By Anthony McIntyre (the Pensive Quill)
Perhaps it is age, but time just zooms past in the blink of an eye. It feels as if I only recently wrote a piece on the anniversary of the death of Bobby Sands titled Forever Young. Now the 5th of May is on us again with little seeming to have filled the gap in between. 29 years ago today the darkest moment in our prison history fell upon us like a dark cloud with no silver lining. With three other volunteers on hunger strike the clouds gathered and continued with their roll, destroying hope and filling us with rage.
To my shame I opened the fridge this morning and picked up a packaged meal to look at the use by date. When I saw it was the 5th of May, the significance of the date struck me. It seemed both ironic and incongruous that a tasty dish should have prompted me into awareness of the day at hand. That I had got up out of bed as if it were just any old day in the calendar struck a sour note with me. Life sustaining food and the circumstances of Bobby’s death almost three decades seem unbridgeable to the point that I did not feel comfortable about the nature of the prompt.
Perhaps it is living in the South where the North and its issues are not of the remotest concern to anyone I talk with on a regular basis that led me to sleep through what, in another location a mere 50 miles away, would awaken consciousness. Across the border of partitionist perpetuity, it has serious cultural significance given its place at the heart of social and political memory. Indelible there but unfortunately not so ingrained down here.
For sure, in the South the North’s issues come up, but just occasionally and then only fleetingly. Ex-prisoners mention it but for the most part they seem concerned with other things. Last evening was spent in the company of a former IRA hunger striker who was visiting our home. Of all the things we discussed with her today’s anniversary did not feature. The North was not entirely distant - the party leaders’ debate was on television, but we quickly tired of listening to them scraping and scrambling for votes.
When Bobby Sands was arrested in October 1976 carrying out a bomb attack on commercial premises in Dunmurry, he and his comrades were dismissed as criminals and terrorists whom the community had rejected, told they had no mandate, that they were a stain on republicanism, that their armed actions were against the expressed wishes of the Irish people. Those of us subject to such a barrage of critique ignored it and treated the vitriol with contempt. The more the former republicans in the armed Workers Party joined their erstwhile British and unionist foes to repeat the charges the more their hypocrisy steeled us in our determination to carry on.
Bobby Sands had not one vote when he embarked upon his armed operation. That would only come much later. He was acting contrary to the wishes of the Irish people, every bit as contrary as those who follow in his footsteps today and who bomb places that few want bombed or attack police personnel not viewed by many as enemies, let alone legitimate targets. That is what makes him so like today’s armed republicans and so unlike their critics.
It is important to object most strongly to those physical force republicans who today carry out armed actions in pursuit of the Republic. Their actions are futile and can only produce less freedom rather than more. It is equally important not to endorse the Thatcher view that crime is crime is crime. Each time a republican activist is labelled a criminal, particularly by those who were republicans in the era of Bobby Sands, it is a sleight on the enormous sacrifice made by him and his comrades. Republican activists of today are no different from those of thirty years ago. Some of those now labelling them criminal are very different.
In the end Bobby and his nine comrades who lost their lives scored a significant victory. Few were left able to deny that the imprisonment of the people who died as well as that of their protesting comrades was a direct result of political conflict rather than some peculiar republican addiction to criminality.
Yet it was a victory that has proved short lived. Less than thirty years after the deaths of the ten hunger strikers with not one of the political objectives they fought for secured, the principle they died to defend - that republican political violence is not criminal - has been unscrupulously abandoned by many of those who gained considerably in terms of political careers and reputations from the hunger strike.
Had he lived what position would he hold today? No way of telling. But it is impossible to imagine the bearded, blanketed, emaciated Bobby Sands screaming ‘criminal’ at a young republican who set out with more guns than votes to wage armed struggle.