1981 Irish Hunger Strike - Blanket and Dirty Protests

Blanket and Dirty Protests

On 14 September 1976, newly convicted prisoner Kieran Nugent began the blanket protest, in which IRA and Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) prisoners refused to wear prison uniform and either went naked or fashioned garments from prison blankets. In 1978, after a number of attacks on prisoners leaving their cells to "slop out" (i.e., empty their chamber pots), this escalated into the dirty protest, where prisoners refused to wash and smeared the walls of their cells with excrement. These protests aimed to re-establish their political status by securing what were known as the "Five Demands":

  1. The right not to wear a prison uniform;
  2. The right not to do prison work;
  3. The right of free association with other prisoners, and to organise educational and recreational pursuits;
  4. The right to one visit, one letter and one parcel per week;
  5. Full restoration of remission lost through the protest.

Initially, this protest did not attract a great deal of attention, and even the IRA regarded it as a side-issue compared to their armed campaign. It began to attract attention when Tomás Ó Fiaich, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Armagh, visited the prison and condemned the conditions there. In 1979, former MP Bernadette McAliskey stood in the election for the European Parliament on a platform of support for the protesting prisoners, and won 5.9% of the vote across Northern Ireland, even though Sinn Féin had called for a boycott of this election. Shortly after this, the broad-based National H-Block/Armagh Committee was formed, on a platform of support for the "Five Demands", with McAliskey as its main spokesperson. The period leading up to the hunger strike saw assassinations by both republicans and loyalists. The IRA shot and killed a number of prison officers; while loyalist paramilitaries shot and killed a number of activists in the National H-Block/Armagh Committee and badly injured McAliskey and her husband in an attempt on their lives.

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