The sacrifice of Bobby Sands reverberated throughout the world

Next Saturday, May 5th, marks the 20th anniversary of the death in Long Kesh of Bobby Sands MP

Next Saturday, May 5th, marks the 20th anniversary of the death in Long Kesh of Bobby Sands MP. The enormous sacrifice of Sands and his nine comrades reverberated around Ireland and the world in a way that no other event has done in recent Irish history.

No rationalisation and no revisionist spin can erase the memory or blur the reality of that act of self-sacrifice, and when historians, journalists, songwriters and others reflect on the last 30 years, the names of Bobby Sands and the other hunger-strikers will loom larger than most others.

Natural political instincts and human sympathy meant that ordinary Irish people manifested strong support for the prisoners in 1981. Two prisoners - hunger-striker Kieran Doherty and blanket man Paddy Agnew - won seats in the 1981 general election, while Bobby Sands took a Westminster seat. This caused apoplexy in Margaret Thatcher's government and consternation in Charlie Haughey's Fianna Fail, which would otherwise have secured an overall majority.

Around the country black flags festooned the less fashionable housing estates; there were marches, protests and even strike actions in Ireland; internationally, the hunger strike stirred the admiration and respect of most progressives and all those movements which still found themselves engaged in struggles for their national rights.


However, the reaction to these momentous events from official quarters was one of shock (for example, nobody but the most committed of the prisoners' supporters expected them to win seats in parliaments, North and South). And while Thatcher's government, red in tooth and claw, fought the prisoners with a ferocity that shocked even some British civil servants, the Dublin body politic and media reacted with a mixture of paralysis and sullen hostility.

Twenty years on, it is possible to reflect more realistically on the hunger strike, its origins and effects. The prisoners' motivation arose as a direct response to the British government's disastrous criminalisation policy which aimed to depict the entire Anglo-Irish conflict as a criminal conspiracy. Strip away all the recrimination and political pedantry and one is left with one simple explanation for the hunger strike, as expressed, with little sophistication but much meaning, in the words of the H Block song:

So I'll wear no convict uniform

Nor meekly serve my time

That Britain might brand Ireland's fight 800 years of crime.

Emotional, admittedly. But by 1981, literally thousands of young people had been sucked into a violent conflict and ended up serving long jail sentences for their principles. Those politicians who stupidly imagined that the same young men and women were going to accept the status of criminals must have been suffering from emotional and political problems of their own.

The direct result of the hunger strike was that the prisoners had their rather elementary demands ceded to them, some immediately and others over a period of time. These were: no prison uniform, no prison work, free association, visits, letters, parcels and recreation facilities, full remission. But the political effects were more fundamental.

ON a superficial level, Sinn Fein and the IRA were immeasurably strengthened and replenished with mass support, recruits and a renewed motivation. But much deeper political waters were stirred by the hunger strike. Dr Garret FitzGerald has admitted that this period and the subsequent success of Sinn Fein at the ballot box caused him to instigate the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Sinn Fein, meanwhile, had discovered that the ballot box and wider political forms of struggles were, indeed, as effective as the Armalite.

It would be simplistic to argue that the hunger-strikers consciously stimulated the peace process; they could hardly have anticipated such specific, long-term effects. But those who followed them learned many lessons from that period, in particular that most Irish people support measures that will achieve political democracy as well as peace.

At the same time, the humility experienced by most people in the face of the hungerstrikers' awesome sacrifice provoked another realisation which, over a period of time, contributed to a cross-community awareness of how the Troubles have affected everyone. Today, both republicans and many loyalists - but, strangely, not the declining band of armchair unionists in south Dublin or those British securocrats who still pine for "a bloody good war" - have learned to appreciate the pain and trauma of their political opponents.

A peculiar sociological and political fact of the peace process is that those who have fought and suffered the most - as represented by the republican and loyalist working-class parties in the Assembly - are the most enthusiastic proponents of the peace process. At the same time, "constitutional" unionists in Belfast, along with their dwindling supporters' club in corners of the Dublin media, are the most obdurate and bellicose opponents of political progress.

Twenty years after the hunger strike, another irony is that revisionism is in headlong retreat. Young Irish people feel none of the post-colonial shame that afflicted many in their parents' generation. They feel no need to apologise for Irish history, Irish political struggle or other aspects of their culture. On the contrary, they celebrate their identity.

The experience of the '81 committees that exist around Ireland is that young people are intensely curious about the hunger strike. But they also express bewilderment at the fact that they have been denied knowledge of the hunger strike by official sources. The committees have organised larger public meetings in the first few weeks of the 20th anniversary commemoration period than have been seen for years in Dublin and Belfast. Shamefully, these have gone unreported in the media, where residues of the Section 31 mentality still endure.

Dublin people offered support to the hunger-strikers in 1981 and today's generation want to know about those events even if others want to airbrush them out of history. None but the most bitterly prejudiced can deny that the fasting to death of 10 young men in 1981 was a profound and historic event. The '81 committees are determined that the hunger-strikers will take their proper place in Irish and world history. The committees have organised a series of events throughout the next few months and hopefully the media will accord them due recognition.

Saturday, May 5th, the 20th anniversary of Bobby Sands' death, will be marked by a vigil at 12 noon on O'Connell Bridge and at a ceremony in Glasnevin Cemetery at 3 p.m. Bobby Sands' cellmate, Seanna Breathnach, will give an oration.