The 1981 Irish Hunger Strike – ‘ one of the most heroic chapters in human history ’

By Frances Davis

This year will mark the 30th Anniversary of the 1981 hunger strike, in which Bobby Sands and nine other republican prisoners died in a struggle for political status against the Thatcher government’s brutal policy of ‘criminalisation’. The hunger strike was a critical turning point in the most prolonged struggle against colonialism anywhere in history – the more than 800-year-long struggle against British rule in Ireland. This historic moment in Irish history, which ultimately saw the victory of the hunger strikers’ demands, was indeed, as Fidel Castro described that year, ‘one of the most heroic chapters in human history’.

Indeed, the hunger strike set in course a process which had previously occurred only at the very highest points of the nationalist struggle, such as the civil rights movement. Through immense courage and sacrifice, the events of 1981 definitively broke the isolation of the nationalist struggle and saw a huge international impact – more than any other event in the previous 40 years. In the south, as Gerry Adams recently pointed out, it saw an electoral breakthrough with the election of two hunger strikers to the Dail. As he describes, it de facto broke the domination of government by a single party in the south and from 1981 onwards coalition was the order of the day and, as he puts it, saw ‘the beginning of the slow decline of Fianna Fáil as the dominant political force in that part of the island’.

It defeated the Tory government’s policy of criminalisation by showing how there was mass political support for the hunger strike – when Bobby Sands was elected as MP for Fermanagh South Tyrone with 10,000 more votes that Thatcher herself.

Emerging from this struggle, a strategy was developed by the Sinn Féin leadership, based on the primacy of politics, building political strength including in elections, and winning support throughout Ireland.

Indeed since then, the British state has faced the relentless political advance of the national struggle, and rise in support for Sinn Féin in the north and in the south. It is significant that the Assembly elections in the north will take place on 5 May – thirty years to the day since the death of Bobby Sands – and an election which is likely to see Sinn Féin maintain and very likely improve upon its political support.

The development of the peace process stategy, which culminated in the Good Friday Agreement, has strengthened the struggle towards Irish unity and resulted in the British government accepting the future possibility of a united Ireland. This is the legacy of 1981, and a political process which is still unfolding.

In marking the anniversary of the Hunger strike, the conference in London on 18 June, hosted by Sinn Féin, will be a timely opportunity to both commemorate this key event and to learn lessons from what is an advancing and ongoing struggle for self-determination. Sinn Féin’s platform, a progressive left-wing agenda of Irish unity and equality, should be supported. The party is also one of the few in Europe to also clearly put forward an economic alternative which proposes growth and investment not cuts and austerity.

Moreover, the lessons of 1981 also mean understanding the need for solidarity against imperialist war and intervention today. With speakers who were directly involved in the struggle at the time, including former political prisoners, those involved in the international movement in solidarity with the hunger strike, leading political figures, writers and activists, the event will discuss the impact of the hunger strike and developments in the intervening period. It will touch on the wider international agenda and parallels and the next steps in taking the struggle forward today.


1981: a turning point in Irish history

Sat 18 June London Irish Centre, 52 Camden Square, NW1. 1pm-5.30pm

Registration: £5, payable to ‘June 1981 Conference’, PO Box 65845, London EC1P 1LS



‘One of the most heroic chapters in human history’

On September 15, 1981 Cuban President Fidel Castro gave the opening speech to the 68th conference of the Interparliamentary Union in Havana, in which he made remarks on the hunger strike:

‘In speaking of international politics, we cannot ignore what is happening in Northern Ireland. I feel it is my duty to refer to this problem. In my opinion, Irish patriots are writing one of the most heroic chapters in human history.

‘They have earned the respect and admiration of the world, and likewise they deserve its support. Ten of them have already died in the most moving gesture of sacrifice, selflessness and courage one could ever imagine.

‘Humanity should feel ashamed that this terrible crime is being committed before its very eyes. These young fighters do not ask for independence or make impossible demands to put an end to their strike.

‘They ask only for something as simple as the recognition of what they actually are: political prisoners…

‘The stubbornness, intransigence, cruelty and insensitivity of the British government before the international community concerning the problem of the Irish patriots and their hunger strike until death remind us of Torquemada and the atrocities committed by the Inquisition during the apogee of the Middle Ages…

‘Most tyrants tremble before men who are capable of dying for their ideals, after 60 days on hunger strike!…

‘It is high time for the world community to put an end to this repulsive atrocity through denunciation and pressure.’