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.

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