LONDON - When debating Margaret Thatcher's legacy, an important element was largely swept under the rug – the 1981 hunger strike by IRA inmates in a Northern Ireland prison.

This dark period of British history is all the more significant as 32 years later, another hunger strike – in Guantanamo Bay – risks backfiring on President Barack Obama, who has been incapable of keeping his promise to close down the post 9/11 military prison. 

“Crime is crime is crime. It is not political!” declared the Iron Lady in her high-pitched voice, sounding slightly irritated. This sentence is emblematic of the hard-line approach of Prime Minister Thatcher, with the Irish Republican Movement that was igniting Northern Ireland.

Bobby Sands was the commanding officer of the IRA inmates being held at Maze prison – also known as Long Kesh – where he was serving a 14-year sentence for firearms possession. On March 1, 1981, Sands started refusing food with the aim of obtaining the status of political prisoner, or prisoner of war, for himself and his fellow Irish republican inmates. Five years earlier, the British government had withdrawn the political status for paramilitary prisoners as part of its policy of “criminalization.”

On April 9, from his cell, Sands was elected to the British Parliament, during a partial election in a Northern Ireland constituency. On May 5, he drew his last breath.

The news, announced at 2 a.m. with the banging of garbage can lids on Falls Road, in Belfast, triggered days and nights of rioting. 100,000 people attended Sands' funeral.

Other IRA inmates had already taken over the fight. The next hunger striker to die, Francis Hughes, passed away a week later. Maintaining her uncompromising stand, which was supported by the British public, Margaret Thatcher stood firm. From May to October, she let slowly die ten hunger strikers. It was the prisoners’ mothers who ended the hunger strike by demanding medical intervention to save their sons’ lives

A major propaganda coup, the hunger strike allowed the IRA to recruit massively, reinforced Sinn Féin – the IRA’s political wing – and radicalized the conflict. Donations of American supporters poured in.

The deadly bombings continued, including the attack – which Thatcher narrowly escaped – on her hotel, during a Conservative party conference in Brighton. In 1998, it was Prime Minister Tony Blair who finally signed a peace deal with the rebel province.

The situation in Guantanamo is different, but the weapon that is hunger strike is leading to the same trap. The hunger strike started early February, and quickly spread among the 166 detainees of the camp, all of who were arrested in the fight against terror, after 9/11.

Photo: Paul Keller

According to Guantanamo authorities, on April 12, 43 prisoners met the official hunger strike criteria (refusing nine consecutive meals), with 13 being force-fed a highly nutritive liquid by tubes up their noses and into their stomachs. Lawyers are saying the hunger strike is wider-ranging, affecting 100 to 130 detainees in total.

"Stealth hunger strikers"

On April 13, at dawn, American troops raided Camp 6, where the least dangerous captives are being held – in order to break the hunger strike. The majority of inmates in this camp have not been charged and are allowed to take part in group activities such as sports and cultural, or religious activities. The prisoners covered surveillance cameras with cereal boxes, preventing the troops from seeing who was on strike and what state they were in.

The raid, which took place just a few hours after the departure of an International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delegation, and while media visits are prohibited until May 6, allowed troops to regain control of Camp 6, and to place each detainee in a high security individual cell.

Guantanamo authorities, consisting in more than 1,700 American troops monitoring 166 prisoners from Arab and Muslim countries, suspect some of the hunger strikers of eating in secret. But their biggest concern, says Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald, is the “stealth hunger strikers” who pretend to eat so the guards don’t notice they are dying.

The last thing Guantanamo wants is a Bobby Sands. The Camp 6 Martyrs would be a guaranteed hit in Middle Eastern box offices. It should be enough to remember the morbid details of Bobby Sands' agony, as described by his relatives: his thinness, the moment when he became deaf, then blind, the moment he stopped speaking... to see that such a scenario must be prevented at all costs.

Bobby Sands in 1973 - Photo: Bobby Sands Trust

This is why the hunger strikers whose lives are in danger, are force-fed -- a practice denounced by the ICRC. Has the problem been solved? Of course not. It was perfectly described during a March 20 Congress Armed Services Committee, by General John F. Kelly, commander of the U.S. Southern Command: the Guantanamo detainees, 86 of whom were cleared for release three years ago, are starting to lose hope that they will ever be released. Seven have committed suicide since 2006. President Obama had promised to shut down the prison “within a year” – this was on Jan. 22, 2009.

Obama's good intentions have gotten lost in a maze of disputes with Congress, which blocked the credits needed for the transfer of detainees. Daniel Fried, the special envoy for facilitating the closing of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp was reassigned and not replaced. The prison’s commander asked for $200 million to turn the installations – which were designed to be temporary 11 years ago – into a permanent infrastructure. Meanwhile, says General Kelly, the prisoners are “devastated” by what they interpret as signs there are no solutions to the legal limbo in which they are trapped.

Maggie Thatcher could have accepted the demands of the hunger strikers of Long Kesh, but she didn’t want to. Barack Obama would like to accept the demands of Guantanamo's hunger strikers but he can’t. Two leaders of two great democracies, who failed on the same issue.