Hunger Striking as Political Resistance, Then & Now: QUB’s Institute for Conflict Transformation Spring Festival

festivalAre hunger strikes effective as a political strategy?

This was one of the questions explored yesterday at a day-long conference on ‘Prisoner Hunger Strikers in Northern Ireland and Palestine: Examining the Long Term Effects.’

The event was part of the Spring Festival of Events at Queen’s Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice, which continues through the end of the month.

Republican hunger strikers and ex-prisoners Tommy McKearney and Laurence McKeown were part of a panel for a session on ‘Hunger Striking as a Strategy of Political Resistance for Political Prisoners.’

Neither man would be drawn on whether hunger striking would be an effective strategy in Northern Ireland today. But both (unsurprisingly) insisted that the republican hunger strikes of the 1980s had been necessary in laying the foundations for the later achievements of the republican movement.

Dr Julie Norman, a Research Fellow in the Institute, provided a framework for the panel discussion with a brief comparative history of hunger striking, pointing out that in most contexts they are most effective when 1) they are collective, and 2) when they can leverage outside actors to put pressure on the state.

Aouda Zbidat, a lawyer from Addameer, a prison support and human rights organization in Palestine, spoke about the effectiveness of Palestinian hunger strikes in the past. Palestine/Israel is a context where about 800,000 people (including about 40% of the male Palestinian population) have been imprisoned since the start of occupation.

She said that between the 1970s and 1990s most strikes were collective, with thousands of prisoners involved across many prisons. These strikes yielded small victories such as being allowed to sleep after the 6 am headcount, the right to wear civilian clothes, a full egg for breakfast, their own pens and teacups, and extra bread and jam. ‘Most achievements in prisons flowed from hunger strikes.’

But now, most strikes in Palestine are individual rather than collective, happening among people on ‘administrative detention’ – those who have been detained without trial. These have not been as effective (if effectiveness is measured in terms of concessions by the prison authorities or the state).

McKeown’s assessment of the Northern Ireland hunger strikes was that they were inevitable and necessary:

 We realized the power we had as a disciplined group of people. After the hunger strikes, by a range of other means, we were able to undermine the system. We only achieved what we did because of that struggle beforehand.

McKearney based his remarks around what he called ‘two misinterpretations’ of the Northern Ireland hunger strikes in the 1980s.

The first was a ‘tendency to use hunger strikes to endorse current practices by political parties – both pro and anti-Sinn Fein parties.’

The second was ‘to see 1981 as a Pauline conversion within the republican movement … when all of a sudden republicanism found itself with a political party.’ McKearney emphasized that the roots of party politicization went back further than the hunger strikes:

The infrastructure and support base was already there. The republican movement knew it had widespread support and could turn it into electoral support. The hunger strikes just clarified thinking.

He elaborated that a hunger strike ‘is not a determination to commit suicide’ and as a political strategy, should be evaluated in two ways: 1) will it impose moral pressure on an opponent – and will moral pressure work in your situation?; and 2) can it lead to consequences that the authorities have to take on board – ranging from protests in the streets to international pressure.

McKearney noted that now that US forces in Guantanamo seem to have ‘perfected force-feeding,’ this ‘poses questions over the efficacy of hunger strikes. Hunger strikes are only effective if there’s a possibility of dying.’

It’s important to note that this panel discussion was sharply focused on the effectiveness, not the morality, of hunger striking as a political strategy. Morality was mentioned, but only briefly to point out that hunger strikes were often seen as a way to apply moral pressure on a more powerful opponent.

Disclaimer: I am a Research Fellow in the Institute

Gladys is a Research Fellow in the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast. She also blogs on religion and politics at

  • Msiegnaro

    The crux of the problem from a Northern Ireland standpoint is that the hunger strikers have been glorified for their actions and scant regard is given towards their terrorist acts that resulted in imprisonment. There is no doubt that the strikes were effective, however it is a perverse effectiveness which ignores the victims yet elevates the perpetrators to almost cult status.

  • Thought Criminal

    Let’s hope this institute recommends it as a successful strategy, and let our Republican chums listen again and glorify it all they want. Meanwhile, let the rest of us laugh our asses off as we have a good BBQ!

  • NMS

    Interesting post in light of Gregory Campbell’s pointed (& painfully accurate) jibe at Declan Kearney.

    The Hunger Strikes struck me at the time as an act of desperation and their messy end gave Mrs. Thatcher a clear win, which was cemented by the Good Friday Agreement. The existence Border has never been so secure since 1922.

    Use of Hunger strikes in a more modern context has failed mainly because of media management by States such as the US. The brilliantly simple idea of keeping the prisoners off US soil, restricted access to site & ensured minimal coverage. Also there is far greater reluctance to see those prisoners refusing food as victims. Large scale acts of terror, whether connected or not, have changed the public perspective of such prisoners.

  • Msiegnaro

    Was Gregory’s Campbell’s jibe not at Raymond McCartney?

  • NMS

    Apologies. Yes, I you are correct.

  • chrisjones2

    Just like 1916 then!! Except that in 1916 many of them weren’t granted the possibility of a last minute reprieve but never told about it.

    Still they died for Ireland and that is all that matters

  • Glenn

    These republican mass suicide stooges and those who survived were and continue to be shinner/provo political pawns. The shinners/provos have used and reused and reused them as election fodder and cash cows which makes them fair game for criticism, notwithstanding the crimes they committed to get them put behind bars. Also if republicans want to celebrate this act of mass suicide they should not be surprised when those from the other side of the fence regard them with contempt and criticise them.

  • Granni Trixie

    I think for the purposes of debate on the effectiveness of HS it was a good idea to spell out that conference was parking questions concerning morality. In ‘real life’ discussions however morality tends to take centre stage on this topic. MCKearneys POV on HS as suicude is interesting as some think of HS as a product of mental illness or of being influenced by negative dynamics in the jails.

    , I wonder if the topic of eating disorders as a mental health condition came into discussions, bearing in mind that eating disorders have only come into view in relatively recent years. Or when discussing effectiveness (inevitably overlapping with morality) did the question of the example a cult of HS sets to young people in particular.