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Irish Hunger Strikes

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Social movements, whether local or international, over small issues or policies affecting millions of people across several countries or continents always stem from continuing and pervasive social forces that create tensions and stresses which push individuals and organizations into mobilization and action supportive of change, thus creating the social movement. Both the Irish hunger strikes and protests over sovereignty for Quebec were directed and catalyzed by such social forces.

The hunger strikes that culminated a 5 year protest by Republican prisoners was, as the political nature of the prisoners would have us assume, fuelled by clashing political ideologies and threatened national identities.

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The Quebec protest, although perhaps similar in concept, was distinct in many forms from the Irish struggle. Quebec saw a widely reported and well known protest take place across the country, as opposed to the originally much less publicized hunger strikes in Ireland.

The protests in Quebec included intense violence as well as great restraint in respect of democracy and diplomacy, whereas the Irish Hunger Strikes did not directly involve violence, although they boosted the recruitment and level of IRA activity.

The availability of resources also, as in all social movements, played a crucial role in the development of the protest in Quebec, and as a consequence of the protest in Ireland. Nationalism and feelings of alienation led the actions of those involved in the two social movements, and ultimately both protests became major events in the histories of each movement’s struggle.

The political nature of the strikes by Irish Republican Army and Irish National Liberation Army prisoners was rooted in the ongoing conflict that had been taking place across Northern Ireland between Irish paramilitary groups and the United Kingdom. In 1976, the British parliament removed the special status of prisoners who had been incarcerated in relation to the struggle, therefore putting them in the general population and officially labelling them as criminals, rather than prisoners of war.

The prisoners, wishing to remain under the title of captured soldiers, refused to be considered criminals and serve sentences under British law, and therefore chose to show the distinction between themselves and the common criminals who were incarcerated by wearing their bed sheets rather than the prison uniforms, and continued to do so despite being moved to solitary confinement for their refusal to cooperate (Howard, 2006:70). This first protest, known as the “Blanket Protest” which ventually escalated into the “Dirty Protest” and then two hunger strikes, reflects the fundamental political beliefs of the Irish prisoners. The social movement shown in the actions of the strikers, and the protests they eventually inspired, is the pervasive nationalist ideology seen in Ireland as well as Quebec. As described by John Wilson, the tensions in Northern Ireland were also heightened by religious differences, which widened the gap between the ideologies of the British and the unionist Irish, and the republicans who sought a unification of the whole island of Ireland. Wilson, 2007:397). The disadvantaged position of Catholics fuelled existing opposition to the partition of Ireland on ideological and political grounds. Consequently the newly named police force…was charged with policing a divided society within a contested state, the political legitimacy of which was challenged by a sizable minority of the population (ibid). This is a circumstance unique to Ireland’s struggle when compared to that of Quebec.

The protests and separatist ideologies of Quebec were never greatly influenced, founded upon, or even noticeably affected by the idea of religion, whether or not any difference in religions or religious practices existed in Quebec when compared to Canada as a whole. The hunger strikes of the republican prisoners signified a culmination of the protest, and a show of the determination of Irish nationalists.

By starving themselves to near or actual death the small protest within the prisons became a wider known issue that prompted protests from all over the globe demanding action on the part of the Thatcher government (Howard, 2006:69), but also displayed another important factor driving the protest; alienation from political power. Resulting to self-starvation as an act of political protest and indeed being recruited by the IRA in first place both indicate a lack of accessibility, influence or faith the current state of politics of being able to cope with the tensions in existence.

This sentiment was seen and publicized greatly in the Quebec protests, but is also quite apparent in Irish hunger strikes. A critical difference exists of course in that the Irish were acting in a situation comparable to a social movement working from the “outside towards the inside”, as opposed to the people of Quebec who could approach their own government as a legitimate means of developing sovereignty efficiently. The earlier violent separatist protests by the FLQ in Quebec echo the notion of political alienation or dissatisfaction as eople turn to bombings, kidnapping public officials and other violent protest to have their message heard. This element of the social movement repertoire, although frequently available, is rarely used because of the deterrent effect created by the police, and the idea of creating more potential alienation as the organization becomes somewhat of a pariah for not following through diplomatically first. The fashion in which the protesters were dealt with and how the protesters responded to their own being dealt with reflected the conflict between the national identities and ideologies of both the U. K. and Ireland, each side unforgiving and acting with a hardened determination for victory and the advancement of their agendas. The evolution of nationalism in Quebec and the resulting popularity of the separatist movement which became visible throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s, and culminated in the 1995 referendum, was conceived in much the same way as the movement in Ireland (rooted in nationalism and alienation from the political system or society in general), while retaining some significant differences.

Fundamentally, the two social movements differ crucially; Quebec had never in its history been a sovereign nation, and being a province in an existing federal state, was forced to see its resources put almost exclusively into democratic efforts, with the exception of the October Crisis in 1970, which occurred 25 years before the final referendum. It is worth noting that the circumstances under which the Irish and Quebecois fought for total sovereignty were not the same as the usual and perhaps stereotypical anti-colonial war.

Both nations struggled under the idea that they did not need to be “civilised” as did perhaps the colonies of old, but instead that they needed to be assimilated or normalized to their situation, rather than pushing themselves farther and farther away from stability (McVeigh, 2009:5). This concept, seen on the side of the Canadian federalists and Irish unionists, is key to their arguments. It’s a popular understanding that the FLQ were nothing but terrorists, and separatists simply stuck in a time no longer relevant to the situation in which Canada found herself.

This is where the idea of political alienation is rooted; the idea that the larger entity does not even see the other argument as viable or workable and therefore forces the repressed into other forms of social action. The hunger strikes saw no violence on the part of the protesters, despite the fact that no democratic option was available to the prisoners to protect their rights as prisoners of war. Quebec nationalism, although once a very potent force in Quebec, is now much weaker and less common in French-Canadian society, whereas Irish nationalism has long been shown to endure and retain popularity across the country.

Quebec nationalism is also distinct in that it is geographically centered within a country of vast territory, although the cause of this is evident in that the Quebecois “nation” resides almost exclusively in Quebec and has not spread widely throughout Canada or elsewhere. The consequence of this however, remains important. The movement in Quebec, much like that of Ireland is based in an importance of the location of the people involved in the movement.

The success in forcing a referendum in Quebec was largely due to the strength of the Bloc Quebecois in Parliaments, which in turn is due to the geographically centered voting constituency of the party. The mobilization of the resources for the separatist movement in Quebec was therefore made possible by the location of manpower and support for the cause. The movement in Quebec, however, was greatly similar to that of Ireland in that both see their inspiration in the form of nationalism, which was fundamentally correlated to the principles of each protest.

In Quebec, separatism was and remains bound to the idea of the Quebecois nation existing within Canadian society, distinct and even threatened by the rest of Canada (Stevenson, 2004:903) and where the only reasonable solution is the political division of the two. Whereas in Ireland the threat against the Irish may have been more apparent in that there were police occupying Northern Ireland with the purpose of policing United Kingdom territory and keeping republican Irish interests at bay, the principle of threatened nations remains central to the conflict.

Nationalism remains seen in both social movements as an underlining and fundamentally crucial aspect of the protest. Indeed both movements could be said to have been created, developed and declined in the exact fashion that nationalism and the sense of something threatening the safety or even existence of the nation, and both maintain that the only solution is political and territorial divide.

Both the hunger strikes in Ireland and the evolution of Quebec nationalism into separatism were formed by pervasive and enduring social stresses that not only brought the interests of the movement to the surface of society and into the public eye, but mobilized thousands of people, dozens of organizations and pressured the government into responsive action. In both scenarios, the State was resistant to a degree, and both protests saw pockets of violence that were overshadowed by acts of diplomacy and peace, notably the referendum in Quebec and the non-violent nature of the republican prisoners.

Ultimately, both social movements, based in nationalism and a yearning for autonomy within the territory of their respective nations, proved important events in the history of their social movement’s struggles, whether or not they can be attributed a label of success of failure. From such social movements as the Irish hunger strikes and Quebec separatism we can draw important thoughts on the nature of social movement and the fashion in which we respond to such the distinct problems and advantages each protest faced.

Cite this Irish Hunger Strikes

Irish Hunger Strikes. (2017, Mar 24). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/irish-hunger-strikes/

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