Whatever your opinion of the Irish Republican movement, and we have criticised it over many years, the events that took place inside the Maze Prison remain an incredible display of political courage. The film Hunger, coming eighteen months after the famous “Chuckle Brothers” scene of Ian Paisley sitting beside Martin McGuiness, gives some historical context to the cozy bourgeois relations now enjoyed by the leaders of the IRA and DUP.
The film starts in rural Northern Ireland. We follow a prison warden with bloodied knuckles on his way to work at the Maze prison outside Belfast. On arrival, his first task of the day is to book in a recently convicted IRA man. The IRA man refuses to wear prison clothes, strips off naked, is handed a blanket and is taken to a shit smeared cell. The long silences of the cell are interspliced with scenes of bloody torture coupled with footage of Thatcher screaming from the podium that she will not grant these “terrorists” the status of political prisoners.
When I was taught this history in school, the dirty protesters were presented as a load of madmen for whom confinement had stripped them of their capacity to reason. Perhaps this was standard practice in Thatcher’s schools. This film puts a lot of things straight.
In 1972 Billy McKee went on hunger strike in order to secure “prisoner of war” status. This was granted by the Tory administration in all but name and republican and loyalist paramilitaries were imprisoned with “special category status”.
In 1976 Wilson’s Labour government took away the “special category status” and started a propaganda campaign against the “terrorists and criminals” — a campaign that got all the more vicious under Thatcher’s government. Little by little, prisoners were stripped of their “political” status and put in the newly built Maze prison where they were denied the right to wear their own clothes, the right to free association, the right to organise their own educationals and leisure activities.
The “dirty protest” started because Thatcher’s government would only allow prisoners access to proper toilets if they wore prison fatigues. The prisoners, who were “on the blanket”, going naked rather than wearing prison issue clothes, responded by smearing their shit on the walls and by contructing a drainage system out of food that could take their piss out into the corridor. The film shows how the struggle taken up in the Maze prison was a microcosm of a broader struggle against the British state. At such close quarters with their enemy, the leading members of the republican movement took every petty injustice and indignity as a reason for raising the stakes.
The violence with which Thatcher’s words are translated into life within the prison is almost unbearable to watch. The film depicts naked bodies being dragged out of their cells to be battered by rows of riot cops and haircuts that leave gaping wounds in their heads. And yet for all this violence and hopelessness, the “dirty protesters” kept fighting eventually to the point of death. The film ends with a long drawn out discussion between Bobby Sands and a priest where he describes what they are about to undertake, followed by a harrowing depiction of his starvation unto death.
After the relatively benign decade of bland comsumerism and even blander neo-liberal politics, Hunger challenges us to think about real political conflict and what it involves. For Sands and his eight comrades that died on the hunger strike, the purpose of their protest was not necessarily to win, but rather to take a stand.
They drew a line in the sand and sent a message to the future — "this is what we fought for, this is what we believed in, this is why we died." And what their stand entailed was not just repeated batterings, the humiliation of living in your own shit or even death. But more than that, it involved those they left behind and sacrificed for their own political convictions and the nagging doubt that their stand might just be bloody-minded hubris, an attempt at self-aggrandisement. Hunger deals with all these issues with incredible insight and stands as a tribute to political conviction in a political world marked by spin, marketing and the Chuckle Brothers.