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'It doesn't diminish': The legacy of the 1981 hunger strikes, 40 years on

This Monday will mark 40 years since Bobby Sands went on hunger strike.

ON PAGE 9 of The Irish Times of Friday 27 February 1981, a headline read: “H-Block fast generates little pressure.”

The report outlined how a “low-key atmosphere prevail[ed]” in the run-up to the latest hunger strike. It said the IRA leader in the H-Blocks would be starting the strike alone before being joined at regular intervals by other prisoners. 

The article ended: “In the face of an unmoved British government, the straight demand for ‘political status’ is seen by some as ‘unreal’.”

On the following Monday, the Irish Times carried a report on its front page leading with comments from the Bishop of Derry Dr Edward Daly who said that the hunger strike was not morally justified “in present circumstances”. 

That article was accompanied by an iconic image that would soon be recognisable across the world. That of Bobby Sands. 

sands-dead Source: PA

This Monday will mark 40 years since Sands went on hunger strike in the Maze Prison. He would be the first of 10 men to die on hunger strike that year in the jail. 

They demanded to be treated as political prisoners. Not criminals. They wanted the right to wear their own clothes, not to do prison work and for free association with other prisoners. 

As indicated in the Irish Times report, these demands were met firmly with British intransigence. This intransigence partly arose from a string of IRA atrocities, including bombings in London, Birmingham, the Warrenpoint ambush that killed 18 British soldiers and the Mountbatten assassination – the latter two happening on the same day in 1979. 

However, the actions of Sands and the response generated on this island and around the world was anything but low-key. 

Bobby Sands’ hunger strike, the election that saw him made an MP and his death in May made headlines all over the world.

US networks broke with their regular scheduled broadcasts to bring the news that he had died. Protests were held in countries around the world, with demonstrators expressing their support for Sands

The British government’s unwillingness to compromise and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s hardline approach turned her into a hate figure for the republican movement. 

politics-tory-trade-unionist-conference-colston-hall-bristol British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher Source: PA

In the North, nationalist communities became more sympathetic to the IRA. Their ranks swelled after the hunger strikes as the violence continued throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s.

Sands’ election as an MP became a springboard for Sinn Féin to take a greater role in electoral politics on the island of Ireland. 

As political historian and commentator Dr Éamon Phoenix told TheJournal.ie this week, it was a “watershed moment” in the history of the conflict in Northern Ireland.

Hunger strikes

At the start of the 1980s, support for the IRA’s armed campaign had waned significantly from the heights seen in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday in 1972 according to Dr Phoenix.

“In terms of nationalist public opinion, IRA support had fallen away and the SDLP was the voice of Northern nationalism.”

“As the violence continued, it was more and more associated with sectarian attacks, and then the payback from loyalist violence.

“People had resigned themselves to a long war.”

The IRA, he said, “weren’t winning many friends in the late 1970s”.

As the IRA continued its campaign, focus would shift to republicans prisoners towards the end of 1980 as the first hunger strike began in the Maze. 

buildings-and-landmarks-hm-prison-maze-inmates-cell-belfast-northern-ireland A cell at the Maze Prison, taken in 1979 Source: PA

IRA prisoners had long campaigned for political status after having it stripped away by the British government in 1976. 

The British government had stood firm on viewing them as criminals entering into the 1980s.

It maintained the view that the prisoners should not be given any special status. It was believed that viewing them as criminals would help to strengthen the British position and erode nationalist support for the violence over time. 

The start of the hunger strike, led by Brendan Hughes, in October 1980 significantly upped the ante on the British. 

Danny Morrison was director of publicity for Sinn Féin at the time. 

He told TheJournal.ie: “I issued statements about the prison conditions. Throughout 1980, I visited Bobby Sands. We were trying to attempt to stop a hunger strike, and we succeeded until October 1980.”

Sands didn’t go on hunger strike on this occasion, as Hughes led the IRA prisoners. He was sentenced to 14 years for firearms possession in 1977 and became one of the leaders of the prisoners in the Maze.

Hughes was also jailed for posssession of guns, and led as the commanding officer during the 1980 hunger strike. Among the hunger strikes were both IRA and INLA prisoners.

Morrison said: “During the first hunger strikes I’d have liaised with Bobby Sands and Brendan Hughes. It lasted 53 days and ended on 18 December 1980 in disputed circumstances. ”

Morrison said that the British government had privately sent a message that it would prepare a document for the prisoners that would offer the introduction of a progressive, liberal prison regime. 

“The problem is that Brendan Hughes ended the hunger strike an hour before the document arrived,” he said.

“The British government then subsequently, in my opinion, misinterpreted this as weakness and as an indication that they were never going to die.”

This document never came and the prisoner demands not met.

In his book Smashing H-Block, F Stuart Ross wrote that after these events Sands told fellow prisoners “fuair mid faic” (we got nothing).

Preparations were then made over the next few months for another hunger strike. It would differ from the previous one in that prisoners would begin to refuse food one-by-one rather than all together. 

Bobby Sands would go first on Sunday 1 March 1981. 

His image and his words would galvanise the nationalist community. A young man willingly starving himself to death – and being let do so – because of a few demands regarding prison conditions would win widespread support.

soccer-world-cup-qualifier-group-two-belgium-v-ireland Ireland fans hold up a banner reminding during a World Cup qualifier with Belgium in March 1981 Source: EMPICS Sport

Dr Phoenix said: “I think it’s the whole story of Bobby Sands. Living in Rathcoole, one of the big Protestant estates in Belfast. Driven from his home by loyalist violence and into the bosom of Catholic west Belfast. And then he becomes involved.

“He writes poetry, and is seen in the tradition of the likes of Padraig Pearse with that unquenchable demand for Irish freedom. Most of what we knew was that picture. He’d been arrested. But not for actually killing anyone. 

It’s that 1916 effect. He’s the first victim of the hunger strike but there’d be nine more. It was a trauma on the nationalist community. It was a very emotional time, with polarisation on a massive scale. SDLP voters empathised with the hunger strikes. Thatcher is so inflexible and suddenly you had Bobby Sands versus the iron lady.

Throughout the 66 days Sands was on hunger strike, the British government made no moves to give in to the hunger strikers’ demands. 

Election as MP

Five days into Sands’ hunger strike, independent nationalist MP for Fermanagh-South Tyrone Frank Maguire died of a heart attack.

A by-election was quickly called and an opportunity knocked for the republicans.

“For historical reasons, there has been hostility to constitutionalism and electoral politics in the republican movement,” Morrison said.

“There was a degree of scepticism and hostility towards elections, but we needed something to elevate the hunger strike and bring it to the attention of the world.”

bobby-sands-funeralgun-salute Three masked men fire volleys of rifle shots in 1981 over the coffin of hunger-striker Bobby Sands Source: PA

The then-director of publicity for Sinn Féin said that putting forward Bobby Sands for election was a massive risk at the time. 

“Even if Bobby had lost by one vote, the British government would have said that even your own people don’t support you,” Morrison said.

“So it was a big risk, but we knew. Our reading of the situation was there was mass support for the prisoners’ demands. 

Now you don’t confuse that with support for the IRA. I mean that was a demand that people supported because they knew the prisoners were quite clearly political. The community viewed these people as being political motivated not as being criminals or as bank robbers. That’s what drew a lot of people to support Bobby Sands.

As Sands’ spokesperson, Morrison did TV and radio party political broadcasts on his behalf in the run up to the election.

The groundswell of support built significantly while his hunger strike continued. That iconic image was beamed all over the world and news outlets from around the globe went to Northern Ireland. That one and only photo of a young, long-haired man who was starving to death became recognisable everywhere. 

Mark Phillips is a senior foreign correspondent for American network CBS. At the time, the Canada native was working for state broadcaster CBC and covered numerous events in Northern Ireland in the late-1970s and 1980s.

“It’s probably the tensest period I witnessed there,” he told TheJournal.ie this week.

“I would say that was probably the period of the most intense interest from editors in newsrooms. 

The place was crawling with foreign reporters. The interest would ebb and flow over the years, but this was a time when it was really flowing. 

Sands was up against Harry West, from the Ulster Unionist Party, with the election held on 9 April 1981. It was six weeks into his hunger strike. The SDLP had stepped aside and not contested the election, as had other nationalists and republicans.

With a turnout of just under 87%, Bobby Sands won 30,493 votes to win by a margin of 2.4%. 

The British establishment, horrified by Sands’ election and fearing more IRA prisoners winning election seats, promptly moved to ban any other hunger strikers from running for office in future.

In her public statements, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher remained intractable. 

Speaking to reporters on 21 April, she said:

“There can be no question of political status for someone who is serving a sentence for crime. Crime is crime is crime: it is not political, it is crime, and there can be no question of granting political status. I just hope that anyone who is on hunger strike for his own sake will think fit to come off hunger strike, but that is a matter for him.”

Source: irelandinschools/YouTube

The image of the intractable Thatcher refusing the demands of dying men became more solidified to a world audience. 

Phillips said: “I think the Irish story had a lot of currency at the time. Certainly in North America it had currency. There are so many Irish in the States, and then lots of Catholics and Protestants in Canada who may have differing perspectives.

It struck a lot of chords. Both in ethnic terms and religious terms. For viewers, it was essentially medium grade religious warfare in a relatively modern country. From a TV point of view, it made for pretty good television. 

Death

As support from nationalist communities north and south swelled, so did efforts to try to convince Sands to drop the hunger strike.

An envoy sent from Pope John Paul II to the H Block was one such attempt to dissuade Sands from continuing. Father Magee asked Sands what would settle the strike, and he replied that granting the five demands would end it. 

His condition continued to deteriorate throughout March and April, before he slipped into a coma at the beginning of May.  

All the while, violence continued in the North. This would only escalate after Sands’ death. 

Dr Phoenix said: “Many civilians died during the hunger strikes. People forget that. It was a very violent period. There was a huge surge of passion and interest because of the hunger strike.

“I could see the swelling of sympathy. But then there were incidences like the brutal murder of a young census enumerator going around the doors at the Bogside [in Derry]. That almost derailed the hunger strike campaign.”

Joanne Mathers was just 29-years-old. She was knocking on doors collecting census responses when she was shot dead by the IRA, in a killing that sparked outrage. 

Prison officers were also targeted by the IRA before, during and after the hunger strikes. They were among dozens of people killed during the hunger strikes, which included a number of children.  

burnt-out-vehicles-falls-road-belfast Burnt out vehicles litter the streets of the Falls Road area in Belfast after Sands' death Source: PA

The historian also emphasised that these events caused further division between Catholic and Protestant communities in the North.

“There was that huge gulf between the experience of the nationalist and unionist communities,” he said.

“For the latter, it wasn’t an emotional thing at all. So you had this sense of embattlement and polarisation on a massive scale.

From the Bogside to Crossmaglen to Belfast. I don’t think I ever seen Catholics mobilised around one issue in the same way.

Bobby Sands died on 5 May 1981, aged 27. 

A statement from the Northern Ireland Office said: “Mr Robert Sands, prisoner in the Maze prison, died today at 1.17 a.m. He took his own life by refusing food and medical intervention for 66 days.”

Source: The Museum of Classic Chicago Television (www.FuzzyMemories.TV)/YouTube

The news was covered everywhere. Protests were held in European cities. Sands’ death provoked anger and outrage among the nationalist community in Northern Ireland and in the Republic.

An editorial in the New York Times said that while Thatcher was right not to yield, she had provided Sands “with a deathbed gift – the crown of martrydom”. 

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bobby-sands-funeral-procession-belfast A general view of the funeral procession of Bobby Sands Source: PA

An estimated 100,000 people attended Sands’ funeral, bringing West Belfast to a standstill. Thousands joined protests in the south too, as well as cities around Europe.  Footage was carried live on networks around the world.

Tensions ratcheted up as the hunger strikers who started after Sands began to die. Rioters would clash with police. Violence came from all sides. 

“Sometimes you did feel unsafe,” as a reporter, Phillips said.

“It was a hostile environment no matter where you were, it could be the Falls Road or the Shankill.

“The danger was getting caught between the riots and the police lines. Because there’d be things getting thrown one way and rubber bullets coming the other way.

But there was dark humour to be found too. There were legandary fixers who could get you into places and, more importantly, get you out of places. I remembering covering a series of riots upon the Falls Road when everything was going nuts. We jumped into a car, and headed up a road with burning cars and he said ‘can’t go there’. We went up the other road to find police cruisers, those Land Rovers coming our way. So not that way. And then we went up the last road and he said “we can’t go that way, it’s a one-way street’.

Legacy

The hunger strikes eventually ended in October 1981 after ten men had died. After Sands, those who died were Francis Hughes, Raymond McCreesh, Patsy O’Hara, Joe McDonnell, Martin Hurson, Kevin Lynch, Kieran Doherty, Thomas McElwee and Michael Devine.

They died without their demands met – but after the strike was eventually called off on 3 October, the new Northern Ireland secretary of state James Prior granted partial concessions to the prisoners including the option of wearing their own clothes.

There were still a number of men on hunger strike right up until it was called off.

An immediate effect of the hunger strikes was a large increase in recruitment for the IRA, after nationalist communities largely rallied in support of Sands and the other men. 

Morrison said: “In 1916, people followed over four weeks the execution of the leaders and that fundamentally changed public opinion. 1981 was our 1916, except it lasted for seven months. 

“There’s no doubt about it, the amount of people who wanted to join the IRA after the hunger strike was over. The amount of people who began to open their doors to the IRA, people who became interested in politics and in Sinn Féin. And it can all be traced back to Bobby Sands.”

For Sinn Féin, the hunger strikes proved a pivotal moment. After Sands’ death, another republican named Owen Carron won his seat. As he wasn’t a prisoner, he was able to escape the British ban designed to prevent the hunger strikes from running. Nevertheless, it was a sign that this kind of support for the republican cause at the ballot box could be sustained.

At the party’s Ard Fheis in late-1981, it was to be decided if Sinn Féín would contest elections to the Northern Irish Assembly if they were called the following year. It wasn’t a widely-held view among the IRA that Sinn Féin should stand in elections going forward.

It was, however, supported by the likes of Morrison and Gerry Adams. Initially, joint-vice president of Sinn Féin, he would become its president in 1983. 

Morrison made a speech at that meeting and proposed what became to be known as the armalite and ballot box strategy adopted by the republican movement. While Sinn Féin would contest elections north and south, the IRA would continue its campaign at the same time. 

“In the middle of the debate, people got up and said ‘ no, no, elections aren’t for us, it was a one off’,” Morrison told us.

“And Adams says we need to carry this motion. So that’s when I got up and made this speech without any plan.

The armed struggle of the IRA would continue. We would have a dual strategy of contesting elections. It would complement that in a way.

Historian Dr Phoenix said that the fallout from the hunger strikes and Sands’ election as an MP was “monumental”. 

PA-1089356 Gerry Adams campaigning in 1983 Source: PA

“Almost immediately, it changed things,” he said.

“The outcome of this was increasing sympathy for the republican cause. In the assembly elections of 1982, Sinn Féin get 10% of the vote. Within Sinn Féin, this is the beginning of their new tactic of electoralism.”

A big win came in 1983 when Gerry Adams unseated Gerry Fitt – the founder and first leader of the SDLP – in West Belfast.

That “hurt the Brits big time”, according to Morrison. 

“They used the fact that ‘these people have no support’ to ridicule the struggle and the legitimacy of the struggle, and the sincerity of the people who supported the struggle,” he said.

“And they could no longer do that when we getting elected in large numbers.”

But this twin strategy would have its limits. While Sinn Féin was trying to become a political force, people were still dying at the hands of the IRA. 

Major examples included the Brighton Hotel bombing in 1983 targeting Margaret Thatcher killed five people. The Newry Mortar Attack in 1985 killed nine police officers and injured dozens. The Enniskillen bombing on Remembrance Day in 1987 killed 11 civilians and injured over 60 people. 

“The war was given a new life,” Dr Phoenix said. “Republicanism had a crisis. It was walking a tightrope between physical force and intervention.”

Even as the republican movement had been given a boost in terms of public sentiment, the ongoing violence didn’t sway larger numbers to support the cause.

Even as the republican movement had been given a boost in terms of public sentiment, the ongoing violence meant that support could only go so far. 

Atrocities committed by republicans and loyalists were widely condemned. Distrust of Sinn Féin for its closeness to the IRA persisted as the violence continued.

“Down the road, we can see that Sinn Féin became aware that to increase their strength beyond the 10%, they have to de-escalate the violence. That opportunity doesn’t come until the Enniskillen bombing. That’s seen as a war crime. A horrific loss of life.

But the Humes-Adams talks start within two months of Enniskillen. The hunger strikers can be seen then as a launchpad for the eventual peace process… with the Humes-Adams talks it was about finding a consensual way forward with peacefully-achieved goals. Those talks carried on into the 1990s and these would spread out and eventually form the peace process.

The situation for Sinn Féin now is a far cry from 40 years ago. In the Irish general election last year, the party secured the highest percentage of first preference votes and won 37 seats in the Dáil. 

ulster-assembly-election-2017 Sinn Fein politicians pose for a selfie at the Bobby Sands mural in Belfast Source: Niall Carson/PA Images

The party holds 26 seats in the 90-seat Northern Ireland Assembly and holds seven abstentionist seats in Westminster.

Sands is a hero for the republican movement, but his election while on hunger strike certainly laid that groundwork for Sinn Féin’s electoral success in the following years.

“The hunger strike could have been resolved if Thatcher had made some small changes to prison regulations,” Morrison said.

“That doesn’t mean at some future stage we wouldn’t have adopted an electoral strategy. But historically, factually and accurately, yes it goes right back to that.

I edited a book of essays a number of years ago called Hunger Strike Reflections. One of the contributiors, Jude Collins, made this incredible statement. And he said that the hunger strike gets bigger as time goes. It doesn’t diminish. It gets bigger and bigger.

For Dr Phoenix, the 40th anniversary of the hunger strike – coming at a time when the centenary of Northern Ireland is also being marked – is significant. 

“It does seem amazing looking back,” he said. “I’m living in a Northern Ireland transformed… In 1920, the only people not consulted about partition were northern nationalists. They were just excluded, treated as a non-people.

“And the conflict that came from that. All the Bloody days – Sunday, Friday. The Enniskillen bombing. All the atrocities. I mean there were shocking things happening right up to 1994. 

The hunger strikes was a divisive period. The polarisation, that sense of isolation for nationalists. That was borne by southern indifference to a degree too… we’re seeing massive demographic change now where Catholics are expected to become a majority. There’s a duty of care then to what will become a Protestant minority. These people can’t be treated the same way Catholics were. We have to mind their fears, attend to them, however self-inflicted they may be. 
If a new Ireland is to emerge, it’ll retain the architecture of the Good Friday Agreement. It has to show that we’ve learned a lot from those 3,500 deaths.

About the author:

Sean Murray

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