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18 September 2014
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Recent History - Northern Ireland: The

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The Troubles, 1963 to 1985

By BBC History
Hunger Strikes

Mural commemorating the 20th anniversary of the hunger strike
Mural commemorating the 20th anniversary of the hunger strike ©
Over the next decade, a variety of peace initiatives were suggested, tested and ultimately defeated.

New security policies were also introduced. These included increasing the size of the RUC and UDR while shrinking the army presence, thereby placing the emphasis on the people of Northern Ireland policing themselves.

In 1976, the British government also removed the 'special category' status of paramilitary prisoners. Since 1972, paramilitary prisoners had held some of the rights of prisoners of war. Now classified as ordinary criminals, they were to be confined in the new Maze Prison near Belfast, in its distinctively-shaped 'H-Blocks'.

Viewing themselves as freedom fighters rather than criminals, PIRA prisoners embarked on a series of protests, including refusing to wear prison-issue clothing during the so-called 'blanket protest'. This was followed in 1978 by prisoners smearing their cell walls with excrement as a 'dirty protest' against having to 'slop out'.

'Sinn Fein adopted a policy of contesting elections while supporting the use of violence to achieve its ends.'

The protest escalated to a hunger strike in 1980, which was called off when the prisoners mistakenly believed they had been granted concessions.

A second hunger strike began in 1981, led by Bobby Sands. During his strike, he was put forward for the vacant Westminster seat of Fermanagh - South Tyrone - and won.

It was a clear demonstration of the level of popular support for the strikers, but the British government led by Margaret Thatcher refused to make any concessions. Sands died on 5 May 1981. Another nine prisoners would die before the strike was called off in October.

As a result of the strikes, a new strain of bitterness had entered the turmoil of Northern Ireland politics. But at the same time, Sands' by-election victory had shown the potential power of political engagement.

In late 1981, Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, formally adopted a policy of contesting elections while also supporting the continued use of violence to achieve its ends.

Sinn Fein won the by-election following Sands' death, and in June 1983, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams defeated Gerry Fitt, former leader of the centre-ground nationalist SDLP (and now an Independent Socialist) to win the Westminster seat for West Belfast.

These electoral successes raised the very real possibility that Sinn Fein could replace the more moderate SDLP as the political voice of the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland.

Published: 2007-02-01

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