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Bobby Sands death was moment when all changed in Northern Ireland -- Turning point for ‘The Troubles’ reached 31 years ago this week

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It was 31 years ago yesterday that Bobby Sands died on hunger strike in Northern Ireland.

I was living in San Francisco at the time, 6,000 miles from Ireland, but the anger was palpable among the Irish American community there.

We gathered outside the British consulate as a group walked behind a mock coffin chanting “Bobby Sands MP” in recognition that he had been an elected member of the British parliament.

In retrospect letting Bobby Sands die was one of the greatest mistakes the British made in the history of Northern Ireland.

His election before he died to the House of Commons showed the Sinn Fein leadership, still very much the junior partner to the IRA in 1981, that politics could actually work and bring tens of thousands out onto the streets and into polling booths.

Sinn Fein learned well and the political evolution began on that May night that the death of Sands was announced.

I for one, considered that the Sands death was a turning point in my beliefs.

Up to that point I had little time for the IRA, believing that the frequent atrocities and bombings were totally counterproductive in terms of building worldwide support for a united Ireland. John Hume’s “agreed Ireland” seemed a better concept.

I would not have been caught dead at an IRA man’s mock coffin demonstration outside a British consulate before Bobby Sands.

I saw many others like me on that night, people who had a deep ambivalence about the situation in Northern Ireland but who were utterly inflamed and upset at what Margaret Thatcher had just allowed to happen.

From Sands' death on, Sinn Fein began to take more and more prominence in the republican debate.

It is a long haul but there is a direct line from there to the peace process and the ultimate entry of Sinn Fein into shared power in Northern Ireland, an idea that would have been inconceivable that May evening 31 years ago.

But it happened, and the stage was set with the death of Bobby Sands.

As Yeats remarked, “all changed, changed utterly” from that point on.

 

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