The 1980 Hunger Strike

Conditions in the protesting wings continued to deteriorate through 1979 and 1980. In October 1980 the Northern Ireland prison officials had granted all prisoners the right to wear prison-issue civilian clothing, but other than that it made few moves to rectify the situation or grant the prisoners' five demands. (1) The Republican prisoners perceived the prison "concession" as the replacement of one uniform by another, and they did not accept that their demands had been taken seriously.

As a result, the prisoners decided (without input from outside IRA officials) to escalate the prison protests by calling for a series of hunger strikes. An announcement came from the prisoners on 10 October that a hunger strike would begin on the 27th. A portion of that statement read:

WE, the Republican Prisoners of War in the H-Blocks, Long Kesh, demand, as of right, political recognition and that we be accorded the status of political prisoners. We claim this right as captured combatants in the continuing struggle for national liberation and self-determination.

We refute most strongly the tag of 'criminal' with which the British have attempted to label us and our struggle, and we point to the divisive partitionist institutions of the six counties as the sole criminal aspect of the current struggle....

We declare that political status is ours of right and we declare that from Monday 27th October, 1980 a hunger strike by a number of men representing H-Blocks 3, 4 and 5 will commence. (2)

There were to be seven hunger strikers in 1980: Tom McFeeley, Brendan Hughes (until then, the OC for protesting prisoners), Raymond McCartney, Leo Green, John Nixon, Tommy McKearney and Sean McKenna. The men in the H-Blocks were joined on 1 December 1980 by Mairead Farrell, Mairead Nugent and Mary Doyle, all prisoners in Armagh. In order to achieve their demands, the three women said: "We are prepared to fast to the death, if necessary, but our love for justice and our country will live for ever." (3)

The announcement of the hunger strike did not convince Margaret Thatcher, who had taken office as Prime Minister in May 1979, that Special Category Status should be reinstated. In fact, from the moment she took office she refused to give the IRA prisoners any concessions whatsoever. As she remarked in 1981,

There is no such thing as political murder, political bombing or political violence. There is only criminal murder, criminal bombing and criminal violence. We will not compromise on this. There will be no political status. (4)

Thatcher's intransigence may have been a result of the deaths of Airey Neave on 30 March 1979, and Lord Mountbatten a few months later on 27 August. Neave, a close friend of Thatcher and the man who was slated to become the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, was killed by a car bomb planted by the INLA in the parking lot of the House of Commons. Mountbatten was killed by the IRA while on a pleasure cruise in County Sligo. Even though he had not been involved in any of the issues surrounding Northern Ireland politics, Mountbatten was targeted because he had a long, and perhaps even heroic, service record and he was a member of the British Royal Family. For the same reasons, his murder horrified the British people. Such acts of terrorism by the IRA and INLA put enormous public and political pressure on Thatcher, requiring her to take a hard line on the Irish Republicans. (5)

Unlike previous Governments which had acknowledged, although not condoned, the reasons behind IRA violence, Thatcher did not budge from the British ideal of criminalization. On 20 November 1980, Thatcher made the following comment in the House of Commons: "There can be no political justification for murder or any other crimes. The British Government will never concede political status to the hunger strikers or to any other person convicted of criminal offences in the Province."(6) Elaborating on the comments she made in the House of Commons, Thatcher made the following comments in a BBC radio interview on 26 November 1980:

Those hunger strikers have gone on hunger strike because they want political status. I have said, and I will continue to say--and will continue to hold firm--there is no such thing as political murder.

I cannot interfere with the hunger strike; we do not force feed. If those people continue with the hunger strike it will have no effect whatsoever. It will just take their own lives for which I will be profoundly sorry because I think it is a ridiculous thing to do, that it is a ridiculous way to try to go about it.

Before the hunger strike started we had a look at the rules affecting all prisoners in Northern Ireland and we decided that instead of wearing prison uniforms they could, in fact, have an issue of civilian-type clothes chosen by the Northern Ireland authority. That happens in a number of other countries.

Having said that, I thought we got ourselves into a really good position and there will be, and can be, no concessions.(7)

Interestingly, Michael Allison, the British minister responsible for the prisons in Northern Ireland, was a little more willing to look into possible solutions to the crisis. As he said in November 1980:

We will not make any concessions to blackmail and, if they [the prisoners] are fighting for a great issue of principles as they see it, political status, then they are banging their heads against a brick wall....

But if they are, in a muddled way, saying 'We want better conditions,' well, that's a different story. (8)

Allison interpreted the protests and hunger strikes as complaints over conditions more than a desire for special treatment, and his interpretation helped the British government explain that the concessions which were offered later were actually simple improvements in prison conditions.

Thatcher and her Tory government were not the only ones to condemn the IRA and to call for no concessions. Gerry Fitt, a Member of Parliament and former leader of the SDLP, remarked in the House of Commons in November 1980 that giving the prisoners political status would be telling other IRA supporters "Pull that trigger--set off that bomb." According to the Irish Press, Fitt believed that giving the IRA prisoners political status would encourage other people to commit acts of violence. (9)

The British did not give any concessions to the IRA other than a half-hearted attempt to resolve the prison uniform issue. As a result, the hunger strike continued, lasting until December 1980 when several men, particularly McKenna, were close to death. In an attempt to resolve the protest before anyone died, the National H-Block Committee requested a meeting with Secretary of State Humphrey Atkins on 5 December 1980, but Atkins rejected their request. According to a Northern Ireland Office spokesman, Atkins was "not going to speak to people whose only axe to grind is political status." As the spokesman explained, this would include "H-Block campaigners, Provisional Sinn Fein and the prisoners themselves."(10)

At this time Michael Allison was also seeking an end to the strike by attempting to reason with the protesting prisoners. He hinted on 9 December 1980 that the hunger strikers were waging a useless campaign against the government, and he tried to explain that the British were unable to give the prisoners all they demanded. He said he wondered

...if they [the prisoners] appreciate how impossible it is for the Government to concede the full amount of what they are asking, because it would mean, in effect, handing over the prison to the prisoners... turning it into a kind of holiday camp.(11)

Then, on 10 December Allison was conciliatory. He tried to make the protesters believe that things were not as bad as they believed.

What we want to draw to the prisoners' attention is how very much better the opportunities are here for free association, own clothing, work, recreation and remission of sentence than in practically any other prison in other parts of the U. K. and probably Europe. (12)

It appears from Allison's comments that he was not willing to admit publicly the significance of the prisoners' demands for status. For Allison, men and women were starving themselves for a few extra visits and privileges--things which could not be granted easily, but in his mind were not worth the effort. Unlike Thatcher, who refused even to allow negotiations because of their symbolic nature, Allison wanted to dismiss the need for such talks altogether by convincing the prisoners that they already had most of what they wanted.

The hunger strike ended in December without any deaths. Sinn Fein spokesman Danny Morrison said in the Irish Press that an agreement between the prisoners and the British was finalized on 18 December 1980.

We are satisfied that the implementation of these proposals meets the requirements of our five basic demands. Republican prisoners will not be wearing any form of prison uniform and will not be participating in any form of penal work.(13)

The prisoners called off the hunger strike because they claimed that they had received an advance copy of a statement Atkins was going to give to the House of Commons on the 19th, as well as a copy of a document entitled "Regimes in Northern Ireland Prisons: Prisoners' day-to-day life with special emphasis on The Maze and Armagh." Because they believed a settlement had been offered, the protesting prisoners made the decision on the 18th to end the 1980 hunger strike. In their own statement, the prisoners explained why they called off the hunger strike:

Having seen the statement to be announced by Humphrey Atkins in the British House of Commons tomorrow and having been supplied with a document which contains a new elaboration on our five demands which were first enumerated upon by Humphrey Atkins in his statement to the House of Commons of December 4, we decided to halt the hunger strike.

In ending our hunger strike, we make it clear that failure by the British Government to act in a responsible manner towards ending the conditions which forced us on to a hunger strike will not only lead to inevitable and continual strife within the H-Blocks, but will show quite clearly the intransigence of the British Government.(14)

Atkins denied any secret last-minute deals, especially the prisoners' claims that they had received an advance copy of his speech. He claimed that the British government was following the same policy it had from the beginning. But the prisoners had reason to believe something new had been offered. As the Irish Press put it, "the prisoners claim a victory while Mr. Atkins insisted they were only accepting what had always been offered but written in a different form."(15)

It seems likely, regardless of what Atkins said, that the prisoners did get advance word of concessions. The political editor of the London Times stated that the document "Regimes in Northern Ireland Prisons" alone was "extremely densely-packed and unlikely to make much sense to men at death's door," and it did not contain anything beyond the concessions of 4 December. Therefore, if the prisoners accepted that the government had offered something in the way of concessions, they must have had other information--most likely Atkins' statement. Atkins countered those who accused him of secret negotiations by claiming that the prisoners' decision to end the strike came from a final realization that the demands were not going to be met. (16)

According to the settlement as the prisoners understood it, relatives of the prisoners would be bringing in clothing and the prisoners would be able to receive food and reading matter in parcels from family and friends, and would enjoy relaxed rules for their visits.(17) Although the prisoners were convinced that the demands had been met, in reality the rights the prisoners would receive came far short of their five demands which would amount to political status. The British agreed that the prisoners could wear civilian-type clothing when not wearing their own clothes; they could have three hours of free association on weekdays and five on Saturdays and Sundays; and they would not be forced to do penal work but instead they could do "useful" work including industrial employment, vocational training and education. The prisoners could send eight letters a month or more if they paid for them, receive one parcel a week and have weekly visits, and finally, they would have lost remission restored for good behavior.

Whether or not the prisoners knew that these were the "concessions" is impossible to determine. The British authorities may have misled the prisoners in order to end the hunger strike, but it is also possible that because McKenna was near death, the prisoners were desperate for any settlement which came close to their demands, and they willingly accepted this one.(18)

On 9 January as promised civilian-type uniforms were brought to the H-Blocks. Two days later Prison Governor Stanley Hilditch met with Bobby Sands, OC for the protesting prisoners, and other H-Block OCs, and between them they agreed upon an experiment. The governor and the prisoners' representatives decided that prisoners in a wing from H5 would move into clean cells with furniture and be issued with both civilian and prison clothing. This was to test the willingness of both sides to cooperate.(19)

Brendan "Bik" McFarlane addressed the concessions promised by the British authorities in a comm written to Gerry Adams on 15 January. Apparently after the agreement was made Hilditch asked Sands for a week's extension for the experimental group so that the prison officials could decide on the question of civilian clothing. McFarlane distrusted Hilditch's motives. "The Brits may be stalling. We believe they wish to compromise us on the principle of clothes, and by a week's respite, they may gain some ground."(20) The prisoners' sense of betrayal was soon substantiated. As one prisoner described in a comm to the outside leadership,

On 23 January McFarlane's suspicions were confirmed. The prison officials went back on their promise and did not issue civilian clothing to the cooperating prisoners in the experimental group. On 27 January the prisoners in the wing broke up their furniture and were moved to dirty cells in the same wing. The next morning they were all moved to H6.(21)

The experiment in cooperation had failed (although the British still denied that any special privileges had been offered in the first place, and that the prisoners were being uncooperative). One thing was clear: whatever had brought about a brief respite in the prison conflict had ended, and the prisoners were forced to make a decision as to how they should proceed.

1 Fred Emery, "The hunger strikers: what is the truth?" Times (London) 20 December 1980, 12.

2 "Hunger-strike declaration," An Phoblacht/ Republican News 18 October 1980, 2. Initially released by the Public Relations Officer of the "blanketmen" and published in the Belfast H-Block Information Centre on October 10.

3 Alan Murray, "Women to join hunger strike," Irish Press, 29 November 1980, p. 1; and D'Arcy, 122.

Sean MacStiofain commented on the publicity aspect of hunger strikes: "A hunger strike, of course, is a combined weapon. The effort of the jail fighter inside must be matched by a massive campaign outside." (MacStiofain, 249). With the start of the serious form of protest in the H-Blocks, the National H-Block Committee stepped into the foreground. It was the H-Block Committee that organized numerous marches and demonstrations and brought the prisoners' demands to thousands of people (Foley, 18-21).

4 Margaret Thatcher, comments as quoted in "Mrs Thatcher pledges no sellout on Ulster," Times (London) 6 March 1981, 1.

5 Liz Curtis, Ireland: The Propaganda War (London: The Pluto Press, 1984), 113; Beresford, 157.

6 Aidan Hennigan, "Thatcher Unyielding," Irish Press, 21 November 1980, p. 1.

7 Interview with Michael Charleton on the BBC 4 Analysis program, Nov. 26, 1980 and quoted in "Thatcher 'no' to bid for special status," Irish Press, 27 November 1980, p. 4.

8 Speech taken from the British television program "World in Action" and reprinted in part in "Millions hear death pledge from H-Block," Irish Press, 25 November 1980, 1.

9 "Storm over Fitt Claims," Irish Press, 12 November 1980, 1.

10 "Hopes dim on H-Block," Irish Press, 6 December 1980, 1.

11 From an interview on BBC television program P. M. Ulster (televised 9 December 1980) and quoted in part in Michael Mills, "Fresh hopes on H-Block peace," Irish Press, 10 December 1980, 4.

12 Paddy Reynolds, "British talk to prisoners," Irish Press, 11 December 1980, 1.

13 "Provos see end to dirty protest," Irish Press, 20 December 1980, 1.

14 Prisoners' statement as quoted in Paddy Reynolds, "Jail fast called off--H-Block explain why," Irish Press, 19 December 1980, 1; also in Christopher Thomas, "Seven Maze hunger strikers end their 53-day fast" Times (London) 19 December 1980, 1.

15 "Provos see end to dirty protest," Irish Press, 20 December 1980, 1.

16 Fred Emery, "Maze deal denied but confusion remains," Times (London) 20 December 1980, 2; Aidan Hennigan, "No deals behind the scenes-Atkins," Irish Press, 19 December 1980, 1.

17 Coogan, Disillusioned Decades, 230.

18 "Jail fast called off," Irish Press, 19 December 1980, 4.

19 Beresford, 31.

20 Bik [Brendan McFarlane], comm written to Brownie [Gerry Adams] 15 January 1981, as quoted in Beresford, 32.

21 Seanna [Officer Commanding from the blocks in question], comm 28 January 1981, as quoted in Beresford, 35.

The above account is copywritten (C) 1991 by Jacqueline Dana