02 May 2006

Memory of Bobby Sands returns to haunt IRA leadership

Times Online

Via Newshound

By David Sharrock, Ireland Correspondent
The Times
May 02, 2006

WOULD Bobby Sands have seen the hunger strike that ended in his death 25 years ago this week as a price worth paying for his IRA comrades to share power with the Rev Ian Paisley under the British Crown? With renewed interest in Sands and his nine prison comrades who also starved themselves to death in pursuit of “special category status” over eight violent months in 1981, there are new revelations about how the IRA manipulated the men, prolonging the fast to serve its political ambitions.

The anniversary of his death on Friday — Sands was the first of the hunger-strikers to die — should have been a moment to reunite the “republican family”. But the decision by his relatives to hold a private event in the hospital block of the Maze prison, where he died after 66 days during which he was elected MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, has presented a public challenge to the Sinn Fein leadership.

The family have refused requests for interviews but their views on the Adams-McGuinness leadership and the peace process are well known. Bernadette Sands-McKevitt, Sands’ sister, is a leading light in the 32-County Sovereignty Committee and married to Michael McKevitt, the Real IRA leader who split from the Provisional IRA in 1997. In the past she has made clear that the family are opposed to the Sinn Fein leadership and that her brother would never have sacrificed himself for the political solutions embodied by the Good Friday agreement: recognition of Ireland’s partition until a majority of Northern Ireland’s citizens decide otherwise.

Revelations of secret negotiations between the republican leadership and the Government, combined with the unmasking of British agents, have added to an embittered atmosphere. It now seems that the republican leadership was prepared to settle for much less than British withdrawal far sooner than it did.

If that was the case, many are beginning to ask, why did so many die? A TV documentary about the hunger strikes being broadcast tonight by Ireland’s state broadcaster, RTE, will support the theory that, contrary to Sinn Fein orthodoxy, the obstacle to ending the hunger strikes in 1981 was not Margaret Thatcher’s intransigence. The documentary claims that the IRA was offered a deal by Mrs Thatcher that would have saved the lives of at least six of the hunger-strikers.

Denis Bradley, the former priest who was an intermediary between the IRA and the Government and until recently was vice-chairman of the Northern Ireland Policing Board, confirms that the deal on offer was virtually the same as that finally accepted. This included the right of prisoners to wear their own clothes and the waiving of obligations to do typical prison work: in other words, a category that delineated IRA inmates from common criminals.

Mr Bradley tells RTE: “The memory, and there is some dispute about this, is that there was a phone call direct to Maggie Thatcher as she was on her way to a conference in Portugal. What she was offering that night was basically what the hunger-strikers settled for.”

His comments support the version offered by Richard O’Rawe, a former senior IRA inmate who claims that he and Brendan MacFarlane, the “officer commanding” during the hunger strikes, accepted a government offer shortly before the fifth man died. Mr O’Rawe was vilified by Sinn Fein when he made his allegation since it indicated that half the men’s deaths could have been avoided.

Nobody disputes that Sands was determined to continue his fast to the end, turning himself into an international symbol of the IRA in the process. He was the Provisional IRA’s “officer commanding” in the Maze and had been jailed for weapons offences. The protest ended when families of the men removed them from their fasts as they lapsed into comas.

It is understood that on Friday the Sands family will hold a ceremony at the hospital wing of the Maze — a block of the defunct building that has been preserved. Sinn Fein leaders will later hold their own commemoration at the site.


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