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Michael C. Mentel
The 1981 Irish Hunger Strike by Michael Mentel


The hunger strike of 1981 was one of the most tragic events to occur in Irish history. Ten men died over a period of 217 days in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh (Maze) prison, protesting the denial of their basic human rights. They endured five years of intensified degradation and brutality at the hands of prison warders following the termination of Special Category Status (political status) in the prisons. After five years of attempting to attain their basic five demands from the British government, they engaged in the most extreme form of protest to achieve their objective: a hunger strike.


The Troubles that gave rise to the 1981 hunger strike have their roots in centuries of colonialism, socio-economic subjugation, and religious persecution, which has long been cataloged in the annals of Irish history. At the initial stages of the Troubles in 1971, the British government instituted internment without trial for persons suspected of belonging to paramilitary organizations. Eventually, the British government granted Special Category Status to prisoners incarcerated for paramilitary activity. By 1976, Special Category Status was stripped from the prisons. The removal of Special Category Status led to a five-year prisoner protest calling for the granting of the "basic five demands" to reinstitute, in part, what was stripped away from them. That protest culminated in the 1981 hunger strike.


The 1981 Irish Hunger Strike critically examines the declassified British government documents detailing the policies and practices of the British government that served as the catalyst, triggering the 1981 hunger strike. These documents reveal how Margaret Thatcher exacerbated the hunger strike by determinedly refusing to make the compromises necessary to end it. Her public denouncements and inaction towards the hunger strike brought criticism upon her from leadership in the United States, the Republic of Ireland, and other world countries. Apart from her public denouncements to end the strike, Thatcher secretly consulted with her cabinet on finding ways to end the strike on her own terms. In highly confidential negotiations with the Provisional IRA, Thatcher also sought and failed to bring the strike to an end. The declassified documents illustrate how the 1981 hunger strike, and the ten men who died on it, forced a revolutionary change in the political and governmental structure of the north, forming a road to peace that concluded with the signing of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

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