'Little friendly Dr Ross': The forgotten hunger strike victim

AuthorSimon Carswell
Published date12 June 2021
Publication titleIrish Times: Web Edition Articles (Dublin, Ireland)
It was a Friday afternoon – June 13th, 1986. Dr David Ross returned to his home in Templepatrick, Co Antrim from the Maze Prison where he worked as chief medical officer.

In the midst of Northern Ireland's Troubles, the doctor had to drive different routes home because, as an employee of Her Majesty's Prison Maze or "Long Kesh" – home to republican paramilitary prisoners of the IRA and INLA waging a war against the British Crown – he was considered a target.

Once home, he slept for an hour as he often did, had a cup of tea, planted flowers in his garden with his wife and took his Labrador dog for a walk. At about 6.20pm, he went to the garage next to his bungalow in the Co Antrim countryside and attempted to take his life.

Gladys, his wife of almost 30 years found him. The 57-year-old doctor was taken to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast. He died four hours later on an operating table. A later inquest found that Dr Ross suffered from "recurrent depressive illness" and was taking anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication prescribed by his doctor and a psychiatrist. Belfast coroner James Elliott concluded that the doctor's wounds were "consistent with self-infliction".

Forty years before doctors were on the frontline of a killer pandemic, Dr Ross was on a very different frontline. In 1981, as a prison doctor in charge of the medical treatment of prisoners, he oversaw the care of republican prisoners who had made the decision to starve themselves to death to secure political status at the prison that treated them as criminals. It was a protest that was followed closely around the world.

The hunger strike of 1981 was the culmination of a battle waged inside the prison for five years, resulting in the deaths of 10 prisoners. Dr Ross has been called "the 11th victim of the hunger strike".

From the mid-1970s, doctors treating IRA prisoners in British prisons found themselves in new territory. Following the death of IRA hunger striker Michael Gaughan in 1974 from the effects of force-feeding in an English prison, international medical guidelines declared force-feeding unethical, though it had not been in practice in Northern Ireland's prisons. Britain signed up to 1975 guidelines, respecting the right of prisoners to refuse medical treatment, if mentally competent.

This gave prisoners control over their bodies without the fear of being force-fed, handing power over to the hunger striker. Doctors overseeing their care were relegated to the role of bedside bystander.

As that daily observer, Dr Ross tracked the health of the prisoners as seven men deteriorated from starvation in the first hunger strike in 1980 followed by 23 men during a second strike in 1981. He took detailed notes on their weight and condition as their bodies shed pounds day after day.

"He was a very, very quiet individual – quiet spoken – but a very dedicated doctor," says Tom Murtagh, a deputy governor and head of security of the Maze during the Troubles.

"His responsibility was the care of all the prisoners in the Maze. He was known to take that duty very seriously. Prisoners were his patients and that was the way he saw them."

Although Dr Ross could do nothing to prevent their starvation, he took every effort to ease the suffering caused by their self-imposed hunger after they were moved to the prison hospital, usually after 21 days.

He had sheepskins and soft mats brought in for prisoners to lie on to ease their bed sores caused by depleted flesh and protruding bones from lying in bed for long periods. When they were weakened by hunger, he had the patients turned over now and then to ease their pain. He had good relations with the prisoners and was on first name terms with them.

"To my mind, he was decent and kind. He may have had an ulterior motive but that would be unfair," says former IRA man Tommy McKearney, who was on the first hunger strike that ended in December 1980 after 53 days.

He remembers Dr Ross ensuring he was warm after being moved to hospital, an environment that contrasted with the harsher treatment experienced in the prison.

"The one thing I do remember him saying was at the time there was very little contemporary medical evidence on hunger striking because it was a very rare thing to happen."

When prisoners had trouble keeping normal tap water down, Dr Ross prescribed mineral water. Officers were sent to a local shop to buy supplies until a bulk delivery arrived within days.

"There was a lorry arrived in and it was completely filled with bottles of spring water," recalls Dessie Waterworth, a prison officer at the Maze during the Troubles.

He recalls a room in the prison hospital "bunged" with bottles of water. As for Dr Ross, he remembers him as "a wee quiet man that done his job, bothered nobody". Prisoners liked when he was on duty, he says, because – unlike other doctors at the Maze – he had "a sympathetic ear".

Another doctor at the Maze, Dr Emerson, was despised by the prisoners. Nicknamed "Mengele" after the notorious Nazi concentration camp doctor, he was involved in the forced washings during the blanket protest that predated the hunger strikes. McKeown says this doctor justified the washings on spurious grounds, claiming the prisoners had head lice from examinations of up to 20 feet away...

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