In memoriam: Bobby Sands

Issue 

By Sean Healy

May 5 was the 10th anniversary of the death on hunger strike of Bobby Sands in Long Kesh prison in northern Ireland. At the time of his death, he had refused food for 66 days in protest at the British government's attempts to paint jailed republicans as criminals, rather than as political prisoners, as prisoners of war.

The hunger strike was the final stage of a long campaign by the Irish republican movement and the political prisoners to end the policy of "criminalisation". They also demanded an end to the inhuman measures applied against republican prisoners - physical and psychological tortures devised to break their spirit.

But the British government couldn't admit that its prisoners of war were anything more than "terrorists" and "criminals", and so remained totally intransigent as Bobby Sands was followed by Frankie Hughes, Raymond McCreesh, Patsy O'Hara, Joe McDonnell, Martin Hurson, Kevin Lynch, Kieran Doherty, Tom McIlwee and Micky Devine.

Bobby Sands was born into a poor, working-class Catholic family in Belfast. As a child, he experienced first hand the harassment of the (Catholic) nationalist community - his house, in a Protestant area, was attacked by loyalist paramilitaries and the family forced to flee.

He was a teenager in the late '60s, during the increasing activity of the loyalist death squads and of the SAS, the systematic harassment of the nationalist community and atrocities such as Bloody Sunday, 1972, when the British paratroopers killed 13 unarmed civilians at a peaceful protest.

Radicalised by these experiences, Bobby Sands joined the IRA and took up arms against the British, as did many other young people who dreamed of a free, peaceful and united Ireland.

He was arrested, beaten and tortured by the police and tried before one of Britain's special no-jury courts set up to deal harshly with captured republican guerillas. Sentenced to 14 years, he immediately embarked on protest actions against "criminalisation". Locked in his cell day after day, Sands embarked on a process of self-education, including political theory, mastering Gaelic and writing a great number of poems and essays.

Due to his stature and ability, Bobby Sands was eventually made the IRA commander inside Long Kesh and was thus the central leader of the strike. He was singled out for "special attention" by the British, who tried with all their might to break his morale and fighting spirit. They could not.

The struggle fired the imaginations and social consciences of people throughout the world. A mass movement arose in solidarity with the hunger strikers, a movement which vented its anger and ent that was slowly murdering them. On April 19, Sands was elected to Westminster, in a massive outpouring of popular sympathy which shocked the British establishment.

On May 5, Bobby Sands finally succumbed, undefeated. The world stopped to watch his funeral two days later, hundreds of thousands worldwide going on strike and demonstrating against the British government's arrogance and cruelty.

Well over 100,000 people marched behind Bobby Sands' coffin through his own Twinbrook Estate to Milltown cemetery. A lone piper marched at the head of the procession, playing a song made famous by the hunger strikers: "I'll wear no convict's uniform, nor meekly serve my time, that Britain may call Ireland's fight 800 years of crime." At the end, three IRA volunteers, amidst the cheers and tears of those around them, fired the volley that is the traditional republican tribute to the fallen hero.

And hero he was. He towers over those who sent him to his death. He was murdered because he wouldn't buckle in the face of injustice. In Bobby Sands' own words: "If they aren't able to destroy the desire for freedom, they won't break you. They won't beat me because the desire for freedom is in my heart."