The 1981 Irish Republican Hunger Strikes

Emilie Adlide, Dickson College, 2009

From the 1st of May 1981 until the 3rd of October, a period of less than six months, ten men starved themselves to death for the Irish Republican cause.[1] The Republicans presented five main demands which they wanted Britain to meet;[2] however it appeared that while the demands were legitimate desires, the ultimate goal was to escalate the conflict.[3] By instigating the hunger strikes, the Republican’s hoped to dramatise the conflict, win international sympathy and further polarise the situation.[4] The hunger strikes irrevocably changed the landscape of Northern Ireland’s politics and the grounds of the conflict.[5] Motivations of the hunger strikers included the entrenched division between Catholics and Protestants, Britain’s further marginalisation of Northern Irish Catholics, the longevity of the protests which were continually ignored and the significance of hunger strikes in Irish history.[6] Ultimately, the Republican’s goal was to reunite Ireland[7] and the first step towards this was to publicly discredit and dislodge Britain from Northern Ireland. Hunger strikes were a practical and effective means to do this, giving the prisoners a strong motive and resolve to further their cause.

Throughout Northern Ireland’s history there was widespread discrimination against the Catholics by the Protestant minority.[8] This was seen throughout the country in many different areas.[9] There was inadequate public housing in the predominately Catholic district of Derry during the mid 1960s[10] Discrimination was evident in voting where the franchise system of voting lead to results such as this is 1967:

North Ward
8 Seats Unionist
Waterside Ward
4 Seats Unionist
South Ward
8 Seats non-Unionist
(from Fraser, 2000, p.40)

This demonstrates the disproportionate number of seats won per person in Parliament. Also there are records of houses being built for Nationalists in Cregajan and Rossville, both South ward, to maintain the Unionist majority North ward.[11] There was also explicit discrimination in employment which is commented on in the Cameron Report, Paragraph 138, in 1969 by the Northern Ireland Parliament stating:

We are satisfied that all these Unionist controlled councils have used and use their power to make appointments in a way which benefited Protestants. In the figures available for October 1968 only thirty per cent of Londonderry Corporations administrative, clerical and technical employees were Catholics. Out of the ten best-paid posts only one was held by a Catholic. In Dungannon Urban District none of the Council’s administrative, clerical and technical employees was a Catholic. In County Fermanagh no senior council posts (and relatively few others) were held by Catholics: this was rationalised by reference to ‘proven loyalty’ as a necessary test for local authority appointments. In that County, among about seventy-five drivers of school buses, at most seven were Catholics. This would appear to be a very clear case of sectarian and political discrimination.[12]

This shows the deeply ingrained discrimination which permeated everyday life in Northern Ireland. The discrimination against the Catholics deeply angered the hunger strikers who were Republicans.[13] and had strong ties to the longstanding Republican ideal; that Ireland should again be united. This deeply rooted view prompted the Republicans to respond to the rampant discrimination being carried out on their Catholic brothers.

In the 1940s, a civil rights movement began advocating the unification of Ireland into one state and a renewal of the Catholics’ Irish heritage and culture.[14] After a peaceful civil rights march was resolved in an aggressive, brutal manner in 1949.[15] ; violence continued to escalate between the Catholics and the Protestants with a new Irish Republican Army (IRA) involving themselves in 1949.[16] The conflict became so violent and aggressive that by 1972 Britain decided to implement direct rule over Northern Ireland, sending in military forces.[17] The Republicans inability to understand or acknowledge the Protestant or British viewpoint was a result of decades of negative socialisation.[18] This occurred through the segregation of the two sides in almost all facets of life. Protestants and Catholics had separate schools, distinct areas, different pubs, clubs and even doctors.[19] This separation and the continuous sectarian violence perpetuated and polarised the conflict.[20] Consequently, a feeling of loyalty was developed to one side, exemplified by Betty Williams in 1985 who stated: “we are trapped into structures in our society that make movement almost impossible.”[21] This demonstrates the often inevitable commitment to a side which breeds contempt and radicalisation, contributing to the extreme decision to hunger strike.

Following Britain’s arrival in Northern Ireland, many Catholics were initially pleased and grateful for the perceived stability their presence would bring to the country (Elliott & Flackes 1999, p. 609). This quickly dissipated[22] as Britain took advantage of the Special Power Act and substantially increased the number of militants within the prisons.[23] Of the 1,981 militants detained between 1971 and 1975, 1,874 of these were Catholic/Republican while only 107 were Protestant/loyalist[24] , further marginalising and outraging the Catholics.[25] Although at this stage prisoners with political motives were given ‘special category status’ whereby they could wear their own clothing and associate themselves with their own paramilitary organisation.[26] , Britain was seen to be favouring the Protestants.[27] Britain was allowing Protestants to continue their dominance in the political area and the greater number of Catholic militants arrested resulted in their presence being largely unwelcome.[28] This build up of distain and distrust for Britain was a significant motive of the hunger strikers.

After Britain controlled Northern Ireland rather than letting the Irish resolve their own internal disputes, there was a strong feeling from Northern Irish and Republican Catholic’s that the British were not to be trusted.[29] The mentality of us versus them became an important ideological standpoint for the Catholics and Republicans, particularly the new IRA.[30] This was further exacerbated by the aggressive style of Mrs Margaret Thatcher who became leader of the opposition in 1975 and Prime Minister in 1979.[31] She was seen to be the most sympathetic Prime Minister to the Protestants to date (BBC 2006, p. 1). In 1976 she stated:

We are not prepared to consider special category status for certain groups of people serving sentences for crime. Crime is crime is crime, it is not political.[32]

And in the Washington Post on the 6th of May 1981 stated:

We shall continue in our efforts to stamp out terrorism. Mr. Sands was a convicted criminal. He chose to take his own life. It was a choice his organization did not give to many of their victims.[33]

This was seen by many to be an inappropriately hard stance to take.[34] Britain’s immovable position on the issue provoked the Republican prisoners to take more extreme measures to defeat Britain and remove their influence from Northern Ireland[35] , motivating them to hunger strike.

Arguably the most important event motivating the prisoners to hunger strike was the removal of ‘special category status’ in 1976.[36] By disregarding the political basis of a prisoner’s crimes, Britain was effectively discounting the wider political character of the struggle.[37] This deeply offended and outraged those prisoners who had committed crimes to shift the political hierarchy dominated by Protestants and the British.[38] This is articulated by Pauline, the wife of a prisoner in the H-Block who in 1980 commented:

They can’t give up the protest, it is part of them. They would lose their spirit, lose their soul. By failing to resist and admitting the criminal status, they would admit that the while cause is criminal.[39]

It may be assumed that most prisoners accepted being imprisoned for their violent crimes. However, it was seen as unjust that their political motives were ignored. They did not see themselves as common criminals.[40] This implied that what they had been fighting and dying for was worthless, not even important enough to be acknowledged. Bobby Sands wrote a diary during the first 17 days of his hunger strike and on Tuesday the 10th of March 1981 he stated:

We wish to be treated 'not as ordinary prisoners' for we are not criminals. We admit no crime unless, that is, the love of one's people and country is a crime.[41]

This demonstrates the importance of recognising the reasons behind their crimes. By treating the prisoners as ordinary criminals during the policy of ‘criminalisation’ the British only succeeded in promoting more dislike for themselves and igniting a strong movement of defiance and rebellion, particularly within the Northern Irish H Block prison.[42] This prison only held those who had been found to commit ‘terrorist’ acts, such as bombings or owning fire arms, and consequently meant that people from separate paramilitary organisations were all forced to live together.[43] The interaction of radical Republicans and Protestants contributed to the escalation and intensity of the conflict with more drastic ideas being communicated and encouraged, achieving the opposite result desired by Britain.[44] The blatant disregard for the prisoner’s motives led to the Republican's determination to prove Britain wrong and reinstate ‘special category status’[45] , ultimately resulting in the enactment of the hunger strikes.

Before the hunger strike, there were three other main protests carried out in the prisons to oppose the removal of ‘special category status’.[46] Beginning in 1976, the Blanket protest involved the prisoners refusing to wear the prison uniform and wearing their only other material possession, their blankets.[47] One of their punishments was not being allowed to wash (BBC 2007, p. 2), leading to the ‘no wash’ protest where, as the name suggests, the prisoners refused to wash.[48] This turned into the ‘dirty’ protest where prisoners smeared excrement and menstrual blood on their walls, attempting to change the British policy by forcing prison guards to live in the conditions they had created. Ultimately this increased the prisoner’s power.[49] On the 27th of October 1980, a hunger strike was instigated, advocating five demands.[50] 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, and to organize educational and recreational pursuits; The right to one visit, one letter and one parcel per week; Full restoration of remission lost through the protest.[51]

During December that year, Britain appeared to make concessions in order to meet the demands.[52] Consequently, on the 17th of December, the hunger strike was suspended with no fatalities.[53] Britain’s concessions were altered, however, leading to further Republican frustration and anger. Due to the escalation of the protests, there appeared to be no alternative to continuing the resistance; it had gone too far to turn back.[54] IRA member Bobby Sands presented the idea of another hunger strike to show Britain they were serious.[55] Engaging in the political establishment of Northern Ireland was not an option as Northern Irish Catholics had previously boycotted the system due to the overrepresentation of Protestants.[56] Thus a hunger strike appeared the only viable and effectual way to force Britain to change their policy.

Another reason for choosing to undergo a hunger strike was the long Irish history of engaging in the practice.[57] Although hunger striking occurs everywhere, there is perceived honour and nobility surrounding hunger striking within Ireland as a legitimate means of gaining power when you hold none.[58] In March 1920, at his inaugural speech, Cork Mayor Terence MacSwiney stated: “It is not those who inflict the most but those who suffer the most who will conquer.”[59] This shows the embedded culture of sacrifice and loss in both the Irish psyche and political system. In the minds of most Republicans, suffering for a cause was seen as a heroic thing they were doing for their country.[60] An example of this is another excerpt from Bobby Sands’ Diary on Sunday the 1st of March 1981, which stated:

I believe I am but another of those wretched Irishmen born of a risen generation with a deeply rooted and unquenchable desire for freedom. I am dying not just to attempt to end the barbarity of H-Block, or to gain the rightful recognition of a political prisoner, but primarily because what is lost in here is lost for the Republic and those wretched oppressed.[61]

This was an essential factor in the hunger strikes as the prisoners felt they were showing loyalty to their culture and heritage, enabling them to view their death as a noble and just thing to do.

The motivations of the prisoners were also closely tied with an ambition to legitimise their cause.[62] The main aim of the Republicans was to unite Ireland, achieving this by firstly driving out the British.[63] The surface reason for the strike was the five demands, however, when Mary McDermott tried to reassure Kieran Doherty 9 days before he died by saying “I am sure that they will give in to your demands”, Doherty replied “Oh, the demands, there is a lot more to it than that.”[64] The five demands in this sense may be viewed as an attempt to escalate the conflict, ultimately leading to Britain backing down.[65] Also the tactical use of hunger strikes has logical advantages if executed correctly.[66] The hunger strikers knew the power of people dying which can translate complicated conflicts into a humanitarian issue, allowing the average person to sympathise with their cause.[67] By gaining international support and compassion, the hunger strikers believed Britain would be forced by the international community and media to give in.[68] Also the idea that Britain is responsible for the death of each prisoner further pressured Britain to concede and end the needless deaths.[69] The depth of commitment and belief in the Irish Republican cause and the need to defeat the British by any means is unquestionable. Newspapers also observed the overall motives of the hunger strikers, for example, Jim Gibney wrote in the H-block/Armagh Bulletin that the strike was “to establish the legitimacy and worthiness of fighting for a united Ireland.”[70] The hunger strike was viewed by the IRA and the prisoners as an effective and necessary way to force Britain to back down.[71] , thereby furthering the cause of a united Ireland.

The prisoners of the H-Block in Northern Ireland had many connected and deeply rooted reasons for hunger striking in 1981. The long history of discrimination of Catholics, by Protestants and then the British, led to an outbreak of violence by Northern Irish Catholics and predominately the IRA.[72] Following the removal of ‘special category status’ in 1976 by Britain, Republican prisoners began an extensive and drawn out series of protests seeking public acknowledgement of their political motives with the five demands.[73] The five demands, though legitimate, were ultimately designed to further the cause of the Republicans with an escalation of violence and protests, moving towards a united Ireland.[74] This as well as the loyalty towards their ‘side’ in the conflict led to a decision to hunger strike[75] , the last available means to the prisoners. Additionally, there was a long history of hunger striking in Ireland and it was seen as a legitimate and honourable way to instigate change.[76] Without a strong belief that their cause was just, and a commitment towards the resistance, both which had been ensured through a childhood surrounded by polarisation and segregation, the hunger strikes would never have eventuated, sparing the lives of ten young men and international disrespect for Britain’s handling of the situation.

Emilie Adlide wrote this essay for the Contemporary International Issues unit at Dickson College, Semester 2, 2009. The self-devised focus question it responds to is 'What were the motives of the Irish Republican hunger strikers of 1981?'. Emilie has also contributed The Mechanization of Warfare to Clio.

Comment on The 1981 Irish Republican Hunger Strikes here.


• BBC 2006, What happened in the hunger strike?, viewed 4 September 2009,
General overview of events in the strike. Reliable as reasonably unbiased informative source from news corporation

• BBC 2007, Northern Ireland: The Troubles, viewed 29 August 2009.

Bobby Sands’ Diary 1981, viewed 1 September 2009.
Quite biased site but was a primary source document which was referenced and cross referenced with other sites containing the same document.

• CAIN 2009a, The Hunger Strike of 1981 – Summary, viewed 4 September 2009,
Though biased, reliable site as all information was cited and had a bibliography. Contained thorough account of the hunger strikes, people’s attitudes and primary source documents to back up claims.

• CAIN 2009b, Examples of Hunger Strike and Prisoners Campaign Posters, viewed 12 September 2009.

• CAIN 2009c, Discrimination and Employment, viewed 14 September.

• Campbell, Beatrix 2008, Agreement! The state, conflict and change in Northern Ireland, Lawrence and Wishart, London.

• Coogan, Tim 1995, The Troubles Ireland’s Ordeal 1966 – 1995 and the Search for Peace, Hutchinson, London.
This book contained a lot of primary sources and had thorough referencing making it a reliable source of information though quite opinionated.

• Elliott, S. & Flackes, W.D. 1999, Conflict in Northern Ireland An Encyclopedia, ABC-CLIO, Colorado.
This source was very reliable as it was a huge compliment of information about the whole of the troubles categorically set out in years and events which occurred in them.

• Fraser, T.G. 2000, Ireland in conflict: 1922 – 1998, Routledge, London.

• Hewitt, James 1986, The Irish Question, Wayland, England.

• Holland, Jack 1999, Hope against history; the course of conflict in Northern Ireland, Hodder and Stoughton, Great Britain.

• ‘Ireland’, The World Book Encyclopedia, 2006, 2006 edn., World Book, Chicago, vol. 10, pp. 433 – 524.

• Irelandseye 2006,Northern Ireland During the 1960’s, viewed 29 August 2009.

• Mallie, E. & McKittrick, D. 2001, Endgame in Ireland, Hodder & Stoughton, London.

• Margaret Thatcher Foundation 2009, Margaret Thatcher Chronology, viewed 19 October 2009.

• McKeown, L. 2006, Former Hunger Strikers Archive, viewed 20 October 2009.

• O’Malley, Padraig 1990, Biting at the grave: The Irish Hunger Strikes and the Politics of Despair, Beacon Press, Boston.

• Robinson, P. 1981, Self-Inflicted: An Exposure of the H-Block Issue, Democratic Unionist Party, Belfast

• Shivers, L. & Bowman, D. 1984, More than the troubles: a common sense view of the Northern Ireland conflict, New Society Publishers, Philadelphia.

• Shirlow, p. & McEvoy, K. 2008, Beyond the wire: former prisoners and conflict transformations in Northern Ireland, Pluto Press, London.

• Unknown 2007, British government views on the hunger strikes, viewed 20 October 2009.


  1. ^ Hewitt 1986, p. 65.
  2. ^ BBC 2006, p. 1.
  3. ^ Fraser 2000, p. 66.
  4. ^ O’Malley 1990, p. 4.
  5. ^ Fraser 200, p. 65.
  6. ^ O’Malley 1990, p. 18.
  7. ^ The World Book Encyclopedia 2006, vol. 10, p. 433.
  8. ^ Hewitt 1986, p. 36.
  9. ^ CAIN 2009c, p. 1.
  10. ^ Fraser 2000, p. 40.
  11. ^ Fraser 2000, p. 43.
  12. ^ British government views on the hunger strikes 2007, p. 3.
  13. ^ Fraser 2000, p. 83.
  14. ^ Hewitt 1986, p. 35.
  15. ^ Hewitt 1986, p. 36
  16. ^ The World Book Encyclopedia 2006, vol. 10, p. 434.
  17. ^ Hewitt 1986, p. 40.
  18. ^ Mallie & McKittrick 2001, p. 14.
  19. ^ Hewitt 1986, p. 14.
  20. ^ O’Malley 1990, p. 7.
  21. ^ Hewitt 1986, p. 63.
  22. ^ Elliott & Flackes 1999, p. 609.
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  68. ^ Mallie & McKittrick 2001, p. 25.
  69. ^ O’Malley 1990, p. 23.
  70. ^ O’Malley 1990, p. 62.
  71. ^ Shirlow & McEnvoy 2008, p. 33
  72. ^ Hewitt 1986, p. 35.
  73. ^ CAIN 2009a, p. 1.
  74. ^ Fraser 2000, p. 66.
  75. ^ Hewitt 1986, p. 63.
  76. ^ O’Malley 1990, p. 23.