A hunger strike by Irish nationalists at the Maze Prison in Belfast in Northern Ireland is called off after seven months and 10 deaths. The first to die was Bobby Sands, the imprisoned Irish Republican Army (IRA) leader who initiated the protest on March 1, 1981–the fifth anniversary of the British policy of “criminalization” of Irish political prisoners.
In 1972, Sands was arrested and convicted of taking part in several IRA robberies. Because he was convicted for IRA activities, he was given “special category status” and sent to a prison that was more akin to a prisoner of war camp because it allowed freedom of dress and freedom of movement within the prison grounds. He spent four years there.
After less than a year back on the streets, Sands was arrested in 1977 for gun possession near the scene of an IRA bombing and sentenced to 14 years in prison. Because the British government had enacted a policy of criminalization of Irish terrorists in 1976, Sands was imprisoned as a dangerous criminal in the Maze Prison, south of Belfast. During the next few years, from his cell in the Maze, he joined other IRA prisoners in protests demanding restoration of the freedoms they had previously enjoyed under special category status. In 1980, a hunger strike was called off when one of the protesters fell into a coma. In response, the British government offered a few concessions to the prisoners, but they failed to deliver all they had promised, and protests resumed. Sands did not directly participate in the 1980 hunger strike, but he acted as the IRA-appointed leader and spokesperson of the protesting prisoners.
On March 1, 1981, Bobby Sands launched a new hunger strike. He consumed only water and salt, and his weight dropped from 155 pounds to 95 pounds. After two weeks, another protester joined the strike, and six days after that, two more. On April 9, in the midst of the strike, Sands was elected to a vacant seat in the British Parliament from Fermanagh and South Tyrone in Northern Ireland. Parliament subsequently introduced legislation to disqualify convicts serving prison sentences for eligibility for Parliament. Sands’ protest attracted international attention. On May 5, he died.
After Sands’ death, the hunger strike continued, and nine more men perished before it was called off on October 3, 1981, under pressure from Catholic Church leaders and the prisoners’ families. In the aftermath of the strike, the administration of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher agreed to give in to several of the protesters’ demands, including the right to wear civilian clothing and the right to receive mail and visits. Prisoners were also allowed to move more freely and were no longer subject to harsh penalties for refusing prison work. Official recognition of their political status, however, was not granted.