The end of the
1981 Hunger Strike
After the hunger strikes ended, James Prior, the new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, said that he would grant much of what the prisoners had been demanding. Even though the Northern Ireland Office had issued a statement earlier in 1981 that said "if we conceded their demands, we would be handing over the prisons to the prisoners," Prior announced his planned reforms with the comment that "the Government has always said that once the hunger strike was out of the way, there were certain reforms that could be introduced." (1)
Unlike Atkins' dealings with the prisoners, which had led to few lasting changes or improvements, Prior made good on his promises. On 6 October he announced that all prisoners, including the ones protesting, would be able to wear their own clothes all day long. The only restrictions imposed were that this clothing could not be a form of IRA uniform and the clothing could not resemble the guards' uniforms. Additionally, prisoners would receive much of the remission they had lost while on the protest, and association between prisoners, while not "free," was reorganized to better suit the prisoners' wishes. The demands concerning mail, parcels, and visiting privileges, which had been conceded earlier, were formalized. Initially no concessions were made concerning prison work, but the actual work was re-defined in such a way that prisoners who refused to work for the prison system would not receive much of a penalty. (2)
The end of the hunger strikes saw both sides declaring victory.
The British claimed that they had never given into the prisoners, for the government never acknowledged the Republicans' political status. The hunger strikes in effect had collapsed because of the family and Church intervention; they had not ended because of any British promises.
Yet the IRA had succeeded in many ways as well. Most importantly, contrary to the prison officials and British government's claims otherwise, the prisoners' demands had been conceded. Even though officially the British did not recognize the prisoners as POWs, allowing the Republican men and women in jail to wear their own clothing and associate with one another was equal to political status in the minds of the IRA prisoners. The election of Bobby Sands to the Westminster Parliament demonstrated the support for Republicanism in the Catholic community, and the thousands who turned out for rallies and hunger strikers' funerals confirmed this support. Coming out of a period of decreasing morale and public support for the IRA, the dirty, no-wash and blanket protests, and above all, the hunger strikes, led to a remarkable upsurge in support for the IRA and Sinn Féin. Although the British government could not acknowledge formally the "war" and the existence of political prisoners of war, there were few people who could have denied it.
1 Will Ellsworth-Jones and Chris Ryder, "Belfast waits for the flashpoint," Sunday Times (London) 10 May 1981, 4; Richard Ford, "Prior flies to talks on Maze reforms," Times (London) 5 October 1981, 1.
2 Christopher Thomas, "Protestant outcry over Prior's Maze package," Times (London) 7 October 1981, 32; P. O'Malley, 211; Beresford, 332.