14 March 2006

Bobby Sands: how ordinary people become ‘terrorists’

Socialist Worker Online

**Click on the above link to read the extracts. As they have previously been re-posted from Daily Ireland, I will not repeat them today.

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Bobby Sands’s funeral in Belfast became a focus for resistance (Pic: John Sturrock)

A new book by Denis O’Hearn about Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands shows the violence of the British state in 1981. We reproduce three extracts, and an introduction to the events


by Simon Basketter

Twenty five years ago, Irish Republican prisoners went on hunger strike in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh prison in Northern Ireland. After 66 days Bobby Sands, aged 27, was the first of ten hunger strikers the British government allowed to die.

Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher denounced Sands as a “criminal” and “terrorist” on the day of his death.

Sands and the other hunger strikers were ordinary working class Catholics who found themselves up against the extraordinary violence and repression of the British state. Republican prisoners were prepared to starve themselves to death for the right to be treated as political prisoners.

Sands was typical of the men and women who joined the IRA. His family were twice forced to flee their home by Loyalist gangs. Loyalists threatened Sands at gunpoint when he worked as an apprentice coach builder.

He later wrote in an article smuggled out of prison, “I had seen too many homes wrecked, fathers and sons arrested, friends murdered. Too much gas, shootings and blood, most of it our own people’s. At 18 and a half I joined the IRA.”

Sands was arrested in the early 1970s. Like other Republican prisoners he was given “special category status”, which allowed them to wear their own clothes and associate freely.

He read widely in prison. His favourites were the political writings of Franz Fanon and Che Guevara. He was arrested again in 1976, tortured in the Castlereagh interrogation centre and sentenced to 14 years.

It was a Labour government in 1975 which introduced a policy of trying to “criminalise” the Republican movement.

The government had been embarrassed by international criticism of the number of political prisoners – then 3,000 – in Northern Ireland’s jails. Labour’s Northern Ireland secretary Merlyn Rees withdrew political status from prisoners.

The fight to regain political status began in 1976. Prisoner, Ciaran Nugent refused to wear a prison uniform.

He was forced to sleep on a concrete floor with only a blanket. Hundreds of other prisoners joined him “on the blanket”, and two years later nearly 400 Republican prisoners began a “dirty protest” after prison officers deliberately spilt shit and piss from chamber pots on cell floors.

A hunger strike began with seven prisoners in October 1980. It ended two months later when the now Tory government seemed to offer concessions. The government reneged, and a second hunger strike began in March 1981, led by Bobby Sands.

The hunger strikes won huge support in Ireland, North and South, and around the world. Sands was elected as MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone a month before he died.

Over 100,000 people attended his funeral.

>>Read extracts

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