The Hunger Strikes 1980-81

It was something which is part of an Irish political tradition, which goes back to pre-Christian times, something which is not part of the Western tradition, but was there. Hunger strike and hunger strike to death, if necessary, because you are challenging your detractor either to withdraw his charge or to hunger strike with you or to see through the consequences of the hunger strike, whereby the striker would die.

In that situation, the authorities couldn't win. So, an incredible use of religious symbolism and mythology. It changed the whole nature of the campaign.

The fact that they were living in conditions like animals, that their own excrement was being smeared on the walls, actually goes back to the beginnings of Christianity. The symbols and slogans that they were using at the time--"No greater love hath a man than to lay down his life for his friend." The iconography that they were using, of a dying Christ in the bosom of the blessed Virgin Mary. People going out in demonstrations wearing the prison shroud, putting on their heads the crown of thorns, which Christ had worn to Calvary. All of it was going to the very heart of Christian symbolism. So, you don't need to have any elaborate text; you simply need the visual evidence. And so, therefore, they were claiming that they were part of something which was old as Christianity itself, and as self-sacrificial as the death of Christ himself.

They were extremely aware of the power of imagery and symbolism, because precisely the same images, precisely the same images, have been used after 1916, when the rebel leaders were rounded up and put into the jails and then shot in 1916. Sixty years later, the new generation comes along and uses exactly the same imagery, the same symbols.

When you look at the reaction of the greater Catholic community to what was happening inside the Maze with the blanket men and then the hunger strikes, you have to divide the Catholic community ... those relatives who actually have people inside the prisons and most others, who were non-Republicans. And most others were not moved, for the most part, by what was going on.

For example, the first hunger striker who went to his death, Bobby Sands, on the day he went on hunger strike, 4,000 people watched in protest. We can take it that they all were hard-line Republicans. On the day he was buried, 70,000 marched in protest. So this, again, was a huge propaganda victory, where the Catholic community were used as sort of an emotional rollercoaster. And now it was rollercoasting towards the ... Republican movement again. They believed that the British authorities had mishandled [the situation] very badly.

The British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher ... did herself tremendous damage in saying, "We will not talk to terrorists under any circumstances." It has to be remembered that, at the time, she refused to speak to the ANC and to Nelson Mandela. This was part of a wider policy that she had.

I'm not certain we can use the word "strategy" when we look at the whole hunger strike. Some of it was accident, but then a strategy began to put itself together. It was actually insofar as it was the relatives who moved the Republicans to take seriously voices other than their own. That was the first point. Secondly, the momentum was coming from within the prison and not from outside. Adams and company were against the hunger strike to begin with. They thought it was counter-productive. They didn't think it was going to work. And what it indicates is how central prisoners are to the whole campaign. If you look at the cease-fires, it's only after the prisoners agreed to it that they were able to carry it through.

So, the prisoners played the role. But the strategy was something which, again, was embedded in the Republican psyche. It was simply reaching into the recesses of their communal memory, and remembering what happened after 1916. The symbolism, the imagery, was something which came to them as second nature. They would have given, had some thought, but it would've been the most natural thing in the world to do.

[ The IRA leadership] was opposed to the hunger strike because they were afraid it would fail simply because of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. They would have to call off the hunger strikes, and the result of that would be huge demoralization inside the organization. They didn't want it to happen. And, secondly, it was happening inside the prisons. They didn't have control. They were an organization which was used to control, liked to be firmly in control.

When Bobby Sands was elected to Parliament, only then did it strike Republicans what a gold load had struck. Because here they were saying "Bobby Sands MP", Member of the British Parliament, RIP, may he rest in peace; killed by the British establishment," was the way they were able to put it. And that's when the democratic mandate really begins to go into play. That's when they realize that they have to play the electoral role as well.

So, what you find is with the election of Bobby Sands, and following his death and the bi-election, the election of another Republican, is the sovereignty changes to electoral ... to show that they had the democratic mandate. And they took off in spectacular fashion.

Remember, they started from a base of zero. But, within a few years they were taking 13.4% of the whole vote inside Northern Ireland. They were taking up to 40% of the Catholic vote. They were challenging for the first time seriously the SDLP. They were embarrassing the Irish government. They were upsetting the apple cart again.

When the second hunger strike was called, it actually had more support than the first hunger strike. Because the first hunger strike was called off after two Catholic bishops had gone into the prisons and believed that they'd won concessions from the government.

They then believed that the government went back on its word. So, it wasn't a question of simply believing what Republicans said, Catholic bishops had been lied to was the perception.

So, when a second hunger strike began, it began with that advantage. Its timing also was crucial. The first hunger strike had been timed so that if anyone was going to die, they were going to die around Christmas, the time of a huge Christian celebration, the birth of Christ. The second hunger strike was timed to end at Easter. And that had two potent symbols. One was the risen Christ of Easter, and second was the remembrance of Easter Rebellion of 1916. So, the thinking, the symbolism, the imagery that had gone into it was very powerful.

Margaret Thatcher compounded British difficulties by appearing to be too ... (inaudible)--"a crime is a crime is a crime," in that horrible strident verse of hers. And while it may well have gone down well with her own supporters, it showed no understanding of the Irish political psyche. It did tremendous damage to the constitutional politicians in Ireland who are now being challenged by these revolutions. And all of that had to be undone.

The impact of Sands' death was overwhelming. Even the peace people, the people who had formed a peace movement in 1976 as a result of IRA atrocities, said that they could identify with people, they identified with Sands. That here was another Irish life taken needlessly.

Bobby Sands' death led to yet another huge emotional ground swell inside the Catholic community. A ground swell which didn't necessarily go towards Republicans, but certainly it went against the British. That had the impact that the Protestant community and the Catholic community were more polarized than they'd been for at least a decade. And, neither side understood how the others felt.

The culmination of the hunger strikes was one which brought Sinn Fein out of being a militant armed sect into a wider political and democratic process. Now, this is very, very important.

I don't think they would have embraced that had it not been for the emotional ground swell of the hunger strikes, the realization that there are votes out there to be taken. So, it was very important for that reason. It also raised the profile of people like Adams, who in any case had been thinking and moving in the direction of a democratic process rather than the military process.


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