The afterlife of Bobby Sands
Glowing leftwing tributes to the hunger-striker contrast markedly to the prevailing attitude 40 years ago. Paul Demarty looks at the modern-day paradoxes
Last week, a significant anniversary for British and Irish politics was marked - on March 1 1981, Bobby Sands1, the most celebrated and reviled of the Provisional IRA hunger-strikers, began to refuse food, in protest at their treatment as common criminals.
The memorial machines are grinding into gear for this two-month period, which - however much they may have missed Sands and the 10 others who died in the strike - overall proved a spectacular success for the Provisionals. Sands’ election to Westminster, and the funeral parade that drew crowds of 100,000 people, proved beyond all doubt that, in the oppressed Catholic communities of Belfast, Derry and everywhere else, the movement had mass support, and was not, as the relevant governments liked to pretend, an isolated cadre of terrorists, whom most ordinary nationalists wished would go away.
Sands’ early life was spent in the suburbs of Belfast; his family was part of a large Catholic minority in the Rathcoole housing estate. As the grip of the Ulster Unionist regime in the Six Counties began to loosen under the pressure of the civil rights movement, Loyalist sectarian violence erupted and many Catholics were forced out of their homes. This experience, and subsequent brushes with unionist thuggery, politicised the young man in the early 1970s, just as the Provisionals split from the Official IRA. The official republican movement had come under the influence of ‘official communism’ and increasingly looked to overcoming sectarian divisions in the working class by prioritising economic demands and playing down the national question. Over time it became more and more hostile to the struggle for reunification. The Provos were denounced as green fascists. In 1974 the Official IRA announced a ceasefire.
Sands, instead, preferred the Provos and became an active fighter for them. It was his participation in the bombing of a furniture showroom that led to him being imprisoned for the final time. When the IRA men in Long Kesh were stripped of their political status - meaning even more degrading treatment by the screws - the struggle began that would lead to his death on May 5 1981.
The publicity around the hunger-strikers led to a new wave of recruitment to the republican movement and revitalised the IRA’s armed campaign. Bobby died less than four weeks later. His victory in the Fermanagh-South Tyrone Westminster by-election pointed to a new electoral stream for the political wing, Sinn Féin, resulting in its so-called ‘armalite and ballot box’ strategy. However much Margaret Thatcher huffed and puffed about talking with ‘terrorists’, the fact of the matter is that what we now call a ‘forever war’ had pitted the British army against a large minority of the Northern Ireland population and won the sympathy and often active support of people south of the border and across the wider Irish diaspora.
But the republicans could not wish away the British-Irish Protestant population. So long as the republicans remained a merely nationalist movement, they were never likely to win - not even if (as may have now happened) those famously high Irish Catholic birth rates gave them the demographic advantage. Some combination of these factors led to the ceasefire, the decommissioning of the Provisionals’ arsenals, and the Good Friday agreement that officially brought ‘the Troubles’ to an end.
Anniversaries of this kind have the effect of collapsing distance in time. The commemorated date is highly visible, in sharp contrast to 40 years ago. Here it is worthwhile addressing the attitude taken by the British left to the Provisionals, and how it has changed.
Enter Steve Sweeney, a regular writer for the Morning Star. Offering us a glowing portrait of Sands for the big day, quoting extensively from his diaries and emphasising the radicalism he embraced in prison, he rightly condemns the Labour Party for its refusal to support the strikers’ demands for better treatment and political status.2
Of course, one other organisation comrade Sweeney might have condemned for the same reason is … the Morning Star, which was then published by the Communist Party of Great Britain, as it started its final slide towards liquidation. The 1968 edition of the CPGB’s programme, the British road to socialism, declared: “The enforced partition of Ireland should be ended and British troops withdrawn from Northern Ireland, leaving the Irish people free to realise their united republic.” As the situation deteriorated, however, the CPGB got cold feet, if indeed it ever really had any enthusiasm for the Irish question. Woefully timid demands held the day, asking the then Labour government to solve the problem ‘peacefully’. Through the 1970s, the party progressively fell into the grip of a rightwing faction of the old bureaucracy and the even more rightwing Eurocommunists, whose inveterate legalism led to barely concealed hatred for those republicans who pursued the armed struggle.
It was not only the British government which promoted the illusion that the Provisionals lacked mass support, but ... the CPGB too. A party pamphlet put out in 1975, Northern Ireland: a programme for action, chided the republican movement for
provid[ing] the British government with an excuse for even more brutal measures of repression … it has made political activity around vital demands for democratic reforms much more difficult and hindered the development of a broad united front against unionism … Progressive opinion in Britain was alienated.”3
So, therefore, it was imperative for the self-styled vanguard of “progressive opinion in Britain”, the ‘official communists’, to stand aside from the struggle, until the Irish had the good sense to meet our requirements for decorum and good order. Though this pamphlet predated the hunger strike, the political cowardice of the CPGB’s leading factions only worsened in the intervening years.
In one respect, this chilly reception is remarkable, in that it was hardly shared elsewhere. The Portuguese Socialist Party stood in salute to Sands after his death; the left in many countries, from Norway to India, likewise offered support; Palestinian prisoners, suffering similar outrages, wrote letters of condolence and comradeship to the dead Irishmen’s families. And, of course, sentimental nationalism among Irish Americans - barely leftwing at all - kicked into overdrive, and the Irish bars of New York closed for two hours in mourning. Further still to the right, the infant Islamic Republic of Iran too found time for a respectful comment on Sands.
It is not that much of a surprise in reality. The difference between all these countries and Britain was merely that only Britain was occupying the Six Counties and fighting a war against the IRA and other republican militias; only Britain had subjected the Irish to centuries of monstrous oppression and exploitation; and, therefore, only Britain was the target of the IRA’s armed struggle. The ‘official’ CPGB was able to play an imperfect, but largely commendable, role in the struggle against apartheid, but was never able to give a decent account of why the struggle against unionist sectarianism and British occupation was so very different.
It was not so much a question of not having an answer, but of knowing that the answer was a bad one. South Africa was very far away - unlike the armed republicans, uMkhonto we Sizwe was not conducting violent struggle directly against Britain. If you were trying to get an anti-apartheid motion through a trade union branch, then the reluctance of some bigoted individual could, if all else failed, be challenged simply with ‘What’s it to you?’ To back the Irish struggle, on the other hand, meant explaining to people that buildings they used might get bombed on account of their country’s malfeasance. That is a rather harder sell. So it was too among backward workers - all the more so among the bourgeois media, on whom the Eurocommunists in particular were most keen to impress their ‘respectability’. Lest we pick on the CPGB too obsessively, it should be noted that many other left tendencies - notably the Militant Tendency - made grave political errors on this point.
The very factor which made anti-apartheid work ‘respectable’ and Irish anti-occupation work embarrassing made the latter all the more disastrous in its effects. Marx famously said that a nation which oppresses another can never itself be free; the brutality of the British response to the republican insurrection in the Six Counties reflected a pervasive fear of ‘enemies within’ on the part of the state establishment. They worried that the coincidence of mass labour struggles throughout Great Britain and a war of national liberation in Northern Ireland might overwhelm their strength. It was up to the left in Britain - above all the Communist Party, with its extensive power in the wider labour movement - to make that fear a reality. Its failure led to the very opposite result, with the military tactics of the British in Belfast and Derry being later used on the miners’ pickets in the 1984-85 Great Strike.
In the end, despite the prestige of the hunger-strikers, the Provisionals were brought to the negotiating table. The Good Friday regime represented peace purely in the sense of ‘absence of war’. The sectarian divide was enshrined in its constitutional arrangements. Stormont politics, intended to be a regime of the ‘moderate’ Ulster unionists and (nationalist) Social Democratic Labour Party, rapidly gave way to a bizarre power-sharing deal between the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Féin, which collapsed and rebuilt itself repeatedly over the subsequent decades.
The irony of the present situation is that a united Ireland is arguably closer at hand than it has been for a long while, though still a way off. The Good Friday agreement provides, in principle, for a plebiscite on reunification - a provision that at the time looked like a sop for Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness to take back to their comrades. But two months ago, for the first time an opinion poll found 51% in favour of holding a border vote in the next five years - though it also found that a plurality of voters would favour remaining in the UK for now.
This situation has been brought about by almost everything except the initiative of the republican movement. The aforementioned demographic changes played a role, of course, but the main problem is Brexit. The Good Friday regime depended on frictionless trade with both the 26-county republic and Great Britain. Brexit made that flatly impossible - so long as the Republic of Ireland does not follow the UK through the exit door. The result is both symbolically and materially disastrous for the north. There is now a customs barrier in the Irish Sea, which is both a grave insult to unionist pride and a cause of shortages in many sectors of the economy.
Though Northern Irish voters favoured remaining in the EU, the Democratic Unionist Party did not. With the ‘Shinners’ on the ‘remain’ side as well, we have the peculiar sight of the republican goal of a united Ireland coming closer at hand through a policy opposed by the heirs of Bobby Sands and supported by those of Dr Ian Paisley, in an extraordinary act of counterrevolutionary suicide.
The status of the Six Counties forms part of a multidimensional constitutional crisis throughout the UK, with Brexit as the true-blue touchpaper, and the anti-democratic deformities of the British constitutional regime and the class rule it represents as the kindling. (This is to say nothing, of course, of the convulsions in southern Irish politics over recent decades, which are hardly irrelevant either.)
A proper resolution demands great sensitivity from the left to the subtleties of the national question. Neither the anti-Provo cowardice of the 1970s and 80s nor the saccharine memorialism of the present will do.
Bobby Sands: 09.03.1954-05.05.1981.↩︎
Quoted in J Marshall, ‘Ireland and the opportunists’ The Leninist No1 (archive.cpgb.org.uk/pages/leninist).↩︎