30 years ago a 27 year old elected member of the British House of Parliament starved to death in a prison run by the British state in Northern Ireland. Bobby Sands was the first of ten men to die, all of them jailed members of Irish republican organizations, 7 from the IRA and 3 from the INLA. The 1981 Hunger Strike in which they were engaged was the culmination of five years of struggle in the prisons of Northern Ireland for the return of Special Category Status. The death of Sands after 66 days on hunger strike was a transformative moment in Irish history although it would take over a decade for the full reality of that transformation to play out, and in a way that would almost certainly not have been to his liking.
Before the Hunger Strike the British policy of containment of the low intensity war in the north and the marginalisation of the republican organizations that were fighting British rule had been quite successful. The republican 'Year of Victory' proclamations of the early 1970's had proved to be so much wishful thinking.
Bobby Sands had been brought into the republican struggle through personal experience. In 1968 he had been intimidated out of his job by fellow workers who showed him guns and told him "do you see these here, well if you don’t go you’ll get this". Then in June 1972 his family were intimidated out of their home in Doonbeg Drive, Rathcoole (a predominantly loyalist area of north Belfast). He was first arrested that October when four hand guns were found in a house he was staying in and after his release in 1976 he was arrested a second time in the aftermath of an attempt to firebomb a furniture factory. Once in prison he became involved in the 'dirty protest' which led directly into the 1981 Hunger Strike.
When Sands died over 100,000 people attended his funeral. In Milan, Italy 5,000 students demonstrated. Iran renamed the street the British Embassy was on from Winston Churchill to Bobby Sands street. The New York dockers union called a 24 hours boycott of British ships. The whole British and Irish government strategies of portraying the republicans as criminals crumbled in the face of ten men slowly and agonizingly starving themselves to death. The agony carried on for months from 1 March when Sands started his hunger strike to 20 August when the last of the 10, Micky Devine
died. In 1981, the year of the Hunger Strike, the 'security forces' fired 29,695 plastic bullets, killing seven people and crippling many including a number of children who were blinded. In total 17 people were killed by plastic bullets, 8 of them children.
I was a young teenager at the time of the Hunger Strikes but I clearly remember the nightly rioting on the TV news and the black flags that hung from lamp posts all over the country. It was also something of a political awakening for me because of the huge gap that was apparent between the way every newspaper, TV and radio station talked of the hunger strikers as criminals and the obvious fact that starving yourself to death for a set of political demands was not really what criminals did. I was hardly alone in that realisation, I was going to a protestant secondary school in Dublin and even there a significant number of the pupils wore black ties into school as a reaction to his death.
At the time the British press tended to see the end of the Hunger Strikes as a victory for the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her policy of refusing to (publicly) negotiate with 'terrorists'. Retrospectively it was clearly a disaster for British policy in Ireland and the people of the north because both the apparent 'success' of that hardline attitude and the reality of it pushing new waves of people into support for militarist republicanism prolonged a war that might otherwise soon have reached a negotiated end as it eventually did in the 1990's. There were no significant gains for either side in the years between the end of the Hunger Strike and the Good Friday Agreement.
The deaths, of the Hunger Strikers and the 51 other people (34 of them civilians) who died in the seven month period before the abandonment of the Hunger Strike on October 3rd served to harden attitudes and rule out frank political discussion for a decade to come. Even in Dublin it was not uncommon to hear people try and end political discussions about republican strategy with what became the hackneyed 'better men then you have died' phrase. In writing this I came across on old indymedia.ie thread
that arose out of an ad for a WSM meeting in Cork on "Republicanism or Anarchism' where you can see the same rhetoric still being played out as late as 2005. (I'm posting as 'Joe' on that thread, a fairly widely known pseudonym I used at the time.)
The main legacy of the Hunger Strikes was the political success of Sinn Fein, and in particular the leadership faction around Adams. They proved able both to build a real political party out of what had been little more than the political mouthpiece of an illegal military organization and then lead both the political and military organizations down a path that would have been rejected outright in 1982 - the path that led to the Good Friday Agreement. Selling that deal to the membership required heavy reliance on appeals to military discipline, appeals whose strength ironically lay at least in part in the sacrifice of the hunger strikers.
One thing the Hunger Strikes gave me that remains is an abiding hatred of Thatcher, a hated that was built all the higher three years later during the British Miners Strike of 1984. This and opposition to US President Reagan's visit to Ireland, also in 1984, pushed my developing political awakening away from nationalism and towards the left and internationalism. I collected for the miners on the streets of Dublin and marched against Reagan in that year and have remained active ever since. Years later I would meet ex-prisoners who had direct involvement in the hunger strikes, in my first such encounter towards the end of the 80's I remember spending most of the night discussing the hunger strike and the later great escape
with a prisoner who had just been released (and whose name I have now forgotten, woops). And I would also meet some of those who lead the struggle during the British Miner's strike, those Thatcher had termed 'the enemy within.' In both cases this was a strange experience to meet people who I knew about through TV documentaries and book reading - all the more so because it was soon apparent that their views had progressed in the years since.
With both groups it became clear on talking to them that they had come to view those titanic struggles as bitter defeats rather than the glorious struggles I perceived in my teenage years. I remember being told that, yes it was true 100,000 had gone to Bobby Sand's funeral, but by the time the Micky Devine had died funeral attendances were in the hundreds. On another night I remember talking in a Dublin bar after a meeting with Brendan Hughes
who had led the first hunger strike in 1980 about his deep sense of betrayal both about the way the provisional movement had treated the ex-prisoners and with the political direction taken by Sinn Fein. Another ex-prisoner with a similar position with whom I debated republicanism at the 2006 Dublin Anarchist Boookfair is Tommy McKearney
who spent 53 days on hunger strike in 1980. Others remained loyal to Sinn Fein although none of the political ones I know could be described as happy with the direction taken today.
By the time I was to engage in political activity in the north and in London (while working there) it was as an anarchist. The war was still going on, in London our small group of Irish migrants sharing a squat near Old Street and took part as a group in the 1989 demonstrations marking British Troops being sent into the north. We even produced our own leaflet, someday I must try and locate and scan a copy. We'd a very close call coming off the Irish Freedom Movement march on the Holloway Road when we walked into a very large National Front ambush but through luck more than anything else managed to get away unscathed. We also went to the meetings that formed the local poll tax group (and painted No Poll Tax here in big letters on the steel shutters on our squat). It was the mass riot against the poll tax in 1991 that was to finally take Thatcher from power and destroy her legacy leaving her as the sad old women waiting for death to take her away.
Traveling to Belfast & Derry from the start of the 1990's to help out the small anarchist group in the north was quite an experience as the border was still lined with military watch towers on the hill tops and the train would often be buzzed by military helicopters. Belfast itself in that period always had the constant sound of helicopters as one hovered permanently over the city, equipped with various spy camera's I presume. My first political visit was in the middle of a vicious sectarian assassination campaign of taxi drivers. Taxi companies tended to be segregated and very often employed ex prisoners, making them soft targets for revenge shootings - simply get a cab and shoot the driver. As we were staying on the outskirts of the city which required a route that would take us through both loyalist and nationalist areas it proved impossible to find a taxi willing to take us in the city and our host had to ring a company that knew him in the suburbs to come in and pick us up.
On a later occasion where I traveled up with 500 leaflets from Dublin (printing was so expensive that this sort of made sense at that point) and was waiting in a bar for a Belfast anarchist I suddenly realised the guy next tome was Cueball
, the OC of the INLA at the time. There had been a split and there had been a number of tat for tat shootings between the two sides of the split in the previous weeks so finding myself seated next to the leader of one faction was a little nerve wracking, already one child had been killed in the cross fire in one of their shoot outs. I also happened to be in Belfast showing a Turkish comrade around in December 1997 on the day after Billy Wright
had been shot dead in the Maze. She was taking pictures of fresh graffiti celebrating the killing of 'King Rat' at the interface between the Falls & the Shankill when suddenly a car came speeding at us from the Shankill side. It screeched up and two big lads shouted abuse out the windows at us before speeding off. That felt a lot like a lucky escape that day as my companion looked very much like a teenage tourist rather than any sort of legitimate target. Four people had already been killed in 'retaliation' when the LVF shot up a disco in Dungannon the previous night and more were killed in the days that followed.
I'd been in the north on family trips before the 1980's but my memory of the death of Bobby Sands is very much a beginning for my later political experiences there. That and my own religious background are probably part of the reason for my intense interest in Irish republican history. Initially I absorbed this in a fairly uncritical manner but increasingly today I tend to see republicanism as a dead end, an immense weight of history from which it is increasingly difficult for any progressive politics to escape. This came home to me in particular this Easter as I viewed the ritualistic memorial ceremonies for the 'patriot dead'. I am no longer sure these exercises have anything to offer to the living and increasingly find them an alien ritual.
Last year I read a history of the English Civil War and in reading the section on the war in Ireland it struck me how much the mythology of massacre of one generation becomes the method by which the next are prepared to tread down that same tragic path. This is far more true of loyalism than republicanism, where at least there is self awareness of the danger. But we need to escape from all aspects of that cycle and in particular from the blind militarism it encourages. Perhaps we are the fools to allow ourselves to be so led by 'our patriot dead' that we forget the needs of the living?
Even within those limitations its very hard to know what the legacy of Bobby Sand's sacrifice is today. All factions of republicanism claim him, much the same as the way every national & left political party tries to claim James Connolly. From my perspective the Hunger Strikes both led to the Good Friday Agreement by allowing the turn to the electoralism of the 'ballot box in one hand and the armalite in the other
' and contradictorily delayed that agreement by racheting up tension and pulling a new generation into the dead end of war. Perhaps there isn't a contradiction there as really the delay was Thatchers legacy more than anyone else's - her stance ensured another decade of war and the loss of hundreds more lives.
Part of the reason Bobby Sand's continues to capture people's imaginations, in a way that the other 9 who died have not, is that as well as the example of his death he left a written record behind in his diary and his poetry. That too is ambiguous in terms of judging where might Sand's have stood today, one of his more famous sayings that “Our revenge will be the laughter of our children” is not really the stuff of hardline militarism. Nor is the inclusivity of “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.” The militarists perhaps prefer the never ending war suggested by “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.”
Sands kept a diary
of the first 17 days of his Hunger Strike, a curious aspect of the diary which perhaps underlines the complexity that lies behind the simple image of martyr is that on day 3 he received a book of Kipling’s short stories to read. Kipling
is the poet sage of British imperialism. On day 5 he quotes some verse from Kipling about keeping "tally on the gun butt"
and exacting revenge "for our dead comrades sake"
after which Sands wrote "I hope not,’ said I to myself."
I confess to also having a soft spot for Kipling, in particular for If
and for the lines he wrote of hearing of the death of his son, serving in the Irish Guards during World War One. "If any question why we died/ Tell them, because our fathers lied."
But its a strange idea that Kipling was probably the last author that Sands read in any depth.
The diary ends on 17 March with the final two paragraphs below.
“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 of Ireland will have the desire for freedom to show.
It is then we’ll see the rising of the moon.”
The rising of the moon
is a reference to the great mass republican rebellion of 1798 and one of the songs that commemorates it. I love the song but the final verse captures the problems of the politics of commemoration and the weight of the dead on the minds of the living.
Well they fought for poor old Ireland, And full bitter was their fate
(Oh! what glorious pride and sorrow Fill the name of Ninety-Eight).
Yet, thank God, e'en still are beating Hearts in manhood's burning noon,
Who would follow in their footsteps, At the risin' of the moon!
At the rising of the moon, at the risin' of the moon,
Who would follow in their footsteps, at the risin' of the moon.
Perhaps it is not a question of following in any one's footsteps but of carving out a new path to freedom that takes us away from and around the traps of the past.
Afterthoughts added a couple of days later
This blog was one where I ended up doing a lot of stream of consciousness writing taking me somewhere other than what I intended when I set out. Since posting it I keep thinking back to sections of it in particular the bits where I drifted into writing about my personal experiences. Retrospectively I'm feeling uncomfortable with choosing this topic to tell those stories but then as I write above the death of Bobby Sands was a very important point in my personal political development and those particular stories are important in how my views of republicanism was to later develop.
The issue of commemorations is also a raw one and here I'm putting out some stuff that I've been thinking about a lot in the last while. It's perhaps a bit too one sided above. As a counter point when I mentioned the topic of this blog Aileen reminded me over breakfast this morning that when Ashanti Alston
with us he talked about how important he thought republican commemorations were because they kept knowledge of the history alive and how it was a weakness that there were no equivalent events for the Black Panthers. I guess my concern is that while yes they keep the history alive they also serve to ossify it and replace using history for critical development with using it for a battle over the real ownership of relics. This is probably a topic I should try and explore properly in an article at some point in the future.
WORDS: Andrew Flood (Follow Andrew on Twitter )