#OTD in 1981 – Bobby Sands begins his hunger strike at Long Kesh prison.

The choice of the start date was significant because it marked the fifth anniversary of the ending of special category status (1 March 1976). The main aim of the new strike was to achieve the reintroduction of political status for Republican prisoners. Edward Daly, Catholic Bishop of Derry, criticised the decision to begin another hunger strike.

Sands was to lead the hunger strike but it was decided that Brendan ‘Bik’ McFarlane would take over Sands’ role as leader of the IRA in the Long Kesh Prison. It later became clear that the IRA leadership outside the prison was not in favour of a new hunger strike following the outcome of the 1980 strike. The main impetus came from the prisoners themselves. The strike was to last until 3 October 1981 and was to see ten Republican prisoners starve themselves to death in support of their protest. The strike led to a heightening of political tensions in the region. It was also to pave the way for the emergence of Sinn Féin as a major political force in Northern Ireland.

The IRA played a very astute international campaign during the hunger strikes gaining widespread support and attention for their cause. 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.

Bobby Sands recorded his diary for the first seventeen days of his hunger strike in which he detailed his thoughts and feelings on the momentous task that lay ahead of him. In order to secure his status as Irish political prisoner he was willing to fast until death, an event that would earn him a place in the annals of Irish history and in the hearts and minds of Irish republicans worldwide. See Bobby Sands Trust for today’s recording: http://www.bobbysandstrust.com/writings/prison-diary

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