WHO WAS Bobby Sands? The answers will vary -- "IRA hunger striker and member of Parliamen," "criminal and terrorist" or "jailed militant of the Provisional Irish Republican Army" -- depending on the writer's degree of sympathy or contempt, both for the dead man and his cause. Mr. Sands fit all these descriptions, in truth, but the emotional residue of his death threatens to divert our attention, as Mr. Sands intended, from the underlying issues in Northern Ireland.

Neither critics nor eulogists can resurrect either Bobby Sands or the more than 2,500 who have died over the past decade in Ulster's war between the IRA Provisiionals and their Protestant counterparts. Britain's current role as the reluctant referee and firm policeman in their battles was criticized during Mr. Sands' hunger strike, but that role deserves American support. Such support neither excuses historic English injustices toward Catholics in Northern Ireland nor sanctions any particular British scheme to steer toward a peaceful solution. It does recognize British fortitude in striving to maintain a semblance of civic stability in Ulster -- and, with it, the option of peaceful change.

Some Americans had urged a compromise with Mr. Sands: save his life by recognizing the IRA prisoners as "politicals." The British had done that earler in the decade but, later, rescinded the policy when they found that special privileges facilitated the continuation of an IRA terrorist "infra-structure" within their maximum-security prison wing. Without passing judgment on this assessment, we do agree that any step toward legitimizing the extremistgs of either religious community can only reinforce the gunmen's ability to strike against British troops and peaceful moderates on both sides. But Bobby Sands would not yield on his demand for such political legitimacy and paid with his life.

Bobby Sands had a record of violence as an "IRA militant," placing innocent lives in jeopardy while bombing warehouses and participating in armed robberies. But because of massive publicity during the last two months, he may be remembered mainly for the manner of his death after a 66-day fast, holding in his hands a golden crucifix presented by a special papal envoy.

Yet, while Bobby Sands's death-watch gripped the world, 13 more unobserved innocents paid with their lives for the polarization to which he contributed. Their deaths deserve at least th recapitulation provided in The Post news story: "six police officers and Protestant reservists in the Ulster security forces assassinated in separate incidents by terrorists; a 40-year-old man apparently mistaken for a Protestant reservist; a 29-year-old woman census taker believed murdered by Protestant terrorists; a 20-year-old Catholic man driving a stolen car who was shot by a pursuing security patrol; two Catholic teen-agers killed by a speeding British Army landrover during riots in Londonberry . . . and a 15-year-old Catholic boy hit by one of the plastic bullets fired by police during the riots."