Why Bobby Sands starved to death
By Hazel Croft
TWENTY YEARS ago, on 5 May 1981, Bobby Sands died after 66 days on hunger strike in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh prison in Northern Ireland. He was the first of ten Republican 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.
But Sands and the other hunger strikers were not criminals. They were ordinary working class Catholics who found themselves up against the extraordinary violence and repression of the British state. Republican prisoners were prepared to starve themselves to death for the right to be treated as political prisoners.
Their fight won huge support in Ireland, North and South, and around the world. Sands was elected as MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone a month before he died. Over 100,000 people attended his funeral in Belfast. Sands was typical of the men and women who joined the IRA. He grew up in a working class Catholic family in Rathcoole, a predominantly Protestant area in north Belfast.
His family were twice forced to flee their home by Loyalist gangs. Loyalists threatened Sands at gunpoint when he worked as an apprentice coach builder. They told him he would be shot if he continued his job. He later wrote in an article smuggled out of prison: "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 a half I joined the IRA."
Sands was arrested in the early 1970s. Like other Republican prisoners he was given "special category status", which allowed them to wear their own clothes and associate freely. He taught himself Irish and he read widely in prison. His favourites were the political writings of Franz Fanon and Che Guevara. He was arrested again in 1976, and was tortured in the Castlereagh interrogation centre and sentenced to 14 years. Like hundreds of Republican prisoners he was tried in a non-jury "Diplock" court.
It was a Labour government in 1975 which introduced a policy of trying to "criminalise" the Republican movement. The government had been embarrassed by international criticism of the number of political prisoners-then 3,000-in Northern Ireland's jails. Labour Northern Ireland secretary Merlyn Rees withdrew political status from prisoners.
The fight to regain political status began in 1976 when one prisoner, Ciaran Nugent, refused to wear a prison uniform. He was forced to sleep on a concrete floor with only a blanket. Hundreds of other prisoners joined him "on the blanket", and two years later nearly 400 Republican prisoners began a "dirty protest". Prison officers deliberately spilt shit and piss from chamber pots on cell floors. Prisoners responded by smearing shit on their cell walls and refusing to wash or shave.
A first hunger strike began with seven prisoners in October 1980. It ended two months later when the now Tory government seemed to offer concessions. The government reneged, and a second hunger strike began on 1 March 1981, led by Bobby Sands. The hunger strikes became a focus for resistance.
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. H-Block committees sprang up in Ireland and Britain. The night Bobby Sands died anger exploded on the streets of Belfast. The British army shot two Catholic teenagers. The next day hospital workers, dockers and car workers in Belfast struck. In Southern Ireland there were extensive official and unofficial strikes. In New York dockers in the Longshoremen's Union boycotted British ships for 24 hours.
There were protests outside British embassies across the world. There were major debates in the H-block committees about the way forward for the fight against British rule. A minority of left wingers argued to build on the strikes and workers' protests. But the new leadership emerging in Sinn Fein around Gerry Adams argued that the key was to win support from the Catholic establishment, including the Southern Irish government.
This was despite the fact that the Irish government backed Thatcher's stance. The Tory government would allow ten men to die before the hunger strikes were called off in October 1981. The Tories were aided by the shameful support of the Labour opposition. One of Bobby Sands's final visitors, just four days before he died, was Labour's Northern Ireland spokesperson, Don Concannon. He went to personally deliver the message that Labour wholeheartedly backed Thatcher.
The scale of protests shook Thatcher's administration. Above all they showed that the IRA had popular support The Tories were eventually forced to concede all the hunger strikers' demands, and to negotiate with the Sinn Fein leaders they had denounced. Today most political prisoners have been released and the H-Blocks stand empty. But despite this, sectarianism, police brutality and inequality still blight workers' lives. The answer is not the futile bombings of dissident Republicans like the Real IRA. Rather it was glimpsed in the mass mobilisations and strikes in support of the hunger strikers.
"I REFUSE to change to suit the people who oppress, torture and imprison me. I have the spirit of freedom which cannot be quenched by even the most horrendous treatment."
- BOBBY SANDS