For centuries in Ireland under the system of justice known as the Brehon Laws, if you wanted to protest a wrong done to you by an offending party and could find no satisfaction from the perpetrator, you had the final option of sitting on their doorstep and protesting the injustice through a hunger strike.
It was a last course of action, one usually taken by the powerless against the mighty, but it was a particularly effective one. In the Irish parlance, you had the right to make a holy show of the person who had wronged you. In a move that Irish society considered perfectly acceptable, you could publicly shame them from sunrise to sunset.
The nation was then, and is still now, a distinctly communal one, a place where your reputation is a thing of great consequence, and where loss of face means loss of status.
I bring this up in reference to Bobby Sands. For years in the North, Republican prisoners were granted “special category status” which afforded them different treatment from ordinary offenders, but by 1977 that category was eliminated by the British government.
In response to the change Sands, who had been imprisoned twice on weapons possession charges, joined his fellow Republican prisoners in a series of increasingly dramatic protests to amend their status. Then came the era of Margaret Thatcher and the kind of no quarter politics that prolonged the standoff and frankly the war.
Thatcher condemned what she called these “blackmail” requests for “special privileges” and reminded Republican prisoners they were simply “common criminals.”
By 1980, at 27, Sands had spent one-third of his life in prison. His final response to the long stalemate was to commence a second hunger strike, an action that was not favored by the Republican leadership after his first one had ended.
But in the end he proceeded with his plan and he was joined by several others. In the 66 days between the start of his fast and his eventual death, he changed the course of Irish history.
Firstly, Sands’ action reminded many that there was a much more effective way to respond to the conflict than through force of arms, a development that would ripple and carry forward for years after his passing. Even the implacable Thatcher was outmaneuvered on the world’s stage, eventually granting most of the Republican prisoners' demands.
Secondly, he brought the world’s attention to bear again on the North after the decade-long campaign of violence had caused many to look away. This was a David vs. Goliath human drama that people could understand. Thatcher was not thrilled to find herself cast in the role of pitiless aggressor and she was privately furious.
That outmaneuvering was at every turn. “How can I talk to the prisoners when they have no support, no mandate?" she had asked. That question was answered when Sands was elected by the people of Fermanagh and South Tyrone, with more votes than Thatcher had picked up in her home constituency of Finchley. Her response was to refuse to negotiate and to change the law to prevent other prisoners from running.
Thirdly, Thatcher’s give-no-quarter approach backfired spectacularly. Far from demoralizing her opponents, it actually radicalized a new generation, sent countless new recruits to the IRA, and coupled the armalite with the ballot box, a development that transformed Sinn Fein’s political fortunes.
A new documentary titled "Bobby Sands: 66 Days" by director Brendan J. Byrne tells the story of this time and separates the man from the myth. The film looks at the violent events that first politicized him and the growing historical awareness that radicalized his thinking.
What you may not know about Sands, what the British portrayal of him as a violent thug and the hands-off approach of the Dublin government both tried to capsize, is that he spoke and wrote with a maturity that belied his years.
In prison, he wrote, “I would think back to the days of my youth.” Incarcerated for so long that the only escape was in his imagination, he would daydream about his childhood. The contrast between the freedom of it and where he found himself later helped him steel himself for his hunger strike.
His death 35 years ago brought the whole of Ireland to a standstill, in a moment of shocking clarity that made all parties to the conflict take stock while the world looked on. That moment may have been a Rubicon, a moment in which Sands’ actions changed how many approached and thought of the conflict itself. Some would argue that it led on to later political settlements too.
Meanwhile Byrne's new documentary about his life and legacy carefully recreates the period and is already being hailed as one of the most visceral and comprehensive films about the Troubles ever made. It will be released in the U.S. later this summer.
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