It was the year that helped create the circumstances of peace and yet it was a bloody year in our conflict with 118 deaths – ten of them of Republican prisoners who starved themselves to death, one of whom died as a British Member of Parliament.
A watershed year is the frequently applied description of 1981.
A watershed year because of the Republican hunger strike at the Maze Prison just outside Lisburn and the ugly violence on the streets that sandwiched the deaths by starvation by 10 men seeking a return to the prisoner of war status given to paramilitary prisoners at the start of the conflict over a decade before.
There were 25 violent deaths up to April 28, 1981. Then on May 5 came the death of Bobby Sands, MP. More deaths followed on the streets outside and as the number of Republicans dying from hunger in the prison seemed to escalate…the effect was of an accelerant being applied to the flames of protest outside the jail.
Between May 5 when Bobby Sands died and August 20 when Mickey Devine became the 10th and last hunger striker to die, there were 53 deaths in total and including the 10 hunger strikers.
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher played her part in making this a watershed year. She stood firm and did nothing to appease, negotiate or stop Republicans from starving themselves into martyrdom. She did not intend to boost democracy but in the end her decision to look on as 10 men died in such a self-inflicted violent manner created a stirring in Republicanism and Nationalism.
For the hunger strike is a powerful weapon. The more the British just looked away as deaths in prison grew, the more people living in Nationalist areas found themselves taking to the streets in protest – not IRA supporters but people who recognised the sacrifice of life for a principle. For them this represented a shift in the moral high ground.
And when it came to Bobby Sands standing for election in Fermanagh/South Tyrone the impact of this seismic shift in Nationalist/Republican thinking was clear to see.
By-election victory brought fresh impetus to the Republican cause – yes they could enjoy popular support for their campaign.
Three days after the death of Mickey Devine – on August 23 – Owen Carron improved on Bobby Sands’ electoral success by taking 31,278 votes, an increase of 786 votes.
Sinn Fein who had been against Sands standing for election – fearful of the outcome in terms of rejection of their campaign – announced it would contest future Northern Ireland elections as well as the West Belfast seat occupied by Gerry Fitt who had spoken out against the hunger strike.
This moment of hunger strike violence is largely recognised as the birth of a new thinking in Republicanism. Danny Morrison best described it at the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis on October 31 that year: “Who here really believes we can win the war through the ballot box? But will anyone here object if, with a ballot paper in one hand and the Armalite in the other, we take power in Ireland?”
For power in Ireland, see power-sharing Government in Northern Ireland.
So 1981 is remembered as the springboard for the move away from the path of violence by Republicans on the road to democratic salvation for a united Ireland. As if to emphasise this change in spirit, Northern Ireland’s first integrated school, Lagan College, opened on September 1.
And in the middle of all this in 1981, we witnessed the killing of political representatives – for example, the deaths of Sir Norman Stronge, former Unionist Speaker at Stormont, and his son James at their home, Tynan Abbey, near the border. The IRA statement of admission said: “This deliberate attack on the symbols of hated unionism was a direct reprisal for a whole series of loyalist assassinations and murder attacks on nationalist people and nationalist activities.”
The Rev Robert Bradford MP also died in a hail of bullets and IRA indignation in 1981.
Today they share power. The guns have been put away.
In 1981 as I covered the hunger strikes for BBC news in Northern Ireland I recall other stories that year – the death of police officer William Coulter at Unity Flats. He should not have died. Information had been supplied to Special Branch that there was to be an attack in that very area and somehow the message didn’t filter down to the men on the ground.
It was an early indication of what would come later as we marched on to democratic change.
And then there was the morning I arrived at the back of St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast before the police. There, lying on the cobbled stones was the body of a man freshly murdered by an IRA gunman – shot in the back of the head as he made his way to work.
There was little to recognise in death of Charlie Johnston the travel agent – the man I’d shared a few pints week the previous weekend at Annadale school’s former pupils sports club. He was shot by ‘mistake’ according to the IRA.
That’s one of the many stories I covered in 1981 – but because it was personal I do remember it.
But it’s a story that I forgot that’s transported me back in time to 1981.
As we mark the 30th anniversary of the hunger strikes, the Detail is going to introduce you to someone who barely survived the violence of the time…a former British soldier who spent just four months in Northern Ireland in the summer of 1981 on his maiden tour.
On July 16, 1981, he was caught up in an IRA ambush near Crossmaglen. His best friend died when the IRA opened fire on their surveillance post in a scrap yard at Glassdrummond on the border. He survived but the bullet that hit him left him paralysed from the chest down.
He contacted me at the Detail a few months ago. He wanted to talk about his experience to me because on the morning after he’d been shot I reported the incident for BBC news and paused at the white van he and his dead comrade had been using for cover.
John Moore, a rifleman with the Royal Green Jackets, asked if I remembered the incident.
Sadly, I had to inform him, no I didn’t.
It didn’t stop John Moore from coming back to Ireland to meet and to pay homage to his fallen comrade Lance Corporal Gavin Dean.
You will find a video report of his journey to mark the 30th anniversary of the death of his best friend located on this page. It’s a remarkable story of a man without bitterness who still appreciates the beauty of the land that left him crippled.