Hunger striking has a history of use as a non-violent protest, but its outcomes are decidedly mixed. It was employed by the suffragettes such as Emmeline Pankhurst, and the authorities, recognising the need to avoid creating martyrs, dealt with the issue by either releasing them (and then reimprisoning them once they recovered, the so-called Cat and Mouse policy), or by force-feeding them. Mohandas K Gandhi used it to persuade his fellow Indians to stop killing each other. It was also used during 'The Troubles' in Northern Ireland by prisoners from both sides of the conflict, but most significantly by Republicans.
Fasting in order to bring attention to injustice, thus embarrassing one's master into a solution, was a common feature of early Irish society and featured in some of the literature of the time. So it was that the echoes of history resonated again, reworked from those legends and rumours.
Persuade him to eat or drink? While he is lying there, perishing there, my good name in the world is perishing also. I cannot give way, my nobles would call me a weakling, and, it may be, the very throne be shaken.
— WB Yeats, 'The King's Threshold'.
Long Kesh, latterly the Maze prison near Lisburn, is now demolished, but was the location of one of the most contentious hunger strikes in 20th Century history. Republican prisoners had previously been given 'special category' status, a right won in 1972 by Billy McKee, using hunger strike tactics. In 1976, this political prisoner status was taken away from them, as the British Government made it clear that their acts were regarded as those of terrorism, not of freedom fighting. In an effort to restore their former status, various protests were essayed: the 'blanket' protest began when the prisoners refused to wear prison uniforms, and so instead used only their blankets for clothing. This was escalated to the 'dirty' protest, where prisoners refused to slop out their cells, and instead smeared the walls of their cells with excrement. When neither of these had any effect on changing their status, they turned to hunger striking.
This culminated in the fast to the death of Bobby Sands.
The removal of graffiti was an endless and thankless task, for it was a traditional art form, vicious, satirical, and often in its more elaborate presentation splendidly romantic: King Billy on his horse at one end, and 'Up The Provos' at the other.
— From 'The Irish Troubles' by J Bowyer Bell.
Robert Gerard Sands was born on 9 March, 1954, and grew up in Abbotts Cross, Newtownabbey, a quiet suburb of North Belfast. The family moved to Rathcoole when he was 7 years old. This was a new estate which began as mixed, but as the Troubles ignited in the late 1960s, sectarian intimidation increased, and the family were forced to move to the Catholic area of Twinbrook in West Belfast in 1972.
Life in Northern Ireland at that time was tough, especially for Catholics. Records show that in 1969, a mere 23 out of 319 higher grade civil servants were Catholics, and this level of under-representation was repeated in just about every workplace. Schools were segregated, council areas were gerrymandered, housing was 'ghettoised' and there was outcry when new houses were allocated to single Protestants, rather than more needy Catholic families. In the remote world of politics, Gerry Fitt1 was making progress at Westminster, but it was slow, and the IRA Army Council didn't enter the political arena as to do so would be to participate in what they regarded as an illegitimate system.
Sands wasn't terribly academic at school, although he was keen on football and cross-country running. When he was 16 years old, he started work as an apprentice coach-builder, but he was forced to leave this job, having been threatened at gunpoint by Loyalists. It wasn't long before he became actively involved in the Republican movement, stealing cars and making ham-fisted robberies on petrol stations.
He married Geraldine Noade, and they had a son, Gerard. Sands' commitment to the Republican cause put a great strain on his marriage, and when his wife Geraldine lost her second child by miscarriage, probably due to the stress she was under, their short marriage ended. She left to live in England with their son.
Everyone, Republican or otherwise, has their own particular part to play. No part is too great or too small; no one is too old or too young to do something.
— Bobby Sands.
In October 1972, Sands was arrested. Four handguns were found in a house where he was staying, and he was charged with possession. He spent the next three years in Long Kesh where Special Category status still existed. Gerry Adams2 was his Officer Commanding, and became his mentor, introducing him to more in-depth political debates and discussions.
Released in 1976, he recommenced his activities, and was involved in a number of incidents, although he escaped conviction due to lack of evidence. At the same time he became a community activist, and worked to improve the conditions in Twinbrook. His mother claims that he persuaded the black taxis3 to operate there, he published a Republican newsletter, and established a Sinn Fein cumman4.
Within six months of his release, Sands was re-arrested during a botched escape after a fire-bomb attack on the Balmoral Furniture Company at Dunmurry. Following by a gun battle in which two were wounded, the RUC5 captured Sands and found a revolver in the car. He and five other men were taken to Castlereagh, notorious for its heavy-handed interview techniques. He later wrote a 96-verse ballad about this interrogation.
The British Government had decided that from 1 March, 1976, anyone convicted would be classed as an ordinary criminal, and not entitled to the privileges that had existed under Special Category status. The Irish Times newspaper pointed out the hypocrisy in denying Special Category status when in fact everything was special about the penal system. The whole of Northern Ireland was special: nowhere else, for example, had no jury Diplock courts.
By 1979, the policy of criminalisation, dealing with the issue purely as one of law and order, had led only to the horrors of Warrenpoint6 and Mountbatten7, confrontation in the prisons and murder in the streets. '13 dead but not forgotten, we got 18 and Mountbatten' ran the chillingly callous sectarian chant, referring back to the dead of Bloody Sunday.
At Sands' trial, he was convicted of possession of a firearm, and sentenced to 14 years imprisonment. In Long Kesh, he joined the blanket protest. He was in the newly constructed H-blocks, so named because of their shape. The administration centre was in the crossbar, with four cell wings leading off on the perpendiculars.
He continued his Irish studies, wrote propaganda and poetry, and adopted the caged lark as his symbol. He had memorised Trinity, a romantic historical novel by Leon Uris, and called out the story down the locked corridors of his wing during what the prisoners called 'Book at Bedtime'. He wrote for the Republican newspaper An Phoblacht under the pen name 'Marcella', his sister's name. His articles and letters were smuggled out in minute handwriting on tiny pieces of toilet paper. He wrote:
The days were long and lonely. The sudden and total deprivation of such basic human necessities as exercise and fresh air, association with other people, my own clothes and things like newspapers, radio, cigarettes, books and a host of other things, made my life very hard.
Sands became the public spokesperson for the blanket men, and was in constant confrontation with the prison authorities, resulting in several spells of solitary confinement. In the H-blocks, the prison authorities took an extremely tough line on the prisoners, in an attempt to break their resistance to criminalisation. Prison officers themselves were in fear for their lives, and many were attacked and killed. The authorities couldn't deny the awful conditions that the prisoners were in, conditions which horrified Archbishop O'Fiaich, the Irish Catholic primate, who expressed the view that one would hardly allow an animal to remain in such an environment. But the authorities denied responsibility: they pointed out that the prisoners were depriving themselves of the modern facilities of the prison. 80 of them had been convicted of murder or attempted murder, and more than 80 of explosives offences.
The prisoners chose to focus on their motives, not their deeds. Their protest was trumpeted as a showdown with imperialism. Neither side would listen to the other, empathy being a rare commodity in Northern Ireland. Far away in London, the British Government was bored and annoyed with the Ulster problem, and disgusted with the violence. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher reiterated that the issue was one of law and order, not accommodation.
In May 1980, Thatcher met the Taoiseach8, Charles Haughey, and the latter expressed that the Irish Government wished to achieve unity by peace and agreement. Republicans howled at this perceived sell-out of their struggle. In June, the European Commission on Human Rights dealt another blow to the blanket men, saying that their protest was 'designed and co-ordinated by the prisoners for publicity and sympathy, seeking the status of political prisoner, to which they are not entitled'. The report also called for flexibility on the part of the prison authorities, but this was small comfort to the protesters, and unlikely to be acted on.
Blessed are those that hunger for justice.
— Appearing on many of Belfast's walls, a misquote of the beatitudes.
On 27 October, 1980, following the breakdown of talks between Humphrey Atkins9 and Cardinal O'Fiaich, seven prisoners in the H-blocks began a hunger strike. This took place despite opposition from Sinn Fein – Gerry Adams said, 'We are tactically, strategically, physically and morally opposed to a hunger strike' – but they backed the strike, while urging reason. Sands took over as Officer Commanding from Brendan Hughes, who went on hunger strike. Negotiations succeeded in ending this protest on 18 December, but the initial euphoria evaporated when it emerged that any concessions they thought they had won did not materialise, and their criminal status was unchanged. Morale plummeted.
Outside, violence continued, by now mere background muzak to atrocity-weary spectators. Inside, Sands continued his campaign for political status: on 19 December, 1980, he issued a statement that the prisoners would not wear prison-issue clothing nor do prison work. He began negotiations with the prison governor, Stanley Hilditch, for a step-by-step de-escalation of the protest, but claimed that any efforts from the prisoners were rebuffed by the authorities.
A new hunger strike was proposed, using staggered start dates, and Sands volunteered to be the first. He refused food on 1 March, 1981. In the same month construction began on a 'Peace Line': a wall physically partitioning the Falls and Shankill Roads, an outward sign of the irreconcilable divisions in the city10.
The hunger strike centred around the 'Five Demands':
- the right not to wear a prison uniform;
- the right not to do prison work;
- the right of free association with other prisoners, and to organise educational and recreational pursuits;
- the right to one visit, one letter and one parcel per week;
- full restoration of remission lost through the protest.
Seen in isolation, as most outside Northern Ireland did, these demands seemed decent. But the British Government could not accede without appearing to have given in to extortion. Thatcher wouldn't give in on grounds of principle, especially one upheld by a European Commission report.
Just a regular guy in remarkable circumstances.
— Gerry Adams' summation of Sands.
And then, an unexpected twist of fate: shortly after the beginning of the strike, Frank Maguire, the independent Republican MP for Co Fermanagh and South Tyrone died suddenly of a heart attack and precipitated a by-election.
The vacancy in a seat with a Catholic majority of about 5,000 was an unmissable opportunity for Sands' supporters to unite the Nationalist community behind their campaign. Pressure not to split the vote led other Nationalist parties to stand aside, notably the more moderate SDLP represented by Frank's brother Noel, who only withdrew his nomination papers 13 minutes before the deadline11. Sands stood on the label 'Anti H-block / Armagh12 Political Prisoner'. The question was, would the tribal vote be solid? Would Nationalists opposed to violence vote for a dying IRA man? Would decent Catholics vote for a gunman? Would the campaign slogan 'Don't let them die!' be enough to persuade voters that their mark on a ballot paper could save a life? The key would be who stayed at home on 9 April.
The turnout was high—86.8%, and Sands' majority over Ulster Unionist candidate Harry West was 1,446. Bobby Sands MP became the new baby of the house13.
Following Sands' success the British Government rapidly introduced the Representation of the People Act 1981, which disallows prisoners serving jail terms of more than a year in either the UK or Ireland from being nominated as candidates in UK elections. This was to prevent the other hunger strikers from being elected to the British parliament, although it didn't stop some of them successfully contesting elections in the Irish Republic.
Any anticipated movement from the Prime Minister, now that the dying man was an elected Member of Parliament, was not forthcoming. Intermediaries from all sorts of concerned groups came and went through the prison gates, but progress eluded them all.
Sands' profile was undoubtedly helped by the fact that he was in prison for firearms possession, not murder, and that his photos showed a smiling young man with long hair in a casual red sweater, looking more like a student than a gunman. Murals that appeared on the gable walls of West Belfast portrayed the hunger strikers with much religious iconography, often in Christ-like poses and carrying rosary beads, deliberately appealing to the pious. The next person to join the hunger strike was not so PR-friendly. Francis Hughes, known as the Bellaghy Butcher, was thought to be responsible for the deaths of at least 26 members of the security forces.
At 1.17 am on Tuesday, May 5th, having completed 65 days on hunger strike, Sands died in the H-block prison hospital at Long Kesh. He had spent the last days of his life on a water bed, to protect his fragile bones, and had been in a coma for 48 hours before being pronounced dead.
His death was regretted as 'needless and pointless' by Humphrey Atkins, and was followed by rioting in the Nationalist areas of Belfast, resulting in the death of a milkman and his son, whose float came under a stoning attack. Loyalist reaction was harsh — 'let them all starve'.
His funeral was a macabre pageant, relayed by 700 representatives of the world's media to millions of viewers across the globe, most of whom were at a loss to explain how a man could starve to death for justice in this far-off place. Over 100,000 people lined the route of the funeral procession, and the security forces were at full strength and on full alert. He had been a Member of the Westminster Parliament for 25 days, though he never took his seat or the oath. His book of poems, Skylark Sing Your Lonely Song, was widely circulated.
In response to a question in the House of Commons, Margaret Thatcher said, 'Sands was a convicted criminal. He chose to take his own life. It was a choice that his organisation did not allow to many of its victims'. The official announcement of Sands' death in the House of Commons omitted the customary expression of sense of loss and sympathy with the family of the member.
'Let Them All Starve'
The British have nothing in their entire arsenal or imperial might to counter a single man who refuses to be broken.
— From 'Trinity', by Leon Uris.
Nine other hunger strikers followed him to their graves, each death rung out across the streets of Belfast with bin lids banged on the pavement. As each of the men went through the well-known stages of starvation, their deaths were more predictable than the fickle Irish weather. But the crowds for each funeral grew ever smaller, awe and horror and indignation worn thin.
Father Denis Faul worked on persuading the relatives to intervene, with support from the clergy, the authorities, and the vast majority of the public, and gradually the families began to agree to feeding their sons once they had reached coma stage. In the by-election to replace Sands, Owen Carron, his election agent, stood as an Anti-H-block Proxy Political Prisoner. He won with an increased majority on 20 August, the same date as the 10th man, Mickey Deane, died. The strike was eventually called off in October that year, and Sinn Fein announced that they would contest future Northern Irish elections. The British claimed victory, however hollow. Three days later, the first of the prisoners' demands, on clothing, was granted, with partial concessions on the others following. But what else could London have done – concede? And what did the hunger strike prove – was it just another page in the long Republican saga, where the Irish are brave and the British devoid of pity? So what?
We'll never forget you, Jimmy Sands
— Graffiti which appeared on the Loyalist Shankill Road after his death.
The killings continued, and polarisation extended. Sands' death saw a surge in membership of the IRA, and the Thatcher Government's refusal to negotiate on the prisoners' demands was portrayed by the world's media as either courageous or hard-hearted in equal measure. However, the Republicans began to see the potential power in political engagement, and commenced their campaign of contesting elections, sowing the first seeds of what became, 25 years later, a negotiated and electorally mandated peaceful solution, and a form of power-sharing assembly. At times it appears fragile, but, almost unbelievably, it exists.
Sands is a potent symbol of self-sacrifice to Republicans, claimed by various factions of the IRA: a mural of him adorns the side of Sinn Fein's offices on the Falls Road, and a memorial service is held there each year on the anniversary of his death. He is also claimed by the dissident Real IRA, and its political wing, the 32 County Sovereignty Movement, which has his sister Bernadette Sands-McKevitt as a spokesperson. She argues:
Bobby did not die for cross-border bodies with executive powers. He did not die for Nationalists to be equal British citizens within the Northern Ireland state. Bobby did not die for peace: he died for independence.
Her words perhaps explain why such dissident groups are still active. Her husband, Michael McKevitt, is in prison for terrorist offences, and is being pursued in a civil action over the 1998 Omagh bombing.
Debate continues over the use of the site of the former Maze/Long Kesh prison, with much opposition to redevelopment projects coming from Unionists, who fear it will become a shrine to Sands and the other hunger strikers.
The closing months of 1981 brought dim but significant rays of hope, and pointed to a new direction for the future. In September, Lagan College opened, the province's first integrated school14. In October, Danny Morrison at the Sinn Fein Ardfheis15 spoke of having the ballot paper in one hand and the ArmaLite in the other, and marked the start of Sinn Fein's active pursuit of a political way forward. In November, Margaret Thatcher and Garrett Fitzgerald agreed to set up the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Council. In December, 1981 there were no deaths as a result of the Troubles, for the first month since June, 1971.16
Had Thatcher won the battle but lost the war? The hunger strikes transformed the political character of the Northern Irish problem. Republican prisoners appeared in a role in which they were accepting suffering for their cause, instead of inflicting it on others. The massive turn out at the funerals showed the support that could be summoned in Catholic areas. Escaped prisoner Owen Carron is one of many still 'on the run'. Fitzgerald in his memoirs notes that it was a real fear of Sinn Fein superseding the SDLP which sped the development of the Anglo-Irish agreement. The hunger strikes, then, indirectly (since nothing is ever direct in the convoluted maze of Northern Irish politics) were a turning point.