The French newspaper Le Petit Journal devoted its entire front page to a striking, if imaginary, drawing of an emaciated MacSwiney on his prison bed. Daily bulletins on his condition attracted international attention and when he died after 74 days without food there were protests in the form of mock funerals with empty caskets in Boston, Chicago and Melbourne, Australia. The report of his death was the lead story on the front page of the New York Times of October 26 1920.
National Library of Ireland
A small anti-colonial struggle in a very small country had become a major world news story. A lesson was learned that the hunger strike, with its daily bulletins of deteriorating health and approaching death, was an unmatched method of gaining national and international attention. In MacSwineys case it also served as a recruiting sergeant for the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in its attempt to overthrow British rule in Ireland. Two years later independence was granted to two thirds of Ireland a remarkable achievement of a small group of political and military activists against what was then the worlds most powerful empire.
Irish republicans knew they did not have the power to win a military victory over such a powerful opponent but they were among the first groups in the world to recognize the power of international publicity. They used it with great power and efficiency and the hunger strikes played an extremely important role in gathering support for their cause. Nowhere was this support more effective than in the United States, and pressure on London from American politicians and the general public was decisive in persuading Britain to let go of its oldest colony.
Six decades later, the MacSwiney case was very much in the minds of those who took on the hunger strike as a weapon in Northern Ireland in 1981. The treaty signed in London in 1922 had given 26 of Irelands 32 counties independence within the British Commonwealth on a similar basis as Canada and Australia. Those 26 counties later left the Commonwealth and became what is known as the Republic of Ireland with its capital in Dublin. The six north-eastern counties remained part of the United Kingdom under the name Northern Ireland but they contained a substantial minority of, mainly Catholic, areas that wanted unification the Republic.
The Troubles, as they came to be known, led to extreme violence by a newly-formed IRA. Bars, restaurants and places of entertainment were bombed. Innocent peoples lives became tools in a political struggle. In 1971 the British government introduced internment or imprisonment without trial in a sweeping measure across Northern Ireland. Many of those interned were subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment a euphemism that stopped short of describing certain actions as torture.
Ten years later, republican prisoners went on hunger strike with a series of five demands. They considered themselves political prisoners rather than mere criminals and demanded the right to wear their own civilian clothes, free association with each other, no prison work, regular visits, letters and parcels, and restoration of remission of their sentences lost through their protests.
The hunger strikes were staggered at intervals to prolong the attention they attracted. The most prominent of the hunger strikers, Bobby Sands, was elected during the hunger strike as a member of Parliament at Westminster for the Northern Ireland constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone. The comparison with MacSwiney was now complete: a democratically elected public representative was on the way, slowly, to his death.
The coffin containing the body of Catholic hunger striker Bobby Sands is carried to the grave by six masked IRA men at Belfast’s Milltown Cemetery Thursday, May 7, 1981. Sands died at Long Kesh (Maze) Prison after a 66-day hunger strike. | AP Photo/Dave Caulkin
The British Government under Margaret Thatcher resolutely opposed any concessions to the protesters. When Sands died on the 66th day of his fast she announced that he was a convicted criminal who had taken his own life. The same attitude was taken to the deaths of the other hunger-strikers who followed Sands to the grave. Catholic prelates in England and Ireland were divided on the issue with Englands Cardinal Basil Hume following the Thatcher line and Irelands Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich opposing it.
Once more the attention of the world was drawn to Ireland by a hunger strike. Once more the hunger strike, its consequent deaths and Londons intransigence acted as a recruiting sergeant for the IRA.
The IRA and its supporters had learned their lessons from MacSwineys hunger strike 60 years earlier and applied them with apparent success, but can the same lessons can be learned in Russia from Navalnys hunger strike?
To start with, Navalnys demands are very different from those of either MacSwiney or Sands. He simply wants to be cared for by his own personal doctor.
The Kremlin has in the past echoed Thatchers description of Sands as a convicted criminal when referring to Navalny. He has, after all, been arrested and imprisoned several times and has regularly been called a criminal by supporters of Vladimir Putin.
I have seen Navalny in action at protests in Moscow where demonstrations are so strictly regulated that it is very easy to break the law. I have no doubt that he has, on occasion, deliberately got himself arrested and on one occasion I saw him confer with his communist fellow demonstrator Sergei Udaltsov in order to prolong a meeting past its legal time limit. In those days, arrests were followed by short terms of imprisonment and both demonstrators and authorities gained from them. Navalnys serial imprisonments gained him sympathy and publicity at home and abroad but they also allowed the Kremlin to point him out as an incorrigible lawbreaker.
Navalny at a march in Moscow, Feb. 2019. | Micha Siergiejevicz/Flickr
That ended last summer with the attempt by Russian security services to kill Navalny in the Siberian city of Tomsk. Since then, however, Russias approach appears to have mellowed, and the government appears to be taking steps to avoid the mistakes British leaders made with Irish hunger strikers. Moscows ambassador to London, Andrei Kelin, has stated that Russia will not allow Navalny to die in prison and one presumes that he was speaking after consultation with the Foreign Ministry rather than stating a personal view. It seems unlikely, therefore, that if Navalny dies that Russian President Vladimir Putin will echo Thatchers strident announcement of a suicide attempt by a convicted criminal. The regime may have wanted their most prominent enemy out of the way when they had a chance to eliminate him in Siberia but things have changed. He is now in their care and if he dies blame cannot be directed elsewhere.
For their part, Navalnys supporters appear to have learned some, but perhaps not all, the lessons from past hunger strikes and are using every opportunity to draw attention to his plight. He is reported to be near death just three weeks into his fast whereas in the case of MacSwiney and Sands their deaths did not occur until well into their ninth and tenth weeks. It is possible that Navalnys general health is in such a poor state after his poisoning with Novichok last summer that he is likely to die after a much shorter fast. The one way to be sure of this is to allow his doctor, or an independent non-Russian medic, to care for him, which would mean Navalny could start taking nourishment again. Starving to death is hardly worth it for such a minor reward.
If the Kremlin lets Navalny die, the comparison with MacSwiney and Sands would come to an end. In Irish history those who died were replaced by activists who were equally if not even more dedicated. Separation from Britain had become a national movement supported by an international community. Britain cared about world opinion and that played a major part in reaching a compromise. But does the Kremlin worry about world opinion?
Thousands demonstrate in Berlin, Germany, on January 23, 2021, to demand Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny’s release from prison in Moscow. | Omer Messinger/Getty Images
Russias attitude has strikingly been compared to that of the supporters of the London soccer club Millwall FC whose slogan is: No one likes us. We dont care.
The truth is that Navalnys death could severely damage opposition movements in Russia. None of Putins domestic opponents has anything like Navalnys charisma and those who would succeed him if he dies are unlikely to be as effective. It can be argued that his mastery of social media would live on in the form of his videos illustrating Putins corruption, but many Russians actually expect their leaders to be corrupt and wouldnt mind a trickle-down of their wealth.
There has also been a dark side to Navalnys media contributions; westerners have been dismayed by some of his posts that express elements of Great Russian nationalism, support for the retention of Crimea as part of the Russian Federation and fierce opposition to immigration from the Muslim former republics of the Soviet Union.
His views on these issues have made one adversary of the regime become just as firmly opposed to Navalny as he is to Putin; Grigory Yavlinsky, the founder of the liberal pro-western Yabloko party, has already denounced Navalnys views, writing that A democratic Russia, respect for people, and a life without fear and repression are incompatible with Navalnys policies.
Replace Navalnys name with Putins in the above statement and the real truth beams out. Navalny has already made that point with his life; his death would not make it any more true, or make it any more powerfully.