Ten IRA members died during the hunger strikes. While the IRA did not win immediate concessions, in some ways it was a Pyrrhic victory for Margaret Thatcher’s government. It galvanised support and membership for the IRA and generated huge sympathy for the strikers in the United States where fundraising was a major priority. The death of the first hunger striker, Bobby Sands, created a martyr and an iconic figure.
Those Republican prisoners who had been still refusing food decided to end their hunger strike. At this stage in the protest six prisoners were on hunger strike: Hugh Carville – 34 days; James Devine – 13 days; Gerard Hodgkins – 20 days; Jackie McMullan – 48 days; John Pickering – 27 days; and Pat Sheehan – 55 days. The prisoners took their decision when it became clear that each of their families would ask for medical intervention to save their lives.
Even though the hunger strike was called off it was announced on 4 October 1981 that the ‘blanket protest’ was set to continue. On 6 October 1981 James Prior, then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, announced a series of measures which went a long way to meeting many aspects of the prisoners’ five demands. By 25 October the ‘blanket protest’ was all but over.
The hunger strike of 1981 had very important and far-reaching consequences for Northern Ireland and proved to be one of the key turning points of ‘the Troubles’. In addition to the 10 Republican prisoners who had died inside Long Kesh Prison there had been an upsurge in violence outside the prison with 62 people dying as a result. The Republican movement had achieved a huge propaganda victory over the British government and had obtained a lot of international sympathy. Active and tacit support for the IRA increased in Nationalist areas. Political support for Sinn Féin was demonstrated in the two by-elections and eventually led to the emergence of SF as a significant political force in Northern Ireland. The British government’s fear that Sinn Féin would overtake the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) as the main representative of the Catholic population of Northern Ireland was a key reason for the government signing the Anglo-Irish Agreement (AIA) on 15 November 1985.