Media for Terrorist Strategy: PIRA’s Strategic Media Exploitation during Margaret Thatcher’s Reign

The British government’s counterinsurgency strategy towards the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) shifted dramatically when Margaret Thatcher took office as Prime Minister in May 1979. In the past, her predecessors sought to professionalize the British government’s military forces in response to PIRA attacks. Thatcher, on the other hand, wanted the PIRA politically delegitimized before they could cause any further violence.[1]  In some ways, her policies can be blamed on her famously stubborn personality. She felt that making more liberal policies against the PIRA would portray her as weak. Without political legitimacy, Thatcher surmised that the PIRA would lose support bases, which contributed significantly to their successful media campaigns against the British.[2] 

The 1981 Hunger Strike
In the late 1980s, the PIRA prisoners made 5 demands: (1) that they would not be required to wear a prison uniform; (2) that they would not be required to do prison work; (3) free association with other prisoners; (4) the right to organize their own educational and recreational facilities and (5) one visit, one letter and one parcel per week.[3]   The hunger strikers found a visionary, charismatic leader in Bobby Sands.[4]  On March 1, 1981, Sands began refusing food.[5]  Unlike previous hunger strikes, this protest had the potential to run for many months, because of the large amount of participants - if one hunger striker died, there were many others to take his place. This drawn-out strategy ensured that the PIRA hunger strikers could become political figures themselves because they would seem bravely heroic, making the prison guards would appear barbaric.[6] 

Predictably, Thatcher did not back down on her position, which most likely contributed to the dwindling of her approval rating during her first term in office.[7]  While the hunger strikers’ strict quasi-religious loyalty to the PIRA was not indicative of mental-incompetency, Thatcher argued otherwise.  She believed that, when the PIRA’s other attempts at negotiation were failing, that they would try an outrageously risky tactic that could cost their own lives. However, the fact remained that the world looked upon Thatcher with scorn as Sands’ life slowly-ebbed away. While Catholic priests were preparing to give Sands his last rites, negotiation talks failed when Thatcher remarked afterwards at a press conference: “There is no such thing as political murder, political bombing or political violence.” [8] Indeed, this condemnation proved to be the final nail in the coffin for Sands’ cause, as he died on May 5, 1981 after 65 days on hunger strike.

The global media coverage of Sands’ funeral two days later proved to be sensational. At the time, it was the largest funeral in Belfast.[9]  A Sinn Fein spokesman informed the press that Sands would be buried with “full military honors.”[10]  From that point on, the PIRA’s cause had been “internationalized.”[11]  Some compared Sands’ sacrifice as reminiscent of Gandhi; detractors viewed it as suicide.[12]  In October 1981, after nine more PIRA members starved to death, PIRA’s leadership called off the strike, vowing to continue their struggle for a more unified Ireland.

In this case study, we can see that the media significantly affected the goals of both the British government and the PIRA. Since terrorism aims to communicate a political message, the media coverage of both the terrorist organization and the governments’ response can either help or hinder either organization.[13]  That is, while the terrorist act perpetrated by the terrorist group is meaningful, so is the target government’s response.[14]  In the case of the PIRA strikes, the media often showed news stories of the hunger strikers horrifically withering away, thus allowing the group to garner sympathy and recruitment.[15] 

Thatcher was certainly in a dilemma during the 1981 hunger strikes because, while she wanted to take a hard-line against the PIRA, her purposeful inaction caused the prisoners to starve to death—thereby eliciting a negative media response to her policies overall. At the same time, if the British government wanted to remain credible in its fight against PIRA, she could not implement liberal policies. In this case we see that even inaction can have an extremely negative effect, because of the communicatory nature of terrorist actions and the ability of media coverage of such confrontations to influence the public’s perceptions.


Works Cited

Conger, Jay A. "Inspiring Others: The Language of Leadership."Academy of Management
Executive 5, no. 1 (1991): 31-45.

Crenshaw, Martha. "The Causes of Terrorism." Comparative Politics 13, no. 4 (1981): 379-399.

Crenshaw, Martha. "The Logic of Terrorism: Terrorist Behavior as a Product of Strategic
Choice." In Origins of Terrorism: Psychologies, Ideologies, Theologies, State of Mind,
English, Richard. Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA. London: MacMillan, 2003.

Flynn, Barry. Pawns in the Game: Irish Hunger Strikes: 1912-1981. Cork, Ireland: The Collins
Press, 2011.

Katz, Elihu. “Symmetrizing: On Media Attention to Intergroup Conflict.” Dynamics of
Asymmetric Conflict. 3. No. 2 (July 2010): 143-144.

Mt. Holyoke College, "Hunger Strikes." Accessed May 14, 2012.

Mt. Holyoke College, "Order of Events in Brief." Accessed May 22, 2012.

Nye, Joseph. “Soft Power and American Foreign Policy.” Political Science Quarterly 119. No. 2
(2004): 255-270

Post, Jerrold M. The Mind of the Terrorist: The Psychology of Terrorism from the IRA to Al-
Qaeda. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Reitan, Earl A. The Thatcher Revolution: Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair, and the
Transformation of Modern Britain, 1979-2001. New York: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2003.

Schelling, Thomas. Arms and Influence.  New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1966.

Shirlow, Peter, and Kieran McEvoy. Beyond the Wire: Former Prisoners and Conflict
Transformation in Northern Ireland. London: Pluto Press, 2008.

Sidani, Yusuf. "Perceptions of Leader Transformational Ability." The Journal of Management
Development 26, no. 8 (January 2007): 710-722.

Thatcher, Margaret. The Downing Street Years. New York: Harper Collins, 1993.


[1]Jerrold M.Post. The Mind of the Terrorist: The Psychology of Terrorism from the IRA to Al-Qaeda. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 50. A few policies that she outlined was the refusal to force-feed prisoners or allow them to wear civilian clothes.

[2]Margaret Thatcher. The Downing Street Years. (New York: Harper Collins, 1993), 384. “The IRA are the core of the terrorist problem; their counterparts on the Protestant side would probably disappear if the IRA could be beaten. But the best chance of beating them is if three conditions are met. First, the IRA have to be rejected by the nationalist minority on whom they depend on for shelter and support. This requires that the minority be led to support or at least acquiesce in the constitutional framework of the state in which they live. Second, the IRA have to be deprived of international support, whether from well meaning but naïve Irish Americans, or from Arab revolutionary regimes like that of Colonel Gaddafi. This requires constant attention to foreign policy aimed at explaining the facts to the misinformed and cutting off the weapons from the mischievous. Third, and linked to the other two, relations between Britain and the Republic of Ireland have to be carefully managed. Although the IRA have plenty of support in areas like West Belfast within Northern Ireland, very often it is to the South that they go to be trained, to receive money and arms and to escape capture after crimes committed within the United Kingdom. The border, long and difficult to patrol, is of crucial significance to the security problem. Much depends on the willingness and ability of the political leaders of the Republic to co-operate effectively with our intelligence, security forces and courts.”

[3]Ibid., 199.

[4]Yusuf Sidani. "Perceptions of Leader Transformational Ability." The Journal of Management Development 26, no. 8 (January 2007): 710. Sidani defines the ideal charismatic leader as: “…visionary leaders who are admirably seen as displaying behaviors of sacrifice and group benefit.”

[5]Mt. Holyoke College, "Order of Events in Brief." Accessed May 22, 2012.

[6]Richard English. Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA. (London: MacMillan, 2003), 203-204.

[7]Earl A.  Reitan. The Thatcher Revolution: Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair, and the Transformation of Modern Britain, 1979-2001. (New York: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2003), 48. Between 1979-1982, Margaret Thatcher proved to one of Great Britain’s most unpopular Prime Ministers. Her approval numbers sank as low as 20%. Thatcher’s refusal to compromise during the PIRA’s 1981 hunger strike undoubtedly played a large role in these dismal numbers.

[8]Peter Shirlow and Kieran McEvoy. Beyond the Wire : Former Prisoners and Conflict Transformation in Northern Ireland. (London: Pluto Press, 2008), 30.

[9]Barry Flynn. Pawns in the Game: Irish Hunger Strikes: 1912-1981. (Cork, Ireland: The Collins Press, 2011), 214-215.


[11]Ibid., 214.

[12]Ibid.“The New York Times (6 May 1981) noted that ‘by willing his own death, Bobby Sands has earned his own place in Ireland’s long roll of martyrs and bested an implacable British Prime Minister.’ In another article in the paper entitled ‘Britain’s Gift to Bobby Sands,’ it was noted that ‘this dying young man made it appear that her stubbornness, rather than his own, is the source of a fearful conflict.’ It added that Thatcher’s gift to Sands had ultimately been the ‘gift of martyrdom.’” Ibid., 214-215. “In what was obviously a well-prepared editorial, the London Times had no sympathy for Bobby Sands. Entitled ‘Who Killed Bobby Sands?’, the article congratulated the [British] government for refusing to yield to ‘[Sands’] blackmailand affirmed that it bore ‘no responsibility’ for his death. ‘He committed suicide, in full knowledge of what he was doing…He was no hounded into death….He was not in prison for his beliefs, but for provided criminal offences,’ it added. With a pompous coup de grace, the editor ended his tirade by answering the conundrum that he had posed in the heading: ‘There is only one killer of Bobby Sands and that is Sands himself.’”

[13]Martha Crenshaw. "The Causes of Terrorism." Comparative Politics 13, no. 4 (1981): 379. “Terrorism violence communicates a political message; its ends go beyond damaging an enemy’s material resources The victims or objects of terrorist attack have little intrinsic value to the terrorist group but represent a larger human audience whose reaction the terrorists seek.”

[14]Elihu Katz. “Symmetrizing: On Media Attention to Intergroup Conflict.” Dynamics of Asymmetric Conflict. 3. No. 2 (July 2010): 143-144.

[15]Jay A. Conger "Inspiring Others: The Language of Leadership."Academy of Management Executive 5, no. 1 (1991): 38.“Stereotyping about antagonists of the mission is important for generating commitment and cohesion.”