The 1981 Irish hunger strike was the culmination of a five-year protest during The Troubles by Irish republican prisoners in Northern Ireland. The protest began as the blanket protest in 1976, when the British government withdrew Special Category Status for convicted paramilitary prisoners. In 1978, after a number of attacks on prisoners leaving their cells to "slop out", the dispute escalated into the dirty protest, where prisoners refused to leave their cells to wash and covered the walls of their cells with excrement. In 1980, seven prisoners participated in the first hunger strike, which ended after 53 days.
The second hunger strike took place in 1981 and was a showdown between the prisoners and the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. One hunger striker, Bobby Sands, was elected as a Member of Parliament The strike was called off after ten prisoners had starved themselves to death—including Sands, whose funeral was attended by 100,000 people. The strike radicalised nationalist politics, and was the driving force that enabled Sinn Féin during the strike, prompting media interest from around the world. to become a mainstream political party.
There had been hunger strikes by Irish republican prisoners since 1917, and twelve men had previously died on hunger strikes including Thomas Ashe, Terence MacSwiney, Seán McCaughey, Michael Gaughan and Frank Stagg. After the introduction of internment in 1971, Long Kesh—later known as HM Prison Maze—was run like a prisoner of war camp. Internees lived in dormitories and disciplined themselves with military-style command structures, drilled with dummy guns made from wood, and held lectures on guerrilla warfare and revolutionary politics. Convicted prisoners were refused the same rights as internees until July 1972, when Special Category Status was introduced following a hunger strike by 40 Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) prisoners led by the veteran republican Billy McKee. Special Category, or political, status meant prisoners were treated similarly to prisoners of war; for example, not having to wear prison uniforms or do prison work. In 1976, as part of the policy of "criminalisation", the British Government brought an end to Special Category Status for paramilitary prisoners in Northern Ireland. The policy was not introduced for existing prisoners, but for those convicted of offences after 1 March 1976. The end to Special Category Status was a serious threat to the authority which the paramilitary leaderships inside prison had been able to exercise over their own men, as well as being a propaganda blow.
Blanket and dirty protests
On 14 September 1976, newly convicted prisoner Kieran Nugent began the blanket protest, in which IRA and Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) prisoners refused to wear prison uniform and either went naked or fashioned garments from prison blankets. In 1978, after a number of attacks on prisoners leaving their cells to "slop out" (i.e., empty their chamber pots), this escalated into the dirty protest, where prisoners refused to wash and smeared the walls of their cells with excrement. These protests aimed to re-establish their political status by securing what were known as the "Five Demands":
- The right not to wear a prison uniform;
- The right not to do prison work;
- The right of free association with other prisoners, and to organise educational and recreational pursuits;
- The right to one visit, one letter and one parcel per week;
- Full restoration of remission lost through the protest.