Note: This paper was originally hosted on the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism website in Israel. The specific page has since disappeared, but we felt the paper contained enough unique and historically important information to repost here in its entirety with most of the original formatting intact.

October 23, 2000
The 1981 Irish Hunger Strike
Struggle For Legitimacy or Pathology Of Terrorism?

Aviva Katz

This paper was presented in the framework of M.A. studies at the Department of Political Science, University Of Haifa

  1. Introduction
  2. Defining Terrorism And Political Violence
  3. Historical Background
  4. Internment And Special Category Status
  5. The Criminalization Policy
  6. Prison Protests
  7. Hunger Strikes And The Cult Of Self-Sacrifice
  8. A Protest Generation
  9. The 1981 Hunger Strike
  10. External Activities
  11. Reporting The Hunger Strike
  12. Conclusions
  13. Notes
  14. Bibliography
Persuade him to eat or drink? ...
While he is lying there,  Perishing there, my
good name in the world
Is perishing also. I cannot give way.
Because I am king; because if I give way,
My nobles would call me a weakling, and, it may be,
The very throne be shaken.

- William Butler Yeats, The King's Threshold



This study analyzes the unique event in the Northern Ireland history: the 1981 Hunger Strike. Using an international selection of articles, books, newspapers, I address three specific questions:

  1. What features characterized the coverage of the hunger strike?
  2. What degree of legitimacy was accorded to the prisoner's protest?
  3. What explanations were given for the protest, the prisoner's electoral success, and their willingness to die in pursuit of their demands?
For more than two decades Northern Ireland has suffered the high social cost of a violent political conflict. Debates over the nature of this conflict have been wide-ranging, but the dominant view, one, which is reflected in every material, is that the conflict is 'criminal' rather than 'political' in nature. This view holds that the violence is widespread 'terrorism,' with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) seen as the chief protagonist. But while this view is dominant, it is not ubiquitous. It is held neither by those who challenge the foundations of the Northern Ireland state,[1] nor by those communities which are tolerant if not supportive of those labeled as 'terrorists.'[2]

Much of the debate over the conflict revolves around the issue of legitimacy, particularly concerning the right to engage in political violence. Weber's[3]  definition of the state as that entity which has a monopoly over the legitimate use of coercive sanctions suggests that legitimacy be only accorded to the actions of state agents. However, Weber's definition neglects the activities of individuals and groups who reject state authority and become actively involved in the process of seeking alternative institutions and expressions of legitimacy. In Northern Ireland, these activities include establishing the right to engage in self-policing/' popular justice' activities, to violently oppose agents of the state,[4] and to receive conditions and status of imprisonment befitting adversaries of the state.[5] Other activities include the maintenance of this legitimacy in a day-to-day context, often in the face of opposition from the wider society.[6]

The hunger strike was a legitimacy crisis for the state of Northern Ireland. Since the mid 1970s, the British government has pursued a variety of strategies as part of its general response to the Northern Irish conflict. These various policies were 'criminalization,' 'normalization,' and 'Ulsterization,' and they shared a common goal of changing public perceptions of the nature of the conflict. The normalization and Ulsterization policies were efforts to normalize and localize the conflict, removing the British Army from its role as the primary policing agency and replacing it with the indigenous forces of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.[7] The criminalization policy was an attempt to downplay the political dimensions of the conflict, portraying the actions of those who challenged the Northern Irish State as 'ordinary' crime rather than part of a national liberation struggle. Accordingly, the prisoner's claims that their motivation was political rather than criminal were a direct challenge to this policy. It undermined the entire strategy the British Government had adopted, and it offered an alternative interpretation of the nature of the conflict, the nature of the British presence in Northern Ireland, and the nature of the Northern Ireland state itself.

The 1981 hunger strike was also pivotal to the Northern Irish conflict in several other respects. It 'unintentionally mobilized'[8] in constitutional politics those who violently challenged the foundations of the Northern Irish state, encouraging them to pursue a dual strategy of political participation and political violence.[9] It offered the Nationalist community a group of 'martyrs' who were quickly incorporated into the popular culture. Finally, it brought media attention to Northern Ireland as never before,[10] generating coverage that was often very critical of the British Government's role in Northern Ireland.

Despite the widespread publicity associated with the hunger strike, it has not received the scholarly attention it deserves. The principal works on the hunger strike have been descriptive rather than insightful.

Defining 'Terrorism' and 'Political Violence'

Situating the Northern Irish conflict within a terrorism framework has been consequential for analysis and intellectual inquiry. The labeling of the Northern Irish conflict in one-dimensional 'criminal' and 'terrorist' terms has restricted our ability to meaningfully grasp the significance of events and the motives of the participants.

Terrorism, like other devalued behavior such as rape, has failed to attract researchers willing to 'appreciate' such behavior. My intent is not to suggest that 'terrorism' should be appreciated, but to argue that those holding positions of power often seek to label as 'terrorism 'the behavior of those who challenge or oppose them, in an effort to deny the legitimacy of their opponents.

Given that writers describe political violence in a variety of ways, each description carrying with it its own ideological baggage, it is appropriate to clarify the meaning of certain terms in this work. Definitions are ideological, and few more so than ones of 'terrorism.' The task of distinguishing between and comprehensively defining 'terrorism,' 'guerilla warfare,' 'political violence,' and other related behaviors is problematic for reasons other than conceptual and technical difficulties.[11] Each of these descriptive terms makes evaluative judgments about the actors' motivations, their relationship with the wider society, and the legitimacy of their actions.

In Western society, describing an action as 'terrorism' invites censure on those who committed it. The term is primarily used 'to describe people seen as making an unjustifiable use of violence,'[12] and this is consequential for efforts to define terrorism. As Gibbs observed: 'because labeling actions as 'terrorism' promotes condemnation of the actors, a definition may reflect ideological or political bias.'[13]

In light of these difficulties, Walter Laqueur argued that the value-laden nature of the term defied all efforts to generate a comprehensive and objective definition of terrorism. He wrote that such a definition 'does not exist nor will it be found in the foreseeable future. However, to argue that terrorism cannot be studied until such a definition exists is manifestly absurd.'[14] Gibbs correctly criticized this position on the grounds that' it is no less ''manifestly absurd'' to pretend to study terrorism without at least some definition of it. Leaving the definition implicit is the road to obscurantism.'[15] Of course, Laqueur's claims did not prevent him from then proceeding to define terrorism as 'the use of covert violence by a group for political ends....'[16] However, definitions such as these are hopelessly vague and of little analytical value. That the same criticism can be made of the majority of works on terrorism is both a reflection on the poor intellectual development of this area and an indication of the inherent difficulties surrounding the categorization of devalued behavior. In a recent effort to correct this situation, Gibb(1989) offered by far the most sophisticated definition. Terrorism, he wrote:

Is illegal violence or threatened violence directed against human or non-human objects, provided that it:

  1. was undertaken or ordered with a view to altering or maintaining at least one putative norm in at least one particular territorial unit or population,
  2. had secretive, furtive, and/or clandestine features that were expected by the participants to conceal their personal identity and/or their future location,
  3. was not undertaken or ordered to further the permanent defense of some area,
  4. was not conventional warfare and because of their concealed personal identity, concealment of their future location, their threats, and/or their spatial mobility, the participants perceived themselves as less vulnerable to conventional military action;
  5. was perceived by the participants as contributing to the normative goal previously described by inculcating fear of violence in persons ( perhaps an indefinite category of them ) other than the immediate target of the actual or threatened violence and/or publicizing some cause.[17]
Despite the complexity of this definition, Gibbs' efforts were undermined by his earlier claim that definitions of terrorism 'may reflect ideological or political bias.'[18]

While it is axiomatic to claim that language is value-laden, it is nonetheless true that some terms are more heavily laden than others. Gibbs has offered an objective definition of terrorism by clearly specifying the criteria by which behavior is or is not to be classified as such, but the term itself continues to invite a negative response. What Gibbs has arduously defined is some form of goal-oriented, violent (or violence threatening), and furtive behavior; his next task should be to find less disparaging name than terrorism for it.

However, an acknowledgment of the difficulties surrounding definitions of terrorism is not to deny a common thread among the diverse attempts to generate such a definition. This involves the achievement of a desired and usually explicitly political goal through the interaction of three social groups. The first group, the terrorists, acts in some coercive fashion upon the second group, the victims in order to generate a specific response from the third group, the audience. Accordingly, 'terrorism can best be understood as a violent communication strategy.'[19] It is from the need for communication channels between terrorists and their audience that the concerns about the media's relationship with terrorism have emerged.

In this study it is neither necessary nor useful to develop a definition of terrorism, because what is of primary importance is how others use the term, particularly given the underlying value-assumptions which characterize the term. Accordingly, the term is used only in a context where it best describes the stance of a particular perspective or author. An alternative would be to follow Gibbs' lead, specifying numerous criteria whose presence establishes an act as 'terrorism,' but in my view, the connotations of the term impede analysis more than they help it. Therefore, the term 'political violence' is used to describe the actions of those organizations and individuals that challenge the foundations of existing political structures through violent means.

Historical Background to the Hunger Strike

Relations between Ireland and Britain reflect their past colonial relationship, and this is nowhere more evident than in Northern Irish Society. Approximately 60 percent of Northern Ireland's population of 1.5 million are Protestants. The remaining 40 percent are Catholic. In general, Protestants, through their allegiance to the British Crown and their support for the political union between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, are referred to as Loyalists and Unionists. Similarly Catholics, due to their desire for a united Irish Republic, are known as Nationalists and Republicans. This clear division between religious groups has fostered the belief that the conflict is a religious one. But analyses such as these are simplistic and misguided, for they fail to account for the fact that geographical, cultural, economic, ethnic, and political divisions between these two groups parallel the religious division in Northern Irish society.

Prior to the division of Ireland into the two states of Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State (the latter becoming the Republic of Ireland in 1949), Unionists were concentrated in the northeastern corner of the island. The calls for Home Rule, which emanated from the southern and nationalist part of Ireland greatly alarmed Unionists, who wished to preserve the existing political arrangements. The 1916 Easter rebellion in Dublin and subsequent execution of its leaders led to the War of Independence fought between Nationalists and the police and Army. The British Government tried to alleviate the situation by introducing the 1920 Government of Ireland Act which made provisions for two parliaments in Ireland: one would govern the six communities that now constitute Northern Ireland while the other would control the remainder of the island, 26 counties in all. But Britain's military grasp on Ireland was fragile and demands for Home Rule had now became demands for independence. Under the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, Ireland would be granted its independence, but with the important provision that the Northern Irish parliament could opt out of the Irish Free State, which it immediately did. On this basis, the state of Northern Ireland was formed.

Two considerations, however, heavily influenced the geographical shape Northern Ireland took. First, it had to contain a stable Unionist majority, and second, it had to be sufficiently large to sustain itself. This meant that those areas whose population was overwhelmingly Nationalist would be excluded from this new state, while a certain proportion of Nationalists would still be included within it. Thus of the six counties that eventually comprised Northern Ireland, two had strong Unionist majorities, two had slight Unionist majorities, and the remaining two had slight Nationalist majorities. This guaranteed Northern Ireland a Unionist majority, but the presence of a disenchanted Nationalist minority ensured that Northern Ireland's existence would be a troubled one, with political rule being achieved, if not through coercion, then at least without a consensus.

This underlying tension in Northern Irish society was reflected in recurring violent incidents and riots between the Unionists majority and the Nationalist minority. Between 1956 and 1962 the Irish Republican Army engaged in a campaign directed against military installations throughout Northern Ireland. But with little support from the nationalist community, this was a failure and the campaign soon ground to a halt.[20]

The most recent outbreak of violence, one that continues to the present day, began in 1968. Inspired by civil rights movements throughout the world, Catholic nationalists began a vocal civil rights campaign. Protesting against the widespread discrimination in Northern Irish society, they sought equitable treatment in the areas of employment, housing, and political representation.

Clashes between civil right activists, the Unionists and the security forces soon became more frequent and bloodier. Following several years of dormancy, the IRA resurfaced as the protector of the Nationalist community ( Bishop and Mallie 1987). The violence continued to escalate and the British Army was ordered into Northern Ireland on August 14, 1969.

Interment and Special Category Status

Within a context of increasing levels of political violence, the Northern Irish government decided to introduce internment. Through the suspension of 'habeas corpus,' internment consisted of the arrest and indefinite detention without trial of those suspected of participating in political violence. Internment, however, was not a new idea. The Government of the Irish Republic had introduced it in 1939 and 1957 to combat the IRA. It had also been previously introduced in Northern Ireland in 1922 and 1957, once again to counter threat posed by militant republicanism (Kelley 1990). However, the introduction of internment on this occasion was to have profound and lasting consequences for Northern Irish society.

Republicans had expected the introduction of internment for some time, for, despite the misgivings of military commanders, politicians in Northern Ireland were openly in favor of it. In July, 1971, two Catholic men, Seamus Cusack and Desmond Beattie, were shot dead by the British Army. These killings led to an upsurge of violence that prompted the Northern Ireland government to brush aside the Army's reservations.[21] At 4 a.m. on the morning of August 10, 1971, the security forces launched 'Operation Demetrius,' a large internment operation, immediately arresting a total of 342 men.

For several reasons internment was nothing short of a disaster. The individuals for whom it was intended had been alerted to the plan by the government informant as well as by an ominous Army raid on Republicans on July 23. In fact, 48 hours prior to Operation Demetrius, Provisional IRA leaders 'traveled around the Province warning every unit of Provisionals that internment was imminent.'[22] Moreover, the security forces relied on inaccurate and incomplete information; in their fervor, they arrested many people who had no contact with paramilitary organizations.

Internment outraged the Nationalist community, as much for its initial exclusive use against Nationalists as for the provocative manner in which it was carried out. The most immediate effect of internment was a dramatic increase in the levels of violence. The death toll grew from a total of 8 people in the 4 months prior to internment, to 17 in the 36 hours following internment, to 41 members of the security forces and 73 civilians in the 4 months after the initial internment operation.[23]

The authorities were now confronted with the twin problems of controlling the widespread violence and of finding a way to deal with the large numbers of internees.

A total of 2158 orders of internment were signed from 1971 to 1975.[24] Initially, some internees were kept in Crumlin Road prison in Belfast while others were placed on the Maidstone, a British prison ship moored in Belfast Lough ( Kelley 1990). Most, however, were eventually placed in 'Long Kesh,' a World War II aerodrome which was converted into an internment camp. Originally, this camp was intended for those who were being detained without trial, but it was soon used to house convicted prisoners as well.

Internees at Long Kesh were awarded greater privileges than the convicted prisoners. These were:

  1. one visit per week;
  2. one food parcel per week;
  3. unlimited in-coming and out-going mail;
  4. the right to wear personal clothing at all times;
  5. free associations with other prisoners;
  6. no statutory requirement to engage in prison work. [25]
But the disparity between the privileges given to internees and convicted prisoners revealed an important anomaly. Individuals interned on the basis of their supposed involvement in political violence were receiving privileges that were denied to individuals convicted of the same crimes. To protest this situation two convicted Republican prisoners, Billy McKee of the Provisional Army and Peter Monaghan of the Official IRA in Crumlin Road Prison began a hunger strike in May 1972. Other Republican prisoners quickly joined them in their protest, and Loyalist prisoners also supported their demands through a work strike.

Simultaneously, the British government was in the process of trying to negotiate a cease-fire with the leadership of the Provisional IRA. To appease the IRA leadership and to maintain the cease-fire negotiations that would certainly have collapsed in the face of a hunger striker's death, the British government agreed to the prisoners' demands, and in 1972 they granted certain convicted prisoners special category status. From June 22, 1972, special category prisoners were granted the privileges previously available only to internees.[26]

Factors other than the cease-fire negotiations also had a bearing on the decision to introduce this measure. By introducing internment, the British Government had implicitly acknowledged the 'special' nature of the conflict. Furthermore, by allowing the inmates a great deal of autonomy, the compound system which operated under the special category system required fewer resources (in terms of prison buildings and manpower) than conventional prison regimes, a welcome feature given the authorities' pressing difficulties of controlling prisons overcrowded with militant inmates.

According to Crawford:

The decision to introduce special category status was made reluctantly, as a strategic response to the position faced. The British Government did not feel they had conceded in principle, rather that they were dealing with temporary crisis in special circumstances, hence creating the conditions necessary for humane containment as a prison policy. For the British Government the political gamble with the Provisional IRA, their agreeing to a cease-fire in return for Special Category Status must have appeared a seductive solution to almost insurmountable and escalating problems.[27]

However, special category status was to create more problems for the British Government than it would solve, by lending legitimacy to groups whose members received it, and with its removal leading to the 1980 and 1981 hunger strikes. The difficulties that arose from this status led William Whitelaw, then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and responsible for its creation, introduction, and implementation, later to regret his actions. He admitted that he was 'utterly, wholly and entirely wrong in the creation of special category status.'[28]

To receive this status prisoners had to fulfill two conditions. First, they had to apply and be accepted into one of the Long Kesh compounds assigned to an controlled by a paramilitary organization such as the Provisional IRA, and second, their offense had to be politically motivated. While the criteria for acceptance into a compound varied among paramilitary organizations, applicants were generally accepted as special category prisoners if their 'actions were directed against the particular paramilitary organization's enemy... without being motivated by self-gain or self-interest.'[29]

While there were exceptions to this (such as paramilitary organizations accepting individuals whom they thought were innocent), this procedure ensured that the compounds maintained a strong paramilitary character.

The prison life of special category prisoners was significantly different from that of ordinary status prisoners within Long Kesh. According to Beresford :

The inmates-whether Republican or Loyalist- lived in dormitories in Nissen huts segregated according to paramilitary allegiance. They organized and disciplined themselves with military-style command structures, drilled-with dummy guns made with woodworking equipment supplied by the prison-and held lectures on revolutionary politics and guerilla warfare.[30]

Such a system gave a great deal of power to the paramilitary organizations in the compounds, not just in facilitating their organizational demands but, more importantly, in according them a degree of legitimacy. As the British government realized that the conflict could continue indefinitely, the political costs of giving special category to those who challenged the foundations of the state increased. In an effort to counter this, the authorities reversed their position on special category status. In 1975, the Gardiner committee published its influential report, recommending the abolition of special category status:

Although recognizing the pressures on those responsible at the time, we have come to the conclusion that the introduction of special category status was a serious mistake; we even have some doubts as to whether its introduction administratively by a surprisingly liberal interpretation of Prison Rules was legal. It should be made absolutely clear that special category prisoners can expect no amnesty and will have to serve their sentence. We can see no justification for granting privileges to a large number of criminals convicted of serious crimes, in many cases murder, merely because they claim political motivation. It supports their own view, which society must reject, that their political motivation in some way justifies their crimes. Finally, it is unfair to ordinary criminals, often guilty of far less serious crimes, who are subject to normal prison discipline.
Despite the difficulties involved, we recommend that the first practicable opportunity should be taken to end the special category. The first opportunity should be to stop admitting new prisoners to special category.[31]

Drawing heavily upon the arguments in the Gardiner report, the British government implemented the 'criminalization' policy. Accordingly, the last internees were released in December 1975, and admission to special category status was immediately restricted, leaving the authorities to pursue what they hoped to be a less costly strategy for controlling political violence.

The Criminalization Policy

The criminalization policy meant that paramilitary prisoners convicted of political violence related offenses committed after March 1, 1976 would be treated as ordinary criminals rather than being given special status. (Beresford 1987, p.24). Furthermore, prisoners would no longer be housed in the Long Kesh compounds. Instead they would be placed in a new prison, her Majesty's prison, the MAZE, also known as the 'H-Blocks' due to the distinctive shape of the structures. But criminalization was not limited to a change in prison procedures. With the complementary policies of Ulsterization and normalization, it was an effort to recast the conflict in criminal rather than political terms and to deny the political dimensions to the conflict. Kevin Kelley wrote that:

Britain would now define the situation as in the province as a problem of law and order or as an outbreak of terrorism, gangsterism, and wanton criminality that could only be contained by locking up all suspected perpetrators. The criminalization approach meant that the fighting in the North of Ireland would now be characterized, for public consumption, as senseless, Mafia-type violence and not a war of national liberation. Britain would now argue that a responsible government did not negotiate with gangsters or look for political solutions to a crime wave. Instead, such a government 'got tough' and took whatever steps might be necessary to defend democracy and protect the public.[32]
The criminalization policy was premised on the assumption that the violence in Northern- Ireland was the work of 'criminally' motivated individuals who lacked community support. However, this assumption was not supported by the findings of the 'Glover Report,' a confidential British Army report assessing the strength of the IRA. Contradicting the basic premises of the criminalization policy, the report noted that:
'Our evidence of the caliber of rank and file terrorists does not support the view that they are mindless hooligans drawn from the unemployed and the employable... The Provisional IRA will probably continue to recruit the men if needs. They will still be able to attract enough people with leadership talent, good education and manual skills to continue to enhance their all round professionalism. The movement will retain popular support sufficient to maintain secure bases in the traditional republican areas.[33]

Prison Protests

Within the Maze prison, the inmates protested vehemently against their change in status. Once again, this was hardly surprising to the prison administration that had long recognized the 'special' nature of these prisoners. The Royal Inspector of Prisons observed of paramilitary prisoners that:

They were quite unlike the population of any prison in England or Wales in their dangerousness, their allegiance to a paramilitary organization, their cohesiveness, their common determination to escape and their resistance to the efforts of the prison authorities to treat them as ordinary criminals.[34]
In response to the criminalization policy, prisoners in the Maze engaged in various protests between 1976 and 1981. These protests included a 'blanket protest'-where inmates refused to wear prison uniforms, choosing instead to drape themselves in their blankets- and the 'dirty protest'-where prisoners smeared their excreta on their cell walls.( Coogan 1980). The violence that characterized relations within the prison led paramilitary organizations to initiate a new policy of killing prison officers, of whom 18 were killed between 1976 and 1980.[35]

In 1980, frustrated by their lack of success against the criminalization policy and feeling unable to continue the blanket and dirty protests indefinitely, a group of Republican prisoners went on hunger strike. They reasoned that a hunger strike had secured their objectives in 1972 and that the tactic could be successful once more. Seven Republican prisoners began this strike, first refusing food on October 27, 1980. The prisoners demanded political prisoner status, as well as other privileges that had been available prior to the advent of the criminalization policy. They also demanded the return of all remission (the amount of time that is normally deducted from the sentences of conforming prisoners) they had lost through their participation in the prison protests.

Paramilitary representatives within the prison conducted negotiations with the prison administration and the British Government. The strike continued for 53 days when, as one of the hunger strikers was close to death, the prisoners agreed to a settlement allegedly offered by the British government. They ended their strike on December 18, 1980.

But few changes came to the Maze prison. In fact, the British government, for its part, denied that any significant concessions to the prisoners had been made. The Republican prisoners claimed that the British government was reneging on its promises, and they announced that a second hunger strike would begin on March 1, 1981, the fifth anniversary of the introduction of internment.

The only possible way of getting enough people aroused to force a change of policy was, the prisoners had suggested, by means of a hunger strike. A hunger strike was a high-risk venture, in which men were likely to die without any guarantee of success and if it was to be understood by supporters everything else would have to be seen to be tried first.

Hunger Strikes and the Cult of Self-Sacrifice

Hunger striking as means of obtaining social or economic redress or as a method of political confrontation has a plotted, yet discernible, history in Ireland. While the phenomenon is not peculiar to Irish politics, the country did witness one of the largest hunger strike protests of the 20th century. In October 1923, more than 8000 political prisoners, opposed to the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, went on hunger strike. Two prisoners died before the protest was called to an end.

Although it can be demonstrated that the phenomenon of hunger striking is widely used as a means of political protest, particularly so with the last twenty-five years, it is equally valid to suggest that the hunger strike is an integral part of Irish history and mythology. Thus for the Irish, especially the northern Catholic republicans, the hunger strike, linked as it is to religio-political martyrdom and the pantheon of Irish heroes, is another means, possibly a weapon of last resort, of those nurturing a sense of oppression and frustrated in their attempts to resist.

Hunger striking as a method of protests in Ireland can be traced to the island's pre-Christian era when there was a strong tradition of oral legal codes. These codes were known as the Brehon laws (derived from the Gaelic brithem meaning' judge').

For the people of ancient Ireland, self-help was the only means to enforce a claim or right a wrong within the context of the Brehon laws. A frequent method of redress was for the aggrieved party to both of the cult of self-sacrifice and the arsenal of militant republicanism.

The hunger strikes were directed against both the British government (1913-22) and the Irish Free State authorities (1923). Many of these hunger strikes were protests against prison conditions and the treatment of the prisoners. Other protests were more politically organized and centered on demands for political status or were means of dissent against perceived unjust imprisonment. In general the protests lasted for a few days but many, particularly the politically motivated, lasted for much longer. Some went on for seventy-six days, and while many prisoners negotiated settlements with the authorities or were unconditionally released, others, more determined, were forcibly fed. Seven prisoners died as a result of hunger strikes during this period.[36]

It was against the setting of the now immortal and near-mythical 1916 Rising that the hunger strike became a weapon of extraordinary potency in Ireland. It was to become linked to militant republicanism along with Arthur Griffith's Sinn Fein party, a movement opposed to the use of physical force prior to 1916, which was deliberately and wrongfully blamed by the British for what was officially called 'the Sinn Fein rebellion.'

In May 1916, sixty-five Irishmen, including de Valera, who had been convicted as rebels, were imprisoned in Dartmoor. For disobeying prison rules the Irish Prisoners were given extra punishment. De Valera went on hunger strike against this punishment, ending it when the punishment was withdrawn.

Despite his participation in the hunger strike, de Valera was uncertain of its propaganda value against the on-going drama provided by the First World War. In a letter to fellow prisoners, de Valera, writing from his Dartmoor cell early in 1917, said:

You may be tempted to hunger strike. As a body do not attempt it whilst the war lasts unless you were assured from the outside that the death of two or three of you would help the cause. As soldiers I know you would not shrink from the sacrifice, but remember how precious a human life is.[37]
Before the year was through, and after the release of Irish rebels from British jails, the propaganda value of death by hunger strike became very clear to the Republican movement. This means of protest and confrontation had proved to be an efficient political weapon. Irish deaths by hunger strike transfigured not only the perceived sacrificial victims but, in the eyes of many ordinary people, the cause for which they died.

In the case of the 1981 Hunger Strike, the prison conditions could have operated as a safety valve. A sophisticated British government could have defused the situation quite easily and avoided a confrontation between itself as unyielding colonial power and a group of defenseless political prisoners, which is how it largely came to be seen internationally. The first hunger strike having ended, they would not have been acting under duress if they had allowed for some new arrangements on the specifics of prison conditions. But as the prisoners pressed for a second hunger strike they knew that this time not only would some of them have to die but also that they were engaging in a fight with the British government. It went beyond the issue of prison conditions; they were pitching themselves, with the only weapons at their command, against the imperial power. As they faced the prospect of death they felt that the spectacle of their deaths in prison was going to be politically productive for the republican cause to which they were committed.

Hunger strike is unlike any other form of struggle. An IRA volunteer does not go out to get killed, if he gets killed it is because he makes a mistake or some other circumstances arises. But a hunger striker embarks on a process, which from day one is designed to end in his death. However, when people contemplate their own deaths there can be no guarantee that they will go through with it to the end. It takes a very particular kind of person to go all the way, to resist the voices in his own head, the concern of friends and family, not to mention the pressures of the authorities. It is extremely difficult to know, until one is staring death right in the face, whether one is that particular kind of person.[38]

For Sands and for those who would come later, the strike would not really be about the five demands, political status, or the legitimacy of the movement and the armed struggle; it was to pit the will of the just against the power of empire. For the republican to win the British would have only to take his life, would have only to refuse to act and thus show their shame. And he was sure that Britain would act to character, hold firm, and so lose a moral struggle. This was to the strikers a great moral struggle between Irish justice and British oppression that would be so recognized only when life was given and taken. The criminals would be revealed not by a declaration by Thatcher, not by the courts or judges, but by a trial of spirit within the H-block cells by men alone with their faith. Hughes and the others might not recognize the inevitable, but from the first Sands did.

The strikers were seen by many as Catholic martyrs as well as nationalist ones. The nation's history of denial and suffering because they were Catholic and Irish was recalled and refashioned. Irish nationals and Catholics perceived the strike as a traditional response to power displayed and deployed.

The cult of self-sacrifice manifested itself in many emerging nations throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. A feature of this manifestation was the legacy of 'invulnerability' associated with the cult; in many societies small ill-equipped groups or even masses, of people challenged overwhelming odds and firepower in the pursuit of independence and nationhood. In Europe, the cult's development was multi-dimensional.

A Protest Generation

'Baader-Meinhof'- the names that in the seventies inspired panic and passionately divided the German Left (part of which was in the government), that trigger memories of student and youth rebellion against establishment paranoia and repression--are still being evoked today, and for dubious reasons. The principals of the original Baader-Meinhof group have long since died or distanced themselves. The successor RAF (Rote Armee Fraktion- Red Army Faction) groups of the eighties had as little in common with Baader-Meinhof and company as do copycat murderers with a notorious crime de passion. They share neither their complex motives / hesitations nor their extraordinary impact on their contemporaries.

The only things they seem to have in common with the Baader-Meinhof principals in their hour of defeat are the curious jailhouse strikes and protests.

From 17 January to 12 February 1973, forty RAF prisoners went on a hunger strike to compel the authorities to 'lift the prison isolation.' Seven of their attorneys, moreover, for four days did their hungering demonstratively before the Federal High Court building in Karlsruhe. Most of the following May and June, eighty prisoners embarked on a second hunger strike, insisting on treatment equal to that of other inmates (but not on integration with them) and on free information. A court ordered that the solitary confinement of two RAF members be ended. In September 1974, forty RAF prisoners began another hunger strike, the longest yet and one enjoying widespread public sympathy in spite of new, unflattering revelations about RAF activities. At the end of October 1974, members of a Committee Against Torture of Political Prisoners, including two prominent future terrorists, occupied the Amnesty International center in Germany in order to compel its support, although there was no evidence of torture whatsoever. After fifty-four days of hunger strike, though sometimes force-fed, Holger Meins died; but the strike continued. From 17 December on, the strikers' demands changed to consolidation in one prison as well as an end to isolation. On 5 February 1975 the hunger strike ended with minor concessions.

But of course there were also further hunger strikes: a seventh one began in April 1979, involving seventy inmates, and once again demanding consolidation. An eighth hunger strike begun in February 19 involved 120 prisoners, who demanded not only better conditions in jail but also 'arming the resistance, organizing illegality, and supporting the armed resistance throughout Western Europe.' As an expression of their sentiment at this time, the strike was really not a serious bargaining instrument but a plaintive cry of existential frustration at a world that refused to behave their way. The whole decade had begun with high hopes and great promise for them but had turned into a scene as depressing as the inside of a prison cell.

On 16 April 1981, Sigur Debus died after being on hunger strike for 70 days, thus providing the 'hard-left' with another martyr. A flurry of small bomb attacks followed, responsibility being claimed mainly by the Revolutionar Zellen ( RZ -  Revolutionary Cells ), a 'second generation' RAF organization with a maximum of 50 activists.[39] The 'martyr Debus' was unusual, as he was really only a small-time, almost free-lance terrorist who had concentrated on bank robberies and small explosions. He was not a member of neither the RAF, the RZ, or the other formerly powerful left-wing terrorist group, the Bewegung 2 Juni (Second of June Movement), which operated in West Berlin, but had also lost most of its leadership and its momentum.

Some years later, equipped with large posters supporting the hunger strike of thirty-two imprisoned RAF terrorists and evidently with forged keys to the advertisements display frames of the municipal bus company, an unknown team blanketed Hamburg-Uhlenhorst with its poster campaign one March night in 1989. The posters quoted Federal Chancellor Helmut Kohl to the effect that 'this state will not give in to the terrorists in custody as long as I am here,' and added in red, 'then he's got to go.' Other posters in metropolitan areas and ample press coverage dramatized the protest of the prisoners against their alleged 'torture by isolation' since early February. The press insisted that, in fact, prisoners had been allowed visitors, correspondence, and daily contacts with other imprisoned terrorists.[40] There could be little doubt that the RAF had once more captured the attention of the nation, even from jail. It had done so without violence to persons so far, even though there were acts of vandalism-for example, at a department store, a car dealership, and CDU headquarters in Hamburg. Conservative critics reminded the public of the long series of hunger strikes and of the prominent RAF prisoners'suicide of 1977 at Stammheim prison, Stuttgart, following the abortive hijacking of a Lufthansa jet to Mogadishu, Somalia, that was intended to spring them from prison. When the plane was stormed by a special counterterrorism squad flown in from Bonn, RAF leaders- Ulrike Meinhof had hanged herself earlier-Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, and Jan-Carl Raspe killed themselves at Stammheim, while the most prominent RAF kidnap victim, Hanns Martin Schleyer, was murdered. Among the hunger strikers of 1989, there were four who were involved in Schleyer's murder, some of whom once before, in December 1984, started a hunger strike demanding to be granted the status of political prisoners. Most of them refused to be in the company of the common criminals sentenced under the same statutes against homicide, bodily harm, kidnapping, and bank robbery. Although the hunger strike was soon called off, there was no indication that the 'hard core'-about fifteen persons--of the RAF had given up the armed struggle. Nevertheless, there is considerable doubt about the cohesion and continuity of the organization that has suffered many defections. By now it is said to be in its fifth or sixth 'generation' of terrorists.[41] The fact that most West German terrorists are or have been in prison puts their conduct there in the limelight. But it is also interesting to follow their continuing effort to maintain fighting morale among the imprisoned and those outside and to retain public attention for their cause by a series of hunger strikes. Their strikes have revived German prison reform movements and strengthened prison support groups, which, in some cases, even supplied future RAF recruits. (A second generation of RAF recruits included a Hamburg group called February Four).

The RZ had at first been preoccupied with an elaborate analysis of the present and future political situation and the place of left-wing terrorism in it. They made a point of not supporting RAF activities, including the hunger strike in the winter of 1984-85. Once the strike was abandoned, however, and in spite of their shrinking membership,[42] they launched 'punitive attacks' on corporations that had allegedly fought against striking British miners. At the end of April 1985 bombs were set at the Deutsche Bank in Dusseldorf and at a Cologne chemical concern. A month later a NATO pipeline near Frankfurt was bombed.

In spring of 1986, Middle eastern terrorism overshadowed RAF activities, in West Berlin, the German-Arab Friendship Association building was bombed-seven injured--and another bomb was detonated at the Le Belle discotheque, killing three and wounding two hundred. Both terrorist acts were carried out with Syrian assistance, and the perpetrators have since been tried in German courts.

Eva Juhnke who was a German guerrilla fighter from the ARGK, the armed wing of the PKK ( Kurdistan Workers Party ) was captured during a military operation by KDP forces in South Kurdistan in October 1997. After her deportation to Turkey, she was sentenced to 15 years in prison for 'membership in the PKK.' Eva Juhnke went on hunger strike on November 1999, in Sivas Prison. Her action was protest against her prison conditions and a demand to be returned to Batman Prison where she was previously held. 120 other women prisoners in Sivas have launched a hunger strike in solidarity with Eva.

Turkey's prison conditions have long been subject to international criticism. In 1996, 12 political prisoners died in a hunger strike demanding more humane conditions. Political prisoners are repeatedly attacked inside Turkish prisons. In 1996, 10 Kurdish prisoners in Diyarbakir were beaten to death by prison guards and soldiers.

Eva Juhnke 'action has put the spotlight back on Turkey. Human rights are still being violated and prison conditions, especially with respect to the Kurdish question, remain a major problem. Turkey is still maintaining its policy of denial. But the PKK has increased its efforts to seek a solution. After ending the armed struggle, the PKK sent two peace delegations to seek peace and democratic solutions. The first was an 8-member guerilla group from the mountains of Kurdistan, and the second was an 8-member group from Europe. The way these groups were treated is evidence that Turkey is still treating the Kurdish question as it always has done. The members of both groups were arrested as soon as they entered Turkey. All are now facing serious criminal charges. Further evidence was this of Turkey's refusal to change anything.

Basque political prisoners in France, often go on hunger strikes to protest against being held in isolation and denied access to education, prison's library and other facilities, and to demand to be recognized as political prisoners and regrouped in prisons in the Basque Country. On October 2, 1996, twenty-five Basque political prisoners joined the indefinite hunger strike started by the members of their collective on September 9. The collective of Basque political prisoners issued a communiqué explaining the reasons that forced them to go and start an indefinite hunger strike. They demanded their immediate transfer to jails in their country. The Basque political prisoners in France are held in prisons mainly in Paris, far away from their homes.

The 1981 Hunger Strike

This Irish hunger strike began with Bobby Sands, who had been the chief negotiator between the first hunger strikers and prison officials, being the first prisoner to refuse food. The demands he sought were:

  1. To be exempt from wearing prison clothes.
  2. To be exempt from prison work.
  3. To have freedom of association with fellow political prisoners.
  4. The right to organize educational and recreational facilities, to have one weekly visit, to receive and send out one letter per week and to receive one parcel per week.
  5. Entitlement to full remission of sentence.[43]
Initially, the hunger strike was a low-key affair, and perhaps it would have remained so except for the death of Frank Maguire, the incumbent Member of Parliament for Northern Ireland constituency of Fermanagh-South Tyrone. Listing his occupation as 'political prisoner' and representing the 'anti H-block/Armagh Committee'ticket, Sands was nominated for the election and went on to win the seat. In a marginally Nationalist constituency, Sands beat his Unionist opponent Harry West, getting 30,492 votes against West's total of 29,046. This victory brought the hunger strike to the world's attention as the media converged on Northern Ireland. However, it was not the only election during the hunger strike period. In the Fermanagh/South Tyrone by election held following Sand's death, his former election agent, Owen Carron, won the seat. In addition to this, the Republic of Ireland held a general election on June 11th, and two Republican inmates in the Maze Prison, one of whom was a hunger striker, won seats in the Dail, the Irish Parliament.

Despite the enormous amounts of media coverage the hunger strikers received due to their electoral success, the British government was determined not to give in. The European Court of Human Rights and the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace tried to mediate between the hunger strikers and the authorities, but their efforts were unsuccessful. Bobby Sands was the first hunger striker to die after 66 days without nourishment. Others followed him, until ten hunger strikers had died in all. Relatives of the remaining hunger strikers became increasingly opposed to the Protest. In the face of an intransigent British government, these relatives feared that their sons or brothers would die for nothing. The relatives of several hunger strikers intervened once the hunger strikers lost their consciousness, asking medical personnel to give them nourishment and thereby ending their fasts. Realizing the futility of their position, the remaining hunger strikers abandoned their protest on October 3, 1981.

The ten prisoners who died were not the only casualties of the hunger strike. Many more people, both civilians and members of the security forces, were killed or injured during riots and demonstrations during this period. Even at this high price, the inmates never received 'political prisoner status.' They were, however, granted several concessions, including the right to wear their own clothes and the return of half of the remission they had lost.

The 1981 hunger strike was a legitimacy crisis for the Northern Irish State. Convicted prisoners who violently challenged the foundations of the state forcefully claimed that their motivations were political and not criminal. That they gave their lives in support of this claim highlighted the weak foundation on which the criminalization policy was based. As well as undermining the criminalization policy, the hunger strike exposed the inconsistencies of the British government's approach to the Northern Irish conflict. The British government had enacted 'special' legislation, 'special' courts, and a variety of other procedures specifically for dealing with the conflict; furthermore, the prison population in Northern Ireland had increased from just over 600 in 1967 to almost 3,000 in 1978. Nevertheless, the British Government consistently maintained that individuals convicted of political violence offenses were 'ordinary' criminals and should be treated as such.

No republican will ever attach the slightest shadow of blame to those hunger strikers who individually ended their fasts. What the ten who died had done was so extraordinary that one almost needs another language in order to convey it in all its awful reality. Catholic clergy intervened with the relatives of hunger strikers to encourage them to bring about an end to the fasts by requesting medical help. But even without their intervention it was inevitable that some hunger strikers would eventually pull back in the face of death. There is no regret attached to those who came off their hunger strikes; the regret is reserved for those who died. The real anger is reserved for the government that could quite easily have reached an honorable compromise in the face of the ultimate in selfless dedication to a cause.

Following the end of the hunger strike adjustment in the prison regime along the lines of the five demands began to be implemented. In an unprecedented way the prisoners had insisted on being recognized as prisoners in a war of national liberation, and their identity as such had been accepted throughout the world. Britain had been seen internationally as an intransigent force clinging to its last remnant of colonial control. The political and moral standing of Irish republicanism had never been higher.

As the hunger strikers had died and as the H-block/Armagh campaign had its impact, a process of republicanism took place and at the end of all the most lasting effect of the campaign within the 6 counties was its educational value. Republicans who had done their time in prison and had subsequently dropped out of the movement--people with valuable experience and maturity-recognized that the hunger strikers were undergoing something far harder and harsher than anything they had had to suffer, and they came back to the movement. The hunger strike did away with spectator politics. When the only form of struggle being waged was armed struggle it only needed a small number of people to engage in it. But with the hunger strike people, rather than just looking on at one aspect of struggle, had an active role to play, which could be as limited or as important as bill-posting, writing letters, or taking part in numerous forms of protest.

The IRA eased back on operations during the hunger strike. But by the time a number of hunger strikers had died there was a considerable popular demand for the IRA to take punitive action. Toleration of the IRA increased very significantly, as did identification with it, and this had some strange consequences. There were occasions when IRA volunteers came out on the Falls to engage in armed action, only to have to withdraw because people were crowding around, applauding and patting them on the back.

The hunger strike and the electoral success associated with it changed the course of the relationship between the republican movement and the British strategy and set in train a process which continued through to the Hillsborough treaty. The perceived threat posed by republicanism since the hunger strike had led to the new, open relationship between Dublin and London, whereby the two governments are now explicitly engaged in collaboration on a joint policy, the overriding aim of which is to deal with the republican threat.

In 1976 the British government tried to criminalise the republican prisoners. In 1981 the republican prisoners criminalised the British government.

External Activities

The effects of the movement outside the prison were more complex. The hunger strike came in the course of a long-term run down of IRA activity, which continued after it ended.

Initially there was an escalation of violence generally. Leaving aside the ten dead hunger strikers the year's violent death list reached 101 and the figures of those injured touched 1442. Shooting and bombing incidents amounted to 815 and 298 respectively. These figures are down on most previous years and were continue to fall as the IRA's strategy changed from all out war to what Gerry Adams was to describe as 'armed propaganda.' However, the revenge killing of hardline Official Unionist MP Rev.Robert Bradford followed the hunger strike. He had made the mistake of saying he prayed for an epidemic in the H-blocks, and a resumption of the bombing campaign in Britain, which was originally intended as a means of pressure had the hunger strike continued through the autumn.

The first 'Republican News' after Adams visit to the prisoners did in fact carry a statement from the IRA saying that it would like to see the hunger strike concluded in a principled way. It also said that it was up to the hunger strikers whether they continued or not but adding that the prisoners 'do not have the basis for a permanent settlement and obviously we symphathise.'

The IRA went on to say that it had come under pressure from members and supporters 'who believe that the IRA should pay the British government in kind for the deaths of comrades and for the deaths on the streets. That the IRA will do that goes without saying.'[44] The promised action came quickly and appears to have been largely the work of a new active service unit including Paul Kavanagh, Tommy Quigley, and British police believed, Eibhlin Glenholmes. At least some of its members had been in place since 1979 and there were supply lines stretching through the Low Countries, where future Brighton Bomber Pat Magee had been living, to the US as well as to Ireland and a large explosives and arms dump in Oxfordshire. In October a bomb outside Chelsea Barracks killed two civilians, a week later retired Royal Marines Commander Lt.Gen.Stuart Pringle was killed by a bomb attached to his car. On the 26th a sophisticated device in the Oxford Street Wimpey bar killed bomb disposal expert Kenneth Howarth as he attempted to disarm it. A further bomb followed in Oxford Street and by the beginning of November the IRA claimed in an interview that they would disrupt central London every day from then till Christmas. However, this seems to have been a deliberate blind for the IRA's intention to concentrate on more prestigious targets. In November three major operations failed to find their intended targets, one the home of the Attorney-General, Sir Michael Havers, the second inside Woolwich Arsenal where it was set off by a dog and the third at Greenwich Gasometer.

Attacks on Britain continued sporadically with an explosion that killed eleven soldiers and some horses in Hyde Park in July 1982, a spate of London City center bombings in 1983, which culminated in the unauthorized bombing of Harrod's in Knightsbridge which killed two policeman and three civilians. The peak of IRA operations came in October 1984 when they blew up the Grand Hotel in Brighton where the Conservative leadership was staying during their party conference.

There was indeed evidence that the republicans planned to build on their ten martyrs. The continual rioting after Sand's death, which had merely tapered off in the early autumn, had produced still another nationalist grievance: the plastic bullet. In 1973 the plastic bullet had replaced the rubber as a means of riot control. Supposedly painful but harmless, an improvement over rubber, the four-inch by one-half-inch plastic projectile, shot from a distance at 160 miles per hour, was meant to bound about in riotous assembly. Shot directly at a target from close up, it could be and was deadly. The nationalists were convinced that the bullets were used only against the Irish, the nationalists in particular, and used often wantonly to maim.

Thatcher had featured in 'Wanted for Murder' posters in 1981. However Sinn Fein's Danny Morrison says the attack was intended not just to kill her in revenge for her role in the death of the hunger strikers, but also to wipe out a generation of Tory leadership and force a political crisis in Britain. Thatcher narrowly escaped but five Conservatives were killed in the blast. 'Today we were unlucky,' the IRA said in its statement claiming responsibility for the bombing, 'but remember, we have only to be lucky once. You (Mrs. Thatcher) will have to be lucky always.'[45] The closest parallel for a fully successful detonation was the destruction of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem by Irgun, which started the process leading to the end of the British Occupation of Palestine. As it was, the bomb pushed Ireland up the British political agenda and made Thatcher more willing to pay the price of the Anglo-Irish Agreement for Irish government and SDLP support in stabilizing the province and isolating the IRA.

Armed struggle would become armed propaganda, violence itself, when possible, a backdrop to the manner in which it was represented. 'The tactic of armed struggle is of primary importance' wrote an increasingly visible Gerry Adams, 'because it provides a vital cutting edge. Without it the issue of Ireland would not even be an issue.'[46]

Although the death fast had not accomplished all its objectives, it probably did the republican movement much more good than harm. Recruitment to the IRA increased markedly during those seven months, while Sinn Fein emerged for the first time in the conflict as serious electoral force. The nationalist people overcame a decade of war-weariness and rallied once more to the Provos' banner. The SDLP suffered important setbacks and was at least partially discredited because of its combined unwillingness and inability to influence the British, whose rules the party has observed ever since its inception. There was also an intangible sense in the ghettoes, not felt so strongly since 1972, that the IRA's cause was truly just and must one day prove victorious.

Reporting the Hunger Strike

During the five years of the blanket and dirty protests, the media had not been particularly critical of the criminalization policy's assumptions. How would they respond in the face of a hunger strike to the death? I will discuss some issues that have framed debates on the media and its treatment of the political violence, particularly its coverage of the Northern Irish conflict.

There is a substantial literature on the subject of media coverage of the Northern Ireland conflict. This includes studies of television, radio, press, cinema and so on. It also includes studies based on interviews with and observations of journalists.

Kevin Kelley (1990, p.230) wrote that the 1981 'hunger strike has undoubtedly been the major news story' to emerge from the conflict in Northern Ireland. The hunger strike certainly generated unprecedented media publicity. As Sands' death drew closer: 'Some 23 nations sent camera crews, and the American TV networks, ABC, CBS, NBC, sent 16 camera crews. There were at least 400 reporters in the North, and 300 photographers covered his funeral.'[47]

The 1981 hunger strike lasted a total of 217 days, beginning on March 1 and ending on October 3. The coverage of 15 events (including the hunger strikers' deaths and funerals, elections in which they participated, and the beginning and the end of the protest) amounting to 11 discrete time periods during the hunger strike was analyzed. The study included the coverage from 3 days before the hunger strike, 86 days during it, and 6 days after it, yielding a total of 95 days, which were covered by the study.

The Irish Times gave the hunger strike the most coverage in terms of columns next came the Times, then the New York Times. The time period covering the Sands' death received the most overall coverage. The New York Times had the highest proportion of stories which discussed the hunger striker's demands, and this paper provided the most contextualization of the hunger strike. The high proportion of the stories which dealt with the personal aspects of the hunger strikers, such as the condition of their health, and on violence gives a more accurate picture of the flavor of the New York Times coverage. The emphasis of its reporting was consistently on the human-interest aspects of the hunger strike, such as the hunger strikers'worsening health. It is also worth mentioning that many of the stories combined several themes and aspects of the hunger strike. For instance, a story might contain details of a hunger striker's health, a mention of the demand for political status, an account of a march or demonstration in support of the hunger strike, and an account of violence or law enforcement which was related to the hunger strike. Because several themes were often present in a particular New York Times story, the reports tended to present factual accounts of incidents without placing them in a context that would render them mean to an audience.

Furthermore, even though about two thirds of the stories in each newspaper contained some discussion or political aspects of the hunger strike, the prominence of this theme should not be overestimated. During the course of the protest, two hunger strikers (Bobby Sands and Kieran Doherty ), another Republican prisoner in the Maze prison, and, following Sand's death, his former election agent, were all elected to seats in the Irish and British Parliaments. This, combined with the prisoners' demands for political status, should have ensured that the political dimension of the hunger strike would be prominent theme in the coverage. Moreover, the stories often made just a brief mention of the hunger striker's electoral success, and these stories were coded as having a political theme present even though their treatment of the hunger strike's political dimensions was minimal.

A basic premise of the criminalization policy was that paramilitary organizations such as the Provisional IRA lacked popular support in Northern Ireland. By fielding candidates in parliamentary elections and winning several seats, the Republican movement directly challenged this aspect of criminalization. Hence, the coverage these elections received was analyzed to see how this degree of popular support was explained.

The New York Times called Sand's election a 'stunning blow to the Protestant establishment of Northern Ireland.'[48]

The Irish Times had the headline 'Sands election a propaganda win for hunger strike':

the Long Kesh Republican hunger-strike- and by extension the IRA- won a propaganda victory of enormous proportions yesterday with the election of the hunger-striker Bobby Sands as the new West-minister MP for Fermanagh-South Tyrone... His victory has become a serious embarrassment to the British Government. It also represents a body blow for those... who have maintained that the vast majority of anti-Unionists do not in any way wish to be associated with violence or violent organizations.[49]

The Times completely ignored the implications of Sand's electoral success for the criminalization policy, for public perceptions of the Provisional IRA, and the entire Northern Ireland conflict. It concentrated instead on political efforts to expel Sands from parliament. It carried the headline:" Party leaders to discuss Maze man's poll victory," saying that : 'even if he is allowed to keep his seat, he is likely to be dead of starvation soon.'[50]

But while the coverage did suggest that Sands' election indicated a higher level of support for militant Republicanism that had previously been thought to exist, the general tone of the coverage suggested that the election was less important than reactions to it. There was a constant focus on the possible implications of Sands' election. These were all considered from the standpoint of others. It was a propaganda victory for the leadership of the Republican movement, an embarrassment for the British government, a blow to political moderates in Northern Ireland, and a procedural issue for the British parliament in deciding whether or not he should be expelled. Nowhere was suggestion that Sands' electoral success constituted the legitimization of his struggle. Then, following the election of Sands' former election agent to the British Parliament, the issue was not the political implications of his electoral success, but that it gave the sagging Republican movement a 'much needed boost in the hunger strike campaign.'[51]

In addition to asserting that paramilitary organizations lacked popular support, the criminalization policy also promoted the view that members of these organizations were motivated by selfish criminal gain rather than by explicitly political goals. By fasting to death, the hunger strikers challenged this strand of the criminalization policy. But here as with the coverage of the elections, the focus of the reporting was either on the security or political implications of the prisoner's deaths, or reactions to their deaths, or human-interest aspects of their deaths. The deaths themselves seemed somewhat peripheral to what the media has identified as the real issues.

The Times occasionally seemed resentful at the extent of the general media coverage given to the hunger strikers, and by contrasting the media response toward Republican funerals to that of the funeral of P.C. Ellis, the Times hoped to right the balance. Still, there was a continuous sense that the hunger striker's recognition was undeserved. In this sense, the effort to focus attention on the sufferings of 'innocent' victims of the conflict was a direct effort to channel coverage away from the hunger strikers'funerals. The Irish Times did not appear to parallel with the view of the Times, which consistently tried to undermine the hunger strikers' funerals, seeking to deny them coverage so that the funerals of 'real' victims would not be slighted. The Irish Times repeatedly stressed the high human costs of the conflict.

The death of Sands received the most coverage during the hunger strike. As for the deaths of the other nine hunger strikers that died, those who closely followed Sands received large amount of coverage, but as the hunger strike wore on, even the newsworthiness of a prisoner starving himself to death in pursuit of political status began to decline. As the deaths continued, the coverage in all papers became less personal. A death became the '4th death,' and ultimately no names were mentioned in the headlines. Simultaneously, the coverage became increasingly concerned with the violent implications of the hunger striker's deaths. There was a decreasing urgency in imparting the news of hunger striker's death. There were also stories which contained the news of a hunger striker's death began to focus less on the nature of the death and more on the implications it had for the possibility of ending the strike or for more rioting.

The Irish Times was the most willing to imply in its coverage that the hunger strike could have been resolved sooner if the authorities had directly negotiated with the prisoners.

It also published several profiles of those on hunger strike, giving a full account of their family background and paramilitary involvement. While the Times also did this on occasion, the Irish Times' s profiles included such details as how the hunger strikers first became involved in paramilitary organizations. Often these accounts gave details of harassment by the security forces, intimidation at work, or other factors, which helped place the hunger strikers in a sympathetic light. The general picture created by the Irish Times was that the hunger strikers were a result of the Northern Ireland conflict, not a cause of it as the Times suggested. The Irish Times published in full most of the prisoner's statements, which were smuggled out of the Maze, as well as statements from other Republican sources.

New York Times referred to the hunger strikers as 'guerillas.' The Times used the term of 'terrorists' to describe the prisoners, and the Irish Times avoided using both terms, referred to them with terms like 'Provisional IRA prisoners.'

Two broad themes emerged from the Times' coverage. The first one of these was reflected in all three newspapers: it was the concern that the hunger strike would increase tension and lead to more violence. This focus on the implications of the hunger strike rather than on the hunger strike itself, meant that the nature of this protest and the support it received were never discussed fully. The second theme to emerge was that the hunger strike was a 'propaganda' exercise. The Times published several stories with headlines such as 'The Ulster Propaganda War,' 'The H-Block Propaganda War.'

By calling the hunger strike a 'propaganda war' and reporting it as such, the Times had to explain the hunger strikers' ultimate commitment and as well as their electoral success. It did this by claiming on several occasions that the IRA leaders had ordered the hunger strikers to fast to death, and that the elections had been won due to the existence of a sinister 'propaganda machine.'


The criminalization process has been discussed in several major works, but those studies have focused on the process of making previously legal behavior illegal. In the Northern Irish context the criminalization policy involved phasing out the 'special status' of political criminals and giving them in its place the status of 'ordinary' criminals. Of course, political violence is criminal in that it violates legal status, but the motivations of the participants and the explicitly political goals of their actions usually distinguish politically motivated crime from other forms of criminality.

However, the policy of using the normal criminal justice system, albeit one with special powers, to respond to social crises such as the Northern Irish conflict has been costly. This expansion of the security forces' powers has severely infringed on the civil liberties of the general population (Boyle 1980, 1982). Furthermore, arming the police and courts with special powers has undermined the public' confidence in the criminal justice system.

The existence of repressive legislation, aggressive policing styles, and special courts have undoubtedly lent support to paramilitary organizations' claims that the Northern Irish State is indeed based on coercion. Continuing support for these organizations can partly be understood in this light.

It is not my purpose to argue that convicted members of paramilitary organizations should be accorded a status different from that of ordinary prisoners, but the 1981 hunger strike clearly demonstrated the limits of the criminalization policy. The labeling of political violence as ordinary criminal behavior can achieve no more than minimal success as a response to the Northern Irish conflict so long as those who are engaged in political violence and the communities which support them reject their criminal label. (Burton 1979, 1978).

Given the consequences of the criminalization policy, it is possible that other strategies may produce more desirable results. Colin Crawford (1982, 1979), a former social worker in the Maze prison, suggested that there were tangible benefits to reverting to the special category status system. First, this system was much less costly than regular prison regimes. Furthermore, it was also one of the few situations in which the different paramilitary organizations cooperated in the pursuit of common goals. The inmates also benefited from the increased autonomy they had under this system. Finally, Crawford argued that emphasizing the prisoners' special status would make them less susceptible to criminal stigmatization and as a result less likely to recidivate. Thus to offer politically motivated criminals a non-criminal status might be a more fruitful approach to the Northern Irish conflict.

How do we account for the willingness of ten convicted men to starve themselves to death in pursuit of political prisoner status? Did the 1981 hunger strike exemplify the alleged irrationality and pathology of terrorism or was it one of the 'struggles for legitimacy' that Burton suggested characterized the relationship between militant Republicanism and the Nationalist community? In this work I have suggested that the hunger strike was an effort on the part of Republican prisoners to establish the legitimacy of their use of violence for the achievement of political goals. This hunger strike was unique due to the number of prisoners who died on their fasts, but it was just one further episode in the continuing history of politically motivated prisoners' struggles for recognition.[52]

The British authorities, when confronted with the prospect of prisoners fasting to death, had to account for such behavior. Why would 'criminals' willingly give up their lives when selfishness is held to be the epitome of criminality? Perhaps because they had been ordered to do so? Perhaps because they were terrorists who were not susceptible to rational argument and who were seeking unrealistic if not impossible demands? Burton (1979, 1977) suggested that when the legitimacy of a state is challenged it engages in a variety of defensive techniques which they termed 'official discourse.' These are primarily efforts on the part of the political establishments to 'save face.' Burton noted that these strategies can take several forms, but they have been especially visible in the official reports of committees investigating controversial events in Northern Ireland. These techniques to maintain governmental legitimacy in the face of official misconduct include claiming that the opposition's allegations are unfounded. Claiming that, even if there is substance to the allegations, the behavior in question did not reflect policy but an isolated incident; and claiming that those making the allegations have no mandate from the community to make representations on its behalf. In relation to the Northern Irish conflict, official sources have used all of these techniques to explain a wide variety of Republican activities.

In the end the hunger strikes were about the actions of men who had reached the breaking point, who chose the ultimate form of protest in order to resolve the prison issue one way or the other. They had two choices: either unending years on the dirty protest or surrender; one was impossible, the other unthinkable.' What the hunger strike became, 'Gerry Adams said, 'was a struggle of wills as personified by Thatcher's public utterances: ' the IRA are playing their last card, we're not going to give in inch.'[53] And as personified by what Bobby Sands was writing about: 'we are an Irish Nation, we have the right to be free, I am a political soldier, I am a political prisoner, I am not a criminal.'



  1. See, for example: Adams (1989, 1986).
  2. Consideration of such aspects in: Bishop and Mallie (1987); Burton (1978, 1979); Coogan (1987); Kelley (1990).
  3. See definition by Weber (1947), pp.154-156.
  4. Noted by Bell (1987); Bishop and Mallie (1987); Coogan (1987); Kelley (1990).
  5. See Beresford (1987); Clarke (1987); Collins (1986); Crawford (1982); O'Malley (1990).
  6. See Burton (1978, 1979).
  7. See Boyle, Hadden and Hillyard (1980); Kelley (1990).
  8. Quoted by O'Malley (1990).
  9. Expressed by Bairner (1986) and Clarke (1987).
  10. Stated by Curtis (1984).
  11. Definition by Gibbs (1989), p.329.
  12. .See O'Malley (1990).
  13. See Gibbs (1989), p.329.
  14. See Laqueur (1977), p.5.
  15. See Gibbs (1989), p.329.
  16. Ibid. p.79.
  17. Ibid., p.330.
  18. Ibid., p. 329.
  19. See Kelley (1990).
  20. Expressed by Kelley (1990).
  21. See Bishop and Mallie (1987), p.182-183.
  22. Ibid., p.185.
  23. Ibid., p.197-192 and Kelley (1990).
  24. Kelley (1990), p.155.
  25. See Crawford (1982).
  26. Ibid.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Quoted in Kelley (1990), p.250.
  29. Quoted in Crawford (1982), p.13
  30. Quoted in Beresford (1987), p.22.
  31. Quoted in Gardiner Committee's influential report (1975), p.34-35.
  32. Wrote Kelley (1990), p.189.
  33. Quoted in Cronin (1980), p.342, 356.
  34. Quoted in Beresford (1987), p.44.
  35. Specified in Bishop and Mallie (1987), p.350-359 and Coogan (1987).
  36. Treated in Kelley (1990).
  37. Quoted in Kelley (1990).
  38. Adams' and his party Sinn Fein's opposition to the hunger strike had to do partly with that difficulty, partly with the fact that close personal relationships existed between the prisoners themselves and between the prisoners and republicans on the outside. They all knew that they were entering a period of intense anguish. But primarily they opposed it because they did not believe that it would succeed in moving the British government.
  39. From its beginnings in 1973, The RZ differentiated itself by taking exception to the RAF theory, that only the ' revolutionary intelligentsia,' or student elite should guide the revolution. Instead, they stressed the need to keep each action in contact with the masses, a kind of Maoist 'mass line.'
  40. The 1989-90 West Berlin government rested on a coalition of the Social Democrats, and the Alternative List, which has long included elements of the Berlin ' alternative scene' sympathetic to urban protest.
  41. According to David T.Schiller ' Germany's Other Terrorists,' in Terrorism 9 (1987), p.57-65, only a small fraction of some 350 terrorist acts and 500 acts of sabotage could be attributed to the RAF itself.
  42. Their membership declined in 1984-85 from about 200 to 80. The RAF at that time was believed to have a 'commando' of about 15 and a 'legitimate fringe' of 200, not counting 36 members in custody.
  43. See Clarke (1987), p.102.
  44. Ibid., p. 204.
  45. Quoted in O'Malley (1990), p.238.
  46. See Adams (1986), p.81.
  47. See more in Kelley (1990), p.230.
  48. April 11,1981, p.1
  49. April 11, 1981, p.1
  50. April 1, 1981, p. 1
  51. Times, August 21, 1981, p.1
  52. See Coogan (1987); O'Malley (1990) p. 25-28.
  53. Emphasis in original: Adams (1986).


  1. Adams, Gerry. 1986. The Politics of Irish Freedom. Wolfeboro, New Hampshire: Brandon Book Publishers.
  2. Adams, Gerry. 1989. Interview with Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams. Monthly Review 41: 16-26.
  3. Adams, James. 1951. The Financing of Terror. Simon and Schuster, New York.
  4. Bairner, Alan. 1986. The Battlefield of Ideas: the Legitimization of Political Violence in Northern Ireland. European Journal of Political Research, 14: 633-649.
  5. Bell, J.Bowyer. 1987. The Gun in Politics: An Analysis of Irish Political Conflict, 1916-1986. New Bremswick: Transaction Books.
  6. Beresford, David. 1987. Ten Men Dead: The Story of the 1981 Irish Hunger Strike. London: Grafton Books.
  7. Bishop, Patrick, and Eamonn Mallie. 1987. The Provisional IRA. London: Corgi Books.
  8. Boyle, Kevin, Tom Hadden, and Paddy Hillyard.1980. Ten Years on in Northern Ireland: The Legal Control of Political Violence. London: Cobden Trust.
  9. Burton, Frank. 1978. The Politics of Legitimacy: Struggles in a Belfast Community. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
  10. Burton, Frank. 1979. Ideological Social Relations in Northern Ireland. British Journal of Sociology 30: 61-80.
  11. Clarke, Liam. 1987. Broadening the Battlefield: The H-Blocks and the Rise of Sinn-Fein. Dublin: Gill and MacMillan.
  12. Collins, Tom. 1986. The Irish Hunger Strike. Dublin: White Island Book Co.
  13. Coogan, Tim Pat. 1987. The IRA. 3rd edition, Glasgow: Fontana Books.
  14. Crawford, Colin. 1982. The Compound System: An Alternative Penal Strategy .Howard Journal of Penology and Crime Prevention 21: 155-158.
  15. Crenshaw, Martha. 1995. Terrorism in Context. Pennsylvania State University Press.
  16. Cronin, Sean. 1980. Irish Nationalism: A History of its Roots and Ideology. Dublin: Academy Press.
  17. Curtis, Liz. 1984. Ireland: The Propaganda War. London: Pluto Press.
  18. Gardiner, Lord. 1975. Report of a Committee to Consider, in the Context of Civil Liberties and Human Rights, Measures to Deal with Terrorism in Northern-Ireland. London: HMSO.
  19. Gibbs, Jack. 1989. Conceptualization of Terrorism. American Sociological Review 54: 329-340.
  20. Guelke, Adrian. 1988. Northern- Ireland: the International Perspective. Dublin: Gill and MacMillan.
  21. Kelley, Kevin. 1990. The Longest War. London: Zed Books LTD.
  22. Laqueur, Walter. 1977. New Terrorism. Oxford University Press.
  23. O'Malley, Padraig.1990. Biting at the Grave. USA: Beacon Press.
  24. Weber, Marx. 1947. The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. Ed. By Talcott Parsons, New York: Oxford University Press.
  25. 1981 editions of newspapers: New York Times, Irish Times, Times.

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