/ 5 May 2006

Ireland remembers hunger striker Bobby Sands

Irish Republicans on Friday commemorated the 25th anniversary of the death of Bobby Sands, a member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), who died in jail after a 66-day hunger strike.

Sands has come to be considered a martyr by the Republican movement, whose quest for Irish reunification divided the Northern Irish community, currently trying to achieve a lasting peace in a power-sharing agreement between Protestants and Roman Catholics.

Twenty five years ago, 20 IRA prisoners in prison in Northern Ireland joined the hunger strike started by Sands in an effort to obtain the status of political prisoners.

The British authorities refused to concede and 10 men died.

Twenty-seven year-old Sands was the first to die, on May 5 1981, and the last was Michael Devine, on August 20 of that year.

Many Irish communities marked the anniversary with ceremonies in memory of Sands who was elected a Member of Britain’s Parliament only one month before his death.

In Dublin, capital of the independent Irish Republic in the south, members of Sinn Fein, political wing of the IRA, lit candles and gathered at the general post office on O’Connell Street, scene of a last stand by armed Republican rebels against British troops during the abortive nationalist Easter Rebellion in 1916 against British rule.

In the British province of Northern Ireland, the anniversary was marked with marches, shows and exhibitions. Black flags were flown in Catholic west Belfast.

For the first time a Sinn Fein delegation obtained permission to assemble at the scene where Sands and nine other IRA prisoners died in the hospital of the Maze prison near Belfast.

Brendan McFarlane, the former IRA camp commander of the Maze prisoners at the time, said: ”For us in the prison, it was a hard, brutal five years which terminated with the death of 10 very courageous Republicans who gave their lives to ensure the Republican struggle would not be criminalised. 1981 was the hardest year in my life.”

Martin McGuinness, now deputy head of Sinn Fein and an MP, recalled the years of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher when he was also a prisoner there.

”This place behind me was designed by Margaret Thatcher to be the breaker’s yard in her criminalisation policy, to be the breaker’s yard of Irish republicanism,” he said, adding:

”The hunger strikers broke the criminalisation policy of the British government. The hunger strikers inspired new generations of Irish Republicans to play their part, no matter how small, in the ongoing struggle for freedom and independence.”

The Maze has been closed since 2000 when the last Republican prisoners were released early as part of the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement.

Since then, the IRA has renounced violence and disarmed.

Laurence McKeown survived a 70-day fast, considered an absolute record.

”On my 70th day I was in a coma, the last time I was rational was on my 68th day,” McKeown recalled on Friday.

”But I remember particularly when Michael Devine died. He had joined the hunger strike a week before me. When Michael died, I knew I was the next one for it.

”It’s a very lonely place to be. I was very calm, but it’s a struggle. The irony was the body or the mind’s will to live. The thing I remember from that time is that it was like, if I was awake and falling asleep, I’d think: ‘You’d better wake up, you’d better wake up’.

”As a matter of fact, I was already going into some level of unconsciousness. I survived because my mother did authorise medical intervention on the 70th day after I had been in a coma. But others had to sit and watch their husbands or children die”. — AFP