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Last Updated: Friday, 5 May 2006, 06:22 GMT 07:22 UK
What happened in the hunger strike?
On the 25th anniversary of the death of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, the BBC News Website examines the events which resulted in 10 men starving themselves to death.

The seeds of the 1981 hunger strike by republicans at the Maze prison were sown five years previously when the British government decided newly convicted prisoners would be treated as ordinary criminals.
H-Blocks at Maze prison
Protests had been going on for five years before the hunger strikes

This "criminalisation" policy was objectionable to IRA inmates, who saw themselves as "prisoners of war".

The decision by then-Northern Ireland Secretary Merlyn Rees was a move away from attempts to reach a settlement with the IRA towards a harder approach.

Key demands of the protest to return to "special category" status included the right to wear their own clothes, the right not to carry out prison work and the right to associate freely with other republican inmates.

From 1 March 1976, newly sentenced IRA prisoners refused to wear jail clothing, wrapping themselves in blankets instead.

Right to wear own clothes at all times
Right to free association within a block of cells
Right not to do prison work
Right to educational and recreational facilities
Restoration of lost remission of sentence

The "blanket protest" was extended in April 1978, when prisoners in the so-called H-Blocks in the Maze prison began refusing to wash or slop out.

In March 1980, the removal of "special category" status was extended to all paramilitary prisoners, regardless of when the offence was committed.

On 27 October 1980, seven republican prisoners went on hunger strike. They were joined on 15 December by 23 more.

Three days later, the 53-day action was called off following a plea from Irish Catholic Primate Cardinal Tomas O Fiaich.

However, it would not be long before another began.

Bobby Sands
Bobby Sands: 1 March-5 May (66 days)
Francis Hughes: 15 March-12 May (59 days)
Raymond McCreesh: 22 March-21 May (61 days)
Patsy O'Hara: 22 March-21 May (61 days)
Joe McDonnell: 8 May-8 July (61 days)
Martin Hurson: 28 May-13 July (46 days)
Kevin Lynch: 23 May-1 August (71 days)
Kieran Doherty: 22 May-2 August (73 days)
Thomas McElwee: 8 June-8 August (62 days)
Michael Devine: 22 June-20 August (60 days)
The hunger strike which would eventually see 10 republican prisoners die began on 1 March 1981, the fifth anniversary of criminalisation of IRA inmates.

Bobby Sands, a 27-year-old who had served four years of a 14-year sentence for possessing firearms, began refusing food.

He was joined on 15 March by fellow IRA Maze inmate Francis Hughes, while a week later, IRA man Raymond McCreesh and INLA prisoners' leader Patsy O'Hara also joined.

With tensions running high and increasingly strained relations between the British and Irish governments, the ailing Sands stood in a by-election in Fermanagh-South Tyrone as an "Anti-H-Block" candidate.

In an international publicity coup, he was elected on 11 April, gaining 30,492 votes compared to the 29,046 tally of Official Unionist Party candidate Harry West.

But Margaret Thatcher's British government remained determined to stand firm.

"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," she said.

Dirty protesters
Republican prisoners began a dirty protest in 1978

Sands died on 5 May after 66 days on hunger strike, sparking riots in nationalist areas of Northern Ireland.

His funeral in Belfast was attended by at least 70,000 people, the biggest seen in the city until the death of George Best in 2005.

With the deaths of three more hunger strikers in May, rioting broke out in Belfast and Londonderry, while in Dublin, a group of up to 2,000 people tried to break into the British Embassy, which was the scene of further angry demonstrations in July.

On a visit to Northern Ireland, Mrs Thatcher said: "Faced with the failure of their discredited cause, the men of violence have chosen to play what may well be their last card."

Cardinal O Fiaich tried to intervene, writing to Mrs Thatcher urging her not to "allow another death".

Upsurge in violence which saw 62 people killed during hunger strike
Increased international sympathy for republican movement
IRA recruitment boosted
Sinn Fein electoral support increased
In her reply, Mrs Thatcher said conceding to the prisoners' demands "would encourage further blackmail and support for terrorism".

The prisoners found further electoral success in the Irish Republic's general election, with two H-Block prisoners elected to the Dail.

And with no end in sight, the situation intensified with Sinn Fein announcing on 15 June that one republican prisoner would join the hunger strike every week.

A second wave of hunger strikers, who had begun refusing food as replacements for the first four, also began to die in July and August.

Joe McDonnell, who had joined the fast to replace Bobby Sands, died on 8 July - at the age of 30, he was the oldest hunger striker to die.

The human cost was becoming all too stark, and at the end of July, after 47 days of fasting, the family of Paddy Quinn asked for medical treatment to save his life.

Three masked men fire volleys of rifle shots in 1981 over the coffin of hunger-striker Bobby Sands
Up to 70,000 people attended the funeral of Bobby Sands
The atmosphere across Northern Ireland remained tense with continuing riots and an upsurge in violence.

As September arrived, more families were intervening and getting medical treatment for hunger strikers, including relatives of Laurence McKeown who had been fasting for 70 days.

The hunger strike eventually ended on 3 October, 217 days after it began.

At this stage, six prisoners were still fasting but decided to stop as it was clear their families would insist on medical intervention.

The end of the hunger strike saw both sides claiming victory.

A few days later, Northern Ireland Secretary James Prior announced a number of jail policy changes which met some of the prisoners' demands - the right to wear their own clothes and the restoration of 50% of lost remission for those who obeyed prison rules for three months.

The general feeling among the republican community was that the hunger strikers had achieved what they set out to do, while the British government insisted they had not given in to republican demands.

While the hunger strike may not have achieved all its aims, it highlighted a new strategy for republicans.

Less than a month after it ended, the Sinn Fein annual conference heard of the concept known as the "Armalite and the ballot box".

First peek at Maze masterplan
30 Jan 06 |  Northern Ireland
Anniversary of IRA hunger striker
05 May 01 |  Northern Ireland
Dark legacy of the Maze
27 Jul 00 |  Northern Ireland
The prison that served its time
27 Jul 00 |  Northern Ireland


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