IRA Prisoner Dies After Hunger Strike Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In an attempt to obtain special political status from the British government, Irish Republican Army member Francis Stagg undertook a fast that led to his death.


Provisional IRA leaders had threatened violent retaliation should Stagg be allowed to die, and both British and Irish authorities braced for a wave of deadly reprisals. The British government placed full-page ads in Belfast’s leading Catholic newspaper explaining its refusal to accede to Stagg’s demands, pointing out that he had been sentenced by a British court for offenses committed in Britain and that he had no official ties with Northern Ireland. Hunger strikes

Nevertheless, Stagg’s death escalated the level of violence and political tension in Northern Ireland, the Irish Republic, and Britain. The day after his demise, London police defused a bomb at the crowded Oxford Circus underground station, and the same day bomb attacks occurred in Dublin at several department stores and a prominent hotel. The IRA later claimed credit for two explosions in the heart of London on February 22.

The deadliest violence, however, occurred in Ulster, some of it engineered by the Provisionals and some of it resulting from spontaneous rage by the Catholic citizenry. Riots erupted in Belfast and Londonderry, and by February 15 authorities estimated that arsonists and mobs had destroyed property valued at more than £5 million. More than twenty bombs wrecked homes and shops in Northern Ireland in the week following Stagg’s death, and eleven people lost their lives. By August, as a result of escalating violence by the IRA and Protestant extremists, more than two hundred had died.

Continuing its no-compromise policy, the British government implemented a previously announced plan to abolish all future special political status for prisoners, effective March 1, 1976. Following the assassination of the British ambassador to Dublin, the Irish government declared a state of emergency and passed strenuous antiterrorist measures, giving the army power to search, arrest, and detain suspects.

The deaths of three young children in Belfast in August, 1976, gave birth to a peace movement led by Betty Williams Williams, Betty and Mairead Corrigan. Corrigan, Mairead They organized massive demonstrations demanding an end to the violence and garnered more than 300,000 signatures on a peace petition by 1977. Hopes that this movement could end the bitter divisions proved illusory.

Five years after Francis Stagg’s death, Bobby Sands Sands, Bobby became the thirteenth Irish nationalist in the twentieth century to starve himself to death, as he vainly attempted to intimidate the Conservative government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher into reinstituting special political status for IRA prisoners. Nine other young Irishmen followed him during 1981. The IRA finally called off the campaign late in the year.

Francis Stagg’s sacrifice failed to end British rule over Northern Ireland and resulted in no significant change in the way the British handled political prisoners. It did reflect a long-standing belief that hunger strikes could influence public opinion and ultimately force a change in government policies. Such actions had been practiced not only by Irish nationalists but also by individuals as diverse as the British suffragists before World War I and Mahatma Gandhi in India. The 1976 hunger strike was but another example of an attempt to use prisoners to obtain political goals. William McKee, once the main IRA leader in Belfast, had proclaimed, “This war will be won in the prisons.” Francis Stagg’s 1976 death was yet another fatality reflecting this mentality. Hunger strikes Northern Ireland;hunger strikes

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bartlett, Jonathan, ed. Northern Ireland. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1982. Anthology includes reprints of articles, chapters from books, and speeches that relate to the Irish dilemma. Section 2 contains six essays dealing with the background and nature of various hunger strikes. Includes bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bell, J. Bowyer. The Gun in Politics: An Analysis of Irish Political Conflict, 1916-1986. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1987. Provides worthwhile information on the IRA. Parts 3 and 4 focus on the Ulster troubles related to the issues of terrorism and violence. Includes a bibliographic essay that surveys major works dealing with the Irish issue.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The IRA, 1968-2000: Analysis of a Secret Army. Portland, Oreg.: Frank Cass, 2000. Examines the function, structure, and evolution of the IRA over a period of more than thirty years. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boyce, David George. The Irish Question and British Politics, 1868-1996. 2d ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996. Chapter 4 covers the period 1950-1986 and provides useful information on the political climate of the era and how the Northern Ireland issue affected each major party’s decision-making process. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coogan, Tim Pat. On the Blanket: The Inside Story of the IRA Prisoners’ “Dirty” Protest. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. Focuses primarily on the conditions of political prisoners in Northern Ireland in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, but also provides useful background on the mentality and motivations of IRA prisoners. Relates the treatment of these prisoners to basic human rights issues.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Flackes, W. D. Northern Ireland: A Political Directory, 1968-1979. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1980. Sets the hunger strike in the context of its era and shows its impacts on subsequent events. Provides a useful chronology of key events and brief biographical sketches of many of the main individuals involved. Also includes a useful directory of names and organizations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Holland, Jack. Too Long a Sacrifice: Life and Death in Northern Ireland Since 1969. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1981. Moving account of the Irish troubles during the 1970’s by a journalist who is a Belfast native. Takes an essentially unbiased approach to the conflict and expertly shows the root causes of Catholic grievances. Chapter 6, “Martyrs,” examines the IRA’s tactics and motives. Includes a useful annotated glossary of key organizations and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hull, Roger H. The Irish Triangle: Conflict in Northern Ireland. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976. This monograph, published in the year of Stagg’s death, examines the conflict from three perspectives, those of London, Dublin, and Belfast. Takes a scholarly approach to the problems and offers analysis of possible solutions. Includes bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Malley, Padraig. The Uncivil Wars: Ireland Today. 3d ed. Boston: Beacon Press, 1997. This updated version of a 1983 work by an Irish-born scholar provides a comprehensive analysis of the principal parties and ideologies involved in the Irish conflict. Presents discussion of the IRA and the issue of hunger strikes. Includes bibliography and index.

“Bloody Sunday” in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland Witnesses Passage of the Emergency Provisions Act

IRA Terrorists Bomb British Parliament

Two Founders of Peace People Receive the Nobel Peace Prize

European Court of Human Rights Rules on Mistreatment of Prisoners

Sands Begins Hunger Strike

Anglo-Irish Agreement Is Signed

Ulster Peace Accord

Good Friday Agreement

Categories: History