Powerful symbol

Liam O Ruairc reviews Denis O Hearn's book Bobby Sands: Nothing but an unfinished song, Pluto Press, 2006, £12.99, pp448

A new biography of Bobby Sands, leader of the 1981 hunger strikes and unquestionably the single most powerful symbol of the republican movement's resistance campaign, has been published on the 25th anniversary of the hunger strikes.

Denis O Hearn, the author of the book, is an academic but also a political activist (he was once severely beaten up by the Official IRA). A prolific hunger strikes 'industry' has developed over the last few years, with a whole series of events, lectures, rallies, plays, publications, films and merchandises.

His book is part of that growing 'industry'. This is an attempt to appropriate and control the legacy of the hunger strikers to legitimise present policies and cash in on them electorally. O Hearn's book is leadership-endorsed and has been promoted by a number of publications close to the Provisional movement. (The book is published in conjunction with the Provisional Left Republican Review).

The most startling aspect of the book's initial promotion "is the blatantly false claim" by the author that he had secured the cooperation and assistance of the hunger striker's sister in writing the book. Marcella Sands, whose name Bobby Sands used as a nom-de-plume for some of his prison writings, is acknowledged by the author for contributing and helping with the book.

However, Marcella Sands sent a letter to Forum Magazine and a number of national newspapers in order to deny this and to put the record straight: "According to the article, the author of the book, Denis O Hearn, 'thanks the hunger striker's sister Marcella for her help with the book.' This suggests that I had 'helped' or participated in some way in the compilation of this book and, therefore, endorsed it. This is misleading and untrue. I wish to state categorically that neither I, nor any of my family, helped Mr O Hearn with his book in any way, nor does my family endorse the book. Indeed, the opposite would be the case as his book contains numerous factual inaccuracies".

As the Forum article concludes, "Ms Sands' negative verdict has dealt the book's credibility a serious blow" (John Hanley, 'Sands book controversy', Forum Magazine, February/March 2006).

For many years, the Sands family has been in a dispute with the Sinn Féin dominated Bobby Sands Trust over its use of his writings and image to promote Provisional politics. They have even been considering legal action.

His family claim that "the ideals for which Bobby died and on which the trust was founded have been abandoned." "We simply want his property (prison writings) returned and for (Sinn Féin) to cease using him as a commodity", said a family spokesperson. (See Joe Oliver, 'Sands family in row over trust', Irish Examiner June 30 2000; Ed Moloney, 'Sands' family considering legal action against the Bobby Sands Trust', Sunday Tribune, July 2 2000 and Henry McDonald, 'Republicans feud over hunger striker's legacy', The Observer March 18 2001).

It is thus not surprising that they are unhappy with O Hearn's biography.  But if the book contains "numerous factual inaccuracies" as Marcella Sands alleges, these are not immediately evident.

In fact, there is much valuable research in this book. The bulk of it deals with Sands' prison years and the author has conducted many original interviews with those who were in jail with Bobby Sands as well as prison officers, priests and so on. O Hearn is quite good on the international impact of Sands' hunger strike - how it influenced South Africans or the Zapatistas, for example. The book provides an interesting read and has little in it that is controversial.

However, "what is lacking here is the sort of serious assessment of Sands' sacrifice that decades of hindsight should bring."(Ed Moloney, 'The IRA's Empty Victory', Washington Post, February 28 2006). In particular, the author does not emphasise enough the deep divisions over his legacy. At the end of the book, O Hearn quotes Bernadette Sands' claim that "Bobby did not die for cross-border bodies with executive powers. He did not die for nationalists to be equal British citizens within the Northern state" (Magill, January 1998).

To which the author replies that if one cannot know what Sands would think were he alive today, the majority of his comrades nevertheless support the Belfast agreement. But the conditions secured by the hunger strikers 25 years ago and for which Sands died were signed away with the 1998 agreement. Republican prisoners are once again labelled criminals by the British government and are forced to fight for their status.

The 1981 hunger strike is now the subject of a serious historical revision. Last year, Richard O Rawe, who was the number two IRA leader and Public Relations Officer in the jail during the 1981 hunger strikes, published a controversial book called Blanketmen (Richard O Rawe, Blanketmen: an untold story of the H-Block hunger strike, New Island Books, 2005).

According to O Rawe, at a key point after the death of four prisoners, the British government made a secret offer to end the hunger strike, which would have given the prisoners 80% of their demands. The prison leadership, including himself, accepted it.

A message was sent out to Gerry Adams that the prisoners wanted to accept this deal. O Rawe believes Adams overruled them because if the hunger strike continued and more people died, then this would provide a platform from which Gerry Adams would be able to launch an electoral strategy and to bring Sinn Fein into electoral politics.

As Ed Moloney points out: "Now, if Richard is right, it means essentially that Mrs. Thatcher killed 4 hunger strikers but Gerry Adams killed six, and he killed six of his own colleagues, or he allowed six of his own colleagues to die in order to advance his political ambitions" (http://www.democracynow.org/article.pl?sid=05/07/29/1420248).

O Rawe's revelations have been highly controversial, but O Hearn's book ignores them and sticks to the conventional 'official' version of the events. (In his article 'The limits of memory' (Village March 12-18 2005), O Hearn blamed O Rawe's account on "flawed memory").

O Hearn is right to describe Bobby Sands as an Irish Che Guevara. Aside from political parallels, Sands, like Che, has become a commodified icon.