A turning point in history

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By John Manley (for the Irish News)

Bobby Sands’ victory in Fermanagh and South Tyrone 40 years ago today gave the republican movement a “victory that not even countless IRA military operations could have achieved”, according to a former prisoner in the H-Blocks who recalls the historic election victory in his recently-published memoir.

Jim ‘Jaz’ McCann’s 6000 Days is the ex-prisoner’s account of his time on remand in Crumlin Road gaol and serving a 25 year sentence for attempted murder, beginning in 1976.

One of the ‘Blanketmen’ and a friend of Bobby Sands, the author recounts how the result of the April 9 1981 by-election, prompted by the death of sitting independent republican MP Frank Maguire, was greeted by inmates.

He recalls how his fellow prisoner was barely a week into his hunger strike when the opportunity arose for him to stand as a candidate, running under the ‘Anti H-Block’ banner.

In the subsequent weeks the campaign gathered pace with Danny Morrison as its organiser and Owen Carron the election agent. The candidate selection process in the constituency was in many ways as intriguing as the election outcome, with much wrangling and persuasion, along with allegations of bluff and gamesmanship, involved in whittling down the field to ensure Sands’ bold challenge paid off.

The SDLP’s Austin Currie withdrew from the race after much deliberation, following the example of Bernadette Devlin-McAliskey and Noel Maguire, the previous MP’s brother, making it a head-to-head contest between the Anti H-Block candidate and former Ulster Unionist leader Harry West.

Bobby Sands topped the poll with a 1,447 majority from a turnout of 86.9 per cent, which included 3,280 spoilt ballots.

“Even now, thinking back to that moment, the hairs on the back of my head stand up,” writes Jim McCann, recalling first hearing the election result in his cell via a ‘Maggie Taggart’ – the nickname prisoners gave to the crystal radio sets they smuggled into the prison, after the BBC journalist .

“The place spontaneously erupted. We were that ecstatic we couldn’t control ourselves. We cheered, yelled, screamed, banged the doors with the chamber pots and I’m sure there were some tears.”

He describes it as “one of the best most unforgettable moments” of his life and regards it as “an endorsement of the fact that we were political prisoners”.

“But above all we felt it would save Bobby’s life. He was an MP and as such, we initially assumed, the British government would not want one of their members to die,” he recalls.

Now the vice-principal of a west Belfast primary school, Jim McCann recalls the significance of the result.

“With hindsight, I can say this was a turning point in Irish history,” he writes.

“Thatcher and her government’s intransigence handed us a victory that not even countless IRA military operations could have achieved, and it gained us support throughout the world.”

The MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone died 26 days later after 66 days without food but his election marked a seminal moment in Irish politics and signalling the birth of the ‘Armalite and ballot box’ strategy, the culmination of which is Sinn Féin’s position as the largest party in Ireland today.

In the weeks after Bobby Sands’ victory, its embarrassment for the British establishment saw legislation introduced barring “convicted felons” from standing for election. Consequently, in the August by-election prompted by his death Owen Carron stood as an Anti-H-Block Proxy Political Prisoner candidate, topping the poll with a majority of 2,230.

The following year Sinn Féin contested elections across Ireland.

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