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Hunger Strike
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• Prison protest
Hunger Strike
• Dirty Protest
• Anglo-Irish Agreement

• Sinn Fein
Events Parties and paramilitaries
Piece together the puzzle of the Northern Ireland conflict by clicking the related subjects above.

• Margaret Thatcher on the hunger strike
• Bobby Sands's funeral
• Riots after Sands's funeral

• Bridie Lynch, mother of hunger striker
• Margaret Thatcher, UK prime minister
• Marlene, Wilson, relative of murdered protestant
• BBC reports on the end of the strike

• The five demands (republican website)

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Hunger Strike

Bobby Sands, republican icon

The death of 10 republican prisoners in two IRA hunger strikes marked a turning point both for the IRA and its political wing, Sinn Fein.

IRA prisoners, who had lost special status, were determined to win five rights: to wear their own clothes, to refrain from prison work, freedom to associate and to organise their own leisure activities and to have lost remission restored.

The first hunger strike began on 27 October, 1980. Although the IRA leadership opposed the strike, they could not ignore the prisoners' wishes. At the time, there were more members of the IRA locked up in the Maze prison than active members outside.

It ended in failure. On the 53rd day of the strike, prisoner leader Brendan Hughes called it off believing a government courier was en route with a letter meeting prisoners demands. It did not.

The second strike was more strategic. The new prisoner leader, Bobby Sands, decided that the strike would be run on a rolling basis, with a new prisoner joining the fast each week. That, he believed, would lead to a death a week and put increasing pressure on the government to meet prisoner demands.

Bobby Sands refused food on 1 March, 1981. But the hunger strike really kicked into action four days later when the then MP for Fermanagh/South Tyrone, Frank McGuire, died. Sinn Fein nominated Sands for the seat and the election drew world-wide attention to the prisoners' protest. In a tense battle between Sands (standing as the Anti H-Block/Armagh Political Prisoner candidate) and the UUP's Harry West, Sands won with 51.2% of the vote - a majority of 1,446.

Bobby Sands lapsed into a coma on 3 May. He died one hour after midnight on the 66th day of his strike. At least 70,000 people attended Bobby Sands' Belfast funeral and protests erupted across nationalist areas of Northern Ireland. The immediate gain for the IRA was a sudden rise in membership.

Margaret Thatcher's government was determined not to give into the prisoners' demands and the strike continued. The second striker, Francis Hughes, died on 12 May, sparking rioting in many nationalist areas of the province. Nine days later two more prisoners died on the 61st day of their strike.

The British government appeared to be digging in its heels and the families of the strikers began to lose faith that concessions could be won. On 31 July, the Quinn family took their son off his fast. Within a month several others were given medical attention. The last prisoner died on 20 August.

The strike came to an end on 3 October, 217 days after it had begun. Northern Ireland Secretary James Prior announced that prisoners could wear their own clothes and that remission lost would be restored. No formal recognition was ever made of their right to political status, though many have argued that it had been de facto granted through the concessions and others that followed.

Although all the demands were not met and 10 men had died, many republicans regarded the hunger strike, in political terms, as a success.

It had attracted massive international and domestic political attention to the prisoners' demand and led to a direct political gain. Over the next two years, Sinn Fein saw its share of the vote rise as the new twin strategy of using both the "Armalite and the ballot box" emerged.

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