Leading article: The seeds of a political solution

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The Independent Online

Bobby Sands was 27 when he died in the Maze prison near Belfast. Today, his death 25 years ago - the result of a lethal 66-day hunger strike - will be reverentially commemorated by republicans all over Ireland.

The trajectory of his life before the hunger strike was not unusual for the 1970s and 1980s, and was, in Belfast republican terms, relatively straightforward. His family was driven from its home by loyalists. He led an active IRA career on the streets.

At the time, the IRA was a heartlessly efficient machine which wrought death and destruction on a terrible scale in its quest to prevail over Britain, Ulster unionism and constitutional nationalism. It was not the only source of violence in the province but it was the greatest taker of life, chillingly calculating how to use death for maximum political advantage. Many a policeman, soldier and civilian, was dispatched to a premature grave by the IRA.

Republican leaders opposed the hunger strike, believing it would detract from their campaign to expel the British by force. But within the Maze prison, Sands and other inmates had developed an extraordinary camaraderie. The strike went ahead.

Margaret Thatcher regarded Sands in much the same way as she saw Arthur Scargill and General Galtieri: as a foe to be vanquished. Sands expected death, but few expected the convulsions generated by the strike, or that nine other republicans would die after him. The issue at stake was whether jailed IRA members should have political status. Mrs Thatcher would never agree to that, and decided to face down the campaign. Yet the strikers still gained political status in most people's eyes: burglars and thieves do not sacrifice their lives for each other.

The 10 hunger strikers went to their deaths, but their campaign revitalised republicanism. For some years this led to an escalation of violence. Yet beneath the din of shootings and bombings, republicans gradually became engrossed in politics. The hunger strike had given them an electoral base and laid the groundwork for intensive years of internal debate. It has been said that when revolutionaries become involved in discussion and debate they cease to be revolutionaries. So it has proved in Ireland. The seed of politics eventually took root and, although the peace process has been long and tortuous, a new era is beginning.

In giving his life, Bobby Sands saw the conflict he was engaged in as an essentially simple one: the IRA versus the British, the hammer and the anvil, the only outcome defeat or victory. The movement he belonged to has learnt a lot since then. It still wants an independent Ireland, but now realises that it will not come about through military victory but, if at all, through a political path of great complexity.