Brexit and the North: letter to the Irish Times

A letter in the Irish Times on 5 November 2016 in which I compared Brexit and a possible United Ireland.


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Time and emotion: the hunger strike as protest tactic

September 14 @ 1:00 pm2:00 pm

Location: CA110 (SAC Room), Cairnes Building, NUI Galway Galway Ireland

Speaker(s): Dr Niall Ó Dochartaigh

Affiliation: The Conflict, Humanitarianism and Security Research Cluster

Organised by: Whitaker Institute

This paper analyses the political dynamics of the 1980 hunger strike by Irish Republican prisoners – the precursor to the hunger strike of 1981 in which ten men died – focusing on temporal dimensions of negotiations aimed at ending the protests. It draws on extensive interviews with key figures, including intermediaries, British government officials and Republican leaders, as well as extensive documentation from both official and private papers.

Contrary to the existing literature on hunger strikes which strongly emphasises culture, tradition and emotion, this paper argues that the hunger strike is closely connected to the logics of modernity. The hunger strike is a particularly concentrated and intense deployment of time pressure in the pursuit of political goals. The central defining characteristic of the hunger strike is that it provides a way for weak actors to set a deadline when dealing with complex bureaucracies that derive much of their power from deferral and delay.

The paper analyses the temporal dimensions to the hunger strike tactic, focusing especially on the way in which bargaining power and bargaining moves are intensely concentrated in the final hours. It examines the intertwined temporalities of three crucial aspects of the negotiation process: information, communication and biological processes. The paper argues that this analytical approach can be deployed in the analysis of the relationship between time and power in many other forms of protest and suggests a number of avenues for further inquiry into the temporal dimensions of protest.

This seminar is one of a series of seminars in the Whitaker Ideas Forum seminar series.  Dr Ó Dochartaigh will be representing the Conflict, Humanitarianism and Security Research Cluster.

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Upcoming talks and events 2016/17

10 September 2016: ‘Territoriality and Political Violence’ (with Gary Hussey). ECPR General Conference, Prague 7-10 Sept.

14 September 2016: ‘Time and Emotion: the Hunger Strike as Protest Tactic’. Whitaker Institute Ideas Forum, NUI Galway.

7 October 2016: Co-organiser of ‘ The implications of Brexit for Ireland’s borders: A Policy Forum’, PSAI Annual Conference, Belfast. Lead organiser: Dr Katy Hayward, QUB.

8 October 2016: ‘Why the IRA ended its campaign: a strategic-relational analysis’. PSAI Annual Conference, Belfast 7-9 Oct.

13 October 2016: ‘Bloody Sunday: Niall Ó Dochartaigh in Conversation with Eamonn McCann’. Conference on Irish Society, History & Culture: 100 years after 1916, EUI and SNS, Florence 12-14 Oct.

20 October 2016: ‘Citizenship in Northern Ireland since 1920, Enfranchising Ireland?’ Conference on Identity, Citizenship and State, Royal Irish Academy, Dublin.

7-9 December 2016: Paper in panel on ‘Covert control: Underground groups and their social environment’.  Workshop on Violence and Control in Civil Wars: Violent State-Making. Hamburg Institute for Social Research (HIS)/ Hamburger Institut für Sozialforschung 7-9 Dec.

April 2017 (dates to be confirmed) Symposium at City University of New York Graduate School.

7-14 May 2017: Co-organiser of ‘Memory Wars’ 20th Divided Societies Course, Inter-University Centre, Dubrovnik. Lead organiser: Prof Sasa Bozic, University of Zadar



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Irish Hunger Strike 1980: the offer of civilian-style clothing

prison issue clothing model from prem 19 0503On 23 October 1980, shortly before a hunger strike by  Irish Republican prisoners was due to begin, the British government announced that prisoners in Northern Ireland would be allowed to wear ‘prison issue civilian clothing’ instead of prison uniform. Republican prisoners had distilled their campaign for political status into five demands that included the right to wear their own clothes. Intermediaries had been advising the British government that if prisoners were allowed their own clothes and got concessions on the issue of prison work a hunger strike could be averted. The British government seem to have come very close in October 1980 to conceding on the clothing issue but at the final stage the government balked. Fearful that prison officers would refuse to implement the changes, and facing strong direct pressure against compromise from unionist politicians, they came up with the idea of civilian-style clothing, a measure aimed at demonstrating flexibility.

prison issue clothing choices from prem 19 0503The prisoners rejected this move, as expected. The British government emphasized that civilian-style clothing meant the end of the prison uniform but the images here, taken from a British government pamphlet*  give a good sense of the limitations of this move. The first picture shows the prison uniform while the second shows the range of civilian-style clothing to be made available.More important than the substance of the clothing was the question of whether its acceptance would be seen as a defeat for the prisoners. The limited range of clothing and the extent of its uniformity maintained the basic principle that the prison authorities would decide what prisoners wore and made it more likely that it would be seen by prisoners as a defeat.

The 1980 hunger strike subsequently collapsed but a second hunger strike began in 1981. In July 1981, after four prisoners had died on hunger strike, and facing huge political pressure, the British government secretly told the IRA leadership they would concede on the clothing issue. By that stage however it was not enough to end the hunger strike and the conflict in Northern Ireland had been stoked up so much that it would continue for another decade and a half.

  • ‘Day to day life in Northern Ireland prisons’. In PREM 19/503, UK National Archives


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What was the IRA fighting for?

The Provisional IRA ended its campaign in the 1990s without uniting Ireland or ending British sovereignty in the North. Sinn Féin became part of a government at Stormont, sharing power with unionists within the UK. Republican critics asked how they could abandon their fundamental goals in this way. Anti-Republican critics asked how they could justify thirty years of violent conflict when they had signed up in the 1990s to a moderate compromise settlement of the kind that had been on offer at Sunningdale two decades earlier. Both sets of critics portrayed them as a failed movement hiding the reality of their surrender behind fine phrases. But what exactly was the Provisional IRA fighting for during the Troubles? What were its goals? On what basis were they prepared to end their campaign? That might seem obvious – a united Ireland surely? It never appeared on the list of IRA demands. The end of British sovereignty? That was never one of their formal demands either. As the IRA leadership geared up for their first direct negotiations with the British in early 1972 this was how they formulated their preconditions for ending the IRA campaign:

  1. The immediate withdrawal of British armed forces from the streets of Northern Ireland, coupled with a statement of intent as to the eventual evacuation of British forces and an acknowledgement of the right of the Irish people to determine their own future without interference from the British government
  2. The abolition of the Stormont parliament
  3. A total amnesty for all political prisoners in Ireland and Britain, both tried and untried, and for all those on the wanted list

An Phoblacht demandsMost important is what it leaves out. No direct demand for Irish reunification or the ending of British sovereignty and no date for withdrawal of troops (‘eventual evacuation’). Even more extraordinary is this (blurry) image from the front page of An Phoblacht on 24 December 1972. It sets out four demands at a time when the leadership was seeking to reengage in negotiations with the British government:

*Abolition of repressive Legislation
*British Troops be Withdrawn
*Release of All Political Prisoners
*Full Support for Civil Rights

Then – and only then – will we have a true and lasting peace in Ireland’

Once again there is no mention of Irish unity, sovereignty or the Irish republic. Not even self-determination is mentioned this time. It doesn’t mean they had abandoned those goals, nor that this was an exhaustive list of their negotiating aims. But it is striking evidence that they were formulating their position in such a way as to provide openings for negotiation and compromise.

Many analysts have characterised the 1970s leadership of David O’Connell and Ruairí O Brádaigh as dogmatic, rigid and uncompromising – idealists to their supporters, fantasists to their critics. They are contrasted  with their successors, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, who are portrayed as less principled and more willing to concede – pragmatic, or opportunist (‘sell outs’) depending on your perspective.

But the negotiating positions adopted by the leadership in the early 1970s provide strong evidence that even at those early stages O’Connell and O Brádaigh were well aware that any settlement would require deep and difficult compromises. Rather than a rigid movement that finally abandoned its goals under opportunist leaders in the 1990s, we see instead a surprising continuity between the Republican leadership of the early 1970s and that of the 1990s. In both periods strong rhetoric was used to keep the movement united and ideologically coherent, sustain morale and support and strengthen its bargaining position with the British state. This uncompromising rhetoric coexisted with a strong awareness that the movement would make only limited gains in any settlement and would have to make difficult compromises.

I have provided more detailed evidence for this argument in two publications:

Ó Dochartaigh, Niall (2015) ‘The Longest Negotiation: British Policy, IRA Strategy and the Making of the Northern Ireland Peace Settlement’. Political Studies, 63 (1), 202-220.

Ó Dochartaigh, Niall (2011) ‘IRA Ceasefire 1975: a missed opportunity for peace?’. Field Day Review 7. South Bend IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 50-77. Extract online:

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Discussing the Northern Assembly elections on RTE’s The Week in Politics

week in politics 2016I was a panelist on RTE’s ‘The Week in Politics’ for the first time yesterday (7 May) discussing the results of the Northern Assembly elections along with Martin Mansergh and presenter Áine Lawlor. The two main parties had a great election with the DUP gaining the same number of seats as last time despite strong challenges on the right from the TUV and UKIP. Sinn Féin dropped just one seat in the face of the challenge on the left from People before Profit (PBP). With two PBP MLAs and two Greens  (up from one) there are now four opposition MLAs in the new Assembly who are broadly on the left – out of 108. Available on RTE Player until 28 May.

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Looking back on the Hunger Strikes

Three key figures reflect on the Irish Republican hunger strikes of 1980 and 1981 in filmed interviews and a public talk posted to Youtube by the School of Political Science and Sociology at NUI Galway to mark the 35th anniversary of the 1981 hunger strike. They include a public interview with former hunger striker Laurence McKeown at NUI Galway in March 2016; an interview with Intermediary Brendan Duddy at his home in 2010; and a public talk at NUI Galway by former senior MI6 agent Michael Oatley in 2011 which includes discussion of his role in the ending of the 1980 hunger strike:

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