40 years ago Bobby Sands MP died on hunger strike for the crime of taking up arms against Britain’s occupation in Ireland
The recent Loyalist riots should remind us that the Good Friday Agreement was a palliative not a solution – only the end of Partition will achieve that
Yesterday was the anniversary of the death of Bobby Sands, MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Sands died on hunger strike 40 years ago. Despite being elected to parliament he was allowed to die because Thatcher was determined not to concede to demands for political status for the IRA prisoners.
In the end the demands of the hunger strikers were conceded because even the stupidest member of the British ruling class came to understand that their intransigence had simply resulted in massively increased support for the IRA and Sinn Fein. In 1983 Gerry Adams was elected as MP for West Belfast displacing Gerry Fitt ‘the Brit’.
Of course Bobby Sands was deemed a ‘terrorist’ as have all those who took up arms against the British in the colonies. And Ireland was our oldest colony. If you are a British racist then the British army could do no wrong wherever it ventured whereas those who took up arms against it were always in the wrong.
Israel has the same policy today. Anyone who opposes Israel’s occupation army is considered a terrorist whereas Israel, despite its atrocities against children even is never considered a terrorist state.
However the days of Unionism are numbered. Britain no longer has a strategic interest in maintaining the union. British investment today is in the South not the North. The shipyards and engineering factories of Belfast are gone. That is why successive governments from Harold Wilson onwards have refused to resurrect the Protestant Supremacist police statelet that existed between 1921 and 1972 before direct rule was instituted.
Brexit has produced some uncomfortable truths for the Unionists. Large sections of the Protestant farming community look towards the South and the European Union today, not the mainland. That is why Boris Johnson, despite promises to the contrary, reneged on his promises to the DUP and placed a tariff border down the Irish sea in order that Northern Ireland could stay in the customs union.
The days of the Unionist veto are long since gone. The Protestant community itself was split during the 2016 referendum over Europe. The DUP, being a stupid party, never thought that Brexit would hasten the end of Unionism.
There is probably a majority for Irish unity today in the north of Ireland. I would expect that if such a referendum were held and Boris Johnson will resist one to the end, that a chunk of the Protestant community would also vote to unite.
History is against the Loyalists of Ulster. They are an anachronism of the Empire. The days of the Curragh Mutiny are long since gone. Of course the Protestant paramilitaries would promise civil war and violence should a referendum be held on the border.
When I visited Northern Ireland in the 1980s as part of a Labour Party delegation from Brighton we visited the headquarters of the UDA, a Protestant terrorist group who were legal at the time, because some forms of terrorism were acceptable to the British army.
Speaking to Andy Tyrie, the commander and John MacMichael, who was later assassinated by the IRA, was like being taken back in time. They looked to the golden days of Empire. They told us of the days in Liverpool when there was a sectarian Protestant party on the Council which allied with the Tories never asking themselves why working class people should vote Tory. In Liverpool that party disappeared but not in Northern Ireland.
The Protestant working class voted against its own interests and for Unionist parties allied to the Tories since 1922. That is the effect of settler colonialism. It creates an alliance between the settler working class and ruling class even if, as in the case of Northern Ireland the privileges that the Protestant working class gained over their Catholic neighbours were minimal.
The Good Friday agreement which ended the struggle of the IRA and led to a power sharing agreement in the Northern Ireland Assembly was in essence a palliative. The British ruling class was under immense pressure from the American ruling class to resolve the crisis, which Blair did. However the situation in the North has not been resolved as the latest riots demonstrated.
Beneath the surface the old antagonisms remain. The Protestant working class is embittered that they have been ‘sold out’ as if the British ruling class every owed any loyalty to those who pledged fealty to them.
At the heart of the problem is the border, Partition. Of course today it is a notional border without customs posts. It is a border without any natural geographical features such as rivers. Its basis for existing was the need to produce an artificial majority for the Protestants in the North.
As James Connolly, the revolutionary socialist who was executed for his part in the Easter Rising said, Partition would create ‘a carnival of reaction on both sides of the border’. He was of right in his prediction Not only in Ireland but India, Cyprus and Palestine. Partition and communalism were the favourite divide and rule tactics of the British in their efforts to maintain neo-colonial rule.
The British working class has never been distinguished by its support for the struggle of Irish people or the IRA but during the miners’ strike, when there were massive confrontations with the British state, the Police and reputedly the army in civilian uniforms, this began to break down.
I worked closely with miners from Kent coalfield and visited and stayed with strikers in Yorkshire. I heard repeatedly the same sentiment after the failed IRA attack on the Grand Hotel in Brighton in 1984: ‘Pity they didn’t get her.’ Indeed to my surprise, as I was volunteering in an old peoples’ home at the time (when Councils ran such things) one of the cooks in the kitchen expressed her disappointment that Thatcher had survived.
During the bitterest episode of class struggle in the last century, elements of the British working class began to see that the struggle of colonial peoples against the British ruling class was also their struggle.
Below is the article I wrote last year and beneath that Peter Bolton’s article in the Canary.
The Stupidity of Thatcher and the British Government in Refusing Political Status for Republican Prisoners led to the growth of Sinn Fein North and South
Bobby Sands wasn’t the first Irish hunger striker nor was he the last to die. Terence MacSwiney, the elected Sinn Fein Mayor of Cork, died in Brixton prison in October 1920 after 74 days on hunger strike. He had been arrested by the British government on a charge of sedition, a clearly political ‘crime’. 10 hunger strikers died in 1981.
Their demands were for the return of political status which had been removed on March 1 1976 by Merlyn Rees, Labour’s Northern Ireland Minister. He was succeeded by the hated Roy Mason who was worse than any Tory imperialist ruler.
At first the reaction to the removal of political status was the blanket and dirty protest where faeces were spread on the walls. Eventually that led to the hunger strikes. The behaviour of Roy Mason in provoking what became the hunger strikes led to the defeat of the Labour government when Frank MacGuire, the Independent Republican MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone abstained in person.
Of course there are racists and imperialist dupes who chime up that the IRA were ‘men of violence’ and ‘terrorists’. The same people have no problem in supporting the ‘men of violence’ when it comes to the invasion of Iraq, the bombing of Libya, Israel’s war against the Palestinian people and any other imperial adventures. But when people fight back against colonialism and imperialism it is terrorism. The same is true in Palestine. The only ‘terrorists’ are the Palestinians, never the Israeli state.
During the 16th and 17th centuries Ireland and in particular Ulster was subject to the Plantation, the colonisation of Ireland by thousands of settlers from Britain, Scotland in particular. This was enabled through the confiscation, i.e. theft of land from the indigenous population. This Protestant population was then used as a foil by the British state in order to undermine and subvert Irish unity.
The same happened in Palestine with the settlement of Jews from Europe and it is what the Indian government today is intending to do in Kashmir.
I was a member of the Troops Out Movement and I arrived on a fact finding/solidarity tour on 8th August 1981 as the 9th hunger striker, Thomas McElwee died. I’ll never forget the scene on the Falls Road, the main road through the Catholic ghetto of West Belfast, with hundreds of women banging dustbin lids on the road to announce the death.
Here was a working class community basically in insurrection. I had never seen anything like this and wasn’t to see anything like it until I stayed during the miners’ strike in the South Yorkshire village of Armthorpe in December 1984. Armthorpe had been subject to a siege by the corrupt and murderous South Yorkshire Police.
Although he died, it was Bobby Sands who won out against Thatcher
The British strategy in Northern Ireland was criminalisation. According to this fiction the IRA and INLA were merely common criminals like any bank robber. This has always been the reaction of the British to colonial uprisings. Whether it was the Indian Mutiny or the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya the only reason that people rebelled against British rule was for base criminal reasons. There was nothing political about it. This was the self-deception that the British comforted themselves with. It was an illusion and a lie.
The fact is that the Catholic population of Northern Ireland had never accepted the constitutional set up. In 1918 Sinn Fein won the all-Ireland general election winning 73 out of 105 seats. The Liberal government under Asquith refused to implement the Home Rule Act of 1914 as a consequence of the Curragh Mutiny by army officers in 1914. After the Easter Rising of 1917 and Sinn Fein’s election victory which the British refused to accept there began the War of Independence.
There was a civil war in the Free State in Southern Ireland between 1922 and 1923. The British had threatened war and destruction unless the Irish accepted Partition. Partition, the favourite solution of imperialism to its divide and rule tactics in settler colonies, was imposed on the Irish people. The nationalist population of the north of Ireland had never accepted Partition and the IRA was the consequence.
Partition has had disastrous consequences wherever it has been imposed in the world, be it Cyprus or India or indeed Palestine. As James Connolly predicted, Partition
would mean a carnival of reaction both North and South, would set back the wheels of progress, would destroy the oncoming unity of the Irish Labour movement and paralyse all advanced movements whilst it endured.
The Northern Ireland police statelet was created in 1921 and until 1969 there was what was called a Protestant state for a Protestant people with gerrymandering widespread. For example in Derry, there was a perpetual Unionist council even though Catholics formed the majority of the population by the simple device of making Catholic wards larger.
There grew up a civil rights movement in northern Ireland. In 1967 the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association was formed. It was a completely peaceful movement but it was met with state and unionist violence.
On 4 January 1969 a People’s Democracy march from Belfast to Derry was violently attacked at Burntollet Bridge. This was the beginning of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
The march had been called in defiance of an appeal by Northern Ireland Prime Minister Terence O’Neill for an end to protest. The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association and some Derry nationalists had advised against it. Supporters of Ian Paisley, led by Major Ronald Bunting , denounced the march and mounted counter-demonstrations along the route.
At Burntollet an Ulster loyalist crowd numbering in the region of 300, including 100 off-duty members of the Ulster Special Constabulary (USC), attacked the civil rights marchers with stones as well as iron bars and sticks spiked with nails. Nearby members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) did nothing to prevent the violence.
In the Battle of the Bogside, from 12-14 August the B-Specials, an all-Protestant paramilitary force and Unionists tried to invade what became Free Derry. It was repelled by a civil insurrection and barricades were thrown up. It was a colonial rebellion by the Catholics of the north. It was euphemistically called ‘The Troubles’.
At that time there was no IRA. The IRA was reformed and split into the Officials ‘stickies’ and Provisionals. The former claimed to be Marxist but ended up as the right-wing Workers Party in Southern Ireland. In 1969 the IRA stood for ‘I Ran Away’.
In 1981 the Hunger Strike began on March 1st with Bobby Sands, the officer commanding the IRA in Long Kesh refusing his breakfast. On March 5th the sitting nationalist MP Frank MacGuire died. Bobby Sands was nominated in the by-election that followed and he defeated the sole Unionist candidate, Harry West by some 1,400 votes. Sands never took his seat. He died 26 days later.
This was the context in which the hunger strikes took place and the sacrifice of Bobby Sands and the other 9 men. Eventually the relatives of the hunger strikers insisted that the strike was called off but the demands were effectively won by then. In any event the British government had lost politically and northern Ireland would never be the same again.
The hunger strike led to the rise of Sinn Fein and in 1983 Gerry Adams was elected as the MP for West Belfast defeating the sitting MP, Gerry ‘the Brit’ Fitt. The continual accusation by supporters of Britain’s occupation was that the IRA didn’t have the support of the Catholic population. The election of Bobby Sands by the voters of Fermanagh and South Tyrone and then the victory of Gerry Adams proved once and for all that the IRA had the passive, if not active, support of the working class Catholic population of Northern Ireland.
In the succeeding years the right-wing Social Democratic and Labour Party, the ‘moderate’ nationalist party, was eclipsed and Sinn Fein became the majority party of the Catholic population.
British colonialism has always been led by stupid and arrogant imperialists and none was more stupid than Thatcher who believed that her attempts to criminalise the Republican struggle would somehow stop the march of history.
With the Good Friday Agreement under Blair in 1998 the violence in Northern Ireland stopped, at least for the time being but as long as Ireland is partitioned, there will never be peace.
Below is an excellent article from Canary.
Today marks the 40th anniversary of the death of Bobby Sands inside the H-blocks of Long Kesh internment camp. On 5 May 1981, Sands laid down his life for his and his comrades’ right for recognition as political prisoners. On this day, we should remember the sacrifice he made for the cause of Irish freedom. But his struggle does not just provide an example that all anti-imperialists should follow. It also serves as an important reminder of the ruthless brutality of the British government in Ireland under the leadership of then-prime minister Margaret Thatcher. And that is equally something that we should never forget.
‘Criminalisation’ leads to ‘blanket protest’
On 1 March, 1976, the British government announced an end to ‘Special Category’ status for members of paramilitary organisations imprisoned for offences related to the conflict in Ireland. This formed part of a multi-pronged propaganda strategy to falsely portray the republican insurrection against British rule as some kind of aggravated crime wave.
In response, republican prisoners began a series of protests to regain the lost privileges, as well as the symbolic importance of prisoner of war status. This included the right to wear one’s own clothes, free association and exemption from prison work. IRA volunteer Kieran Nugent began the ‘blanket protest’ when he refused to wear a prison uniform. Thrown into his cell naked, he draped himself in the only thing available – a grey, prison-issue blanket.
The ‘dirty protest’ and the 1980 hunger strike
After suffering beatings from prison officers on their way to the shower areas, republican prisoners began the ‘no wash protest’, in which they refused to bathe, cut their hair or shave. When prison officers refused to empty their chamber pots, republican prisoners were forced to smear their own excrement on the walls, which marked the beginning of the ‘dirty protest’.
In 1979, their prospects became even bleaker with the election of the right-wing government of Margaret Thatcher in Britain. When it became clear that Thatcher wouldn’t grant even the most modest of concessions, republican prisoners began a hunger strike in 1980. It ended without any deaths when her government appeared to concede some of the strikers’ demands. But the document containing the terms of the agreement turned out to be vague and open to interpretation, and the prison regime was quickly returned to a situation little better than how it was before.
A second hunger strike, and this time to the death
Determined not to be double-crossed again, the new Officer Commanding (OC) of the republican prisoners, 27-year-old Bobby Sands, launched a second hunger strike with a crucial difference from the last. The strikers would stagger their joining of the fast one-by-one and two weeks apart so that each would near death one at a time. As OC, Sands volunteered to go first, making him the most likely to die. On 1 March, 1981, Sands refused his prison food, beginning the second hunger strike in Long Kesh just over two months after the end of the first.
On 5 March, less than a week into Sands’ fast, Frank Maguire, the independent nationalist member of parliament for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, died suddenly and unexpectedly, leaving his seat in Westminster vacant. The republican leadership on the outside hatched a plan. They were forever getting dismissed by political opponents for not having a mandate, but if they stood Sands as a candidate in the resultant by-election and won, they could demonstrate to the British government and the wider world that the hunger strikers’ demands had popular support in the community.
A bittersweet victory
On 9 April 1981, Bobby Sands won the election with over 30,000 votes – almost 10,000 more than Thatcher had won in her home constituency of Finchley in the 1979 UK general election. The victory provided the republican movement with a powerful morale boost and demolished the British government’s argument that they had no support.
But in spite of Sands’ victory, along with international pressure from the Irish diaspora abroad and others around the world, Thatcher refused to budge. On May 5, 1981, Bobby Sands died of starvation 66 days into his fast at 27 years of age. Over 100,000 mourners lined his cortege in one of the largest political funerals in Irish history.
Sands’ death led to international outcry at the treatment of the prisoners and Thatcher’s intransigence in meeting their demands. Critics pointed out that as members of a guerrilla army operating in contested territory, republican prisoners were entitled under the Geneva Convention to be recognised as prisoners of war. One letter, sent from one Bernard Sanders (then-mayor of Burlington, Vermont in the US), stated:
We are deeply disturbed by your government’s unwillingness to stop the abuse, humiliation and degrading treatment of the Irish prisoners now on strike in Northern Ireland…
We ask you to end your intransigent policy towards the prisoners before the reputation of the English people for fair play and simple decency is further damaged in the eyes of the people of Vermont and the United States.
In October 1981, the British government eventually conceded most of the prisoners’ demands; but not before nine more republican hunger strikers had followed Sands to the grave.
This episode perhaps shows more than any other the utter depravity, brutality, ruthlessness and lack of humanity that lurked within the twisted soul of Margaret Thatcher. All but one of the men were under 30 years old and left behind grieving mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and, in some cases, children – all for the ‘crime’ of fighting back against foreign oppression and discrimination in their own country.