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
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
science
News
Dawkins: 'There’s a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog – it's statistically too improbable'
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Sport
Malky Mackay salutes the Cardiff fans after the 3-1 defeat at Liverpool on Sunday
footballFormer Cardiff boss accused of sending homophobic, racist and messages
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Amis: Taken to task over rash decisions and ill-judged statements
The Zone of Interest just doesn't work, says James Runcie
Sport
Rodgers showered praise on Balotelli last week, which led to speculation he could sign the AC Milan front man
transfers
Life and Style
life – it's not, says Rachel McKinnon
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
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
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

Corporate Tax Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: CITY - HIGHEST QUALITY INTERNATIONAL ...

Relationship Manager

£500 - £600 per day: Orgtel: Relationship Manager, London, Banking, Accountant...

Marketing & PR Assistant - NW London

£15 - £17 per hour: Ashdown Group: Marketing & PR Assistant - Kentish Town are...

Senior Network Integration/Test Engineer

£250 - £300 per day: Orgtel: Senior Network Integration/Test Engineer Berkshir...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home