Bobby Sands and the 1981 Hunger Strike 40 years on

Bobby Sands funeral on route Milltown Cemetry Belfast – over 100,000 attended



‘THEY will not criminalise us, rob us of our true identity, steal our individualism, depoliticise us, churn us out as systemised, institutionalised, decent law-abiding robots. Never will they label our liberation struggle as criminal,’ Bobby Sands.

The 1980 Hunger Strike led by Brendan Hughes comprised of seven Republican male prisoners at Her Majesty’s Cellular Prison, the Maze, also known as Long Kesh Prison Camp and three female Republican prisoners at Armagh Women’s Prison ended in December 1980 after 53 days.

An agreement was reached between the protesting prisoners, the prison authorities and by extension the British Government ending the Hunger Strike. The prisoners demanding the reinstatement of Special Category Status were Republican volunteers jailed for opposing politically and militarily the British occupation of Ireland were treated as POWs, Prisoners of War.

After the introduction of internment in 1971 citizens of the state mainly Catholics with no criminal records were incarcerated without trial, having been convicted of no crime nor charged with any offence in Long Kesh Prison Camp. These prisoners who were basically deprived of their liberty were allowed to wear their own clothes, have free association within the camp, drill, exercise and hold educational classes.

They ran the internment huts independently of the prison regime. Long Kesh had been used previously as a military camp and was brought into service as a makeshift prison camp along with a Royal Navy Ship berthed in Belfast Harbour known as The Prison Ship Maidstone.

Both these facilities were needed because of the level of violence being exerted in society by the revolutionary Irish Republican Army and the counter-revolutionary British Government armed and endorsed Ulster Defence Association and the more violent Ulster Volunteer Force.

Republican volunteers who were convicted of politically or militarily opposing the continued British military occupation of the North East of Ireland known as Northern Ireland who were imprisoned in Long Kesh Camp were denied the Special Category Status enjoyed by the Internees.

Following a Hunger Strike by Republican Prisoners in 1972 Special Category Status was extended to those convicted of politically motivated offences. The strike led by Billy McKee and involving 40 other inmates succeeded in conferring Prisoner of War status to the IRA in the jail and in effect the British told the world the IRA were an armed politically motivated revolutionary army involved in a war against the continued occupation of a part of Ireland by the British Government its Army and civil enforcement structures.

It meant the IRA was engaged in a war of national liberation against a foreign occupying government.

Hunger strikes were not new in the arsenal of Irish Republican Resistance.

Although used as a desperate last resort to resolve injustice there are many precedents in Irish history for the use of hunger strikes. It was traditional for any person who was wronged by another to sit and fast at the door of those who had wronged them until justice was done.

This special category status was removed on March 1st 1976 when the new prison The Maze was opened adjacent to Long Kesh and the British Government enacted its new prison policy of criminalisation of Irish Republican Prisoners, the movement outside and its supporters at home and abroad.

All prisoners convicted after 1st March 1976 would be given prison uniforms and treated as criminals, made to carry out prison work and to obey orders given by the prison warders/regime and not their elected officers commanding the IRA volunteers held within the system.

After four years of prison protest, violence from the prison officers, failure by the British to implement the necessary changes to restore Special Category Status as agreed in the document ending the first Hunger Strike in 1980, a new Hunger Strike led by Bobby Sands the Officer Commanding of his wing began on March 1st 1981. Exactly five years to the day Special Status Category was withdrawn by the Her Majesty’s Government.

The prisoners would join the Hunger Strike at staged intervals to build momentum, support and pressure for their demands to be met.

The first to go on hunger strike was Bobby Sands IRA Belfast Brigade (convicted of possession of a gun) followed by Francis Hughes IRA South Derry Brigade (killing a British soldier) Raymond McCreesh IRA South Armagh Brigade (possession of a rifle, attempted murder of security forces, IRA membership) and Patsy O Hara INLA Derry (possession of a hand grenade). Patsy was the Leader of the Irish National Liberation Army prisoners.

The prisoners claimed a hunger strike was unavoidable due to what they claimed was ‘British deceit and broken promises’.

Francis Hughes, referring to the failure of the British Government to implement the changes agreed to end the first hunger strike, said: ‘The British know that any solution other than outright victory would be a defeat for them. It was in this frame of mind that they masterminded events leading into the new year, and when they foolishly thought they had won the day through their treachery they asked us for a white flag. Our action alone answers their hypocritical request and as before the message is loud and clear. There is no white flag and there shall be no surrender.’

As the hunger strike proceeded and more men joined the death fast, Margaret Thatcher was advised by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, a Minister, a member of her own Cabinet, to sit tight and do nothing.

Outside the prison, the momentum and support for the Hunger Strikers were growing. When a by-election was called in the Fermanagh South Tyrone Parliamentary Constituency due to the death of the sitting Independent Member of the British House of Commons, Frank Maguire, an opportunity was presented which afforded the Hunger Strikers, The IRA and its supporters the ability to highlight the prisoners demand.

After serious negotiations within the Nationalist community, it was agreed by all other parties and individuals interested in contesting the seat that Bobby Sands would be nominated on 30th March 1981 to stand as a candidate for the vacant Parliamentary seat.

During the first seventeen days of his hunger strike, Bobby had already lost sixteen pounds in body weight and was moved to the prison hospital.

Bobby stood as an Anti-H-Block/Armagh Political Prisoner candidate and was opposed by Harry West who stood for the Ulster Unionist Party. On 9 April 1981, Sands won the election with 30,492 votes against 29,046 for West.

Bobby Sands was elected with more votes by his constituents in Fermanagh South Tyrone than the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher received by voters in her constituency of Finchley.

Despite this historic election and the victory for the hunger-striking prisoners and their demands to be treated as prisoners of war, tragically Bobby Sands would die twenty-six days later on May 5 1981 after 66 days on a hunger strike.

He died as an Irish Republican felon convicted of militarily opposing the British Occupation of Ireland. An Irish prisoner in a British jail, on Irish soil, as the elected Parliamentary representative of the people of Fermanagh South Tyrone at the British Parliament. A member of The House of Commons with a larger vote than the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Amid the fallout and embarrassment of the British Establishment that a Republican Prisoner could be democratically elected by the will of the people to the House of Commons speedy legislation was rushed through Parliament barring prisoners serving 12 months or longer from standing for Parliament.

Owen Carron who was Bobby Sands election agent stood in the new by-election caused by the death of Bobby Sands MP and was elected in August 1981 to the same seat with an increased majority and became the youngest MP at the time. In line with most other Irish Republicans elected to the British Parliament, he did not take his seat.

‘I was only a working class boy from a Nationalist ghetto. But it is repression that creates the revolutionary spirit of freedom,’

– Bobby Sands.