Forty years ago, a Thursday, Frank Stagg died in a British prison after a prolonged hunger strike. He had undergone serious privations at the hands of a regime that in our minds had changed little from a century earlier when it had Tom Clarke and others in its grip. Then men were literally driven insane by the cruelty of it all. Frank Stagg was making a stand in the time honoured Fenian tradition of protest. It was his third prolonged hunger strike.
It was a very emotional time for IRA volunteers but there did not seem a lot of public interest in Belfast. A road block protest called for by the IRA in South Belfast after a leaflet drop produced not a single person. IRA activity in the area in response to his death was frowned upon by locals as disruptive to community life. One of the few signs of support I had earlier come across in the city was in Ballymurphy. Travelling up the Whiterock Road we encountered a candlelit vigil.
The Saturday before his death I was released from RUC custody, having been detained in Castlereagh for three days on foot of suspected of involvement in IRA activity. Security procedure saw all of us who had been held stood down until the IRA had established that none of us had been turned. They had a point. During our stay Harry Taylor of Special Branch had done his customary tour, inviting people to assist him. I felt a sense of pride when he told me it was a waste of time asking me.
He did inform me however that he practiced on the shooting range five times a day and that he would not miss me or any of my comrades who might come out to take a shot at him when Frank Stagg died. Harry had a habit of flashing the lights of his unmarked vehicle at the local IRA anytime he spotted them while driving along the main thoroughfare. It might have occurred to him that he was tempting a fate that might prove unable to resist temptation in the emotive wake of a hunger strike death.
Apart from wondering what else he did with his time if he could practice shooting five times daily, the thought was brought home to me that there was no way back for Frank Stagg. The British were going to let him die and their people on the ground were preparing for that eventuality. My mother had previously told me he would die but it never quite sank in until the exchange with Harry Taylor.
When news broke of his death the needs-must principle kicked in and word came up from the Markets that we were all back in. Not on this occasion the obligatory grilling we had previously undergone after earlier arrests. Not even as much as a question during our time out about what the cops had asked us. Gloves back on and out on the streets. Although earlier debriefing sessions were rigorous without being arduous, this occasion caused me to think that the IRA could be shambolic when it came to internal security. That phenomena later became personified in the person of Freddie Scappaticci.
Frank Stagg’s death filled me with anger. I would lie in bed at night thinking about him, his suffering, his commitment, his endurance. My fury at the British was matched only by rage at the Liam Cosgrave led coalition government in Dublin who stole his body and refused to permit a republican funeral. Garda Special Branch were pallbearers to the graveside, eager to heave him into the ground rather than lay him to rest. After burial the coffin was entombed in concrete.
Later the same year once the permanent Garda presence at the graveside had been lifted, IRA volunteers tunnelled into the grave, recovered the remains of their volunteer comrade and reinterred them in the republican plot.
Even if we did not realise it, the time was a lean one for the IRA and would later produce the caustic comment from the Sunday Times that had we a union we would have gone on strike. The IRA would go on to strike but not quite in the way envisaged by the Sunday Times.
Two weeks after Frank Stagg’s death I found myself back behind prison bars, not remotely contemplating that in a few short years ten more volunteers would unflinchingly tread the Via Dolorosa walked by a brave man from Mayo.
In those first few months of readjustment to prison life and anticipating a long haul, I often found a foil against despair in the tenacity of Frank Stagg. Self pity seemed a shameful self indulgence in the face of such selflessness.