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Northern Ireland

The truth about the IRA hunger strikes

Bobby Sands’s funeral in 1981. Bettmann

Forty years ago this month, IRA member Bobby Sands died after a 66-day hunger strike at the Maze prison, Co Down. This was a “watershed” moment for Irish republicanism, says Peter Taylor, a journalist who covered the Troubles for 30 years, in Archive on 4’s The Hunger Strikes podcast.

The hunger strike was based on principle: IRA prisoners wanted to be treated as prisoners of war, with privileges such as wearing civilian clothes. Their “blanket protests” – wearing prison blankets rather than uniform – escalated into “dirty protests”, where they would smear excrement on the cell walls.

Then, on 1 March, 1981, Sands refused breakfast, and all other food thereafter. The following month he was narrowly elected as a Westminster MP in a by-election. The IRA wings of the Maze “erupted in celebration” – it was the start of the group’s “Armalite and ballot box strategy”, campaigning through violence and electoral politics simultaneously. Sands’s protest galvanised republican support in nationalist communities: after his death on 5 May, aged 27, 100,000 people attended his funeral.

By autumn that year, after the deaths of nine more IRA hunger strikers, the campaign was called off. The prisoners’ demands had been largely met, although their special status was never officially acknowledged. In the following years, members of Sinn Féin, a nationalist party with historical links to the IRA, started to win local and national elections. It’s now the largest political party on the island of Ireland.

Listen to the podcast here.