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The Hunger Strike of 1981 - Summary

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Text and Research: Martin Melaugh
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The hunger strikes transformed the political context of the Northern Ireland problem. Now, republican prisoners appeared in the unwonted role of being prepared to accept suffering for their cause rather than simply inflicting suffering on its behalf. The mass turnouts at the prisoners' funderals revealed that the standing of the prisoners in Catholic areas had risen dramatically and this was soon reflected in a novel development, an impressive Sinn Féin electoral intervention. By June 1983 Sinn Féin had obtained some 13.4% of the vote in the North which compared well with the SDLP's 17.9%.
Bew and Gillespie (1993) Northern Ireland A Chronology of the Troubles 1968-1993


Bobby Sands, then leader of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in the Maze Prison, refused food on 1 March 1981 and so began a new hunger strike. The choice of the date was significant because it marked the fifth anniversary of the ending of special category status (1 March 1976). The main aim of the new strike was to achieve the reintroduction of 'political' status for Republican prisoners. Special category, or 'political', status would be achieved if five demands were met: the right of prisoners to wear their civilian clothes at all times; the right to free association within a block of cells; the right not to do prison work; the right to educational and recreational facilities; and the restoration of lost remission of sentence. It later became clear that the IRA leadership outside the prison was not in favour of a new hunger strike following the outcome of the 1980 strike. The main impetus for a new protest came from the prisoners themselves. The strike was to last until 3 October 1981 and was to see 10 Republican prisoners starve themselves to death in support of their demands.

The tactic of the hunger strike has a special place in Republican history and has proved very emotive for Nationalists in Ireland throughout the 20th century. The impact that could be achieved on world opinion was clear in 1920 when Terence MacSwiney, then Lord Mayor of Cork, died in Brixton Prison, London, on day 74 of his hunger strike. A passage from a speech he had made at his inauguration as Lord Mayor was to be recalled during the 1981 hunger strike: "It is not those who can inflict the most, but those who can suffer the most who will conquer".

Just how much impact the 1981 strike was having on the Nationalist population of Ireland became clear when Bobby Sands was elected a Member of Parliament (MP) during a by-election for the Fermanagh / South Tyrone seat and two other hunger strikers were elected as Teachta Dáil (TDs) in a general election in the Republic of Ireland.

The hunger strike ended on 3 October 1981 when those Republican prisoners who had still been refusing food decided to end their hunger strike. At this stage in the protest six prisoners were on hunger strike. The main reason for the ending of the strike was the realisation that each of the families of the strikers would ask for medical intervention whenever the strikers lapsed into unconsciousness. On 6 October 1981 James Prior, then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, announced a series of measures which went a long way to meeting many aspects of the prisoners' five demands.

The hunger strike of 1981 had very important and far-reaching consequences for Northern Ireland and proved to be one of the key turning points of 'the Troubles'. The Republican movement had achieved a huge propaganda victory over the British government and had obtained a lot of international sympathy. Active and tacit support for the Irish Republican Army (IRA) increased in Nationalist areas. Political support for Sinn Féin (SF) was demonstrated in two by-elections (and the general election in the Republic of Ireland) and eventually led to the emergence of SF as a significant political force in Northern Ireland. The British government's fear that SF would overtake the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) as the main representative of the Catholic population of Northern Ireland was a key reason for the government signing the Anglo-Irish Agreement (AIA) on 15 November 1985.

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