On the 40th anniversary of the beginning of the 1981 Hunger Strike, Chris Bambery looks at the legacy of the struggle and its heroic leader
Bobby Sands, the Officer in Charge of the Irish Republican Army prisoners held in the H Blocks of Long Kesh, began his hunger strike on 1 March 1981. The demand was that he and the rest, including loyalist prisoners, be treated by the British government as political prisoners.
It was clear a tremendous movement in support was going to be needed in Ireland, north and south, and internationally to shift the British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. We could count on Sands’ determination, but building a solidarity movement was going to be more difficult because this was second time round.
An earlier hunger strike, begun simultaneously by seven republican prisoners in October 1980, and joined by three women prisoners held in Armagh jail, had been called off by their leader, Brendan Hughes. With a comrade on the verge of death, it seemed the British government had conceded.
Hughes took this decision after being told a 30-page document outlining the concessions was on route to the jail. Hughes was in an awful position. He did not want a comrade to die needlessly but at the same time had to accept the word of a British intermediary. In the event, the document proved worthless.
Outside the jail, the news was initially greeted with elation in the nationalist areas of Northern Ireland but that quickly turned to despair. That hunger strike had seen major mobilisations across Ireland in support of the hunger strikers and beyond.
So, as talk of a second hunger strike spread, there was a realisation that a new solidarity movement would require overcoming a degree of demoralisation. There was also a realisation that Thatcher would be even more determined to face it down.
Sands and The Troubles
Bobby Sands had grown up in a largely Protestant area of Belfast. After The Troubles began, Catholic families were forced out. The Sands family moved perforce to Twinbrook, in West Belfast. There Bobby quickly joined the IRA, which was seen as crucial to the defence of the Catholic population of Belfast. They faced British Army repression and loyalist pogroms.
In October 1972, Sands was arrested and sentenced to five years in jail after four hand guns were found in the house where he was staying. He served his time in Long Kesh, where Republican prisoners were kept in a prison camp resembling the set of the Great Escape. They had political status (secured in 1971 by a hunger strike) whereby the prisoners did not have to do prison work or wear prison uniform and were under the discipline of their own officers.
After his release, Sands was arrested again after a bombing and returned to jail. This time things were very different. Political status had been scrapped by the then Labour government in London. Republican prisoners were now being taken to the grim H Blocks, built inside Long Kesh, where they were told to wear prison uniform, accept prison discipline and to do prison work.
By the time Sands arrived, republican prisoners had refused to wear the uniform and had just a blanket to cover them. After brutality by the screws, they had smashed up the frugal furniture in their cells and refused to slop out, smearing their faeces on the cell walls. This was the dirty protest which Sands joined.
The hunger strike begins
The Republican prisoners had decided on a hunger strike themselves, with the republican movement not greatly in favour but respectful of their decision. The British, of course, portrayed them as being puppets controlled by Gerry Adams and the republican leadership. In fact, these were resourceful men who had educated themselves in jail and had tremendous talent. Sands had become a gifted writer.
That March, when Sands refused food and water, the plan was not to have a group of prisoners on strike together but to stage in others after Sands had begun. It was felt that would reduce outside pressure on the hunger strikers and their families.
The National H Block/Armagh Committee, which had organised the solidarity protests in the earlier hunger strike, swung back into action. Despite the let-down after the first strike had ended, mass support was soon evident across Ireland, reaching well beyond traditional republican support.
In April, the independent republican MP for Fermanagh and Tyrone died suddenly precipitating a by-election. After tremendous hard work, Bobby Sands was selected as the candidate with the other ‘constitutional’ nationalist parties standing down, establishing a straight contest between Sands and the unionist candidate. It was a contest Sands won by some 5000 votes.
That victory shredded reams of British propaganda, which had insisted the republicans were a small band of bloody terrorists with no significant support and that this applied to the hunger strikers. The Thatcher government quickly changed the law to prevent prisoners standing for the House of Commons. British democracy struck again!
When an election was called in the Republic the National H Block/Armagh committee organised candidates and two were elected, in Louth and hunger striker Kieran Doherty in Cavan and Monaghan. Others came close. The prisoners were having an impact in the south. The British and Americans were concerned this could destabilise the Republic.
Internationally, there was strong support but in Britain it was harder. Labour leader, Michael Foot backed Thatcher and sent his Shadow Minister for Northern Ireland, Don Concannon, to tell a dying Sands that Labour opposed this. In the trade unions there was a virtual blanket ban on discussing the issue. Even on the far left one of the largest groups, Militant, opposed republican prisoners getting political status.
That Spring, I was flitting between Glasgow and Belfast. Trying to build support for the hunger strikers in Glasgow was hard. The labour movement was hostile to discussing the issue in any way, saying it would only foster sectarianism. In reality, ignoring the issue only encouraged sectarianism. Marches and rallies in support of the hunger strikers were regularly attacked by loyalists.
Since the end of the Irish war of Independence, when the republican movement was strong in Scotland and had built links with John Maclean and the radical left, there had been a long period of de-politicisation where the general mood was one of keeping your head down.
It was hard to grasp at the time, but the solidarity movement with Sands and his comrades led to a politicisation of what now regards itself as the Scottish-Irish community.
Protests, riots and funerals
Bobby Sands died in the early hours of 5 May. I was now living in West Belfast which that night was a war zone. But there was also sadness that Bobby Sands had died and we hadn’t saved him. That was an inevitable problem with a hunger strike. Sands’ funeral was huge and there were strikes in the Republic in his support.
With others having joined the hunger strike there was now a strategic discussion. The radical left wanted to build on the strike action, whereas the republican leadership looked to building pan-nationalist unity, arguing that if they could shift the Republic’s government the hunger strikers could win political status.
Electorally Sands’ agent, Owen Carron, held the now vacant Fermanagh and Tyrone seat while four Belfast council seats were won by left wingers, prompting Sinn Fein to drop their abstention from Northern Ireland municipal elections.
That summer was one of protests, riots and funerals. Joe McDonnell’s funeral was attacked by the British army and police. By now they were firing plastic bullets regularly, with lethal consequences. The nationalist population faced not just state repression but constant surveillance, matching that of Israel in the occupied West Bank.
In the end, ten men died. The British had developed a new tactic of pressurising families when sons or brothers went into a coma to permit medical intervention. You could not blame the families, but the hunger strike was crumbling before it was eventually called off.
The Peace Process, warts and all
It seemed a bitter defeat. But the republican prisoners did succeed in winning political status. Sinn Fein, building on the electoral victories chalked up during the hunger strike, was transformed from cheerleaders for the IRA into a mass political force, first in Northern Ireland and then the Republic.
While the IRA was beginning to recognise it could not defeat the Brits in London, acceptance grew that the republicans had popular support and could not be cold-shouldered. The way was clearing for the peace process, warts and all.
The fundamental problem facing Bobby Sands and his comrades was that they had popular support in Northern Ireland but the nationalist population were a minority (as intended when Northern Ireland was artificially created in 1921) and were economically marginalised. The hunger strike began to create popular support in the Republic but it started from a low threshold.
In Britain, solidarity came from a minority of the Labour left, Tony Benn and Jeremy Corbyn notably, and the radical left. The Irish population had been largely intimidated by the fall out of the Birmingham and Guildford bombings and the framing of innocent men and women and by the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Much of what would be later unleashed on the Muslim community.
At the end of the day I am proud to have tried to support Bobby Sands and his comrades. That was the right side to be on.
Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.
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