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1981 Irish Hunger Strike
The 1981 Irish Hunger Strike was a campaign by Irish republican prisoners in Northern Ireland for the British government to grant them political status. It was a seminal event in modern Irish history. While a failure on its own terms, it radicalised Nationalist politics, and was the midwife to Sinn Féin as a serious political party, which ultimately led to it overtaking the SDLP as the main nationalist party in Northern Ireland.
The process which led up to Hunger Strikes began in 1976. As part of the policy of Ulsterisation and "criminalisation", the British government ended its previous policy of giving Special Category Status to paramilitary prisoners in Northern Ireland prisons. Special Category, or political, status meant prisoners were treated very like prisoners of war, e.g. they did not have to wear prison uniforms or do prison work. The end to Special Category Status was a serious threat to the authority which the paramilitary leaderships inside prison had been able to exercise over their own men, as well as being a propaganda blow. The policy was not introduced for existing prisoners, but rather phased in for those newly convicted.
IRA and INLA prisoners (the first was Ciarán Nugent) began the blanket protest in which prisoners would refuse to wear prison uniform and either went naked or fashioned garments from prison blankets. In 1978, after a number of attacks on prisoners leaving their cells to "slop out" (i.e. empty their chamber pots) this escalated into the dirty protest, where prisoners not granted political status refused to wash and smeared the walls of their cells with excrement. These protests aimed to re-establish their privileges by securing what were known as the Five Demands, viz.:
- 1. The Right not to wear a prison uniform;
- 2. The Right not to do prison work;
- 3. The Right of free association with other prisoners;
- 4. The Right to organize their own educational and recreational facilities;
- 5. The Right to one visit, one letter and one parcel per week.
Initially, this protest did not attract a great deal of attention, and even the IRA regarded it as a side-issue compared to the armed struggle. It began to attract attention when the Tomas O Fiach , the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Armagh visited the prison and condemned the conditions there. In 1979 Bernadette McAliskey (the former MP) stood in the election for the European parliament on a platform of support for the blanketmen, and won a respectable 5.9% of the vote across Northern Ireland, even though Sinn Féin had called for a boycott of this election. Shortly after this, the broad based Smash H-Block Campaign was formed, on a platform of support for the Five Demands, with McAliskey as its main spokesperson.
The period leading up to the hunger strike saw a campaign of assassination carried out by both sides. The IRA shot and killed a number of prison officers, and Loyalist paramilitaries shot and killed a number of activists in the Smash H-Block Campaign, and badly injured McAliskey and her husband.
In October 1980, seven Republican prisoners in The Maze began a hunger strike. After a few weeks they were followed by three prisoners in Armagh Women's Prison, and then a short-lived hunger strike by several dozen prisoners in The Maze. A number of Loyalist prisoners also started their own hunger strike after a few weeks, but they were accused of opportunism, attempting to win concessions on the backs of Republicans without risking death or serious damage to their health. (No Loyalists or Armagh women took part in the 1981 hunger strike.) In a war of nerves between the IRA leadership and the British government, with one prisoner close to death, the British government appeared to concede the prisoners' right to wear their own clothes. The strike was called off in December before any prisoners died.
However, after a few weeks it emerged that the British government had simply given the prisoners the right to wear civilian-style clothing supplied by the prison, so on March 1, 1981, under the new IRA Officer Commanding in The Maze, Bobby Sands, a second hunger strike began, with Sands himself the first to refuse food. The political atmosphere outside the prisons became electric, both in Northern Ireland and the Republic, with widespread rioting in Nationalist areas.
Shortly after the beginning of the strike, the independent Irish republican MP for Fermanagh & South Tyrone died and precipitated a by-election. Sands was nominated as an anti-H-Block candidate, and was elected to the House of Commons on April 9, 1981 with 30,492 votes to 29,046 for the Unionist candidate Harry West .
Three weeks later, Sands died from starvation in the prison hospital. The announcement of his death prompted several days of riots in nationalist areas of Northern Ireland. Over 75,000 people lined the route of his funeral.
Over the summer, nine more hunger strikers also died. The names of these people, their paramiltary affiliation, hometown, dates of death, and length of hunger strike are as follows:
- Bobby Sands, IRA, Belfast (Twinbrook), 5 May, 66 days
- Francis Hughes, IRA, Bellaghy, 12 May, 59 days
- Patsy O’Hara, INLA, Derry, 21 May, 61 days
- Raymond McCreesh, IRA, Camlough, 21 May, 61 days
- Joe McDonnell, IRA, Belfast (Lenadoon), 8 July, 61 days
- Martin Hurson, IRA, Cappagh, 13 July, 46 days
- Kevin Lynch, INLA, Dungiven, 1 Aug, 71 days
- Kieran Doherty, IRA, Belfast (Andersonstown), 2 Aug, 73 days
- Thomas McElwee, IRA, Bellaghy, 8 Aug, 62 days
- Michael Devine, INLA, Derry, 20 Aug, 60 days
A number of protesting prisoners contested the general election in the Republic of Ireland in June. Paddy Agnew (who was not on hunger strike) and Kieran Doherty were elected in Louth and Cavan/Monaghan respectively, and Joe McDonnell narrowly missed election in Sligo/Leitrim. There were also local elections in Northern Ireland around that time, Sinn Féin did not contest them, but some smaller groups who did support the hunger strikers had a few successes, e.g. a joint campaign by the Irish Republican Socialist Party (the INLA's political wing) and People's Democracy (a Trotskyist group) won three seats on Belfast City Council.
The British parliament rushed through emergency legislation to prevent another prisoner contesting the second by-election in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, which was due to take place following the death of Sands. This by-election was won in August by Owen Carron, who had been Sands' election agent, standing as the prisoner's proxy candidate, with an increased vote.
In late summer, the hunger strike began to break, thanks in large part due to the actions of the radical Catholic priest, Fr. Dennis Faul , who intervened with hunger strikers' families after they had lost consciousness to urge them to give consent to the prison authorities for their relatives to be fed by drift. The first prisoner whose family intervened was Paddy Quinn. after this happened with a number of other prisoners, on 3 October, 1981, the IRA called off the Hunger Strike.
The Hunger Strike heralded an upsurge of violence after the comparatively quiet years of the late 1970s, with widespread civil disorder in Northern Ireland and, serious unrest in the Republic, including rioting outside the British Embassy in Dublin. (Many may have either hoped for or feared a repeat of 1972, when after Bloody Sunday the embassy was burned out by protestors.) It resulted in a new surge of IRA activity, with the group obtaining many more members. It paradoxically prompted the Republican movement to move towards electoral politics - Sands' success combined with that of pro-Hunger Strike candidates in Northern Ireland's local elections and Dáil elections in the Republic gave birth to the armalite and ballot box strategy. As a direct consequence, Sinn Féin emerged as a serious political force in the 1983 British General Election. Thereby, it indirectly paved the way for the Good Friday Agreement many years later.
The prisoners' case was summarised by the chorus of a song written at the time by Francis Brolly , now a Sinn Féin member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, which was played by a piper at the funeral of Bobby Sands:
So I'll wear no convict's uniform, Nor meekly serve my time, That Britain might brand Ireland's fight, Eight hundred years of crime
The people of Hartford, Connecticut, dedicated a monument to Bobby Sands and the other hunger strikers in 1997. The monument stands in a traffic circle known as "Bobby Sands Circle", at the bottom of Maple Avenue near Goodwin Park.
- HungerstrikersHunger Strikers Memorial, Hartford, CT
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