I asked in a recent post where is our Rosa Parks, where is the person who will do or refuse to do something, will inspire the people of this country to stand up and demand their jobs, benefits, rights, justice. Maybe I should have asked where is our Bobby Sands.
Robert Gerard Sands was an Irish Catholic born and died in the occupied territory known as Northern Ireland, the leader of the Hunger Strikers in the Long Kesh Prison, and the first to die. The demands of the IRA were and are simple: the English should get out, and Ireland should be reunited and independent of all English rule.
The English stole all the land from the Irish Catholics, even passing laws making it illegal for Catholics to own land. Then the English imported Protestants from England, Scotland and Wales to be the landowners, the bosses, to rule over the Catholics. Eventually the "real" Irish threw the English out, but the English managed to hold onto that part of Ireland that they call "Northern" Ireland, although in fact it is simply a part of the nation of Ireland in the North, occupied territory, still partly subject to British rule.
One of the prisons in Northern Ireland was named Long Kesh. The English have changed the name, trying to re-write history, but the hunger strikers of Long Kesh have not been forgotten. Some call Long Kesh a concentration camp, since for decades the English practiced preventative detention, simply rounding up masses of Irish people and throwing them into prison, holding them without charges or rights.
In 1976 the English decided that they would no longer consider the IRA as prisoners of war, or political prisoners, and took away all associated rights. There is no doubt that the IRA is a political organization, paramilitary, resisting the British occupation of a part of Ireland, and the IRA members should properly have been considered prisoners of war. But England decided they would simply re-classify the prisoners and call them criminals. This is probably where Bush and Cheney got the idea of simply re-classifying prisoners to deny them the basic rights guaranteed to prisoners of war. There were a series of protests inside and outside the prison, trying to regain the prisoner of war status for IRA prisoners. The protests included a hunger strike which ended without success.
The IRA prisoners were routinely attacked by gangs of armed guards, beaten and brutalized. There was no justice for the IRA prisoners in Long Kesh.
In 1978, the IRA prisoners began a blanket and no-wash protest. They refused to wear the prisoner uniform issued by the prison and instead would only cover their bodies with a blanket. They also refused to wash or bathe. They also began to spread feces inside the walls of their cells, and to dump their urine buckets into the hallways to force the guards to deal with the same misery as the prisoners. The violence escalated. The prison guards routinely beat the prisoners. The IRA assassinated many of the prison guards. Protestant "loyalists" (loyal to England) assassinated many of the members of the H-Block support committee run outside the prison.
Finally, in 1981, the second hunger strike was begun as a last-ditch effort to gain rights for the political prisoners being held in the Long Kesh prison H-block. There were five demands of the prisoners:
1. The right not to wear a prison uniform;
2. The right not to do prison work;
3. The right of free association with other prisoners, and to organize educational and recreational pursuits;
4. The right to one visit, one letter and one parcel per week;
5. Full restoration of remission lost through the protest.
The hunger strike was a tactic used by the Irish historically in their ongoing struggle for independence from England. Since 1917, and before the Long Kesh hunger strikers, there were 12 Irish patriots who had died on hunger strikes, all standing against British rule.
Bobby Sands was the first prisoner in Long Kesh to go on the hunger strike, and his suffering grabbed the attention of the world. Among other things, he was elected to Parliament during the strike, which further enraged the despicable Margaret Thatcher, then-Prime Minister of England, and all the Protestants in Northern Ireland who supported her.
Margaret Thatcher refused to grant any rights to the prisoners or to intervene in any way to try to save their lives. International interest and concern grew. The Pope sent an envoy to try to negotiate a settlement. As media reported that Bobby Sands was near death, the English and the Protestants remained cold, responding that if he wanted to commit suicide he was free to do so.
Bobby Sands died on May 5, 1981, after sixty-six days of his hunger strike, at the age of twenty-seven, leading to rioting throughout the occupied part of Northern Ireland. 100,000 of his supporters attended his funeral. Thatcher continued her belligerant and arrogant attitude, stating that Sands chose to take his own life, and he was a criminal.
Nine more hunger strikers died in the following weeks. Thatcher continued to ridicule the deaths, calling them the "last card" to be played by these criminals.
Finally, the families of some of the strikers began to intervene and insist on medical intervention to save their lives. By then, the British had received much international criticism, and organizations on both sides began to get involved in trying to bring about a settlement. Finally one was reached with partial concessions to the prisoners. Quietly, and later, most of the prisoners' demands were met.
The ten hunger strikers who died in 1981 in Long Kesh prison are as follows: Bobby Sands, Francis Hughes, Raymond McCreesh, Patsy O'Hara, Joe McDonnell, Martin Hurson, Kevin Lynch, Kieran Doherty, Thomas McElwee, Michael Devine.
Margaret Thatcher became one of the most hated people in the IRA. Three years after the Long Kesh H-Block hunger strike, the IRA bombed the Conservative party conference being held in the Brighton hotel, killing five people. Margaret Thatcher narrowly escaped death in that bombing.
Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Catholics in Northern Ireland, began participating more actively in political elections after the hunger strike, and there is now a power-sharing arrangement among the Catholics and Protestants, although it is tenuous. Until England gets out altogether, and until Ireland is reunited, there will likely continue to be problems in Northern Ireland. It is a gerrymandered area that was cut off from Ireland proper, artificially created to set up an area in which the Protestants would have the majority, Protestants loyal to England and not to Ireland. It is a bastard political entity.
The death of Bobby Sands and the 9 other hunger strikers led to international condemnation of England and specifically of the bigoted Irish-hating Margaret Thatcher. IRA membership immediately grew in response to the deaths, and its fundraising improved dramatically. There were riots throughout Ireland and in parts of England.
The seat in Parliament to which Sands had been elected was next taken by Owen Carron who ran as an "Anti H-Block Proxy Political Prisoner." There were demonstrations and marches in Italy, in Paris (where thousands marched holding posters of Sands and chanted "The Ira will conquer"). Pravda described the death of Sands as "another tragic page in the grim chronicle of oppression, discrimination, terror and violence" in Ireland. Many cities in France re-named streets after Bobby Sands. In Iran, the government re-named the street that ran in front of the English embassy. It had formerly been called Winston Churchill Boulevard but was renamed Bobby Sands Street. Much of the American media unfortunately supported Thatcher during the age of Reagan. However, the Longshoremen's Union had a 24-hour boycott of British ships, and Irish bars in New York City were closed for two hours in mourning in honor of Sands.
There are murals all over Ireland honoring the Hunger Strikers who died, as well as memorials in countries throughout the world including one in Hartford, Connecticut, in Sydney, Australia, and in Havana Cuba.
Who knows better the brutal nature of the English than the people of India? The Hindustan Times reported that Margaret Thatcher had allowed a Member of Parliament to die of starvation, an incident which had never before occurred "in a civilised country." Certain members in the Indian Parliament stood for a silent tribute to Bobby Sands.
Here's a video that shows something of the Hunger Strikers and Long Kesh prison, H-block.
What could be learned from this? First, that all people want to be free and independent. Second, that an occupying foreign government can imprison and murder the local civilians, but every generation will give rise to another group willing to fight, kill and die for their freedom. Third, that when governments seek to torture, imprison without trial or justice, and deny basic human rights and dignity to the people of another land, to kidnap and imprison without trial, to deny prisoner of war status and rights in an effort to cover up injustice, those governments always will be exposed as corrupt, always will be internationally condemned, even if it takes a long time. Everything the U.S. has done in the middle east has already been done by other corrupt governments in other lands. The U.S. will fail, and its efforts are immoral and unlawful and wrong. History will judge the U.S. as having turned into just another empire trying to enslave the world and steal its resources.
What did the people of England gain from all of this? The "right" to sneer at the Irish Catholics? At what cost? Some of the sports teams from Scotland and England to this day, when they are playing against Irish teams, will sing and chant demeaning songs about Bobby Sands. So what the Protestants gained was the right to look down on the Irish Catholics. Lots of people died, but they don't care as long as they continue to be allowed to sneer at the Irish Catholics. Not very different from the current U.S. war against the Muslims in which American citizens are encouraged to sneer at the Muslims throughout the world. That is the "benefit" of Empire. No jobs, no healthcare, no education, but they get the right to look down on some other group of people, and cheer when they die.Bobby Sands, "The People's Own MP":
I saw a great movie this week-end about the Hunger Strikers of Long Kesh Prison, named "Hunger." I highly recommend it. It's an incredible sacrifice, at 27, for a young man to give his life in a fight for the rights of his country, but to do it by starvation is unimaginable. The film makes it quite real. These people, the Hunger Strikers of Long Kesh prison, H-Block, were fighting for their rights, the right to political independence, the rights to justice. When will the people of this country stand up to fight for their jobs, their country, fight against the corruption that has turned our national government into just another auction house in which politicians sell their votes and corporations buy them? Where is our Bobby Sands?