In the late 1970s, Britain, then fighting a guerrilla war in the North, announced that IRA captives would no longer be treated as political prisoners but as common criminals.
IRA prisoners retorted that they had been tried for political offences in no-jury courts, and that Britain was trying to brand the entire fight for Irish freedom “800 years of crime.”
They refused to wear prison clothes or do prison work. The British stripped them naked and locked them alone in cells. In 1980, they began a hunger strike, an ancient Irish act designed to bring about justice by moral force.
Cardinal Tomas O Fiach intervened with the British, and negotiated a deal: the IRA prisoners would get back political status, but to save Britain’s face could not call it that. The prisoners called off the hunger strike, but Britain reneged on the deal.
In March 1981 the prisoners went on hunger strike again. Britain refused to negotiate with “criminals,” even after Sands was elected to the House of Commons. Ten men died on hunger strike, the eyes of the world upon them. Britain was eventually shamed into conceding political status.
The hunger strike changed everything in the Northern Ireland, ultimately laying the ground for political negotiations, the peace process and the Good Friday agreement.
In today’s edition of the Irish Echo, and in the weeks ahead, we will recall those terrible days of 25 years ago, and examine their significance, with particular focus on the crucial role of Irish America.
We commend these articles to all Irish Americans, and in particular to those readers too young to remember the summer of 1981.