Growing up in West Belfast in the 1990s, I was surrounded by the legacy of a particular strike that left an indelible mark on my community: the 1981 hunger strike. The 1981 hunger strike was the result of the British Government’s decision to abolish special category status for paramilitary prisoners in HM Prison Maze. The prisoners’ five demands included the right to wear civilian clothing, the right to organise leisure and education facilities, and full remission of sentences. Following eight long months, the hunger strikes eventually ended in October 1981 after ten men – one of whom was an elected MP – had died.
My mother told me stories of what she called the ‘summer of sadness’ – groups of women smashing bin lids on the footpath to signify the death of another hunger striker became a regular sound and sight for my teenage mother as she walked to and from school. Many people see the 1981 hunger strike as the beginning of Sinn Féin’s long march toward the ballot box that would eventually place its leaders in a power-sharing government under British authority. But for me personally, the 1981 hunger strike represents something different: the importance of standing up for your beliefs and rights, and the power of individuals in enacting wider societal change.
They call my generation “ceasefire babies” – too young to remember most of the terror that occurred but old enough to be affected by the legacy of the Troubles. Like many in the ceasefire baby generation, who are now in their 20s and early 30s, the impact of growing up in a deeply traumatized society continues to shape our experience of adulthood. Walking past the mural of the hunger striker Bobby Sands on my journey to and from school on the Falls Road as a teenager in the 2000s, I was reminded daily of Ireland’s long struggle for freedom, and of the importance of strikes in challenging the status quo.