There are men and women in Ireland and Northern Ireland who have forever marked Irish history. Bobby Sands (1954-1981), a young Northern Irish Republican, is one of them.

A true symbol, still today, he is one of the high faces of the Republican struggle in Northern Ireland. A committed member of the IRA, he is known for having defied Margaret Tatcher and the London government by organizing a collective hunger strike while imprisoned in Long Kesh in Lisburn…

His demands were clear: he called for London to recognize the status of political prisoner to the imprisoned members of the IRA… A demand that remained unanswered… and that led to the death of several strikers, including Bobby himself…

A look back at a scandal that left its mark on Northern Ireland and on international opinion… in the midst of the Troubles.

Biography of Bobby Sands

A youth very quickly marked by the Anglo-Irish conflict

Bobby Sand was born in Newtownabbey in Northern Ireland in 1954. His childhood takes place in a conflictual climate opposing unceasingly catholic republicans and protestant loyalists. He evolved in a context of perpetual violence, and quickly took a stand.

He joined the IRA at the age of 18 (in 1972) and was arrested for the first time from 1972 to 1976, during which time he was imprisoned.

When he was released from prison, Bobby Sands did not change his political ideologies one inch. He decided to get more involved in the IRA, becoming one of the main activist leaders of the movement.

However, he was arrested very quickly, in 1977, for possession of a firearm and bombing.

Although the charge of assault was quickly dismissed by the court in charge of his case, he was nevertheless sentenced to 14 years in prison for carrying a prohibited weapon in Maze prison (also called Longh Kesh).

Bobby Sands wants to be recognized as a political prisoner

Intérieur de la Prison de Maze - neverending september - cc

Intérieur de la Prison de Maze – neverending september – cc

In this penitentiary, Sands continues the struggle through more pacifist modes…

He then begins to write politically engaged texts, as well as some poems. Many texts of his composition are even published throughout his detention in the An Phoblacht, the official newspaper of the IRA.

But prison life in Maze is particularly difficult, and tensions between prisoners and guards are palpable.

From the beginning, the prisoners tried to assert their rights with the “Blanket Protest (1976-1981)” and the “Dirty Protest (1978-1981)”. This is a protest technique where prisoners refuse to wear the prison uniform and live naked, wrapped in only a blanket. In addition to this refusal to wear the uniform, there was a real war on hygiene, where the prisoners refused to wash themselves, urinating and defecating everywhere in order to put the prison in a deplorable sanitary state.

Bobby Sands also participates in this struggle, but seems to want to go further to make himself heard.

Sands organizes unprecedented hunger strike

Margaret Thatcher - Public domain

Margaret Thatcher – Public domain

Aware of the powerful media leverage that a hunger strike could provide, Bobby Sands decided to implement a new strategy.

He started a hunger strike on March 1, 1980, in order to raise public awareness of the actions of the IRA and the attitude of the London government towards Northern Ireland. Bobby Sands was not alone in this action: he was accompanied by other members of the IRA, firmly determined to go all the way to make themselves heard…

During this strike, the death of a Republican MP from Fermanagh and South Tyrone arouses a lot of interest, and Bobby Sands cannot help but run for the position. The Catholics then proposed Sands as a candidate, and he was finally nominated on April 9, 1981, where he won over Harry West.

Faced with this unexpected victory, the London government decided to counter Bobby Sands by passing an electoral law aimed at prohibiting prisoners from playing any political role and running for office while incarcerated (this law is known as the Representation of the Peole Act).

Losing his seat in the House of Representatives, Bobby Sands decided to continue his hunger strike and continue to protest. The pain is intense, and very quickly, the Northern Irishman is bedridden in the prison infirmary. Doctors came regularly to see him, urging him to eat… in vain.

The first symptoms appear: weight loss, dizziness, muscle wasting, generalized pain, visual disorders, mental confusion, difficult breathing… The suffering is total… and the silence of Margaret Thatcher deafening.

The international press then began to communicate on the subject, and made the whole world discover the story of Bobby Sands and his other acolytes, all ready to die, in the name of their struggle for Northern Ireland.

Very quickly, the international community is moved by the situation. Demonstrations took place and Margaret Thatcher was called upon to take a step towards these hunger strikers…

But nothing happens.

After 65 days of hunger strike, Bobby Sands breathed his last on May 5th 1981… followed closely by other acolytes.

The announcement of his death made the front page of the newspapers, and caused a huge outcry in Northern Ireland and in the rest of the world. In this struggle, Bobby Sands and his companions became true martyrs, contributing to the indignation, but also to the unpopularity of Thatcher…