On 23 October 1980, shortly before a hunger strike by Irish Republican prisoners was due to begin, the British government announced that prisoners in Northern Ireland would be allowed to wear ‘prison issue civilian clothing’ instead of prison uniform. Republican prisoners had distilled their campaign for political status into five demands that included the right to wear their own clothes. Intermediaries had been advising the British government that if prisoners were allowed their own clothes and got concessions on the issue of prison work a hunger strike could be averted. The British government seem to have come very close in October 1980 to conceding on the clothing issue but at the final stage the government balked. Fearful that prison officers would refuse to implement the changes, and facing strong direct pressure against compromise from unionist politicians, they came up with the idea of civilian-style clothing, a measure aimed at demonstrating flexibility.
The prisoners rejected this move, as expected. The British government emphasized that civilian-style clothing meant the end of the prison uniform but the images here, taken from a British government pamphlet* give a good sense of the limitations of this move. The first picture shows the prison uniform while the second shows the range of civilian-style clothing to be made available.More important than the substance of the clothing was the question of whether its acceptance would be seen as a defeat for the prisoners. The limited range of clothing and the extent of its uniformity maintained the basic principle that the prison authorities would decide what prisoners wore and made it more likely that it would be seen by prisoners as a defeat.
The 1980 hunger strike subsequently collapsed but a second hunger strike began in 1981. In July 1981, after four prisoners had died on hunger strike, and facing huge political pressure, the British government secretly told the IRA leadership they would concede on the clothing issue. By that stage however it was not enough to end the hunger strike and the conflict in Northern Ireland had been stoked up so much that it would continue for another decade and a half.
- ‘Day to day life in Northern Ireland prisons’. In PREM 19/503, UK National Archives