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Irish republican prisoners campaign for special status, 1976—1981
Hunger strikes have a long history in Ireland dating back to the medieval periods when Cealachan, a method of gaining justice for some perceived offense through starvation, was codified in the civil code called the Senchus Mor. This starvation tactic, whereby the victim fasted on the doorstep of their wrongdoer, could be used to settle or recover a debt, or address an injustice – the threat lay in that if the complainant was allowed to die on the defendant’s doorstep, that person would be held responsible for the death and the victim’s family. During the Anglo-Irish conflict in 1916, prisoners engaged in hunger strikes to protest the wearing of prison clothes. In 1920, a Republican leader of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), Terence MacSwiney, was captured by British troops and sentenced to two years in prison for sedition. He contested the sentence by declaring a hunger strike, dying after more than two months without food and quickly becoming a martyr to the cause of Irish republicanism. Throughout succeeding years, hunger striking, particularly in prisons, became a culturally salient means of making a statement.
The Northern Ireland conflict, often called “the Troubles,” has a long and complex history. By its most simplified definition, it was a conflict waged to gain representation and equal status within a government that blatantly supported one group over another. Northern Ireland is an ‘island within an island,’ encompassing a Protestant majority in contrast to the larger island of Ireland, which has a Catholic majority. Partition in 1921 and the declaration of the Irish Free State in 1922 designated Northern Ireland as under British jurisdiction and part of the United Kingdom. From that point, a Protestant Unionist government, supported by the British Parliament, assumed administrative control, playing primarily into Protestant Unionist interests and forcing the Catholic minority population into a position of unequal status. Catholics suffered from discrimination and inadequate access to basic rights and resources, like housing and voting rights. Political tactics like gerrymandering ensured that Protestant Unionists remained in control, and gave very little opportunity for a Catholic voice.
Within this context, opposition escalated to conflict, as Catholic Republicans began to seek out a means of redress. Sinn Fein and the IRA emerged as the primary agents of republican opposition, engaging in a combination of violence and civil disobedience to protest British and Unionist dominance in Northern Ireland. Loyalist paramilitary groups, primarily the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and the Ulster Defense Association (UDA), battled with the republican paramilitary groups in a cycle of violence that cost thousands of lives—many of them innocent civilians—and exacted a high emotional, psychological, and physical toll on the entire population of Northern Ireland. (See also, in this database, “The Peace People” and the case of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement, both of which campaigned by using nonviolent action.)
Long Kesh, the site of the 1981 hunger strike, was set up as a sort of internment camp during the thirty-year long conflict. Run as a prisoner of war camp, it was the primary site for Republican and Loyalist prisoners to serve their sentences. Beginning in 1972, prisoners accused of actions related to the Troubles were granted special category status, considered prisoners of war who did not have to wear prison uniforms or do prison work. However, in 1976, British officials abolished special status for these prisoners, reverting to treating them as ordinary prisoners. At this point, Long Kesh prison was divided into two parts, with one portion designated to prisoners convicted during the period following the elimination of the special status. The holding area became known as the H-Block, and serving time there became a right of passage for members of the groups.
On September 16, 1976, Ciaran Nugent, an IRA member convicted to a three-year sentence at Long Kesh for high jacking a van, refused to put on prison clothes. As prisoners were not permitted to leave their cells without clothing, he was placed in isolation and not allowed visitors. Other prisoners eventually joined him in his protest. In place of clothing, they wrapped themselves in the prison blankets, thus beginning the “blanket protest.” Then, in 1978, responding to ill treatment by prison officials, several prisoners refused to leave their cells to wash. After a fight between one striking prisoner and a prison guard, the prisoner was brought to solitary confinement. When word spread throughout the H-Block, prisoners refused to leave their cells, not even for prison officials to clean them. Thus commenced the “dirty strike”—instead of “slopping out” (clearing their waste pots), the prisoners smeared excrement on the walls. Officials tried to forcefully clean the cells by spraying disinfectant through the walls or forcibly taking out prisoners, but as soon as these prisoners were returned to their cells they resumed the protest.
The dirty and blanket protests continued for the next several years. In July 1978, The Catholic Primate of Ireland, Tomás Ó Fiaich, visited the Long Kesh prisoners, declaring in a public statement that the “blanket protesters” were living in inhumane and intolerable conditions. Later, Ó Fiaich and the Bishop of Derry held a meeting with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in efforts to address the living condition of the prisoners. They were also involved in trying to broker an agreement between British officials and the strikers in the 1981 hunger strike.
Even when Loyalist and Republican prisoners were interned, it was customary for them to maintain contacts with their outside organizations, and continue organizing and meeting within the prison. Many of the protests implemented during this period were sanctioned, or at least known about, by Sinn Fein and the IRA. In the event of imprisonment, predetermined volunteers were ready to execute striking and protesting actions, like hunger strikes. This was the case in 1981, when Bobby Sands entered Long Kesh on the charge of possession of firearms with fourteen years imprisonment.
Sands was appointed Officer Commanding over the IRA Long Kesh prisoners. The IRA had talked about implementing a hunger strike in Long Kesh before Sands’ sentencing. Prior to Sands’ prison sentence, in 1980, seven republican prisoners along with several other prisoners in the Armagh Women’s Prison had commenced a hunger strike setting forth five demands. These were: the right not to wear prison clothes, the right not to do prison work, the right to free association with other prisoners, the right to one letter, parcel, and visit each week, and finally, the restoration of remission lost through protest (it was customary for prisoners to lose the opportunity to lessen their prison time if they engaged in disobedient behavior). The strike had ended when British officials promised to implement the five demands, but by Sands’ internment a year later there were still no concessions made.
On February 4, 1981, the republican prisoners issued a statement that their demands still hadn’t been met. Then, on March 1, 1981, Sands began a hunger strike, taking up the five demands. The following day, the blanket strike was called off so as not to take attention away from the hunger striking. The IRA committee in Long Kesh decided the strike would start with Sands, with others joining the fast one by one to prolong the effect, beginning with Francis Hughes on March 15th. Initially, there seemed to be very little space for concessions to the prisoners; the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland issued a statement that prisoners’ demands would not be conceded to, and the Bishop of Derry criticized the decision of the hunger strikers.
Shortly after the beginning of the strike, on April 9, Bobby Sands was elected to British House of Commons as an Anti H Block candidate, the status accorded to prisoners who were up for election in Northern Ireland. While many thought this would lead to a settlement with the prisoners’ demands, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher continued to deny any concessions to the hunger strikers’. The announcement of Sands’ victory met with large public celebrations in several republican areas of Northern Ireland. Sands’ election to the British House of Commons while in prison was a blow to the British rhetoric surrounding the Troubles. British officials maintained that the conflict was originated and perpetuated by a small minority group of terrorists who had little or no community support. Sands’ election victory undermined that language—the community was very much behind his struggle.
In mid-April, Marcella Sands, the sister of Bobby Sands, appealed to the European Commission on Human Rights to look into the hunger strikers’ situation, claiming that the British government had broken three articles of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR). The ECHR attempted to meet with Sands several times, but never managed to do so and no commission inquiry followed. The secretary of Pope John Paul II attempted to dissuade Sands from continuing the hunger strike, but was unable to do so. Other appeals to Bobby Sands failed, and he continued in the strike, gradually joined by other prisoners. During this time, Sands wrote poetry and philosophy and his reflections until his strength began to fail him.
On May 5, Bobby Sands died on the sixty-sixth day of his hunger strike. In the weeks following, three more prisoners died. Thatcher continued to refuse their demands. As prisoners’ conditions continued to worsen, their families began asking that medical interventions take place. Francis Hughes, the second prisoner to join Sands on the hunger strike, became the second death on May 12, 1981. His death was quickly followed by two more hunger strikers on May 21. On June 3, Sinn Fein issued a statement that a hunger striker would join the campaign each week until British officials made concessions.
The political back-and-forth continued in conjunction with the escalating campaign within Long Kesh. On August 1 and 2, the seventh and eighth hunger strikers died, as prisoners continued to join the strike on a daily basis. Violence outside the prison had escalated considerably as well, further pressuring the British government to implement some sort of change. Additionally, international support and sympathy was largely on the side of the hunger strikers. Finally on October 3, the strike was called off, with all of the original demands granted except for the right not to do work. This last demand was eventually conceded to as well.
The 1981 hunger strike, and the blanket and dirty protests leading up to it, had a far-reaching effect on the Troubles. After Bobby Sands’ death, there was an outpouring of international support and solidarity. The situation of the prisoners revealed major issues in the British criminalization policies, and sparked calls for reform, as well as of the British presence in Northern Ireland more generally. Bobby Sands and the nine other hunger strikers that died became martyrs to the republican cause, symbolizing the struggle of the oppressed. The open conflict continued for nearly a decade after their deaths, until the signing of the Good Friday agreement in 1988 moved disputes into a largely electoral arena.