The 1981 Hunger Strike

The British government was able to end the first hunger strike in December 1980 by addressing many of the prisoners' concerns and promising them certain concessions. After it became apparent that the British did not plan to follow through with their promises as the prisoners had interpreted them, an announcement was made for a second hunger strike. Bobby Sands made the decision to be the first striker, followed by two other IRA men, Francis Hughes and Raymond McCreesh, and one INLA man, Patsy O'Hara. The plan was the prisoners' idea, and orchestrated by the OC, as explained in a comm from Bobby Sands dated 14 January 1981:

...Got Comm from IRSP accepting one on H/S so 'if' we go (which I think we'll have to do) we'll go with 3 Provos and one IRSP. We thought that this morning's document, i.e. Rat's statement [Rat was Stanley Hilditch, the prison governor], left some manoeuvraebility, shows how wrong you can be. Yahoo! Well, that's about it.... (1)

Because the prisoners believed that their demands were not going to be honored by the prison authorities, these men knew that this time they probably were going to die. One of these men, Francis Hughes, explained why he believed the second series of hunger strikes was necessary:

The British know that any solution other than outright victory would be a defeat for them. It was in this frame of mind that they masterminded events leading into the new year, and when they foolishly thought they had won the day through their treachery they asked us for a white flag. Our action alone answers their hypocritical request and as before the message is loud and clear. There is no white flag and there shall be no surrender. (2)

The prisoners issued an announcement from the H-Blocks on 7 February 1981 stating their intention to resume the hunger strikes. They claimed that these protests were necessary because of "British deceit and of broken promises." (3) Through the protests, the hunger strikers were calling "for a detailed examination of the legal and judicial process which states that they are somehow different from those who committed the same crimes as they were convicted for before March 1st 1976." (4)

The second hunger strike began on 1 March, the fifth anniversary of the ending of political status. Thatcher made the following comments concerning the hunger strikes:

Faced with the failure of their discredited cause, the men of violence have chosen to play what may well be their last card....

...They have turned their violence against themselves through the prison hunger strike to death. They seek to work on the most basic of human emotions--pity--as a means of creating tension and stroking the fires of bitterness and hatred. (5)

A few days later, the other Republican prisoners decided to end the dirty and no-wash protests, although because they were not allowed to wear their own clothes they continued the blanket protest. (6) The strategy behind the cessation of the protests was to "highlight the main areas of [the Republican prisoners'] demands which are not about cell furniture or toilet facilities" but were instead about the right to wear their own clothing and to receive the rest of their five demands. (7)

Bobby Sands, the OC for his wing, was the first to refuse food in the second hunger strike, and he became the first one to die. Although the leader of the protesters at the time of his fast, he was in most ways typical of those he led. Growing up in a mainly Protestant neighborhood in Belfast, he was often threatened and subjected to verbal abuse because his family was Catholic, and he was even stabbed by someone for the same reason. After moving to Catholic West Belfast in June 1972, he joined the IRA at age 18. (8)

Sands was first arrested in October 1972 and charged with possession of handguns (four pistols were found in the home where he had been hiding from authorities). He was sentenced in late March 1973 to five years in prison, but even after the sentencing he refused to recognise the court's authority over him.

After spending three years in the Cages at Long Kesh as a Special Status Category prisoner, he was released on 13 April 1976. Only six months later Sands was re-arrested on 14 October 1976 for possession of a revolver. The gun was found in a car he was sharing with three other IRA men (including another future hunger striker, Joe McDonnell) as they were making a getaway from the bombing of a furniture company. None of the men were charged with the bombing, but even so, for the charge of possessing one gun (between four men), Sands was sentenced to fourteen years' imprisonment. After he was transferred to the H-Blocks in 1977 he joined the blanket protest. (9) In 1978 he was appointed Public Relations Officer for all protesting prisoners, and by the time of the first hunger strike in 1980, he had become the main OC for protesting prisoners. (10)

Bobby Sands had never been elected to public office, but after the death of the Member of Parliament representing Fermanagh-South Tyrone, Irish nationalist Frank McGuire, Sinn Fein considered the idea that Bobby Sands' election to the vacant post might help the prisoners' cause by giving it an air of legitimacy. In fact, this was not an uncommon tactic by Republicans. Sean MacStiofain once stated that "one of the most effective ways of keeping political prisoners in the public eye was to nominate them as candidates in elections." He explained, additionally, that over half of the seventy-three Republicans elected to the first Dail were imprisoned in a jail at the time of their election. (11) After some arguments within the nationalist community over who should run, Sands was put forth as a candidate and on 9 April 1981 he was elected MP from Fermanagh and South Tyrone, with 30,492 votes. (12)

Many of the prisoners had expected that Sands' election would end the protest. Tony, a prisoner in H-Block 5, wrote in a comm that "[Fr. Murphy] said that there was a good chance that the British Government will act on the issue now seeing as we got 30,000 people to stand behind us." (13) An IRA prisoner's election to Westminster, however, did not convince Thatcher that the prisoners should receive special status. And so, less than a month later, Sands died from his hunger strike on 5 May 1981. During his imprisonment he had written many poems and short essays, including "The Lark and the Freedom Fighter," which served to explain the motivation behind his protests.

As in the case of his election, Sands' death did not bring an end to the protest or political status for Republican prisoners. Although his fellow prisoners called him "a symbol of freedom and truth and a lasting inspiration to those who struggle for justice," and regardless of the fact that 30,000 people had voted him into office as a MP and 100,000 people attended his funeral, Thatcher refused to budge. (15)

Francis Hughes died a few days later, on 12 May. Gerry Adams stated that the British government "stands completely indicted of the murder of yet another Irish freedom fighter," and after Hughes' death Cardinal Tomas O Fiaich tried intervening with Thatcher to get her to concede status to the prisoners and end the hunger strike. (16) He sent Thatcher a telegram on 13 May 1981 in which he said, "Don't allow another death. I beseech you to make the first move immediately by making prison dress and work optional for all prisoners in Northern Ireland." Thatcher refused to comply. In her personal reply on the 14th, she responded by saying:

The Government have repeatedly made clear how much they regret the loss of life through all forms of violence in Northern Ireland. The Government is not the inflexible party in this issue. The Provisional IRA, at whose behest the hunger strike is taking place, have stated and restated from the beginning that they would call off the strike only if the Government were to concede all five of their demands. What they want is not prison reforms, but a special different status for some prisoners. This the Government cannot concede, since it would encourage further blackmail and support for terrorism. We cannot treat persons convicted of criminal offences as prisoners of war, which is what they want....

...We are committed to maintaining an enlightened and humanitarian prison regime, and I believe we do so....But we cannot yield on the issue of political justification for murder and violence and of prisoner of war status for those who commit such crimes. (17)

Hughes' death soon was followed by those of Raymond McCreesh and Patsy O'Hara, both dying on 21 May. As O Fiaich commented in May 1981, "Raymond McCreesh was captured bearing arms at the age of 19 and sentenced to 14 years' imprisonment. I have no doubt that he would have never seen the inside of a jail but for the abnormal political situation. Who is entitled to label him a murderer or a suicide?"(18)

After each of the hunger strikers' deaths, a new Republican would join the protest in the dead man's place. As one of the replacements, Tom McElwee reasserted his willingness to embark on his hunger strike, and like his predecessors, understood the cause.

... I believe that it is only in a continuation of the hunger strike that the pressure needed to break the British criminalization policy can be obtained. I understand to the full the extent with which my action involves the whole overall struggle for Ireland, freedom and self-determination. This... because criminalization was introduced to break the freedom struggle. The weapon of the criminalization policy must be removed from the British by achieving political status for Republican POWs.(19)

Outside groups attempted to negotiate with both the British and the prisoners, but nothing came from their efforts. For example, a delegation representing the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace, a group of Catholic bishops hoping to bring about an end to the violence, had a series of unsuccessful negotiations with the Northern Ireland Office in late June/early July. The Commission blamed the British government for the breakdown of talks, because the talks ended when Joe McDonnell died on 8 July and afterwards the British did nothing to alleviate the situation. Additionally, in July the International Red Cross attempted to intervene as well, but the prisoners asked the Red Cross to abandon the effort since the British were not being responsive to the effort. At the same time, the prisoners grew frustrated with the British and therefore less flexible themselves. After the ICJP discussions the prisoners demanded that the British deal directly with them, not with intermediaries. (20)

At a press conference on 9 July 1981, Bernadette McAliskey presented the H-Block/Armagh Committee's response to "the British Government's latest cynical manovrings [sic] which led to the death of Joe McDonnell." At the press conference she said in part that:

the five demands of the prisoners were not plucked out of the air, nor are they as some paranoic prime minister may think the first five demands, with more to follow. Together they form the bottom line of the necessary changes within the prison to bring to an end not only the hunger-strike, the blanket protest, but the underlying everyday conflict which produced both. It is only on the basis of these five demands that a solution which will last can be found--a solution which prevents the emergence of further protracted protest. (21)

The second "series" of hunger strikers--those who had begun their fasts as replacements for the first four--began to die in July and August. Joe McDonnell was the first, followed by Martin Hurson on 13 July, Kevin Lynch on 1 August, Kieran Doherty on 2 August, Tom McElwee on 8 August and Micky Devine, the last hunger striker to die, on 20 August.

On 6 August 1981, prisoners in Long Kesh issued a statement outlining their position. This statement was an elaboration of an earlier statement given in July. First of all, they made it clear that they were not "seeking elitist or preferential treatment from other prisoners." Gerry Adams explained this concept:

The republican insistence on the importance of political prisoner status has nothing to do with any contempt for the 'ordinary criminals'...From Thomas Ashe to Bobby Sands the concern has always been to assert the political nature of the struggle in which the IRA has been engaged. (22)

The Republican prisoners explained that they were not trying to take over the prison, and that they believed that the British should accept their demands because they were not asking for anything unreasonable. In order to show that they were flexible, the prisoners said they were willing to do maintenance work and cleaning tasks in their own wings, which was a change from their past stance. However, they re-emphasized their demand for self-education, which would give them the right to choose what and how they would be taught. As a writer for the H-Block/Armagh Bulletin explained,

It must be realized that until the government recognises education as work it is almost impossible to participate in cultural or academic education during the prison working day. Usually a prisoner has to forfeit his association to attend a class.(23)

The prisoners also reaffirmed their need to learn the Irish language, which was important if they were going to retain their old cultural traditions. In the past, prisoners had taught the language to one another by shouting lessons up and down the wings. They wanted simply to be able to conduct these classes in a more traditional and acceptable manner. (24)

True to their word, during the 1981 hunger strike the British never conceded the prisoners' demands, and as a result the end to the second hunger strike was even more disappointing than the end of the first. Various religious leaders tried to put pressure on the IRA leadership, the prisoners and the prisoners' families, and this pressure, unsuccessful at first, finally convinced several families to intervene to save their sons' lives in August and September 1981. The prisoners blamed the Catholic Church hierarchy, as well as the SDLP and the Irish Republic's political parties, for the pressure they put on the prisoners. In large part because of actions on the part of priests and prisoners' relatives, the hunger strikes were called off on 3 October 1981. (25)

  • The "results" of the 1981 hunger strike.

  • Biographies for the ten men who died on hunger strike in 1981.

    1 Comm quoted in Coogan, Disillusioned Decades, 231.

    2 Francis Hughes, comm smuggled out of Long Kesh, dated 10 March 1981, as quoted in Collins, 188-9.

    3 "To the Death," An Phoblacht/ Republican News 7 February 1981, 2.

    4 "A lie is a lie, is a lie...", H-Block/Armagh Bulletin. London H-Block/Armagh Committee, No. 1, 4 June 1981, 2.

    5 Margaret Thatcher, speech given 28 May 1981, as quoted in the Times (London) 29 May 1981, 2.

    6 In 1981 there were 1400 men in the prison at Long Kesh: approximately 370 were men living in compounds--half Republican, half Loyalist; and 1030 were in the H-Blocks--about 2/3 Republican, 1/3 Loyalist. Approximately 450 of the Republicans were on blanket protest and the dirty/no wash protests. In Armagh there was a total of 70 women imprisoned; 30 Republican women were on protest.

    7 H-Block/Armagh Bulletin. Belfast H-Block/Armagh Committee, Republican Press Centre, March 5, 1981, 1.

    8 Beresford, 41-2.

    9 Marcella [Bobby Sands], comm written to IRA leadership in February 1981, as quoted in Beresford, 38-41; H-Block/Armagh Bulletin. Belfast H-Block/Armagh Committee, March 12, 1981, 2; Curtis, H-Blocks, 7; Collins, 98.

    10 Brendan "Bik" McFarlane became OC when Sands began his hunger strike, and from that point on it was McFarlane who chose hunger strikers, decided when the hunger strike would end (although individual prisoners could end their own strike if they so chose), and was in charge of prisoners' negotiations with the British. (Marcella [Sands], comm to Liam Og [a Sinn Fein Official] 16 March 1981, as quoted in Beresford, 68).

    11 MacStiofain, 73.

    12 Curtis, H-Blocks, 4. Crucial to the election results was the fact that the SDLP had been convinced by Sinn Fein and others not to run its own candidate, and therefore the nationalist vote was not split.

    The London Times demonstrated its Unionist bias in its coverage of the election of Bobby Sands. Christoper Thomas, one of the main reporters covering the events in Northern Ireland in 1980 and 1981, described Sands as a "terrorist aged 26." His opponent, Harold West, a Protestant with the backing of both major Unionist parties (the Official Unionists and the Democratic Unionists) was described as a "middle-aged gentleman farmer." (Times, 1 April 1981, 2).

    13 Comm from Tony H5 to Liam Og, 10 April 1981, as quoted in Beresford, 85.

    14 Prisoners' statement as quoted in the Irish Times 7 May 1981, 9.

    15 Adams as quoted in David McKittrick, "British accused of 'murder'," Irish Times 13 May 1981, 9.

    16 Telegrams from O Fiaich and Thatcher, as quoted in Collins, 338-40; also in Beresford, 148.

    17 Cardinal O Fiaich's comment 22 May 1981, as quoted in Curtis, 6 and in Beresford, 166.

    18 T. [Tom] McElwee, comm written in May to Ogloigh na helaronn [identity unknown], as quoted in Beresford, 186-7.

    19 P. O'Malley, 98, 102.

    20 H-Block/Armagh Bulletin, no. 21, Belfast H-Block/Armagh Committee, July 10, 1981, 3.

    21 Adams, 71.

    22 H-Block/Armagh Bulletin, August 14, 1981, 2.

    23 H-Block/Armagh Bulletin, August 14, 1981, 2.

    24 "Hunger strike ends," An Phoblacht/ Republican News 10 October 1981, 2; P. O'Malley, 64-5.

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