In December 1969 the IRA (Irish Republic Army) announced a spilt between the official and provisional sectors of the organization. This was the birth of the Provisional IRA, responsible for the bombing campaigns in Ireland and Britain, and where majority of the prisoners in the H Blocks originated. But away from these bombing campaigns, the official wing of the IRA began a cease-fire between the Provisional IRA and the British Government was reached later that year. From the book ‘Blanketmen’ by Richard O’Rawe “Sinn Fein, the political wing of the republican movement would eventually grow to replace the SDLP, which steadfastly refused to support the five demands, as the voice of the majority of Nationalists in the north.” However, is this statement true? The SDLP withdrew from the 1981 elections to allow Sinn Fein to secure majority of the votes. John Hume was an advocate of a “joint-authority” approach in which both the and the UK could exercise power. This was an idea of the “” which joint together the main Irish parties. However this was rejected straight away by in a speech which became known as "out, out, out" (“I have made it quite clear that a unified Ireland was one solution that is out. A second solution was a confederation of two states. That is out. A third solution was joint authority. That is out-that is a derogation of sovereignty.”) during which she dismissed every proposal of the forum.The horrified reaction of the to this speech and the success of Sinn Féin in the election following the shocked Thatcher’s Government and they were became receptive towards the SDLP. These talks eventually led to the . So this means that’s perhaps without the Hunger Strikes, the SDLP would not have had the oppourtunity to discuss the Anglo-Irish agreement. SO this means that, in this case, the Hunger Strikes were very successful in progressing nationalist aims, and Sinn Feins success in the elections were due to Bobby Sands being chosen as the candidate, another result of the strikes.
The hunger strikes started in 1980, Bobby Sands being the first to commit. However, it was not the first time hunger strikes had been used in Northern Ireland. In 1975 a provisional IRA member, Frank Stagg, went on strike in Wakefield prison seeking repatriation to Ireland. He died after 62 days on the strike, but it was not widely acknowledged. However, it would be the 1981 strike in Long Kesh that would get the attention and coverage that the Nationalists wanted, and combined with the bombing campaigns in Brighton and Westminster, it would eventually propel the Nationalist and republican aims to the forefront of Irish and world politics. The ‘Chicago Tribune’ reported “The Thatcher government is reportedly concerned that further Irish Nationalist demonstrations in the U.S would provide helpful publicity for the outlawed Irish Republican Army.” Many countries called for the British Government to revise the human rights breaches involved. This is one of the major factors that made the hunger strikes and the other protests such a good tactic for the Nationalists, as it increased pressure on the British Government and widened interest about the overall situation in Ireland, which in theory would make a solution appear sooner rather than later. The Bobby Sands election victory in April 1981 was a narrow win (30,493 votes to 29,046 for the candidate ), but this is a clear indictaor that the hunger strikes were becoming a successful tactic for the Nationalists. By having a representative in Westminster it pushed forward the views of Sinn Fein and the IRA into the limelight, and showed that the British Government were not dealing with a catholic minority anymore. It was not just the IRA prisinoners and Sinn Fein politicians who felt there was injustice in Northern Ireland. “There can be no question of political status for someone who is serving a sentence for crime. Crime is crime is crime. It is not political, it is crime”, Margaret Thatcher’s famous quote after Bobby Sands was elected MP, marking that the Government were still not going to back down.
Meanwhile, other tactics being used involved the severe bombing of Unionist areas and a few campaigns in Britain. The pub bombings in Birmingham and Guildford in 1974 had set the tone for IRA attacks on the British at home. These two attacks combined produced 26 fatalities and over 200 injured. The death of Lord Mountbatten, a close friend of Thatcher’s, could be considered a defining moment in the nationalist struggle, but it may also be seen as making Thatcher more determined to clamp down on the violence and protests and secure British rule in Northern Ireland. On that same day Mountbatten was killed, the Provisional IRA also killed eighteen British Army soldiers from the . In 1984, two years after the end of the hunger strikes, bombs were let off in Brighton during a party conference, almost killing Margaret Thatcher herself, which certainly helped in bringing the situation in Ireland home. The IRA made no effort to hide there intentions were to kill Thatcher; “Today we were unlucky, but remember we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always.” But the fact that the IRA felt they needed to re-engage with the British surely means that the effects of the hunger strike had worn off and in fact no progress had been made. However, before this bomb attack the troubles had been considered a foreign affair, but by endangering the lives of top politicians and innocent members of public on the mainland, it was helping to ring the alarm bells of the conservative government. It was clear they were dealing with a very problematic situation and that movements to bring peace must be taken. So perhaps these bombing campaigns were much more successful than the strikes as they frightened the government into giving in to nationalist aims as opposed to blackmailing them into submission.
When Bobby Sands died on the hunger strike his death and funeral gained worldwide coverage with protests against the stubbornness of the British Government breaking out across the globe. Once again it proved that the entire Republican and Nationalist communities were behind the hunger strikers as over 100, 000 mourners turned up for his funeral. In America, “In Boston about 35 people – many wearing mourning black – gathered in front of the British consulates home for a candlelight vigil after Sand’s death.” The media coverage that surrounded the death of Bobby Sands resulted in a new surge of IRA activity and an immediate escalation in the Troubles, with the group obtaining many more members and increasing its fundraising capability. Both nationalists and unionists began to harden their attitudes and move towards political extremes. Sands' Westminster seat was taken by his election agent, standing as ' Proxy Political Prisoner' with an increased majority.Nine more men went on to die on the hunger strikes, finally it was called to an end in 1981.The end of the hunger strike saw both sides declare victory. Northern Irish Secretary James Prior proclaimed a variety of changes to the prison policy some of which met the prisoners' demands; the right to wear their own clothes and the restoration of 50% of lost remission for those who obeyed prison rules for three months. The common feeling among the nationalist community was that the hunger strikers had achieved what they set out to do, while the British government insisted they had not given in to their demands. While the hunger strike may not have achieved all its aims, it highlighted a new strategy for republicans. Less than a month after it ended, the Sinn Fein annual conference heard of the concept known as the "Armalite and the ballot box”. This was the first really peaceful stance taken by any Nationalist or Republican Party. The Sinn Fein organizer, Danny Morrison said, "Who here really believes we can win the war through the ballot box? But will anyone here object if, with a ballot paper in this hand and an in the other, we take power in ?" at a party conference in 1981. It was a successful strategy for Sinn Fein, giving them re-newed credibility on the international stage, many believing that the Nationalist could politically progress without the use of violence.
In relation to the question of this essay, so far, how effective were the hunger strikes in helping the progression of nationalist aims. As I have mentioned above a few times, the hunger strikes propelled the situation in Ireland to the forefront of media coverage for over a year. It became one of the biggest world issues at the time, and helped the nationalists put forward their aims to the world and not jus the British government. It made the call for a united Ireland even stronger, as the voluntary death of the strikers for their cause shocked people, making them realize the severity of the situation in Ulster. The bombings may have been frightening the Government into listening them, but it certainly wasn’t gaining support for the IRA. In fact, by the 1990s, the failure of the IRA campaign to win mass public support or achieve its aim of British withdrawal saw a move away from armed conflict to political engagement. The people of Northern Ireland were tired of living in violence and conflict. But before this was to take effect, there was one other negotiation in the 1980’s in which nationalists had a chance to have their say. In the Anglo-Irish Agreement between the and the in 1985, the was given an advisory role in Northern Ireland's government. It also confirmined that Northern Ireland would remain part of the UK unless a majority of its citizens agreed to join the Republic. The negoiations failed to bring an end to political violence in Northern Ireland and Loyalist and Natioanlist communities remained divided. It demonstrated to unionists that the British state was stronger than they could ever be. The agreement withstood a campaign of violence, intimidation and political hostility, from the Loyalists, but Republicans were still left in the position of rejecting the only piece of constitutional progress since the downfall of a decade earlier. The power-sharing government never became a reality,but it did help improve cooperation between the British and Irish governments. This would be a key factor in the success of the Good Friday Agrreement in 1998.
In August 1994, the Provisional IRA announced a "complete cessation of military operations". But in 1996, two bombs are let off in London, one in Westminster, very close to where the new PM, John Major, was having a meeting. This was apparently due to a sense of dissatisfaction towards the progress of negotiations. A first bomb was detonated in a truck in Canary Wharf to mark the end of the ceasefire, killing two civillians and millions of pounds worth of damage. This was definitely a deciding factor the progression of Nationalist aims, as it had proved that the IRA could be peaceful, but were prepared to remind the British Government of the situation when negotiations appeared to stop. It was almost a bullying force from the Nationalist, but as a result the Good Friday was signed two years later in 1998, so it must have been a catalyst for action by the Government. The conservative government refused to include Sinn Fein in talks until the IRA had handed over all of its weapons, but the new Labour Government of 1997 (just one year after the London bombs) admitted Gerry Adams and his party into the new talks before the IRA would have to decomission. There was a limited return to violence to avoid any splits between the politics and the ‘hardliners’ in the IRA Army Council.
The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 was the defining point of the talks. A majority of both communities in Northern Ireland approved this Agreement, as did the people of the Republic of Ireland. The Republic adjusted their constitution to replace the claim it made to the territory of Northern Ireland, with recognition of Northern Ireland's right to exist independently. They also acknowledged the nationalist desire for a united Ireland. Under the Agreement, voters elected a new Northern Ireland Assembly to form a Northern Irish parliament. Ulster Unionist party leader David Trimble became First Minister of Northern Ireland. The Deputy Leader of the SDLP, Seamus Mallon, became Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, though his party's new leader, Mark Durkan, subsequently replaced him. The Ulster Unionists, SDLP, Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party each had ministers by right in the power-sharing assembly. A quote from Fionnuala O Connor’s book ‘In Search of a State’, “How do Catholics in Northern Ireland see themselves? Do they still believe they are trapped in an 'alien state'? While northern nationalists were once regarded as 'politically helpless, hopeless and cynical', many Catholics are now part of the political and economic mainstream,” shows us that Catholics were no longer subject to inequality or prejudice. There was no way that the problems in Ireland could be fixed to accommodate all 8 parties wishes, but so far this is the greatest compromise that’s been on offer.
So, were the hunger strikes the successful tactic for the progression of Nationalist aims? I would argue that they may not have been the sole reason for the progression, but they helped show a less violent side to the IRA. The bombs in London were a great tactic, in that they showed the British Government that the IRA were prepared to extent the violence onto the mainland if it meant pushing for a new treaty. But if it were not for the hunger strikes then there would not have been the media coverage of the troubles that there eventually was. They gave a more emotional side to the situation, and it helped republicans and nationalists throughout the catholic community bond together against the prejudice. I feel that had there not been the hunger strikes, the British Government would have abandoned Ireland to diminish into a country of constant violence.