[Ppnews] Bobby Sands: How Ordinary People Become ‘Terrorists’

Political Prisoner News PPnews at freedomarchives.org
Thu Mar 16 12:04:09 EST 2006

NYTr Digest, Vol 22, Issue 15

Socialist Worker -  Mar 14, 2006

Bobby Sands: How Ordinary People Become ‘Terrorists’

Socialist Worker 1992/18 March 2006


We reproduce three extracts from a new book by Denis
O’Hearn about Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands, showing the
violence of the British state in 1981


by Simon Basketter

Twenty five years ago, Irish Republican prisoners went on
hunger strike in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh prison in
Northern Ireland. After 66 days Bobby Sands, aged 27, was
the first of ten hunger strikers the British government
allowed to die.

Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher denounced Sands as a
“criminal” and “terrorist” on the day of his death.

Sands and the other hunger strikers were ordinary working
class Catholics who found themselves up against the
extraordinary violence and repression of the British state.
Republican prisoners were prepared to starve themselves to
death for the right to be treated as political prisoners.

Sands was typical of the men and women who joined the IRA.
His family were twice forced to flee their home by Loyalist
gangs. Loyalists threatened Sands at gunpoint when he
worked as an apprentice coach builder.

He later wrote in an article smuggled out of prison, “I had
seen too many homes wrecked, fathers and sons arrested,
friends murdered. Too much gas, shootings and blood, most
of it our own people’s. At 18 and a half I joined the IRA.”

Sands was arrested in the early 1970s. Like other
Republican prisoners he was given “special category
status”, which allowed them to wear their own clothes and
associate freely.

He read widely in prison. His favourites were the political
writings of Franz Fanon and Che Guevara. He was arrested
again in 1976, tortured in the Castlereagh interrogation
centre and sentenced to 14 years.

It was a Labour government in 1975 which introduced a
policy of trying to “criminalise” the Republican movement.

The government had been embarrassed by international
criticism of the number of political prisoners ­ then 3,000
­ in Northern Ireland’s jails. Labour’s Northern Ireland
secretary Merlyn Rees withdrew political status from

The fight to regain political status began in 1976.
Prisoner, Ciaran Nugent refused to wear a prison uniform.

He was forced to sleep on a concrete floor with only a
blanket. Hundreds of other prisoners joined him “on the
blanket”, and two years later nearly 400 Republican
prisoners began a “dirty protest” after prison officers
deliberately spilt shit and piss from chamber pots on cell

A hunger strike began with seven prisoners in October 1980.
It ended two months later when the now Tory government
seemed to offer concessions. The government reneged, and a
second hunger strike began in March 1981, led by Bobby

The hunger strikes won huge support in Ireland, North and
South, and around the world. Sands was elected as MP for
Fermanagh and South Tyrone a month before he died.

Over 100,000 people attended his funeral.


Peaceful civil rights marchers were brutally assaulted by

This first extract explains how the young Sands was

Society was splitting apart. For Catholics in mixed areas,
the most immediate worry was the emergence of violent
racist gangs. Rathcoole’s were among the worst. Years
later, Bobby Sands wrote that his “life began to change”
after 1968.

Civil rights marchers took to the streets and he watched as
the television news showed the police attacking them. Sands
was particularly impressed in early 1969, when a group of
students from Queens University in Belfast set off on a
civil rights march to Derry. Along the way they were
repeatedly ambushed and the police blocked them from
entering towns. The RUC were often observed chatting
amiably with the attackers.

As the students reached Burntollet Bridge outside of Derry,
several hundred B-Special paramilitaries viciously attacked
them. “My sympathy and feelings really became aroused after
watching the scenes at Burntollet,” he wrote. “That
imprinted itself on my mind like a scar, and for the first
time I took a real interest in what was going on
 I became

Bobby’s anger grew throughout 1969 as the conflict
heightened. In April, the police banned a civil rights
march in the Bogside area of Derry.

During the rioting that followed, a group of RUC men burst
into a house and beat the Catholic owner to death. In
August, a huge crowd of Protestants attacked Unity flats in
Belfast. When local Catholics resisted, the RUC went on a
violent rampage, beating one man unconscious and batoning
another to death. Three people had now died from the recent
outbreak of “the troubles.” All were Catholics. All had
been beaten in the head by police batons.

By August, the trouble spiralled. In Derry, some older
Republicans set up a defense committee to confront the
trouble that always accompanied an annual Loyalist march
around the city’s old walls. They set up barricades at the
entrances to the Bogside and when the marchers threw
pennies at them the Bogsiders threw stones back. When the
police attempted to invade the Bogside, Catholic missiles
drove them back. Soon, they were firing petrol bombs and CS
gas at each other. After two days of intense fighting, the
British government sent in its army for the first time
since the end of the IRA’s 1950s campaign. Catholics like
Bobby Sands watched the “Battle of the Bogside”on their TVs
at home, encouraged by the feeling that they were
recognized internationally as being “in the right.”

Back in Belfast, the police patrolled the Catholic lower
Falls district in armored cars mounted with .30-inch
Browning machine guns. Catholics used stones and petrol
bombs against the big machine guns while groups of
Protestants and B-Specials took advantage of the melee and
attacked Catholic houses. The RUC drove around Catholic
streets, firing randomly.

When they were done, nine-year-old Patrick Rooney lay dead
in his bed with his brains scattered against the wall. In
north Belfast, police shot dead one man as he sat in his
front room and another as he walked along the road. Ten
others were injured, eight of them by police bullets.

All were Catholics. To Catholics, many of whom initially
welcomed them to their streets as protectors, the British
army made a bad situation worse. They stood by while
Protestant crowds burned out hundreds of Catholic homes.
The violence went down in the memory of an increasingly
angry and militant Catholic community as “the pogrom.”

These events had a significant impact on Bobby Sands. Not
only did he begin to link the police with violence against
Catholics, he also began to view the British army as the
enemy. Catholics generally began to feel that they must
defend themselves. Yet they had no weapons and even the IRA
had failed to stand up to their attackers. A famous wall
slogan went up: “IRA=I Ran Away.” By Christmas, a group of
militants broke from the IRA and formed the Provisional IRA
Army Council and an associated political party, Provisional
Sinn Féin (the old movement became known as the Official
IRA and Official Sinn Féin). The Provisionals promised to
protect the Catholic community, and eventually organized an
all-out offensive against British occupation.


Britain’s Abu Ghraib in 1981

In this second extract, Bobby Sands is on dirty protest

At nine o’clock on Tuesday night “the lads gave the
furniture the message”. They broke up their wooden beds,
the tables, and chairs. Some tried to break out their
windows. After half an hour, ten warders came to Bobby’s
wing. Whatever the prisoners expected, what happened was
even worse. The screws moved them from B-wing to C-wing,
and “they didn’t allow them to walk over, instead they
grabbed them by the hair and run them over, kicking and
punching the whole time”.

According to Bobby, six men were thrown over a table. The
cheeks of their behinds were torn apart by screws.

“Comrade, this is sexual assault,” he wrote to Liam Óg.

The same thing was happening over in H5. The screws
organised a gauntlet between the clean wing and the dirty
wing. Each prisoner was beaten to a pulp as he ran from his
clean cell to the new dirty cell. Men who were waiting to
be moved listened to the shouting and the screaming,
waiting in horror for their own turn. Bobby described the
scene that awaited them: “C-wing has just been vacated
cells were bogging, covered in excreta, also puddles of
water on cell floors where the cleaner had begun work.”

The prisoners were left in darkness in filthy cells, with
no water to drink, no beds, and “not even a bloody
blanket”. All they had was the towel they wore around their
waist. The men who went through that night agree that it
was the worst night of their lives. They were freezing.
They were sore. And it was one thing to live in your own
shit; being thrown into another man’s shit was positively

Bobby organised a singsong to keep them going. Each man
walked up and down his cell, trying to keep warm, singing
along to the songs. But before long, they’d had enough.
They just tried to concentrate on getting some heat into
themselves ­ walking up and down, sitting down and then
getting up, rubbing their bodies and hopping from foot to
foot. But Bobby kept going, trying to take everyone’s mind
off of the conditions. All night long he just kept up a
constant banter, singing away on his own, shouting down:
“Are you all right? C’mon boys!”

All night, while Bobby kept up their spirits, prisoners
rang the buzzers to call the warders. No one came. One
prisoner took sick twice in the middle of the night but no
one came to help. It was eight o’ clock the next morning
before the warders came back on the wing. When they
arrived, six men had to go to the doctor.

The PO finally came at 10am and gave the men, in Bobby’s
words, “half a fuckin’ blanket each!” The governor came at
11am. Each man asked for a complaint form so that their
lawyer could charge Governor Hilditch with breaches of
prison rules. That afternoon, the warders left the dinner
sitting until it was cold and then distributed it to the
men. It was nearly 1:30am when they finally received

“We sat all night naked, up until five minutes ago, before
the bastards found it in themselves to give us blankets and
mattresses,” Bobby complained to Liam Óg. “The boys are
exhausted, the wing’s like a morgue, all asleep
 I’m away
for a sleep, think I’m sleeping now!”


Stories about struggle

In this third extract, Bobby Sands is on hunger strike

Night time belonged to the prisoners. Once the warders
left, they began their nightly routine of cigarette
manufacture, button shooting, news broadcasting, and
general entertainment. After the religious prisoners said
the rosary and everyone distributed cigarettes and
messages, there was debate and discussion.

The men told the time by the night guard’s “bell checks”.
He came on at nine o’clock and every hour he pushed the
security grille at the bottom of the wing to show that he
had checked the cells. Time was measured by the first bell
check at nine, the second at ten, and the third at 11.
After the third bell check, the last business of the night
was entertainment, including the “book at bedtime”.

The storyteller pulled his mattress up to his cell door and
shouted out a story while the rest of the men lay,
listening. All the surfaces in the prison were hard, with
nothing to dampen sound, so noises travelled. When the book
was a good one and the storyteller was engaging, everyone
got lost in the story.

Bobby told an array of stories. His speciality was epics.
His story of Geronimo and his Apache guerrillas “epitomised
everything that he thought a human being should be,” says
Richard O’Rawe. “Compassionate but unbreakable, fighting
the whole of America on his own.” There were other stories,
all about struggle. Bobby told Trinity (by Leon Uris)
several times and How Green Was My Valley, about the Welsh
miners. He told Doctor Zhivago.

The other prisoners began to learn political lessons from
the stories.“Bob’s stories were all about heroes
 It was
always about the individual against the establishment and
how the individual, no matter what happened, couldn’t be
broken. If he had to fight them all on his own, so be it.
If he had to die, so be it. That’s just the way he was.
That was his mentality. Bob just had a spirit that couldn’t
be tamed, and he wasn’t going to allow it to be tamed. If
it came to it, he was going to fight them on his own, he
was going to carry the burden of everybody.”

It was not long before Sands told a story that became
legendary among the blanketmen. He said that he had read a
novel the last time he was in the prison hospital. Its
title was Jet. Like all of Bobby’s books, Jet was a story
of someone pursuing and winning freedom in the face of all
the oppression that the forces of reaction could muster.
Jet was about a man who took on the US military-industrial
complex and achieved his own personal freedom through

To the prisoners, it was a story about them, about how they
could achieve an inner freedom even as they lay isolated in
their grim cells, surrounded by barbed wire and concrete
and a hostile force of screws. For a couple of hours a
night as they listened to Bobby tell his stories, they were
free. Their mind’s eyes took them beyond the walls, beyond
the razor wire, wherever Bobby chose to take them. Each
prisoner latched onto his words and created a vivid image
of a place where, at that time, they most wanted to be

free, in struggle.

The blanketmen lay on their foam mattresses, miles away
from the maggots and the shit, imagining. Bobby was their
travel agent and their guide and these stories, perhaps
more than any other aspect of his seemingly tireless
efforts to organise the prison struggle, turned him into
their leader. They followed him because he could take them
to the most special of places. He never let them down.

Bobby Sands: Nothing But An Unfinished Song by Denis
O’Hearn published by Pluto, £12.99.

© Excerpts copyright Denis O'Hearn and Pluto Press

The Freedom Archives
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San Francisco, CA 94110
(415) 863-9977
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