This May 5th will mark 35 years since a young Irishman by the name of Bobby Sands died of hunger. It was not because he lived in some drought-ridden country or because war prevented food from getting to him. No, his hunger was self-induced. Sort of, anyway. Sands and his fellow IRA-affiliated prisoners went on a hunger strike to demand their right to be considered political prisoners instead of mere criminals.
This was a last ditch, and desperate, attempt to force Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's government to agree to their demands. The initial prison protests started in 1976. Prisoners went “on the blanket.” They refused to wear the prison uniforms and either went naked or wore blankets. When this did not work after two years, they escalated their protest into the “dirty protest.” Prisoners began smearing excrement on the walls and urinating anywhere and everywhere (well, going around with their schlongs out was not getting them anywhere). So what exactly did the prisoners want? After much deliberation among the prisoners, they boiled down their demands to five things: that prisoners should be allowed to wear their own clothes, that they be given free association time, visits and mail, that they should not to have to carry out penal work and should be given back lost remission. Initially, the government in London seemed to accept their demands. Then the strike ended and they reneged on their promises. It was Sands who decided that something drastic had to be done.
Sands during his hunger strike via telegraph.co.uk
Sands was born in 1954. His Catholic family lived in a largely Protestant area of Belfast, Northern Ireland. Violence between Catholics and Protestants forced his family to move to a more Catholic part of town. It was there that the he was recruited into the Provisional IRA. The Provisional IRA was formed in 1969 after breaking away from the Official IRA. They advocated the use of violence and terrorism as a means of winning independence for Northern Ireland. When people talk about THE IRA, it is the violent one (in time, they became the only IRA and it is them who are still a political force in Northern Ireland). Anyway, Sands, at age 18, was first arrested and convicted for taking part in a string of IRA robberies. In the early 70s, when a person was convicted of IRA-related offenses, they were given “special category status” and sent to a prison that was more like a prisoner of war camp. They were allowed to dress how the pleased and freedom of movement within the prison grounds.
Sands was again arrested in 1977 for gun possession and given a 14-year prison sentence. This time, however, things were different. The British no longer gave IRA prisoners “special category status.” Instead, they were sent to Maze Prison south of Belfast like any common criminal. On March 1, 1981, the anniversary of when Britain did away with “special category status,” Sands launched his hunger strike. It was actually his second. The first was done along with the dirty protests. He lost sixty pounds in nine weeks. Then something incredible happened. Something that would get the attention of the world. On April 9, while starving and in prison, Bobby Sands won a seat in parliament. For whatever reason, the world listens when a politician is jailed and on some kind of strike. Not surprisingly, Parliament quickly introduced legislation to disqualify convicts serving prison sentences for eligibility for Parliament.
Sands funeral was attending by thousands via bobbysandstrust.com
The British government refused to give in. So did Sands. Pope John Paul II sent a personal envoy to plead with Sands to eat. He refused. Finally, on May 3, an emaciated Sands fell into a coma. On May 5th he died. He was 27. Ten more strikers would soon follow. These non-violent deaths galvanized Belfast. Rioting broke out and 68 died. Finally, Prime Minister Thatcher agreed to allow the prisoners to wear civilian clothing and the right to receive mail and visits. However, she refused the big one: official recognition of their political status.
That Sands died for his cause should not be surprising. He wrote in his diary: “I have hope, indeed. All men must have hope and never lose heart. But my hope lies in the ultimate victory for my poor people. Is there any hope greater than that?”