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The Legacy of Bobby Sands and the 1981 Hunger Strike

Forty years ago today, the death of the Irish Republican Army’s Bobby Sands inspired protests all over the world and sent Sinn Féin on a path toward its current position of strength in Ireland. Whether Sands himself would have approved of that journey is anyone’s guess.

A mural of Bobby Sands in Belfast. (@NH53 / Flickr)

When Bobby Sands died in the Maze prison on May 5, 1981, after a hunger strike that had lasted for sixty-six days, the British government’s Northern Ireland Office (NIO) compiled a list of reactions from around the world. New York City mayor Ed Koch urged Britain to withdraw from Northern Ireland, and the International Longshoremen’s Association announced a twenty-four-hour boycott of British ships entering US ports. Italy’s three union federations issued a statement in support of Sands. The Portuguese parliament observed a minute’s silence in his honor.

Other forms of protest were more turbulent and eclectic:

A balloon filled with tomato ketchup was thrown at the Queen during her visit to Oslo. A Dunlop warehouse in Toulouse was damaged by a bomb. A car showroom in Zurich which displayed British cars was fire-bombed and “Victory to the IRA” sprayed on the window. Firebombs were also thrown at car showrooms in Florence. A petrol bomb exploded at a British Forces cinema in Dusseldorf and pro-IRA slogans were painted outside the British Consulates in Hamburg and Hanover.

In Ireland itself, more than a hundred thousand people attended the funeral in Belfast, described by the Irish Times as “the biggest demonstration of Republican sympathy since the protest rally immediately following Bloody Sunday in 1972.”

Forty years after his death, you can find streets named after the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA)’s most iconic figure everywhere from Rue Bobby Sands in the Parisian suburb of Saint-Denis to “Babi Sandz St” in Tehran’s diplomatic quarter. The British embassy in Iran had to seal its main entrance and create a new one on an adjacent street to ensure its correspondence would not have to bear the name of an Irish revolutionary.

But the most tangible legacy of Bobby Sands is the political party led by some of his former comrades from Cage 11 in the Long Kesh internment camp. In the wake of the hunger strike, Sinn Féin escaped from the shadow of the IRA to become a serious political actor in its own right.

Four decades later, the party is in a stronger position than ever before. But it’s anyone’s guess what Sands himself would have made of Sinn Féin’s progress, and the ideological somersaults its leadership has had to perform along the way.

Special Category

The British state had set itself up for the crisis of 1981 with an earlier decision to abolish special category status for paramilitary prisoners in Northern Ireland. The move formed part of a propaganda drive to redefine the conflict that had been raging since the early 1970s as an aggravated crime wave.

In private, the NIO acknowledged that these prisoners were “not regarded as ‘criminal’ by the communities from which they come.” In public, however, British government officials insisted that they were exactly the same as those convicted of violent offenses in the rest of the United Kingdom and would have to receive the same treatment while serving their sentences.

Members of the IRA and a smaller republican group, the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), refused to wear prison uniforms and became known as “blanketmen” because that was the only clothing available to them. This protest struck at a weak point in their opponent’s political armor. By the late 1970s, support for the IRA among Northern Irish nationalists had reached its lowest point since the conflict began. But there was a much wider layer of people in the nationalist community who rejected the policy of “criminalization.”

The Catholic cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich articulated this viewpoint after a visit to the Maze in 1978:

The authorities refuse to admit that these prisoners are in a different category from the ordinary, yet everything about their trials and family background indicated that they are different. They were sentenced by special courts without juries. The vast majority were convicted on allegedly voluntary confessions obtained in circumstances which are now placed under grave suspicion by the recent report of Amnesty International. Many are very youthful and come from families which had never been in trouble with the law, though they lived in areas which suffered discrimination in housing and jobs. How can one explain the jump in the prison population of Northern Ireland from five hundred to three thousand unless a new type of prisoner has emerged?

A campaign in support of the prisoners thus had the potential to win support from nationalists who would never endorse the IRA campaign. However, the republican movement itself blocked the realization of that potential for a number of years. That was partly because its leadership underestimated the significance of what was happening inside the prisons, seeing it as a diversion rather than an opportunity. But they also created an artificial barrier to their own political growth by refusing to work with groups and individuals unless they gave unconditional support to the IRA.

As a result, much of the early work in building a campaign fell to smaller left-wing groups like People’s Democracy (PD) and the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA)’s political wing, the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP). As Stuart Ross notes in his excellent history of the prison protests, Smashing H-Block: “It was those on the periphery of the republican movement along with their allies on the left that helped give meaning to the term ‘active republicanism,’ not the movement itself.”

The Five Demands

The former Westminster MP Bernadette McAliskey, who had belonged to both PD and the IRSP but was now a freelance activist, played a very important role, organizing a conference in Coalisland at the beginning of 1978. The Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams later admitted that the Coalisland gathering became a “lost opportunity to build unity” because his own movement was still “temperamentally and organizationally disinclined” to work constructively with others.

When McAliskey stood in Northern Ireland’s first European election the following year on a platform supporting the prisoners, Adams and his party called for a boycott. One senior republican, Martin McGuinness, even followed McAliskey around Derry during the campaign, heckling her with the aid of a megaphone.

In October 1979, Sinn Féin and the IRA finally changed their line and agreed to work with anyone who would support five demands put forward by the prisoners: civilian clothing, no prison work, free association with other prisoners, the right to organize leisure and educational facilities, and full remission of sentences. A meeting in Belfast set up the National H-Block Committee, which soon became the National H-Block/Armagh Committee (NHBAC) in recognition of women prisoners who joined the protest in the Armagh jail.

This cleared the way for a movement that could reach beyond the IRA’s core constituency. But the real catalyst for mass protest came in October 1980, when seven IRA and INLA prisoners in the Maze began a collective fast, soon to be joined by three women in Armagh. The NHBAC organized some of the biggest demonstrations since the early ’70s in support of the hunger strikers. Bernadette McAliskey was the most prominent advocate for their cause, and loyalist paramilitaries targeted her for assassination in January 1981: she survived despite being shot multiple times.

The hunger strike ended inconclusively after fifty-three days when one of the men fell into a coma. The IRA’s prison leader Brendan Hughes decided to call it off in the hope that a negotiating document from the British government might offer the basis for ending the protest. The details of what was on offer were still quite hazy, and the prisoners soon decided that it wasn’t enough.

They resumed their confrontation with the prison authorities, making a second round inevitable. This time, the hunger strikers would go one by one instead of refusing food simultaneously. The first volunteer, beginning his fast on March 1, 1981, was Bobby Sands.

Three Cornerstones

Sands and the other nine men who would go to their deaths by August 1981 were typical products of an untypical generation. All but one had been born between 1954 and 1957; the oldest, Joe McDonnell, was born in 1951, and still hadn’t reached his thirtieth birthday by the time he died. They were all teenagers when the Troubles began and soon gravitated toward the IRA or the INLA, spending the next decade of their lives on the run or behind bars.

Many nationalists who disagreed with their decision to take up arms against the state nonetheless saw them as products of an environment that British politicians had created through their actions and their failures to act. Margaret Thatcher addressed herself to this strand of nationalist opinion with all the sensitivity of a medieval dentist. As one NIO official complained after her visit to Northern Ireland in May 1981:

Anyone I have told — Catholic or Protestant — that the chief purpose of the Prime Minister’s visit was to reassure Catholic opinion has been incredulous. All they have seen or heard is the Prime Minister repeating a policy of no surrender to the IRA and saying again and again in interviews that a crime is a crime … the result of the Prime Minister’s visit has been further to alienate Catholics, and to cause even some moderate Protestants to wonder what we are at.

The main goal of the republican movement was to apply maximum pressure on three political actors that had always opposed the IRA campaign: the Catholic bishops, the Irish government in Dublin, and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), which was supported by the majority of nationalist voters in the North. It would take more than raw emotion to pressure these “three cornerstones of the Irish establishment” — as the Sinn Féin newspaper An Phoblacht called them — into endorsing the demands of the prisoners. That was where the NHBAC came into play.

Events inside the Maze and the backstage negotiations between the British government and the IRA have frequently overshadowed the scale of mass mobilization during the 1981 hunger strikes. According to the Royal Ulster Constabulary, there were more than 1,200 demonstrations attended by 353,000 people. In Smashing H-Block, Stuart Ross describes the role of the NHBAC as the organizational backbone of this mobilization:

At its height, the National Committee claimed that it had 436 affiliated action groups throughout Ireland’s thirty-two counties. It had offices in cities such as Dublin, Belfast, Cork, Galway and Dundalk. It produced posters and leaflets, organized marches and rallies, liaised with community organizations and trade unions, met with religious and political leaders. It played a major role in mobilizing support for republican prisoners and in politicizing a generation of republican activists.

The most visible manifestation of this upsurge came at the ballot box. Bobby Sands stood for election in the Fermanagh/South Tyrone Westminster constituency in April 1981 after the nationalist MP Frank Maguire died suddenly. His victory over the unionist politician Harry West was a heavy blow to the British government’s propaganda line, which denied that Sands and his comrades had any popular support.

When local elections took place in May, Sinn Féin had already committed to a boycott, but PD and the IRSP ran pro-prisoner candidates in Belfast, performing well with very limited resources. An Phoblacht saw this as a missed opportunity for the republican movement to flex its political muscles: “Had Sinn Féin or republican prisoners entered the field then the SDLP would have taken a sound enough knocking to have made nationalist collaboration a diminishing trade.”

There was also a general election in the South during the hunger strike on June 11. Two prison candidates won seats in the Irish parliament, the Dáil. Conservative politicians like the incoming Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald feared that political instability would now spill across the Irish border, as the British ambassador to Dublin observed:

The Irish Government’s pressure on us to end the strike grew in proportion to their fears that they might not be able to control events and that the institutions of the State might collapse. I must say I never shared their fears, but I put this down more to ignorance of the country on my part than to over-anxiety on theirs.

The Fallout

In the end, the worst fears of FitzGerald and his colleagues never came to pass. Sympathy for the prisoners did not escalate to the point where it could disrupt the normal functioning of politics in the South. North of the border, there were months of intense polarization, with a parallel shift in the unionist community toward hard-line parties and politicians, but the protests gradually began to subside.

The last hunger striker, Mickey Devine, died on August 20, just as Sinn Féin’s Owen Carron won the Fermanagh/South Tyrone by-election as an Anti H-Block candidate to replace Bobby Sands. Sinn Féin had vetoed a proposal from the IRSP to run Bernadette McAliskey instead. The party now wanted to harvest the political fruits of the NHBAC for itself and had no intention of giving an outsider like McAliskey such an important platform.

Supporters of Margaret Thatcher saw the end of the hunger strike as a vindication for her intransigent stance. In truth, it owed far more to objective factors that were beyond her influence. A gap had opened up between northern nationalists and most people in the South since the early years of the Troubles. As one of the 1980 hunger strikers, Tommy McKearney, would later observe, most people wanted the war to end far more than they wanted the IRA to win.

The southern population now lived under an Irish national state and the struggle against British rule in Northern Ireland didn’t have much relevance to their everyday lives. When Sinn Féin launched a major electoral push in the South later in the decade, it soon discovered that the IRA campaign was deeply unpopular, and only began to win support after that campaign was over.

In the North, the republican movement had a real base in the nationalist community but was unable to expand that base beyond a certain point. Those limitations on its growth largely reflected the class divide among nationalists whose experience of living under British rule differed sharply, depending on where they lived and what their employment prospects were. Sinn Féin could not achieve its goal of supplanting the SDLP as the dominant nationalist party until the IRA called a lasting ceasefire.

These developments lay well in the future as the hunger strike came to an end. For the first couple of years after the death of Bobby Sands and the other nine prisoners, it seemed like the mother of all Pyrrhic victories for Thatcher’s government. The prison authorities soon conceded the substance of the five demands without formally acknowledging it. In the meantime, the republican movement had clawed its way back from the political isolation of the late ’70s without having to end the IRA campaign.

In an overview of the hunger strike, An Phoblacht boasted that it had given the IRA its greatest boost since the British government started interning prisoners without trial in August 1971 — “organizationally in terms of recruits, funds, ‘safe houses’ and an expanded support base, and politically in terms of credibility and support at home and abroad.” The paper announced plans for Sinn Féin to engage fully with electoral politics. It insisted that republicans would not have to choose between armed struggle and political activism:

This new confidence within the republican movement, that now is the time — as never before — for its militant politics, is fully complemented by the IRA’s continued ability to take on the military might of the British presence.

When Gerry Adams and his allies took control of Sinn Féin and the IRA in the late 1970s, they developed plans for building a political movement around the philosophy of “active republicanism.” However, they had done very little in practice to advance those plans by the turn of the decade. It was the mobilization in support of the prisoners, whose importance the republican leadership had overlooked for several years, that made the subsequent breakthrough possible.

In the 1979 European election, Bernadette McAliskey stood against John Hume and took less than a fifth of the nationalist vote. Five years later, Sinn Féin’s Danny Morrison claimed nearly 38 percent of a much larger nationalist electorate, and that result still came as a relief to the SDLP, which had feared being overtaken by its rival. It was the mobilizations of 1980–81 that accounted for the difference.

Legacy

With the benefit of hindsight, many people see the 1981 hunger strike as the beginning of Sinn Féin’s long march toward constitutional politics that would eventually place its leaders in a power-sharing government under the British Crown. However, we might just as well describe it as a moment that extended the lifespan of the IRA campaign — directly by supplying a new generation of recruits, and indirectly by encouraging the republican movement to believe that it could ride two horses to victory, using the bullet and the ballot box to achieve its goals.

The idea of overtaking the SDLP and making electoral gains in the South while the IRA was still at war ultimately proved to be chimerical. As the Adams leadership began shifting towards a new strategy in the 1990s, the hunger strike itself became a subject of bitter contestation. Bernadette Sands-McKevitt, sister of Bobby, invoked his memory as she polemicized against the talks that produced the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) of 1998:

Bobby did not die for cross-border bodies with executive powers. He did not die for nationalists to be equal British citizens within the Northern Ireland state.

In one sense this is undeniably true. The hunger strikers of 1981 would have considered the GFA to be a gross betrayal of republican principles at the time of their deaths. But that unwillingness to compromise rested on the assumption that republicans could build up enough strength, military and political, to achieve their full objective — an all-Ireland state, without any trace of British sovereignty on Irish soil. When they failed to achieve that goal, there was no consensus about the way ahead, and that held true for the blanketmen as much as anyone else.

Some of those who took part in the prison protests ended up supporting Gerry Adams through the twists and turns of the peace process. Others rejected the Adams peace strategy as a shameful capitulation and urged IRA members to fight on. Others still agreed with the peace but not the process, endorsing the IRA ceasefire but depicting the alternative course charted by Adams as a dead end.

We have no way of knowing which of those positions Bobby Sands would have chosen. Because of his death, his political outlook was frozen in time, to be fought over by different strands of republicanism for as long as that tradition retains its currency.