After March 1, 1976 any convicted prisoners would be treated as criminals.
Republican prisoners reacted by asking colleagues on the outside to take revenge on prison guards. In September 1976, prisoners refused to wear prison clothes and went “on the blanket.” In March 1978 this escalated into the dirty protest, whereby prisoners refused to leave their cells to shower or use the toilets. They accused guards of harassing them, and they began smearing their own excrement on the walls of their cells.
In January 1980, they issued five demands: for the right to wear their own clothes, not to do prison work, to have free association with other prisoners, to receive one visit, one letter, and one parcel each week, and to get full restoration of remission lost during the protest.
As the year went on they threatened to escalate their campaign further by going on hunger strike. Charles Haughey warned Margaret Thatcher that this could provide the largely discredited IRA with an opportunity to regain popularity. “It is absolutely essential that they should not, at this point, be provided with any basis for a campaign to retrieve public support,” he warned her on October 23, 1980.
That day the British announced that all male prisoners in Northern Ireland were being offered a choice of civilian clothes, instead of prison uniforms. Thatcher consistently insisted that political status would not be accorded to any prisoner.
Seven Republican prisoners went on hunger strike on October 27. By the time of the Dublin Castle meeting between Thatcher and Haughey, the hunger strike was already in its forty-third day, and public passions were roused. “If there were deaths there could be a tremendous emotional impact,” Haughey warned.
“Insofar as political status was concerned, this just was not on in the United Kingdom or anywhere else in the civilised world,” Thatcher insisted. “Once it were conceded no one in the world would be safe.”
“Of course, there can be no give on political status.” she declared at the press conference afterwards. “Murder is murder, is murder. It is not, and never can be, a political crime. So there is no question of political status.”
The Dublin Castle meeting received enormous international publicity, but much of it gave the impression that the prison protest had been the main topic of consideration. Most newspapers across the United States, for instance, depended on wire service reports from Associated Press (AP) and United Press International (UPI), which both presented a distinctly distorted picture.
“The importance of the meeting for the future of Anglo-Irish relations was either not understood or not considered sufficiently newsworthy by the correspondent of the AP and UPI in Dublin,” the Irish Consul General reported from New York. “It seems strange that the UPI report was datelined London.”
The hunger strike was called off on December 18. The 40 men began to take food and there were reports the 500 men on the dirty protest would end their campaign But disillusionment set in. Bobby Sands, the Republican leader in the Maze prison, died after 66 days on hunger strike the following year.