Bobby Sands Died Believing His Death Would Enhance Armed Struggle

From Organized Rage Former blanketman Richard O'Rawe reviews 66 Days, the new film about Bobby Sands.
Richard O’Rawe, a former Blanketman, and IRA political prisoner, and author of two books on the Hunger Strikes; Blanketmen, and Afterlives reviews the new film about Bobby Sands, '66 Days.'

‘Drama at the absolute rawest edge it could possibly be,’ was how journalist Fintan O’Toole described the IRA/INLA hunger strike in Brendan Byrne’s new film, Bobby Sands –Sixty-Six Days. No one who was around at that time could argue with him.

I went to the premiere of this film in West Belfast along with my wife, Bernadette. Accompanying us were Dixie Elliott and his wife, Sharon. Dixie, a former cellmate of Sands, had been interviewed for the film but his contribution did not make the final cut.

Unsurprisingly, the cinema was packed with Sinn Féin members and supporters. Equally unsurprisingly, many of those present cast their eyes into the darkest reaches of the cinema rather than in my direction. The reason why? Because I wrote a book called Blanketmen in which I said that a committee of republicans, led by Gerry Adams, had control of the hunger strike. I also said that before the fifth hunger striker, Joe McDonnell died this committee rejected an offer from the British government that the prison leadership believed to be acceptable. Consequently, six more hunger strikers died on the fast.

Notwithstanding the preponderance of Sinn Féin members in attendance at the premiere, this is far from a pro-Sinn Féin film. In fact, one viewer later said to me that he thought Byrne had gone ‘a bit too far’ by using Fintan O’Toole as linkman (O’Toole is not known for his Sinn Féin sympathies).

Byrne also afforded speaking rights to former prison officer, Dessie Waterworth, Tory Cabinet minister, Norman Tebbit, and Margaret Thatcher’s biographer, Charles Moore. As well as that, he did not shirk from raising the despicable IRA murder of a young mother and census collector, Joanne Mathers, two days before the electorate of Fermanagh/South Tyrone went to the polls to elect either Bobby Sands or a Unionist as their M.P. To some of us prisoners, it seemed as if someone wanted to sabotage Sands’ chances of being elected.

I have to say, I found this film challenging. For example: Sands gave an interview to Brendan O’Cathaoir an The Irish Times reporter on the third day of his hunger strike.

Commenting on the interview, O’Cathaoir told Byrne:

He spoke fluently about how they felt compelled to start the hunger strike. And he made it pretty clear to me he was likely to die. He talked really in terms of laying down his life for his comrades, and of course I am conscious that his protest was in the tradition of positive resistance, immortalised by Ghandi. His most memorable phrase before we parted ways: “If I die, God will understand.”

I later gave some thought to O’Cathaoir saying that Sands’ fast was ‘in the tradition of positive resistance, immortalised by Gandhi.’ Gandhi and Sands certainly had things in common: they shared the same imperial foe, they had a great love of their people, and they had iron will.

But unlike the pacifist Gandhi, Sands was committed to armed struggle and, while both revolutionaries may have used the tactic of hunger strike to achieve a political aim, they were altogether different entities.

Another thing that struck me was Fintan O’Toole saying that:

Ultimately Bobby Sands’ life effectively marks the end of the tradition of armed struggle because what he said is: There is no justification or need to kill people.

This is simply not true. The Bobby Sands with whom I lived with for three years on the blanket protest was committed to the armed struggle tradition; he never, during any of his talks with his fellow-prisoners, gave the impression that he viewed constitutional politics as a viable alternative to armed struggle: he was a committed IRA man, with all its attendant violence.

He died believing that his death would enhance the armed struggle, not diminish it.

Moreover, he had absolutely no idea that his death would lead to the peace process. If he had known, I doubt if he would have given his life so freely.

Despite Byrne’s attempt to strike a balance by giving anti-republicans a wide platform, this film is about a republican who died on hunger strike and his testimony. There is skilful use of animation, historical newsreels, and an excreta-covered, H-Block prison cell, complete with two men covered with blankets and lying on dirty mattresses on the floor.

A powerful rendition of Bobby Sands’ hunger strike dairy from actor, Martin McCann leaves one with a feeling of utter helplessness, as does Mrs Sands being interviewed beside a van outside Long Kesh where she tells the world that her son is dying and, holding back her tears, appeals for no violence when he dies.

This is a film that people should go and view if for no other reason than that it has very coherent insights in the Bobby Sands hunger strike, from both sides of the argument. It is also thought-provoking.

And always, at the back of my mind as I was watching this movie, is the question: Was it worth it? It pains me to say that I don’t think it was.


Mick Hall observes:

Richard O'Rawe was the well respected Republican prisoners PRO during the hunger strike and a confidant of the prison leadership. His claim that six of Sands fellow hunger strikers could have been saved if the republican leadership outside the jail had accepted a compromise deal from Margaret Thatcher are not backed up by the majority of the prison leadership.

It doesn't make what Richard said untrue, just extremely if not impossible to prove as military discipline and etiquette is still strong, even after all these years, amongst former soldiers of Óglaigh na hÉireann. Either way his two books are well worth a read and it's for the reader to make up their own mind.

My opinion is there was in all probability an offer made, as without one I doubt senior republican Danny Morrison would have been allowed to enter the prison at such a traumatic time. However the pressure cooker atmosphere on the streets and in the jail, plus the suspicions, passions and hatreds on both sides, made a deal almost impossible to stitch together. Cockup and imperial deceit, rather than republican villainy were to blame.

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Anthony McIntyre

Former IRA prisoner, spent 18 years in Long Kesh. Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher.

3 comments to ''Bobby Sands Died Believing His Death Would Enhance Armed Struggle"

  1. "Cockup and imperial deceit, rather than republican villainy were to blame."

    That's a very interesting remark now considering the history of the leadership since the hunger strike!

  2. More likely that the paramilitaries being awash with weaponry on both sides shortly after the event the Brits used their agents in SF/IRA to avoid a mini Lebanon type situation developing. Any outfit serious about armed action and destroying the northern state would have been throwing gear onto the streets in the aftermath of the hunger strikes. Adams and Co. were being measured up for Armani suits instead. No accident... any of it.

  3. "We must see our present fight right through to the very end." That's what my hero said. Of course, he was in favor of the Long War to defeat British hegemony. He knew it was the only way to achieve sovereignty in the 32 Counties.


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