He was the leader of the 1981 hunger strike in which Irish republican prisoners protested against the removal of Special Category Status. During his strike he was elected to the British Parliament as an Anti H-Block candidate. His death and those of nine other hunger strikers, in their efforts to achieve political prisoner status from the government of an intransigent Margaret Thatcher, were followed by a new surge of Provisional IRA recruitment and activity. International media coverage brought attention to the hunger strikers, and the republican movement in general, attracting both praise and criticism.
The IRA played a very astute international campaign during the hunger strikes gaining widespread support and attention for their cause. The deaths of Sands and his colleagues was a massive boost for IRA recruitment. The support for the strike was evidenced by Sands winning the vacant House of Commons seat for MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone in a by-election necessitated by the death of sitting MP Frank Maguire. In a hugely emotional campaign, Sands defeated Unionist candidate Harry West.
The demands of the prisoners included:
1. The right not to wear a prison uniform;
2. The right not to do prison work;
3. The right of free association with other prisoners, and to organise educational and recreational pursuits;
4. The right to one visit, one letter and one parcel per week;
5. Full restoration of remission lost through the protest.