March 1976, following the ending of Internment without trial the previous December and the collapse of the IRA/British 1975 Truce, political status, won in 1972 after a hunger-strike in Crumlin Road Jail, was ended.
As criminalisation, Ulsterisation and normalisation became the main policy of the British government in the North, vigorously pursued by the new British Secretary of State, Roy Mason, conditions inside the prison deteriorated dramatically.
In mid-September, 1976, Ciaran Nugent, the first republican prisoner to be convicted since the abolition of political status the previous March, refused to wear prison clothes and was left in his cell with nothing to wear except a blanket. He was joined later by hundreds of others convicted by the non-jury diplock courts who were determined to resist criminalisation. After two years the prisoners were forced to embark on a no-wash.
In the winter of 1979, a newly formed H/Block-Armagh committee was formed to campaign on behalf of the prisoners.
After almost a year of high profile protests throughout the Ireland and in America, and with no response from Margaret Thatcher’s government, the prisoners, left with no other means to highlight their plight, decided, after much deliberation, to embark on a hunger-strike for political status.
In late October 1980, seven prisoners in the H/Blocks, led by Brendan Hughes, who was succeeded as O/C by Bobby Sands, began a hunger-strike for political status. Hughes was joined on the on the fast by five other IRA Volunteers; Tom McFeeley; Sean McKenna, Leo Green, Tommy McKearney and Raymond McCartney and an INLA volunteer, John Nixon. In early December, as the hunger strike entered its sixth week, they were joined on the fast by three women in Armagh jail who had, along with their comrades, been on the no-wash protest since the previous February; Mairead Farrell, OC of the prisoners, Mairead Nugent and Mary Doyle.
However, despite huge protests throughout Ireland during November and early December, the British government refused to grant the prisoners’ demands. In mid-December, as Sean McKenna neared death and as the prisoners prepared to escalate the hunger-strike, the British announced that they were prepared to concede the Prisoners’ demands, on a phased basis, once the fast had ended.
Trusting that Humphrey Atkins, the then British Secretary of State, would not renege on this promise, Sands, having consulted his staff, the prisoners and those on the fast, reluctantly decided to end the hunger strike on Thursday, 18 December.
After weeks of delays by the British in implementing the promised changes, and confusion among the prisoners and their supporters, it became apparent in January 1981 that political status was not to be granted. The prisoners, faced with no alternative, would be forced to embark on a new fast that would have widespread repercussions in Ireland and abroad.