The Hunger Strike of 1981 - Summary
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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%.
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
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
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.
CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
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