Robert Gerard Sands (Irish: Roibeard Gearóid Ó Seachnasaigh), commonly known as Bobby Sands, (9 March 1954 – 5 May 1981), was an Irish Provisional Irish Republican Army volunteer and member of the United Kingdom Parliament who died on hunger strike while in HM Prison Maze (also known as Long Kesh).
He was the leader of the 1981 hunger strike, in which Irish republican prisoners sought to regain Special Category Status. During his strike he was elected as a member of the United Kingdom Parliament as an Anti H-Block/Armagh Political Prisoner candidate. His death resulted in a new surge of IRA recruitment and activity. The international media coverage brought attention to the hunger strikers, and the Republican movement in general, attracting both praise and criticism.
Family and early life
Sands was born into a Catholic family in Abbots Cross, Newtownabbey, County Antrim, Northern Ireland, and lived there until 1960 whereupon the family moved to Rathcoole, Newtownabbey. His first sister, Marcella, was born in April 1955 and second sister, Bernadette, in November 1958. His parents, John and Rosaleen, had another son, John, in 1962. On leaving school, he became an apprentice coach-builder until he was forced out at gunpoint by loyalists.
In June 1972, at the age of 18, Bobby moved with his family to the Twinbrook housing estate in west Belfast being obliged to leave Rathcoole due to loyalist intimidation.
He married Geraldine Noade with whom he had a son named Gerard who was born 8 May 1973. Sands' commitment to the republican cause put a great strain on his marriage and when his wife Geraldine lost her second child by miscarriage as a result of the stress caused by Bobby's IRA activities, their short marriage ended. She soon left to live in England with their son.
In 1972, the year in which was recorded the highest death toll during the Troubles, Sands opted to join the IRA. and in October of that year, he was arrested and charged with possession of four handguns which were found in the house in which he was staying. In April 1973 he was sentenced to five years imprisonment.
On his release from prison in 1976, he returned to his family home in West Belfast, and resumed his active role in the IRA's campaign. He was charged with involvement in the October 1976 bombing of the Balmoral Furniture Company in Dunmurry, although he was never convicted, with the presiding judge stating that there was no evidence to support the assertion that he had taken part.After the bombing, Sands and at least five others in the bomb team were alleged to have been involved in a gun battle with the Royal Ulster Constabulary, although he was not convicted due to lack of evidence. Leaving behind two of their wounded friends, Seamus Martin and Gabriel Corbett, Sands, Joe McDonnell, Seamus Finucane and Sean Lavery tried to make their escape in a car, but were apprehended. Later, one of the revolvers used in the attack was found in the car in which Sands had been travelling. His trial in September 1977 saw him being convicted of possession of firearms (the revolver from which the prosecution alleged bullets had been fired at the RUC after the bombing) and Sands was sentenced to fourteen years imprisonment within HM Prison Maze, which also known as Long Kesh
In prison, Sands became a writer both of journalism and poetry which was published in the Irish republican newspaper An Phoblacht. In late 1980 Sands was chosen as Officer Commanding of the IRA prisoners in Long Kesh, succeeding Brendan Hughes who was participating in the first hunger strike.
Political status protests
Republican prisoners had organised a series of protests seeking to regain their previous Special Category Status and not be subject to ordinary prison regulations. This started with the "blanket protest" in 1976, when the prisoners refused to wear prison uniform and wore blankets instead. In 1978, after a number of attacks on prisoners leaving their cells to "slop out" (i.e., empty their chamber pots), this escalated into the dirty protest, where prisoners refused to wash and smeared the walls of their cells with excrement.
The 1981 Irish hunger strike started with Sands refusing food on 1 March 1981. Sands decided that other prisoners should join the strike at staggered intervals in order to maximise publicity with prisoners steadily deteriorating successively over several months.
The hunger strike centred around the "Five Demands":
1. the right not to wear a prison uniform;
2. the right not to do prison work;
3. the right of free association with other prisoners, and to organise educational and recreational pursuits;
4. the right to one visit, one letter and one parcel per week;
5. full restoration of remission lost through the protest.
The significance of the hunger strike was the prisoners' aim of being declared as political prisoners (or prisoners of war) and not to be classed as criminals. The Washington Post however, reported that the primary aim of the hunger strike was to generate international publicity.
Shortly after the beginning of the strike, Frank Maguire, the Independent Republican MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone died suddenly of a heart attack and precipitated a by-election.
The sudden vacancy in a seat with a Roman Catholic majority of about five thousand was a valuable opportunity for Sands' supporters to unite the nationalist community behind their campaign. Pressure not to split the vote led other nationalist parties, notably the Social Democratic and Labour Party, to withdraw and Sands was nominated on the label "Anti H-Block / Armagh Political Prisoner". After a highly polarised campaign, Sands narrowly won the seat on 9 April 1981, with 30,493 votes to 29,046 for the Ulster Unionist Party candidate Harry West, incidentally also becoming the youngest MP at the time.
Following Sands' success the British Government introduced the Representation of the People Act 1981 which prevents prisoners serving jail terms of more than one year in either the UK or the Republic of Ireland from being nominated as candidates in UK elections. This law was quickly introduced so as to prevent the other hunger strikers from being elected to the British parliament.
Three weeks later, Sands died in the prison hospital after 66 days of hunger-striking, aged 27. The announcement of his death prompted several days of riots in nationalist areas of Northern Ireland. A milkman and his son, Eric and Desmond Guiney, died as a result of injuries sustained when their milk float crashed after being stoned by rioters in a predominantly nationalist area of north Belfast. Over 100,000 people lined the route of Sands' funeral. Sands was a Member of the Westminster Parliament for 25 days, though he never took his seat or the oath.
In response to a question in the House of Commons on 5 May 1981, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said, "Mr. Sands was a convicted criminal. He chose to take his own life. It was a choice that his organisation did not allow to many of its victims". The official announcement of Sands' death in the House of Commons omitted the customary expression of sense of loss and sympathy with the family of the member.
He was survived by his parents, siblings, and a young son (Gerard) from his marriage to Geraldine Noade.
Nine other IRA and Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) members who were involved in the 1981 Irish Hunger Strike also died after Sands. Many people regard Sands and the other nine men as martyrs who stood firm against the intransigence of the British Government, and many Irish nationalists who abhorred the IRA were outraged at the British government's stance. On the other hand, there was concern that there could be a backlash from the Unionist majority in Northern Ireland. On the day of Sands' funeral, Unionist leader Ian Paisley held a memorial service outside of Belfast city hall to commemorate the victims of the IRA.
The media coverage that surrounded the death of Sands resulted in a new surge of IRA activity and an immediate escalation in the Troubles, with the group obtaining many more members and increasing its fund-raising capability. Both nationalists and unionists began to harden their attitudes and move towards political extremes. Sands' Westminster seat was taken by his election agent, Owen Carron standing as 'Anti H-Block Proxy Political Prisoner' with an increased majority.
• In Milan, 5,000 students burned the Union Flag and shouted "Freedom for Ulster" during a march.
• In Ghent, students invaded the British Consulate.
• In Paris, thousands marched behind huge portraits of Sands, to chants of 'The IRA will conquer'.
• In Oslo, demonstrators threw a balloon filled with tomato sauce at Elizabeth II, the Queen of the United
• In the Soviet Union, Pravda described it as 'another tragic page in the grim chronicle of oppression, discrimination, terror and violence' in Ireland.
• In France, many towns and cities have streets named after Sands. Examples include Nantes, St Etienne, Le Mans Vierzon and St Denis.
• In the Republic of Ireland, his death led to riots and bus burning. In Dublin, the famous Moore Street market closed for the day of Sands funeral, IRA members allegedly unsuccessfully attempted to coerce shopkeepers into closing for a national day of mourning. On 14 May the Dáil made no expression of support.
• Some publications such as the Soviet Pravda took a positive view of Sands, whilst others, such as the West German newspaper Die Welt, took a negative view.
• In Liverpool, England, a march in support of Sands took place from Upper Parliament Street to the Pier Head, chanting "Bobby Sands MP". It was besieged by enraged Liverpool Orange Lodge members along the whole route. The marchers were trapped between the Mersey and the Lodge members.
The US media expressed a range of opinions on Sands's death. The Boston Globe commented that "[t]he slow suicide attempt of Bobby Sands has cast his land and his cause into another downward spiral of death and despair. There are no heroes in the saga of Bobby Sands." The Chicago Tribune wrote that "Mahatma Gandhi used the hunger strike to move his countrymen to abstain from fratricide. Bobby Sands' deliberate slow suicide is intended to precipitate civil war. The former deserved veneration and influence. The latter would be viewed, in a reasonable world, not as a charismatic martyr but as a fanatical suicide, whose regrettable death provides no sufficient occasion for killing others.
The New York Times wrote that "Britain's prime minister Thatcher is right in refusing to yield political status to Bobby Sands, the Irish Republican Army hunger striker," but that by appearing "unfeeling and unresponsive" the British Government was giving Sands "the crown of martyrdom." The San Francisco Chronicle argued that political belief should not exempt activists from criminal law: "Terrorism goes far beyond the expression of political belief. And dealing with it does not allow for compromise as many countries of Western Europe and United States have learned. The bombing of bars, hotels, restaurants, robbing of banks, abductions and killings of prominent figures are all criminal acts and must be dealt with by criminal law."
Some American critics and journalists suggested that American press coverage was a "melodrama" which had "given nearly exclusive coverage to pro-I.R.A. spokesmen." One journalist in particular criticised the large pro-IRA Irish-American contingent which "swallow IRA propaganda as if it were taffy," and concluded that IRA "terrorist propaganda triumphs."
Some political, religious, union and fund-raising institutions chose to honour Sands. The International Longshoremen's Association in New York announced a twenty-four-hour boycott of British ships. Over 1,000 people gathered in New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral to hear Cardinal Terence Cooke offer a Mass of reconciliation for Northern Ireland. Irish bars in the city were closed for two hours in mourning. In Hartford, Connecticut a memorial was dedicated to Bobby Sands and the other hunger strikers in 1997, the only one of its kind in the United States. Set up by the Irish Northern Aid Committee and local Irish-Americans, it stands in a traffic circle known as "Bobby Sands Circle," at the bottom of Maple Avenue near Goodwin Park.
The New Jersey General Assembly, the lower house of the New Jersey Legislature, voted 34-29 for a resolution honouring his "courage and commitment."
In 2001, a memorial to Sands and the other hunger strikers was unveiled in Havana, Cuba.
• In Tehran, Iran, President Bani-Sadr sent a message of condolence to the Sands family.After the 1979 Iranian revolution the government renamed Winston Churchill Boulevard to Bobby Sands Street. The street is alongside the Embassy of the United Kingdom in Tehran and has the automobile access to the embassy. Hooman Majd, a writer, says that as of 2008 his name is misspelled as Baby Sandez and Boby Sendz on some maps and signs. A hamburger stand in the Elahieh district is also named after Sands. An official blue and white street sign was affixed to the rear wall of the British embassy compound saying (in Persian) "Bobby Sands Street" with three words of explanation "militant Irish guerrilla". The official Pars news agency called Bobby Sands' death "heroic". There have recently been claims that the British foreign secretary has pressured Iranian authorities to change the name of Bobby Sands Street but this is denied, the embassy states that it is located on "Ferdowsi Avenue".
• The Hindustan Times said Margaret Thatcher had allowed a fellow Member of Parliament to die of starvation, an incident which had never before occurred "in a civilised country."[
• In the Indian Parliament, opposition members in the upper house Rajya Sabha stood for a minute's silence in tribute. The ruling Congress Party refused to join in.
• The Hong Kong Standard said it was 'sad that successive British governments have failed to end the last of Europe's religious wars.'
• A large monument dedicated to Irish protagonists for independence from Britain, including Bobby Sands, stands in the Waverly Cemetery in Sydney, Australia.
At Old Firm football matches in Glasgow, Scotland, some Rangers F.C. fans have been known to sing songs mocking Bobby Sands to taunt fans of Celtic F.C. Rangers fans are predominently sympathetic to the Unionist community; Celtic fans are traditionally more likely to support the Republican community. These taunts have since been adopted by the travelling support of other UK clubs, particularly those with strong British ties, as a form of anti IRA sentiment. The 1981 British Home Championship football tournament was cancelled following the refusal of teams from England and Wales to travel to Northern Ireland in the aftermath of his death due to security concerns.
Sands' sister Bernadette Sands McKevitt is also a prominent Irish Republican. Along with her husband Michael McKevitt she helped to form the 32 County Sovereignty Movement and is accused of involvement with the Real Irish Republican Army. Sands McKevitt is opposed to the Belfast Agreement, stating that "Bobby did not die for cross-border bodies with executive powers. He did not die for nationalists to be equal British citizens within the Northern Ireland state."
Éire Nua flute band inspired by Bobby Sands, commemorate the Easter Rising on the 91st anniversary.
The Grateful Dead played the Nassau Coliseum on the night Sands died and guitarist Bob Weir dedicated the song "He's Gone" to Sands. The concert was later released as Dick's Picks Volume 13, part of the Grateful Dead's programme of live concert releases.
Songs written in response to the hunger strikes and Sands' death include songs by Black 47, Nicky Wire, The Undertones, Bik McFarlane and Eric Bogle. Christy Moore's song, "The People's Own MP", has been described as an example of a rebel song of the "hero-martyr" genre in which Sands' "intellectual, artistic and moral qualities" are eulogised. American rock band Rage Against the Machine have listed Sands as an inspiration in the sleeve notes of their self titled debut album and as a "political hero" in media interviews. French rock group Soldat Louis also wrote a tribute song, simply called "Bobby Sands".
• Bobby Sands was played by John Lynch in the 1996 film Some Mother's Son.
• Bobby Sands was played by Mark O'Halloran in the 2001 film H3.
• A movie called Il Silenzio dell'Allodola (2005, aka The Silence of the Skylark) by Italian film director and scriptwriter David Ballerini features Ivan Franek as Bobby Sands. It won awards and was premiered in Ireland at Cork Int. Film Festival, screened at Rotterdam Int. Film Festival and several other festivals.
• A film called Hunger, by artist Steve McQueen, about the last six weeks of Bobby Sands' life in the context of the 1981 Irish hunger strike, premiered at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. It starred Michael Fassbender and won for McQueen the prestigious Caméra d'Or award for first-time filmmakers. It will be broadcast on Channel 4 in the UK in 2008.
While in prison Sands had several letters and articles published in the Republican paper An Phoblact/Republican News under the pseudonym "Marcella".
Other writings attributed to him include:
• Skylark Sing Your Lonely Song, 1989, Mercier Press, ISBN 0-85342-726-7
• One Day in My Life, 2001, Mercier Press, ISBN 1-85635-349-4
Sands also wrote the words of the songs "Back Home in Derry" and "McIllhatton" which were both later recorded by Christy Moore. He also wrote "Sad Song For Susan" which was later recorded.