Bobby Sands MP: ‘They can’t break our spirit’
On May 5, 1981, Bobby Sands, Honourable Member of the British Parliament for Fermanagh-South Tyrone in Ireland’s north, died. The 27-year-old republican prisoner died after 66 days on hunger strike in the H-blocks of the British-run concentration camp called Long Kesh prison.
Nine other men died on hunger strike, as the British government of Margaret Thatcher refused to conceed their demand to be granted the status of “political prisoners”.
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Sands was born in March 1954 to a working-class Catholic family in Newtownabbey, an area dominated by Protestant “loyalists” (supporters of British rule).
Sands was a victim of sectarian violence. His family was forced to flee their home due to violent attacks. He was stabbed and forced at gun point to leave his job.
Like many of his generation, he joined the Irish Republican Army aged 18 to defend his community from the violence of loyalist thugs and the British army.
The Northern Ireland statelet into which Sands was born was set up in 1921 when Britain was forced to accept an independent Irish state based on 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties.
To ensure the six counties remained loyal to the union with Britain, the Protestant majority were granted privileges in jobs, housing, education and services. Catholics were reduced to second class citizens.
It was governed by “a Protestant parliament for a Protestant state”, in the words of the first prime minister of Northern Ireland, James Craig.
In the late 1960s, inspired by the civil rights movement in the United States, a civil rights struggle broke out in the six counties demanding the extension of voting rights to all Catholic adults and an end to discrimination.
Loyalist gangs and the Royal Ulster Constabulary unleashed a wave of violence against defenceless Catholic and Irish nationalist communities, with thousands driven from their homes.
Anti-Catholic pogroms in 1969 resulted in the largest forced movement of people in Europe since World War II.
Catholic and nationalist youth fought back on the streets. In Derry, they liberated their neighbourhoods, creating “Free Derry”.
In response to the violence, the British Army arrived as “peacekeepers”. However, they began violently targeting nationalist communities - breaking down doors, smashing people’s homes and bashing residents.
At this stage, the Irish Republican Army barely existed and the revival of the republican armed struggle had not begun.
In 1971, the British introduced internment – allowing its forces to arrest anyone they saw fit and hold them indefinitely without charge.
Houses across nationalist areas were raided and residents dragged out and beaten. Many of those jailed were tortured.
In the three days after internment was introduced, British soldiers shot dead 11 unarmed civilians in the Belfast working-class Catholic area of Ballymurphy. There had been no IRA bombing campaign at this stage.
The escalation of the armed campaign of the IRA came in response to such atrocities. What began as a civil rights campaign asking for equality for the Catholic minority became an armed struggle to end British occupation.
Most of those interned were not active republicans. However, their treatment convinced many of them, and their family and friends, on the need to fight back.
Internment was replaced in 1973 by special juryless courts that railroaded ordinary men and women into prison.
In 1972, the same year he joined the IRA, Sands was picked up by the police and tortured. He was sentenced to five years in Long Kesh.
In prison, Sands was highly active. He established what came to be known as the Long Kesh "Gaeltacht" (Gaelic-speaking area). He read widely, not just about the Irish struggle but the works of anti-imperialists such as Che Guevara and Franz Fanon.
He also married while on remand and had a son. After three-and-a-half years he was released. He rejoined the struggle and was active in organising his local community around housing and other issues.
He was rearrested in 1976. In a juryless trial, Sands was sentenced to 14 years in jail for possession of a gun that was allegedly found in a car he shared with five other people.
In 1976, a campaign had broken out among republican prisoners against the British government’s attempt to “criminalise” the liberation struggle.
Britain refused to grant republican prisoners “political” status , which was symbolised by forcing prisoners to wear prison uniforms.
The campaign was started when a new prisoner, Kieran Nugent, refused to wear the uniform. He told his jailors they would have to “nail it” to his back. He was stripped naked and given a thin blanket.
Other republican prisoners followed suit. Known as the “blanket protests”, they demanded “political” status.
In 1978, a number of prisoners were viciously attacked when they left their cells to empty their chamber pots. The prisoners began a “dirty protest” in response.
Prisoners refused to leave their cells to wash. When prison guards refused to empty chamber pots, prisoners were forced to sleep on urine-soaked mattresses and smear their own excrement on their cell walls.
Republican women prisoners in Armagh prison joined the dirty protests, and their walls were smeared with menstrual blood as well.
Throughout, prisoners faced constant violence from prison guards.
In 1978, Archbishop Thomas O'Fiaich visited the H-Blocks. He said afterwards: “I was shocked at the inhuman conditions prevailing in H-Blocks 3,4 and 5 where over 300 prisoners were incarcerated. One would hardly allow an animal to remain in such conditions, let alone a human being.
"The nearest approach to it that I have seen was the spectacle of hundreds of homeless people living in sewer pipes in the slums of Calcutta. The stench and filth in some cells, with the remains of rotten food and human excreta scattered around the walls, was almost unbelievable.
"In two of them I was unable to speak for the fear of vomiting."
It was in these conditions that Sands spent the last years of his life. Despite this, he wrote poems, songs and political articles.
Developing his political thinking, he became a leader among the prisoners.
From his cell, Sands wrote: "I refuse to change to suit people who oppress, torture and imprison me. They have suppressed my body and attacked my dignity, but I have the spirit of freedom that cannot be quenched by even the most horrendous treatment.
“Of course I can be murdered, but while I remain alive I remain what I am - a political prisoner."
When the British refused to budge on the prisoners demands, some prisoners began a hunger strike in 1980 in Long Kesh and Armagh. These ended in a compromise agreement, but the British failed to follow through.
New hunger strikes began in 1981. Sands was the first to start on March 1.
The prisoners raised five demands: the right to wear their own clothes; 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; and full restoration of remission lost through the protest.
A broad-based mass movement outside the H-Blocks mobilised support for the prisoners. Thatcher denounced the prisoners “terrorists” with “no popular support”.
Then a by-election was called in Fermanagh-South Tyrone. The H-Block solidarity campaign stood Sands as a candidate.
On April 9, Sands was elected to the British parliament from Long Kesh with 30,493 votes - humiliating the British government.
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams remarked of Sands' election: "His victory exposed the lie that the hunger strikers - and by extension the IRA and the whole republican movement - had no popular support."
Britain still refused to negotiate a solution.
Sands last diary entry, on March 17, was written in Irish. It read: "If they aren't able to destroy the desire for freedom, they won't break you. They won't break me because the desire for freedom, and the freedom of the Irish people, is in my heart.
“The day will dawn when all the people will have the desire for freedom … And it's then that we'll see the rising of the moon."
When news of Sands’ death broke, protests exploded.
In Belfast, youths with petrol bombs and rocks took on heavily armed British soldiers.
Protests occurred across Ireland’s south and many workers began walking off their jobs. Almost all Dublin building workers left their sites to join a protest of 10,000 people.
On May 7, 100,000 people marched silently behind Sands’ coffin and nearly as many more lined Belfast’s streets. It was the largest demonstration ever held in Belfast.
There were protests all over the world. Nelson Mandela led a protest in Rodden Island prison, where he was jailed.
Thousands marched across Europe. In Oslo, protesters threw a balloon filled with tomato sauce at Queen Elizabeth II.
In the United States, longshoremen refused to work on British ships. A number of state legislatures passed motions of condolences and the state of Rhode Island declared a day of mourning.
The Indian and Portuguese parliaments held one minute’s silence in Sands’ honour. Even a right-wing paper in Lisbon ran a front page declaring: “Margaret Thatcher murdered Bobby Sands”.
Protests took place in Australia too, and in Sydney and Melbourne thousands turned out for memorials to Sands.
In Iran, the government took the inspired step of renaming the street that housed the British embassy “Bobby Sands Street”.
In the H-Blocks, the hunger strikes continued and Thatcher refused to budge.
By the time the last of the prisoners’ strikes ended in October, Francis Hughes (25), Raymond McCreesh (24), Patsy O’Hara (25), Joe McDonald (29), Martin Hurson (24), Kevin Lynch (25), Kieran Doherty (25), Thomas McElwee (23) and Michael Devine (27) had followed Sands to the grave.
Each death was marked by the banging of bin-lids throughout the nationalist community and each funeral was attended by tens of thousands. The British Army violently attacked a number – shooting and nearly killing Gerry Adams brother Paddy in one instance.
The hunger strikes were a turning point in the “Troubles”. The determination of the republican prisoners and the huge campaign of support in Ireland and internationally for their demands showed Britain could not win its war.
The scale of the mass campaign in support of the prisoners also helped turn the republican struggle increasingly towards a political, rather than purely military, focus. Some IRA actions, such as bombings that caused civilian deaths (whether intentional or not) helped undermine political support.
The peace process in Ireland’s north is a product of the inability of the British to defeat the nationalist community, as well as the inability of the republican movement to overturn British rule through armed force alone.
The struggle is continuing in a political framework. The sacrifice of Sands and his comrades was crucial to laying the ground for the peace process.
Thirty years on from Sands’ death, the British Army no longer patrols Irish streets. The six counties, however, remain under British control.
This means that the British government, which controls the budget for the Northern Ireland administration, is imposing savage spending cuts as part of its austerity drive.
In Ireland’s south, the government has sold out Irish sovereignty to the International Monetary Fund and European banks. At their behest, the government is imposing harsh austerity at the expense of working-class people.
An independent Ireland, based on equality and social justice, remains as needed as ever.
Sands became a symbol internationally of the Irish struggle for freedom. But Sands became a symbol of the struggle against oppression wherever it takes place.
Sands' words still evoke the future he died fighting for: one in which all of humanity can live in peace and equality.
From his cell, Sands said: "Let our revenge be the laughter of our children."
"Bobby Sands MP" by Irish-American band Black 47.