IRA Hunger Strikes (1976 - 1981)


The Lokashakti Encyclopedia of Nonviolence, Peace, & Social Justice

IRA Hunger Strikes

Campaign by Irish Republican Army (IRA) members in Belfast, Northern Ireland, who wanted political or "special category" status as prisoners. The campaign's climax came on May  5, 1981, when Bobby Sands, an IRA prisoner at the Maze/Long Kesh prison, died after a hunger strike that lasted sixty-six days. Nine other hunger strikers also died in the campaign, revitalized the IRA and provided the catalyst for negotiations between the British and Irish governments and the signing four years later of the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

The campaign started in 1976 when IRA prisoners refused to wear prison clothing, the badge of an ordinary criminal, and covered themselves with the only clothing at hand-their blankets. The "blanket protest" became the "dirty protest" when the prisoners smeared their excrement on the walls, floors, and ceilings of their cells. And when that didn't work, seven prisoners embarked on a hunger strike in October 1980 for the right to wear their own clothes, to associate freely, and not to have to do prison · work. That hunger strike lasted fifty-three days, ending when the prisoners announced that they were satisfied that the government had agreed to · meet the substance of their demands.

But the government had not - hence Sands's hunger strike and the ones that followed. Over a three-month period, twenty-three prisoners went on hunger strike and ten died, their deaths coming staccatolike in clusters of twos and threes, and for each hunger striker who died, another prisoner stepped forward to take his place.

Sands's hunger strike was initially met with little enthusiasm in his community. But that changed when the member of Parliament for Fermanagh-South Tyrone died suddenly, and the Republican movement nominated Sands for the seat. The election attracted international attention. Sands's campaign message was simple: the Catholic community should not stand by and let prisoners die. By electing Sands, voters would save his life - for it seemed inconceivable to the Catholic community that the British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, would allow an elected member of the British Parliament to starve himself to death.

Sands won - in voting along strictly sectarian lines - and the news media of the world gathered in Belfast to chronicle Sands's deterioration, eager to capture the violence they had confidently predicted, their presence ensuring it would follow, adding to the forebodings that accompanied the death watch.

Sands's picture was everywhere. The relative inseverity of the crime for which he had been convicted and the severity of the sentence he had received (fourteen years for the possession of firearms), the fact that he had spent every Christmas since he was eighteen behind barbed wire or locked up in a cell, that he was not associated with any acts of violence, and that he had a visible family - father, mother, and sisters - transformed his persona. He became a son, a brother, a victim of discrimination and the inequities of the criminal-justice system, a young writer whose powerful descriptions of the H-block prison conditions conveyed a sensitivity that was difficult to associate with the hard men of violence and brutal acts of murder.

"The Performance of Myth"

The death watch became a communal vigil; each change in Sands's condition was front-page news, every rumor of his death intensifying fears on both sides of the divide and provoking riots and violence. As Sands edged closer to what had become his inevitable death, his stature grew. His hunger strike now fulfilled the criteria of mythology. It was in the ancient tradition of the historic quest, embedded in the hidden recesses of the Celtic consciousness. He had become a hero, retaining control of his destiny even beyond his death. He was history, which historian John Thompson describes as "the performance of myth. . . the embodiment of transcendence." The almost incomprehensible finality of his protest, a gesture of profound impotence in the face of insurmountable opposition, could be understood only in the context of the imagination, imagination that caught "the music of infinity and [made] the individual bear witness to it in his own moment of time."

When he died, his name was known in the most obscure corners of the world. He was hero, martyr, Bobby Sands MP, lonely agitator. He had pitted his fragile psyche against the impersonal power of a government, and he had won. In death, he was accorded the political recognition he had sought. Attention and empathy were worldwide. "By willing his own death," a New York Times editorial read, "Bobby Sands has earned a place in Ireland's long roll of martyrs and bested an implacable British Prime Minister." Mrs. Thatcher won the battle of wills - the hunger strikers abandoned their fast on October 3, 1981, 217 days after the protest started - but little else. The British government lost the propaganda war, resuscitated an ailing IRA, and politicized militant Republicanism.

The hunger strikers allowed the IRA to reestablish itself in the heroic mold and to reaffirm its legitimacy in a historical context, thereby making it more difficult to dismiss the IRA as mere terrorists with no political constituency. To the roster of martyrs that includes Tone, FitzGerald, Connolly, and Pearse were added the names of Sands, Hughes, O'Hara, McCreesh, McDonnell, Hurson, Lynch, Doherty, McIlwee, and Devine. They too, like the men of 1916 eulogized by Yeats, would be seen as having died because of an "excess of love."

Symbols of the Prison Question

The extraordinary emotive impact of the hunger strikes also drew its intensity from another source: they were symbolic of the prison question. Although most nationalists in both parts of Ireland were unequivocal in their condemnation of IRA terrorism, many also qualified their condemnation. There was a pervasive belief that the prisoners were somehow "special," that they would not be in prison if the "troubles" did not exist. Their actions were seen as the result of the conflict, not the cause of it. The prisoners, too, were victims. And they had been tried under special circumstances and in special courts - the one-judge, nonjury Diplock Courts.

The hunger strikes taught the Republican movement valuable lessons. They recognized that mobilization of public opinion around a particular issue, especially an emotional issue where support for the principles involved could be exploited as support for the movement, was a powerful propaganda tool. They also saw that contesting elections provided a base upon which to build an enduring political organization. And finally, they acknowledged that a political organization was a necessary prerequisite for taking power.

The hunger strikes were the catalyst for change in the 1980s and even into the 1990s. Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, secured a third of the nationalist vote in the October 1982 election for the Northern Ireland Assembly. In response, the major nationalist parties in Ireland - the Labour Party, Fine Gael, and Fianna Fail from the South, and the Social Democratic and Labour party (SDLP) from the North - came together in the New Ireland Forum to spell out ways in which they hoped to achieve the unity of Ireland. When Sinn Fein received 43 percent of the Catholic/nationalist vote in the British general elections in 1983 and Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, was elected to the British Parliament, the need to find some way to shore up constitutional nationalism and to address Catholic alienation intensified.

As a result, the British and Irish governments began a dialogue that led to signing the Anglo-Irish Agreement in November 1985. The agreement gave the Irish government a consultative role in the affairs of Northern Ireland and put Anglo-Irish relations on a new footing. "The Anglo-Irish Agreement," said Garret FitzGerald, who was Irish prime minister during much of the hunger strikes, “is the result of the IRA's performance on the hunger strike. They may not like to accept that, just as they would claim at times there are things we did that helped them, unintentionally, I'm sure. What they did helped Anglo-Irish relations enormously. " The talks, which intermittently took place in 1991 and 1992 among these parties and the constitutional parties in Northern Ireland and the British and Irish governments, were aimed at finding mutually acceptable governance structures for Northern Ireland and a North-South relationship that satisfied the aspirations of both communities, resulting in an agreement that would supersede the Anglo-Irish Agreement. In this sense, these talks, too, had their origins in the hunger strikes.

In an ironic way, Sinn Fein, originally the most conspicuous beneficiary of the hunger strikes, may also have been their most conspicuous casualty. After the hunger strikes, the party pursued a dual strategy: a campaign of violence in Northern Ireland coupled with participation in the electoral processes in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. However, the greater its commitment to armed struggle in the North, the less the appeal of Sinn Fein to voters in the South - in the 1992 general election, the party received less than 2 percent of the vote - and the more it exposed the IRA’s lack of legitimacy in Ireland as a whole.

Dignity - at Last - in Death

And what of the hunger strikers themselves? They were ordinary young men who came, for the most part, from large families, more often than not from either staunchly Republican families or staunchly Republican areas. The validity of each of their deaths depended on its being followed by another; the solidarity that counted was with those who had died rather than with the living. It was clear, following Joe McDonnell's death (the fifth), that the hunger strikes were a failure as a tool of coercion; thus the decisions of other prisoners either to participate or continue were made with the certainty that their deaths would achieve nothing. They were left with nothing to live for and nothing to die for, except their dignity. Their acts of self-abnegation were an assertion in death of what life had denied them: a moment of self-realization and freedom transcending the strictures of cause, a reaffirmation of their own sense of worth. In death they became whole. Ultimately, what was at stake was not so much their belief in the justice of their cause but their belief in their own dignity as human beings. When all means of asserting it were appropriated, they used what was left them - their own lives. The prisoners' worlds had somehow deconstructed during the years of being on the blanket and dirty protests, of having endured physical deprivation to the point where their reaction to it had become existential: The physical self was something that existed outside the real self, and thus was something that could be discarded.

Protest itself and the maintenance of protest, rather than the purpose of protest, became the focus around which daily life was organized. The limitations and deprivations of their physical circumstances opened to them a new world in which the organization of their own deaths became the object of their survival. Endurance became more important than the end for which it was employed, bearing witness more exigent than success; to refuse help that was always at hand was a more pivotal concern than the other-world of ordinary commerce and discourse. Familiar things receded; with death came the final act of solidarity that brought rebirth, fulfillment, and fusion.

Hence the absolute finality of their protest. What began as a protest for five demands became a struggle for self-worth. The years on the blanket and dirty protests fostered among the prisoners a sense of camaraderie, of shared values that changed their sense of deprivation. They did not choose to die in the face of indeterminate sentences or the grim prospects of life behind bars. Rather, a metamorphosis occurred. They stumbled, unwittingly, or perhaps out of necessity, into a belief that the freedom to which they would return was no freedom at all. They came to an understanding, however tentative, that their collective acts, like a leap of faith or a creative impulse, were what artist Patrick Graham calls "a leap from the mortal chains of delusion - a kind of impermanent presence."

Padraig O'Malley, reprinted with permission, from Protest, Power, and Change: An Encyclopedia of Nonviolent Action from ACT-UP to Women's Suffrage.  Roger Powers, William Vogele, Christoper Kreugler, and Ronald McCarthy, eds. New York: Garland Publishing, 1997.

Selected material about IRA Hunger Strikes
  • O'Malley, Padraig. Biting at the Grave. The Irish Hunger Strikes and the Politics of Despair. Boston: Beacon, 1990.
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