Historians will no doubt look on the Irish hungerstrike of 1981 as a watershed in the struggle for Irish freedom. 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. This change in direction by the Republican movement ultimately led to the current peace process in Ireland.
After the ending of the strike, the majority of the prisoners decided to work within the system to break it.
Less than two years from the ending of the hungerstrike, when Margaret Thatcher had boasted that the I.R.A had played its 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 guarded 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. The remaining nineteen reached freedom. Some went on to take up arms in the struggle again.
In the last days of the prison, all of the prisoners have since been released under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, the prisoners enjoyed political status. Such was the freedom in the prison, a number 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 had practically total control of the blocks in which they were housed. Prison authorities had to clear everything they wanted to do with the I.R.A block Officer Commanding, and that included searches. Unbelievable but true! The only thing prisoners didn’t have was the keys to unlock their cells, although do doubt they’ve tried hard to get them.
No one will ever forget the human sacrifice and the appalling conditions endured to create those conditions in the H-Blocks. Ten young Irishmen gave their lives rather 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 McGeown 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.