Fast ‘Til Death
After the ending of the first strike, Bobby Sands, who had succeeded Brendan Hughes as O.C of the H-Blocks became heavily and frantically involved in attempts to bring the prison protest to a principled end on the basis of the five demands. The last thing the prisoners wanted after four years of a gruelling and nightmarish hell was a return to the protest.
It soon became evident however that the Prime Minister of Britain, Margaret Thatcher and the British Government, having secured the ending of the first strike and a potentially explosive situation were more interested in a political victory over the prisoners, and republicans as a whole, than an honourable resolution of the protest.
Subsequently despite intense efforts by Bobby Sands and the other republican leaders, both inside and outside the H-Blocks to avoid it, the prisoners were left politically, with no alternative than to proceed with another hungerstrike.
The second hungerstrike began on 1st March 1981 and was led by Bobby Sands. Unlike the previous strike volunteers would be joining in different stages, thus slowly maximising pressure on the British government. This staggered approach would also avoid a repeat situation where a number of volunteers might die at the same time. The prisoners thinking being, that two or three hungerstrikers dying at once would have no more effect on the Brits than a single death.
Another tactical move came the day after the beginning of the fast when the four hundred and twenty five non-conforming prisoners in the H-Blocks called off their dirty protest, thus centralising public and media attention on the plight of the volunteers on hungerstrike.
Another I.R.A prisoner, Francis Hughes, 27, from the village of Bellaghy joined the fast on 15th March. He was later followed by I.R.A volunteer Raymond Mc Creesh, 24, from South Armagh and Patsy O’Hara, 24, from Derry City the officer commanding the I. N. L. A prisoners in the Blocks. They joined their comrades in refusing food on 22nd march.
These four young Irish men in the prime of their lives had grown up knowing nothing but oppression and discrimination in their own country. Contrary to British claims of criminality, the four would never have seen the insides of a prison were it not for the political situation prevailing in Ireland at the time.
An opportunity to dispel the myth that these men were mere gangsters and part of a criminal conspiracy arose when a special election was called for after the death of Independent Nationalist M.P for Fermanagh/South Tyrone, Frank Maguire.
It was quickly decided that Bobby Sands should run for this seat on the issue of the H-Blocks unaligned to any political party. The rallying cry of “Don’t let them die” employed during the many rallies held throughout the country became a campaign slogan. The H-Block Commitee were not only calling on nationalist people to elect Bobby as a member of parliament but were urging them to save his life. Or so they thought.
The people of Fermanagh/South Tyrone spoke with a resounding voice when on 9th April 1981, 30,492 of them elected Bobby Sands, by now six weeks without food, as their political representative to the Westminister parliament.
Bobby Sands political prisoner, became Bobby Sands M.P. Unbelievable result for a man who was labelled a criminal. Grafitti on the walls throughout the six counties began to decry this fact.
Surely to God Margaret Thatcher and the British government wouldn’t let a fellow M. P starve to death?
Signs looked ominous however when, in response to this victory, a law was drafted in the British House of Commons preventing any more prisoners from standing in future elections. The situation was very bleak indeed. Despite this election result and political pressure from both Ireland and abroad, Margaret Thatcher refused to even enter into negotiations with the political prisoners.
As a direct result of British intransigience Bobby Sands M. P for Fermanagh/South Tyrone, Irish political prisoner, poet and Irish soldier, died at 1:17am May 5th 1981 after sixty-six days without food.
He died as he had lived, an Irish freedom fighter who would rather die than see the cause, for which he ultimately payed the supreme sacrifice, be criminalised. One hundred thousand people turned out for Bobby’s funeral from his terraced home in Twinbrook, West Belfast. Proportionally, on a population basis, it was as though two million people had marched through London.
Sympathy messages flowed in from all corners of the globe condemning the British governments position and paying tribute to the courage and selflessness of Bobby Sand’s martyrdom. Serious rioting broke out all over the six counties with many people losing their lives. The British , true to form,still didn’t take heed.
Sadly nine more young Irishmen followed Bobby Sand’s footsteps into martyrdom before the hungerstrike came to an end. Nine more coffins were followed through the narrow streets and country lanes of the six-counties. Nine more families were left broken hearted, after watching their loved ones die a slow and agonising death because of Britains point blank refusal to give them their five just demands, their rights as political prisoners of war.
Francis Hughes died a week after Bobby Sands on 12th May. Patsy O’Hara and Raymond McCreesh both died on 21st May. Joe McDonnell died on July 8th. Martin Hurson died July 13th. Kevin Lynch died August 1st. Kieran Doherty died August 2nd. Thomas McIlwee died August 8th and Mickey Devine died August 20th.
The hungerstrike came to an end on 3rd October 1981 after 217 days due to the fact that the Catholic Church, the Dublin government and the S.D.L.P(Social Democratic Labour Party) had all consistently refused to side with the prisoners and found it more politically beneficial to capitulate to the British Government. Thus insufficient pressure was brought to bear on the British by the Irish establishment and it was evident that Margaret Thatcher was quite happy to sit back and watch the entire Republican population of the H-Blocks starve to death.
Also by this stage, because of pressure brought upon the families by the Catholic Church, the prisoner’s families had begun to take the prisoners of the fast once they had lapsed into a coma, as was their right. So it looked as though the hungerstrike was on the verge of collapse anyway, when the prisoners released their statement on Octobers 3rd declaring that the hungerstrike was over.