Belfast Telegraph

A year that cost us dearly, but bought us peace

The 1981 hunger strikes led to the rise of Sinn Fein and the IRA ceasefire. The pity is it took so long, says David McKittrick

The year 1981 was, in some ways, the genesis of the current Belfast settlement at Stormont in that it demonstrated to the IRA and Sinn Fein the potential that might lie for them in politics.

It had a deeply educative effect, both on republican leaders like Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness and also on senior analysts within the British establishment. Republicans would later conclude, after many twists and turns, that the conflict would end not in victory, but in negotiation.

London would similarly, after years of deliberation, reach the same conclusion. Both sides learnt a lot of hard lessons from 1981 -and learnt them the hard way.

But that encouraging thought does not begin to convey the horror of what it was like to live through that year, and especially through the fraught period of the hunger strikes.

Although the Troubles had many awful crises, the hunger strikes will long be remembered as one of the most terrible.

The overall death-toll increased outside the prison, with IRA attacks and widespread street disturbances.

On the night that Bobby Sands died, I and other reporters stood nervously in the Short Strand, watching rioters pelting police Land Rovers with bottles, bricks and stones. Police replied with plastic bullets, while in the background could be heard the crackle of gunfire.

Many of us came close to despairing that any sort of agreement could ever be reached. It was a black time. Journalists and commentators asked: What on earth can be done now? How will this ever end?

Protestants and Catholics plumbed new depths of bitter polarisation. In Sands' by-election, no less than 87% of the electorate in Fermanagh-South Tyrone turned out to vote -nationalists for him, unionists against.

Thousands of those who supported Sands were, both before and afterwards, staunch supporters of the SDLP. They had always opposed Sinn Fein, but felt they had to register their distaste for what they regarded as the inflexibility of Margaret Thatcher.

SDLP politicians were taken aback by Sands' victory. "I felt I was living among strangers," a deeply shocked local party representative told me at the time.

Republicans had held many debates before putting Sands forward. Martin McGuinness favoured the move, later recalling that he had argued that the impact of a hunger striker winning a seat would be "absolutely huge".

He was correct. In the aftermath, Sinn Fein and the IRA made gains in terms of votes, recruits and international sympathy, laying the basis for increased violence.

The hunger strikes were a test of utter determination between republican prisoners and Margaret Thatcher.

Conventional politics were nowhere: the problem was defined just as the IRA had always wanted - the Brits versus the Provos, the hammer and the anvil, nothing in between and nothing else relevant.

But the paradox was that the IRA made its propaganda gains first through the election of Sands, which was based on an appeal to save life. And then it established political credentials through the self-sacrifice made by him and nine other republicans.

Mrs Thatcher herself may have held a grudging respect for those who died in the Maze prison.

Years later, she acknowledged: "It was possible to admire the courage of Sands and the other hunger strikers who died, but not to sympathise with their murderous cause."

The 10 deaths brought a harvest of votes, so that for the rest of the 1980s, Sinn Fein would win around 11% of the vote, Adams winning a Westminster seat.

Such political advances went side-by-side with continuing violence. The IRA, in an act of revenge, tried to kill Mrs Thatcher in the Brighton bombing of 1984.

I was in the hotel a few hours before the explosion: again, the impact of the attack was to confirm the sense that the IRA was implacably locked into the vain pursuit of victory.

Republicans were to have a profound re-think that in time moved them towards the peace process.

But the first reappraisal came from those who were their opponents at the time - principally Garret FitzGerald, John Hume and some key London figures, such as senior mandarins Robert Armstrong and David Goodall.

All these agreed that, in the wake of the hunger strikes, there had to be a new departure to combat the twin menace of Sinn Fein and the IRA, whose attempts to co-ordinate politics and violence had brought about considerable destabilisation.

The idea was to seize the initiative from republicans and re-assert the primacy of politics.

Mrs Thatcher sanctioned the many months of negotiations that followed, though her own primary aim was always to improve security. The outcome was the 1985 Anglo-Irish agreement, which established new levels of London-Dublin co-operation.

This was originally aimed at halting the republican advances - the idea of a settlement wide enough to embrace Sinn Fein came later - but republicans took careful note of Britain's willingness to share power with the south.

This made it more difficult for them to characterise the IRA campaign as anti-colonial and anti-imperialist - how quaint and dated those terms seem now, but how common they were back then.

Anglo-Irish relations, which had often been so difficult, were re-cast in a different light, one that initially shocked and appalled unionism.

Today, it is an accepted part of the political landscape, as unionists eventually came on board.

So, too, did republicanism, in a way that no one could envisage in the dark days of 1981.

Everyone went through the hunger strikes and other traumas to reach this point: the pity is that it all took so many years and cost so many lives.

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