The Riddle of Sands

ON the way home our school bus passed the high walls of the Convent of Mercy at Whiteabbey. Some sat on the top deck where they could demonstrate loyalty to the British state by waving union flags and shouting insults at the good sisters in the grounds below. It was my first encounter with mindless sectarianism, a poison passed down for generations and sharpened by the partition of Ireland. It is a toxin which is still to be found in the lifeblood of Irish society.

Forty years ago this month the Hunger Strike brought Ireland to the attention of the world. Bobby Sands went to a different school but grew up in Rathcoole just a few streets from me. He was starving himself to death in the Maze Prison to win back political status for republican prisoners. These young men, many around my age, believed they were soldiers fighting a just war against British imperialism in pursuit of a United Ireland. They were willing to kill and die for their cause. They brought Northern Ireland as close to all-out civil war as it has come in my lifetime. My neighbours Eric and Des Guiney, a milkman and his son, were the first to be killed in the street violence that erupted after Sands death, at the age of 27, on May 5. Des was 45 and Eric just 14.

At the time I was 21 and a reporter with Northern Ireland’s first Sunday newspaper, Sunday News. I had a poor understanding of Irish history and politics, the subjects were not on the syllabus at Belfast High School, and my parents shielded me from the hatred and violence which erupted around us in 1969. I was learning slowly on the job, murder by murder, bomb by bomb. In April the news editor sent me to Fermanagh and a press conference expected to announce that Sands would stand for the Westminster seat left vacant by the sudden death of Frank Maguire MP. I arrived early in Enniskillen and recall taking lunch in the hotel due to stage the press conference. At the next table sat Sands’ election agent Owen Carron and veteran republican Neil Blaney MEP. Blaney had been expelled from Fianna Fáil in 1972 amid allegations that Irish government funds were used to arm the provisional IRA. When these two discovered I was a reporter Carron accused me of eavesdropping on their conversation. He would win the same Westminster seat in August but fled to the Republic in 1986 after an AK47 was found in his car. Blaney died of cancer in 1995.

The packed Press conference was a dramatic occasion which included a passionate speech by the former mid-Ulster MP and radical socialist Bernadette McAliskey who hobbled into the room on crutches. Just a few months earlier she had been shot nine times in front of her children in an attack at her home which she blamed on loyalists working in collusion with the British Army. The atmosphere was intense and it was clear we were witnessing something extraordinary. Sands won the seat in a straight fight with unionist Harry West. The turnout was a staggering 87 per cent. Just a few months later Danny Morrison revealed a major change in republican strategy at the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis: “Who here really believes we can win the war through the ballot box? But will anyone here object if, with a ballot paper in this hand and an Armalite in the other, we take power in Ireland?”

The 40th anniversary of the events triggered by Sands death has inspired much reflection. Danny Morrison recalls a friend and great comrade who was ‘well ahead politically of many of our generation.’ Valerie Hetherington, whose policeman father Alfie Woods, was killed by the IRA in 1981, said: “The hunger strikers chose to die. Daddy didn’t.” MP and former British soldier Bob Stewart said: “I don’t think the cause was worth their lives but that doesn’t stop me having respect for the way they acted.” Peter Shirlow, director of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool, said: “Bobby Sands used to come to our house, which was a unionist house, to buy car parts from my dad. The day Sands died is one of the few times I ever saw my father cry.” Unionist MP Gregory Campbell still refers to Sands as a terrorist.

The Hunger Strike polarised and poisoned society in the north like no other event in the 20th century and was handled disastrously by a dogmatic British government under Margaret Thatcher who believed Northern Ireland was the same as Kent. It radicalised young nationalists and swelled the ranks of the provisional IRA for whom she became the chief hate figure. They came close to killing her at the Tory Party conference in Brighton in 1984. Yet it also set republicanism on a political path that has put Sinn Féin into government in the north and within a few thousand votes of forming part of the administration in the republic.

Bobby Sands remains an enigma. Like most armed groups the Provisional IRA attracted a broad range of people from bigots and psychopaths to wannabes and wasters. Bobby was no hardened gunman or political strategist. He was an average foot soldier carried away with the romance of revolution. He was guilty of minor arms offences and jailed for a botched attempt to blow up a furniture business not far from his home in Twinbrook. The flag-waving bigotry that was rife during our childhood in Rathcoole undoubtedly played a significant role in shaping his fanaticism and the destruction of many other promising young lives.

The republican movement has done a good job of turning Sands into a hero, a poet and an icon. One of the most requested stops on the Belfast City Sightseeing tour bus is the Sands mural on the side of Sinn Féin headquarters on the Falls Road where you can read the quote: “Our revenge will be the laughter of our children.” Sands’ only child Gerard will be 47 on May 8. He has played no part in politics or sought revenge. A total of 186 children died during the Troubles, children like Des Guiney who cannot share their laughter with us.


© Maurice Neill 2020

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