1980 1981


Ireland in Schools
Raymond McCartney, 1980

Durham Pilot Scheme

What were the hunger strikes about?
• Culmination of conflict over the status of republican prisoners
– Criminals or prisoners of war?

• Defined nature of conflict in Northern Ireland
– Local issue of law & order or colonial war of global interest? – Terrorists or freedom fighters in long republican tradition

• Questioned nature of British justice in Northern Ireland
– Nature of courts – Behaviour of police & prison authorities

• Three phases of protest
– Blanket protest, 1976 – ‘Dirty protest’, 1978 – Hunger strikes: 1980 & 1981 (10 died)

1 1 May 5 • Special category status for paramilitary prisoners for certain offences withdrawn Such prisoners now regarded as criminals 14 Sept. IRA Blanket protest begins Mar. Dirty protest begins 26 Mar. End of special category status for all paramilitary prisoners 27 Oct. First wave of hunger strikes by IRA begins 18 Dec. First hunger strike ends 1 Mar. Second wave hunger strikes by IRA & INLA* begins led by Bobby Sands, IRA commander in the Maze prison 9 Apr. Bobby Sands elected to Westminster 5 May Bobby Sands dies – 9 more die subsequently 29 July Compromise refused by hunger strikers 31 July First family intervention – Paddy Quinn taken off hunger strike 20 Aug. 10th & last hunger striker dies 3 Oct.Second wave of hunger strikes ends 6 Oct.Government announces changes in prison regime


* Irish National Liberation Army

Republican view of British justice in Northern Ireland A cartoon from Republican News, published in Belfast, June 1980. Diplock courts did not have juries, because of the problem in Northern Ireland of witnesses being intimidated. The case was tried by a judge.

Where were paramilitaries held?
• HM Prison Maze, near Belfast
aka The H Blocks, Long Kesh or The Maze or, in Irish, Ceis Fada

• Arranged in distinctive H-shaped blocks • Run as a prisoner of war camp
– Internees lived in dormitories – disciplined themselves with military-style command structures – drilled with dummy guns made from wood – held lectures on guerrilla warfare and revolutionary politics

• 1,500 prisoners, nationalists & loyalists in 1978

Maze prison 1970s

Inside the loyalist UVF compound

Why were prisoners given such freedom?
• Since July 1972 not regarded as ordinary criminals
– After hunger strike in Crumlin Road Gaol, 1971

• Special Category Status (SCS) given to all prisoners convicted of scheduled terrorist crimes • Effectively prisoner of war status with some POW ‘privileges’ as in Geneva Convention
– Not to have to wear prison uniforms or do prison work – Housed within their various paramilitary factions – Allowed extra visits & food parcels

• SCS withdrawn, 1 March 1976

Why did government withdraw SCS?
• Change of security policy to ‘re-position’ conflict • Ulsterisation
– Reduce role of the British Army in favour of RUC, etc. – Show NI conflict was an internal, rather than a colonial, problem in the eyes of the world

• Criminalisation
– Paramilitaries common criminals engaging in criminal acts of terrorism – Not 'political prisoners' involved in a political conflict

How well-informed was the new security policy?
•Slow to recognise strength of view in Ireland that paramilitary activities were political, not criminal • Prisoners regarded themselves as soldiers fighting legitimate & historic war for Ireland’s freedom • Wide support or sympathy for this view
‘I would like you to know that my son is not a criminal. He was a bad boy and should not have shot that man. But if I thought he was a criminal I would never allow him to come inside my house again.’
Mrs McCloskey talking with Lord Gowrie, Minister of State for Northern Ireland, Sept. 1981, just before taking her son, Liam, off his 46-day hunger strike

‘That told me a great deal about the attitude and the mentality of the Republican community.’
Jim Prior, new & more open-minded NI Secretary, Sept. 1981

• Blanket protest

How did republican prisoners first protest?
– Refused to wear prison uniforms – Wore only prison blanket

• Started by Kieran Nugent, 15 Sept. 1976
– First IRA member convicted after SCS withdrawn – Refused to wear prison uniform – Placed in cell naked except for prison blanket

• Response of prison authorities
– Denied non-conforming prisoners all privileges
No visits; No food parcels; No remission

– Assaults by prison officers

• Prisoners’ response
– ‘Dirty protest’, Mar. 1978

What was the dirty protest?
• Began Mar. 1978 • IRA prisoners continued to wear blankets instead of prison uniforms • Refused to leave cells & wash • Smeared cells with
– Excrement – Menstrual blood (in Armagh women’s prison)

• 500 protesters by 1980

I just smeared it on the wall. I ripped off a lump of the mattress to do it with. You were going against your whole socialization of how you were brought up. You were going against everything you'd ever learned about basic hygiene and manners and stuff like that. I lived like this from 1978 to 1981 - for three years. After a time, you became accustomed to it. The maggots, for example. I mean, nobody likes maggots. You’d be repelled by them. I don’t think I could touch a maggot now. If there was one sitting here, you know, I’d flick it away or get somebody else to do it. But you became so accustomed to them being in the cell, especially when winter was coming in and it was cold. They must sense where warmth is. You were literally waking up in the morning and there were maggots in the bed with you. It just gets to the stage where you just brush them off. I think the human spirit can become accustomed to any environment.
Gerard Hodgkins

What were the protesters’ demands?
• • • • Right to wear their own clothes Right not to do prison work Right to free association with other prisoners Right to a weekly visit, letter & parcel and to organise educational & recreational activities • Restoration of remission lost through protest

What was the government response?
•Withdrew political status for all paramilitary prisoners

People who may have once claimed an ideal are thugs and gangsters.
Roy Mason, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, 1978

How did the protesters respond to government refusal to restore SCS?
• Dirty protest making no headway • Escalated protest • 2 waves of hunger strikes
– 27 Sept. – 18 Dec. 1980 – 1 Mar. – 3 Oct. 1981 – Special category status even withdrawn from all paramilitaries

• Instigator

– Brendan Hughes, OC H-Blocks

• 170 prisoners volunteered in 1980

What role had hunger strikes played in the republican past?
• Irish republican hunger strikes since 1917 • 12 men had previously died, including
– – – – – Thomas Ashe, 1917 Terence MacSwiney, 1920 Seán McCaughey, 1946 Michael Gaughan, 1974 Frank Stagg, 1976

What happened during the 1980 hunger strike?
• Began 27 Oct. 1980 • 7 men went on hunger strike & 3 women at Armagh • Underestimated determination of Margaret Thatcher • Ended 18 Dec. 1980 in mistaken expectation of concessions

Why were hunger strikes resumed in 1981?
• • • • Resumed 1 Mar. 1981 Discussions with government failing Initiative taken by prisoners themselves Leader – Bobby Sands, IRA commandant in the Maze • 10 died • Ended 3 Oct.1981 • Some concessions announced 6 Oct. 1981

Who died on hunger strike in 1981?
Bobby Sands (26) Irish Republican Army (IRA) and Member of Parliament (MP) began hunger strike on 1 March 1981 and died on 5 May 1981 after 66 days without food Irish Republican Army (IRA) joined hunger strike on 15 March 1981 and died on 12 May 1981 after 59 days without food Irish Republican Army (IRA) joined hunger strike on 22 March 1981 and died on 21 May 1981 after 61 days without food Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) joined hunger strike on 22 March 1981 and died on 21 May 1981 after 61 days without food Irish Republican Army (IRA) joined hunger strike on 8 May 1981 and died on 8 July 1981 after 61 days without food Irish Republican Army (IRA) joined hunger strike on 28 May 1981 and died on 13 July 1981 after 46 days without food Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) joined hunger strike on ? May 1981 and died on 1 August 1981 after 71 days without food Irish Republican Army (IRA) and Teachta Dáil (TD; member of the Irish Parliament) joined hunger strike on 22 May 1981 and died on 2 August 1981 after 73 days without food Irish Republican Army (IRA) joined hunger strike on 8 June 1981 and died on 8 August 1981 after 62 days without food Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) joined hunger strike on 22 June 1981 and died on 20 August 1981 after 60 days without food Francis Hughes (25)

Raymond McCreesh (24)

Patsy O'Hara (23)

Joe McDonnell (30)

Martin Hurson (29)

Keven Lynch (25)

Kieran Doherty (25)

Thomas McElwee (23)

Michael Devine (27)

Why were they in prison?
Bobby Sands IRA Francis Hughes IRA Possession of a firearm Various offences, including murder of a soldier Raymond McCreesh IRA Attempted murder, possession of a rifle, IRA membership Patsy O’Hara INLA Possession of a hand grenade Joe McDonnell IRA Possession of a firearm Martin Hurson IRA Attempted murder, involvement in explosions, IRA membership Kevin Lynch INLA Stealing shotguns, taking part in a punishment shooting Kieran Doherty IRA Possession of firearms and explosives, hijacking Thomas McElwee IRA Manslaughter Michael Devine INLA Theft and possession of firearms

What was it like?
You’re very sleepy and very, very tired and you’re sort of nodding off to sleep but something’s telling you to keep waking up. This was the thing that kept everybody going through the hunger strike in trying to live or last out as long as possible. I knew death was close but I wasn’t afraid to die - and it wasn’t any sort of courageous or glorious thing. I think death would have been a release. You can never feel that way again. It’s not like tiredness. It’s an absolute, total, mental and physical exhaustion. It’s literally like slipping into death.
Laurence McKeown taken off hunger strike by his family on 6 Sept. 1981 on the 70th day.

Who was Bobby Sands?
1954 1972 1976 1977 1978 1979 1980 1981 9 Mar. born Rathcoole, predominantly Protestant part of Belfast Family moves to new Catholic estate because of Protestant intimidation Joins PIRA Arrested & imprisoned for 4 years for arms possession Arrested again after bomb attack on the Balmoral Furniture Company Dunmurry, followed by a gun-battle Imprisoned for possession of a revolver from which bullets had been fired at the police after the bombing No evidence linking him with bomb attack PRO for blanket protesters Publishes short stories and poems in Republican News under the pen-name ‘Marcella’, his sister’s name Commandant of IRA in Maze Negotiates with authorities to no avail 1 Mar. begins hunger strike 9 Apr. elected MP for Fermanagh & South Tyrone 5 May dies on 66th day of hunger strike 7 May 70,000-100,000 attend his funeral

Why did Sands go on hunger strike?
I am a political prisoner because I am a casualty of a perennial war that is being fought between the oppressed Irish people and an alien, oppressive, unwanted regime that refuses to withdraw from our land. I believe and stand by the God-given right of the Irish nation to sovereign independence, and the right of any Irishman or woman to assert this right in armed revolution. That is why I am incarcerated, naked and tortured.
Bobby Sands, writing on the first day of his hunger strike

Why did Sands stand for election to Westminster?
• Great publicity potential • Fermanagh & South Tyrone was winnable
–Late member an independent, sympathetic to hunger strikers –Unionist opponent dour Fermanagh farmer –All other candidates opposed to Unionists withdrew

What was the result of election?
• Victory for Bobby Sands
–Turnout –Sands –West –Majority 86.9% 30,492 votes 29,046 votes 1,500 votes

Mrs Thatcher said: We are not prepared to consider special category status for certain groups of people serving sentences for crime. Crime is crime is crime, it is not political.
* Requires internet connection

Click on link below for video of BBC report on election*

• Worldwide publicity for Sinn Fein & IRA • Encouraged other prisoners or supporters to stand
–Westminster, August 1981: Owen Carron filled Sands’ seat standing as Proxy Political Prisoner candidate (prisoners now unable to stand) –Dáil Éireann, June 1981 Kieran Doherty (h/strike; d. 2 Aug.) (Cavan-Monaghan); Paddy Agnew (Louth)

• But no change in government policy
–Margaret Thatcher, prime minister, adamant –Introduced legislation preventing prisoners standing for parliament
Click on link below for video of Mrs Thatcher on ‘crime is crime’*

What was the reaction to his death?
British government
Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister

Mr. Sands was a convicted criminal. He chose to take his own life. It was a choice that his organisation did not allow to many of its victims.
Humphrey Atkins, Secretary for State for Northern Ireland

I regret this needless and pointless death.

Rosaries & petrol bombs
Click on link below for video of BBC report on reactions in Belfast*

* Requires internet connection

Funeral of Bobby Sands

Faced with the failure of their discredited cause, the men of violence have chosen in recent months to play what may well be their last card.
Margaret Thatcher after 4 deaths, May 1981

Why did Margaret Thatcher remain adamant?
• Continued IRA violence
– Particularly influenced by murder in Derry of Protestant woman census worker, married with 2 young children, during election campaign – shot in back of head.

• Ulster unionist opinion
– ‘She thought that if she gave way on it this would have a very large impact on the Protestant population.’
Jim Prior, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

Ulster Unionist view of hunger strikers & IRA From 1981 pamphlet Self-Inflicted An Exposure of the H-Blocks Issue by Peter Robinson of the DUP

The bombing on 17 February 1978 killed 12 & badly burned many more with a huge fireball. 400 people, all Protestants and loyalists, were attending the annual dinner dance of the Irish Collie Club.

Daily Express, 1981

What can be said for & against the views of Bobby Sands & Margaret Thatcher?
‘I am a political prisoner because I am a casualty of a perennial war that is being fought between the oppressed Irish people and an alien ... regime that refuses to withdraw from our land.’
Bobby Sands, writing on the first day of his hunger strike, 1 March 1981

‘We are not prepared to consider special category status for certain groups of people serving sentences for crime. Crime is crime, it is not political.’

Margaret Thatcher, 21 April 1981

What public support was there for the hunger strikers at home & abroad?





Why did the hunger strikers refuse chance of settlement after 6th death?
July 1981 Government’s ‘Mountain Climber’ initiative offering concessions in writing, giving most of what had been demanded, was rejected.

Some thought IRA wanted to extract the maximum propaganda advantage from this ‘conveyor belt of death’

Anything less than what their comrades had died for would be betrayal

We were committed to something. Unless someone was coming in and saying ‘Right, you have your own clothes, you won’t do prison work, you have all your demands’, short of that we wouldn’t have entertained it. It was all or nothing at that stage. The fact that so many people had died made us even more determined.
Laurence McKeown, Hunger striker, recalling discussions in July 1981

Why did the hunger strikes stop on 3 October 1981?
• Tireless work of Fr Denis Faul • Family determination not to let sons die
31 July – 26 Sept: 5 prisoners taken off hunger strike by families Paddy Quinn
17 June: Quinn goes on hunger strike 31 July: Quinn’s mother asks for medical intervention 2 Aug: Quinn comes out of coma and says

‘Mummy, I’m sorry if I upset you. It’s good to be alive.’
Paddy Quinn

• Only handful attend funeral of last hunger striker to die
‘Red’ Mickey Devine, died 20 Aug. 1981

• Government even more willing to compromise

How far did hunger strikers resent the intervention of their families?
Laurence McKeown, whose mother ended his hunger strike on the 70th day.

Interviewer How did you feel about your mother after she had taken you off? Laurence McKeown

I didn’t feel any way different about her because I just knew that she had stood by me all that time anyway. I could understand her point of view. A number of people had made interventions. She wasn’t politically committed to my ideas but she was committed to me as a son. I certainly didn’t ever say anything to her that would have been hurtful. I think much was left unspoken.

Why was the government more inclined to compromise?
• Change of NI Secretary, 13 September 1981
Jim Prior replaced Humphrey Atkins

• Prior impressed after visiting Liam McCloskey
McCloskey on 45 day of hunger strike

‘It had a profound effect on me. I expected to find someone who was very uptight and struggling and very uncomfortable. But this man seemed to be serenely quiet and content with himself and not in any particular pain.’

What terms were offered & accepted?
• Series of partial concessions
announced by Jim Prior, 6 Oct. 1981 •

The concessions (* only partial gain for protesters)
Prisoners to wear own clothes all the time 50% remission of time lost through protests* Greater freedom of association between adjacent wings of the H-blocks* More visits Review of definition of ‘prison work’*

Almost same terms as on offer 3 months earlier, when only 6 had died Had 4 men died needlessly? Prior too sensible to claim victory

How did the hunger strikers feel when they gave up on 3 October 1981?
Gerard Hodgkins, who at its end had been fasting for twenty days, had mixed emotions.

The hunger strike had started out as a prison struggle for political status but it came to encapsulate the whole struggle for us. We believed that if we lost out on this one, we’d lost the war and everything that went with it. Everything we had sacrificed to date would have been in vain. We genuinely believed that we had to hold out. We hoped to salvage something.

On one hand you felt relieved that it was over, that you weren’t going to die. You were relieved for your family. On the other hand, you felt guilty: that you’d actually ended the hunger strike and you hadn’t achieved what you set out to achieve. Although you were going to live, you had to live in the knowledge that there were ten men dead who had set out on the same journey. You wonder, ‘Have I betrayed them? Have I betrayed their families?’ I would still think about it even to this day.

What were the consequences?
• Human cost
• Deaths of hunger strikers and many others • IRA Brighton bomb, 16 October 1984 Target was Margaret Thatcher; 5 people killed Who here really believes that we can win the war through the ballot box? But will anyone here object if with a ballot box in this hand and an Armalite in this hand we take power?
Danny Morrison Sinn Fein’s PRO, 1981

• Closer collaboration between London & Dublin
• Strengthen constitutional nationalism against Sinn Fein • Anglo-Irish Agreement, 1985

• Watershed in Sinn Fein history
• Election victories paved way for more political approach ‘Armalite & ballot box strategy’ • 1982 General election: Gerry Adams took West Belfast from the SDLP • Later overtook SDLP in Northern Ireland

Rise of Sinn Fein at the expense of the SDLP DUP
(2007) Seats won Vote share (2003) Seats won Vote share (1998) Seats won Vote share 36 30.1% 30 25.6% 20 18.14

18 14.9% 27 22.7% 28 21.25%

7 5.2% 6 3.7% 6 6.5%

3 8.0% 3 7.5% 9 8.67%

16 15.2% 18 17.0% 24 21.9%

Sinn Féin
28 26.2% 24 23.5% 18 17.63%

Northern Ireland Assembly elections, 1998-2007 (108 seats)

Power-sharing Executive & Assembly 2007

How far would you agree with the Northern Ireland prison official who said that

‘The hunger strike was a magnificent achievement.’

Historians’ verdict
The hunger strikes transformed the political context of the Northern Ireland problem. Now, republican prisoners appeared in the unfamiliar role of being prepared to accept suffering for their cause rather than simply inflicting suffering on its behalf. The mass turnouts at the prisoners’ funerals 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%. In the 2007 election to the Northern Ireland Assembly Sinn Féin far outstripped the SDLP. They won 26.2% of the vote and 28 seats to the SDLP’s 15.2% of the vote and 16 seats. Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein’s number 2 and ex-IRA man, became Deputy leader of a new power-sharing Executive and Assembly, with a significant ‘Irish dimension.’ However, Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom.
Adapted from P. Bew & G. Gillespie, Northern Ireland. A Chronology of the Troubles

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