The centenary of partition in Ireland occurred on Monday of this week, creating the North of Ireland as a separate entity under British rule. Today marks the 40th anniversary of the death of one of the most famous nationalists who hoped one day for a united Ireland – Bobby Sands.
The death of Bobby Sands – or, the Right Honourable Bobby Sands, MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, to give him his proper title – on May 5th, 1981 was the culmination of a ten year battle by Republican prisoners to be recognised as prisoners of war as opposed to common criminals. Sands’ fateful 66 day hunger strike had its roots in a similar protest in May 1972, when Billy McKee and several other prisoners began to refuse food until they were granted political status. Their action was a great success – the Conservative government led by Ted Heath relented the following month with William Whitelaw, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, granting Special Category Status for all paramilitary volunteers incarcerated in British prisons from June 20th, 1972.
However, things changed when Harold Wilson’s Labour government were returned to power in March 1974. In November of the following year, a decision was reached to phase out the Special Category Status by Whitelaw’s predecessor, Merlyn Rees, coming into force from March 1st, 1976. In practice, this meant that prisoners gaoled after that date would no longer be able to apply for SCS. This decision was naturally met with hostility by Republican prisoners and, by the close of 1976, Wilson’s predecessor, the newly-installed Labour PM Jim Callaghan was faced with some 300 incarcerated inmates refusing to wear prison uniform. These prisoners quickly became known as ‘the blanket men’ on account of them spending their days wrapped in blankets to preserve their modesty. The campaign developed further in April 1978 with the inmates refusal to ‘slop out’. The walls of their cells were routinely smeared with their own urine and excrement in what became known as a ‘Dirty Protest’.
The General Election in May 1979 saw Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government swept to power in a landslide victory. Right from the start, the PM made it clear that she would not bow to the demands of the paramilitary organisations – a stance that had a lot to do with the IRA assassination of her mentor, Airey Neave, just two months before she came to power. She refused to consider the restoration of SCS and used the media to reinforce her position. With two intractable groups – the Tories and the paramilitaries – facing off against one another, the situation predictably intensified. On March 1st, 1981 Bobby Sands began his hunger strike, followed by nine other prisoners at staggered intervals. None were to survive.
Bobby Sands was born 9th March, 1954. The eldest of four children, he initially grew up on Abbots Cross, a new development outside North Belfast in Newtonabbey, Co Antrim. Here, the Sands received harassment and intimidation by Protestant neighbours and were forced to relocate to Rathcoole, an area that boasted a religiously mixed football team that the young Bobby Sands promptly joined. By the late 1970s however, divisions were being drawn and Rathcoole did not escape sectarian hostilities. Despite having Protestant friends and teammates, Sands approached adulthood being frozen out. In time, he learned to associate solely with fellow Catholics. This was fine for his private life, but a struggle when it came to employment. In 1970, Sands began an apprenticeship as a coach builder at Alexander’s Coach Works and suffered persistent harassment from his Protestant workmates. Things came to a head in the January of 1971 when several of his co-workers, sporting the armbands of the Ulster Loyalist Tartan Gang, held him at gunpoint as he clocked off for the day. The Loyalists told him that Alexander’s was no place for ‘Fenian Scum’ such as himself and advised him to resign. Sands never returned to Alexander’s and decided from that point on that militancy was the only course available to him. In June 1972, the Sands were forced to move once again when Loyalist Protestants attacked the homes of many Catholic families such as themselves. Now residing in the Catholic area of Twinbrook, Sands attended his first Provisional IRA meeting in the locality and joined the IRA that same day. He was 18 years old.
Four months into serving as a volunteer, Sands was arrested in possession of four handguns. He was convicted in April 1973, sentenced to five years imprisonment and released in April 1976. During this term of incarceration, Sands enjoyed the SCS that he would later give his life for. In October 1976, Sands was one of the masterminds behind the Balmoral Furniture Company bombing in Dunmurry. The blast destroyed the showroom but, as Sands and five other volunteers attempted to leave the scene, a pitched gun battle ensued between them and the officers of the RUC, resulting in two wounded IRA men. Sands, Joe McDonnell, Seamus Finucane, and Sean Lavery attempted an escape by car, but were subsequently captured. All four were convicted for possession of a revolver (but not explosive offences) at the scene and sentenced to fourteen years imprisonment.
As a Republican prisoner commencing his sentence at the Crumlin Road in 1977, Sands was in for a rude awakening. No longer considered a POW, he was expected to wear prison uniform and perform the work duties of an average prisoner. Sands naturally refused to comply with this order and was immediately sent to the punishment block. Here he was not allowed books, a radio or personal items and bedding was withheld for thirteen hours each day from from 7:30am to 8:30pm. Sands served twenty-two days in the block, naked throughout.
On October 27th, 1980 Brendan Hughes, the Officer Commanding of all Provisional IRA prisoners at HMP Maze, began his hunger strike alongside six other prisoners. The demands of the prisoners were as follows;
- the right not to wear a prison uniform;
- the right not to do prison work;
- the right of free association with other prisoners, and to organise educational and recreational pursuits;
- the right to one visit, one letter, and one parcel per week;
- full restoration of remission lost through the protest
With Hughes committed to the strike it was agreed that Sands succeed him in the role of OC. December 1st of that year saw three nationalist prisoners at Armagh Women’s Prison join the strike, including their OC Mairéad Farrell, with several dozen more prisoners at the Maze also beginning to refuse food in solidarity. On the fifty-third day of the strike and with one prisoner, Sean McKenna, perilously close to death, it appeared that the Tory government were about to concede. A thirty page document outlining a proposed settlement was hastily drawn up and Hughes took the decision to end the strike, thereby saving McKenna’s life.
Their triumph was sadly short-lived. By January of 1981 it became clear that Thatcher was as intractable as ever. On March 1st, 1981, Sands refused food and the second hunger strike began. This strike was to be very different. Sands had reasoned that maximum publicity was the only way to exert pressure on the British government. As a result, the nine other volunteers would enter the strike in stages, thereby ensuring longevity. The desire for publicity was further served when, five days into the strike, Frank Maguire, the Independent Republican MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, died of a heart attack at the age of 51. The sudden vacancy of a seat with a nationalist majority of 5,000 proved an opportunity too good to miss. A decision was made not to split the vote at the eventual by-election, with the SDLP agreeing to withdraw to leave a clear field for Sands who, despite incarceration, was placed on the ballot as the ‘Anti H-Block’ candidate against the Ulster Unionist Party candidate, Harry West. On 9th April, Sands was declared the winner with 30,493 votes to 29,046. At 27, Sands became the youngest elected MP at that time. Hurt and embarrassed by his victory and the recognition for his fight it created, Thatcher’s government hurriedly drew up the Representation of the People Act 1981, which would go on to prevent prisoners serving a gaol term of more than one year from ever being allowed to run for office.
Less than one month after his victory in the polls and after an agonising 66 days on hunger strike, the Right Honourable Bobby Sands MP breathed his last at 1:17am on the morning of May 5th, 1981. Sands died a martyr for the cause, his sacrifice ensuring the world knew how mistreated the Irish were in their own country at the hands of the British Empire. Just hours after his death, Thatcher stood up in the House of Commons and remarked “Mr Sands was a convicted criminal. He chose to take his own life. It was a choice that his organisation did not allow to many of its victims”. He was buried with full military honours in Milltown Cemetery; with over 100,00 present, his funeral was one of the largest in Ireland’s history.
If Thatcher had hoped her stance would somehow weaken Republicanism, it did not. The death of Sands and the other nine hunger strikers brought about a surge in IRA membership which in turn led to a subsequent stepping up of mainland terrorist campaigns throughout the decade and into the 1990s. Ironically, the privileges afforded by SCS were gradually and quietly phased back in after 1981, with all the core demands that Sands et al had asked for back in place by early 1983.
“Our revenge will be the laughter of our children” – Bobby Sands, 1954-1981.Rest In Power.