their freedom, irrespective of where they stand today in the political kaleidoscope, all made colossal sacrifices in the course of our struggle and all deserve the respect of their contribution.
F.B. Adams said that the 1981 hunger-strike took the republican movement to the political emancipation. The involvement of the society in Sinn Fèin politics surely increased, thanks to the sacrifice of the Ten. Do you believe this was the main result gained by the hunger-strike?
G.H. The hunger strikes were the turning point in the war which opened up the vista of political struggle as an alternative to armed struggle. We had been dismissed by the British as terrorists with no more than 1% support yet the hunger strike electoral interventions demonstrated another story.
At this particular time in the history of the IRA it was still forbidden within the republican movement to propose or talk about participation in either of the partitionist parliaments in Dublin or Belfast, we abided by a strict theological dogma which refused to recognise the de facto realities of post-partition Ireland, focusing our vision instead on the de jure conditions and decisions of early 20th century Ireland.
The electoral success of Bobby Sands changed the discursive atmosphere completely in terms of being able to more freely discuss the development of a viable political party and having a revolutionary approach of an Armalite in one hand a ballot-box in the other. Up until this time Sinn Fein had been a poor second-cousin to the IRA, extant more as a support group for the army rather than as a serious political party.
The hunger strike experience left me with one major lesson learned, we had the support and the prayers of people across Ireland and indeed across the world, and we could focus all that support on marches and protests but that was our ceiling, we couldn’t utilise the strength of those numbers because we had no corresponding political power, we were outside of all political processes and in that scenario we were easier to ignore because we had no democratic mandate. From the hunger strikes on I believed passionately in the necessity of a political party capable of channelling resources, energies and support in a coherent and effective manner against the British system in Ireland. I still believe that and hope one comes along someday!
F.B. One of the most famous modern day POWs is Marian Price. She is currently detained in custody at Maghaberry prison, because she is alleged for “providing property to a terrorist organisation”. Do you think she is facing a persecution by the PSNI?
G.H. Marian is being persecuted for being an uncompromising republican and also as a warning to other republicans that any time the British want to reimprison us they can.
The British negotiated Sinn Fein into accepting the outworkings of partition and its consequences. Marian is the only woman being held in isolation in Maghaberry prison, an all-male prison, and she was transported there on the day the British Queen visited Ireland, while the political and social elite were telling us how wonderful the visit of the Queen was and how this visit normalised and improved relationships between Ireland and England. The Queen coming to Ireland done nothing to prevent this grave injustice being perpetrated upon Marian.
Unless and until Sinn Fein abandon their Pontius Pillate approach to the plight of prisoners the British will continue to victimise and brutalise prisoners in Maghaberry prison.
F.B. Do you believe the enemies for a sovereign 32-County Irish Republic are the same now as they were in the 70-80’s? Or do you believe the dynamics of the challenge faced by Republicans has changed?
G.H. The dynamics have changed and I prefer to think about political opponents rather than enemies these days. The hegemonic sectarian nature of the old state has been altered insofar as there is now a place at the table for any man or woman duly elected, but it is very much an imperfect peace which nevertheless obviates the necessity of armed struggle. We settled for democracy over freedom and as anybody who lives in a democracy knows there is nothing very democratic or free about the free and democratic society we live in.
More significantly, there is no current demand from our communities for armed actions to be resumed against the British, and with no support from an active community then any armed actions are doomed to descend into sporadic acts of desperation and ultimately fail. While the general change from a war dynamic to a political dynamic is a positive development the great betrayal is the change within Sinn Fein from a revolutionary party committed to social and economic emancipation to a party content to ingratiate itself with the political and economic power structures we fought against for so long. The socialist dimension of our struggle has been completely abandoned; the vision of Bobby Sands has been abandoned for a few bob and a few houses for the few.
The dynamics have changed too in the sense that we now take a more realistic appraisal of the Unionist community; we used to believe that once we forced the British into retreat the Unionist people would quickly recognise the realities of the new situation, come to terms with it and cut their niche in the new, United Ireland society of which they would comprise 20% – a not insignificant percentage in voting terms. However it is more complex than mere statistics, we have a million people here who identify themselves as British every bit as passionately as I recognise myself as an Irish Nationalist – you can’t steamroll over people like that, you have to find an accommodation with them – all the de jure interpretations of history are enlightening but the de facto developments of history, the current societies we live in are what we have to deal with and find accommodation with.
The certainties and absolutes of national sovereignty and identity are no longer as certain and absolute as they once were before the digital age; we do live in a different world where people view and experience life differently from what I did in my youth. The world is a smaller place where affordable communications and transport technology allow for greater mobility and access to ideas, fashions and cultures. Borders are becoming less rigid and countries growing more interdependent than independent.
Yes Ireland is still partitioned and the whole history of British involvement in Ireland remains an ignoble one littered with brutality and deceit, but the tragedies of the past don’t mean we have to be locked into perpetual, self-destructive tactics of the past, engaged in an endless pretend armed struggle going nowhere. People change, priorities change and circumstances change, and along with that the dynamics of the challenge changes.
F.B. Whilst Anti-GFA Republicans (or ‘dissidents’) are still struggling in order to improve the conditions for POW’s currently in jail, the PSF supporters seem to have adopted an attitude that the current prisoners are second-class Republicans. Do you believe the conditions of modern day POW’s are greatly improved or have they still the same needs and demands as there was at the time of the 1981 hunger strike?
G.H. It is unfair to say the only people still struggling to improve prison conditions are anti-GFA or Dissidents. I am neither anti-GFA nor Dissident yet work on the prison issue, trying to highlight the appalling conditions prisoners are forced to exist under.
I see a continuity of struggle in the prison milieu, what those young men are facing today is the same levels of brutality we faced in the H-Blocks; and you are correct to highlight the position of Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein as a party grew out of the horrors of the H-Blocks and the deaths of the ten hunger strikers; Sinn Fein knows instinctively what the experience for a republican prisoner in the British penal system is, yet Sinn Fein administers a governmental system here which still persists with penal policies from Margaret Thatcher’s day. Sinn Fein have copyrighted Bobby Sands and use his image in practically every single piece of election and political literature they produce, yet Sinn Fein implements penal policies in Maghaberry prison similar to those which led to Bobby’s death.
But the dissident groupings too have a responsibility to behave in a manner which leaves no opportunity for detractors or critics to attack their integrity or portray them as second-class republicans. Some of the people associated with dissident groups would have a hard battle in convincing people of their bona fides given their histories and still current behaviours. The dissidents must address this if support for the prisoners is to be built upon.
The saddest thing about the present conflict within the prison is an agreement reached between the prisoners and the Prison Administration and mediated by outside negotiators in 2010 was immediately abandoned with impunity by the Prison Administration.
F.B. A rather strong pessimism emerged from our conversation about the current situation of Irish republicanism. Have you had a change of heart or do you still believe that the values you risked your life for are worth the sacrifice?
G.H. The values are always worth the sacrifice and remain so. Just as no man has the right to put a block on the march of a nation, no man, republican or otherwise has the right to put a block on the advancement of the republican cause.
My pessimism towards the modern incarnations of republicanism stem more from the utter futility of what they are doing and observation of their practice and calibre of some of their personnel than anything else. I don’t believe they are adding to the proud republican philosophy, indeed I believe they are sullying it and I am more than convinced that the present debacle amongst republicanism is more the result of manipulations by security agencies through their agents of influence than Irish incompetence alone. The Brits penetrated the Provos at the top and led us down a cul-de-sac to just where they wanted us – having penetrated one of the most successful and resourceful guerrilla armies of the 20th century penetration of the current crop of alleged republican armies was hardly problematic for them.
The reality is dissident groups are heavily compromised. When I observe the middle aged men who have never had a connection or commitment to republicanism throughout their lives but have extensive histories in criminality and anti-social behaviours suddenly not only joining them but being accepted by them then I absolutely know that the dissidents are well and truly penetrated and being used by the British to bring about the destruction of the Irish republican philosophy through self-destruction. Kitson understood the Maoist analogy of the fish and the water and wrote how the waters must be corrupted, corrupt the water the fish swims in and the fish eventually dies.
F.B. I was greatly impressed by a sentence you told me some time ago that well describes the current situation: ‘We have too many groups, too many chiefs and not enough indians’. It seems like you are reproaching an excessive self-advertisement of some republican leaders. What do you believe the future holds for Irish Republicanism and what part do you see yourself having as part of this future?
G.H. Irish republicanism needs to re-evaluate itself and find a coherent and logical programme for the 21st century. What we have at the minute is an embarrassment and a betrayal of the sacrifices and efforts of so many for so little. The constant fracturing of republicanism into smaller and exponentially weaker groupings along with arrivals of new messiahs of dissent on the horizon does not auger well for republicanism in the short to medium term. Republicanism is so fractured the various groupings and personalities cannot even agree a unified approach on the issue of prisoners Indeed instead of unifying around a single common objective some of the dissidents actually use their prisoners to further division and disharmony amongst republicans.
Republicanism needs to reclaim the high moral ground of our proud philosophy and expose the corrupt and incompetent masquerading of those pretending to continue the armed struggle. Never in the history of Ireland has there been so many IRAs active in the field and never has Ireland been a more serene posting for a British soldier.
We do not have a war here at the moment despite the colourful rhetoric of some groups, nor do we have a single disciplined grouping with the capability, capacity or willingness to fight a war. I have watched over the years of peace and the growth of dissident organisations how many career-criminals gravitate towards these organisations and utilise the structures of these organisation to further their own criminal empires. If I can see it, and I know many people see it and recognise it also, what are the leaderships of these organisations doing? They have to take the blinkers off someday and put an end to this charade. Why is republicanism in the mess it is today? Because the British embarked upon a long term strategy to penetrate and influence the strategic direction of the republican movement towards its own demise; and despite knowing the lessons and experiences of their whole counter insurgency approach we have not yet learned from them.
F.B. In light of the political developments in recent years, and with the benefit of hindsight would you do it all again or what would you do differently?
G.H. I would do it all again. I have no regrets or remorse over my life, I wish some things had been different and less traumatic but on the balance of things I have no moral reservations over anything I personally have ever engaged in. It is the duty of each man and woman to assess their own position in life and become what they must become. My journey took me down the road of involvement in a guerrilla army trying to make life as difficult as possible for the British in Ireland, it is my life and it is a life I am proud of, not in a triumphalist or arrogant manner, but proud I was able to contribute in the way and manner that I did and proud I came through it unbroken.
Part 2 – HUNGER STRIKE 1981
Part 3 – THE “BETRAYAL” OF GERRY ADAMS AND SINN FEIN
Part 4 – REPUBLICANISM AND POWS