The 1981 hunger strike begins on March 1, 1981, when Bobby Sands, a former commanding officer of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and prisoner at Long Kesh prison, refuses food. Other prisoners join the hunger strike one at a time at staggered intervals, which they believe will arouse maximum public support and exert maximum pressure on Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
The movement initially struggles to generate public support for the hunger strike. The Sunday before Sands begins his strike, only 3,500 people march through the streets of west Belfast as compared to 10,000 marchers during a previous hunger strike four months earlier.
Five days into the strike, however, Independent Republican Member of Parliament (MP) for Fermanagh and South Tyrone Frank Maguire dies, resulting in a by-election. There is debate among nationalists and republicans regarding who should contest the election but they ultimately agreed not to split the nationalist vote by contesting the election and Sands stands as an Anti H-Block candidate against Ulster Unionist Party candidate Harry West. Following a high-profile campaign the election takes place on April 9, and Sands is elected to the British House of Commons with 30,492 votes to West’s 29,046.
Sands’ election victory raises hopes that a settlement can be negotiated, but Thatcher stands firm in refusing to give concessions to the hunger strikers. The world’s media descends on Belfast, and several intermediaries, including Síle de Valera, granddaughter of Éamon de Valera, Pope John Paul II‘s personal envoy John Magee, and European Commission of Human Rights officials, visit Sands in an attempt to negotiate an end to the hunger strike. With Sands close to death, the government’s position remains unchanged and they do not force medical treatment upon him.
On May 5, Sands dies in the prison hospital on day 66 of his hunger strike, prompting rioting in nationalist areas of Northern Ireland. Over 100,000 people line the route of his funeral, which is conducted with full IRA military honours. Margaret Thatcher showed no sympathy for his death.
In the two weeks following Sands’ death, three more hunger strikers die – Francis Hughes on May 12, and Raymond McCreesh and Patsy O’Hara on May 21. The deaths result in further rioting in Northern Ireland, particularly Derry and Belfast. Following the May 21 deaths, Primate of All Ireland Tomás Ó Fiaich criticises the British government’s handling of the hunger strike. Despite this, Thatcher still refuses to negotiate a settlement.
On July 28, following the deaths of Joe McDonnell (July 8) and Martin Hurson (July 13), the families of some of the hunger strikers attend a meeting with Catholic priest Father Denis Faul. The families express concern at the lack of a settlement and a decision is made to meet with Gerry Adams later that day. At the meeting Father Faul puts pressure on Adams to find a way of ending the strike, and Adams agrees to ask the IRA leadership to order the men to end the hunger strike. The following day Adams holds a meeting with six of the hunger strikers to outline a proposed settlement on offer from the British government should the strike be brought to an end. The strikers reject the settlement, believing that accepting anything less than their original demands will be a betrayal of the sacrifice made by Bobby Sands and the other men who had died.
On July 31, the hunger strike begins to break when the mother of Paddy Quinn insists on medical intervention to save his life. The following day Kevin Lynch dies, followed by Kieran Doherty on August 2, Thomas McElwee on August 8, and Michael Devine on August 20. On September 6, the family of Laurence McKeown becomes the fourth family to intervene and asks for medical treatment to save his life, and Cahal Daly issues a statement calling on republican prisoners to end the hunger strike.
A week later James Prior replaces Humphrey Atkins as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and meets with prisoners in an attempt to end the strike. Liam McCloskey ends his strike on September 26 after his family says they will ask for medical intervention if he becomes unconscious. It also becomes clear that the families of the remaining hunger strikers will also intervene to save their lives. The strike is called off at 3:15 PM on October 3. Three days later Secretary of State Prior announces partial concessions to the prisoners including the right to wear their own clothes at all times. The only one of their original five demands still outstanding is the right not to do prison work. Following sabotage by the prisoners and the Maze Prison escape in 1983, the prison workshops are closed, effectively granting all five of the demands but without any formal recognition of political status from the government.
Over the summer of 1981, ten hunger strikers die. Thirteen others begin refusing food but are taken off hunger strike, either due to medical reasons or after intervention by their families. Many of them still suffer from the effects of the strike, with problems including digestive, visual, physical and neurological disabilities.