Whatever their politics, everyone in Northern Ireland agrees about one thing: that the 1981 hunger strike, during which 10 republican prisoners died, was a watershed. The deaths of Bobby Sands, Francis Hughes, Patsy O’Hara, Raymond McCreesh, Joe McDonnell, Martin Hurson, Kevin Lynch, Kieran Doherty, Thomas McElwee, and Michael Devine changed the politics of the conflict forever.
It is probably true to say that none of those taking part in the strike, which was the culmination of a long prisoner protest against the withdrawal of certain privileges, could have foreseen the eventual outcome of their actions. Twenty years later, leading members of the organization to which seven of them belonged, the IRA, hold seats in the British parliament and sit in a Northern Ireland government. What Bobby Sands and his comrades would have thought of that, had they gazed into a crystal ball, no one knows for sure. But the rise of Sinn Fein as a political party, and the decline of the IRA as a guerrilla army, can be traced directly to their tragic protest.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s misguided policy of criminalization, inherited from the Labor government that she replaced, misunderstood the dynamics of the Northern Ireland conflict and the motivation of those involved in it. It may well have been a case of a government believing its own propaganda — always a fatal defect in a politician — about republicans being mere criminals, but she pursued it in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. One can only conclude that the death of her friend and close adviser Airey Neave two years earlier, when he was murdered by the INLA, made her determined never to give in to republican demands. At any rate, her obstinacy helped ensure that Sinn Fein would become a political party that in the 20 years since the hunger strikes has grown in popularity and strength and is now threatening to replace the Social Democratic and Labor Party as the voice of Northern Ireland nationalism. It is also poised to make further inroads into the popular vote in the Irish Republic in the next general election there.
During that period of political growth, Sinn Fein drew resources away from the armed struggle, eventually replacing the IRA as the main engine running the republican movement.
The hunger strike led to the rise of Sinn Fein, which in turn helped to bring the British and Irish governments closer together in an attempt to undermine the growing support for the IRA’s political wing. It had convinced the British that the Northern Ireland conflict could not be solved by Britain alone. The Anglo-Irish Agreement was one outcome. The very peace process itself, it could be argued, was the other. That process would be meaningless without Sinn Fein, and Sinn Fein would not exists as it does today without the events of 1981. Of course, neither Margaret Thatcher nor the republican leadership could have predicted how events would unfold. Thatcher did not want to compromise, no more than did the hunger strikers, who died rather than do so. Yet, the irony of it is that the eventual outcome of their refusal to compromise has been one of the greatest compromises in recent Irish history: the Good Friday agreement.
In that, the history of modern republicanism is little different from that of its earlier manifestations. In the end, the noble sacrifice of the men of 1916 led to the Anglo-Irish Treaty.
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The goals of Bobby Sands and his comrades were limited and specific: the return of special category status. The goal of Margaret Thatcher was more ambitious: the criminlization of the IRA. She failed. They succeeded. But their success, in the end, has made the IRA redundant. That will be their lasting legacy.