Sands Begins Hunger Strike Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The hunger strike undertaken by Bobby Sands and nine other Irish Republican prisoners in 1981 was the culmination of five years of prisoner protest to gain political status and recognition from the British government and signaled the entry of Sinn Féin into Northern Irish politics.

Summary of Event

The Maze Prison hunger strike of 1981 was the continuation of the Irish Republican Army Irish Republican Army (IRA) prisoners’ campaign for political recognition by the British government. Through the 1970’s, individual IRA prisoners had used starvation for limited reforms concerning the treatment of IRA and other Nationalist prisoners in Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The 1981 strikes, which began on March 1, were led by Bobby Sands and demanded five specific points for all Nationalist prisoners, including rights to free association and to wear civilian clothing. More important, during the strike, Sands was elected to Parliament with the assistance of Sinn Féin, Sinn Féin the IRA’s political wing. Although Sands died on May 5, and nine others by August, the international attention garnered by the strike and Sands’s election brought world attention to human rights abuses in the Northern Irish prison system and galvanized Northern Ireland’s Nationalist community. Moreover, the IRA and Sinn Féin broadened their campaign from a purely guerrilla-terrorist struggle to a political campaign through the 1980’s. Their strategy was captured in the famous phrase by Danny Morrison: “A ballot paper in one hand and an Armalite [rifle] in the other.” Hunger strikes Northern Ireland;hunger strikes [kw]Sands Begins Hunger Strike (Mar. 1, 1981) [kw]Hunger Strike, Sands Begins (Mar. 1, 1981) [kw]Strike, Sands Begins Hunger (Mar. 1, 1981) [kw]Sands Begins Hunger Strike (Mar. 1, 1981) [kw]Sands Begins Hunger Strike (Mar. 1, 1981) Hunger strikes Northern Ireland;hunger strikes [g]Europe;Mar. 1, 1981: Sands Begins Hunger Strike[04450] [g]United Kingdom;Mar. 1, 1981: Sands Begins Hunger Strike[04450] [g]Ireland, Northern;Mar. 1, 1981: Sands Begins Hunger Strike[04450] [c]Human rights;Mar. 1, 1981: Sands Begins Hunger Strike[04450] [c]Social issues and reform;Mar. 1, 1981: Sands Begins Hunger Strike[04450] Sands, Bobby Adams, Gerry Thatcher, Margaret Atkins, Humphrey Ó Fiaich, Tomás

The modern conflict in Northern Ireland, also known as “the troubles,” began in the late 1960’s. Northern Irish Catholics were often discriminated against by the ruling Protestant Unionists in terms of housing, education, job placement, and voting rights. From 1968 to the summer of 1969, Catholics led civil right marches and rallies across Northern Ireland to protest the poor housing conditions and lack of equal representation in Northern Ireland’s parliament at Stormont. Though initially peaceful, the marches and rallies quickly turned brutal. The mainly Unionist police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), occasionally cooperated with Protestant “Orange” mobs in attacking marchers, and later, Catholic neighborhoods in Derry and Belfast. By August, 1969, the first British soldiers arrived in the province to restore order, but by 1971, the Catholic community viewed the British soldiers as oppressors as much as the Unionist government and the RUC. The dormant IRA reorganized across Northern Ireland by 1971 to combat the British “occupation.” As the violence increased, the British government imposed direct rule on the province in March, 1972. To combat the IRA and suspected Nationalists, the British army and the RUC swept into Catholic neighborhoods making mass arrests in 1972-1973.

To deal with the thousands of new prisoners, the British government constructed a new “escape-proof” prison near Lisburn by 1976. Named Maze Prison, Maze Prison it was commonly known as the H-blocks because of the shape of the facilities. Correctional facilities;Maze Prison Initially, Republican prisoners were allowed to associate for classes, wear their own clothes, and were free from prison work. On March 1, 1976, the British government revoked this “special status,” and from that time forward all prisoners were criminals, not special detainees, and would have to conform to all prison rules and regulations. In reaction, entire cell blocks at Maze “went on the blanket,” wearing only prison-issued blankets as clothing.

A woman walks by a Belfast mural commemorating Irish Republican Army hunger striker Bobby Sands, who became a symbol for the Republican struggle against British rule.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

By 1978, Republican prisoners escalated their campaign to regain political status by the “dirty protest.” Some 350 prisoners refused to bathe or shave and began smearing their fecal waste and urine on the cell walls and doors. Outside the H-blocks, the IRA and other Nationalist paramilitaries targeted prison guards for assassination. Eighteen guards and officials were killed by 1980.

Sinn Féin, led by Gerry Adams, helped organize anti-H-block committees composed of prisoners’ families by 1978. These groups joined Sinn Féin’s call for the granting of political status but also hoped to draw international attention to the mistreatment of prisoners and allegations of torture rife throughout the prison. However, these protests had little effect on British policy. With the election of Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher in 1979, Thatcher declared that there would be no changes to British policy in Northern Ireland and that there would be no negotiations with so-called criminals.

The first signal that a hunger strike would be the next step came from the chief IRA public relations officer at the Maze, Bobby Sands, in late 1979. Born in Belfast in 1954, Sands joined the IRA in 1972 and was first arrested in 1973 for possession of firearms, for which he served a three-year sentence. On his release, Sands worked in his Belfast neighborhood as an IRA operative, organizing the printing and publication of a Republican newspaper. He was arrested with three others in 1976 for the attempted bombing of a Belfast furniture factory and was sentenced to fourteen years at Maze Prison. Sands took part in the ongoing blanket and dirty protests at Maze but realized the difficulties in continuing the protests without British concessions. In smuggled communications to Sinn Féin leaders and anti-H-block organizers, Sands stated that he believed a hunger strike might finally force the Thatcher government to negotiate political status. On October 27, 1980, seven IRA detainees began refusing food.

Thatcher repeated that there would be no change of status regardless of the prisoners’ actions. However, in early December, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Humphrey Atkins, after negotiations with Catholic archbishop Tomás Ó Fiaich, announced that there would be some concessions made to the prisoners. The 1980 hunger strike lasted fifty-three days until one striker entered a critical medical state. On December 18, 1980, with hope of some concessions, the strike was called off. In January, 1981, Sands met with the prison’s governor, Stanley Hilditch, but the supposed concessions were not made; there would be no changes until the Republican prisoners first conformed to all prison rules and regulations. The Republican prisoners rioted for four days and then resumed their dirty protest. Sands wrote to IRA and Sinn Féin leaders in January that another hunger strike, led by him, would begin soon, and that there would be no halting until all demands were met and enforced.

Sands selected nine other strikers to join him in roughly two-week increments after March 1, 1981. He symbolically chose the fifth anniversary of the revocation of special status to begin his sixty-six-day strike. He had emphasized in previous letters that public support for the campaign was critical and that the basis for the hunger strike should be a campaign for human rights and a challenge to British policy. As the number of strikers gradually increased to ten, the international media focused exclusively on the strikers and repeated claims of British mishandling of both prisoners and policy in Northern Ireland.

Four days into the hunger strike, the sudden death of the member of Parliament for Fermanagh/South Tyrone left an open seat for Parliament. Gerry Adams and the anti-H-block committee suggested that Sands should run for the seat even though incarcerated. The campaign would bring even more attention to the issues at hand and possibly draw the British government into negotiations. This was the first time Sinn Féin had openly organized a political campaign. To soften the connections among Sands, Sinn Féin, and the IRA, Sands ran as the “anti-H-block candidate.” As Sands’s condition worsened over the month, he was moved to the Maze hospital. In the elections of April 9, 1981, Sands became a parliamentary representative for Northern Ireland. The Thatcher government and Secretary of State Atkins, however, remained firm: no negotiations with criminals, even if they are elected members of Parliament.

At 1:17 a.m. on May 5, 1981, Sands’s heart stopped. He was the first of nine strikers to die that summer. His funeral procession through Belfast on May 7 numbered close to 100,000 mourners, and rioting flared across the province. As each of the remaining nine strikers reached critical states, the Thatcher government remained unmoved, and attacks against British troops and RUC increased until the year’s end. Sinn Féin officially called off the strike October 3, 1981.

Significance

The impact of the 1981 hunger strikes on British policy in Northern Ireland was minimal, but the deaths of Sands and nine other Republican prisoners fueled greater distrust, if not hatred, toward the British government within Northern Ireland’s Nationalist community. Every May 5, parades mark the death of Sands and the others. He became a symbol, some say a martyr, for the Republican struggle against British rule. To those in the Unionist-Protestant community, Sands and the others were criminals who took their own lives.

The prisoner protests of the 1970’s and 1980’s represented the political stalemate between the Republican militants and the British government. However, in the end, it was Gerry Adams and Sinn Féin who won the long-term advantages. The 1981 election campaign for Sands as well as Sinn Féin connections to grassroots committees throughout the province paid off at the ballot box through the 1980’s and during the peace negotiations of the 1990’s. Hunger strikes Northern Ireland;hunger strikes

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bell, J. Bowyer. The Irish Troubles: A Generation of Violence, 1967-1992. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993. Massive, detailed narrative of the political turmoil and violence in the province.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sands, Bobby. Bobby Sands: Writings from Prison. Dublin: Mercier Press, 1998. Broad selection of Sands’s prose, poetry, and political correspondence from Maze Prison.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wichert, Sabine. Northern Ireland Since 1945. New York: Longman, 1999. Basic primer for contemporary Northern Irish politics, economics, and society. A solid analysis of the socioeconomic factors that sparked the troubles.

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IRA Prisoner Dies After Hunger Strike

Two Founders of Peace People Receive the Nobel Peace Prize

European Court of Human Rights Rules on Mistreatment of Prisoners

Anglo-Irish Agreement Is Signed

Ulster Peace Accord

Good Friday Agreement

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