Hunger Strikes in the 1980s

The hunger strikes of 1981 were a consequence of years of conflict in Northern Ireland, pitting Irish Republican prisoners against the government in London . IRA prisoners are said to have gone on hunger strike in the 1980s in order to have their status as political prisoners recognised in the eyes of the United Kingdom… These strikes had a terrible effect on international political opinion, and became a veritable tug-of-war between the strikers and Margaret Thatcher…


Maze Prison

Maze Prison - Brendan Rankin - CC

Maze Prison – Brendan Rankin – CC

The second half of the 20th century was a troubled time in Northern Ireland… The latter is indeed torn by a conflict opposing the British Protestants to the Irish Catholics… Very quickly, these tensions lead to a real escalation of violence between Protestants and Republican Catholics… In 1960, paramilitary factions such as the IRA decided to confront the Protestants…

Faced with this explosive situation, the London government ordered the Long Kesh prison project in 1971. This prison is a former disused Royal Air Force base, intended to imprison without trial all Northern Irish Catholics suspected of pro-Republican activism . The latter are then incarcerated in “H blocks” and impose an extremely strict military discipline to fight against the London government inside the prison…

Apart from their deplorable conditions of detention, the prisoners are denied the status of political prisoners . However, this refusal revolts the prisoners, who intend to assert their rights… Billy McKee then organized a first hunger strike in July 1972 when more than 40 prisoners members of the IRA stopped eating… Faced with this strike, the London government decided to grant them the status of political prisoner: they were then exempted from wearing a prisoner’s uniform and could refrain from working in the prison… Unfortunately for the strikers, this status will be abolished in 1976…

The Blanket protest

Faced with the abolition of the status of political prisoner, prisoner Kieran Nugent began the Blanket Protest on September 14, 1976, a form of protest consisting in refusing to wear a prisoner’s uniform… The latter decides to live naked or wrapped in a blanket while the cold and humidity are very present within the prison…

This first protest became even worse when prisoners were attacked by prison guards in 1978, as they were leaving their cells to empty their chamber pots… So the prisoners decided to move on to the Dirty Protest, another form of protest consisting of a hygiene strike… Prisoners then refuse to wash themselves, and smear the walls of their cells with their own excrement, demanding respect for their political status as well as :

  • The right not to wear a prisoner’s uniform;
  • The right not to participate in prison work;
  • The right of free association with other prisoners and the right to organize educational or recreational activities;
  • The right to one visit, one letter and one package a week;
  • The full restoration of the remission of sentence lost during the protest..

First Hunger Strike (27 October 1980)

In spite of the Dirty Protest, the prisoners’ demands are without effect. The prisoners then decided to organize a new hunger strike on October 27, 1980… Only seven prisoners were selected for this fast and were members of the IRA and the INLA: Brendan Hughes, Tommy McKearney, Raymond McCartney, Tom McFeeley, Sean McKenna, Leo Green and John Nixon.

After more than a month of fasting, 3 prisoners from Armagh Prison joined the movement, along with a dozen other prisoners from Long Kesh. Negotiations then begin between the prisoners and the London government… The state of health of some of the strikers deteriorates rapidly, and McKenna regularly comes in and out of coma… Faced with the pressure of the public opinion, the government ends up publishing a 30-page document, and announces that it accepts the prisoners’ demands… The strike is thus interrupted after 53 days of fasting, and saves McKenna’s life, then on the verge of death…

Second Hunger Strike

In January 1981, the British government still did not keep its promise, and did not rehabilitate the prisoners to the status of political prisoners .

A new hunger strike was therefore scheduled for March 1, 1981, led by Bobby Sands. The rule is simple: each week, a new prisoner must join this strike, and go all the way to the end… Then begins a real arm wrestling match with Margaret Thatcher, then British Prime Minister. Demonstrations in the streets of Belfast take place during the second week of the strike, in support of the strikers…

During this strike, the death of a Republican MP from Fermanagh and South Tyrone arouses many ambitions, and Bobby Sands decides to run for election, while maintaining his fast. Sands is finally nominated on April 9, 1981, which gives extra weight to his strike…

To protest against this election, and the strikers’ demands, Margaret Thatcher declared: “We are not prepared to consider the possibility of granting special status to certain groups serving time for committing a crime. A crime is a crime, it is not political. “.

Soon, Bobby Sands’ condition deteriorated, and his suffering was reported in the media… Many public figures come to visit the strikers to convince them to give up in order to stay alive… Nothing helps: Bobby Sands and Margaret Thatcher will camp on their positions until Sands dies on May 5th 1981 after 66 days of strike.

His death caused riots throughout Northern Ireland. Margaret Thatcher’s position was heavily criticized, but she declared: “Mr. Sands was a convicted criminal. He chose to take his own life. It is a choice that his organization did not give many of its victims. “.

Within two weeks of Sands’ death, three more hunger strikers died: Francis Hughes, Raymond McCreesh and Patsy O’Hara. Despite these new deaths and mounting international pressure, Thatcher refused to negotiate their status as political prisoners, claiming in late May 1981 that “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. “.