Éire Ghaelach – Éire Shaor
The British version of the Huffington Post, which strangely I’ve always found a wee bit right-wing given its liberal US origins, carries a lengthy article on Roibeárd “Bobaí” Ó Seachnasaigh or Bobby Sands, Volunteer of the Irish Republican Army and elected representative of the people of Fermanagh and South Tyrone in the British Occupied North of Ireland. What’s more extraordinary is its tone:
“”I am standing on the threshold of another trembling world. May God have mercy on my soul.”
With these words, written 31 years ago, Bobby Sands began the hunger strike which culminated in his death after 66 days on May 5 1981.
It was followed by the deaths of nine others who made the same sacrifice: Francis Hughes, Patsy O’Hara, Raymond McCreesh, Joe McDonnell, Martun Hurson, Kevin Lynch, Kieran Doherty, Thomas McElwee and Michael Devine.
Just over three decades on it is perhaps difficult to appreciate the significance of the sacrifice made by Sands and his comrades, which even if you disagree with the aims for which they gave their lives remains a monumental testament to the power of the human spirit.
By the time of his death in 1981 the ‘troubles’ in the Six Counties in the North of Ireland had been raging since the late 1960s, when the Provisional IRA emerged from the failure of successive British governments to reform the sectarian and gerrymandered province, in which the minority Catholic/Nationalist population were regarded as second class citizens, denied the same political and civil rights as their protestant/unionist counterparts.
Young, otherwise ordinary working class Catholics such as Bobby Sands were forced to make a choice between acceptance of a status quo under which they and their families were persecuted, intimidated, and forced out of their homes by loyalist mobs backed up by a bigoted police force, or resistance.
Sands chose the path of resistance and was arrested and imprisoned twice as a result. Upon his second arrest in 1976 he was interrogated, tortured, and sentenced to 14 years in prison in a trial presided over by three judges with no jury. During his first period of incarceration – 1972 to 1976 – Sands had used his time well, immersing himself in books and study groups with his comrades to learn about the history of the Irish liberation struggle, national liberation and anti-colonial struggles throughout the developing world, literature, and the Irish language.
The removal of the political status of the prisoners had begun in 1976 under the then Labour government led by James Callaghan. This was timed to tie in with the construction of the new purpose built Maze Prison just outside Belfast, where both Republican and Loyalist prisoners were to be transferred from the existing Long Kesh Prison Camp nearby and other detention facilities across the province. Margaret Thatcher and the Tories, replacing Callaghan’s Labour government in 1979, were determined to continue the policy of criminalization of Republican prisoners as part of a new offensive against Irish Republicanism in general.
As determined as Sands and his comrades were to see their hunger strike through to the end, Thatcher was equally determined not to budge one inch from the policy of criminalisation. This continued even after Sands was elected as a British Member of Parliament in the midst of his hunger strike in a local by-election, and even in the face of growing international condemnation over the British government’s unwillingness to compromise.
The prisoners had five demands:
1. The right not to wear a prison uniform;
2. The right not to do prison work;
3. The right of free association with other prisoners, and to organise educational and recreational pursuits;
4. The right to one visit, one letter and one parcel per week;
5. Full restoration of remission lost through the protest
The enormity of what Bobby Sands and his comrades who died along with him on hunger strike achieved was reflected in its global impact. Upon Sands’s death, opposition MPs in the Indian Parliament observed a minute’s silence. Protest marches were held against the British government and in tribute to Sands and his comrades.
Following their example, Nelson Mandela led a hunger by prisoners on Robben Island to improve their own conditions. In Tehran the name of the street in which the British Embassy was located was changed to Bobby Sands Street, forcing it to relocate its entrance to avoid the embarrassment of Bobby Sands Street appearing on the letterhead of its stationery and official documents.”
Given the left-wing credentials of the author of the piece, journalist John Wright, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised but the British media have spent so much of the last 50 years fighting the good fight on behalf of the Pax Britannica in Ireland that its still shocking to see an article telling the truth. And not simply more of the same old lies and propaganda.