Growing up in Northern Ireland at the time, I have very vivid memories of the 1981 hunger strike which lasted 217 days and resulted in the death of 10 republican prisoners.
The 1981 hunger strike was the culmination of a five-year protest by republican prisoners in the infamous H-Blocks of HM Prison Maze (formerly Long Kesh) outside Belfast to be recognised as political prisoners as opposed to common criminals. The prisoners had “Five Demands”:
• 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 organise educational and recreational pursuits;
• the right to one visit, one letter and one parcel per week;
• full restoration of remission lost through the protest..
The protest for political status, initially seen by the IRA as a humbug and a diversion of attention from its armed struggle, started with a blanket protest in 1976 (whereby prisoners refused to wear uniforms and thus wrapped themselves in just their blankets). In 1978 the dispute escalated into the dirty protest, when prisoners refused to leave their cells to wash and covered the walls of their cells with excrement. In 1980, seven prisoners participated in the first hunger strike, which ended after 53 days with no deaths.
On 1 March 1981 when demands by republican prisoners to be treated as political prisoners were not met by the Government the second hunger strike began.
On 5 May 1981, Bobby Sands died with the next prisoner, Francis Hughes dying seven days later on the 12 May, 1981. The tenth prisoner to die, Mickey Devine, died on 20 August, 1981. Not one of those who died was over 27.
The hunger strike achieved even greater world wide publicity than it otherwise might have when Bobby Sands was elected by the Fermanagh and South Tyrone electorate as its Member of Parliament for Westminster, in a by-election on 9 April 1981 (occasioned by the death of the sitting member).
Remarking on Sands’ death in the House of Commons, Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher said “Mr. Sands was a convicted criminal. He chose to take his own life. It was a choice that his organisation did not allow to many of its victims”.
The government rushed through the Representation of the People Act 1981 to prevent another prisoner contesting the second by-election in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, which was due to take place following the death of Sands.
Mrs Thatcher stood firm and the hunger strike was called off on 3 October1981. By 1983 all of the “Five Demands” had been essentially met but without any formal recognition of political status from the government.
There are Hunger Strike Memorials not only across Ireland but also across the world including those in the United States, Australia and France. The Iranian Government renamed Winston Churchhill Street, a street running alongside the British Embassy in Tehran, after Bobby Sands.
The central feature of the Derry Hunger Strike Memorial which was unveiled in 2000 is a large stone monument in the shape of an ‘H’ signifying the H-Blocks at the Maze Prison. On the central bar of the ‘H’ is a small sculpture in the form of a dove, human hand, and barbed wire while each upright of the ‘H’ lists 5 of the 10 hunger strikers who died in 1981.
In addition to commemorating the 1981 hunger strike, the monument also lists, on two side plaques – one on each side of the main monument, those Republicans who died while on hunger strike during the 20th century including Michael Gaughan and Frank Stagg which died on hunger strike in English prisons in 1974 and 1976.
This entry is one of a group (loop) of entries based on many trips to Londonderry/Derry. I suggest you continue with my next entry – Republican Paramilitary Memorials – or to start the loop at the beginning go to my introductory entry – The City on the Foyle.