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Bobby Sands: Irish freedom fighter 1954-1981

05 May 2021
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Dara O’Cogaidhin

Forty years ago, on May 5th 1981, Bobby Sands died in Long Kesh prison after 66 days on hunger strike. He was the first of 10 Republican hunger strikers allowed to perish by the British government. His death reverberated throughout the world in a way that no other event has done in recent Irish history. Black flags festooned every town and village across Ireland, while days of mourning were declared in the national parliaments of Italy, India, Portugal and Iran. The New York Times editorialised that Bobby Sands “bested an implacable British prime minister”.

Bobby Sands was born into a Catholic family that lived in a predominantly Protestant neighbourhood in North Belfast. In 1921 the British partitioned Ireland and carved a sectarian statelet in the North that assured a majority of Protestants over Catholics. James Craig, the statelet’s first Prime Minister, called the local government “a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people”. The Catholic minority suffered discrimination while the Protestant majority cemented its hold on all the political, social and industrial levers. Britain’s politicians and press turned a blind eye.

These advantages were only marginal; working-class Protestants and Catholics alike lived in squalor, but the most deprived Protestants always felt under threat of losing these marginal privileges. The dominant Ulster Unionist Party stoked divisions between the two communities and when Bobby Sands was seven years old, neighbours discovered his family were Catholics and forced them from their home.

For the next decade, the Sands family remained in a heavily Protestant working-class neighbourhood. As Catholics began to mobilise for civil rights in the late sixties, Loyalist gangs aimed to cleanse their neighbourhoods of Catholics. In early 1972, local sectarian gangs in Bobby Sands’ neighbourhood painted crosses on the doors of Catholic homes and the following night rioters trashed them. Frustrated by the indifference of the army and the police, residents talked about forming Citizen’s Defence Committees, but the leaders of the labour and trade union movement refused to take a lead in defending the Catholic population from British army repression and loyalist pogroms.

Instead, young people like Bobby Sands joined the Provisional IRA which was seen as crucial to the defence of the Catholic population in Belfast. In a letter later smuggled out of prison, he wrote: “I had seen too many homes wrecked, fathers and sons arrested, neighbours hurt, friends murdered. Too much gas, shootings and blood, most of it our own people’s. At 18 and half I joined the IRA”.

Later in 1972, the British Army raided a house on the word of informants and found weapons associated with Bobby Sands. He was arrested and imprisoned in Long Kesh alongside hundreds of uncharged political internees. The Provisional IRA leadership in prison was still an older, conservative generation, often hostile to Marxist ideas and open debate.

Yet a younger cadre engaged in reading circles about revolutionary theory and history. Sands read voraciously in prison and the prisoners built a revolutionary library including works from Karl Marx, Carlos Marighella, Regis Debray, Franz Fanon, George Jackson and Paulo Freire. They read about revolutionary movements and guerrilla struggles in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

After the burning of Long Kesh in 1974, Sands and his closest comrades were moved into a new cage along with young leaders like Gerry Adams and Brendan Hughes who were planning to turn the movement ‘leftwards’. They were encouraged to synthesise global revolutionary thought with Irish socialists like James Connolly.

Sands threw himself into the new education regime and led discussions on people’s councils. In a paper titled ‘Development of Community Councils in Local Areas’, he argued that Republicans had to integrate their military struggle into the broadest spectrum of political activity in their communities. Armed struggle was not enough and activists should embed themselves in their local neighbourhoods, mobilising for access to better services and cultural resources. According to a fellow republican, “Bobby’s attitude was different from other IRA men. He believed strongly in socialist revolution and political mobilisation”.

Released from prison in early 1976, Sands began organising in his community. He established a newspaper called Liberty and took over the local tenants’ association. He became known as a ‘fixer’ on the Twinbrook estate and residents came to his door asking for all kinds of help. Many of the younger activists pleaded with him to concentrate on community activism, but Sands remained committed to the armed struggle. After six months of freedom, he was imprisoned again following a firebombing operation during the IRA’s economic bombing campaign.

Political Status

Sands returned to Long Kesh but found himself in a new built cellular section known as the H-Blocks. Political status had been scrapped by the Labour government. Anyone convicted of an offence after March 1st, 1976 was considered a criminal and had to wear a prison uniform. The British government was criminalising all those who were in fact prisoners in a war that was fought out in the mass revolt from 1969 onwards. It was denying the legitimacy of the struggle of the anti Unionist working class against the Northern sectarian state.

Hundreds of prisoners refused to wear a uniform and were confined to their cells without clothes and only a blanket to wear. They had no reading and writing materials, except for a bible and a few religious pamphlets. Sands decided that the ‘blanketmen’ had to organise a campaign to raise sympathy and support. He created a communications infrastructure and prisoners wrote letters on toilet paper or cigarette paper describing their horrific conditions of isolation. Prisoners used their monthly visits to smuggle the letters and they were published in Sinn Fein’s newspaper Republican News.

In March 1978, the blanketmen refused to wash, shower or clean their cells. The media called it the ‘dirty protest’. When the screws stopped letting the prisoners slop their buckets, they began smearing their bodily waste onto the walls. The prison authorities retaliated by removing their furniture, leaving only urine-soaked mattresses on the floor. The violence against the prisoners escalated as they were subjected to beatings, searches and forced washes.

Despite the brutality, morale kept rising. Every night the prisoners organised Irish language lessons and entertainment. Sands would tell stories about Geronimo and his Apache guerrillas. Another favourite was How Green Was My Valley: a novel about the Welsh miners. He started to write poetry as well as prose. One poem, ‘Modern Times’, connected his own struggle to those of oppressed people all around the world:

In modern times little children die,
They starve to death, but who dares ask why?
And little girls without attire,
Run screaming, napalmed, through the night afire.

And while fat dictators sit upon their thrones,
Young children bury their parents’ bones,
And secret police in the dead of night,
Electrocute the naked woman out of sight.

In the gutter lies the black man, dead,
And where the oil flows blackest, the street runs red,
And there was He who was born and came to be,
But lived and died without liberty.

As the bureaucrats, speculators and presidents alike,
Pin on their dirty, stinking, happy smiles tonight,
The lonely prisoner will cry out from within this tomb,
And tomorrow’s wretch will leave its mother’s womb!

By summer 1979, the prisoners began planning for a hunger strike, but Adams kept persuading them to postpone the action saying that Thatcher would simply let them die. Cardinal Tomas O Fiaich visited the prisoners and compared conditions to “the sewer pipes in the slums of Calcutta”. He offered to negotiate with Thatcher on their behalf, but hopes of a settlement were quashed during the summer of 1980 when the British government stated they would not grant political status.

Sands and Hughes asked for volunteers for a hunger strike: one hundred and forty-eight men came forward. On October 27th 1980, seven blanketmen refused their breakfast and announced they were on hunger strike. There were daily marches and protests, often ending in confrontations between young people and the army or police. Posters were plastered around the country with ‘Smash H-Block’. Three women (Mairead Nugent, Mairead Farrell and Mary Doyle) from Armagh jail joined the hunger strike on December 1st.

One of the hunger strikers, Sean McKenna, was close to death and Hughes shouted to the doctor ‘Feed him’. Sands was livid that the hunger strike was called off without achieving their objective. Hughes, as acting OC, prevented Sands from joining the hunger strikes. Sands immediately set about planning a new hunger strike with a more political emphasis. The first hunger strike was portrayed as a human rights issue. The second was an explicit struggle by the prisoners for recognition of political status.

Bobby Sands MP

Sands began his hunger strike on March 1st 1981. His courageous stand drew mass support across the island of Ireland. In the first week of the hunger strike, workers in Derry walked out in solidarity.

On the fifth day of the hunger strike, the MP for Fermanagh/South Tyrone died of a heart attack. The constitutional nationalist parties agreed to stand down and Sands was nominated to fight the seat. He was too weak to play an active part in the campaign, but his victory with over 30,000 votes – more votes than Thatcher in Finchley – demolished British propaganda which had insisted the prisoners were ‘terrorists’ with no significant support.

The Irish government backed Thatcher’s stance. When an election was called in the Republic, the National H Block/Armagh committee organised candidates and two were elected to the Irish parliament: Kieran Doherty and Paddy Agnew (who was not on hunger strike) were elected in Cavan-Monaghan and Louth. This caused consternation in Charlie Haughey’s Fianna Fail which would otherwise have secured an overall majority.

The Tories were aided by the shameful support of the Labour opposition. The Labour leader, Michael Foot, held private meetings with Thatcher and assured her of his support for the government stance. He sent his Shadow Minister for Northern Ireland, Don Concannon, to tell a dying Sands that he had no hope of support from the Labour Party. The soft-left Tribune magazine refused to support any of the prisoners’ demands. The Militant Tendency opposed republican prisoners getting political status, calling it ‘divisive’. In the trade unions, there was a virtual blanket ban on discussing the issue. In London the NUT threatened members that wanted official affiliation with the Troops Out Movement with disciplinary action and expulsion.

There were major debates within the H-Block committees about the way forward for the fight for political status. The new leadership emerging around Adams argued for a pan nationalist strategy of winning support from Fianna Fail, SDLP and the Catholic establishment. This meant trying to win people based on humanitarian concern to the prisoners’ five demands rather than explicitly for political status.

The Irish Workers Group (IWG) was alone on the Irish left in calling for an alternative strategy placing working-class action North and South at the very centre of the fight for political status. Rather than endless marches and rallies it was necessary to generalise the example of workers in Derry, Belfast, Dublin and Tralee who had taken solidarity strike action with the blanketmen. The IWG called for a general strike – coordinated by councils of action made up of delegates representing workplaces and communities – to defend republican fighters.

This strategy quite clearly could not rely on moral or pacifist outrage. A working class action campaign was necessary to create the basis of a fight to challenge the whole edifice of political and military repression of which the prison regime was one part and from there to go on to destroy the very existence of the Northern state and partition itself.

On May 5th, Sands died at twenty-seven on the sixty-sixth day of hunger strike. On the night of his death, rioting convulsed the streets of Belfast. The British Army shot two Catholic teenagers. Hospital workers, dockers and car workers went on strike the next day. Around 100,000 mourners came to his funeral, confounding the expectations of the British government which believed the hunger strike had limited support. The image and name of Bobby Sands reverberated around the world. He became a revolutionary icon. There were protests outside British embassies internationally. In New York dockers in the Longshoreman’s Union boycotted British ships for 24 hours.

Through the summer of 1981, nine more prisoners died on hunger strike: Francis Hughes (IRA), Raymond McCreesh (IRA), Patsy O’Hara (INLA), Joe McDonnell (IRA), Martin Hurson (IRA), Kevin Lynch (INLA), Kieran Doherty (IRA), Thomas McElwee (IRA) and Mickey Devine (INLA). The prisoners were still joining the hunger strike into the autumn, but it was reluctantly ended on October 3rd when it became clear their families would authorise medical intervention to save the lives of their sons.

The British government considered the end of the hunger strike to be its victory, but the Republican Movement grew as a result of the hunger strike both militarily and electorally. A month after the end of the hunger strike, Sinn Fein’s Danny Morrison highlighted a new dual strategy of engaging in armed struggle and simultaneously contesting elections: “The Armalite and the Ballot Box”. In 1983 Adams was elected to Westminster as a Sinn Fein MP.

The Good Friday Agreement (GFA) signed in 1998 paved the way for Sinn Fein to jointly govern the sectarian statelet with the reactionary DUP and institute cross-community support for austerity. There has been a significant deterioration in working-class living standards, with recent studies showing that predominantly Catholic areas tend to suffer more from economic deprivation than areas that are predominantly Protestant. Sectarianism has not diminished since the GFA. Catholic families living in the Woodburn estate of Carrickfergus were recently attacked by the UVF and ordered to leave their homes. It is a case of history repeating itself.

It is entirely appropriate to suggest that Bobby Sands and his comrades would hardly have given their lives for such a sell out deal. The GFA’s unionist veto still consigns the Catholic minority to a permanent subordinate role and a British border. Socialists must use every opportunity to argue class politics against sectarianism, but they must do so as part of a struggle against the colonial statelet and the British occupation that props it up. The best tribute to the Hunger Strike martyrs would be an all Ireland struggle for a Workers’ Republic. For that a new workers’ party that is both anti-austerity and anti-imperialist, armed with a programme for permanent revolution in Ireland, is still a burning necessity.

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