What exactly is one supposed to say about Bobby Sands? Was he a fearless martyr who fell victim to the uncompromising British Government or was he a naïve suicidal who stubbornly refused the nourishment and medical treatment repeatedly offered to him? Although there is much debate about Bobby Sands and the role that he played during the Troubles, it is irrefutable that his name is one that will not be forgotten for many years to come.
Robert Gerard Sands was born in Abbots Cross, a Protestant area of northern Belfast on March 9, 1954, and just six years later his family was intimidated from their home. Upon moving to Rathcoole, the family experienced several incidents where their home was surrounded by Protestants, chanting and shouting. After Bobby had also survived a knife attack in that neighborhood, the family relocated to a Catholic area of Belfast. There, Bobby became an apprentice for a coach builder, and in 1972, the year with the highest recorded death toll during the Troubles, he also joined the IRA.
Bobby married Geraldine Noade shortly thereafter at the age of 18, and the couple had a son, Gerard Sands, on May 8, 1973. The marriage, however, was short-lived due to the intensive strain caused by Bobby’s active participation in the Republican movement. After suffering a miscarriage during her second pregnancy, Geraldine left to live in England with their son. This only drove Bobby to give more to the cause. He was described by one IRA member as “feisty, argumentative, and showing potential” (Coogan 277).
In October of 1976, Bobby was charged with the bombing of the Balmoral Furniture Company, and this was an operation that he was initially not supposed to take part in, but Bobby insisted that was going to participate (Coogan 277). He was, however, never convicted due to a lack of evidence. Following the bombing, Bobby and at least five others in the bomb team were suspected of partaking in a gun battle against the Royal Ulster Constabulary. As they attempted to make an escape, they were apprehended, and one of the revolvers used in the attack was later found in Bobby’s vehicle. In September of 1977, Bobby was convicted of possession of firearms and sentenced to fourteen years imprisonment within HM Prison Maze, also known as Long Kesh (Mahjoob 1).
Previously, Republican prisoners had organized protests in hopes of regaining their Special Category Status. On February 5, 1981 Sinn Fein announced, “Our last hunger strikers were morally blackmailed,” (Coogan 276), and as the successor to Brendan Hughes as Officer Commanding of the IRA prisoners, Bobby wanted to begin the second hunger strike immediately. Outside leadership, however, felt that it would be an inappropriate time, so Bobby simply began taking names from volunteers who wished to participate, and as communication spread from outside the jail to the rest of the world, the Palestinians proved to have a great wealth of advice for the strikers. Bobby refused food for the first time on March 1, 1981, the anniversary of the end of Special Category Status (Coogan 228). As the leader of the Provisional prisoners, Bobby decided that the remaining strikers should join at staggered intervals in order to maximize publicity. Other prisoners also helped to focus attention on the 1981 Hunger Strike by temporarily calling off their “dirty protest.”
The hunger strike centered around the “Five Demands,” which included: 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 organize educational and recreational pursuits, the right to one visit, one letter and one parcel per week, and the full restoration of remission lost through the protest (Taylor 251). The Provisional prisoners hoped to ensure that they would be declared as political prisoners or prisoners of war, rather than criminals.
A few days later, on March 5, 1981, Frank Maguire, MP of the Fermanagh /South Tyrone constituency, passed away. This allowed a by-election in which Bobby Sands was able to run. He was added to the bill under the label of “Anti-H-Block / Armagh Political Prisoner.” On April 9, 1981, Bobby’s victory over Harry West was announced, and he became the youngest MP at the time. This news thrilled Republicans, but outraged Loyalists. Following Bobby’s victory, the British Government introduced the Representation of the People Act 1981, which prevented prisoners serving jail terms of more than one year in either the United Kingdom or the Republic of Ireland from being nominated as candidates in UK elections. This law was quickly introduced in order to prevent other hunger strikers from being elected to the British parliament.
Although the 1981 Hunger Strike was described as being “more determined,” and communication between the British Government and the Provisionals was reopened, Prime Minister Thatcher still ruled out any concession in which political status would be granted (Bew 209). Because Thatcher refused to break and the Dirty Protest was going nowhere, Bobby feared for a collapse of the prisoners’ organization within the jail.
At 1:17 a.m. on Tuesday, May 5, 1981, Bobby Sands passed away, causing massive rioting across the province, as well as in Dublin. After 66 days, he was the first of ten hunger strikers to die in 1981. Owen Carron, who would later succeed Bobby, visited him in the prison earlier that day, explaining,
“He was lying on the waterbed, his left eye was black and closed and the right eye nearly closed and his mouth twisted as if he had suffered a stroke. He had no feeling in his legs and could only whisper. He managed to ask if there was any change.” Carron replied, “No,” and Bobby said, “Well, that’s it. Keep my ma in mind.”
Over 100,000 people gathered at Bobby’s funeral, and the media coverage surrounding his death led to a new surge of IRA activity. The group increased in size and in fund-raising capabilities. Many Irish Nationalists who abhorred the IRA were completely outraged by the actions, or perhaps lack of action of the British Government. In fact, both Nationalists and Unionists began to harden their attitudes and move towards political extremes (Mahjoob 2). Yet, although supporters turned out in Oslo, Milan, Ghent, Havana, and New York City, as well, many people still mocked Bobby Sands, criticizing his ideology. Among them was Prime MinisterThatcher who remarked later that day, “Mr. Sands was a convicted criminal. He chose to take his own life. It was a choice that his organization did not allow to many of its victims,” (Thatcher). This only goes to show that no matter what one does, he or she can never please everyone.
1. Beatty, Jack. “Out of the Maze.” New Republic. 9 May 1981. 18 June 2009.
2. BBC News. “1981: Bobby Sands dies in prison” On This Day. 5 May 2009. http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/may/5/newsid_2728000/2728309.stm 17 June 2009.
3. Beresford, David. Ten Men Dead: The Story of the 1981 Irish Hunger Strike. London: Harper Collins Publishers, 1987. 17 June 2009.
4. Bew, Paul et. al. Northern Ireland: 1921-1994. London: Serif, 1995. 17 June 2009.
5. Coogan, Tim Pat. The Troubles: Ireland’s Ordeal 1966-1996 and the Search for Peace. United Kingdom: Hutchinson, 1995. 17 June 2009
6. The Irish Hunger Strikers: A Commemorative Project. March 1996. 18 June 2009. http://larkspirit.com/hungerstrikes/index.html.
7. Mahjoob, Mehdi. Biography. 2009. 18 June 2009. http://bobby-sands.com/biography.html.
8. McKenna, Fionnuala. Westminster By-election (NI). 9 April 1981. CAIN Web Service. 18 June 2009.
9. Taylor, Peter. Provos The IRA & Sinn Féin. United Kingdom: Bloomsbury Publishing, 1997. 18 June 2009.
10. Thatcher, Margaret. House of Commons PQs. 5 May 1981. Margaret Thatcher Foundation. 18 June 2009. http://www.margaretthatcher.org/speeches/displaydocument.asp?docid=104641