The use of hunger strike as a form of protest has a long tradition in British and Irish prisons. For example, the Lord Mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwiney, died whilst on hunger strike in Brixton Prison in 1920. In the early years of ‘the Troubles’, a hunger strike in Crumlin Road Gaol in 1972 by republican – and some loyalist – prisoners resulted in the granting of special category status for political prisoners. The removal of this status in 1976 led to five years of protests by Irish republican prisoners, including the Blanket protest and the no wash protest. A hunger strike in 1980 was also undertaken by seven men in the H-Blocks and three women in Armagh Gaol, but it ended on 18 December after 53 days, without any gains for the prisoners.
The 1981 hunger strike marked the escalation of the five year protest by Irish republican prisoners in response to the withdrawal of special category status for political prisoners in 1976. The aim of the 1981 hunger strike was the reinstatement of political status for republican prisoners and the meeting of ‘five demands’: 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.
The 1981 hunger strike began on 1 March 1981 when Bobby Sands – the PIRA’s leader or ‘Officer Commanding’ in the H-Blocks – refused food. He was followed on the strike by 22 men, each joining one at a time, at staggered intervals. On 9 April, whilst still on hunger strike, Bobby Sands was elected a Westminster MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone in a by-election, which served to focus the world’s media on the hunger strike. Another hunger striker, Kieran Doherty, was elected as a TD to the Dail (parliament) in Dublin. However, despite international pressure, then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher refused to grant concessions.
On 5 May Bobby Sands died after 66 days on hunger strike. Nine further men – six IRA and three INLA – were to die during the hunger strike before it was called off on 3 October. (By this stage of the protest, the families of the hunger strikers had begun to intervene to prevent further deaths.) Three days later, the British government announced a series of concessions to the prisoners which included the right to wear their own clothes. Although these concessions did not formally grant the prisoners political status, they did meet many aspects of the ‘five demands’.
In the short term, the calling off of the hunger strike was billed by the British press as a victory for Thatcher and a defeat for the PIRA. However, in the long term, the hunger strike boosted support for and recruitment to the PIRA. The republican movement gained a great deal of international sympathy and Bobby Sands became known as an Irish republican martyr (with 100,000 lining the route of his funeral). In addition, Bobby Sands’s election victory was a key catalyst for Sinn Fein’s move towards electoral politics and its emergence as a mainstream political party in NI and, eventually, the Republic of Ireland.
Learn More Here
Campbell, B., McKeown, L. & O’Hagan, F. (Eds.) (1994)
Nor Meekly Serve My Time: The H Block Struggle, 1976 –1981. Belfast: Beyond the Pale Press.
Bobby Sands’s death was I think one of the great watersheds of the conflict
What conditions do you think led to the hunger strikes in both Maze and Long Kesh Prison and Armagh Gaol?
You would need to have a heart of stone not to feel some sympathy
It was terrible to see an emaciated man lying on a bed in a cell
Watch the clips of Danny and John. How do their perspectives differ? Why?
I put my name forward
He knew what was ahead of him
As the eyesight went, sense of small became more acute
Watch all of the clips. What were the consequences of the 1981 hunger strikes? List those mentioned in the clips.
Gusty Spence was on hunger strike
Links to NI Curriculum
CCEA GCSE History: Unit 1; Section B; Option 2: Changing Relations: Northern Ireland and its Neighbours, 1965–1998
Questions based on GCSE CEA history exam papers
Using the clip of Peter and your contextual knowledge, do you agree that Bobby Sands’s death in 1981 was a key turning point of the conflict in Northern Ireland? Give two reasons.
How useful is the clip of Brendan for an historian studying the 1981 hunger strike? Explain your answer, using the clip and your contextual knowledge.
How useful is the clip of Laurence for an historian studying the 1981 hunger strike? Explain your answer, using the clip and your contextual knowledge.