Ireland Revisited: Part 9
In a bid to calm the tension, Pope John Paul II came to the Republic of Ireland in September 1979 and pleaded with the country to end the violence in the North. However, his calls fell on deaf ears and days later the Provisional IRA killed four British soldiers in a landmine in Dungannon and another in the village of Forkhill, South Armagh. Whilst the mayhem continued in Northern Ireland, the Provisional hierarchy within the prisons throughout the country were busy planning their own form of protest against the British government.
The Maze was at the forefront of republican thinking at the time and in 1980, under the leadership of Brendan Hughes, seven republican prisoners began a hunger strike. The strike focused mainly on the contentious revocation by the British government of ‘special category status’ which the prisoners had previously enjoyed. The strike, which generated huge media interest, ended after 53 days before any of the inmates had died. Republicans claimed the strike only came to a halt after assurances from Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government that republican demands had been met, however it soon transpired that this much talked about deal would not be coming to fruition.
The Provisional IRA leadership reacted with fury, claiming that the British government had reneged on their part of the deal in a bid to con republicans. Infuriated at this perceived British deception the republican leadership within the Maze, this time under the command of Provisional IRA man Bobby Sands, launched another hunger strike. This one however, was to differ in the fact that instead of all the prisoners fasting at the same time, one would start and then be followed by another a short time later, which the republican leadership hoped would gain maximum publicity.
A little over a month into the strike, the Provisional IRA decided to maximize international interest in the hunger strikes and in an unprecedented move, Bobby Sands fought and ultimately won the election for the seat of Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Sands, now officially a British Member of Parliament at Westminster proved to be a huge success for Irish republicanism and a major embarrassment for Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government. The world’s media watched with great interest and asked “Could the British Government sit idly by and watch one of their MP’s die?”
On the 5th May, after a torturous 66 days without food, Bobby Sands died, plunging Northern Ireland into crisis. Riots broke out throughout the North as nationalists vented fury at the British government and loyalists inevitably became involved in the street disturbances. Sands was the first of ten republican prisoners to die over the following weeks and months as Margaret Thatcher refused to agree to or compromise with republican demands. Many political commentators now acknowledge the hunger strike of 1981 as being another key ingredient in garnering support for the Provisional IRA in a time of great uncertainty and vulnerability for the organization.
Just like Bloody Sunday and Internment, the British Government had unwittingly provided the Provisional IRA with support from the nationalist community, due in no small part to British policy which seemed to consistently have an adverse effect despite their intentions. With more moderate nationalists now giving at least passive support to the Provisional IRA following the hunger strike, the Provisionals now had a renewed vigor to intensify the war against the British Army and RUC…..
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