Lesson 2: 1975-1981 Evolving Republican Strategy

Lesson 2: 1975-1981
Evolving Republican Strategy

This lesson looks at how republican strategy developed in the wake of the collapse of power-sharing and the emergence of new British state strategies to contain rather than resolve the conflict, which created a new phase of political violence and protest - not just on the streets, but also in the north’s prisons.


The restoration of Direct Rule from Westminster in the wake of the collapse of the Sunningdale Agreement and the Ulster Workers Council Strike changed the context for the conflict. For some republicans, the failure of Sunningdale was seen as a real blow to the British Government’s hopes that there could be an internal political solution to the conflict. There was a clear sense of frustration from the British that the conflict had no end in sight and that the lives of British soldiers continued to be lost, which was particularly unpopular with the British public. As a result, there was a belief amongst some in the Provisional IRA leadership that the British Government might seriously consider a complete withdrawal from the North (something that the Prime Minister Harold Wilson had hinted at publicly).

The 1975 Ceasefire

Following a series of exploratory contacts with the British Government via intermediaries, in January 1975 the IRA announced a cessation of all military operations against the British Army to allow further discussions with British Government representatives. However, as talks continued, it became clear that Irish unity in the short term was not on the British Government’s agenda. The ceasefire held (albeit in theory more than in reality) throughout most of 1975, despite growing frustrations from within the IRA at what they felt was a lack of progress. As the year went on, divisions grew within the IRA between those who felt that the British were simply using the ceasefire to weaken the organisation from within and those that believed they were serious about withdrawal. The ceasefire was officially called off in January 1976, leading to the emergence of a younger, northern-based leadership led by Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness.


The ending of the 1975 ceasefire had a number of impacts. The younger northern leadership, who had looked on powerlessly during the ceasefire as the older southern-based leadership pursued fruitless negotiations with the British Government, decided that no new cessations would be considered in advance of a British Government declaration that they would withdraw from the North, no matter how long that would take. This became known as the ‘Long War’ strategy.

A New Approach

For the British, the failure of Sunningdale, and then of the Ceasefire, led to a new approach, aimed at containing the conflict, reducing support for violence, and reducing the level of British Army involvement in security. This policy had three strands and shaped the conflict over the next six years. ‘Normalisation’: British Government investment in socio-economic projects to address underlying poverty & suggest that people in the North were living and working in a normal society, largely unaffected by conflict. ‘Ulsterisation’: Reductions in British troop numbers and the introduction of ‘police primacy’ – which placed the main responsibility for managing the conflict in the hands of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, with the British Army acting in a supporting role as and when required. This was designed to reduce the number of British Army casualties, which was deeply unpopular in Britain, and to portray the conflict as a policing issue rather than a political one. The Ulster Defence Regiment – locally recruited British Soldiers – were also given an enhanced role in implementing security policy. ‘Criminalisation’: This was designed to remove political legitimacy from the IRA by removing any future political or ‘special category status’ for politically motivated prisoners (which had been granted by the British government in June 1972). It also saw the ending of internment without trial. This approach from the British marked a clear shift from a reactive approach to the conflict that had exploded onto the streets in the late 1960’s and intensified from 1972, into a longer term strategy to frustrate the IRA, erode their support, and focus efforts around a security-led approach to the conflict. The failure of power-sharing and of the IRA ceasefire had led to the conclusion that politics was unlikely to provide any short-term solutions to the conflict and that managing violence was the next best approach in the meantime.

Republican Response

For the Republican leadership, this new approach initially changed little on the ground. Whether it was the RUC or the British Army who were attempting to limit their operations was of little practical difference. The criminalisation policy would have a much greater direct impact on Republican activists. The removal of ‘Special Category Status' – the de facto recognition that IRA activists were political prisoners – had the effect of creating a new front in the conflict which would become hugely significant. Since 1972, prisoners with special category status: were housed separately from common prisoners; could associate freely with fellow special-category prisoners from their organisation (known as free association); were not required to do work; and wore no prison uniforms. The new policy meant that any Republican arrested after 1st March 1976 and convicted as a result would now have to conform to normal prison rules including wearing a prison uniform, being confined to their cells and carrying out prison work. On 14th September 1976, convicted Republican prisoner Kieran Nugent refused to wear a prison uniform when he arrived in the newly constructed H-Blocks section of Long Kesh prison (where the new policy was to be implemented). Instead, he stripped naked and wore only a prison blanket. This action initiated what became known as the “Blanket Protest” and by 1978 resulted in approximately 300 republican prisoners refusing to wear prison uniforms or abide by normal prison regulations. In March 1978 the Blanket Protest evolved into the “No Wash Protest”. It developed after attacks on prisoners by warders while they walked to the prison toilets and shower blocks. Matters escalated further when the contents of the prisoners' chamber pots were thrown back into their cells instead of being emptied, leading to prisoners smearing their human waste onto their cell walls. By 1979 the prisoners had crystalised their protest into five main demands: The right not to wear a prison uniform; The right not to do prison work; The right to one visit and one parcel or letter per week; The right to free association with other prisoners & the right to educational and recreational facilities; Restoration of lost remission (in normal circumstances a prisoner would only serve half of the sentence imposed on them – protesting prisoners lost one day of remission for each day they had been on protest).

The 1980 Hunger Strike

By the autumn of 1980, with no sign of the British Government changing its position, the protesting prisoners decided their only remaining option was a hunger strike. On 27th October seven prisoners in the H-Blocks began to refuse food. In early December they were joined by a further twenty-three H-Block prisoners and three female republican prisoners in Armagh prison. By mid-December pressure began to mount on the British Government to resolve the situation when one of the seven original hunger strikers, Newry man Sean McKenna, began to lapse in-and-out of a coma. On 18th December, the strike leader Brendan Hughes, who had the understanding that the British Government were going to introduce proposals to end the dispute, called off the fast in order to save McKenna’s life.

The 1981 Hunger Strike

When the proposed settlement from the British Government was not implemented in the way the prisoners expected, the prisoners released a statement announcing their intention to begin another hunger strike. On 1st March 1981, the fifth anniversary of the ending of Special Category Status, IRA prisoner Bobby Sands began a new fast. Other prisoners joined the strike periodically every few weeks. This gap was intended to allow the momentum of the hunger strike to be maintained even if one of the prisoners passed away. Between 5th and 20th August 1981, ten prisoners died on hunger strike. By September the catholic church was placing severe pressure on the families of the remaining hunger strikers to allow medical intervention when the men lapsed into a coma. On 6th September the family of Laurence McKeown became the fourth family to intervene. The families of the remaining hunger strikers began to quickly follow suit. The strike was officially called off on 3rd October 1981. On 6th October, James Prior, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, gave partial concessions to the prisoners. The right not to work was the only outstanding demand but this would ultimately be granted within the space of a year.

Bobby Sands

On 5th March, Frank Maguire, the Republican MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone passed away suddenly leading to a by-election whose candidates included Bobby Sands. On 9th April 1981 he was elected to Westminster. His election created massive publicity globally and increased the expectation that the British would introduce proposals to end the prison dispute. Despite the result, the British government refused to change their position on political status and Bobby Sands continued his protest. After 66 days on hunger strike he died on 5th May 1981 aged 27. His death resulted in protests all across Ireland and an increase in violence across the North. Over 100,000 mourners attended his funeral. His election, coupled with the election of two other hunger strikers in the Irish General Election in the same year, saw the republican movement decide to contest elections on a sustained basis through Sinn Féin whilst continuing the IRA’s armed campaign.

Consequences of the Protests & Hunger Strikes

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher became a republican hate figure and there was international condemnation of the British Government for its handling of the Hunger Strikes.

The Hunger Strikes proved to be a huge propaganda victory for the republican movement, gaining it a lot of international sympathy and attention.

Between September 1976 and October 1981, 15 active Prison Officers were killed by republican paramilitaries.

From March to October 1981, the north of Ireland plunged into violence on a scale not witnessed since the early 1970s with 62 people killed - over half of those civilians.

The Hunger Strikes became a significant political turning point in the north of Ireland, as Sinn Féin began its move towards mainstream politics – which was a key factor in the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985.

Similar to the events of Bloody Sunday, the Hunger Strikes motivated many nationalists to join the forces of the IRA in retaliation for what they saw as the brutality of the British Government.


The Hunger Strikes were a consequence of the British Government’s policy of criminalisation. They transformed the republican movement’s approach to the conflict as it adopted a dual approach of armed tactics by the IRA coupled with sustained electoral interventions through Sinn Féin. This approach was to shape the outcome of the conflict, and was a major influence on the emergence of the Good Friday Agreement some fifteen years later.



“The implications of a gradual withdrawal from major responsibility for security in Northern Ireland might have to be considered, and variants of the option of withdrawal, such as the granting of dominion status to Northern Ireland, should not be ruled out in the long term.”
Harold Wilson, British Prime Minister, Sept 1975.

Minutes of Cabinet Committee on Northern Ireland, 24 September 1975


“The Provos were — too simple a phrase but it comes close... they did not want this war to continue. It didn’t mean that they were demoralised or that they had run out of war materials... Anybody who was involved… wanted an honourable settlement.”
Brendan Duddy, intermediary between the IRA and the British Government, Feb 1975.


“I think that their own papers have shown that the British were not involved in a serious attempt to resolve the conflict but were involved in an initiative which was designed to have a military affect, a detrimental military affect on the IRA as opposed to a resolution of the causes of conflict.”
Martin McGuinness, speaking in 2006 on the implications of the 1975 ceasefire.


“The year 1975 has faced us with a totally different set of security problems. In the previous two years the overwhelming feature was the campaign of virtually unrestricted violence of the Provisional IRA, though it was accompanied by an undercurrent of sectarian murder… This is gangsterism. There is no other word for it. It can and will be dealt with by effective policing with the full support of the Army.’
Merlyn Rees, House of Commons, 1975. https://alphahistory.com/northernireland/merlyn-rees-announces-withdrawal-scs-1975/


“We are not prepared to consider special category status for certain groups of people serving sentences for crime. Crime is crime is crime, it is not political.”
Margaret Thatcher, British Prime Minister, 21st April 1981.


"Mr. Sands was a convicted criminal. He chose to take his own life. It was a choice that his organisation did not allow to many of its victims."
Margaret Thatcher, British Prime Minister, 5th May 1981.

Learning Activities

Activity 1: Create a timeline to show the key events from Sunningdale onwards which led to the election of Bobby Sands as a Sinn Féin MP.

Discussion: The British state saw republican prisoners as criminals. Republican prisoners saw themselves as political prisoners or prisoners of war, who deserved special category status. Even today, the hunger strikers who died are celebrated in some sections of nationalist and republican communities as heroes who gave their lives protesting against the British state, whereas to the unionist and loyalist communities they were simply terrorists.

In groups, discuss the difference between a ‘terrorist’ and a ‘freedom fighter’. Note down all your discussion points.

Further to your discussion, use online research to discover quotes or news articles which describes the feelings of a unionist politician and a republican politician towards the hunger strikes (alternatively this may be their thoughts on a hunger strike memorial march).

Extension Activity: Create a spider diagram showing the five demands of the Republican Prisoners.

Digital Task


Students will manipulate an image to communicate the demands of the Hunger Strikers. Students will research suitable images. Choosing 1 image, students will edit it and use the text tool to add text to communicate the demands of the hunger strikers.


Images and information will be sourced from the internet and designed in the form of a sketch.

Students will be supplied with search terms by the teacher and source appropriate images and text from the internet – ask students to consider the reliability and objectivity of the information they find. Advise students that it is best to try and source medium/large images.

Students will identify and select images/text to use and save them appropriately in a dedicated folder with a meaningful filename.

Students will keep an account of the sites they have visited in a saved document.


Students will import their sourced image into the software and use the colour/filter tools to add an effect to the image. Some students may use these tools in conjunction with the selection tools to highlight areas of the image. Students will then insert the quote/information they sourced by using the text tool. Students will complete their piece of work by exporting it in a suitable file format (e.g. JPEG).

Encourage students to consider the size and style of fonts, the colour/filter style and the tools available to them within the software package.

Remind students to save their work in a dedicated folder with an appropriate filename.


Give students the opportunity to view each other’s work. This may be done by displaying the best work on the whiteboard or students may circulate the room.

Taking other students' feedback into account, ask students to justify their choices and decisions, including any difficulties they encountered in the creation of their image. This may be completed in the form of a saved document.

Explore Section 2: 1981-1987