The IRA's Empty Victory

By Ed Moloney,
the author of "A Secret History of the IRA"
Tuesday, February 28, 2006

NOTHING BUT AN UNFINISHED SONG

Bobby Sands, the Irish Hunger Striker Who Ignited a Generation

By Denis O'Hearn

Nation. 434 pp. $28

There is a great irony to the life and death of Irish Republican Army hunger striker Bobby Sands; unfortunately, Denis O'Hearn only lightly touches upon it in "Nothing but an Unfinished Song." Sands died in a bid to validate the IRA and its violence but in the long term, his death served only to bring both to an end. He lived as an IRA bomber, but he died as the unwitting architect of the Irish peace process.

To understand that irony, we need to turn back to 1981, when Sands and nine other members of the IRA and the Irish National Liberation Army were jailed near Belfast for murders, shootings and bombings intended to end British rule of Northern Ireland. The 10 deployed an old Irish protest technique to put forward the claim that their violence was motivated by the age-old cause of Irish independence, not by criminality or personal gain. They died in the process, some of them agonizingly.

The hunger strikers had demanded they be treated as political prisoners and not felons -- principally by being allowed to wear their own clothes and being exempt from prison work. They saw themselves as soldiers in a war against the British government, its troops and police, but things were never that straightforward. The war in Northern Ireland was a dirty one that all too often degenerated into bloody and indiscriminate sectarian strife between the loyalists, who supported continued British rule of Northern Ireland and were mostly Protestant, and the mostly Catholic nationalists, many of whom sought to unite with the Irish republic to the south and regard the IRA as their defenders. More often than not civilians, not soldiers, were the victims, and political motives for the carnage sometimes grew hard to discern.

Faced with the hunger strikers' demands, the British government of Margaret Thatcher refused to budge. "Crime is crime is crime; it is not political," the Iron Lady declared. The prisoners, led by the 27-year-old Sands, dug in their heels. The resulting deaths, including that of Sands, and political traumas shook Ireland to its roots.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of those awful months. Sands may have started his protest to vindicate republican violence, but the hunger strike's paradoxical effect was to bring the armed struggle to an end -- and, ultimately, to persuade the IRA to accept the legitimacy of Northern Ireland, the state that Sands and his dead comrades had dedicated their lives to destroying.

Sands's protest enabled the IRA's leaders to fast-forward plans to go political that they had nurtured for some time. Not long after he began his hunger strike, Sands was put forward as a candidate for a local seat in the British Parliament that had become vacant. Against all expectations, he won, and almost out of the blue, the IRA leadership -- then as now dominated by Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing -- was offered a political alternative to violence. After Sands died, his "election agent" -- the local Sinn Fein leader Owen Carron, a 26-year-old teacher who had served as Sands's surrogate -- won the seat; that winter, with a live and unimprisoned member of Parliament at his side, Adams was able to persuade the IRA and Sinn Fein to embrace electoral politics, alongside violence.

One can draw a straight line between the summer of 1981 and the current Irish peace process. The IRA's new "ArmaLite and ballot box" strategy, as it was called, was superficially successful, but it suffered from an inherent long-term contradiction. Seeking votes and planting car bombs were deeply conflicting modes of behavior, and eventually one would have to prevail. Thanks in no small part to Adams's wily ways, politics and negotiations ultimately won out.

The best part of O'Hearn's biography is his often moving account of Sands's time in jail, his interactions with fellow prisoners, the songs and poetry he wrote behind bars, and finally the agonies of the hunger strike. But this story has been told many times before, not least by Sands's prison comrades. What is lacking here is the sort of serious assessment of Sands's sacrifice that decades of hindsight should bring.

Nor does O'Hearn acknowledge that the hunger strike is now the subject of a furious historical revision. In his recent book "Blanketmen: An Untold Story of the H-Block Hunger Strike," Richard O'Rawe, the IRA prisoners' public relations officer during the protest, claims that Sinn Fein's leadership sabotaged a promising effort to resolve the protest -- on secret terms offered by the British and accepted by the prisoners -- because ending the fast before Owen Carron's election would have threatened Adams's political project. (O'Rawe cites the IRA leadership's insistence that Adams be present in the jail with Sands to endorse any deal -- something no British government could accept, least of all one led by Thatcher, since it meant negotiating with the IRA's best-known leader. This demand ensured that the hunger strike could have only one end.) Thus six of the 10 hunger strikers may have died needlessly. If O'Rawe is right, one has to wonder: Was Sands's death even more to further Adams's agenda? After all, with his martyrdom, Ireland exploded in anger, thousands were radicalized, and the stage was set for the IRA's transition to politics. Had his life been saved by a last-minute deal, none of this might have happened.

Today the hunger strike has become another battleground -- this time for ownership of Sands's political legacy. On one side are the current Sinn Fein and IRA leadership and their supporters, upon whom O'Hearn leans heavily for his account. They will welcome his book, not least because it does not challenge their claim that Sands, had he lived, would have supported his mentor, Adams, as he discarded armed struggle. Among those against them are Sands's family, many of whom profoundly disagree with the Adams strategy and broke with him years ago. They refused to cooperate in the writing of this book, but O'Hearn neglects to tell his readers this. Recently Sands's sister Marcella rounded on O'Hearn, claiming that he had falsely implied that her family had endorsed his book, which she said contains "numerous factual inaccuracies." Bobby Sands's song, like the fight for Irish independence, may well be unfinished; the struggle for possession of his political inheritance looks like it could be never-ending.

Jonathan Yardley's reviews will resume next week.


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