Thursday, 5 May 2016
As people go to polling booths today to vote in assembly elections, thought i'd remember a man who also took part in the political process subsequently becoming a Member of Parliament.
Today marks the 35th anniversary of the death of Robert Gerard "Bobby " Sands who died after being on hunger strike for 66 days in the Long Kesh Maze Prison in Northern Ireland to protest against British treatment of IRA prisoners. He was 27, emaciated weighing a mere 95 pounds his fillings having fallen out, his organs shut down and the whites of his eyes turned orange from toxins released.
Over the next few months, 9 other republican prisoners followed him, the culmination of a 5 year struggle in the prisons of Northern Ireland demanding jail reforms and the return of special category status allowing them to be treated as prisoners of war , allowing them the privileges of POW's as specified in the Geneva Convention.
Margaret Thatcher the British Prime Minister at the time decided that no concessions be made to the prisoners, and with cold and calculated cruelty she and her government allowed them to die.
Bobby Sands had been bought to the republican struggle through personal experience after being intimidated out of his job as an apprentice car builder by fellow workers. and after his family were intimidated out of their home in Rathcoole, a predominantly loyalist area of North Belfast, growing up under the cloud of nationalist and loyalist divisions, Catholics like Bobby were reduced to second class citizens while the Protestant majority were granted privileges in jobs, education and services.
In 1971 the British introduced internment - allowing its forces to arrest anyone they saw fit and hold them indefinitely without charge. In 1972 the year he joined the IRA he was picked up by the police beaten up and tortured after some handguns were found in a house he was staying in and was sentenced to 5 years in Long kesh, he was rearrested in 1976 and in a juryless trial was sentenced to 14 years for possession of a gun found in a car he shared with 5 other people
Developing his political ideas he was to become a leader and inspiration to the prisoners.He pushed hard for prison reforms confronting the authorities, and for his outspoken ways was often given solitary confinement sentences He was also a prolific writer , who wrote numerous poems . His name will always be remembered, his sacrifice never forgotten. Today his smiling face is known the world over and his fight for freedom remains an inspiration wherever people rise up against injustice. Following his death Nelson Mandela led a hunger strike by prisoners on Robben Island to improve their own conditions.Palestinian prisoners have increasingly used the same tactics too to bring attention to their plight. The hunger strikers who died over thirty years ago still continue to provide inspiration to political prisoners everywhere.
Many years later it is perhaps difficult to fully appreciate the sacrifices 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.
It should be noted that their fight won huge support in Ireland, North and South and around the world One month before his death Bobby Sands was elected to Parliament in a rebuke to the British Government from the people of Northern Ireland having won 30,492 votes, ten thousand more than Thatcher in her London Constituency of Finchley and with a majority twice as large. I remember Thatcher's ( British PM at the time) callous refusal to reach any compromise - " crime is crime, it is not political." she said, which only served to reinvigorate the republican cause at the time. It is estimated that over 100,000 people attended Bobby's funeral.and an international outpouring of grief and anti British demonstrations were to take place. Protests were held in Paris, Milan, Ghent , Australia and Greece. In a ripple effect that was felt across the world.
And although Thatcher claimed victory , her government conceded the hunger strikers demands soon after the protest ended and even she, the main adversary of Sands and his comrades was moved to say years later " It was possible to admire the courage of Sands and the other hunger strikers who died."
In political terms , the 1981 hunger strike marked a sea change in irish republicanism and in the history of the Northern Ireland conflict, the scale of the mass campaign in support of the prisoners it helped turned the republican struggle increasingly towards a political, rather than a purely military focus , away from viole, decommissioning and towards ceasefire which would be crucial in laying the ground for the peace process which would have once seemed inconceivable, that has continued to prosper because peace and justice is what the people want and need.
Bobby Sands stature keeps growing, and his poetry and songs still resound, let us remember him, let us never forget.
He said before he died " our revenge will be the laughter of our children." - a phrase that says all that we need to know about him and looks beyond the bloodshed to true peace.
Here is a link to a previous post that includes some of his fine poetry
a small eulogy from my own pen :-
He died in springtime,
When flowers were waking,
But his passion born of love and anger,
Remained undimmed, his will unbroken,
On the side of justice and right,
The most profound human hunger of all,
Through pain and struggle he rode on,
Kept up the fight, let the world be his witness,
Let truth shine it's light, for his cause to be seen,
Strength and courage carried this poets bones,
No fear, only defiance was to be seen in his eyes,
And now today his spirit still lives on,
As the ugliness of injustice continues to roam.
Posted by teifidancer at 11:00