Peter Geoghegan

Journalist, author, broadcaster

Turning point in history

On the 30th anniversary of the death of Bobby Sands, the hunger striker is still regarded as a hero of republicanism, says Peter Geoghegan. (From the Irish Examiner, May 5, 2011).

THIS tendentious analysis of the death, and life, of Bobby Sands appeared in the Guardian on May 6, 1981. The previous day the Belfast native died on hunger strike at HM Prison Maze. Sands was 27 years old and, until his hunger strike, largely unknown outside Irish Republican circles.

Thirty years on, Bobby Sands is anything but a figure of dark humour or criminal treachery. The closest Ireland has come to a Che Guevara, Sands is vaunted as a hero of republicanism, his hirsute image adorning everything from gable ends to t-shirts and posters.

Danny Morrison, who was national director of publicity for Sinn Féin during the 1981 hunger strikes and also published Sands’s poetry and prose in the party’s newspaper, An Phoblacht, is not surprised at the posthumous fame.

“He was always an enigmatic person. He had this aura around him of authority. Even if he was living in the most horrific of conditions, he had the measure of the world. He always seemed to know exactly what was going on,” the head of the Bobby Sands Trust explains.

Anthony McIntyre, a former IRA member and author of Good Friday: the Death of Irish Republicanism, was in the Maze at the time of hunger strikes and remembers Bobby Sands as a “totally committed IRA volunteer”.

“He was imbibed with Pearsean notions of Republicanism. He was also very socialist, very left-wing with a great sense of struggle and history.”

On May 5, 1981, after 66 days on hunger strike, Bobby Sands passed away. He was the first Irish republican to die on hunger strike since Frank Stagg in 1976. On the war-torn streets of Northern Ireland riots broke out in nationalist areas, with thousands of plastic bullets fired by security forces and two people — milkman Eric Guiney and his son Desmond — killed following stone-throwing by rioters in nationalist North Belfast.

Inside the Maze the atmosphere was equally tense. “The mood in the H Block was terrible,” says Anthony McIntyre. “The screws (prison wardens) weren’t letting us out of the cells. We had a radio smuggled in but we had to wait to access the news. Brendan Hughes (the officer commanding during the 1980 hunger strike) announced Sands had died. Up until his funeral there was silence in the wing. There was a molten rage, anger, grief, but we didn’t say anything.”

Sands’s funeral was one of the largest public outpourings of grief witnessed during the 30 years of the Troubles. An estimated 100,000 people lined the route from Sands’s family home in the Twinbrook area of West Belfast to nearby Milltown Cemetery, where he was buried in the newly-created republican plot.

Journalist and writer Ed Moloney was working as a reporter for the Irish Times in Belfast in 1981 and remembers Sands’s funeral well: “It was immense. That’s about the only word to describe it. It was so large that we had a discussion in the Belfast office about how to describe it. I said simply, ‘It was the biggest nationalist demonstration in Northern Ireland since the Troubles started.’ Which is exactly what it was.”

By the end of that summer another nine hunger strikers had died, in the process changing utterly the Northern Irish conflict. “With the hunger strikes, the Provos demolished the myth that no-one supported them, that no-one voted for them,” says Moloney.

Sands was not just a republican prisoner or a hunger striker, he was also a Member of Parliament, having famously won a by-election in Fermanagh/South Tyrone on an ‘anti-H Block/Armagh political prisoner’ ticket, in April 1981. Sands’s election paved the way, later in 1981, for Sinn Féin’s entry into electoral politics, the so-called Armalite and Ballot Box strategy, and eventually, Ed Moloney suggests, the Good Friday Agreement.

“Looking back on the hunger strikes, even though it was regarded at the time as an event that would increase conflict and make things worse, ironically it had within it the seeds of the peace process, thanks to Bobby Sands’s electoral success,” says Maloney.

If Sands’s victory at the ballot box paved the way for Sinn Féin to emerge as a political force it seems fitting that the 30th anniversary of his death falls on the very day his former comrades contest elections to the Stormont assembly.

“1981 was a turning point,” says Danny Morrison, who was Sands’s spokesperson during his successful Westminster campaign and is also the man credited with coining the phrase ‘the Armalite and Ballot Box’.

“It’s hard to attribute it to one death or one person, but Bobby’s death was international news. Here was an IRA man, an MP, dying in a British prison. It politicised a whole generation.”

In the 30 years since, Sands has become a symbol of Irish republicanism and the Northern Irish conflict. Streets named after Sands can be found everywhere from Nantes and Saint-Denis in France to Iran, where, in an act of political provocation, the Iranian government renamed Winston Churchill Boulevard, the location of the British embassy in Tehran, Bobby Sands Street. In 2008, Hunger, director Steve McQueen’s film starring Michael Fassbender, about the life and death of Sands in the Maze, won the Camera d’Or prize at Cannes.

Bobby Sands’s death is one of the most iconic moments in the Troubles, but it has not been without controversy. In 2005, in his book Blanketman, Richard O’Rawe, who was the public relations officer inside the prison during the hunger strike, accuses Gerry Adams of prolonging the strike for Sinn Féin’s political benefit.

“The hunger strike ultimately created political careers for Adams and McGuiness,” argues Anthony McIntyre, who has long been critical of Sinn Féin. “Politically it didn’t achieve anything that the SDLP didn’t in 1974 (at Sunningdale). It added oomph to an IRA campaign that was flagging, but ultimately what was gained by that war was very, very little.”

Danny Morrison rejects the suggestion the Sinn Féin leadership could have stopped the hunger strike. “That’s complete nonsense. They were our friends and comrades, they were also our cousins and brothers, they were people we grew up with.

“If the Sinn Féin leadership squandered an offer to end the hunger strike and protect the hunger strikers and let six men die who would be the first to say it? The British government. And they never said anything like it.”

Debates over whether or not Bobby Sands would have supported Sinn Féin’s peace strategy have raged almost since his death. On this subject, Ed Moloney is refreshingly phlegmatic: “If you were to tell Bobby Sands in May 1981 that your death would eventually lead to a political settlement in which the Provos accept the existence of Northern Ireland, support the British security forces, and take part in Stormont, would he have continued? In my mind there is no way he would have said ‘Yes’.

“But if he had not died, and we’d ended up with the same settlement, I think he would have accepted that, too.”

The 1981 Hunger Strikes

THE 1981 hunger strike was the culmination of a five-year protest by prisoners at Long Kesh prison in the North. It began as the ‘blanket protest’ in 1976, escalating into the dirty protest, where prisoners refused to leave their cells and covered the walls of their cells with excrement. In 1980, seven prisoners participated in the first hunger strike, which ended in acrimony after 53 days. The second hunger strike, in 1981, was a showdown between the prisoners and then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. During the strike, its leader, Bobby Sands, was elected as an MP prompting worldwide media interest.

The hunger strike was called off on October 3, 1981. Three days later Secretary of State for Northern Ireland James Prior announced partial concessions to the prisoners, including the right to wear their own clothes at all times.

Sands’s election agent, Owen Carron, won the Fermanagh/South Tyrone seat at a subsequent by-election. Two hunger strikers, Kieran Doherty and Paddy Agnew, won seats in the Dáil in 1981.

Turning point in history
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