Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Bobby Sands: 30 years on hunger strike - never defeated.

On March 1, 1981, Irish Republican political prisoner Roibeárd Gearóid Ó Seachnasaigh - known to all the world as Bobby Sands - went on hunger strike in Britain's "H-Block" prison cells of Long Kesh prison.

He went on hunger strike after he and fellow Republican prisoners had gone on a failed "blanket strike" - refusing to wear prison uniforms - as a protest against Britain's refusal to recognise their status as political prisoners in the struggle for Irish freedom.

In 1978, after a number of them were attacked leaving their cells to empty their chamber pots, their protest escalated into a "dirty protest" - the prisoners refused to wash and smeared the walls of their cells with excrement.

When that strategy too failed to budge the Brits, some among the "blanket men" decided to raise the stakes for political recognition, and volunteered for hunger strike.

The first hunger strike - in late 1980 - won the promise of recognition. However, when Britain refused to carry through its promises, a new coordinated effort began with Bobby Sands on March 1, 1981.

Sands - despite being elected to British parliament from his prison cell - was allowed to starve to death, without his demands being met, the Thatcher government refusing to compromise.

Sands' hunger strike lasted 66 days before - wasted and starved - his body collapsed.

He was followed into the darkness by Patsy O'Hara, Francis Hughes, Ray McCreesh, Kiernan Doherty, Kevin Lynch, Joe McDonnell, Martin Hurson and Mickie Devine. 

In all, ten men dead.

Bobby Sands himself was born in March, 1954, into a poor, working-class family in Newtownabbey, a Unionist area of Belfast. When the neighbours discovered that his family was both Catholic and Nationalist, they were intimidated, harassed, and driven out.

He endured sectarian violence - including stabbings - and losing his apprenticeship at gunpoint, before joining the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in 1972.

That same autumn he was picked up by the police and tortured - a common police practice - before he was sentenced to five years in the Long Kesh concentration camp.

While in prison, he became a strong and disciplined Republican, facilitating the teaching of Irish. While there he established what came to be known as the Long Kesh "Gaeltacht" (Irish-speaking area).

After three and a half years he was released, returned to the IRA, married, had a son, and became deeply involved in social justice issues in his local community, before being arrested again in 1976, tortured, beaten and sentenced - with 5 friends - on flimsy evidence to 14 years in Long Kesh for supposedly having a gun under the back seat of a car.

For the rest of his life Bobby Sands endured near-constant pain and suffering. Yet these same years of pain, filth and stench saw him bloom as a poet, musician and author, and he became the spokesperson and negotiator for his fellow prisoners in their struggle for dignity and recognition.

Bobby wrote, "I refuse to change to suit people who oppress, torture and imprison me. They have suppressed my body and attacked my dignity, but I have the spirit of freedom that cannot be quenched by even the most horrendous treatment. Of course I can be murdered, but while I remain alive I remain what I am - a political prisoner."

Sands kept a diary during the early stages of his hunger strike. The final entry was made - in Irish - on only March 17.

Translated, it read: "If they aren't able to destroy the desire for freedom, they won't break you. They won't break me because the desire for freedom, and the freedom of the Irish people, is in my heart. The day will dawn when all the people will have the desire for freedom to show. And it's then that we'll see the rising of the moon."

At the end of March, Frank Maguire, the independent MP for Fermanagh-South Tyrone died of sudden heart-attack. Sinn Fein decided to run Bobby Sands as a candidate.

Sands won with 30,492 votes, humiliating the British.

Still Thatcher and Britain wouldn't yield. Instead, they passed a law preventing prisoners from running for election.

Finally, on May 5, 1981, Bobby Sands, one of the greatest Irish people of the Twentieth - or any other - century, died in the Hospital Wing of Long Kesh prison.

On May 7, 100,000 people marched silently behind the coffin and nearly as many more lined the streets. The funeral of Bobby Sands MP was the largest in Ireland since that of Parnell.
As Gerry Adams remarked of Sands' election to parliament, "His victory exposed the lie that the hunger strikers - and by extension the IRA and the whole republican movement - had no popular support".

Following Sands' death, Iran renamed the street on which the British Embassy was located after him, the Indian parliament held a minute's silence, and Cuba later erected a monument to all 100 hunger strikers, which was unveiled by Gerry Adams and Fidel Castro.

Bobby Sands became a symbol internationally of the Irish struggle for freedom and independence, and stands as a reminder that Imperialism cannot be parleyed with or trusted, but must be defeated at every turn, in every heart and every mind.

Thirty years on, Bobby Sands' words still echo down the years, reminding us of the victory that we seek, from Belfast to Beirut, from Derry to Dili, from Armagh to Asunción. Not a violent, vengeful future, but a future where all of humanity can live in peace and happiness, in freedom and in equality.

"Let our revenge be the laughter of our children".

Tiocfaidh ár lá!

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