Sunday 19 November 2017

From Maze prison to the ballot paper

The 1981 Hunger Strike played a decisive role in the emergence of Sinn Féin as a major electoral force as Bobby Sands and nine other men starved themselves to death.

The Hunger Strike was the culmination of five years of protests by republican prisoners. The disputes began when the British government withdrew special category status for convicted paramilitary prisoners in 1976.

On March 1, 1981, Bobby Sands became the first of the prisoners in the Maze (Long Kesh) H-Blocks to refuse food. The strike ended in October after 10 men, including Sands, had died. The funeral of Sands (pictured) was attended by 100,000 people, and he became an iconic global figure.

During this time, Sands had been elected to the Westminster House of Commons at a by-election in Fermanagh-South Tyrone. Two other hunger strikers had been elected to the Dáil at the June general election.

The IRA and INLA prisoners had demanded "political status", expressed in concessions on issues including freedom of association and wearing their own clothes.

The British government under Margaret Thatcher was willing to consider concessions on some of these points, but adamantly opposed granting political status, as such.

As the strikes went on, the Minister for Foreign Affairs Professor James Dooge told his British counterpart, Lord Carrington, that "every death is a victory for the IRA".

On October 31, four weeks after the Hunger Strike ended, Danny Morrison spoke at the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis in Dublin.

He asked: "Will anyone here object if, with a ballot paper in one hand and the Armalite in the other, we take power in Ireland?"

A new focus on elections led to the decline of the SDLP and the political rise of Sinn Féin.

That was to be the strategy in the succeeding years. During a tumultuous period the IRA continued its campaign of violence until the 1990s, but its electoral victories ultimately led to the start of the Peace Process.

Irish Independent

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