Hunger Strike: Margaret Thatcher’s Battle with the IRA, 1980-1981


Thomas Hennessey

Detailed account of the extraordinary battle of wills between Margaret Thatcher & the Provisional IRA that dramatically peaked with the Republican hunger strikes of 1980-81. Based on recently declassified British government documents, from the Prime Minister’s Office, Cabinet Office, Foreign Office, NI Office, Ministry of Defence and Public Records Office NI. Reveals new details of the secret backchannel between MI6 and the IRA.

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The hunger strikes of 1980-81 were a confrontation between British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the iron will of Irish republican prisoners in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh, in an attempt to break the British policy of criminalising paramilitary prisoners. The prisoners’ ultimate demand, to be granted a ‘special category status’ that distinguished them from other prisoners, led to two hunger strikes. The first, in 1980, ended without success for the prisoners; the second, led by Bobby Sands, resulted in ten prisoners starving themselves to death. The consequences of the hunger strikes changed Irish politics and British-Irish relations forever, beginning the long path to eventual peace with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

Now, with the release of recently declassified documents, Thomas Hennessey forensically examines the origins and evolution of the prisons dispute, leading up to the first hunger strike of 1980, and setting the scene for the final confrontation with the British Government in 1981. Alongside republican protagonists – Bobby Sands and Gerry Adams – Margaret Thatcher’s personal role in the hunger strikes is analysed in detail, including her clashes with Charles Haughey and Garret FitzGerald, and also revealing her authorisation of the backchannel between MI6 and the IRA. Hennessey also addresses the controversial issues surrounding the hunger strike, in particular, whether there was a deal on the table that could have ended the strike in July 1981, and whether it was accepted by the prisoners in the H-Blocks.

Hunger Strike is the definitive account of one of the seminal events in modern Irish history.

Table of Contents

  1. Confrontation: The Abolition of Special Category Status and the Blanket Protest 1976-7
  2. Mrs Thatcher and the Irish Problem 1979-80
  3. The First Hunger Strike: 1980
  4. The Second Hunger Strike Begins
  5. The First Deaths: the British Hold Firm
  6. July Crisis: the ICJP proposals and Backchannels
  7. Collapse of the Strike: the Families Intervene
  8. Legacy

About the Author

Thomas Hennessey is Professor of Modern British and Irish History at Canterbury Christ Church University. He is the author of Britain’s Korean War: Cold War Diplomacy, Strategy and Security 1950-53; Spooks: The Unofficial History of MI5 co-authored with Claire Thomas; The Evolution of the Troubles 1970-72; Northern Ireland: the Origins of the Northern Ireland Troubles; The Northern Ireland Peace Process: Ending the Trouble?; Dividing Ireland: World War One and Partition and A History of Northern Ireland, 1920-1996.