This year marks the 40th anniversary of the hunger strikes in the H-Blocks of HMP Maze, Co Antrim. On 1st March 1981, Provisional IRA Volunteer Robert "Bobby" Sands embarked on a hunger strike. A series of hunger strikes by men in the H-Blocks and women in Armagh Women's Gaol had not brought the desired outcome in the previous autumn.
|Portlaoise Prison in 1974|
After 66 days, Sands died on 5th May. Nine more republican prisoners, three of whom were members of the socialist Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), died in the hunger strikes. While on hunger strike, Sands was elected as a republican candidate in the Fermanagh/South Tyrone by-elections.
The 1981 hunger strikes brought the prison struggle that had started with the opening of the H-Blocks, a modern high-security prison that replaced the huts of Long Kesh internment camp, to a dramatic conclusion. Since 1976, republican prisoners had embarked on the blanket- and no-wash-protests to demand recognition as political prisoners.
The 1981 hunger strikes of PIRA and INLA prisoners are a defining moment in Irish history that brought the Troubles to a wider international audience.
The circumstances which led to the hunger strikes in Northern Ireland started with the move of the republican prisoners from Mountjoy Prison in Dublin to Portlaoise Prison, Co Laois, on 9th November 1973.
In 1972, the Irish state introduced the second Prison Act. While the focus of the first one in 1970 was a modernisation of the prison system aiming at rehabilitation, the later one reflected "a general hardening of attitude towards republican activity".
While republican prisoners enjoyed a special status in the Republic’s prisons since 1916, this situation changed with the outbreak of the Troubles. In the autumn of 1969, the republican movement had split into an Official and a Provisional wing; a significant fraction of the Mountjoy prisoners belonged to the armed wing of the Provisionals, the PIRA.
By 1973, 130 people had been arrested and convicted for republican activities. In June 1972, William Whitelaw, who had become the first Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in March, introduced special category status for both republican and loyalist prisoners following the hunger strike of senior Belfast republican Billy McKee.
The government in the Republic followed one year later. In the summer of 1973, following a hunger strike that lasted 22 days, privileges that amounted to "special category status" were granted to the republican prisoners in Mountjoy.
Portlaoise Hunger Strikes
Riots and hunger strikes were the two dominant forms of prison protest used by republicans before the blanket protests in September 1976.
Following the helicopter escape in October 1973, about 130 prisoners were moved to Portlaoise. One year later, 71 prisoners were affiliated to the PIRA in Portlaoise.
With the transfer to Portlaoise, the prisoners had lost the privileges they had previously won by embarking on various prison protests in Mountjoy in 1972/73.
However, following days of intense negotiations between management and prisoners, special category status and all other concessions previously granted to them were also introduced in Portlaoise.
The relatively peaceful atmosphere was to be short-lived. Tensions and regular clashes between prison staff and republicans led to the reinforcement of the physical security of the prison in four ways:
1) Armed guards patrolled the perimeter walls day and night
2) Barbed wire had been mounted extensively around the prison
3) Perimeter security was further ensured by a military presence of both soldiers and equipment
4) On each segregated landing with the prison, officers of the Garda Síochána complemented prison personnel.
It was under those circumstances that the prison protests in Portlaoise unfolded.
December 1974 and January 1975
The simmering tensions exploded in riots in the days after Christmas 1974, followed by a hunger strike in the following month. During the protests, 27 prison guards were held hostage for six hours by around 140 prisoners.
The prisoners used doors, mattresses, and furniture to barricade themselves inside a cellblock of the E-wing that housed republicans. The prison authorities called in 600 police officers and army soldiers to surround the building.
Following the conclusion of this riot, prisoners lost further rights: the lock-up time was changed from 10pm to 8pm, and only one book was allowed in the cells at a time.
As a direct consequence of this situation, eight prisoners embarked on a hunger strike on 3rd January 1975. The strike lasted for 44 days and only ended after prisoner Pat Ward was admitted to hospital in a critical condition.
On the 30th day of the hunger strike, the prisoners were moved to the Curragh Military Hospital, and on the 42nd day, the conditions of two hunger strikers, Pat Ward and Colm Daltún, deteriorated seriously – with doctors believing them to be within hours of death.
Following public pressure, Government officials entered into negotiations with the prisoners and agreed to restore some form of "special category status".
Nonetheless, further hunger strikes continued in October 1975 and January 1976. In a press release from 14 December 1975, the PIRA-linked Irish Republican Information Service complained about the "inhuman condition", referring to a statement smuggled out of prison by then PIRA O/C in Portlaoise, Dáithí O’Conaill.
The 1977 Hunger Strikes
In the summer of 1976, the situation further deteriorated when three prisoners escaped during a court hearing. The prisoners had used explosives smuggled into the prison to blow a hole in the courthouse wall. This led to intensified strip-searches and a reduction of visits. In protest, the prisoners attempted to burn the prison on 21 July.
The situation eventually exploded in another hunger strike. On 7 March 1977, 20 PIRA prisoners went on a fast which lasted 47 days; less than a dozen stayed on until the end.
On 22 April, the hunger strike ended after 47 days without concessions following a visit to the prison by Bishop James Kavanagh. Throughout the year, the Fianna Fáil government improved conditions in prison.
Yet, these new developments were not enough for the prisoners who started to refuse all privileges except visits from September on. The prisoners demanded free association and an end to strip-searching. In an internal report, the authorities noted that there was a danger of a riot in prison.
Therefore, to ease the tensions, the prison authorities ended the strip-searches, lock-ups were agreed for 8:30pm, the prisoners were granted one late night every five to six weeks, tapes and records for language studies were allowed in the cells, and the tuck shop was improved. The concessions convinced the prisoners to end their protest.
While the prisoners did not manage to attain their ultimate aim of "political status", they had secured de-facto "special category status", and the conditions unquestionably improved over the four years of protest.
With the conclusion of the protests in the Republic, the blanket protests had started in the H-Blocks, and republicans were shifting their attention to Northern Irish prisons.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ
|Dieter Reinisch is a Historian of contemporary Irish history at the National University of Ireland in Galway, and an Adjunct Professor in International Relations at Webster University.|