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Friday, 4 May, 2001, 16:31 GMT 17:31 UK
'Error of judgement' in 1981 hunger strike
The Maze prison saw 10 men die during the 1981 hunger strike
The Maze prison saw 10 men die during the 1981 hunger strike
The deputy governor of the Maze prison during the 1981 hunger strike has said that criminalising the republican prisoners was the wrong decision to take.

Duncan McLoughlin made his comments a day before the 20th anniversary of the death of Bobby Sands.

Mr Sands was the first of 10 men to die on the hunger strike as republican prisoners fought for political status.

"I think that criminalisation was a significant error of judgement by government," said Duncan McLoughlin.

The provisional IRA did not want to be sidetracked by prisoner issues

Duncan McLoughlin

Commemorations will be held throughout Ireland in memory of Sands, who died on 5 May 1981, after 66 days on hunger strike.

The hunger strike was the fourth attempt by republican prisoners to force the British Government to abandon the criminalisation policy which had been introduced in 1976.

Mr McLoughlin said that lessons must be learned and people now must find a way to move forward.

"I would suggest that had the government not adopted the criminalisation policy, aside from internment, prisoners might never have become an issue as far as the republican movement was concerned.

"But once the decision was made there was an inevitability about what would follow.

"First you had the blanket protest, then the dirty protest and finally the hunger strike."

One of the key demands of republican prisoners was the right to wear their own clothes.

When this was refused they started a blanket protest where they abandoned the prison uniform in favour of blankets.

Two years later the protest escalated with prisoners smearing their cells with their own excrement, which became known as the dirty protest.

Bobby Sands: first hunger striker to die
Bobby Sands: first hunger striker to die

Mr McLoughlin said that the decision of the government to proceed with criminalisation was intrinsic to the republican movement gaining increased global support.

"Criminalisation was a direct challenge to the Provisional IRA," he said.

"In a sense it was a denial of its history, of its ideology and it was a challenge that had to be answered," he said.

"My feeling is that at the time, the Provisional IRA did not want to be sidetracked by prisoner issues.

"However, once the criminalisation policy was implemented, the prison became a battlefield rather than a scene of the occasional skirmish in the confrontation between the British Government and the republican paramilitary movement.

"It provided a vehicle for international support for the movement that put the government on the back foot."

Mr McLoughlin said that it was now time for everyone to move on and consign the hunger strike to history.

"We all have to move through our history.

"We have got to pass through it, but we move on."

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