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The search for peace
Prison protest
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Prison protest
• Dirty protest
• Hunger Strikes

• Sinn Fein

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

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

• Hunger strike commemorative Website
• Reading list: The hunger strikes

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Prison protest

Marchers support IRA hunger strikers, 1981

Prison protests have been an emotional and volatile part of Northern Irish history. The Republican protests of the 1980s created instability throughout the community and won the IRA widespread support.

The Provisional IRA had begun its bombing campaign in the summer of 1970. Two years later, the Northern Ireland Secretary William Whitelaw introduced special category status for IRA detainees after republican prisoners went on hunger strike in Crumlin Road prison in Belfast.

But the UK government changed its position in 1976, deciding that prisoners convicted of terrorist-related offences would be treated as common criminals. When the first IRA prisoners were brought to the Maze prison six months later they refused to wear prison uniforms because they saw themselves as prisoners of war.

For the next four years protesters wore only a prison blanket. The protest culminated when they refused to clean out their cells and smeared their excrement on the walls. The issue was brought to a head after a failed hunger strike in 1980. The prisoners' leader, Bobby Sands, convinced the outside leadership that another hunger strike could be successful if it used different tactics than the first.

The prisoners refused food on a rolling basis. Sands's strategy was that the eventual death of a prisoner every week would crack the Thatcher government's resistance to special status.

The strike lasted 217 days. Ten prisoners, including Sands, died. On 7 May almost 100,000 people - almost one-fifth of the nationalist population of Northern Ireland - attended Sands's funeral. International governments expressed regret at his death; a French city council named a street Rue de Bobby Sands. Sands had been elevated to the status of international hero.

The hunger strikers were made martyrs. The emotions stirred by the hunger strike helped create the momentum for Sinn Fein to forge a strong political presence in Northern Ireland. Many nationalists, bitter at the sight of ten men dying on a hunger strike, turned to violence and joined the ranks of the IRA.

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