A contemporaneous account of events and sentiment in the aftermath of the death of Bobby Sands on this day in 1981, from the point of view of a British socialist. Originally published in Spartacist magazine.
It took 66 days to kill Bobby Sands, condemned to a slow and painful death by the arrogant butchers of Westminster. In Parliament, the announcement that ‘Robert Sands, Esquire, the Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone’ was dead met with an obscene solidarity of Labour and Tory with Margaret Thatcher’s refusal to budge an inch on his just, elementary demands. But around the world it met with demonstrations of outrage and indignation at this calculated, imperialist murder.
In Catholic West Belfast, the announcement that Bobby Sands, officer of the Irish Republican Army, was dead was met with the beating of dustbin lids, the construction of street barricades and the rattle of British rifle fire. Northern Ireland stands ready to explode.
Bobby Sands died a martyr in the struggle against brutal imperialist oppression. The proletariat will remember him, his death will be avenged.
In the US, East Coast dockers announced a 24-hour boycott of all British shipping. In Ireland there is talk of a general strike the day of his funeral.
In Britain the labour movement must sweep aside the treacherous leaders who condone this imperialist atrocity with massive demonstrations of protest against this vicious ruling class. The British government’s terror and murder in Northern Ireland -- carried out with the full support of the Labour traitors -- is vile, repugnant and criminal.
GET THE ARMED BUTCHERS OUT NOW! FOR THE IMMEDIATE, CONDITIONAL WITHDRAWAL OF THE BRITISH ARMY! SMASH THE IMPERIALIST TORTURE CAMPS! AVENGE BOBBY SANDS!
The British press claims it was ‘suicide’, but all West Belfast knows the truth. Cars blared their horns in the early hours of 5 May to awaken residents with the news that Sands had died in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh, and within hours barricades were thrown up throughout the area. Youths hurled stones and petrol bombs at the hated army and RUC patrols. An army post at the top of Springfield Road was besieged for hours by angry crowds. Troops firing plastic bullets and live ammunition injured scores, at least one seriously. With daybreak, the street battles wound down and an uneasy calm hung over the city as preparations were made for Sands’ funeral, to be held with full Republican military honours two days later. But with nightfall the rioting started again, and in the coming days everyone knows that it will escalate.
Three thousand demonstrated in Paris to protest Sands’ death; another thousand marched in Athens. In Dublin security was tightened outside the British Embassy while thousands queued behind black flags at the General Post Office to sign a book of mourning and 2000 marched to the Irish parliament. American demonstrators marched in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles. US imperialist politicians, keeping one eye on their Irish-American constituents and worried that Thatcher’s hard-line policies will provoke a major crisis in Northern Ireland, expressed their ‘concern’ and ‘regret’ at the death.
But even as three other Republican prisoners on hunger strike for political status wait behind Sands in a grisly queue, Margaret Thatcher vows to stand firm. British troops continue to shoot down and kill unarmed H-Block protesters in the streets of Belfast and Derry. Dozens of protest leaders have been arrested in Gestapo-style dawn raids. And the Loyal Labour Opposition backs Thatcher, Humphrey Atkins and the army to the hilt, crying ‘No surrender! Defeat the terrorists!’
The army’s Spearhead battalion stands ready for despatch across the water to the Six Counties and all police leave has been cancelled. While international media correspondents cram Belfast hotels, Her Majesty’s Government has provided a steady stream of black propaganda, including outrageous accounts of alleged IRA preparations to set fire to Catholic homes and blame the Protestants (‘IRA Plans to Burn Belfast’, read the Daily Express headline). In Belfast and Derry the population, Catholic and Protestant, has prepared for a bloody showdown. A few days before Sands’ death the Protestant paramilitary Ulster Defense Association held a show of strength in the Shankill Road; the next morning two families reportedly moved from Bombay Street near the Falls. As an Observer (3 May) correspondent noted, ‘memories of fire-bombed houses in the mixed fringes 12 years ago are still vivid’.
Republican Citizen’s Defence Committees have prepared contingency plans in West Belfast. Households have stocked up on bread, bottled gas, tinned goods, powdered milk. Already in mid-April, Derry more and more resembled 1969 with barricades and petrol bombs against the army and police every day. Following the martyrdom of Bobby Sands, they will continue.
YEARS OF MYTH-MAKING OUT THE WINDOW
When the voters of Fermanagh and South Tyrone elected Sands their MP in a bye-election on 9 April, the government’s long propaganda campaign to ‘prove’ the IRA were isolated fanatics was demolished forever. This was a sweeping, well-nigh unanimous vote by the Catholic community against imperialist oppression. The full pressure of imperialist opinion and scare-mongering had been unleashed on the voters of this border constituency, contested in a straight fight between Sands and Protestant Unionist leader Harry West. West placed adverts in the local Catholic press reminding readers of the Pope’s words against the ‘men of violence’. The imperialist propaganda mill put it about as a fact that ‘an IRA gun’ had murdered a Protestant census taker on the eve of the poll, even though the Republicans flatly denied responsibility for this atrocity.
Imperialism’s Labour lieutenants pitched in to do their bit as well. In an unprecedented polling day appeal from Westminster, Labour spokesman on Northern Ireland Don Concannon told voters that they had a “unique opportunity to denounce the men of violence”.
“A vote for Mr Sands”, said this servile toady, “is a vote of approval for the perpetrators of the La Mon massacre, Warrenpoint, the murder of Lord Mount batten, and all the other senseless murders that have taken place in Northern Ireland over the .years”. Yet in his fortieth day without food, Bobby Sands was elected a member of the imperial Mother of Parliaments on an 87 per cent turnout.
There was an outcry from the gentlemen of Westminster, who engage in polite debates about policies of mass deprivation and bloody repression, against having this ‘criminal’ seated among them. Eventually it was decided not to expel Sands from their august body, in the expectation he would soon be dead anyway. Imperialist civility! Less than a score of Labour ‘lefts’ could even be heard to murmur that the government might consider negotiating (‘imaginatively’) with Sands. Left hero Tony Benn graciously hinted that ‘someone’ (someone else,that is) should propose seating Sands at Westminster. Of meeting his demands, not a word was heard from Benn or anyone else. With Sands’ death, it has already been mooted on both sides of the House, there will be no haste to issue a writ for another bye-election. Disliking the voters’ choice on 9 April, the MPs so fond of prattling about democracy will not be in a hurry to give them another chance.
Westminster’s well-nigh unanimous message to Sands was crude and vicious in the extreme. Meanwhile he was also the target of more subtle ‘humanitarian concern’ by emissaries from Dublin, Rome, Brussels and almost everywhere else -- to put pressure on him, not the murderous Thatcher to concede.
Snivelling pro-imperialist reformists like Belfast MP Gerry Fitt and the former Officials (now ‘Sinn Fein the Workers Party’) condemn the desperate hunger strike as ‘violent’, while others simply wheedle their ‘peace’ message. But there can be no peace so long as Britain lords it over Northern Ireland, and Bobby Sands, a determined man, stood firm to the last.