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 Irelandwhile "a cross-community
successor to the Stormont system was devised". William Whitelaw was
appointed its head, under the title of Northern Ireland Secretary.
Whitelaw aimed to "improve his relations with nationalists and
republicans". 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".
'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. The prisoners were housed at Long Kesh
which "in many respects resembled a World War Two prisoner-of-war
camp"  . The IRA hoped that by achieving this the republican
prisoners would have effective political (and even prisoner-of-war)
status that would legitimize their stand. The IRA hoped 'special
category status' demonstrated that the prisoners were "different from
other inmates jailed for criminal as opposed to paramilitary offences".
Whitelaw later conceded that "he had made a mistake in introducing
'special category status'" as it led to the "political upheavals"
of 1980 and 1981.
In late 1975 the Labour Secretary of State Merlyn Rees announced the
phasing out of the 'special category status'. Acting on advice that
removing the status from inmates who were already granted it would
result in major disturbances, Rees announced that newly convicted
prisoners would not be granted the status. These prisoners were put in
newly built cells called H-block (or the 'Maze'). They were expected
to wear prison uniform, carry out prison work, given little
association with other prisoners and were no longer segregated from
non-paramilitary inmates. While Loyalists staged protests but soon
accepted the conditions, republicans were far more determined in their
objections. They created an unofficial anthem that captured the depth
of their opposition:
I'll wear no convict's uniform,
Nor meekly serve my time,
That England might