The Irish Hunger Strikes Of 1980 And 1981

By | August 24, 2019

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May 1981: A policeman talking to IRA sympathizers bearing banners on behalf of the hunger striker Bobby Sands, during a May Day march at Clerkenwell Green in London. Source: (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

In 1981, ten prisoners died of self-imposed starvation at the Maze Prison in Belfast, Northern Ireland. These deaths were the result of a seven-month-long hunger strike protesting the loss of “special category status” which had previously been granted to members of the Irish Republican Army who were considered political prisoners.

The leader of the strike, and also the first to die, was Bobby Sands. Sands had previously been arrested for IRA activities in 1972 and served four years during which he enjoyed the benefits of special category status. These benefits included not having to wear prison clothes and moving freely on prison grounds. In March 1976, the British government enacted a policy designed to criminalize Irish terrorism and, as a result, the special category status was phased out. When Sands was arrested yet again in 1977, having been picked up for gun possession near the scene of an IRA bombing, he was sentenced to fourteen years in Maze Prison where he was treated the same as any other prisoner arrested for violent crimes.

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A 'H' Block demonstration in Dunville Park, Belfast in 1980. Source: (

At this time, other prisoners were already engaged in protests against the loss of their status. They began by refusing to do prison work or wear prison clothes, wearing nothing but blankets in what became known as the blanket protest. In March 1978, they took it a disgusting step forward with the dirty protest which involved prisoners defecating in their cells. Despite a concession in October 1980 which would allow them to wear civilian clothing, the prisoners launched the first hunger strike on October 27, 1980.