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What were the short and long term effects of the hunger-strikes in Northern Ireland?

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Introduction

What were the short and long term effects of the hunger-strikes in Northern Ireland? The hunger-strikes of 1980 and 1981 had highly significant consequences for Northern Ireland nationally and internationally. While at first they polarised the community, they eventually led to the beginnings of peace in Northern Ireland. Soon after Direct Rule was introduced in Northern Ireland in March 1972 Westminster created a new department, the Northern Ireland Office, which had responsibility for Ireland while "a cross-community successor to the Stormont system was devised"1. William Whitelaw was appointed its head, under the title of Northern Ireland Secretary. Whitelaw aimed to "improve his relations with nationalists and republicans"2. He began to make conciliatory moves in June 1972 by releasing some internees and conceding to the demands of hunger strikers by granting 'special category status' to prisoners associated with paramilitary groups. McKittrick and McVea write that this decision had "significant long term consequences"3. 'Special category status' meant that republican and loyalist internees served their time under the direction of their paramilitary OC rather than warders. They were able to control their own compounds, wear their own clothes, receive weekly visits, parcels and letters and were not forced to do prison work. ...read more.

Middle

Sands starved to death in May 1981, followed by three fellow hunger strikers later that month, two more in July and four in August. The strike was called off on 3 October 1981 following "intense mediation by senior Catholic churchmen"21 and prisoners' families after a total of 10 men had starved themselves to death. The most significant death was Sands'. By his death on 5 May he "instantly" became "one of republicanism's most revered martyrs"22. In Ireland his death "generated a huge wave of emotion and anger among republicans and nationalists"23 and his funeral was attended by approximately 100 000 people. The months following the death of Sands' were "particularly grim and destabilising"24. The death toll rose from 86 killed in 1980 to 117 killed in 1981 as sectarian street disturbances amplified. "Radicalised recruits flocked to the IRA and Sinn Fein"25, paving the way for further violence. Gerry Adams wrote later, "Physically, emotionally and spiritually, the hunger strike was intensely draining; yet we derived immense new energy, commitment and direction from the extraordinary period during which our ten comrades slowly and painfully sacrificed their lives"26. The community had become highly polarised as the old community divisions had "a new rawness"27. ...read more.

Conclusion

Most importantly the agreement demonstrated "a commitment to reform in Northern Ireland and an acknowledgement that reform necessitated an input from the south"44. The agreement received an angry reaction from unionists angry at what they saw as a British sell-out, resulting in a violent but ineffective campaign by loyalists and "stimulated recruiting into the UVF and UDA"45. McKittrick and McVea describe the consequences of the hunger-strikes as a political "watershed"; the BBC/PBS production Endgame believes they "opened up the road to endgame in Northern Ireland"46; Caroline Kennedy-Pipe writes that they were a "defining moment" that led to a "political breakthrough"47 and T. G. Fraser agrees explaining that they "opened up new prospects" for Northern Ireland48. The hunger-strikes were hugely significant. Despite being opposed by the IRA leadership outside prison, they immediately dramatically shifted perceptions of the republicans in Northern Ireland. By adopting the tactics of passive resistance they created an international climate of public sympathy that forced attention on the underlying causes of the conflict. This also led to the rise of the Sinn Fein as a political force and thus increased pressure on Britain to address the fundamental causes of the troubles and negotiate the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. ...read more.

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