Although Steve McQueen’s film Hunger is often without spoken word the story of the IRA (Irish Republican Army) hunger strikers, the back drop of ‘the Troubles’ in Northern Ireland is loud and clear.
The film exposes a myriad of complex political and moral issues that faced members of the IRA involved in the dirty protests and hunger strikes in the notorious Maze prison. Interestingly this is intertwined with the perspective of some guards in the prison, many of whom were Ulster Unionists.
The atrocities that were committed by the guards, undoubtedly with the blessing and encouragement of the Thatcher led British Government, in the prison are difficult to watch as are the conditions of the prisoners and the dirty protests. Coinciding with such scenes is a glimpse of the impact of this and of the on going war on two of the guards both of who react differently to the culture of abuse and violence.
Although the film does not explain in full the historical reasons behind the incarceration of so many young men, it does go someway into exploring the reasons for such an extreme form of protest and why the hunger strikers were not prepared to simply negotiate an agreement with the British Government.
They rightly believed that such an agreement would not meet with their demands. They faced extreme pressure not to commence the strike from many of the main players including the leadership of the IRA.
In the most compelling scene of the film Bobby Sands (played by Michael Fassbender), the first of the hunger strikers to die, explains and argues with a priest as to why he will commence the strike. The Sands character argues that negotiations with the British Government do not work and that the Government will not allow the prisoners the status of ‘political prisoner’ without extreme pubic and political pressure to do so. This status would have of course awarded them certain rights and thereby removing them from the general prison population.
It is unfortunate that within this scene the deeper meaning of being given such status is not stated. If the British Government had of awarded publicly the status of political prisoner to members of the IRA it would have in effect admitted to being involved in a war. Thatcher continually attempted to discredit the strikers as vicious heartless terrorists and nothing more.
By labeling the events in Northern Ireland as ‘The Troubles’ the British Government was able to deflect a significant amount of international and national pressure for decades as well as avoid questions of sovereignty and Britain’s place in the country.
A total of ten young men died in the course of the hunger strike. It may be argued, as the Bobby Sands character said, that they gave their lives for the cause. That as they hoped their deaths lead to a united and free Ireland. History tells us that this was not the case and that Northern Ireland continues to be divided.
All their demands were eventually agreed to by the Government except the status of political prisoners. Above all else the strength of the striker’s political convictions or ‘faith’ as the Sands character refers to it in the film is nothing but admirable.
The national question and the issues of war, terror, oppression, and occupation are as real today as ever. The film Hunger places these issues in the context of a war in a country where for some their only weapon against oppression was their own deaths.
Hunger is playing now in selected cinemas around Australia.
By Denise Dudley