This day thirty years ago (March 1st 1981), Bobby Sands the Officer Commanding (OC) IRA prisoners in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh refused food and commenced on a hunger strike that led to his death and that of nine of his IRA and INLA comrades. It was the second hunger strike undertaken by Republican prisoners in the six counties in the space of just six months in their struggle to secure political status and to defeat British attempts to criminalise the fight for Irish freedom and those engaged in it.
On October 27th1980 Brendan Hughes and six of his colleagues had started the first hunger strike and issued what became known as the Five Demands, which amounted to political status.
On December 1st, three Volunteers from Armagh Women's jail led by Mairead Farrell joined their comrades on the hunger strike. On December 18th, as Sean McKenna was close to death, the strike was ended as the prisoners believed that a deal had been reached with the British.
As it transpired following the halting of the protest, the British government proposals did not come near satisfying the five demands and were completely unacceptable to the prisoners. As far as they were concerned, another hunger strike was their only option.
In a statement issued in February 1981 the prisoners outlined their plans:
“We the blanketmen, and we the women political prisoners in Armagh, have had enough of British deceit and of broken promises. Hunger-strikes to the death if necessary will begin commencing March 1st, 1981, the fifth anniversary of the withdrawal of political status in the H-Blocks and in Armagh jail. We are demanding to be treated as political prisioners which everyone recognizes we are.
We call upon all those who supported us during the last hunger-strike to again rally to our cause and we call upon those who sat on the fence to now see the intransigence of the British and the justness of our cause."
At 1.17AM on May 5th, after 66 days without food, Bobby Sands became the first of the hunger strikers to die. Nine more of his colleagues from both the IRA and INLA followed him to their deaths over the coming months before the end of the hunger strike on October 3 1981.
Today, throughout Ireland and indeed throughout the world, many people will remember with pride the bravery of these ten men and draw inspiration from their sacrifice. However, it is also tinged with sadness for the comrades, friends and families who watched their loved ones die an agonising death in defence of their fellow prisoners and in defence of the republican struggle and British attempts to criminalise it.
Sad too is the fact that thirty years on from the day when Bobby Sands made that momentous decision to refuse food and embark on a protest to the death, the British occupation continues while republican prisoners are currently denied political status and continue to be brutalised in prisons throughout the six counties. The objectives that these men fought and ultimately died for have yet to be attained.
éirígí’s Pádraic Mac Coitir, who participated in the blanket and no wash protests during the struggle for political status which culminated in the 1981 Hunger Strike said it was a defining moment in Irish history.
“It marked a serious setback for British strategy in Ireland, unfortunately at a great cost to the republican prisoners and the nationalist community outside the prisons" he said.
He continued: “What 1981 taught republican Ireland and, indeed, the British establishment was that a united, determined people cannot be criminalised, ignored, repressed out of sight or shot off the streets."
“The sacrifice the hunger strikers made in defence of their fellow prisoners and in defence of the republican struggle should never be forgotten. It should serve as an inspiration to all those who continue the struggle against injustice, in Ireland and beyond.”
Mac Coitir added: “It is important to remember that it wasn’t just the men in the H Blocks who fought against Britain’s criminalisation strategy. The struggle of the female prisoners in Armagh was every bit as crucial and served as a siren call, if one were needed, that women were equal participants in the fight for national independence."
“Equally importantly, there are republicans in prison today who are denied the political status that was won at such a high cost three decades ago. While these prisoners are denied their human rights and, indeed, while even a single person remains imprisoned as a result of the British occupation, the goals of the hunger strikers will remain unfulfilled."