Bobby Sands film asks tough questions of nationalists as well as unionists

Alex Kane
Alex Kane

Starving yourself to death has been described as the “most intimate kind of pain”; and because of that very intimacy it’s also a very powerful personal, political and propaganda tool.

That’s what Bobby Sands intended his hunger strike to be between March 1 and May 5, 1981. He died for his own right and the right of other IRA inmates to be regarded and treated as ‘political prisoners’ rather than as criminals. Bobby Sands: 66 Days is the story of that hunger strike. It doesn’t really address the moral/political issue of whether he was right to demand ‘political’ status, but it does force the audience to ask, “what sort of man would do that sort of thing”?

I can understand the concerns of those unionists – and some small-n nationalists, too – who were worried that this film/documentary would be nothing more than uncritical hero-worship and hagiography. It isn’t. Indeed, some Sinn Fein members at the Belfast premiere on Saturday evening told me that the commentary from Fintan O’Toole (he was one of a number of journalists, former prisoners and academics providing context), “didn’t do Bobby any favours”. One of their MLAs even said to me, after I’d asked him what he thought of it, “Well, Alex, I’m going to have to go home and mull over some of the stuff”. As a unionist, observing a mainly republican audience (some of whom had been in the H Blocks with Sands), watching a film about one of their supposed heroes, I was surprised by some evident discomfort. They, too, were being forced to revisit that moment and maybe, just maybe, revising and rethinking their previously set-in-stone opinions.

Those 66 days changed Northern Ireland. They changed the Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein. They changed the dynamics of politics and elections. They changed the relationship between the British and Irish governments (both of whom feared the consequences of a Sinn Fein electoral rise on both sides of the border). They brought America into the process in a way that it hadn’t been involved before. They put the ‘Irish question’ on front pages across the world. And, in October 1981, they led to a new IRA/SF strategy when Danny Morrison asked a Sinn Fein conference: “Who here really believes that we can win the war through the ballot box? But will anyone here object if, with a ballot paper in one hand and the Armalite in the other, we take power in Ireland?” Those 66 days led to the Anglo/Irish Agreement in 1985, to the Downing Street Declaration in 1993, to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and to the DUP/Sinn Fein power-sharing deal in 2007.

Whether Sands would have supported that train of events is open to debate, although it isn’t a debate which is raised in the film. His best remembered line is, “Our revenge will be the laughter of our children”. So I’m not sure that he would have been particularly happy with Martin McGuinness serving as Deputy First Minister to Ian Paisley, Peter Robinson and Arlene Foster in a Northern Ireland which is still rooted in the United Kingdom. He was, after all, a man (and we hear his own words throughout the film) who had joined the IRA to end British occupation and oppression: “I joined with an M1 carbine and enough hatred to topple the world.”

Of course, Sands could never have known the extent to which “events, dear boy, events,” would play such a crucial part in how we remember him today. He couldn’t have known that Frank McGuire, the independent MP for Fermanagh/South Tyrone, would die of a heart attack on March 5, 1981; or that he would be the sole anti-unionist candidate in the subsequent by-election on April 9, or that he would win. His candidacy was a huge risk for Sinn Fein – and for him, obviously – because had he lost it would have represented a huge blow for both the party and the hunger strike strategy.

Yet once he won, Sands became bigger than Sinn Fein and bigger than the hunger strike. He became bigger than Sinn Fein’s leadership inside and outside the prison. His death had the potential to plunge Northern Ireland into a civil war (unionists, of course, saw his election victory and the increasingly large pro-hunger strike demonstrations as a very serious threat to their own interests). It also had the potential to shift the political/electoral agenda in Sinn Fein’s favour, if properly handled and orchestrated. On March 1 Bobby Sands was just another hunger striker who would, more likely than not, end the strike before his physical state became critical. Yet by April 9 he was an MP, martyr-in-waiting, world-wide news story and unexpected catalyst for change. Or, as Fintan O’Toole put it, “Sands marked the end of the armed struggle because Sinn Fein realised that you win when you capture the public imagination”.

Unionists should not ‘boycott’ this film. This is a crucial, still raw, part of our collective history and the impact of those 66 days is still with us. It takes a particular kind of courage to do what Sands did (how many of us would starve to death for our beliefs?), yet it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that he, too, in the end, became a victim of circumstances and events beyond his control. Did he die in vain? I don’t know. And nor, I suspect, will the vast majority of people who watch this important film.