Keeping the lid on a boiling pot: the Irish government and the hunger strikes

Dublin, fearful of the strong emotions hunger strikes aroused but opposed to ‘political status’, sought a ‘humanitarian’ solution that would limit support for Sinn Féin

A 20th anniversary commemoration of the H Block hunger strike passes the GPO on O’Connell Street, Dublin in October 2001. The  Irish authorities in 1981 wanted  to stymie any potential gains the Provisional republican movement might make in the Republic the longer the dispute went on Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

A 20th anniversary commemoration of the H Block hunger strike passes the GPO on O’Connell Street, Dublin in October 2001. The Irish authorities in 1981 wanted to stymie any potential gains the Provisional republican movement might make in the Republic the longer the dispute went on Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Whilst reaction to the republican hunger strikes of 1980/81was most acute within Northern Ireland, the events had a significant impact in the Irish Republic. Emotive protests were staged in Dublin in the summer of 1981, which on occasion turned violent. Likewise, two “Anti-H-Block” candidates (one of whom participated in the hunger strikes) were elected to Dáil Éireann in the 1981 general election. The strikes also posed difficult questions for the political classes of a state which was born of violence and (rhetorically at least) aspired towards reunification, but had repudiated the legitimacy and tactics of the Provisional IRA in pursuit of that outcome.

However, the key objective, for both of the Irish governments who were in power during the crisis, was attempting to undercut support for Provisional Sinn Féin, whilst at the same time seeking a ‘humanitarian’ solution that would involve no loss of principle for either side. Throughout, Irish authorities were conscious of the dangers of the violence in Northern Ireland spilling over into the Republic, given the strong emotions engendered by the strikes.

Archival evidence shows that Charles Haughey (taoiseach until June 1981) wrote to Margaret Thatcher expressing his concern that the hunger strikes might provide republican subversives with a basis to retrieve the public support which in his view they had been steadily losing prior to the outbreak of the H-Block protests. This cautious approach was in part due to the stated policy of successive Irish governments of non-negotiation with, or affording political status to, hunger strikers.

Consequently, neither the governments of Haughey nor his successor Garret FitzGerald, thought that political status should be conceded to the hunger strikers. This stance was maintained despite calls on the government to request that the British to do just that. Donegal County Council, for example, wrote to the Taoiseach informing him that councillors there had passed a resolution that the strikers’ five demands be conceded.

Nevertheless, successive Irish governments were highly flexible in how they approached prison protests in the southern state, granting a number of concessions to all prisoners so as to avoid the impression that republicans were treated preferentially. This flexible approach may explain why the Irish government was prepared to support the ill-fated initiative of the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace, which sought to broker a deal to end the strike.

Garret FitzGerald undertook a similar policy to that of Haughey, when he became taoiseach. Whilst at times critical of what was regarded as a lack of urgency on the part of the British to resolve the dispute, the main concern, again, was avoiding any action that might bolster support for the Provisional republican movement in either northern or southern jurisdictions.

This approach is well illustrated in a statement made by John Kelly, for a time acting minister for foreign affairs in FitzGerald’s cabinet. Kelly was critical of the British lack of urgency, but noted that the key problem was the IRA’s refusal to cease its campaign of violence. FitzGerald, for his part, refused to meet hunger striker Kieran Doherty, and pointed out to some of the hunger strikers’ families, who had sought a meeting with him, that it would be a great deal easier to find solutions if the IRA and INLA gave up violence, which he believed was incompatible with the humanitarian basis upon which the problem of the protesting prisoners was being approached.

However, Irish politicians were not always averse to attempting to use the sense of feeling engendered by the hunger strikes for political advantage whenever they thought it prescient. Haughey, for example, whilst refusing to press for the five demands as taoiseach, called for a resolution of the dispute on the basis of those same demands when he was in opposition. This demonstrates both the sense that Haughey thought playing to the emotive appeal of the hunger strikes may have brought electoral gains, and his ruthlessness in opposition.

FitzGerald, by contrast, was perhaps firmer in his approach to the dispute in government than in opposition. For example, he called in the British ambassador to protest what he felt was a misrepresentation of his government’s policy on the strikes by Mrs Thatcher in her communications with American politicians.

Nevertheless, the inability of Irish governments, whatever their composition, to influence British policy must be taken into account in assessing Dublin’s policy towards the republican hunger strikes. Thatcher was never going to allow what she regarded as outside interference in such a delicate matter, whilst the main concern of the Irish authorities was attempting to stymie any potential gains the Provisional republican movement might make in the southern state the longer the dispute went on. Both factors inhibited the lengths the Dublin authorities could, or would, go to in attempting to broker an end to the disputes.

Thus, whilst the strikes caused tensions between the British and Irish governments, there was enough superficial overlap in both states’ policies towards republican hunger strikes to ensure that relations were not irreparably damaged. Indeed, at first glance, it appears that the hunger strikes may have caused less friction in British-Irish relations than Dublin’s response to the Falklands war in 1982.

Despite the often serious difficulties during the hunger strikes, then, diplomatic relations between London and Dublin were maintained. Indeed, only a month after the strikes ended, Thatcher and FitzGerald agreed to the establishment of an Anglo-Irish intergovernmental council. This relationship would be further developed four years later during the negotiation of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, a key goal of which was undercutting the rise of a politicised Provisional republicanism which had been accelerated (though not begun) by the convulsive events of 1980/81.

Shaun McDaid is the author of Template for peace: Northern Ireland, 1972-75 (Manchester University Press, 2016) and a research fellow at the Centre for Research in the Social Sciences, University of Huddersfield

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