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1981 IRA Hunger Strike in Northern Ireland: The calculated death of Bobby Sands


On May 5, 1981, Bobby Sands was the first of ten IRA people to starve to death in British custody. Her agonizing death as a "martyr" fueled the Northern Ireland conflict, but also ushered in the turning point.

It took less than an hour for the news to hit the streets of Belfast: Robert Gerard Sands, known as Bobby, had died on May 5, 1981 at around 1:17 a.m.

After 66 days he had starved himself to death.

Now children and young people streamed into the streets and hit the asphalt with metal garbage can lids: this alarm signal was used to warn of the army and police in the Northern Irish civil war, and to announce death and terror.

The deafening clatter spread from quarter to quarter, from city to city, and did not go away for hours.

In the morning the horror had long since raged, soon with the first victims on the streets.

Enlarge image

Bobby Sands: Died after 66 days of hunger strike

Photo: ZUMA / Keystone / imago images

The death of Bobby Sands, 27, was the first on IRA inmates' hunger strike, with nine others dying in the next seven months.

The hunger strike heated the bloody conflict to a new high point - and at the same time put the Thatcher government in the pillory.

Because the world public was stunned: How could a civilized state let prisoners starve to death?

Wasn't Northern Ireland about human rights, not just terror?

How could there still be an alleged "religious war" on the edge of Western Europe, in which British soldiers fought Catholics?

The young Bobby Sands had seen from the mid-1960s how age-old resentment and harassment against Catholics increasingly turned into open terror.

The myth of the war of faith: late effects of imperialism

The alleged denominational conflict was a late consequence of British colonialism.

When Ireland was divided in 1921, the over 90 percent Protestant descendants of the British colonial rulers were concentrated in the northeast.

The parts of this province of Ulster, which were predominantly inhabited by Irish, were renounced, making the Irish living in the newly defined Northern Ireland a minority.

Far more than 90 percent of them were Catholic - in Ireland you can tell by the denomination sign of origin.

From 1966, an ever stronger civil rights movement protested against discrimination against Catholics in the labor and housing market, but above all in political representation.

It was fought increasingly brutally: Images of peace marches, beaten down by fanatical Protestant mobs and police officers, went around the world.

All of this escalated from 1968 to a civil war with street battles, attacks on families who lived in "wrong" neighborhoods, and more and more murders by representatives of both sides. So-called loyalists got Bobby Sands at gunpoint to give up his apprenticeship as a coachbuilder. A mob forcibly evicted the Sands family from their home in a previously "mixed" neighborhood.

When the British army, actually sent to Northern Ireland to protect the Catholic quarters, took the "unionist" side, the radicalization of young people in Catholic quarters became a normal reflex.

The young Republicans organized themselves into the new Provisional IRA, PIRA or Provos for short.

Unlike the old IRA, largely insignificant since the late 1950s, the PIRA believed that it could drive the British out of Northern Ireland by force of arms.

Hatred creates hatred - a perfectly normal radicalization

In his youth, Bobby Sands was shaped by the experience that the state in which he lived met him with hatred. He hated going back and joined PIRA at 17. A few months later he was caught with a gun and sentenced to five years in prison. Sands ended up in the Maze maximum security prison. In July 1973 he met Gerry Adams in the H-shaped cell blocks, the "H-Blocks".

Adams was considered a young pioneer of the Republican movement. As part of a PIRA negotiating delegation, he helped negotiate a first, short-lived ceasefire with the British government the previous year. From then on, the only 24-year-old Belfast, along with Martin McGuinness, 22, was the future leader of the Irish nationalist movement. Their division of tasks was to last for decades: Adams became the political agitator, McGuinness the man of the gun.

Adams introduced Sands to political ideas while in custody: the dream of a socialist-ruled Republic of Ireland that should also break away from British influence culturally.

Bobby Sands was docile, educated about politics, learned Gaelic, the ancient Celtic language of Ireland.

The Republican prisoners mostly spoke Gaelic among themselves, as hardly anyone among the guards and the British understood that.

Soon Sands was considered a political talent in the fighting cadre.

He published Gaelic essays and poems smuggled out of jail in the PIRA-affiliated newspaper "An Phoblacht".

The fact that he also looked good, with his long hair reminiscent of a rock star, later predestined him to be the ideal image of the Irish rebel - half sensitive poet, half fighter.

Just six months after his release in 1976, he was imprisoned again.

Again a gun had been found in a car he was driving.

A special court without a jury ruled draconian: 14 years imprisonment for possession of weapons, although Sands could not be proven.

Prisoners of War or Criminals?

In the meantime, prisoners from paramilitary organizations in the H-Blocks had been denied their "Special Category Status", which PIRA prisoners had enforced in 1972 through their first hunger strike.

The British wanted to withdraw this de facto recognition as political prisoners: They hoped that criminalization would cost the paramilitaries' popularity - and the sympathy of the media.

The prisoners responded with the "blanket protest": They refused to wear prison clothing and to perform prison services until their old status was restored.

Sands also stayed naked for the next five years, using only a blanket to protect himself.

Outside, Adams struggled with Sinn Féin, which at the time was only the “political arm” and mouthpiece of the PIRA, to publicize the suffering of the soon to be 300 prisoners “on the ceiling”.

But the British plan worked, and support for paramilitary activities continued to decline.

"In the nationalist ghettos," wrote Gerry Adams looking back in 1986, "the level of mobilization was at its lowest level since the beginning of the conflict, the prevailing mood was war weariness."

From March 1978, the inmates of the H-Blocks also refused to practice personal hygiene; Bobby Sands was promoted to "senior officer". They emptied urine through the slits of their doors into the corridors, and smeared their feces on the walls. The prison authorities had the windows broken out and the cells completely emptied, in order to occasionally spray them with disinfectant from the outside.

When the Catholic Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich visited the H-Blocks in July 1978, he was blown away in every way.

In two cells, he said later, he was only able to listen to the prisoners because he did not dare to answer: he was not sure whether he could keep the contents of his stomach to him.

Deeply shaken by the "inhuman conditions", he also reported to Rome.

The Vatican tried to mediate - in vain, also because the "Catholic" prisoners did not see themselves primarily as Christians, but as Irish socialists (PIRA) or Marxists (INLA).

Nothing moved until January 1980, and more and more prisoners joined the protests.

Then they published a specific catalog of demands.

they demanded

  • “The right not to wear prison clothing

  • the right not to have to do prison labor

  • the right to exchange ideas with other prisoners, to organize educational and leisure activities

  • the right to one visit, one letter and one package per week

  • the full crediting of the protest time against possible times for remission of punishment. "

  • October 1980: Hunger strikes begin

    Since the British government officially refused to negotiate, the conflict escalated further: on October 27, 1980, six PIRA and one INLA prisoners began a hunger strike.

    On December 18, it became apparent that prisoner Sean McKenna would not survive much longer, he was in a coma.

    The British authorities indicated that they would be accommodating and the prisoners broke off their hunger strike after 53 days.

    A few days later it was clear: you were caught up in a feint.

    Margaret Thatcher's government was not about to give in to any demand.

    In January 1981, claims Gerry Adams, the PIRA leadership was informed by Bobby Sands that the prisoners were preparing for the next hunger strike.

    "I wrote to Bobby Sands," as Adams puts it in his book "The Politics of Irish Freedom": "Bobby, we are tactically, strategically, physically and morally against a hunger strike." But the prisoners insisted, and on In the end he, Adams, knew "that Bobby was going to die".

    Today we know: It wasn't the whole truth.

    On the morning of March 1, 1981, Sands refused to eat.

    The other nine men from the first volunteer group for the hunger strike followed him every few days.

    These distances were aimed at prolonging the strike - and increasing the likelihood that the strikers would also die at a distance and thus gradually increase the pressure.

    After the failure of the first attempt, it was agreed that this time it would go to death: the starving were to become martyrs in a propaganda war.




    ballot box and ball


    That was new.

    Since the mid-1970s, Adams had tried to turn Sinn Féin into a party and the republican movement into a politically active force.

    It failed because of the resistance of the powerful PIRA "Army Council".

    Enlarge image

    Partner Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness (right, photo from 1999): Adams denies to this day that he has ever been a PIRA member.

    McGuinness never admitted that he might even have been head of the "Army Council."

    In public they acted as representatives of "Ballot and Bullet".

    Photo: Adrian Dennis / AFP

    Now the tide began to turn: the

    Dirty Protest

    had already brought support from NGOs and the media. Now Bobby Sands was starving himself to death with public appeal - and an opportunity arose "outside": Member of the House of Commons Frank Maguire died of a heart attack, which led to by-elections in the Fermanagh district. Sinn Féin broke with the principle of not participating in the British political system and nominated Bobby Sands. He became the first MP of the Republican Movement on April 9, 1981.

    Now a real representative died of starvation in the H blocks - and the street exploded.

    The dwindling republican movement experienced a renewed upswing.

    When Sands died, an estimated 100,000 people attended his funeral.

    By now it was clear: with martyrs and skillful PR, Sinn Féin could achieve more than the PIRA with weapons.

    Adam's “Ballot and Bullet” strategy prevailed.

    Sinn Féin and PIRA were willing to tap into this potential.

    Starvation as a means of political PR?

    Contrary to the official account, the British negotiated with the prisoners.

    The key figure was the "Mountain Climber," an agent of MI6.

    In 1981 the British secret negotiator succeeded in persuading the Thatcher government to make concessions.

    Without officially complying with the prisoners' demands, the British allegedly agreed not to enforce the controversial detention rules.

    Four of the hunger strikers had already died when the "mountaineer" informed the prisoners' representatives.

    The two spokesmen for the PIRA and INLA prisoners discussed the offer on July 5, 1981.

    "What do you think?" Asked Brendan McFarlane.

    Richard O'Raw replied in Irish: “That's enough.

    I agree, write to those outside and let them know. "

    O'Raw himself made the willingness to break off the deadly protest public in a book in 2006.

    To this day, McFarlane has denied a British offer, but it is considered certain: Witnesses confirm the dialogue, as have official documents that have now been disclosed.

    The British were apparently ready to give in - and the prisoners were ready to end the hunger strike.

    Then why did another six men die?

    Apparently because Sinn Féin and PIRA discovered the propaganda power of martyrdom.

    In the summer of '81 there were elections in the republic too, and Adams wanted to run prisoners as candidates.

    Bobby Sands' lower house was also vacated by his death.

    So on July 6, 1981, the party and the Army Council refused to break off the hunger strike, which the prisoners supposedly organized on their own.

    Bobby Sand's death - a turning point

    Two detainees actually became nominal members of the Irish Parliament, including a dying hunger striker.

    Sand's lower house also went to Sinn Féin again - another propaganda victory.

    On an inhumanly cynical level, the painful death of the prisoners was a complete success.

    The republican movement revived, 1981 became the most violent year of the Northern Ireland conflict since 1972, the year of Bloody Sunday.

    At the same time, however, the hunger strike initiated the process that turned Sinn Féin into a regular political party.

    From 1981 onwards, Sinn Féin MPs were to be represented in the parliaments of Great Britain and Ireland - at first only nominally, but then at least actively in the two parts of Ireland.

    Since 2007, with the unionist DUP and the republican Sinn Féin, even the two most radical parties on the Northern Irish spectrum have been ruling the province together;

    the alleged former PIRA chief Martin McGuinness was deputy head of government from 2007 to 2017.

    The death of Bobby Sands ultimately marked a turning point in the conflict.

    He himself was stylized as a martyr, a rebel and a poet.

    Today he is even credited with popular songs, his rebel song "Back Home in Derry" is available in 225 versions on Spotify, one recorded by the Cologne carnival band Höhner.

    The motto "Tiocfaidh ar la" ("Our day will come") should also come from Bobby Sands, it is still the PIRA's battle cry to this day.

    In the end, mothers stopped dying

    The sentence can also be found in the last paragraph of his hunger strike diary. Bobby Sand's last spoken words are not recorded, but those of his comrade-in-arms Patsy O'Hara, who died fourth. “Mommy,” he is reported to have said to his mother Peggy shortly before, “I'm sorry we didn't win. But please let the fight go on. "

    She did and did not intervene when he fell into a coma and died. The fact that the hunger strike ended after seven painful months is thanks to other mothers: four gave their sons permission to artificially feed their sons after they were no longer able to express themselves. On September 26, Liam McCloskey ended his hunger strike because his family had announced that they would have him cared for as soon as he passed out. On October 3, 1981, the hunger strike ended without the prisoners being able to enforce their demands.

    Or maybe yes?

    At least the promises of the "Mountain Climber" were gradually fulfilled.

    Britain refused prisoners of war status, but treated them that way.

    Behind the scenes, the future Nobel Peace Prize laureate John Hume had long since submitted a proposal to the British that would develop into a peace plan over the next decade.

    The way was probably cleared in 1991 by a secret meeting: Martin McGuinness, at that time probably head of the PIRA, negotiated once more with the "Mountain Climber".

    Seven years later, most of the guns fell silent.

    Those who keep firing are often still doing so on behalf of Bobby Sands.

    Source: spiegel

    All news articles on 2021-05-05

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