Book Reviews
& Book Forum

Search / Archive
Back to 10/96





ireland, irish, ulster, belfast, northern ireland, british, loyalist, nationalist, republican, unionist

Legacy of Cage Eleven

(Denis O'Hearn, Irelandclick.com)

In the second part of our excerpts from Denis O'Hearn's biography Bobby Sands: Nothing But an Unfinished Song, we discover how Bobby was politicised during his time in the cages of Long Kesh.

Adams's and Hughes's arrival in Cage Eleven started a pot boiling that had been simmering for some time. The latent dispute between younger volunteers and the more conservative and Catholic veterans coincided with a parallel dispute within the IRA about Britain's intentions in Ireland.

The IRA leadership insisted that the British were beginning to withdraw from Ireland.

This assertion was nothing new. The IRA leadership had been claiming that victory was "imminent" since late 1973, when the Republican News ran an article entitled 'British Army Starts Withdrawal'.

In May 1974, the paper ran a front page story claiming that the British Minister of Defence Roy Mason had admitted that his troops had "lost the war," and cited the last day of 1974 as the planned "English withdrawal date." Now, the IRA leadership claimed that British withdrawal was an integral part of the truce process.

Many younger prisoners believed them. They had been in jail for years and were now being told by their leaders that they would soon be released because the British were withdrawing.

"We wanted to see this in terms of a British withdrawal, so we did," admits Seanna Walsh.

Bobby's continuing belief in the leadership is displayed in a scribble that he wrote on the inside cover of an Irish book that he was reading: "Roibeard Ó Seachnasaigh, Cas 11, Ceis fada, Blian 75, Blian Saoirse" (Bobby Sands, Cage Eleven, Long Kesh, 1975, Year of Freedom).

Adams and Hughes argued the opposite: the British were not withdrawing, the war was not yet over, and the struggle had to be rebuilt with politically educated rank-and-file volunteers. They spoke of a "long war," with implications for all aspects of the struggle. Most importantly, the struggle had to become more politicised; it had to offer something to the communities at its centre if they were to support it over the long haul. They opposed the IRA's strategy outside of jail. They viewed the struggle as an anti-colonial war of liberation and saw the IRA's retaliatory campaign against Protestants as a diversion that played straight into the hands of the British state. Inside prison, they opposed the undemocratic, authoritarian, non-transparent, overly militaristic and anti-Marxist leadership of Davey Morley and his camp staff.

Adams was cautious. He constantly beat into the others, including Hughes, to stay within the movement's lines because he knew that Cage Eleven was barely tolerated by the camp staff. Hughes, on the other hand, could not contain his open disdain for Morley and once told him straight to his face that he could build a far better group of volunteers with self-discipline and comradeship than Morley's brand of enforced discipline.

"It was clear where I stood, quite clear where I stood," Hughes recalls. "Gerry was shrewder in his opposition . . . Me being who I was I was more verbally antagonistic toward them all."

While the men in Cage Eleven immediately accepted Adams as their OC, they were far from unified about the need for change either in the prison leadership or in the overall leadership and strategy of the IRA. For Bobby, continued support for Davey Morley was a matter of army discipline. He was an IRA volunteer who had been trained to follow orders without question.

Hughes's open defiance of the leadership led to his first direct encounter with Bobby Sands. Hughes had been criticising the IRA leadership in front of other prisoners for their sectarian bombing campaign against Protestants, which he said played into the hands of the British government's campaign to portray the Irish struggle as tribal warfare between two equally repugnant groups of natives.

One day, Gerard Rooney brought Bobby and another prisoner into the Dark's hut to arrest him. They escorted Hughes to the study hut, where Roon accused him of dissenting against the authority of the IRA leadership and gave him a severe reprimand. Roon ordered Hughes to stop his opposition to the leadership or he would be court-martialed.

Hughes went back to his hut, seething with anger. He packed up his gear and prepared to leave Cage Eleven to join the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) prisoners in another cage. Adams persuaded him to stay.

In hindsight, Hughes admits that the position of the arresting party that detained him was not as clear-cut as he thought at the time. Once he got to know Bobby and began talking to him, he realised he and Roon were already coming round to his way of thinking. But they were disciplined IRA volunteers.

Bobby's heart was not in the arrest, yet he did it as a matter of IRA discipline.

Over the next six to nine months, Bobby's resistance to change broke down. He began to question the movement's strategies, both inside and outside of jail, as he raised his political consciousness to a higher level. Gerry Adams encouraged all of the young prisoners to participate in an intensified programme of political education that promoted debate and political self-awareness.

He gave them new confidence to develop their radical political ideology and protected them from the camp officers as they did so. Adams and Hughes also won their loyalty by demonstrating solidarity with them rather than demanding obedience. Personality conflicts dissolved.

Soon, Cage Eleven had a more collective leadership and collective responsibility. In their military parades, everybody fell in together and ordinary volunteers got to dismiss the parade. Cage staff did menial tasks alongside ordinary volunteers. Even the distinction between cleared and uncleared prisoners was largely ignored.

Cage Eleven became the centre of challenge to the established leadership as Adams built 'a number of enterprises' to raise the prisoners' political awareness. He introduced new classes that critically deconstructed Republican ideology and policy.

He resourced them by starting a book club that provided the necessary materials for self-education. Adams used his contacts to supply the book club and to build up a cage library. Prisoners gave up their food parcels to get books instead. Bobby Sands, says Adams, had "a more than normal interest" in these activities.

Adams developed this new awareness by encouraging the young radicals to continue reading global revolutionaries but also to synthesise them with Irish Socialists like James Connolly and Liam Mellowes.

"It's all well and good talking about Che Guevara or Ho Chi Minh . . . now let's get back to what we're doing," he would challenge them.

He strongly believed that "you ground your politics in the indigenous . . . it's much easier to argue the validity of a position from the perspective of a James Connolly or a Fintan Lalor or a William Thompson or a Liam Mellowes or a Pearse."

Bobby threw himself into the new education regime.

When he was not in classes or debating in the yard, Tomboy Loudon often found him lying on the bed in the cubicle they now shared in the Gaeltacht hut, holding a book by Che Guevara in his right hand and writing notes on the partition wall with the pen he held in his left. He began to organise notebooks on 'guerilla struggle' and 'the Cuban Revolution'.

Bobby and the others developed from a near-childish understanding of politics to a relatively mature political analysis. They were under the guidance of the new leadership but they achieved the transition by learning from each other. Learning came through participation and debate and not through lecturing and the handing down of 'truth' by a 'teacher' of superior intellect.

The debate that had the strongest effect on Bobby Sands began when Gerry Adams organised a series of critical discussions of Sinn Féin's central policy document called Éire Nua. What began with a critical analysis of existing policy ended as a full-blown radical alternative that Adams called "active abstentionism," that is, abstention from the existing structures of mainstream politics while actively creating an alternative that combined grassroots democracy with military resistance to British rule.

Adams encouraged wide-ranging discussions of people's councils and grassroots politics, always with an eye toward how a more democratic and participatory grassroots strategy could be incorporated into the Republican campaign outside of prison. The prisoners discussed how military struggle alone was an inadequate basis for bringing about progressive social change; it had also to be political struggle, a struggle to create something and not just a fight against the Brits. But how could you do this and still adhere to one of the movement's sacred cows: the policy of abstaining from elections?

Just because the movement did not participate in elections, they decided, did not mean it must avoid politics. Rather, it had to build an alternative administration, particularly in 'war zones' where the IRA enjoyed widespread grassroots support and where the state failed to provide adequate services.

Adams incorporated the main points of these discussions in a series of articles under the pseudonym 'Brownie' in the Republican News. In time, this would be his most lasting influence on Bobby Sands, not just in terms of what he wrote but also by demonstrating that the written word could be an effective tool of struggle.

If, in time, Bobby Sands became the leading Republican propagandist through his own writings prose, essays, songs, and poetry he was following the example of Adams. In Adams, Sands found a role model to help him complete his personal journey toward becoming a politicised militant.

April 19, 2006

This article appeared first on the Irelandclick.com web site on March 6, 2006.