Legacy of Bobby Sands endures 30 years after his death on hunger strike


Election of Sands to Westminster led to republicans’ ‘armalite and ballot-box’ strategy

THE 30TH anniversary of Bobby Sands’s death has passed quietly, with republicans concentrating on maximising their vote in the political process that the hunger strikes helped to launch.

Sands, the first to commence a hunger strike, died on the 66th day of the prison protest which sought the so-called “five demands”. These included rights to wear non-prison clothing, freedom of association, the right to refuse prison work, to remission and other privileges. But in truth the republican prisoners and previous British governments under both Margaret Thatcher and James Callaghan had been at loggerheads since special category status had been controversially withdrawn.

The first of 10 hunger strikers from the IRA and INLA to die, Sands could not have foreseen that his dramatic election to Westminster was to kick-start republicans’ dual “armalite and ballot-box” strategy and, eventually an unarmed struggle centred solely on politics.

Some 60 others died on the streets of Northern Ireland as the H Blocks dispute escalated and prisoners lost their lives before the campaign was called off in late 1981. The hunger strikes showed the republican leadership outside the Maze prison that it was possible for the nationalist electorate to unite in support of an IRA prisoner despite a deep split over the IRA’s tactics.

The same held true in the Republic, where Kieran Doherty was to win election to the Dáil, thus promoting Sinn Féin’s electoral drive across both parts of Ireland.

Sands’s victory in Fermanagh- South Tyrone over former Ulster Unionist leader Harry West effectively ended his career. His death, on May 5th, 1981, and Britain’s handling of the prison dispute pushed Dublin-London relations to a new low not witnessed since Bloody Sunday more than eight years previously. It was a rift that was not fully repaired for another 4½ years with the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

Despite the enormity of the events of 1981, Sinn Féin’s leaders have opted to concentrate on yesterday’s Assembly and local government elections in the North – mentioning the Sands’s anniversary only in passing.

Canvassing recently in Fermanagh, Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams said: “The people of this constituency showed the power of their vote when over 30,000 of them came out and elected Bobby as their MP. It was a democratic action that shaped the course of history.”

Speaking to An Phoblacht/ Republican News after the Dáil elections, Martin McGuinness also stressed the legacy of Sands’s election victory.

“The hunger strikers and Bobby’s participation, with Kieran Doherty and other hunger strikers, in the elections was a seminal moment in the development of Irish republicanism,” he said.

“From then to now, we have steadily built Irish republicanism on this island, with enormous success in the North,” he added before admitting that Sinn Féin’s political development in the Republic had not “kept pace” with the strides being taken north of the Border.