This year marks the 35th anniversary of the 1981 H-Blocks hunger strike in which ten Irish republicans died. The average age of the dead men was 25, with the youngest two, O’Hara and McElwee, aged 23. In Ireland’s most recent history, the 1981 hunger strike is a stand-out moment. It was a crucial event in the evolution of the republican movement, which, by that year, had endured a decade of mainly continuous conflict (albeit with a small number of fragile ceasefires) against the British state and its vast resources.
The hunger strikes and the public support for the prisoners that was made manifest by the large anti-H-Block street protests and at the ballot box north and south (with the election of Sands as MP for Fermanagh-South Tyrone, Doherty as TD for Cavan-Monaghan and Paddy Agnew as TD for Louth) proved pivotal in influencing the republican movement to taking more seriously the idea that electoral politics could be of substantial use to furthering the movement’s objectives.
The particular reasons for the 1981 hunger strike are quite well known. From 1 March 1976, republican prisoners were no longer accepted as political prisoners or as acting for political reasons by the British government. The criminalisation policy had taken hold. In 1972, William Whitelaw (the British government’s Secretary of State for the six counties) agreed to introduce special category/political prisoner status for prisoners affiliated with the IRA, the UVF and other republican and loyalist groupings. This outcome was achieved by a successful IRA hunger strike involving forty prisoners led in the Long Kesh internment camp by senior IRA figure Billy McKee.
By 1976, the British government, led by Labour’s Harold Wilson, opted to change its approach, in effect to renege on the commitment to political prisoner status. Merlyn Rees, who was the Secretary of State, also legalised the Ulster Volunteer Force. He was replaced after two years in the role by a fellow hardliner, Roy Mason. Mason maintained the criminalisation policy and oversaw the more widespread deployment of the SAS into republican heartlands of the north-east. As the jails, particularly the newly constructed maximum security H-Blocks/Maze in Co. Down and Armagh’s women’s prison, began to fill with republican prisoners, the prisoners’ resolve to have their fight acknowledged as political hardened.
The newly built maximum security H-Blocks were a concrete embodiment of the ‘criminalisation’ policy with the aim of preventing prisoners from organising themselves as they had done in the nearby Long Kesh camp. Freedom of association was a core part of what it meant to be recognised as a political prisoner and that principle had once ensured that the prisoners from the multiple groupings could operate as entities with their own structures and chains of command, thereby keeping alive the structures of their organisation while incarcerated, as well as continuing to sustain their sense of commitment to the ideal they had pledged to serve.
The criminalisation policy was accompanied by a policy of ‘Ulsterisation’, which sought to confine the regular British Army, in as much as was possible, to the role of a back-up force for the Ulster Defence Regiment and Royal Ulster Constabulary. One aim of ‘Ulsterisation’ was to put the crown’s local forces more directly in the firing line in accordance with the tried and tested ‘divide and rule’ strategy of the British state.
The aim of this policy was to further convince unionists that the IRA’s objective was the end of Protestants in north-eastern Ireland as opposed to ending British rule or to blur the lines between both; This was to make rhetoric in favour of ending the British occupation seem, in the eyes of unionists, indistinguishable from the rhetoric of ethnic cleansing, which the likes of Ian Paisley insisted was IRA policy.
Secondly, like the United States’ ‘Vietnamization’ policy, the British government was determined to reduce the number of deaths suffered by its regular forces. High death tolls do not bode well for sustaining domestic support for military campaigns. The belief that fewer coffins draped in the Union Jack carrying the remains of British troops back to England from Ireland, lessened the chance that the British public would demand dramatic change in their state’s policy towards Ireland was crucial in the British Government’s decision to turn to ‘Ulsterisation’. This policy also saw the use of non-jury Diplock courts, lengthy periods of questioning before the issuing of charges and severe ill-treatment by RUC interrogators in pursuit of forced confessions.
By this stage Margaret Thatcher had come to power, displacing Labour’s James Callaghan as British Prime Minister on 4th May 1979. On her way into 10 Downing Street that day, she referenced a St. Francis of Assisi prayer, saying ‘[w]here there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.’ Such sentiments could not be further from the reality that would unfold in relation to Anglo-Irish matters during her tenure.
Meanwhile, the H-Blocks situation was deteriorating rapidly. In September 1976 eighteen-year old IRA volunteer Kieran Nugent became the first person to be sentenced in the new post-special category era. He was brought into the H-Blocks and met by prison officers who insisted that he wear the prison uniform, in line with the criminalisation programme. Famously, Nugent replied that nailing the common criminals’ clothing to his back would be the only way the British government would be able to get the uniform on him. Nugent and other republican prisoners were left with no other option but to wrap themselves in the cells’ bedclothes.
So began the Blanket protest, the precursor to the 1980-81 two-round hunger strike. By May 1978, 321 prisoners were recorded as refusing to wear the uniform. By that stage, prison authorities were refusing to allow prisoners to leave their cells while wearing blankets, meaning that if the prisoners wanted to use toilets or showers they would have to wear prison uniforms and thus concede to the criminal label. The prisoners’ response, rather than wear the uniform, was the ‘No Wash’ and ‘Dirty’ protests. In this they were joined by the republican women prisoners in Armagh.
Four months later Archbishop of Armagh Tomás Ó Fiaich visited the H-Blocks and described the scene “The nearest approach to it that I have seen was the spectacle of hundreds of homeless people living in the sewer pipes of Calcutta.’The experience of being confined to excreta-covered cells was made even more unbearable for the prisoners by maggot infestation in the cells. Prisoners were denied access to newspapers, television and radio.
Keeping up to date with goings on in the outside world was difficult and prisoners were totally reliant on visitors to keep track of non-prison events. Even receiving a visit from a loved one was never easy and always humiliating, involving strip searches, mirror checks, and frequent beatings on the way to and from the visiting area.
The Five Demands
By 1979, the prisoners and the H-Bock/Armagh Committee made five core demands of the British government and prison authorities: (1) The right not to wear a prison uniform; (2) The right not to do prison work; (3) The right to free association with other prisoners, and to organise educational and recreational pursuits; (4) The right to one visit, one letter and one parcel per week; (5) Full restoration of remission lost through the protest.
A year later, and with the British government not willing to make any concessions, the prisoners decided to use their weapon of last resort and in October 1980, seven men embarked on hunger strike. They were Brendan Hughes, Tommy McKearney, Raymond McCartney, Tom McFeeley, Seán McKenna, Leo Green (all IRA volunteers) and the INLA’s John Nixon.
Hughes led the strike. Up until that point he had been Officer Commanding of IRA prisoners in the jail. He was succeeded as OC by fellow Belfast IRA volunteer Bobby Sands. The Hughes-led strike ended in disappointment for the prisoners. By the fiftieth day of the strike, twenty-five year old Seán McKenna’s health was declining drastically.
On the 18th December, the fifty-third day, Hughes decided to end the strike rather than allow McKenna’s impending death to occur and he put his faith in Secretary of State Humphrey Atkins to make an offer acceptable to the prisoners. The offer that arrived was ‘ambiguous’ at best, according to McCartney, while Sands said it would have been possible to have ‘driven a bus through it’. The British government had conceded minimal ground, ensuring a second strike would soon be in the offing.
“Death Before Revenge”
That second strike began when Bobby Sands refused food for the first time on 1st March 1981. Fifteen days later, prominent Co. Derry IRA volunteer Francis Hughes became the second man to join the strike. One key difference between this strike and that of 1980 was that the 1981 strike developed on a rolling basis with participants joining at staged intervals to avoid another McKenna-type scenario that could unravel the strike from within. Over the coming weeks, Sands and Hughes were joined by the other eight men who would give their lives to prove the legitimacy of their actions and cause, as well as by others whose lives would be saved by the ending of the strike in the autumn.
In the meantime, independent republican MP for Fermanagh-South Tyrone, Frank Maguire, died. An opportunity arose to put the prisoners’ issue to the fore of political life and Sands was nominated as a candidate in the by-election to be held on 9th April. The following day the votes were announced. The twenty-seven year old emerged the victor with 30,492 votes to unionist Harry West’s 29,046. Despite this achievement at the ballot box for the prisoners in particular and republicanism generally, the British government remained committed to the line that Sands and his comrades were not political prisoners. The hunger strikes continued. Sands died in the early hours of 5th May.
Sands’ funeral in West Belfast was another signal of widespread support for the republican movement and sympathy held for republican prisoners, with 100,000 people lining the funeral route to Milltown cemetery as Sands’ remains were escorted by uniformed IRA volunteers. The Charles Haughey government was not represented at the funeral, but Iran’s ambassador to Sweden attended on behalf of his country. The Iranians then renamed the Winston Churchill Street where the British embassy was located in Tehran in honour of Sands, much to the ire of the British government and its embassy staff who sealed the building’s entrance on Bobby Sands Street and created a new entrance to the embassy from Ferdowsi Avenue, which remains the embassy’s official address.
International reaction to the hunger strike was not confined to the Middle East. In Oslo, students threw tomatoes at the visiting British queen. In Milan, 5,000 students took part in a march, which involved the burning of a union flag, and chanted ‘Freedom to Ulster’. In Ghent, protesters marched on the British consulate, while in Paris demonstrating crowds chanted ‘the IRA will conquer’. From Sydney to Havana to Connecticut monuments to the ten dead hunger strikers are to be found.
In an attempt to deter further public shows of support for the republican movement, the RUC and British Army opted to cause mayhem at the funerals of the other dead hunger strikers later that summer. There was to be a determined effort to prevent a repeat of the scenes of Sands’ funeral. Francis Hughes’ funeral cortege was attacked by baton-wielding police officers. Joe McDonnell’s funeral was disrupted by the British Army which moved into a raw and hurt nationalist community to pursue suspected IRA members in attendance.
On 21 May, Patsy O’Hara’s body was effectively hijacked by the RUC and taken to Omagh to avoid the body being brought by family and sympathisers through the countryside to his native Derry. Once his body was in Omagh at 4am, the RUC phoned family friends in Derry with the following message: ‘If you want to collect this thing, you had better collect it before daylight, otherwise it is going to get dropped at O’Hara’s front door step.’ The body was taken to Derry at 6am by undertakers and the family was further traumatised by the sight of clear bruises and marks on Patsy’s body which included a broken noise.
Ultimately, the hunger strike was called off on 3rd October without the British government having ostensibly ended their criminalisation policy, but the prisoners’ demands would soon be conceded. The final demand, the right not to do prison work, would be granted in 1983, effectively meaning the political nature of the prisoners had been recognised by the British government once again, proving that the enormous and painful actions of individuals and organisations inside and outside the jails and the prisoners’ will-power had triumphed.
‘I’ll wear no convict’s uniform nor meekly serve my time that Britain might brand Ireland’s fight eight-hundred years of crime.’
– Francie Brolly, The H-Block Song, 1980.