1981 hunger strikes: 25th anniversary

On the twenty-fifth anniversary of 1981 hunger strikes, the Irish Democrat publishes a series of accounts by some of those involved in events which were to have far-reaching consequences for the struggle for Irish freedom

THE HUNGER STRIKE of 1981 was one of the most influential periods in the present phase of the Irish struggle for freedom.

It not only thwarted Britain's plans to criminalise the republican struggle, it concentrated world attention on the war in Ireland and enhanced the moral credentials of those involved in the struggle.

The historical precedents to the hunger strike started in 1976, when the British government introduced a policy known as criminalisation.

From March 1 1976, any sentenced IRA volunteer would no longer be afforded the rights of a political prisoner. For the prisoners this would mean, wearing a prison uniform, doing prison work and a restriction in the amount of free association with their comrades inside.

This shift in policy by the British was seen by republicans as not only an attempt to criminalise the prisoners but also a well thought out plan by the British government to break the liberation struggle in Ireland.

The prisons would be used as a breakers yard, where the prisoners would be de-politicised, and therefore no longer a threat to the British state.

The first prisoner to be sentenced after the cut-off date was Ciaran Nugent, a nineteen-year-old Belfast man. He refused to wear a prison issue uniform. His civilian clothing was taken away, so he sat almost twenty-fours hours a day wrapped in nothing but a prison blanket.

The situation inside the Blocks escalated and, because of the severe beatings and forced mirror searches, where prisoners were forced to squat over a mirror in order to have their back passages probed, the prisoners refused to leave their cells, unless to use the toilet.

The beatings, and mirror searches were seen as a further attempt by the prison authorities to degrade them and force them into submission.

A further development came when the prison authorities refused to give the prisoners an extra towel to cover themselves when they used the bathroom facilities. This led to the no-wash protest which later became the 'dirty protest' when prisoners, because they were being severely beaten every time they left the confines of their cells, refused to come out even to relieve their bodily functions.

After many months of living in their own excrement in scenes which the primate of all Ireland, cardinal Tomas O'Fiaich, described as "similar to the slums of Calcutta," the prisoners decided on embark on a hungerstrike. Five demands were drawn up. These were:

  • The right not to wear a prison uniform;
  • The right not to do prison work;
  • The right of free association with other prisoners;
  • The right to organize their own educational and recreational facilities;
  • The right to one visit, one letter and one parcel per week.

Three republican prisoners from Armagh women's jail, Mairead Farrell, Mairead Nugent and Mary Doyle, joined the hungerstrike. After protracted negotiations the strike was called off. It became clear it amounted to nothing more than a diluted form of criminalisation.

It was decided that a second hungerstrike would be embarked led by officer commanding of prison during the first strike, Bobby Sands. The following pages contain accounts of the time by those involved, as well as historical and political analysis. These are by no means exhaustive acccounts of what happened during that pivotal period, nor are they presented as such.

The Irish Democrat would be satisfied if, in a small way, these accounts help to inform a new generation of how ten men gave their lives for a noble cause, while reminding older readers of their total sacrifice.

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2006-06-21 16:20:24.
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