This year marks the 20
anniversary of the hunger strike undertaken by the Republican prisoners in the notorious Maze prison, with even more notorious H-Blocks, in which 10 young men were to die a martyr’s death, one after the other, over 172 traumatic days. The strike was begun to press the demand for recognition of their status as political prisoners (a status once recognised but taken away by an earlier Labour government in Britain) rather than being treated as common criminals.
Bobby Sands was the first one to go on the hunger strike, and the first to die a hero’s death. He went on hunger strike on 1
March 1981. May 5 this year marks the 20
anniversary of his martyrdom. The decision to go on the hunger strike was the prisoners’ and the prisoners’ alone. They were young men fired by a hatred of British colonialism and with a burning desire to free their country from nearly eight centuries of British occupation – the noblest kind that any country is capable of producing. Bobby Sands and his comrades showed an astonishing resolve that earned then the grudging admiration of even their enemies. “Albert”, a prison officer in the Maze, who was on guard duty at the time of the death of Bobby Sands, says “
the best grub went in. We were out to break them, but you’ve got to hand it to them. There was not any of them ever tried to break off and eat, not once
“Albert” says that the other prison officers hated the Republican prisoners and treated them as “the lowest form of life” in the period of the “blanket protest” (prisoners refusing to wear prison clothes – only blankets), which developed in “dirty protest”, with the prisoners smearing themselves with their own excrement. “Albert” adds “…
during the hunger strike we began to look at them in a different light. We began thinking there must be more to these guys. Anyone who can stand 30,40,50 days without food must have something. They never wavered once
“Albert” has the same admiration for the hunger strikers’ relatives whom, he says, he never saw waver. The relatives would come in, “…
pat them on the back, tell them they were doing a great job…, giving them encouragement, telling them they looked great. This was to a boy whose stomach had shrunk down till you could see the spinal cord. It was like looking at Belsen photos
“. Only on being escorted out of the prison would the relatives break down and show any emotion. “
You could see the mothers’ tears alright, but not in front of the prisoners
” says “Albert”, adding that he “…
used to go home after spending nights in the
hospital and walk around the garden trying to come to terms with what was going on. It left a deep impression on everyone in there at the time
One of the prison doctors was later to commit suicide.
Even such a despicable arch-reactionary person as Mrs Thatcher, whose government oversaw the deaths (deliberate murders would be a better term) of these ten finest of human beings felt constrained in her autobiography to admit that “i
t was possible to admire the courage of Sands and the other hunger strikers who died
When the hunger strike began, it was typically ignored by our ‘free’ media, the government, the Labour Party and, with a few honourable exceptions, by the trade union leadership and what passed for ‘left’ at the time, until, with the sudden death from heart attack of the independent nationalist MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone on March 5 1981, events took a dramatic turn. The Republicans decided to put Bobby Sands up as a candidate in the by-election. It was a huge risk, for the authorities and the entire British ruling class was bound to portray Bobby Sands and comrades as “murderous thugs” devoid of popular mass support in the event of his defeat in the election.
The decision taken, the Republican movement got on with the election campaign with characteristic energy and seriousness of purpose for the candidate who in his nomination papers described his profession as “political prisoner”. On a massive turnout of 86.8%, Bobby Sands won with 30,492 votes to 29,046 for his opponent. When the news of his victory was heard by prisoners in the Maze on their illicit radios, the whole place erupted. “
For 15 minutes
“, says Lawrence McKeown, who had himself fasted for 70 days and was saved by his mother’s intervention, who exercised her legal right to save the life of an unconscious next of kin after he had gone into a coma, “
we were shouting and roaring
Bobby Sands’ stunning electoral victory electrified the political landscape, with the strike becoming newsworthy on a global scale, and requests for interviews coming in at a rate even the Republican movement, with all its organisational abilities and skills, found at times difficult to cope with. Bobby Sands’ writing became a best seller. No longer could the British government clam that the hunger strikers were lacking in support in the community. Thatcher’s government was in serious difficulty and under pressure to give in. High-powered delegates, including a papal emissary, swooped into the Maze to broker an agreement. In vain did the likes of
try to dub Sands as “
the Honourable Member for Violence
“. In the end, nothing came of these attempts, as the Thatcher government was determined with the full support of the Labour Party opposition to see these young men die. Its response to Sands’ victory was to change the law so as to prevent prisoners from standing for Parliament.
Bobby Sands was 40 days into his hunger strike at the time of his election. 26 days later, after 66 days without food, he died at 1.17 a.m. on May 5. According to “Albert”, the body of Bobby Sands was smuggled out through the gate at the rear of the Maze just in case the Republicans should try to seize it. Sands’ death sent shockwaves throughout the world. Even the speaker of the British House of Commons, at the time, George Thomas, was compelled to respectfully announce: “
I regret to inform the House of the death of Robert Sands, Esquire, the member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone
“. Europe and the US witnessed large protests, some violent, at the death. The Queen was heckled on a visit to Norway; the US Longshoremen’s Union boycotted British ships; the Soviet Union, and Cuba condemned British oppression in Ireland. Over 100,000 people marched behind Sands’ coffin, with the IRA giving him a fallen soldier hero’s farewell with a volley of shots.
Three months later, on 20 August, Owen Carron, Bobby Sand’s election agent, regained his parliamentary seat with an increased majority. Kieran Doherty, another hunger striker was elected to the Irish Dail a few weeks before he died on August 2.
Other hunger strikers went to their deaths. Hughes died a week after Sands, McLeesh and O’Hara both fell 10 days after Hughes. To the accompaniment of this macabre tragedy in the Maze, the British establishment was gaily participating in the festivities in connection with the wedding of Prince Charles to the late Diana. Northern Ireland was in turmoil, as more volunteers stepped in to replace those on the “
conveyor belt of death
The hunger strikers’ resolve was undiminished to the last. Bobby Sands, as he was literally breathing his last, told a visiting friend “
tell the lads I’m hanging in there and I’m alright
“. One cannot but have the greatest of reverence for such heroic courage, whether or not one agrees with the tactic of hunger strike as a method of struggle. Such resolve can only be the product of the discrimination and oppression that Bobby Sands, like a multitude of other youths, underwent at the hands of the British occupation forces and their bigoted stooges in the north of Ireland. During his boyhood his family had been driven out of Rathcoole estate, a predominately loyalist place in Belfast; in his teens he was forced to give up his apprenticeship with a Coachbuilder by loyalist thugs. Not surprisingly, by 18 he had joined the IRA, becoming a leader of the IRA’s West Belfast Unit. He had spent a major portion of his life in prison, where for 5 years, he and his comrades had been fighting for the restoration of their “special category status”. The right to be treated as prisoners of war, not as common criminals, as the authorities portrayed them. It was this struggle which, via the “blanket” and “dirty” protests developed inexorably into the hunger strike.
The hunger strike was eventually ended by 3 October through the intervention of a reactionary Catholic priest, Father Denis Paul, who has deservedly been dubbed ‘Mrs Thatcher’s priest’ and has since become
“a pariah and a leper”
to use his own words. Soon after the termination of the hunger strike, James Prior, who had replaced Humphrey Atkins as Northern Ireland Secretary, granted all the demands of the prisoners, including the politically symbolic right to wear their own clothes instead of prison uniform. With this the pretence to portray the prisoners as ordinary criminals was all but dropped.
The hunger strike brought the liberation forces money, recruits and international recognition. Sands’ election victory opened new channels for the furtherance of the cause of Irish national liberation – supplementing the armed struggle with struggle in the parliamentary arena. In 1984 the IRA bombed the Brighton hotel at which Mrs Thatcher and her close colleagues were staying in an action characterised by Danny Morrison as
“the hunger strike coming home to roost for Mrs Thatcher”.
Following the hunger strike, the Republican movement continued its fight for liberation with an Armalite in one hand and a ballot paper in the other, forcing the British government, through the Good Friday Agreement, to recognise the rights of the nationalist community. Sinn Fein has achieved remarkable victories and it is on the verge of overtaking the SDLP in the electoral arena (in the 1998 assembly elections it secured 17.6% of the vote against SDLP’s 22%) while the IRA refuses to hand in its arms. Bobby Sands used to say that “
Every Republican has his own particular part to play”.
Certainly he and his fellow hunger strikers have played a great historical part in strengthening the cause for Irish liberation. He was also fond of saying:
“Our revenge will be the laughter of our children”.
is well on the way to being fulfilled. The Maze is no more; Thatcher is all but dead in every sense of the expression; the Northern Ireland statelet, with its characteristic bigotry, is smashed, never to be restored; the Unionist camp is fast disintegrating into warring factions bent on mutual destruction; Sinn Fein is on course to become a force in the 26 Counties; no force on earth can stop complete Irish unity, even if the process is complicated. Bobby Sands and his comrades are well on the way to being avenged through the laughter of their children.
On this, the 20
anniversary of their martyrdom, their supreme sacrifice in the cause of Irish liberation,
joins the liberation forces on the entire island of Ireland in saluting these great heroes. They are heroes not just of the Irish people, but of the entire progressive humanity.
(Quotations throughout this article have been reproduced from a special report by Martin Fletcher in
of 16 March 2001).