Time and emotion: the hunger strike as protest tactic

September 14 @ 1:00 pm2:00 pm

Location: CA110 (SAC Room), Cairnes Building, NUI Galway Galway Ireland

Speaker(s): Dr Niall Ó Dochartaigh

Affiliation: The Conflict, Humanitarianism and Security Research Cluster

Organised by: Whitaker Institute

This paper analyses the political dynamics of the 1980 hunger strike by Irish Republican prisoners – the precursor to the hunger strike of 1981 in which ten men died – focusing on temporal dimensions of negotiations aimed at ending the protests. It draws on extensive interviews with key figures, including intermediaries, British government officials and Republican leaders, as well as extensive documentation from both official and private papers.

Contrary to the existing literature on hunger strikes which strongly emphasises culture, tradition and emotion, this paper argues that the hunger strike is closely connected to the logics of modernity. The hunger strike is a particularly concentrated and intense deployment of time pressure in the pursuit of political goals. The central defining characteristic of the hunger strike is that it provides a way for weak actors to set a deadline when dealing with complex bureaucracies that derive much of their power from deferral and delay.

The paper analyses the temporal dimensions to the hunger strike tactic, focusing especially on the way in which bargaining power and bargaining moves are intensely concentrated in the final hours. It examines the intertwined temporalities of three crucial aspects of the negotiation process: information, communication and biological processes. The paper argues that this analytical approach can be deployed in the analysis of the relationship between time and power in many other forms of protest and suggests a number of avenues for further inquiry into the temporal dimensions of protest.


This seminar is one of a series of seminars in the Whitaker Ideas Forum seminar series.  Dr Ó Dochartaigh will be representing the Conflict, Humanitarianism and Security Research Cluster.

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About niallodoc

Senior Lecturer in the School of Political Science and Sociology at the National University of Ireland Galway
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