So I’ll wear no convict’s uniform
Nor meekly serve my time
That Britain might brand Ireland ‘s fight
Eight hundred years of crime.
~ from “The H-Block Song” by Francie Brolly, Dungiven 1976
“I am standing on the threshold of another trembling world. May God have mercy on my soul.”
~Bobby Sands, MP
Born 03/09/1954 in Rathcoole, Newtownabbey, Northern Ireland, Bobby Sands was primarily raised in Abbots Cross. Even as a child, he was heavily influenced by the conflict between the Catholics and loyalists; his family, forced to move, due to intimidation tactics and a second incident where the house they were living in was “sold” to a Protestant couple without the Sands’ putting it up for sale. At the age of 15 years, Sands left school and went to apprentice as a coach builder but this, too, would be hampered by the battle in Ireland. He would later be forced from the job, at gunpoint, by loyalists.
Bobby was 18 years old when he signed on with the Provisional Irish Republican Army in 1972. This was also the year with the highest death toll, resulting from the internal conflict and civil war in Ireland, known as the Troubles. Bobby Sands was arrested, later this very same year that he joined the I.R.A., and he found himself imprisoned, without a trial, until the year of 1976.
Having dropped out of school, Bobby took the opportunity of having so much time on his hands to learn Irish, and to learn to read and write, finding he had a great love of poetry. Always one to help out his fellow countrymen, he would later turn around and help to teach what he could. Upon his release, Sands opted to go and stay with his family, who had since moved to West Belfast, and he was eager to return to active service within the I.R.A. Additionally, he set to work on the different issues affecting the Twinbrook area, near his home, soon becoming an activist for his community. According to his sister, Bernadette, it was Bobby Sands who brought the Green Cross and Sinn Fein to their neighborhood. He became involved in the Tenants’ Association and improved the transportation problems present in the area, also getting ramps placed alongside the roads, for the safety of the Irish children. Sadly, however, it was a mere 6 months before Bobby Sands would be arrested once again.
Following a bomb attack and a subsequent gun-battle in which two men were injured at the Balmoral Furniture Company at Dunmurry, Bobby was found in the area. Discovered in a nearby car, with four other young people, the police searched the vehicle and, when a gun was discovered, took Bobby Sands and the others into custody, sending them to Castlereagh. Here, they would be subjected to cruel interrogations and torture for six days, during which Sands refused to answer questions, save for the standard name, age and address. Even though he was taken into custody for the weapon, it was unclear who the revolver belonged to and there was no solid evidence linking Sands to the bombing.
When the case went to trial, in September of 1977, they tried to convict him of organizing the bombing, but when this (and the attempts to convict him on several other serious charges) fell through for lack of evidence, Sands was sentenced to an additional 14 years of imprisonment for being in possession of firearms (the handgun that had been discovered in the car). Ironically, the other men that had been with Bobby in the car, that day, each received a 14 year sentence for possession of the very same handgun.
The first twenty-two days of his confinement, Bobby would spend locked away in solitary, in the Crumlin Road jail. For fifteen of these days, he was completely naked, so it would take little encouragement to get Bobby Sands to join in the blanket protest, once they moved him to the H-Blocks.
The “H-Blocks” (so named because of their H-shape), had been built to house the large number of paramilitary organization criminals, with each block housing members of the same organization. Previously, prisoners having paramilitary connections had been given special privileges, such as free association with other prisoners in their block, the right to wear their own clothing rather than prison uniforms, extra visits from outsiders, and parcels of food. The old laws had stated that this special treatment was afforded to these prisoners because they were not considered common criminals, but rather prisoners of war.
Times were quickly changing, however; and on March 1st, 1976, the new Secretary of the State, Merlyn Rees, would end the Special Category Status afforded to the political prisoners. Older prisoners would be allowed to retain their special privileges and status, but newcomers would be housed in 8 newly constructed H-Blocks and would be treated as common criminals. This was considered an outrage; the Irishmen did not consider themselves criminals, and they felt that the British government’s treating them as such, clearly declared the Irish 800-year long fight, for independence, to be a crime.
The first new arrival and first man ordered to wear the new convict’s uniform was Kieran Nugent. When he refused to wear the prisoner’s clothing and demanded his own, he was stripped and put into a cell with no clothes at all, and forced to wrap up in a blanket to hide his nakedness. Other prisoners were quick to follow his example until more than 300 inmates were “on the blanket,” or without clothing. Due to the fact that prison rules required inmates to wear clothing when leaving their cell, Nugent and those who followed his example were confined to their cells 24 hours a day. Smuggling his writings out on tiny scraps of toilet paper, Sands wrote of his time spent in H-Block; “The days were long and lonely. The sudden and total deprivation of such basic human necessities as exercise and fresh air, association with other people, my own clothes and things like newspapers, radio, cigarettes, books and a host of other things, made my life very hard.”
Now a representative of the blanket men, Sands was in constant conflict with the prison authorities, for which he was frequently placed in solitary confinement. Standing firm, however, the British government refused to yield in their decisions and the prisoners became increasingly frustrated with what they claimed to be brutality on the part of the prison warders. Citing harassment, verbal and physical violence, starvation diets, torture, petty restrictive rules and heightened grievances over needless searches of not only prisoners, but visitors as well, the prisoners decided to up the stakes and integrate a “No-Wash Protest” in the spring of 1978. Complaints, within the various prison blocks, included infestation of mice and cockroaches, various forms of abuse, and at least one known outbreak of scabies.
Because they were not allowed to leave the cells without covering up and inmates refused to wear clothing, chamber pots were placed in the cells, for the men to use. The idea was that, once the pots were full, the prisoners would be forced to don their clothes so that they could empty their chamber potsÃ¢Â?Â¦ but still, they rebelled. For a time, the prisoners got around this by ‘slopping out’ their chamber pots (briefly, they were emptied out the windows but the warders soon boarded these up so they could not). Next, the prisoners responded by spreading feces on the walls. It was a debasing move on the part of the men, but they believed it to be less debasing than their being denied their rights in conditions of “war.”
Unfortunately, even this did not gain the prisoners the results that they desired. Instead, they would find themselves confined in filth-covered cells without fresh air or sunlight. On October 27th, 1980, six republican prisoners refused their food and, instead, demanded political status. Feeling that more drastic measures were required, these prisoners had opted for the most powerful message that they believed themselves capable of sending to the British government – Hunger Strike.
The prisoners demanded that the following rights be restored to them:
1. The Right not to wear a prison uniform;
2. The Right not to do prison work other than maintaining their own H-Block;
3. The Right of free association with other prisoners;
4. The Right to organize their own educational and recreational facilities;
5. The Right to one visit, one letter and one parcel per week.
The first fast was short-lived; on December 19th, 1980, Bobby Sands had issued a statement, to the British government, with the prisoners demands. After that, he entered into negotiations with the prison governor, Stanley Hilditch, and the two were working on a plan to go through a step by step dismantlement of the protest. Believing that they had won their rights, the hunger strike was called off prematurely. It would later be discovered that the prison authorities had another idea, entirely, of what civilian clothing was and had attempted to dupe the Irish rebels; while it appeared that negotiations were making progress in the public eye, things were going nowhere within the walls of Long Kesh. Nothing had changed and the entire negotiation process seemed to have been little more than an attempt to drum up public relations for the British government, over the holiday season..
Sadly, it had become increasingly apparent to Sands that someone would have to take more drastic measures, during the hunger strike, in order for them to achieve political status and to accomplish what they were trying to do. Volunteering for the second hunger strike, Bobby Sands insisted upon starting a full two weeks before the other strikers, in hopes that his death might secure their demands, thus saving the lives of those who were following him. Setting the start date for March 1st, 1981 (the fifth anniversary of the removal of the prisoners’ political status), he showed no outward fears of death and visualized the hunger strike as being something much more powerful, much stronger, than the mere demands the prisoners sought. It was his belief that his death would bring about major repercussions for the British rule in Ireland, and would help to eventually set his country free.
During the first seventeen days of his hunger strike, Sands maintained a secret diary, in which he recorded his general thoughts and his personal views. Written on tiny scraps of toilet paper, this diary had to be hidden and was kept concealed within his own body. During this short span of time, he lost a total of 16 pounds and on Monday, March 23rd, Bobby Sands was moved to the prison hospital. A week later, he was nominated for office, following the sudden death of the independent MP, Frank Maguire, who had supported the prisoners’ cause.
Bobby was not one to be overly optimistic, nor did he have any illusions in regards to his election victory. Just because he had won an election, he did not expect his life to be saved nor did he intend the hunger strike to end. He did not intend for it to end until the British government had met their demands.
Unfortunately for Bobby and his fellow republicans, Margaret Thatcher, the new leader of England, was determined not to back down. Surprisingly, despite huge protests and shows of support for the hunger-strikers, on a global level, Thatcher stood behind the “terrorist” label that she had tagged the prisoners with and refused to negotiate.
Tuesday, May 5th, 1981, at 1:17 a.m., Bobby Sands MP passed away after completing sixty-five days of hunger strike. He died in the Long Kesh H-Block prison hospital, and the news of Sands’ death spawned worldwide opinions which were unnervingly anti-British. Protests were held in Milan, Athens, Ghent, Paris and Oslo, as well as across the United States and Ireland, alike. Violence erupted in France, Portugal, Spain, and with the people of Belfast. Meanwhile, Thatcher addressed the House of Commons and stated:
“This government will never grant political status no matter how much hunger strike there may be, we are on the side of protecting law-abiding and innocent citizens, and we shall continue in our efforts to stamp out terrorism. Mr. Sands was a convicted criminal. He chose to take his own life. It was a choice that his organization did not allow to any of their victims.”
Many people had expressed shock that the British government had not shown more understanding towards a fellow MP. Because of this, Thatcher then set to work on changing the laws so that no prisoner could ever again be elected to Parliament.
Nine more prisoners followed Sands to their deaths and, after 217 days of hunger striking, with ten dead, the blanketmen called an end to the fast. Volunteers were still in the ready to take up the cause, but with no indication that the demands would be met, the officers of the protest felt that further deaths would not accomplish anything. In a callously late move, Thatcher’s government then decided to grant the POW status, with a an alteration of semantics to save British face. It was too late for Sands and the other nine, but their deaths had not been entirely in vain.
“If they aren’t able to destroy the desire for freedom, they won’t break you. They won’t break me because the desire for freedom, and the freedom of the Irish people, is in my heart. The day will dawn when all the people of Ireland will have the desire for freedom to show.
It is then we’ll see the rising of the moon.”
~ translated from the diary of Bobby Sands MP