March 1976: British government ends “special status” treatment for IRA prisoners. With the opening of the new H-Block prison complex at the Maze Prison, IRA and other Republican prisoners would be subjected to the same rules as “ordinary” criminals.
September 1976: Kieran Nugent, the first IRA prisoner sentenced under the new guidelines, symbolically refuses to wear the prison uniform. His protest quickly spreads, inaugurating the “Blanket Protest”, during which Republican prisoners would wear only a blanket. By 1978, more than 300 prisoners are “on the blanket”.
March 1978: In response to several episodes of violence by prison guards, blanket protestors refuse to leave their cells to bathe. The protest quickly escalates as the British prison authorities remove all furnishings except blankets and chamber pots from cells; in response, prisoners begin the “Dirty Protest”, in which prisoners spread their own excrement around the walls of their cells.
Early 1980: With the Dirty Protest stalled, Republican prisoners began lobbying the British government for five key concessions (“The Five Demands”) – the right to wear civilian clothes, the right to abstain from prison labor, the right to organize and fraternize with other political prisoners, the right to communication outside of the prison, and reversion to pre-1976 prison conditions.
October 1980: Seven Republican prisoners began hunger strikes in the Maze. Lasting 53 days, eventually 30 men participated in the hunger strike.
December 1980: In dialogue with Tomás Ó Fiaich, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Armagh, the hunger strikers abandoned the strike, believing that concessions from the British government would follow.
March 1981: Bobby Sands began a hunger strike in the Maze Prison. Between March and October 1981, 23 men went on hunger strike and 10 died of starvation.
April 1981: The death of Frank Maguire, MP for Fermangh and South Tyrone in the British Parliament, necessitated a by-election to name a replacement. Republicans in the district nominated Bobby Sands and won a surprise, but narrow victory. Although unable to take up his seat in Parliament due to imprisonment, the electoral victory drew international attention and put substantial pressure on Margaret Thatcher’s government to negotiation. As the campaign developed, more Republican prisoners went on hunger strike, with one new participant joining the strike every week.
May 1981: The Thatcher government remained inflexible in the face of appeals from various international figures, including Pope John Paul II’s private secretary. When Bobby Sands died on May 5, after 66 days on hunger strike, riots occurred over Northern Ireland and international protests condemned the Thatcher administration. Sands’s funeral at Milltown Cemetery in Belfast drew more than 100,000 mourners.
May-August 1981: Nine other Republican prisoners died on hunger strike.
August 1981: After decades of non-participation in Northern Ireland election, Sinn Féin contested and won the by-election to fill Bobby Sands’ vacant seat representing Fermanagh and South Tyrone in the British Parliament. This successful electoral intervention eventually evolved into the “Armalite and ballot box” campaign, which dominated Republican activities in the 1980s.
September 1981: The family of Laurence McKeown intervened to insert a feeding tube after he passed into a coma after 70 days on hunger strike. From this point forward, intense pressure on families would complicate the hunger strike strategy.
October 1981: Republican prisoners announce the end of the hunger strikes, blaming the British government and Roman Catholic clergy for pressuring family members. Three days later, British prison officials announced that new policies that duplicated the Five Demands would be enacted at the Maze Prison.