Today marks the 35th anniversary of the death of Bobby Sands who was a volunteer in the Irish Republican Army.
He died after 66 days on hunger strike, protesting within the British prison system for status as a Republican prisoner of war and not a criminal. He had been elected as a Member of the British Parliament a few weeks prior to his death.
Paper Trail examined files relating to the Blanket protests and hunger strikes (1976 – 1981) as part of a project being managed by Coiste na n-Iarchimí, the Republican ex-prisoners group, and Ó Muirigh Solicitors.
The files of the office of the British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, are still closed for the month of Bobby Sands’s death, which proved to be a watershed for the conflict.
Some of the files for the month before are open, and relate to his electoral win, which was a major boost to the Republican movement at the time. One particular file dated 13th April 1981 was written by Robert Armstrong (1), Secretary of the Cabinet. He reported on a security assessment given to Kenneth Stowe, Permanent Secretary at the Northern Ireland Office.
6. The security assessment is that, assuming no concessions is made on the prison regime or the hunger strike, Sands will die around Easter (2). His by-election success will make resulting violence sharper. It may last for some days. They feel confident that they can contain it.
7. Both communities in Northern Ireland will be watching from their different points of view what the Government’s reaction is to the Sands by-election. The Catholics will be hoping and the Protestants will be fearing that the Government will offer some concession as a way out of the hunger strike. This cannot be given, but in the immediate aftermath of the by-election the Prime Minister’s reaction should be very low key…
8. In general, Sir Kenneth Stowe emphasised that the by-election had had an extremely unsettling effect and that the Government’s response should be very cautious and low key.
The north of Ireland erupted. Many more died, including nine other Republican hunger strikers.
Incidentally, today also marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Major John Mac Bride, a Republican executed by the British for his involvement in the Easter Rising of 1916.
Also, today, the people of the north of Ireland are voting in the assembly elections. The island of Ireland is still partitioned but Sinn Féin continues to build upon the electoral success of Bobby Sands’s victory in 1981.
For some, it is moot whether that is a fitting tribute to the sacrifice that Bobby Sands and nine other Republicans made when they died on hunger strike.
A very small minority of Republicans still believe that the ballot box is not enough, and militancy is the only other option.
I remember that week very well even though I was only 5. Belfast convulsed in a fit of violence and people died. New Lodge, where my family lived, was particularly bad. Rioters stoned a milk float at the top of our street and it crashed, killing the milkman, Eric Guiney, and his 14 year-old son, Desmond.
I can still picture the shell of the vehicle strewn among the rubble, the macabre memorial looking like a tsunami washed it there along with flotsam and jetsam.
David Baker of The New Lodge website has posted footage from news reels on YouTube:
(1) Robert Armstrong’s name is embroiled with allegations of government cover-up of pedophiles in positions of power, including British MPs and Jimmy Savile. He now sits in the House of Lords as Baron Armstrong of Ilminster.
(2) Easter was the following week in 1981 but Bobby Sands held on for a further three weeks.