Why did political nationalists in Ireland go on a hunger strike in 1981?

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In 1981, a group of Irish republican inmates of Her Majesty's Prison Maze went on hunger strike in protest against the British government's refusal to give them the status of political prisoners. As far as the prisoners were concerned, they were involved in a political struggle against British occupation of the northern six counties of their country. As such, they believed that they deserved so-called Special Category status, which included the right to wear their own clothes and freely associate with other inmates.

But for the British government, these men were nothing more than common criminals and terrorists, some of whom had been convicted of the most serious crimes, such as bombings and murders. They were therefore to be treated in exactly the same way as other prisoners.

And so the 1981 hunger strike began. Over the course of several months, ten prisoners starved themselves to death. Behind the scenes, efforts were made to achieve some kind of compromise, but the British government, led by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, refused to back down. Thatcher was adamant that no concessions would be made to terrorists.

Whether or not this was the right approach, there's no doubt that the British government's handling of the crisis gave Irish republicans a huge propaganda victory. They were able to portray the hunger strikers as martyrs to the cause of Irish freedom, denied their basic rights by a cruel and inhuman imperialist government.

Republican propaganda reached its high point when one of the hunger strikers, the convicted IRA terrorist Bobby Sands, was elected to the British Parliament. Though Sands died not long after, his election was a huge propaganda boost to the republican movement, which experienced a significant spike in support throughout the duration of the hunger strike.

Ever since then, the deaths of Sands and his fellow prisoners have been held up by Irish republicans as an example of heroic resistance to the British state. Though the war between Irish republican terrorists and the British is officially over, the memory of the 1981 hunger strikers lives on, preserved in countless songs, poems, and colorful murals that adorn the gable ends of streets in nationalist areas of Northern Irish cities such as Belfast and Derry.

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