The History of Hunger Strikes in Ireland

Player utilities

This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Prison Hunger Strikes have long been used as a tool of protest. Two of the most infamous ones took place in Northern Ireland in 1980 and 81. Ten prisoners there starved themselves to death. Brendan O'Leary is a Lauder Professor of Political Science at The University of Pennsylvania. He says that the inmates were striking to be classified as political prisoners instead of criminals.

Professor O'Leary: The use of hunger strikes by Irish republicans has been a constant, since Irish republicans organized themselves against British rule in the 19th century. In order to gain formal recognition as a political prisoner and that's in fact what happened in 1980 and 1981. The prisoners in the "Maze prison," as it was called in Northern Ireland, were striking in support of five demands; including the right to work, the right not to wear prison uniforms, the right to have people come and attend them once a week, to receive parcels and so on. The hunger strikes began against a background of previous protests that had not been successful for the prisoners. They had refused to wear uniforms. They had carrier out what was called a "dirty protest" namely; refusing to wear prison uniforms and smearing excrement on their cell walls, urinating, refusing to use the institutions of the jail. That protest had not been particularly successful. So the hunger strike was adopted as a last resort.

Werman : Now the key figure, and the first to die in that hunger strike, was Bobby Sands. Remind us who he was.

Professor O'Leary: Bobby Sands was the Officer Commanding of the imprisoned IRA members inside the maze jail. In the course of his strike he was elected to membership of the British parliament; obviously a position he could not take given that he was in jail. His hunger strike was globally famous, it's still etched into the memories of many toady. He died but nevertheless in the aftermath of his sacrifice, and the subsequent starvation of nine of his colleagues, The British government conceded "De facto" many of the prisoners demands. (And) Although nobody anticipated it at the time, one of the repercussions of the hunger strikes was to reinvigorate the republican movement inside of northern Ireland. In some senses one can argue that the aftermath of the hunger strikes was the precursor to the successful peace process in Northern Ireland.

Werman: Do you think the British government anticipated that kind of martyrdom effect that resulted?

Professor O'Leary: They thought about it and they calculated that the risk was worth taking. They obviously did not anticipate that after Sands died that one hundred thousand people would attend his funeral. So they did seriously miscalculate.

Werman: Was there any concern in the British government about the inhumanity of letting strikers starve themselves or some of the Hippocratic concerns the U.S government is expressing right now.

Professor O'Leary: At the time, I thought, the U.K government in 1980-81 was caught in a logical contradiction, because it had special legal arrangements it was appropriate that prisoners be recognized as having a special status. Likewise with regard to the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. It seems to me logically they should be treated as prisoners of war; but if you refuse to give them prisoner of war status then you have to decide what status they have.

Werman: But even in terms of just pure mercenary PR wouldn't it be worse for the U.S government if any of these detainees were to die because they starved themselves to death?

Professor O'Leary: Well the trouble with force feeding, is that your force feeding somebody whose body is in an advanced state of deterioration and there is a high possibility that they could die from your intervention. At the moment, of course, the U.S Administration is probably calculating that forced intervention is better because that way they don't create a martyr. But it seems to me highly probable that if they continue with this method and if there is a continuing sequence of prisoners they are likely to have such a martyr in any case.

Werman: Brendan O'Leary Lauder Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania thanks so much for your time.

Professor O'Leary: Thank you