Historians will no doubt look on the Irish hungerstrike of 1981 as a watershed in the struggle for Irish freedom, for it not only led to the prisoners in the H-Blocks effectively getting their five demands in all but name thus smashing Britain’s criminalisation policy, but launched Sinn Fein into the political arena, which through the years brought Republicans into the current peace process.
After the ending of the strike, the majority of the prisoners decided to work within the system to break it and less than two years from the ending of the hungerstrike, when Margaret Thatcher had said the the I.R.A had played it’s last card, thirty-eight I.R.A prisoners in a display of resourcefulness and sheer audacity, escaped from the H-Blocks in a food delivery lorry.
H-Block 7, in the centre of one of the most heavily gaurded prisons in Europe, was, for over two and a half hours, fully under the control of the Irish Republican Army. Having made their escape as far as the front gates of the prison, they ran into some trouble and nineteen of the men were recaptured almost immediately but the remaining nineteen reached freedom and some went on to take up arms in the struggle again.
Today in the prison, although most of the prisoners have been released under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, the prisoners enjoy political status. Such is the freedom in the prison that a couple of years ago the prisoners were able to dig a tunnel from one of the blocks leading to the outside and store the earth from the ground in two of the cells.
It was only when, due to misfortune and adverse weather conditions, the tunnel collapsed that the dug-out earth was found in the cells. The prisoners indeed have total control of the blocks in which they are housed with the prison authorities having to clear everything they want to do with the I.R.A block O.C, and that includes searches.No one will ever forget the terrible human sacrifice needed to create these conditions in the prisons, the deaths of ten Irishmen who would rather give their young lives than capitulate to Britain’s attempts to criminalise them. Their names will be remembered when freedom dawns in Ireland.
Of the hunger strikers who died (with the exception of Francis Hughes who was sentenced to life in prison) all would have been released by 1987. All the hunger strikers who were taken off the hunger strike by their families are now free men. Many of them are active once again in Sinn Fein.
On September 28, 1996, politician and former hunger striker Pat Mc Geown aged 44, whose life was saved by his family’s intervention, died suddenly of heart failure. His death was attributed to the damage inflicted on his body during the hunger strike. He became the 11th Hungerstrike Martyr.
Father Faul, the prison chaplain at the time of the hungerstrike, came to visit Bobby Sands in his cell not long after he had begun his fast. The priest sought to question Bobby on the morals of his hungerstrike, Bobby’s only response was to quote the bible:
“Greater Love Than This Hath No Man, Than that he Lay Down His Life for his Friend”.
The priest said nothing and left.