Inside the political maze of the H-Block hunger strike

The 1981 hunger strike resulted in a showdown between Margaret Thatcher and Ireland’s politicians, but ultimately in the deaths of 10 prisoners, writes Ryle Dwyer

PROTESTS by Republican prisoners began in the Maze and Armagh women’s prison in September 1976 when the first prisoners were convicted after the March 1976 decision to phase out special category status.

The prisoners refused to do prison work or wear prison clothes. They wore only blankets, and this became known as the blanket protest. In March 1978, the dispute escalated into the dirty protest when the men began fouling cells with their own excrement.

In October 1980, it was announced that the requirement to wear prison uniforms would be abolished and civilian type clothing would be substituted. The prisoners were not impressed and decided to initiate a hunger strike on October 27, 1980. Initially seven men went on hunger strike in support of five demands for the right: (i) to wear their own clothes; (ii) to refrain from prison work; (iii) to associate freely; (iv) to organise recreational facilities, and to have one letter, visit and parcel per week; and (v) to have lost good-behaviour remission fully restored.

In the aftermath of the much-publicised Haughey/ Thatcher summit at Dublin Castle, prison authorities issued a detailed statement about what would happen after the prisoners ended their protest. Bobby Sands, the leader of the Republican prisoners, announced that this met their five basic demands and the hunger strike was called off on December 18, 1980.

Before long it became apparent that the concessions did not meet the five demands, and on February 5 the prisoners announced a second hunger strike would begin on March 1, 1981. The same day, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland told the House of Commons that the government would not establish “a special set of conditions for particular groups of prisoners”, and it would not concede “political status or recognise that murder and violence are less culpable because they are claimed to be committed for political motives”.

Other prisoners quickly joined Bobby Sands on hunger strike, and the dirty protest was called off. Some 20 prisoners agreed to go on hunger strike, but it was decided that no more than eight would participate at any one time, and others would join after anyone died.

Sands obviously felt responsible for calling off the earlier strike. His plight received enormous international publicity on April 10 when he was elected to the British parliament in a by-election in the Fermanagh-South Tyrone constituency while on the 41st day of his hunger strike.

Fr John Magee, the Pope’s secretary and future Bishop of Cloyne, visited the hunger strikers — Sands, Francis Hughes, Raymond McCreesh and Patsy O’Hara — unofficially on behalf of the Vatican, but he had no success in persuading them to end their protest. Marcella Sands, the hunger striker’s sister, persuaded the European Commission of Human Rights (ECHR) to visit the Maze, but the hunger strikers refused to meet them.

On May 4, Charles Haughey appealed to ECHR to consider the hunger strike as an issue “of extreme urgency”, but it was too late. Sands died the next day on the 66th day of his hunger strike. His death was followed by the deaths of Hughes the following week and both McCreesh and O’Hara a week later.

The surviving protesters received a further boost when two of the H-Block prisoners were elected to Dáil Éireann on June 11. One of those, Kieran Doherty — who was elected in Cavan/Monaghan — was on the third week of his hunger strike.

In the final days before the new Dáil met, the Haughey government made desperate efforts to influence the British government to try to settle the H-Block issue. The hunger strikes had “generated an entirely new level of support for the IRA among the nationalist community in Northern Ireland”, he warned Margaret Thatcher. “They have already had a substantial impact on political life here as the election of two prisoners here and the relatively large vote for other hunger strike candidates in the recent general election indicates.

“Great Britain is incurring some measure of damage to her own standing on the international scene,” he continued. “There is clearly a widespread upsurge of support for the IRA around the world and particularly in the United States.”

ON JUNE 30, Garret FitzGerald replaced Haughey as Taoiseach at the head of a minority Fine Gael-Labour coalition. Within a week it seemed that the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace (ICJP), set up by the Irish Episcopal Conference, was on the verge of a breakthrough.

On July 6, the ICJP drew up a statement it believed would resolve the issue. The British insisted on two changes. One was agreed, and the British were supposed to read the statement to the hunger strikers the next day, but this was not done, and the whole process collapsed.

The ICJP issued a statement accusing the British of back-tracking, and Irish people found the statement credible. “As a Government, we too are persuaded by this account and so are unable to do or say anything to counter the lack of public confidence in the British government’s handling of the situation,” FitzGerald wrote to Thatcher on June 10. “We are thus faced with the danger of a serious and progressive deterioration in bilateral relations.”

He was particularly concerned about the likely impact of the death of Kieran O’Doherty. “Looking into the immediate future we face the prospect of the death of a hunger striker who is a member of our Parliament,” he warned. “As you know from the case of Mr Sands, the propaganda potential of such a death would be immense, in our society, in Britain and throughout the world.” He urged her to accept the ICJP recommendations.

The Taoiseach was undermined somewhat the next day when the prisoners stated that the ICJP should “forfeit” its role in trying to broker a settlement. They complained the ICJP’s proposals of July 7 were an unacceptable dilution of the five demands.

Thatcher was obviously perturbed by FitzGerald’s remark that the Government was persuaded by the ICJP’s account.

“I do beg of you not to be misled into thinking that this problem is susceptible of any easy solution, wanting only a little flexibility on Her Majesty’s Government’s part. It is not,” she replied. “Of course the regime could be modified in various ways (as it has been already) and we have consistently maintained that we are prepared — once the hunger strike is over — to make yet further improvement on humanitarian grounds.”

The International Committee of the Red Cross also visited and compiled a report, but nothing came of it. Attempts were made to interest the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, but it only met annually and was not due to meet again until 1982.

The hunger strikes continued through the summer of 1981 and into the autumn when the death toll rose to 10. The international media interest faded, and the recrimination spread among prisoners and their supporters, with some questioning the role of the IRA leadership.

On October 3, 1981, the families of the six remaining hunger strikers committed themselves to intervene by requesting they be fed once they lapsed into unconsciousness. Three days later the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland announced prisoners would be allowed to wear their own clothes at all times, and lost remission for conforming prisoners would be increased from 10% to 50%. He added that further changes were possible but he was making no promises. On October 29, 1981 the prisoners formally ended the blanket protest.

A few were still talking of escalating the protest, “but there is little enthusiasm among the mass of the protesting prisoners for further action”, said the Department of Foreign Affairs. “Many remain critical of the IRA’s manipulation of the hunger strike and are enjoying the comparatively relaxed atmosphere that prevails at present.”


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