Remembering Bobby Sands

Bobby Sands, IRA hunger striker and Westminster MP, died at the Maze Prison 25 years ago today. David McKittrick analyses how his death transformed The Troubles, and talks to the key players

The 1981 republican hunger strike was a time of violence, of sacrifice, of death and of horror, a time of huge polarisation and division which created new depths of bitterness and revitalised a flagging IRA.

Ten republicans starved themselves to death in the Maze prison near Belfast in what was a long drawn-out agony for them, and for Northern Ireland. The crisis plunged the province into one of the worst convulsions it has experienced, putting the population through communal trauma and laying the basis for a deadly cycle of increased violence.

Many deaths on the streets followed. The IRA attempt to kill Margaret Thatcher, in a revenge bomb attack on the Tory party conference in Brighton three years later, was one example.

And yet the paradox is that this struggle was to set the IRA and Sinn Fein on an unexpected new path which eventually led to the peace process. No one realised this at the time; most were aghast at the turmoil which spread from the IRA cells of the Maze to poison community relations and caused many to despair that there might never be peace. Most thought it a crushing defeat for the republicans, a view shared then by many within the IRA and Sinn Fein. Yet today Sinn Fein is the biggest nationalist party in Northern Ireland, and growing strongly in the south.

In other words, it now possesses the political status that Bobby Sands and the other strikers died for; the status Mrs Thatcher refused to grant. Before the hunger strike, Sands and other prisoners had staged years of protests in the Maze but Mrs Thatcher was adamant the IRA should be treated as common criminals.

When Sands died 25 years ago today, his 66th day of hungerstrike, he ascended into republican Valhalla, regarded as the IRA's most prominent martyr and an emblem of self-sacrifice. His portrait, repainted annually, remains one of the most prominent of the republican murals on Belfast's Falls Road.

Huge tensions grew during the campaign, which was marked by one stunning development, when Sands won a Westminster by-election from his cell. His narrow win was a propaganda victory of enormous proportions. The world's image of Sands was largely based on a photograph taken in the prison which showed him in a smiling group of prisoners, his fair hair at rock-star length. But with hindsight, it was a photograph steeped in irony. In December last year we learnt that Denis Donaldson, the IRA prisoner pictured draping an arm around Sands' shoulders, had later turned Special Branch spy.

Sands' election spurred frantic attempts to mediate or find a resolution. An envoy from the Pope spent an hour with Sands in his cell, and media from all over the world flocked to Belfast. His death provoked waves of political tumult and riot. Hostile reaction to Britain came from around the world, with several cities, including Paris and Tehran, naming streets after Sands. At least 100,000 people attended his funeral. But after 10 deaths, the protest petered out as relatives of comatose hunger-strikers, encouraged by a priest, Father Denis Faul, allowed doctors to administer food.

The Troubles took many twists, but the key development was that republicans experimented with a mixture of politics and violence. The politics prevailed. Although ostensibly a defeat, the hunger strike provided republicans with a political launching pad, the foundation of Sinn Fein's electoral success. Some observers regard it as the genesis of the peace process. What was first designed as an instrument of subversion and sabotage led to the displacement of the IRA by today's Sinn Fein.

Not everyone in republicanism has travelled with Sinn Fein on its long political march. Prominent among dissenters has been Bobby Sands' sister, Bernadette. She is married to Mickey McKevitt, who has been jailed for heading the Real IRA, the breakaway group responsible for the 1998 Omagh bombing. As head of the 32-County Sovereignty Movement, Mrs Sands-McKevitt claims Sinn Fein's backing of the peace process is a betrayal of what her brother fought and died for. But few in the republican mainstream agree with her.

Today on the 25th anniversary of her brother's death, thousands of them will gather to reaffirm his status as one of republicanism's most revered heroes.

Gerry Adams

THEN: Link between the hunger-strikers and the IRA Army Council

NOW: President of Sinn Fein, MP for West Belfast

"When Bobby Sands began to say they needed to go on a hunger strike we argued, and I actually wrote to him, saying we were morally and strategically and tactically and physically opposed to it. I was driving when the news came through on the radio that Bobby had been elected. I remember nearly bouncing the car off the hedges and pounding the steering wheel. It was a huge thing to know that against all the odds we'd pulled it off and the prisoners had been vindicated.

"The way Bobby Sands... controlled the mechanisms within the prison show clearly he believed he would have to die. My generation of Irish republicans will never forget those terrible months, but in marking the 25th anniversary we have an opportunity to celebrate their lives, remember their sacrifice and rededicate ourselves to advancing the struggle."

Laurence McKeown

THEN: IRA hunger-striker, serving life sentence

NOW: Active on ex-prisoners' issues and outreach initiatives to Protestants and others

McKeown, who spent 70 days on hunger strike, took a degree in prison and now has a doctorate. After volunteering for the strike, the IRA army council warned him: "Comrade, do you know what this means? You will be dead within two months. Rethink your decision."

When news that Sands had been elected to Westminster came through, "the place just erupted. Everybody shouted, roared, probably unintelligible sorts of screams."

McKeown became weak but turned down pleas from his family to come off the protest. "On the evening of the 69th day I was talking to people who weren't there, and calling people by the wrong names. On the morning of the 70th day the doctors were looking for reflexes and I wasn't responding. About noon, my mother authorised medical intervention. I can't say I was happy to be alive, but I couldn't say I was sad to be alive."

Brendan McFarlane

THEN: Officer commanding IRA prisoners during the hunger strike

NOW: Senior republican figure

"Bik" McFarlane is a near-legendary IRA figure who has long been to the fore in the republican movement. He was the "officer commanding" IRA prisoners at the time of the hunger strike. He is now a strong supporter of the peace process.

In 1981 he was serving life for the murder of five Protestants, two of them women, in an IRA attack on a loyalist bar on Belfast's Shankill Road. Two years after the hunger strike, in 1983, he helped plan and participated in the IRA's mass breakout from the jail. He also played a key role in the talks that led to the IRA ceasefire of August 1994. He said of the hunger-strikers: "They were brave men whose courage and sacrifice should be celebrated in a positive way. Their bravery should be seen as something inspirational, especially in this new phase of struggle when we need to build on our continuing political progress."

Richard O'Rawe

THEN: IRA press officer in the Maze

NOW: Works with recovering alcoholics and drug addicts

O'Rawe caused a stir last year with his book Blanketmen, which claimed that, after several deaths, the army council overruled the prisoners, who wanted to settle the dispute by means of a message from the British government.

He thought some of the 10 deaths were unnecessary, adding: "This hasn't been said for 24 years because it would be a massive embarrassment if they accepted the army council of the IRA refused to acquiesce to the prisoners' acceptance of the deal. The consequence of that would be that responsibility for the deaths would shift from Brits to the IRA."

O'Rawe's version of events has been partly supported by Denis Bradley, a former priest involved in mediation. But his claims have been attacked by some Republicans, including Bik McFarlane who said no offer had been made in writing and authenticated.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
fashionHealth concerns and 'pornified' perceptions have made women more conscious at the beach
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
Ojo Onaolapo celebrates winning the bronze medal
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
Rock band Led Zeppelin in the early 1970s
musicLed Zeppelin to release alternative Stairway To Heaven after 43 years
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmHe was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
Sport
Van Gaal said that his challenge in taking over Bobby Robson's Barcelona team in 1993 has been easier than the task of resurrecting the current United side
footballA colourful discussion on tactics, the merits of the English footballer and rebuilding Manchester United
Life and Style
Sainsbury's could roll the lorries out across its whole fleet if they are successful
tech
Travel
The shipping news: a typical Snoozebox construction
travelSpending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette
filmHow live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences
Environment
Neil Young performing at Hyde Park, London, earlier this month
environment
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Project Coordinator

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: The Organisation: The Green Recrui...

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

Embedded Linux Engineer

£40000 - £50000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Embedded Sof...

Senior Hardware Design Engineer - Broadcast

£50000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Working for a m...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz