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Protest which saw 65 deaths a turning point in Irish history

(Marie Louise McCrory, Irish News)

The 1981 Hunger Strike was a tumultuous period in Irish history, marked by dozens of deaths in and outside the Maze prison, but also emerging as a key stage in the eventual birth of the peace process. Marie Louise McCrory looks back on the events 25 years ago as republicans mark the anniversary of the death of Bobby Sands

The death of Bobby Sands in the early hours of May 5 1981 was to have far-reaching repercussions beyond the walls of the Maze prison.

News of the 27-year-old's death sparked widespread rioting on the streets, but the period encompassing the 1981 hunger strike would also become one of the turning points of the Troubles.

From the start of the protest on March 1 1981 until it officially ended on October 3, a total of 65 people lost their lives.

Sands, the first of the prisoners to die refusing food, remains an icon of republicanism today and arguably opened the door to the electoral success Sinn Féin has enjoyed.

His image continues to watch over west Belfast from a Falls Road gable, its slogan 'Everyone republican or otherwise has their own part to play' known the world over.

Sands grew up in the predominantly Protestant Rathcoole estate on the outskirts of north Belfast.

His family moved to Twinbrook in west Belfast in the early 1970s where he became an apprentice coachbuilder and joined the IRA.

He was jailed between 1973 and 1976, and the following year was sentenced to 14 years after being arrested for possession of weapons.

Known as 'Geronimo', he became the IRA's 'OC' (officer commanding) in the Maze in 1980.

Sands went on hunger strike on March 1 1981 in a culmination of protests at the withdrawal of special category 'political' status for republican prisoners.

He was joined at intermittent intervals by other inmates, though some did not continue the hunger strike for various reasons.

At the core of the hunger strike were five demands.

Prisoners wanted the right to wear their own clothes instead of prison-issue uniform, exemption from all forms of prison work, free association with each other, the right to organise their own educational and recreational programmes, and full restoration of remission to those conforming with prison rules.

A similar regime had existed in the 1970s but was phased out by the British government, which regarded it as conferring the status of political prisoner on IRA inmates.

In April 1981, while on hunger strike, in one of the most dramatic by-elections of modern times, Bobby Sands shook the British establishment by winning a seat at Westminster.

A majority of 1,500 votes saw him elected MP for Fermanagh/South Tyrone but the result also ignited worldwide interest and threw the spotlight firmly on the prisoners' campaign.

British prime minister Margaret Thatcher insisted it would make no difference to her stance and refused to negotiate with IRA prisoners.

Intensive efforts were meanwhile being made by clerics and a range of other Irish and international bodies to find a compromise.

An envoy from the Pope spent an hour with Sands in his room in the Maze Prison's hospital on his 59th day without food. When he died on the 66th day, he did so with a crucifix given to him nearby.

News of his death brought people onto the streets, with supporters rattling dustbin lids. It also prompted widespread disturbances, while Britain found itself fighting off hostile worldwide political reaction.

Several cities, including Tehran and Paris, have named streets after the hunger striker.

In the US, prayer vigils were held outside British consulates in a number of towns and demonstrators burnt an effigy of Margaret Thatcher outside the British embassy in New York.

Marches and protests were also held in the Republic, with black flags put up on poles and in houses.

Two prisoners also won seats in border counties in the Republic's 1981 general election. Kieran Doherty, who later also died while on hunger strike, became TD for Cavan/Monaghan and Paddy Agnew was elected in Co Louth.

In Belfast, the first fatality of violence following the death of Sands was RUC officer Philip Ellis on May 6.

He was shot by the IRA close to a 'peaceline' barrier at Duncairn Gardens in north Belfast.

A policewoman and a nine-year-old boy were also hit by the gunfire.

On May 7 tens of thousands of people lined the streets for the funeral of Sands, who was buried in the republican plot at Milltown Cemetery.

That same day saw the death of a 14-year-old Protestant schoolboy, Desmond Guiney, after a mob stoned a lorry he was travelling in with his father in north Belfast. His father Eric also died on May 13 from his injuries.

Nine more prisoners died over the next three months on hunger strike.

Francis Hughes (27) died on May 12 after 59 days, sparking extensive rioting in nationalist areas.

Among victims of the violence was Emmanuel McLarnon (21), from Massereene Row in west Belfast, who was shot by the British army amid rioting which broke out in Divis Flats.

The INLA claimed he was one of its members and had died in 'active service'.

Eight people, six of them members of the security forces, were also injured at various locations.

The following day Julie Livingstone (14), from Carrigart Avenue in Lenadoon in west Belfast, was hit and killed by a plastic bullet.

Footage from an American film crew shown during her inquest showed she had not been rioting.

Raymond McCreesh (24), from Camlough in south Armagh, was the third hunger striker to die, on May 21.

He was followed shortly afterwards by Patsy O'Hara (24) from Derry's Bogside, and Joe McDonnell on July 8.

The 30-year-old had been arrested along with Bobby Sands in October 1976 following a bomb attack on a furniture store in Dunmurry.

There were also disturbances during his funeral when soldiers opened fire with plastic bullets outside St Agnes' Church on the Andersonstown Road in Belfast.

Tyrone man Martin Hurson (27) was the sixth hunger striker to die on July 13, followed by Kevin Lynch (25), a labourer from Dungiven, Co Derry, on August 1.

The following day Kieran Doherty, who had begun refusing food on May 22, died.

Thomas McElwee (23), from Tamlaghtduff in south Derry, was the youngest prisoner to die. He was a cousin of Francis Hughes.

The last man to die on hunger strike was Michael Devine, from Derry, on August 20. The 27-year-old was said to be a founder member of the INLA.

The Hunger Strike was finally called off on October 3 at 3pm. A few days later a series of measure were announced which went some way to meeting prisoners' demands.

May 8, 2006

This article appeared first in the May 5, 2006 edition of the Irish News.

This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News