The hungerstrike of 1981 was one of the most influential periods in the present phase of the struggle for Irish freedom. It not only thwarted Britain’s plans to criminalise Ireland’s long and noble fight for freedom, but concentrated world wide media attention on the war in Ireland, paving the way for Sinn Fein’s entrance into the political arena and the many electoral successes that followed.
The events surrounding the prison protests, and culminating in the fast to the death of ten I.R.A(Irish Republican Army) and I.N.L.A(Irish National Liberation Army) volunteers began in 1976 when the British Government introduced a policy which was an attempt to portray Irish P.O.Ws as mere criminals. This policy became known as Criminalisation.
From the 1st march 1976 any sentenced volunteer would no longer be afforded the rights of a political prisoner, a right that was won after a hungerstrike by Belfast man Billy Mc Kee in 1972,but would be treated like any other O. D. Cs(ordinary, decent criminals), as they were known. For the prisoners this would mean, wearing a prison uniform, doing prison work and a restriction in the amount of free association with their comrades inside.
This shift in policy by the British was seen by republicans as not only an attempt to criminalise the prisoners, but as an extension of this, a well thought out plan by the British government, to break the liberation struggle in Ireland. The prisons would be used as a breakers yard where the prisoners would be de-politicised, and therefore no longer a threat to the British state.
The P.O.Ws had other plans. The first prisoner to be sentenced after the cut-off date was a nineteen year old Belfast man, called Kieran Nugent. He refused to wear a prison issue uniform telling the screws(warders)
“If you want me to wear a convict’s uniform you’re going to have to nail it on my back”.
His civilian clothing was thus taken away, so he sat almost twenty-fours hours a day wrapped in nothing but a prison blanket. The blanketmen, as they became known, were born. The tension within the H-Blocks soon heightened as more prisoners joined the protest, beatings became a daily occurence as the I. R. A and I. N. L. A volunteers refused to yield to the full might of the British state in Ireland. Their spirits were bowed but unbroken.
While all this was going on within the prison, the republican movement was piling on the pressure on the outside with rallies and protests in defence of the blanketmen. Rallies were organised throughout Ireland and further afield. On the military front the I.R.A had begun to target prison officers, killing several including a deputy governor.
Again the situation inside escalated and because of the severe beatings and forced mirror searches – in which prisoners would be forced to squat over a mirror in order to have their back passages probed – the P. O. Ws refused to leave their cells, unless to use the toilet. The beatings, which often led to prisoners being left unconscious, and the mirror searches, were seen by the prisoners, as a further attempt by the prison authorities to degrade them and force them into submission.
A further development came when the prison authorities refused to give the prisoners an extra towel to cover themselves when they used the bathroom facilities.
This led to the no-wash protest which later became the dirty protest when prisoners, because they were being severely beaten every time they left the confines of their cells, refused to come out even to relieve their bodily functions. As a result volunteers were forced to smear their excrement on cell walls and funnel urine out the cell doors.
The screws would often come along with a mop and force the pools of urine back under cell doors soaking bedding material which by this time was on the floor because all the furniture had been removed from the cells as a further punishment.
After many months of living in their own excrement in scenes which the primate of all Ireland, Cardinal Tomas O’Fiaich had described as “similar to the slums of Calcutta” the prisoners decided that enough was enough and that the only way to resolve the issue was by the age old Irish weapon of last resort, the hungerstrike.