Bobby Sands was a young working class man from Belfast whose death 30 years ago shook the establishment. After his 17th birthday, he never saw a Christmas outside prison. He died aged 27, an MP in the British parliament.
Irish Republican prisoners went on hunger strike in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh prison in Northern Ireland in 1981. They were incarcerated for resisting both British rule and discrimination against Catholics.
Their hunger strike was in protest at the conditions they faced in jail.
After 66 days Bobby Sands was the first of ten hunger strikers the British government allowed to die.
Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher denounced Sands as a “criminal” and “terrorist” on the day of his death.
In truth Sands and the other hunger strikers were ordinary working class Catholics fighting the extraordinary violence and repression of the British state.
Throughout its existence, Northern Ireland has been a political slum characterised by repression, sectarianism and poverty.
In the late 1960s people started to fight back. The RUC police force responded by battering demonstrators and joining with Loyalist gangs, who backed British rule, to terrorise Catholic areas. In 1969 British troops were sent in to prop up the sectarian state.
Loyalist gangs twice forced Bobby Sands’ family to flee their home. What would later be described as “ethnic cleansing” took place on a massive scale. Protestants drove Catholic families from their homes—often with extreme violence, often watched by British soldiers.
Sands later wrote, “I had seen too many homes wrecked, fathers and sons arrested, friends murdered. Too much gas, shootings and blood, most of it our own people’s. I joined the IRA.”
Sands was arrested in the early 1970s. Like other political prisoners, he was given “special category status”, which allowed him to wear his own clothes and associate freely.
He read widely in prison. His favourites were the political writings of Frantz Fanon and Che Guevara. He was arrested again in 1976, tortured in the Castlereagh interrogation centre, and sentenced to 14 years.
The Labour government in 1975 tried to “criminalise” the Republican movement.
The government was embarrassed by international criticism of the number of political prisoners—then 3,000—in Northern Ireland’s jails. Labour’s Northern Ireland secretary Merlyn Rees withdrew political status from prisoners.
Prisoners’ families organised protests and grouped themselves into a Relatives Action Campaign.
In September 1976, Kieran Nugent, a 19-year old Republican, had refused to wear a prison uniform.
As a result, all of his clothes were removed and he was forced to sleep on a concrete floor with only a blanket. Hundreds of other prisoners joined him “on the blanket”.
Two years later, nearly 400 Republican prisoners began a “no wash” protest. Prison officers deliberately spilt shit and piss from the cells’ chamber pots on the floors. The prisoners broke their cell windows to throw the shit out.
Each prisoner had only a blanket and a sponge mattress, no reading or writing materials, radios or letters. Unless they put on prison clothes, they didn’t get visits—and for every day on the blanket, one was added to their sentence.
Attempts to discard waste out of their windows resulted in prisoners’ windows being blocked. As a final resort, they were forced to smear their excrement on the floor and walls of their cells.
Jackie McMullan arrived in Long Kesh in September 1976. “The circle [the administrative centre in each block] was where the officers would beat you,” he said. “You’re made to strip naked, you have eight screws telling you to put your uniform on, you get a slap in the face. You’re naked, humiliated, cornered and getting beaten up by these big men in uniform while other screws watch.”
Prisoners had buckets of scalding water and bleach thrown at them, while others described forced washes in freezing water with hard brushes. Every two weeks, cells and prisoners were forcibly hosed down. “What made it possible to live like that”, says McMullan, “was that we were in it together. It was powerful. It was unbreakable.”
Paddy Quinn, another surviving hunger striker, describes how “you’d be sleeping on the sponge mattress on the floor, you’d wake up in the morning and maggots would be stuck to you. You’d have to pull them off. Then they’d turn into flies.”
The prisoners looked out for each other. There were quizzes and political discussions, shouted through the gaps in the doors. They taught each other Irish, gave history lectures, sang songs and recited stories. Bobby Sands relayed the whole of Leon Uris’s novel Trinity from memory. It took him eight days.
Seven prisoners started a hunger strike in October 1980.
Mairead Farrell, Mairead Nugent and Mary Doyle, Republican prisoners in Armagh jail, joined the hunger strike. Women were subjected to repeated strip searches as a form of humiliation. This involved women being thrown to the ground, beaten, kicked and, more often than not, sexually abused.
Outside the prisons, thousands of people supported what became known as the H-Block campaign. In the first week of the hunger strike, workers in Derry walked out in solidarity and over 10,000 people demonstrated in the city centre.
The hunger strike ended on 18 December 1980, with the belief that the British government would make some concessions. But it didn’t, and three months later Bobby Sands began the second hunger strike.
Frank Maguire, MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, died in 1981. Sands decided to stand for the seat to highlight prisoners’ resistance.
On 9 April, at the Fermanagh College in Enniskillen, the returning officer took the microphone: “Sands, Bobby, Anti-H-Block/Armagh Political Prisoner... elected.” Sands had won.
The confusion created in British political life was captured in a headline in the Daily Express newspaper: “Elected: The Hon. Member for Violence.”
When Bobby Sands died on 5 May, 25 days after being elected an MP, anger exploded on the streets of Belfast. The British army shot two Catholic teenagers. The next day hospital workers, dockers and car workers across Belfast struck. In southern Ireland there were extensive official and unofficial strikes. An astonishing 100,000 people attended his funeral.
Sands was the first of ten to die.
The funeral of fellow hunger striker Francis Hughes took place in the countryside. Getting there by bus from Belfast meant running the gauntlet of Loyalist stone-throwers and having to march across fields when the RUC blocked the coaches.
Martin Hurson died suddenly after 46 days. Joe McDonnell’s funeral procession was attacked by troops with plastic bullets. Kieran Doherty died after an agonisingly long 73 days. The others to die were Patsy O’Hara, Raymond McCreesh, Kevin Lynch, Thomas McElwee and lastly Michael Devine on 21 August 1981.
Laurence McKeown joined the hunger strike on 29 June 1981. “Nobody on the hunger strike wanted to die,” he said. “The martyr notion is nonsense—we were caught in circumstances where we were going to resist to the death rather than capitulate.”
Finally, on 3 October 1981, the prisoners reluctantly called off their fast. They said that they had been robbed of the hunger strike as an effective weapon because of the “successful campaign waged against our distressed relatives by the Catholic hierarchy, aided and abetted by the Irish establishment”.
The Catholic church had put enormous pressure on families of hunger strikers to persuade them to take food.
Yet the British strategy had failed. The huge public support for the hunger strikers and the election of Sands destroyed forever the idea that Northern Ireland was a normal society troubled by a terrorist conspiracy.
And although Thatcher claimed victory, her government conceded most of the hunger strikers’ demands soon after the protest ended.
As Bobby Sands put it: “Our revenge will be the laughter of our children.”
International wave of hunger strike solidarity
The international impact of Bobby Sands’ death was huge.
In New York, dockers boycotted British ships, and there were protests outside British embassies across the world.
In Iran, Pedram Moallemian was part of a group of young people who changed the name of Winston Churchill Street in Tehran to Bobby Sands Street (right).
“It happened more on a fluke,” he said. “I was part of a small circle of friends, all under 15 years of age, who were always attending speeches together, covering the local streets with political graffiti, distributing flyers and occasionally getting beat up by those we pissed off.”
They initially tried to replace the flag at the British embassy with a tricolour. When that plan failed they made paper signs covering up the street signs.
“Next evening we returned to see if any of them were left and to our surprise there were a few new ones made by others too,” said Pedram.
“Soon the entire street had new signs and the city officially changed the name.
“We discovered the embassy had been forced to change their mailing address and all their printed material to reflect a side door address to avoid using Bobby’s name anywhere.”
Irish Republicanism and the movement
British governments of all hues like to pretend that Northern Ireland is and was a normal society disturbed by the “Republican gangsters” of the IRA.
But rather than causing the strife, the IRA emerged when the movement for civil rights and democracy was beaten off the streets. Instead of addressing the reasons why people were in revolt, the British government simply shuffled through various methods of repression.
The IRA initially opposed the 1981 hunger strike, seeing it as a diversion from the military struggle. The first support came from the families and leftist supporters.
The campaign for the prisoners opened up opportunities. But the Republicans didn’t grasp the potential of mass mobilisation, which the demonstrations and strikes had showed.
A leadership emerged around Gerry Adams in the Republicans’ Sinn Fein party. It argued against a left wing minority who supported strikes and workers’ protests.
Adams argued that limiting militancy was key to victory, as was winning support from the Catholic church and southern Irish government—although he acknowledged the reluctance of both. He believed that a more respectable movement would win concessions.
He was wrong. The hunger strikes showed how people can resist, and the potential for building a mass movement against British imperialism.
Irish Republicanism was born from an honourable opposition to colonialism.
But soon a tiny minority decided on tactics, behind the backs of the population. Pressure from below forced it to expand its base and turn the campaign into a mass movement, but this was often against its traditional instincts.
The most recent phase of the armed struggle lasted nearly 30 years. It led to a settlement in which former IRA leaders now sit in government with the right wing, anti-Catholic DUP party.
Frustration at the continued sectarianism of the Northern Irish state has led to some Republicans to turn again to armed struggle. Yet this tactic failed even when the IRA enjoyed widespread popular support for the strategy among Catholics.
History shows that those who promote the armed struggle often become establishment politicians. Dissident republican groups offer a weaker re-run of that dead-end strategy.
There are two main dissident Republican groups. The Real IRA split from the IRA in the 1990s in protest at the decision to end the armed struggle and endorse the peace process.
The Continuity IRA broke away in the 1980s. Unlike Sinn Fein, it refused to recognise the southern Irish parliament.
Whether in parliament or armed struggle, the tragic truth is that Irish Republicanism has reached a dead end.
For a genuinely radical solution to the problems caused by capitalism and imperialism, workers must unite through struggle and opposition to sectarianism.