Friday, May 05, 2006
25 years ago today:|
The 1981 republican hunger strike was a time of violence, of sacrifice, of death and of horror, a time of huge polarisation and division which created new depths of bitterness and revitalised a flagging IRA.
Ten republicans starved themselves to death in the Maze prison near Belfast in what was a long drawn-out agony for them, and for Northern Ireland. The crisis plunged the province into one of the worst convulsions it has experienced, putting the population through communal trauma and laying the basis for a deadly cycle of increased violence.
Many deaths on the streets followed. The IRA attempt to kill Margaret Thatcher, in a revenge bomb attack on the Tory party conference in Brighton three years later, was one example.
And yet the paradox is that this struggle was to set the IRA and Sinn Fein on an unexpected new path which eventually led to the peace process. No one realised this at the time; most were aghast at the turmoil which spread from the IRA cells of the Maze to poison community relations and caused many to despair that there might never be peace. Most thought it a crushing defeat for the republicans, a view shared then by many within the IRA and Sinn Fein. Yet today Sinn Fein is the biggest nationalist party in Northern Ireland, and growing strongly in the south.
In other words, it now possesses the political status that Bobby Sands and the other strikers died for; the status Mrs Thatcher refused to grant. Before the hunger strike, Sands and other prisoners had staged years of protests in the Maze but Mrs Thatcher was adamant the IRA should be treated as common criminals.
When Sands died 25 years ago today, his 66th day of hungerstrike, he ascended into republican Valhalla, regarded as the IRA's most prominent martyr and an emblem of self-sacrifice. His portrait, repainted annually, remains one of the most prominent of the republican murals on Belfast's Falls Road.
Huge tensions grew during the campaign, which was marked by one stunning development, when Sands won a Westminster by-election from his cell. His narrow win was a propaganda victory of enormous proportions. The world's image of Sands was largely based on a photograph taken in the prison which showed him in a smiling group of prisoners, his fair hair at rock-star length. But with hindsight, it was a photograph steeped in irony. In December last year we learnt that Denis Donaldson, the IRA prisoner pictured draping an arm around Sands' shoulders, had later turned Special Branch spy.
Sands' election spurred frantic attempts to mediate or find a resolution. An envoy from the Pope spent an hour with Sands in his cell, and media from all over the world flocked to Belfast. His death provoked waves of political tumult and riot. Hostile reaction to Britain came from around the world, with several cities, including Paris and Tehran, naming streets after Sands. At least 100,000 people attended his funeral. But after 10 deaths, the protest petered out as relatives of comatose hunger-strikers, encouraged by a priest, Father Denis Faul, allowed doctors to administer food.
The Troubles took many twists, but the key development was that republicans experimented with a mixture of politics and violence. The politics prevailed. Although ostensibly a defeat, the hunger strike provided republicans with a political launching pad, the foundation of Sinn Fein's electoral success. Some observers regard it as the genesis of the peace process. What was first designed as an instrument of subversion and sabotage led to the displacement of the IRA by today's Sinn Fein.
Not everyone in republicanism has travelled with Sinn Fein on its long political march. Prominent among dissenters has been Bobby Sands' sister, Bernadette. She is married to Mickey McKevitt, who has been jailed for heading the Real IRA, the breakaway group responsible for the 1998 Omagh bombing. As head of the 32-County Sovereignty Movement, Mrs Sands-McKevitt claims Sinn Fein's backing of the peace process is a betrayal of what her brother fought and died for. But few in the republican mainstream agree with her.
Today on the 25th anniversary of her brother's death, thousands of them will gather to reaffirm his status as one of republicanism's most revered heroes.