35 years since Bobby Sands Election – The 1981 Hunger Strike, Reaction and its Legacy

Peter Kearney

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On 9 April 1981, with 30,492 votes, Bobby Sands won the Fermanagh and South Tyrone by-election following the death of Independent Republican MP, Frank Maguire. He defeated the Ulster Unionist Party candidate, Harry West.

Fermanagh and South Tyrone 1981 By-Election results (Table Credit: Peter Kearney)
Fermanagh and South Tyrone 1981 By-Election results (Table Credit: Peter Kearney)

Despite Sands’ historic victory, he would not of course take his seat in a British Parliament. Primarily as an abstentionist opposed to British rule and institutions in Ireland and as a prisoner in the H-Block, this would not be possible. His election would raise awareness for the political campaign he lead in prison.

Bobby Sands Portrait
Bobby Sands in The H-Block Prison (Sinn Féin Argentina)

Sands was an IRA volunteer who had been imprisoned by the British in the H-Block since 1977 (officially known as Long Kesh and knick-named The Maze), south west of Belfast.

He commenced the Hunger Strikes in the H-Block in 1981, which was the culmination of a five-year campaign against the British removal of political status from IRA and INLA prisoners in 1976. The Hunger Strikes sought to secure political status for IRA and INLA prisoners. Their campaign 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
  4. The Right to organize their own educational and recreational facilities
  5. The Right to one visit, one letter and one parcel per week.

All five demands were realised by Republican prisoners but they came at a heavy price. 66 days after commencing his hunger strike, on 5 May 1981, Bobby Sands died. An estimated 100,000 people attended his funeral and it is deemed to have been one of the biggest Irish Republican funerals ever. Irish Times Journalist Ed Moloney said “It was immense. That’s about the only word to describe it.” Nine other IRA and INLA members would follow Sands to their deaths before the five demands were realised.

Bobby Sands Funeral 7 May 1981 (Photo Credit: An Phoblacht Production)
Bobby Sands Funeral 7 May 1981 (Photo Credit: An Phoblacht Production)

An International outpouring of grief and anti British demonstrations and actions were to follow Sands’ passing. Mario Biagi, a Democrat Congressman from New York said British policy in the north of Ireland was “morally bankrupt”. Protests were held in Paris, Milan, Ghent, Australia and Greece. A protest in Norway lead to Norwegian protestors throwing an object at and almost hitting the visiting English Queen Elizabeth 2. The European Parliament decided to debate the Hunger Strike, which British MEPs attempted to block.

BBC – via Iframely

The official Russian news agency Pravda, described the Maze Prison as a concentration camp and New York Dockers boycotted British ships for 24 hours. Streets in Paris, Havana, Connecticut and Tehran were named after Bobby Sands. In a 2012 documentary on British Loyalists, some of his former enemies paid tribute to him also.

After his death, Sands’ seat was taken by republican candidate Owen Carron, who won an even larger majority. In the 1981 southern Irish general elections, two Anti H-Block candidates also won seats.

Political commentators have since argued that Sands’ election was the time when Irish republicans, who favoured the use of armed force against British rule in the north of Ireland, saw the benefits of the ballot box. However, as the IRA war against the British was to continue until 1997 the combined use of politics and armed force lead Sinn Féin’s Danny Morrison to coin the phrase the armalite and the ballot box.

There is little doubt that the IRA and Sinn Féin saw the benefits of a combined strategy to overthrow British and Unionist rule in the north of Ireland. While the IRA war did not remove British rule from the north of Ireland some, such as former hunger striker Tommy Mc Kearney, at 3.30 minutes in the podcast interview below, feel it broke unionist domination.

PodOmatic / Peter Kearney – via Iframely

Article about Bobby Sands condition in The Irish World (Photo Credit: Sinn Féin Argentina)
Article about Bobby Sands condition in The Irish World (Photo Credit: Sinn Féin Argentina)
Michael Fassbender playing Bobby Sands in Steve Mc Queen’s Hunger (Photo Credit: Andrés Fevrier)
Michael Fassbender playing Bobby Sands in Steve Mc Queen’s Hunger (Photo Credit: Andrés Fevrier)

On this 35th anniversary since his election it is still very much a part of modern Irish Republican folklore. Countless documentaries and films have been made about it, most notable being a film called Hunger , produced by Steve Mc Queen and starring Michael Fassbender. Another documentary is due for release later this year called Bobby Sands: 66 Days, which is based on Bobby Sands prison diaries.

YouTube / HotDocsFest – via Iframely

It is sure to be controversial as the predictable voices will slam it while others will rave about it. Another point of controversy is his legacy. As an IRA volunteer, Bobby Sands fought for a united Ireland. That has not been achieved.

What is certain is that since that time Sinn Fein’s electoral popularity has increased. They took their first and only seat in Dáil Éireann in 1997, compared to 23 seats in 2016. North of the border they share power and hold ministerial positions and they are potentially the largest party there yet still there is little sign of a united Ireland. One can only wonder as to whether this is what Bobby Sands, his comrades and many many others gave their lives for or whether any of their ideals will be realised.

 

 

 

 

 

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Peter Kearney

Freelance Journalist