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Last Updated: Friday, 5 May 2006, 09:14 GMT 10:14 UK
Hunger strikes: 25 years on

By Denis Murray
BBC Ireland correspondent

Ten young men died on hunger strike in the Maze prison in County Antrim 25 years ago.

To some, they had been driven to extreme measures by a brutal prison regime, and government.

To others, they were gunmen, bombers, and murderers; and if they wanted to commit suicide by starving themselves to death, then let them.

Bobby Sands was 27 when he starved to death

It all goes back to internment in 1971.

The Labour government elected in 1974 decided holding people without trial was an unsustainable policy, criticised worldwide, and damaging the UK's standing as a liberal democracy.

The new policy was to let the internees out, and to convict paramilitaries as criminals instead.

In other words, internment gave a political status to those incarcerated: "criminalisation", as republicans called it, took that status away.

The republican prisoners felt passionately - and I mean passionately - that wearing prison uniform, and being compelled to do prison work, was defeat, humiliation, degradation.

And they were proud inheritors of a tradition - trying to end 700 years of oppression by Britain. The prison policy was another manifestation of that oppression.

They also saw themselves as undefeated soldiers, who just happened to be POWs. Wasn't Britain proud of its officers involved in the Great Escape of World War II?

The republican prisoners decided that one man each week would go on hunger strike, meaning that they would all die, at roughly weekly intervals.

This, ran the belief among the prisoners, would be more pressure than the British government could take.

The Irish government would leap to their aid: international pressure would come to bear.

Margaret Thatcher
Mrs Thatcher's government had a clear policy of no concessions

It didn't happen that way.

Firstly, Margaret Thatcher was a new British prime minister.

She also had a new attitude - once you declare a policy, you stick to it. No U-turns, no compromise. In the famous phrase: "The lady is not for turning".

It was also personal.

A republican group (not the IRA) had placed a bomb under the car of Tory MP Airey Neave, which exploded as he drove out of the House of Commons underground car park. He died in the tangled wreckage.

Mrs Thatcher came to regard republicans as "less than human", in the phrase of her press secretary, Sir Bernard Ingham, in a BBC interview.

If they were in prison, then they deserved to be, and they were criminals, and should be treated as such. Simple as that.

Her government's policy was clear - no concessions. There was, however, a sub-text: no concessions under the threat of a hunger strike.

The hunger strike ended because the men's families had had enough. Once the men became unconscious, the families requested that they be revived, and fed (by intravenous drip).

Republicans realised they had a potential for electoral clout, which would begin slowly and, if carefully managed, build up

Once the strike ended, a new Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Jim Prior, and his number two, Lord Gowrie, who came from County Donegal in the Irish Republic, could make the key concession - prisoners were to wear their own clothes (in the first instance, ironically, the t-shirts and jeans that actually were prison uniform).

The one and only legacy that all sides agree on is this - that Bobby Sands's election as an MP while on hunger strike - and the election of two other hunger strikers to the Irish parliament - taught the republican movement that there might be a better, and more productive path. Not the Armalite, but the ballot box.

Some historians and journalists mark the birth of the peace process as the hunger strike.

Others believe the republican leadership had begun to believe that the political path was the way ahead years before.

Whatever you think, republicans realised they had a potential for electoral clout, which would begin slowly - and, if carefully managed, build up. That's what happened.

The Maze prison closed years ago, after the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Would Sinn Fein have been party to that deal without the hunger strike? Probably not.

The jail is now a desolate and crumbling place.

The government is planning to build a modern sports stadium there, with industrial zones, hotels - and, crucially, a conflict resolution centre, based on the retention of one cell block, and the prison hospital, where the hunger strikers died.

The hope is that a future can be built on the ghosts of the past - and that the arena will be a political one, not the streets, or the prison hospital.

What happened in the hunger strike?
05 May 06 |  Northern Ireland
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

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