5.5.06

A hero and a patriot

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It is 25 years to the day since Bobby Sands died in prison after 66 days on hunger strike.

Danny Morrison
May 5, 2006 11:09 AM

In the early hours of this morning, 25 years ago, we received word that Bobby Sands had died. It was the 66th day of his hunger strike. He was 27 years of age and had spent a third of his life in prison, twice convicted for IRA activities.

Bobby Sands came from a community that had suffered 50 years of sectarian discrimination under one-party government. When that community made demands for change through the Civil Rights Association it was repeatedly attacked, the most grievous series of attacks being the house burnings and killings of August 14/15 1969, led by the Ulster Unionist government's police force and paramilitary reserves, the RUC and the B-Specials. A slogan on a wall in west Belfast sums up what happened next: "Out of the Ashes of Bombay Street arose the Provisional IRA."

The conflict was not of Sands' making, but his choice to join the IRA - which was never an easy one - was. The first time he was in jail he had political status in the cages of Long Kesh. Political status had been won as a result of a hunger strike in 1972 that ended without loss of life. By granting political status, the British government settled the prisons for a while. However, the powerful imagery of Long Kesh as a PoW camp irked British politicians and contradicted government propaganda. Ministers depicted the IRA's campaign as "terrorism", which had no justification, no mandate and no support.

But to outside observers, Britain was imprisoning captured enemy combatants with a status that suggested some legitimacy (and also occasionally engaged in secret contacts and explorative talks with the IRA and/or its perceived political wing). The observers also noted that British casuistry was no different from that used by British administrations dealing with national liberation organisations and insurgencies in colonial confrontations throughout the former empire. When it became expedient, the renowned "terrorist" leaders would, no doubt, become welcome in No 10 Downing Street as statesmen.

And so the British government arbitrarily withdrew political status for anyone convicted for subversion after March 1 1976. There was, of course, a major contradiction in the British position in that Section 31 of the Emergency Provisions Act (and, later, the Prevention of Terrorism Act) defined scheduled offences and "terrorism" as "the use of violence for political ends".

After having been arrested under special laws, been questioned in special interrogation centres, been tried in special courts with special rules of evidence, the prisoners were told when they arrived at the specially-built H-Blocks that there was nothing "special" about them. Indeed, in denying the political nature of the prisoners, the British were engaged in a huge lie.

Having been unable to defeat the IRA on the streets, Britain thought it could defeat it through criminalising and defeating its prisoners.

For refusing to wear the grey prison uniform and take orders, the prisoners were punished and often beaten. There was just one blanket in the bare cell and they draped that around themselves. Republicans went on to serve years, often in solitary confinement, without access to books or newspapers or writing material. They lived in cells floating with urine and covered in their own excrement. As a punishment they were given a Number One bread and water diet (which was illegal).

"One would hardly allow an animal to remain in such conditions, let alone a human being," said Archbishop (later Cardinal) O Fiach, when he visited there in 1978.

It was out of desperation that the prisoners decided to hunger strike.

Mrs Thatcher said they were common criminals who had no public support, but their leader, Sands, became an MP. From his cell he wrote poetry and prose. His prison writings became a bestseller and remain in print 25 years after his death. When the people of Fermanagh and South Tyrone elected him as their MP and gave him a mandate, Thatcher still refused to negotiate. In fact, she changed the electoral law so that no other prisoner could stand in election and embarrass her. As a result of her intransigence, 10 men died on hunger strike over a seven-month period.

Although Britain was to fail in its objective of forcing the prisoners to accept criminal status, it was not before a heavy price was paid by the prisoners, their families, protesters and civilians (including children and a mother killed by plastic bullets, and a milkman and his son by nationalist rioters), prison officers and their families. All of them were caught up in a clash of wills that one governor was later to describe as "a battle for the false aim of criminalisation that was always going to fail".

After the hunger strike ended, the British conceded all of the prisoners' demands. Later, when I was sentenced to eight years' imprisonment, I had political status in the H-Blocks. The final admission of the political status of the prisoners came in 1998 when, under the Belfast agreement, the H-Block prisoners were given early release and the prison was closed down.

Until 1981, republicans were highly suspicious of electoral politics, with good reason, given the history of splits on the issue, particularly on the subject of abstentionism. Electoral politics, they felt, were synonymous with constitutional politics. Were it not for the elections of Sands to Westminster and hunger striker Kieran Doherty (and blanketman Paddy Agnew) to the Dail it is doubtful if Sinn Féin could have made its transition to electoral politics so smoothly. Today it is the major party representing the nationalist community in the north and the fastest-growing party in the south of Ireland.

Had the prisoners been born into a democracy or normality they would have established careers, travelled, married, built homes and raised families. In all probability they would have had long and fulfilling lives.

This morning a number of us - former blanket men and women prisoners, friends and comrades of Bobby Sands - will be going to the cell in the hospital wing of the H-Blocks where he died. There we shall hold a minute's silence, recall his life and sacrifice and read from some of his poetry.

Mrs Thatcher.

Mrs Thatcher failed to kill the spirit of freedom. Her only success in life was in waging war and impoverishing her subjects. Bobby Sands, on the other hand, remains an inspiration not just to Irish republicans but to oppressed people around the world. There is a memorial to him and his comrades on Robben Island, streets named after him in Iran, in France, in North America.

IRA volunteer Bobby Sands MP. A hero and a great patriot.

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