I written on the 1981 Long Kesh hunger strike before, and have even included this information, but I’ve never focused on it. The information comes from articles written by Richard O’Rawe, Anthony McIntyre, and Carrie Twomey, as well as the results of a study in which the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP) participated.
On 1 March 1981, republican (Irish Republican Army, IRA) and republican socialist (Irish National Liberation Army, INLA) political prisoners in the H-Blocks at Long Kesh prison in Northern Ireland began a staggered hunger strike. This meant that rather than have all the volunteers go at once, one man would begin, then another a week later, then another a week after that, and so on.
This was not done lightly. It came only after five years of many prisoners living in nothing but a blanket and three years of not washing and being forced to piss in the floor of their cells and smear their shit on the walls. The prisoners picked 1 March as the day to begin because that was the anniversary of order withdrawing Special Category Status from republican and loyalist prisoners in 1976.
(There were, by the way, around fifty loyalist prisoners on the blanket in addition to the over three republican and republican socialist prisoners on the blanket.)
The hunger strikers had five demands:
(1) the right not to wear a prison uniform;
(2) the right not to do prison work;
(3) the right of free association with other prisoners, and to organize educational and recreational pursuits;
(4) the right to one visit, one letter, and one parcel per week;
(5) full restoration of remission of sentence lost through the protest.
Bobby Sands, up to that point OC for the IRA prisoners, took the first watch.
Blanketman Bik McFarlane succeeded him as OC, with blanketman Richard O’Rawe as the PRO. Rab Collins was OC for the INLA prisoners.
Francie Hughes, also of the IRA, followed him on 15 March. Patsy O’Hara of the INLA and Raymond McCreesh of the IRA joined them on 22 March.
Bobby was elected MP for Fermanagh-South Tyrone on 9 April. But in addition to laying the groundwork for what followed, it had no effect other than steeling Thatcher’s stubbornness.
Bobby died on 5 May, after 66 days. Joe McDonnell of the IRA joined his comrades on 8 May.
Francie Hughes died on 12 May after 59 days. Brendan McLaughlin joined his comrades on 14 May.
Patsy O’Hara Raymond McCreesh both died on 21 May after 61 days. Kieran Doherty of the IRA joined McDonnell on 22 May, and Kevin Lynch of the INLA joined them on 23 May.
Brendan was taken off hunger strike after 12 days when he suffered a perforated ulcer and internal bleeding on 26 May. Martin Hurson of the IRA joined his comrades on 28 May .
Tom McElwee of the IRA joined his comrades on 8 June.
On 11 June, hunger striker Kieran Doherty of the IRA and blanketman Paddy Agnew of the IRA were elected TD's in the Republic of Ireland.
Paddy Quinn of the IRA joined his comrades on 15 June. Mickey Devine of the INLA joined his comrades on 22 June. Laurence McKweon of the IRA joined his comrades on 29 June.
On 5 July, through intermediary Brendan Duddy (codenamed “Mountain Climber”), Thatcher’s government offered the prisoners the right to wear their own clothes, have remission restored, more visits and letters, have prison work redefined to include educational and cultural activities, though no free movement within the wings. Amazed, the prisoner leadership of the IRA (Bik McFarlane, OC, and Richard O’Rawe, PRO) agreed to accept, conditioned on the approval of the IRA leadership outside.
At this point, Joe McDonnell, Kieran Doherty, Kevin Lynch, Martin Hurson, Tom McElwee, Paddy Quinn, Mickey Devine, and Laurence McKweon were on the hunger strike. Joe, who had started his watch on 8 May, was near death.
After word passed outside to Gerry Adams, OC of the IRA’s Northern Command, and his “Kitchen Cabinet”: Martin McGuinness (COS of the IRA), Danny Morrison (publicity director for the IRA and for Sinn Fein, its political arm), Tom Hatley (Sinn Fein), and Jim Gibney (Sinn Fein). They vetoed the prisoners’ acceptance and ordered them to continue. They gave the excuse that it more was needed, but the real reason was that Adams and the rest want to keep up political support for the upcoming August by-election for Westminster to fill the seat vacated at the death of Bobby Sands.
Adams and his Kitchen Cabinet kept the contents from the leadership of the IRSP (political wing of the INLA), who would have ordered their members off the strike had they known, as well as from the republican candidate for the seat, Owen Carron. They also ordered McFarlane and O’Rawe not to disclose the offer to the volunteers on hunger strike.
Joe died in the middle of these “negotiations”. The hunger strike continued. New volunteers joined. Young men kept dying.
Owen Carron, Sinn Fein’s Anti-H-block/Proxy Political Prisoner candidate, won the 20 August by-election for Bobby’s Fermanagh-South Tyrone seat in a landslide.
The IRA and INLA volunteers still on hunger strike called it off themselves on 3 October.
After the hunger strike ended, the British government, quietly and in stages, fulfilled all five of the prisoners’ demands, though not in writing.
Because of their playing politics, their selfish ambition, or at least acquiescence to Adams’ ambition, Joe, Martin, Kieran, Kevin, Tom, and Mickey died. Paddy and Laurence didn’t die because they were removed from the hunger strike by their families after they lapsed into unconsciousness. Adams and his Kitchen Cabinet, not Maggie Thatcher, are responsible for the deaths of those six men.
In other words, six republican prisoners died because Adams and his Kitchen Cabinet were more interested in ephemeral political gain than in the health, welfare, and lives of those prisoners. Of all the sins he and they may have committed in the course of the Troubles, this gross betrayal, the occurrence of which is beyond the shadow of a doubt, stands at the top.
Danny Morrison announced the Provisional Republican Movement’s “Armalite and ballot box” strategy in November 1981.
The story of the secret offer on 5 July 1981 first surfaced in O’Rawe’s 2005 account called Blanketman. Widely denounced by the Provisional Republican leadership, O’Rawe’s highly detailed notes at the time were released along with a number of papers dating from the time and proved his assertions of what happened 100% accurate.
The moral of the story is this: for prisoners on hunger strike, keep the control and negotiations in your own hands. Also, that blind faith in your leaders, in 1981, 1985, or any other time at all, will get you killed, and maybe others along with you. Accept no gods, follow no masters.
Tiocfaidh ar la, Rooz-e ma khahad amad, Notre jour viendra, Thig ar latha, Saya'ty yawmana, Our day will come