Why is the Italian right obsessed with Bobby Sands?
First-time visitors to the Bogside Pub in Florence might recognise some of the images on display
Bobby Sands died in prison on the sixty-sixth day of his hunger strike at Long Kesh, outside Belfast, on 5 May 1981. Photograph: Getty
First-time visitors to the Bogside Pub in Florence might be forgiven for thinking it is just another Irish pub abroad.
Many would certainly recognise some of the images on display: Free Derry Corner, Clive Limpkin’s 1969 iconic photograph of a gas-mask wearing youth carrying a petrol bomb in the Bogside and a famous image of hunger striker Bobby Sands’ smiling face. All are prominently displayed.
What visitors might not realise however is that this establishment is operated by a far-right Italian group called Cassagi Firenze and is a prime example of how the Italian far right has attempted to appropriate the Bobby Sands image and events in recent Irish history to further its own agenda.
Reminiscent of behaviour also seen during the Mussolini fascist era, the Italian right has long been known to appropriate symbols of the left in an attempt to promote its racist ideology and to highlight its opposition to issues such as immigrants’ integration in Italy.
Its use of images associated with Irish republicanism has not gone unnoticed as comments posted online on restaurant review website restaurantguru show.
“Absolute idiots who haven’t a clue that Irish republicanism isn’t about racism,” says one and “Confused nonsense that knows nothing of the fight for equality and diversity that these murals represent” says another.
In recent years, the Bobby Sands Trust has condemned several Italian organisations for their appropriation of the hunger striker’s image. Danny Morrison, on behalf of the Trust, condemned another neo-fascist Italian group, CasaPound Italia, for misappropriating Bobby Sands’ image and the commercialisation of his symbolism for their own political gain.
Italian neo-fascist parties exploit other conflicts as they attempt to counteract the struggles of Italian leftist parties. Their interest in Bobby Sands goes back to a time when many from the radical right engaged in the “dark years” of right-wing, neo-fascist terrorism that took place in Italy since the 1970s. They claimed parallels with the IRA campaign of the same era and subsequently engaged in the exploitation of Sands’ image for their own neo-fascist purposes.
The primary objective of course is to oppose leftist ideals, overthrow the current Italian political system and replace it with a fascist regime. And, through the use of Sands’ image they aim to popularise this goal.
Undeniably, Sands’ memory remains contentious in Ireland. For example, some hunger strikers’ family members have accused Sinn Féin in the past of “blatant electioneering” when using images of Sands and others during election campaigns; the party insisted the use of such images was “dignified and respectful”.
Others have no time for him or for the organisation he belonged to. For them, he was a convicted member of a terrorist group who chose to take his own life.
In Italy, right-wing parties’ obsession with his figure seems counter-intuitive.
The continuum of historical narratives appears ultimately to be fragmented in Ireland, making the observation of his figure in the Italian context and its use for commercialisation abroad very interesting.
Italy’s (initially) critical reaction at his death on the 66th day of his prison protest, now celebrates Sands’ memory through the Historical Institute of Resistance in Pistoia, an institute of anti-fascist resistance.
The institution brings together Sands’ ideals with that of others whom he impacted, such as Mandela and his role in South Africa’s resistance.
Indeed, South African prisoners in Robben Island during the apartheid claimed to “be their own Sands”, as recounted by Riccardo Michelucci in the introduction of a recently released Italian edition of Bobby Sands’ prison writings, Writings from Prison, Poetry and Prose: Bobby Sands.
Rome and Turin feature murals of his figure countering right-wing radical parties’ paradoxical use of Sands’ imagery.
On Irish grounds, and in Trinity College Dublin where Sands continues to be controversial for some, the past seems not to have come to terms with the present. This, due to a large scale oppressive and traumatic history that an external character like myself cannot presume to discuss.
* Alma Rinaldi is a student of History and Politics at Trinity College Dublin.