By Eric Levin
Updated June 15, 1981 12:00 PM

The never-ending crisis in Northern Ireland has been heightened by a gruesome form of protest. Though the fatal hunger strikes of 27-year-old Bobby Sands and three of his cohorts in the Irish Republican Army have so far failed to achieve their stated aim of winning political-prisoner status for jailed IRA members, they have touched off new debate on the Irish question. The Protestant majority in Ulster, of course, is loyal to the Union Jack, but a recent poll indicates that only 29 percent of the English now believe their government should maintain sovereignty over the North. The hunger strikes, which continue in Belfast’s Maze Prison, have helped turn indifference into something like revulsion. Indeed, the threat of self-imposed starvation is becoming a commonplace political shock tactic. An estimated 200 individuals from Spain to Turkey are now fasting to focus attention on a broad spectrum of political grievances. Recently a group of Vietnam veterans began a hunger strike in a VA hospital in Los Angeles to protest cutbacks in federal programs. Gene Sharp, 53, a visiting scholar at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs and professor of sociology and political science at Southeastern Massachusetts University, examined such demonstrations and almost 200 other tactics of passive resistance in his 1973 opus The Politics of Nonviolent Action. A conscientious objector during the Korean War, Sharp served nine months in jail in 1953-54 for refusing to report for alternative service. He has put hunger strikes in historical perspective for Davis Bushnell and Eric Levin of PEOPLE.

How long have the Irish used the hunger strike?

In the fifth century Saint Patrick used fasts to stamp out a heresy and, in another instance, to force King Trian of Ulster to be a little kinder to his slaves. Also, in ancient Irish law, if someone was owed a debt, he was allowed, as a last resort, to shame the debtor by fasting on his doorstep until the man paid up or returned the borrowed item. To keep it from becoming punitive, the code held that if the hunger striker continued after restitution was offered, the debt was erased and the striker was owed nothing.

How have governments in this century countered hunger strikes?

The British, in 1913, passed the so-called Cat and Mouse Act to deal with the hunger strikes of jailed suffragettes. Instead of force-feeding the women, as they had been doing, authorities released them, and when the women had regained their health, arrested them once more. The strikes, however, were very effective in winning the vote for women in 1918, especially because some of the aristocracy joined in the fasts. Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the militant wing of the suffragettes and the daughter of a prosperous cotton manufacturer, was in and out of prison 12 times in 12 months under the Cat and Mouse Act. The British also used the same strategy in those days in Ireland.

What was the purpose of most of Mahatma Gandhi’s fasts during India’s struggle for independence?

This century’s greatest practitioner of the hunger strike had his own type of fasts. “Satyagraha” was his name for his philosophy and technique of nonviolent struggle. Some translate the term as “soul power” or “truth power.” Satyagrahic fasts were open-ended in duration (Gandhi never went without food more than 21 days), and almost always the fasts were directed at his allies in an effort to discipline them or bring wanderers back to the fold. He used a hunger strike to stop the Hindu-Muslim rioting after India became independent in 1947. People were expecting full civil war, and millions of refugees were flowing back and forth over what is now the India-Pakistan border. In Calcutta, the rioting ended after 73 hours of Gandhi’s fast. Then he went to Delhi and stopped the battling there on the sixth day of his fast. This probably saved incredible numbers of lives.

Was Gandhi against fasting to the death on principle?

He threatened it several times. He said conditions had to be just right. You had to be the right person, have the right kind of issue and be fasting against the right opponent. Also, there had to be a demand that could be granted. If you were someone respected and even loved by the people—someone who had never harmed anyone and had a record of service and courage—you would have much more influence.

Did Gandhi ever use a fast against the British government?

Only once that I know of. In 1932 he was in prison when the British government proposed new rules giving separate legislative representation to the Untouchables, India’s lowest class. Gandhi saw this as perpetuating their separateness, and he announced that he would begin a fast to the death in a month if the proposal wasn’t dropped. He started on schedule, and millions of Indians fasted in sympathy with him the first day. On the sixth day, after Gandhi had been proffered a compromise agreement, he broke his fast, taking a glass of orange juice.

Has force-feeding ever been effective?

It is often a brutal procedure, and can be fatal if not done carefully. Politically, too, it can backfire. In 1917 an Irish nationalist named Thomas Ashe died in Dublin’s Mountjoy jail after a week of force-feeding. Bands played at his funeral, and 20,000 to 30,000 mourners marched behind the hearse. The grassroots reaction shocked the British, who belatedly made some improvements in the prison conditions Ashe had protested.

Is force-feeding still practiced?

The British dropped it in 1974 after the force-feeding of two young Belfast sisters, Marion and Dolours Price, inflamed passions in the province’s Catholic minority. Force-feeding remains the law in Israel even though just last summer an imprisoned Palestinian died from pneumonia when the liquid being administered accidentally entered his lungs.

Who was the first hunger striker?

Fasting for spiritual, political or personal reasons is common and probably as old as humanity itself. Psychologically, it can be a natural expression of anger. Kids will push food away if they’re mad at their parents. Even dogs have been known to do it, not eating for up to two weeks if they feel rejected or are left with strangers.

Have historians overlooked nonviolent action?

Yes. Partly because people have an intrinsic belief that violence is the real thing. And usually it has not been in the interests of powerful governments to have historians write about popular resistance.