have not converted a man because you have silenced him.
This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the 1981 hunger strikes, during which ten Irish freedom fighters died. Very much has been written and published on the hunger strikes. Almost everything that could be said about the events has been said, but this article will assess the significance of the 1981 hunger strikes in the light of the present 'Belfast Agreement' and renewed attempt by the British government to criminalise Republican prisoners and suppress the rights for which the hunger strikers gave their lives 20 years ago.
The 1980/1981 hunger strikes were the culmination of the campaign of resistance against the British Government's attempt to criminalise Republican prisoners.
On the 1 March 1976, the British government withdrew the 'Special Category Status' which separated political prisoners from ordinary criminals. The Special Category Status had been conceded by the British Government only under the pressure of a hunger strike by Republican prisoners in 1972. The withdrawal of the Special Category Status was part of the British government's so-called 'criminalisation' policy, an attempt to de-politicise the Irish war and portray the IRA and the INLA as mafia-type criminals rather than as national liberation movements. In practice it meant that if someone was sentenced for a so-called 'scheduled' (political) offence on 28 February, he/she would be considered a political prisoner, but if someone else was sentenced for the same offence the next day, he/she would be considered an ordinary criminal.
On 14 September 1976, when Irish political prisoner Kieran Nugent refused to wear a prison uniform, he was immediately thrown into a cell with only a blanket. He was subsequently joined by others 'on the blanket'. The 'blanket protest' was born. The blanket men were confined to their cells, without clothes, reading material or furniture, except for a mattress which was taken away during the day.
The prisoners also had to suffer beatings and harassment from the prison warders. Chamber pots used by the prisoners were constantly kicked onto the floor by prison guards, and prisoners were beaten when trying to empty them outside. The prisoners were soon forced to smear the over-flowing excrement on the cell walls in order to keep the floors dry. The 'dirty protest' was under way. It should be noted that Loyalist prisoners did not attempt to resist criminalisation.
After four years of living under increasingly intolerable conditions created by the blanket and dirty protests, the prisoners launched a hunger strike in the autumn of 1980. They hoped to force concessions to regain Special Category Status, the so-called 'five demands':
The right not to wear prison uniforms
In December 1980, with one prisoner near death, the British government appeared to accede to the prisoners' demands. The prisoners were presented with a document of the government's concessions and the strike was ended. It seems now that the Thatcher government wanted to avert a death during the Christmas season, when world pressure and indignation would be at its height. However, in January 1981, the British government reneged on the concessions and resumed criminalisation. Even Cardinal O'Fiaich, no real friend of Republicans, admitted that the British government had gone back on their word.
A new hunger strike began on the 1 March 1981, exactly five years after the withdrawal of Special Category Status, led by IRA volunteer Bobby Sands. The IRA did not initiate or control the hunger strikes; it actually opposed the use of this strategy. The hunger strikes were initiated by the prisoners themselves, as a weapon of last resort. The IRA fully supported the hunger strike, however, once the action was initiated.
This hunger strike, which focused world attention on the situation in Ireland, resulted in the death of ten young Irishmen between May and August 1981: Bobby Sands, Francis Hughes, Ray McCreesh and Patsy O'Hara died in May, Joe McDonnell and Martin Hurson died in July, Kevin Lynch, Kieran Doherty, Tom McElwee and Micky Devine died in August. Seven of the hunger strikers belonged to the IRA and three to the INLA. It has to be noted that the INLA paid a particularly high price in the hunger strike, as they had only 30 prisoners in the H-Blocks at the time, whereas the Provisional IRA had hundreds. The hunger strikes ended when, in October 1981, with mounting pressure on the prisoners' families from the Catholic church, some of the prisoners' families gave permission to administer food to the remaining hungerstrikers after they lapsed into unconsciousness. (Readers interested in those events should read David Beresford's Ten Men Dead, Grafton, 1987.)
It would be a mistake to think that what was at stake during the hunger strikes was fundamentally a 'humanitarian' issue or some problem about clothes; although some tried to present it that way. What was at stake was a political and not a humanitarian question. The hunger strikes were a struggle for the legitimacy of the Irish struggle for national liberation. It was about whether Northern Ireland was some normal democratic society with criminal elements disturbing it or an entity facing a structural political crisis and conflict. It was about whether resistance to oppression was criminal in nature. The hunger strikes were an issue of great political importance because of the way they would affect the whole balance of forces between imperialism and the anti-imperialist opposition. A victory for the British government would threaten all forms of opposition to partition and would strengthen all forms of repression and reaction on which partition depends. It would present imperialism as justified, and opposition to it as criminal. A victory for the anti-imperialists would be of equal importance, as history proved.
After the end of the hunger strikes, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her government were triumphant, boasting that they had not capitulated to the 'murderers'. But the political effects generated by the hunger strikes and their impact upon the balance of forces were such that the British government and their allies were in practice the losers. Gerry Adams was right when he later wrote that if in 1976, the British tried to criminalise Republicans, five years later the Republicans succeeded in criminalising the British government.
The hunger strikes created widespread support for the Irish cause both within Ireland and around the world. The hunger strikes generated mass mobilisation not witnessed since the aftermath of Bloody Sunday in 1972. The H-Block/Armagh campaign united all the anti-imperialist elements and built massive demonstrations. The 100,000 people who attended Bobby Sands' funeral were an indication of the extent of the anger of ordinary nationalist people. The election of Bobby Sands to Westminster while he was on hunger strike disproved the British contention that the hunger strikers had little support. This was reinforced by the election of Kieran Doherty to the Dail (26 Counties Parliament).
The price of the British government's intransigence was massive resentment against British rule and its injustices. The IRA and the INLA came out of the hunger strikes with renewed and extensive support. British injustice in Ireland was exposed massively before the whole world. British 'democracy' in the north of Ireland showed its true face. After the hunger strikes, the anti-imperialist forces were characterised by rising strength, whereas in 1980 they were on the defensive. The courage and determination of the hunger strikers and the British government's handling of the crisis definitely shifted the balance of forces in favour of the national liberation movement and put the British government and its allies on the defensive.
The last few months, with the twentieth anniversary of the hunger strikes, have seen controversies raging within Republican communities about their legacy. So-called 'dissident' Republicans of all tendencies accuse the current leadership of having betrayed what the hunger strikers stood and died for. The most common slogan is that 'Bobby Sands did not die for a few Cross-Border Bodies and two Sinn Fein Ministers in Stormont'. This is reinforced by the opposition of many former hunger strikers such as Brendan Hughes, Tommy McKearney and John Nixon to the current Provo strategy. Bobby Sands' family and friends have also complained about the use of Sands' image and writings to promote Sinn Fein's current strategy. His relatives are also currently engaged in a legal dispute over the 'Bobby Sands Trust', an organisation that still owns his writings, because it is used by the Provo leadership to further their own ends.
This criticism is very valid, given that Sinn Fein exploits the anniversary of the hunger strikes purely for electoral reasons. Sinn Fein members are organising all sorts of commemorative events and collections under the slogan 'Remember the Hunger Strikers'. It is very ironic to see Sinn Fein commemorate the hunger strikers, while at the same time, the very rights for which the hunger strikers died, are being withdrawn without causing any protest from the Provisional movement. After the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, all so-called 'dissident' prisoners are being treated like ordinary criminals. Republicans are being criminalised once again. Mass resistance to this new phase of criminalisation is slow to emerge. In Maghaberry Prison, Continuity IRA volunteer Tommy Crossan has begun a solitary campaign against the new prison regime. As more Republicans are likely to be gaoled during the coming years, the protest could very well escalate.
The hunger strikers died heroically twenty years ago. Their spirit does not live in the hypocritical commemorations and tributes of those who are blind to the renewed attempts of the British government to criminalise Republican prisoners; but with those who resist oppression.
In the words of Terence MacSwiney, the Lord Mayor of Cork who died on hunger strike in 1920: 'We have not survived the centuries to be conquered now.'
Liam O Ruairc is a member of the Irish Republican Writers Group.
Following the publication of the article "Ten Men Dead", Sean Mac Stiofain sent the following comment. It was first published as a letter in "Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism" June-July 2001.
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