Bobby Sands died 35 years ago today: how The Irish Times covered the news

From the archives: reports and analysis by David McKittrick, Peter Murtagh and Fionnuala O Connor

Sands dies on his 66th day
The Irish Times, May 5th, 1981

By David McKittrick

MR BOBBY SANDS, the 27-year-old Republican hunger-strike and Westminster MP, died in the hospital wing of the Maze Prison, Long Kesh, early this morning.

Mr Sands, who had just entered his 66th day without food, had been in a coma since Sunday.


His family were at his bedside when he died. He was the first person to die on a hunger-strike in Northern Ireland, and the third to fast to death in the present troubles.

Mr Sands, who was last month elected as MP for Fermanagh/South Tyrone, had stayed alive longer than many people expected. During the hunger-strike late last year, for example, Sean McKenna was on the point of death after 53 days.

Mr Sands’s death followed a series of unsuccessful attempts to resolve his hunger-strike protest, which was undertaken to secure the granting of five demands, including the right not to wear prison clothes or to do penal work.

The Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Mr Humphrey Atkins, who was staying at his desk at Stormont Castle, was one of the first to be told of Sands’s death.

The RUC chief constable, Mr Jack Hermon, and the British Army GOC, Lieutenant-General Sir Richard Lawson, were also informed by telephone.

Sands died on a water bed lying near a large crucifix, given to him by Father John Magee, the Pope’s private secretary.

The Northern Ireland Office said that the body of Mr Bobby Sands will be moved from the prison hospital some time later today. A spokesman added that the arrangements would be in accordance with the family’s wishes.

A STATEMENT from the Northern Ireland Office early today said: “Mr Robert Sands, prisoner in the Maze prison, died today at 1.17 a.m. He took his own life by refusing food and medical intervention for 66 days.”

In a statement from Stormont Castle, the Northern Ireland Secretary, Mr Humphrey Atkins, said: “I regret this needless and pointless death. Too many have died by violence in Northern Ireland. In this case it was self-inflicted.

“We should not forget the many others who have died.

“It is my profound hope and prayer that the people of Northern Ireland will recognise the futility of violence and turn their faces away from it.”

The secretary of the Official Unionist Party, Mr Norman Hutton, said of Mr Sands’ death: “This is a defeat for the Provisional IRA. They haven’t achieved political status and basically they will now have to decide whether to allow the three other members to perish. The British Government did not have any alternative in Mr Sands’ case, just as the German Government did not have any choice with the Baader-Meinhof terrorist hunger-strikers.”

The Chairman of the National H-Block/Armagh Committee, the Rev Piaras O’Duill, said early this morning that he hoped the death of Bobby Sands would be useful, and that something would be done before other prisoners died.

The British Government were to blame, he said, adding that his committee, and those who had been campaigning on behalf of the prisoners, had been trying to avoid such a death for the past couple of years.

“The death of Bobby Sands will unify the demand for action on the H-Blocks and future protests will be more determined. The prisoners will be more determined and the inflexibility of the British Government will make the prisoners inflexible because they have given so much,” he said.

Fr O’Duill said the British could have conceded the five demands, “but now the prisoners will be more determined now that one has died and more will follow.”

He urged those “standing behind H-Block prisoners to continue their campaign in a peaceful manner. There should be no violence either in the North or the South.

“It is possible to avert violence. Rallies have been dignified and there is even more reason in the aftermath of Bobby Sands’s death for the campaign to remain dignified and calm.”

The deputy leader of the DUP, Mr Peter Robinson, said: “The death of Bobby Sands is of his own choice. Thousands of others were denied that choice by the organisation of which Mr Sands was a leader. The world may weep for Bobby Sands but I will weep for the thousands of Ulster’s oft-forgotten innocent dead.”

Two other men have died on hunger-strike during the present troubles, both of them in England: Michael Gaughan who fasted 61 days, and Frank Stagg, who died after 65 days. The last Republican hunger-striker to die in Ireland was Sean McCaughey, from Belfast, who died in jail on May 11th, 1946, after 31 days on hunger-strike.

The Republican movement has made it known that they want three days of mourning so the funeral service is likely to take place on Thursday with Mr Sands being buried with full IRA military honours.

Mr Sands is expected to be buried in the Republican plot at Milltown Cemetery on the Falls Road. The funeral is certain to draw one of the largest crowds seen in Belfast for many years.

The following is the statement issued by the Irish Republican Publicity Bureau in Dublin early today:

“The Irish Republican Army sends its sincerest condolences to the bereaved family of our comrade volunteer, Bobby Sands, M.P., blanket man and hunger-striker who died in the early hours of this morning on the 66th day of his hunger-strike for political status.

“We send a message of sympathy to Bobby’s hunger striking comrades and to all Republican prisoners at this grave moment in our struggle.

“The world has witnessed at first hand the violence of the mother of Parliaments - England - on the peaceful protest of a young imprisoned Irishman. The Irish people will draw their own conclusions and the Irish Republican Army urge a disciplined response from the angry and frustrated nationalist youth.

1,500 in silent Derry march
The Irish Times, May 5th, 1981

By Peter Murtagh

OVER 1,500 people in Derry marked the death of Mr Bobby Sands early this morning with a decade of the Rosary and a silent march from the Bogside to the Guildhall.

Word of Mr Sands’s death was passed around the city by the banging of dustbin lids in the Bogside and Creggan estates. Almost immediately after two o’clock, people began to assemble outside the Bogside Inn – first a handful, then a large crowd as many people arrived from the Creggan.

Whole families left their homes, including many elderly men and some older women who came out in such a rush that they still wore their nightdresses under their coats. They majority of the crowd, however, were young people. They stood in silence at the bottom of Westland Street as the Rosary was recited, led through a hastily erected microphone in a parked car. In the distance car horns could be hear alerting people in other homes throughout the city.

A strong appeal for restraint was made by the chairman of the Derry H-Blocks Committee, Mr Paddy Logue. “I ask everyone to respect the solemnity of the occasion. Our protest tonight will be in total silence,” he told the crowd.

Rioting would only mar the situation, he said, and it was very important that this should not happen. But he added a note of warning to the security forces when he said that if the RUC or the British Army entered Catholic areas they would not be welcomed. “There are peaceful ways of making them unwelcome,” he stressed.


The crowd then moved off down Rossville Street led by a lone mourner carrying a black flag. They turned into Waterloo Place and walked in silence to the Guildhall. The security forces maintained a low profile, a number of RUC Land-Rovers remaining discreetly in a concealed car park. The crowd stood outside the Guildhall in silence for about 15 minutes.

The H-Block committee asked that people maintain an all-night vigil and keep their downstairs lights on. They have also called for black flags to be displayed by every house. Workers have been asked not to turn up for work today and shops have been asked to remain closed. The committee hopes that today will be the first of a three-day period of mourning for Mr Sands.

The committee has also called for a further mass meeting in the Bogside at noon today.

A third of a life in jail
The Irish Times, May 5th, 1981

BOBBY SANDS, who was aged 27, had spent nearly a third of his life in jail. He had joined the Republican movement in his mid-teens. He started a five-year sentence when aged 19. In 1977 he began a 14-year jail term.

A lightly-built man of about 5 feet 9 inches, with blue-grey eyes and shoulder-length hair, he had been an able schoolboy athlete and collected several trophies.

He was born in the north Belfast suburb of Rathcoole. His family had no Republican history. They moved from the area in the early years of the troubles complaining, like many other Catholic families who fled, that they had been intimidated by Loyalists.

Soon after moving to the Twinbrook area of west Belfast, Bobby Sands was arrested and charged with possession of four hand-guns. In early 1973, aged 19, he was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment. He served his term as a “special category” prisoner in the Long Kesh compounds. (Abolition of special category or political status led to the H-Blocks campaign.)

Sands had been released from jail only six weeks when he was caught in a car chase following the bombing of a furniture factory near his home. In September, 1977, with three others, he was sentenced to 14 years in prison. As soon as he moved to the H-Blocks he joined the blanket protest.

When the first hunger-strike began at the H-Blocks last autumn he replaced the leading hunger-striker, Brendan Hughes, as “officer commanding” the IRA prisoners in the Maze.

Republican sources have indicated that his appointment as the new “OC” in the prison was the wish of the Provisional leadership outside and that he was not simply chosen by the prisoners in the H-Blocks. It was said that he was privately critical of the way in which the seven original hunger-strikers ended their protest. Mr Sands was noted for his obedience.

Mr Sands had written weekly articles in the Republican News under the name of his sister, Marcella. A collection of writings by him, mainly on his prison experience, has been published in pamphlet form.

His sister and his mother, Mrs Rosaleen Sands, had been prominent in the campaign to have him elected MP in the Fermanagh-Tyrone by-election.

Bobby Sands was separated from his wife, who now lives in England with their child. The couple had been married for only a brief period when he began his prison sentence.

Thatcher regret at ‘needless death’
The Irish Times, May 5th, 1981

A SPOKESMAN at 10 Downing Street said this morning that the Prime Minister would be making no statement on the death of Mr Sands. “She won’t be saying anything. She obviously regrets his death, as she regrets the needless and useless death of any young person.”

The London H-Blocks/Armagh committee has called on its supporters throughout Britain to attend a demonstration outside the entrance to Downing Street at 6.30 p.m. this evening. The protest is forbidden under a 28-day ban on marches and demonstrations in the city imposed two weeks ago by the Home Secretary, Mr William Whitelaw.

“Our plan is to hold a peaceful, orderly and solemn protest in memory of Bobby Sands”, a spokesman for the committee said this morning. The committee would have a solicitor and a representative from the National Council for Civil Liberties present to observe police treatment of the protest, he added.

Gardai were early this morning erecting crash barriers around the British Home Stores in O’Connell Street, Dublin. There was also tight security at the British Embassy in Merrion Road.

There were no demonstrations in the early hours of the morning in Dublin. A week-long vigil by H-Block action committee members has been maintained at the British Embassy, but they had left Merrion Road before the news of Mr Sands’s death was known.

The leader of Britain’s Labour Party, Mr Michael Foot, and the party spokesman on Northern Ireland, Mr Don Concannon, issued the following statement:

“We are sorry to hear of Mr Sands’s death today. His death was his own decision. It was unnecessary because Parliament will never grant the demands of the protesters, which would be tantamount to the granting of political-prisoner status.

“Those who chose to advise Mr Sands to take his own life have known from the beginning that Parliament would not agree to sanction violence by acceding to such demands. All those who have sought to give the opposite impression, be it out of misunderstanding, ignorance or whatever, must take their share of responsibility in the tragic yet unavoidable death of Mr Sands.

“Let us hope that such needless loss of life will not be followed by further unnecessary violence and that the people of Northern Ireland will take note of the words of Church leaders in their call for peace and calm.”

The chairman of the Labour Backbench Committee of Northern Ireland, Mr John Stallard, MP, said he regretted Mr Sands’s death. “It is a tragedy for his whole family. I am sorry that the efforts made by the Human Rights Commission and the Pope’s envoy were not more successful. Perhaps they were a bit too late to allow the proper discussions. I am still not convinced that the Government can’t find a way to compromise on conditions in the Maze Prison. I only hope that people will have listened to the plea of Mr Sands’s mother.”

Revealing reactions to the hunger-strike issue
The Irish Times, May 6th, 1981

By Fionnuala O’Connor

POLARISATION is a word much in fashion in the North just now. Heads nod sadly on all sides to the proposition that it has been greatly widened by the death of Mr Bobby Sands, the tensions of the last weeks of his hunger-strike, and by the Fermanagh-South Tyrone election victory.

But is there anything new going on at all? Are we really more divided than before, or have the waiting and the rumours of what might follow the waiting merely exposed feelings always there but usually let loose by fewer people? Certainly, the violence of the streets to-date has been no more widespread, no more frightening then on most anniversaries of internment day.

If the present holds any novelty, it is instead the degree to which all of us are aware of the issues involved and the degree to which many are willing to declare themselves. Some people clearly surprise themselves with their own declarations.

“I’m beginning to see it in black and white,” said a mild man given generally to nodding off during political discussions. “For years I’ve believed there must be right on both sides but this hunger-strike thing has me confused. I can’t see how it could be right to give them political status - not for killing people.”

He feels instinctively that the matter cannot possibly be so simple but he finds himself driven into a flat choice by what he describes as “all this propaganda”. He is, of course, Protestant. Very few Catholics would be so black and white about political status.

To be a Northern Catholic, it seems, means to be condemned to ambiguity. Non-Provos don’t support the Provos’ violence but often share their aims, or share their aims and emotionally support their violence but will not engage in it. Anti-Provos despise the Provos, hate the violence, call it sectarian and anti-political – but argue for compromise on the five demands and think the British Government must make the compromise.

Provos organise press conferences to wheel out muddled visitors, fresh off the plane and sit back smugly while they call for a humanitarian settlement to “save the lives of those brave young men” and “save the world for peace” - and Provos attach a bomb to the underside of a young man’s car so that it blows him apart on his way home in the middle of the night.

The whole business has brought out prejudices if not buried, then well-hidden. Many Protestants who complain bitterly about the scale of coverage given to hunger-strike compared to media treatment of IRA victims are genuinely unbigoted politically, have never wished their Catholic neighbours anything but good, and can even admit out loud that all was not well in the old days, that there were good grounds for grievance.

But Unionist politicians in many cases, in condemning the H-Block coverage and in calling for security preparedness to deal with the outbreaks of violence, have really been sounding the age-old battle cry: go in there and wipe them out, all Catholics are republicans. They speak for a considerable number of those who maintain that they are really only complaining about the media’s lack of balance.

Meanwhile, the Provos distribute leaflets warning against Loyalist attacks across the peace-lines and reminding the people of Catholic West Belfast that “the Loyalists hate everything Irish”.

Little talk now of uniting all the people of this island, scant mention of uniting Protestant and Catholic and Dissenter. From the Republican speakers in Belfast on Easter Sunday, and from Bernadette McAliskey in almost every speech she makes, it is now “our people” and “the Nationalist people”. Solid, indivisible, and exclusive.

The food for prejudice has been abundant. To minds disposed already to search out Catholic conspiracies, the visiting - list alone to the H-Blocks in these past few weeks has set off much fizzing and popping.

There was the dread hand of Catholic Europe in the arrival of the Commission – understood by many to be an arm of that Catholic apparatus, the EEC; in the visit of Euro-TDs; in the messages of support from Euro-deputies. To cap it all doesn’t the Pope himself send his man over?

Some disenchantment has been expressed by people who’ve listened to prominent Catholics belatedly beginning to push the inconsistency to the Provos’ demands for humanitarian consideration side by side with continued killing. Some also wonder whether the underlying motive of those involved in trying to suggest compromises is a desire to be the Brits or humane concern.

The answer is probably a mixture. Because Catholics who have tried to keep their distance from the Provos watch with amazement as Unionist politicians talks of law and order and UDA men mass on the streets. Or they listen to Andy Tyrie talk about intending Catholics no harm and they mentally count the numbers taken care of over the past 12 years by Mr Tyrie’s organisation.

And even the most anti-Provo Catholic choked a bit at the upper-class English drawl of Lord Carrington assuring a BBC interviewer that the Provisionals were “pure terrorists”, with absolutely no public support, entirely dissimilar from the PLO, for example. It has been a revealing kind of a time.