Here we are now 32 years after the death of Bobby Sands. So much of the political landscape has changed, and yet far too little has improved. How ironic as well that 32 years to the day of Bobby Sands’ election as a Westminster Member of Parliament, his fellow MP Margaret Thatcher, the woman to whom many point the finger of blame for Sands’ murder, met her end. Thatcher was representative of the British capitalist system which lay at the root of the conflict in the North of Ireland. It was this conflict which drew the young Sands into armed struggle, his incarceration for eight and a half years, and finally his death. He was first taken to the cages in March 1973 released from in April 1976, was arrested again in October 1976 and died in 1981.
What exactly was it about the system that led to such a vicious, dirty struggle? And how did Sands view the options for the resolution of this conflict?
Sands grew up in a system in which privilege, based on religion and class, had become firmly ingrained in both government institutions and every day society alike. Not only did being working-class limit his opportunities in life, as he grew older he found that being from a Catholic background was another huge disadvantage. This was confirmed to him by the campaign of constant violence and intimidation he witnessed all around him. Various members of his family were driven from their homes, he was beaten up, he had to avoid much of the facilities in his local area and he was even forced at gunpoint to leave his place of work as an apprentice coach builder. All for being from the Catholic faith.
In 1972, Sands, like so many others, joined the Irish Republican Army (IRA) as a means to fight back with no real deep thought as to what the root causes of the whole conflict were. He had a real sense of injustice but it was not until he got arrested and sent to the cages of Long Kesh that he developed a deeper understanding of the problems all around him. Here he read many books, and joined in the many debates and discussions on nationalism, socialism, republicanism, capitalism, Gaelic culture, and Irish & world history. From these discussions he concluded that the British presence in Northern Ireland reinforced both sectarian & class divisions to maintain cultural and economic inequality within the six-counties. He was heavily influenced by James Connolly – Irish republican and revolutionary socialist who was killed following the Easter Rising – and agreed that removal of the British imperialist presence would be pointless unless a new system was put in place which ensured that the people of Ireland had economic sovereignty combined with economic equality within the sovereign nation.
It was the greed, fear and competition of colonialism which guided British policy towards Ireland for centuries. Sands identified the similiarities of colonialism’s policies in Ireland with those pursued across the world; whether it was the conquistadors in South America, the French in Vietnam, the Portuguese in Africa or the British in India. He also understood that as capitalism had developed Western colonialism did too. It is these characteristics of self-interest which lay at the root causes of the conflict’s latest eruption in 1969, for which he had found himself in jail.
“Generations will continue to meet the same fate unless the perennial oppressor-Britain is removed, for she will unashamedly and mercilessly continue to maintain her occupation and economic exploitation of Ireland to judgment day, if she is not halted and ejected.”
With his class consciousness now awoken, he left Long Kesh after three years and with a new insight and fresh understanding of the causes of the conflict, he poured himself straight back into the struggle. Sands got elected to the local tenants association and used its previously barren facilities to help set up a pre-school playgroup, a social club for the young and old, Irish language classes, folk nights and a children’s clinic. He also organised training for boxing and football clubs in the area. This while also trying to maintain his relationship with his wife and young child, which suffered as a result of his commitment to the cause. Sands was proving himself to be quite an exceptional character. All of this was done within the space of six months, after which he got arrested again for military activity and taken to the Crumlin road jail before being moved to the newly built H-blocks.
Sands immediately joined the blanket protest. He knew that the reasons for his involvement in armed struggle were political and to accept being treated as a non-political prisoner would also mean to accept that this was not a political conflict and that there existed no reasonable political solution. This was the agenda of British imperialist propaganda: to accept being criminalised was to mean acceptance that their struggle was unjust and could not be solved politically.
From the beginning of the protest, the British authorities were ruthless in their campaign to break the prisoners’ resistance to their criminalisation policy. Beatings, torture, solitary confinement, sleep deprivation and intimidation of these naked prisoners, were an every day feature for years until the prisoners reached a point where they could no longer leave their cells. Some prisoners broke under the pressure and became known as the squeaky booters. This was due to the noise their boots made as they walked up the corridor, wearing the prison uniform. Sands again showed his resolve by not being one of them.
1978 ushered in the beginning of the dirty protest where prisoners refused to leave their cells for fear of attack and instead had to smear their excrement on the walls. Maggots piled in the cells, prisoners hair became matted and filthy, their bodies and breath stank. Public pressure had built enough to persuade the Catholic Church’s Cardinal O’Fiaich to visit the prisoners, covering his nose with a handkerchief, he remarked, “I was shocked at by the inhuman conditions… 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.”
Yet still nothing changed in favour of the prisoners and Sands himself wrote that in fact the torture got worse the following year, which was the year that the “Iron Lady” was elected. Margaret Thatcher epitomised everything that Bobby Sands stood against. He viewed himself as a socialist republican and as such completely opposed her plans to privatise industry, close down the coal mines, break the power of the trade unions, promote the interests of the rich and of selfish individualism and to re-enforce the occupation of the six counties. She was cold, ruthless, a liar, selfish, arrogant, racist, and would prove herself to be both a warmonger and reviver of imperialist aggression.
Sands was polar opposite; he did not merely look at Ireland’s interests, he strongly empathised with oppressed peoples around the world and, even in jail, did his best to keep up to date with world news:
“I am abreast with the news and view with utter disgust and anger the Reagan/Thatcher plot. It seems quite clear that they intend to counteract Russian expansionism with imperialist expansionism, to protect their vital interests they say. What they mean is they covet other nations’ resources. They want to steal what they haven’t got…”
In 1980 the prisoners decided that they had to take the protest up a level again. The blanket and dirty protests had been going on for years to no effect. The decision was made to go on hunger strike and with this bring enough pressure on the government to give the prisoners back their political status (for which they had recognition from the British government up until 1976).
Thatcher directly ordered Humphrey Atkins, her Northern Ireland Secretary of State, to neither meet with the prisoners, nor compromise on any of the demands. She was hard-faced and stubborn, and Atkins was like a loyal dog who obeyed her every command. A junior minister who worked closely with the Cabinet, has since revealed that the Northern Ireland Prisons Minister at the time had thought of a possible solution to the protest which would save face for both Republicans and the Government. This advice was ignored and instead Atkins facilitated the deception of the prisoners by using secret channels to have them believe that a deal had been made and that the demands had been met. With hunger striker Sean McKenna approaching death, the strike was called off only for it to be reneged upon by the British government.
It was this hard-line and deceiving approach pursued by Thatcher which led to the next hunger strike and ultimately resulted in the deaths of Bobby Sands and his nine comrades. The protesting prisoners knew that this time someone would have to die. Sands being the courageous, committed and selfless young republican that he was, took the decision to lead the hunger-strike.
“Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
Sands did not have a death wish. He was intelligent, articulate and still would have had alot to live for upon his expected release which would have been at the age of 36/37. He loved his son and it must have been agonising to die knowing that he would never get to see his child again. There were also many other courageous prisoners who were signing up to the strike, but Sands would not ask anyone to do anything that he himself was not prepared to see through first. The horror and pain of that kind of death should never be under-estimated, the prisoners themselves fully understood the gravity of the decision that they were making, and to ensure this they studied the full process of how the body decays due to starvation, the blindness etc. The British thought that their deception had dealt a hammer blow to the will of the republicans to follow through with this grievous form of protest. They hadn’t!
“They have nothing in their whole imperial arsenal that can break the spirit of one Irishman who doesn’t want to be broken.”
Upon resumption of the hunger strike, it has since been stated by an ex-member of British intelligence that there was a desire amongst Thatcher’s administration for these prisoners to die. Thatcher and her securocrat’s thirst for revenge and complete military defeat of the IRA, without a political resolution, led to the deaths of Bobby Sands and his nine comrades. Her agenda, no doubt was one of revenge and murder. In her blind hatred and selfishness, she could not foresee the tidal wave that would rise up against her with the deaths of these ten brave men. Sands, being a man of insight and love for his people, did know, but even he could never have guessed at just how high that tide would rise.
Sands knew that his death would cause a reaction from the public that the British government would not be able to withstand. He did not want to die, but in the context of the treachery that the prisoners had faced with the British, he felt that there was no other option. He lived and breathed the struggle against oppression. He sacrificed his life for the struggle long before he died, whether it was agitating as part of his local tenants association, taking up arms against the British state, helping those around him to understand politics, or refusing to be broken by torture, he gave every minute to struggling to make the world a place of freedom, equality and justice.
No one could ever have predicted the impact that Sands and his fellow hunger strikers protest and deaths would have on the world. The shockwaves were sent throughout the continents, from the streets of Tehran, to Cuba, Paris, Oslo, India, Turkey, the Soviet Union, Belgium and of course throughout the UK & Ireland.
Political republicanism was given a fresh energy and with the campaign to support the hunger strikers becoming a national then international movement, Thatcher’s approach to the prisoners had brought back into the fold many Republicans who had previously become disillusioned with the struggle. Republicans were now uniting against Thatchers policies but so too was co-operation between nationalists, the Catholic Church and the international community, at least in terms of pressuring Thatcher to resolve the problem politically. This co-operation gathered enough steam to actually get Sands elected as MP to Westminster – something which previously would have seemed completely improbable.
The hunger strikes ended when, after ten deaths, the British were still refusing to publicly relent. The prisoners families intervened and the prisoners were force-fed once unconscious. Thatcher’s government tried to claim this as a victory yet it was clear that the pressure had got to them and shortly after most of the prisoners demands were met, and within a couple of years all of the demands were met. Another indicator of the British govenrnments concern was the speed in which they drafted through legislation banning prisoners from running for election. What is so heartbreaking for the families and comrades of these men, was that these deaths were avoidable. Thatcher’s deceitfulness, stubborn attitude and insistence on maintaining her public image led to the second hunger strike, the strike itself then and therefore the continued deaths was prolonged by these same disgusting qualities.
Bobby Sands legacy has seen the huge advancement of both political and militant republicanism. He won the admiration and respect of revolutionaries across the world and can be regarded as a household name to those who fight against oppression. It is hugely important that we keep his story alive, not only of his role in the hunger strikes but of his life as an activist and of the sacrifices that he made as an individual. Sands chose to sacrifice his life by dedicating every day of his own personal time to campaigning for a world of freedom, justice and equality. As a teenager he wasn’t regarded as being anyone out of the ordinary, and its important that we remember that, his example shows us that we all have the potential to change the world if we commit ourselves as Sands did. That does not mean that we all have to take up arms, or die on hunger strike – Sands was a victim of his time but it does mean that to continue on his legacy we make sacrifices in our own lives to fight for those same values in which he died for, that of freedom, justice and equality. Taking part in struggle is not always easy; people are busy with work and family life but we need to be prepared to make time in our lives to prioritise the struggle and fight for a better society. If not, then we allow Sands and all those who have died fighting for this, to die in vain.
“Everyone, Republican or otherwise, has their own particular part to play. No part is too great or too small; no one is too old or too young to do something.”
Right now there is a debate within republicanism about whether Sands’ would have agreed with the direction that Sinn Fein’s politics has gone. It is right that this debate is happening, there should always be freedom for debate and discussion within any revolutionary movement. We can always look to Sands for inspiration in this regard and by keeping his story, his writings and beliefs alive we can guide ourselves. If we feel that the struggle is moving away from the principles for which Sands lived and died to preserve, then we need to act. The struggle continues!
“They thought your spirit couldn’t rise again
But you dared to prove them wrong.
And in death you tore away the chains,
To let the world hear Freedoms Song”