The year of hunger strikes, the ballot box and the Armalite

ANALYSIS: 1981 turned out to be a watershed year as the Provisional IRA took its first steps towards democratic politics

ANALYSIS:1981 turned out to be a watershed year as the Provisional IRA took its first steps towards democratic politics

AT THE end of 1980, staff and ministers in the Northern Ireland Office could have been forgiven for concluding that the Northern Ireland problem was becoming ever more manageable.

By the middle of 1981, however, the region was being convulsed by the worst crisis since the Ulster Workers Council strike of 1974 and relations between London and Dublin were more strained than at any time since 1969.

By the end of the year though – although no one knew it at the time – the first steps had been taken on the long road which would become known as the peace process.


There was no let-up in tit-for- tat violence. On January 16th, the former civil rights activist and MP Bernadette McAliskey and her husband were shot repeatedly by three UDA members in front of their three young children in their Coalisland home. Remarkably, both survived. Ivan Toombs, a part-time major in the Ulster Defence Regiment, shot later in the day by republicans at Warrenpoint Harbour, did not.

On January 21st, Provisionals forced their way into Tynan Abbey in south Armagh and shot dead Sir Norman Stronge, speaker of the Northern commons 1945-1969, and his son James, a former Assembly member. Then they destroyed the Gothic mansion by fire. The Provisional IRA said the attack was a “direct reprisal for a whole series of loyalist assassinations”.

Meanwhile the Rev Ian Paisley and other loyalists had been appalled to learn of “joint studies” between the British and Irish governments to examine the relationship between the two states. He launched a new campaign with the cry: “Stop the joint studies.”

On February 6th, Paisley brought journalists to see 500 men drawn up in military formation on a hill near Ballymena. Soon after, in imitation of the Ulster Covenant of 1912, he announced 11 rallies across Northern Ireland, which he named the “Carson trail”.

Paisley was establishing his claim to be the principal defender of loyalist interests. In the local government elections in May, the DUP vote surpassed for the first time that of the Official Unionists.

The “Carson trail” soon lost its momentum – largely because the media’s attention turned elsewhere. In the republican H-Blocks the long campaign for the restoration of “political status” was racheted up by a new hunger strike, detailed elsewhere in these pages.

On September 14th, in a cabinet reshuffle, James Prior replaced Humphrey Atkins as secretary of state and Lord Gowrie became the prisons minister. Both men were distinctly more flexible than their predecessors. Concessions were hinted at and on October 3rd, the hunger strike was called off.

The IRA renewed its campaign across the Irish Sea. On October 10th, Chelsea Barracks in London was bombed, killing a woman and a man, and injuring 40 others. Maj Gen Sir Stewart Pringle narrowly escaped death when an IRA bomb exploded under his car in London on October 17th. On October 26th, a police explosives expert was killed while trying to defuse a bomb in London’s Oxford Street.

Yet in retrospect, 1981 was a watershed: Provisional Sinn Féin took its first steps towards democratic politics. It had been encouraged by the electoral triumphs of Bobby Sands and then of his election agent, Owen Carron, in the same constituency on August 20th. On August 23rd, Provisional Sinn Féin announced it would in future contest all elections. On September 30th, James McCreesh, father of the second hunger striker to die Raymond McCreesh, easily won a byelection in South Armagh in a straight fight with the SDLP.

NIO official David Blatherwick (later British ambassador to Dublin) commented that the SDLP was “concerned. While republicans have traditionally abstained from elections, PSF have recently acknowledged that only through elections can they hope to smash the SDLP.”

At the Sinn Féin ardfheis in Dublin on November 1st, this seismic shift was famously marked by the party’s director of publicity, Danny Morrison: “Will anyone here object if, with a ballot box in this hand and an Armalite in this hand, we take power in Ireland?”

However, on November 14th, the people of Northern Ireland were given a brutal reminder that the Armalite was not yet being muzzled for the sake of the ballot box. In Finaghy, five Provisionals shot dead the Rev Robert Bradford, Unionist MP for South Belfast, and a caretaker who tried to stop them.

The murders put fresh life into Paisley’s campaign. On November 23rd, Protestants took part in a “day of action” to protest against inadequate security and Paisley organised demonstrations across the region. Up to 15,000 people attended the Newtownards rally.

For 100 US congressmen, the DUP leader’s fiery outbursts were too much: they persuaded their government to revoke Paisley’s US visa on December 21st.