by Simon Basketter
Twenty five years ago, Irish Republican prisoners went on hunger strike in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh prison in Northern Ireland. After 66 days Bobby Sands, aged 27, 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.
Sands and the other hunger strikers 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.
Sands was typical of the men and women who joined the IRA. 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.
He later wrote in an article smuggled out of prison, “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. 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 read widely in prison. His favourites were the political writings of Franz Fanon and Che Guevara. He was arrested again in 1976, tortured in the Castlereagh interrogation centre and sentenced to 14 years.
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’s Northern Ireland secretary Merlyn Rees withdrew political status from prisoners.
The fight to regain political status began in 1976. 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” after prison officers deliberately spilt shit and piss from chamber pots on cell floors.
A 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 in March 1981, led by Bobby Sands.
The hunger strikes 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.
Peaceful civil rights marchers were brutally assaulted by police
This first extract explains how the young Sands was politicised
Society was splitting apart. For Catholics in mixed areas, the most immediate worry was the emergence of violent racist gangs. Rathcoole’s were among the worst. Years later, Bobby Sands wrote that his “life began to change” after 1968.
Civil rights marchers took to the streets and he watched as the television news showed the police attacking them. Sands was particularly impressed in early 1969, when a group of students from Queens University in Belfast set off on a civil rights march to Derry. Along the way they were repeatedly ambushed and the police blocked them from entering towns. The RUC were often observed chatting amiably with the attackers.
As the students reached Burntollet Bridge outside of Derry, several hundred B-Special paramilitaries viciously attacked them. “My sympathy and feelings really became aroused after watching the scenes at Burntollet,” he wrote. “That imprinted itself on my mind like a scar, and for the first time I took a real interest in what was going on… I became angry.”
Bobby’s anger grew throughout 1969 as the conflict heightened. In April, the police banned a civil rights march in the Bogside area of Derry.
During the rioting that followed, a group of RUC men burst into a house and beat the Catholic owner to death. In August, a huge crowd of Protestants attacked Unity flats in Belfast. When local Catholics resisted, the RUC went on a violent rampage, beating one man unconscious and batoning another to death. Three people had now died from the recent outbreak of “the troubles.” All were Catholics. All had been beaten in the head by police batons.
By August, the trouble spiralled. In Derry, some older Republicans set up a defense committee to confront the trouble that always accompanied an annual Loyalist march around the city’s old walls. They set up barricades at the entrances to the Bogside and when the marchers threw pennies at them the Bogsiders threw stones back. When the police attempted to invade the Bogside, Catholic missiles drove them back. Soon, they were firing petrol bombs and CS gas at each other. After two days of intense fighting, the British government sent in its army for the first time since the end of the IRA’s 1950s campaign. Catholics like Bobby Sands watched the “Battle of the Bogside”on their TVs at home, encouraged by the feeling that they were recognized internationally as being “in the right.”
Back in Belfast, the police patrolled the Catholic lower Falls district in armored cars mounted with .30-inch Browning machine guns. Catholics used stones and petrol bombs against the big machine guns while groups of Protestants and B-Specials took advantage of the melee and attacked Catholic houses. The RUC drove around Catholic streets, firing randomly.
When they were done, nine-year-old Patrick Rooney lay dead in his bed with his brains scattered against the wall. In north Belfast, police shot dead one man as he sat in his front room and another as he walked along the road. Ten others were injured, eight of them by police bullets.
All were Catholics. To Catholics, many of whom initially welcomed them to their streets as protectors, the British army made a bad situation worse. They stood by while Protestant crowds burned out hundreds of Catholic homes. The violence went down in the memory of an increasingly angry and militant Catholic community as “the pogrom.”
These events had a significant impact on Bobby Sands. Not only did he begin to link the police with violence against Catholics, he also began to view the British army as the enemy. Catholics generally began to feel that they must defend themselves. Yet they had no weapons and even the IRA had failed to stand up to their attackers. A famous wall slogan went up: “IRA=I Ran Away.” By Christmas, a group of militants broke from the IRA and formed the Provisional IRA Army Council and an associated political party, Provisional Sinn Féin (the old movement became known as the Official IRA and Official Sinn Féin). The Provisionals promised to protect the Catholic community, and eventually organized an all-out offensive against British occupation.
Britain’s Abu Ghraib in 1981
In this second extract, Bobby Sands is on dirty protest
At nine o’clock on Tuesday night “the lads gave the furniture the message”. They broke up their wooden beds, the tables, and chairs. Some tried to break out their windows. After half an hour, ten warders came to Bobby’s wing. Whatever the prisoners expected, what happened was even worse. The screws moved them from B-wing to C-wing, and “they didn’t allow them to walk over, instead they grabbed them by the hair and run them over, kicking and punching the whole time”.
According to Bobby, six men were thrown over a table. The cheeks of their behinds were torn apart by screws.
“Comrade, this is sexual assault,” he wrote to Liam Óg.
The same thing was happening over in H5. The screws organised a gauntlet between the clean wing and the dirty wing. Each prisoner was beaten to a pulp as he ran from his clean cell to the new dirty cell. Men who were waiting to be moved listened to the shouting and the screaming, waiting in horror for their own turn. Bobby described the scene that awaited them: “C-wing has just been vacated… The cells were bogging, covered in excreta, also puddles of water on cell floors where the cleaner had begun work.”
The prisoners were left in darkness in filthy cells, with no water to drink, no beds, and “not even a bloody blanket”. All they had was the towel they wore around their waist. The men who went through that night agree that it was the worst night of their lives. They were freezing. They were sore. And it was one thing to live in your own shit; being thrown into another man’s shit was positively sickening.
Bobby organised a singsong to keep them going. Each man walked up and down his cell, trying to keep warm, singing along to the songs. But before long, they’d had enough. They just tried to concentrate on getting some heat into themselves – walking up and down, sitting down and then getting up, rubbing their bodies and hopping from foot to foot. But Bobby kept going, trying to take everyone’s mind off of the conditions. All night long he just kept up a constant banter, singing away on his own, shouting down: “Are you all right? C’mon boys!”
All night, while Bobby kept up their spirits, prisoners rang the buzzers to call the warders. No one came. One prisoner took sick twice in the middle of the night but no one came to help. It was eight o’ clock the next morning before the warders came back on the wing. When they arrived, six men had to go to the doctor.
The PO finally came at 10am and gave the men, in Bobby’s words, “half a fuckin’ blanket each!” The governor came at 11am. Each man asked for a complaint form so that their lawyer could charge Governor Hilditch with breaches of prison rules. That afternoon, the warders left the dinner sitting until it was cold and then distributed it to the men. It was nearly 1:30am when they finally received bedding.
“We sat all night naked, up until five minutes ago, before the bastards found it in themselves to give us blankets and mattresses,” Bobby complained to Liam Óg. “The boys are exhausted, the wing’s like a morgue, all asleep… I’m away for a sleep, think I’m sleeping now!”
Stories about struggle
In this third extract, Bobby Sands is on hunger strike
Night time belonged to the prisoners. Once the warders left, they began their nightly routine of cigarette manufacture, button shooting, news broadcasting, and general entertainment. After the religious prisoners said the rosary and everyone distributed cigarettes and messages, there was debate and discussion.
The men told the time by the night guard’s “bell checks”. He came on at nine o’clock and every hour he pushed the security grille at the bottom of the wing to show that he had checked the cells. Time was measured by the first bell check at nine, the second at ten, and the third at 11. After the third bell check, the last business of the night was entertainment, including the “book at bedtime”.
The storyteller pulled his mattress up to his cell door and shouted out a story while the rest of the men lay, listening. All the surfaces in the prison were hard, with nothing to dampen sound, so noises travelled. When the book was a good one and the storyteller was engaging, everyone got lost in the story.
Bobby told an array of stories. His speciality was epics. His story of Geronimo and his Apache guerrillas “epitomised everything that he thought a human being should be,” says Richard O’Rawe. “Compassionate but unbreakable, fighting the whole of America on his own.” There were other stories, all about struggle. Bobby told Trinity (by Leon Uris) several times and How Green Was My Valley, about the Welsh miners. He told Doctor Zhivago.
The other prisoners began to learn political lessons from the stories.“Bob’s stories were all about heroes… It was always about the individual against the establishment and how the individual, no matter what happened, couldn’t be broken. If he had to fight them all on his own, so be it. If he had to die, so be it. That’s just the way he was. That was his mentality. Bob just had a spirit that couldn’t be tamed, and he wasn’t going to allow it to be tamed. If it came to it, he was going to fight them on his own, he was going to carry the burden of everybody.”
It was not long before Sands told a story that became legendary among the blanketmen. He said that he had read a novel the last time he was in the prison hospital. Its title was Jet. Like all of Bobby’s books, Jet was a story of someone pursuing and winning freedom in the face of all the oppression that the forces of reaction could muster. Jet was about a man who took on the US military-industrial complex and achieved his own personal freedom through struggle.
To the prisoners, it was a story about them, about how they could achieve an inner freedom even as they lay isolated in their grim cells, surrounded by barbed wire and concrete and a hostile force of screws. For a couple of hours a night as they listened to Bobby tell his stories, they were free. Their mind’s eyes took them beyond the walls, beyond the razor wire, wherever Bobby chose to take them. Each prisoner latched onto his words and created a vivid image of a place where, at that time, they most wanted to be… free, in struggle.
The blanketmen lay on their foam mattresses, miles away from the maggots and the shit, imagining. Bobby was their travel agent and their guide and these stories, perhaps more than any other aspect of his seemingly tireless efforts to organise the prison struggle, turned him into their leader. They followed him because he could take them to the most special of places. He never let them down.
Bobby Sands: Nothing But An Unfinished Song by Denis O’Hearn published by Pluto, £12.99.
© Excerpts copyright Denis O'Hearn and Pluto Press