Twenty-five years ago, on May 5, 1981, IRA prisoner Bobby Sands died after sixty-six days on hunger strike. He was protesting to be recognized as a political prisoner, calling the world’s attention to some of the most horrific conditions ever experienced by prisoners. He and a hundred of his comrades–jailed in Britain’s notorious H-Block prison in Northern Ireland–had spent years in total lockup, naked with nothing but blankets to cover themselves, with no reading materials or even the simplest comforts of life.
In the last agonizing days of his life, Bobby Sands saw delicious irony in being elected as a British MP, a member of the "mother of all parliaments," the very heart of the enemy he was dying to defeat. He never complained, even when all manner of politicians and churchmen came into his isolated hospital cell, where his friends were not allowed to visit, and tried to cajole and trick him off of his protest. Margaret Thatcher, who ultimately held his life in her hands, had said, "the lady is not for turning." So Bobby Sands knew that he would die. He knew that others would follow. In the end, ten Irish hunger strikers died that summer of 1981.
News of Bobby Sands’s death spurred protests by thousands in major cities of Europe. Motions of sympathy, minutes of silence and days of mourning were declared in many national parliaments and several US states. The Hindustan Times wrote that Margaret Thatcher "allowed a member of the House of Commons, a colleague in fact, to die of starvation. Never had such an incident occurred in a civilized country." And the New York Times editorialized that Bobby Sands "bested an implacable British prime minister."
The Undertones performed their hit song "It’s Going to Happen" on the BBC’s most popular show, Top of the Pops. Their guitarist had written the song to commemorate the hunger strikers. The Grateful Dead stopped their show at Nassau Coliseum on Long Island. A band member said some words about how much Bobby Sands meant to him and to the world. Jerry Garcia sang "He’s Gone," dedicated to Bobby Sands.
Pedram Moallemian and his teenage friends wanted to sneak into the British embassy compound in Tehran and replace the British flag with an Irish one. Then they decided to change the name of the street on which the embassy was situated. Moallemian made signs in Persian—"Bobby Sands St."—out of white construction paper and with blue magic markers and covered the street signs in front of the embassy. The next evening, the teenagers discovered that others had made more signs with the new name. Eventually, the Tehran city government renamed the street permanently and the embassy had to move its door around the corner so that its letterhead would avoid bearing the name of Bobby Sands.
In Cuernavaca, Flora Guerrero Goff and hundreds of supporters, behind a banner that read "Bobby Sands, vivirás para siempre" ("Bobby Sands, you will live forever"), blockaded a major British exhibit that was to be inaugurated by the British ambassador to Mexico, causing its cancellation.
In Havana, Fidel Castro put the Irish hunger strikers in rather high company when he claimed, "Tyrants shake in the presence of men who are able to die for their ideals, after sixty days of hunger strike! Next to this example, what were the three days of Christ on Calvary, as a symbol down the centuries of human sacrifice?"
On Robben Island, Nelson Mandela led a group of young prisoners from Umkhonto we Sizwe on a hunger strike that was directly inspired by Bobby Sands. Among other things, they demanded that their young children be able to visit them. After six days Mandela successfully negotiated an agreement with the prison authorities that enabled children as young as 3 to visit the island.
In Cerro Hueco prison in Chiapas, Arturo Albores Velasco organized the first hunger strike in that prison’s history. After twelve days, from July 20 to August 1, 1981, while the Irish hunger strike continued, Velasco’s strike won the release of twelve prisoners in Chiapas. It was a key episode in the early history of a movement that would soon emerge on the global scene as the Zapatistas.
Twenty years later in Turkey, when hundreds of political prisoners went on hunger strike, they sent secret messages planning their action and their campaign. The code word in their secret communications for the coming hunger strike was simple: Bobby Sands.
The legacy continues today. According to a senior reporter at Radio Liberty, hunger strikes have become more and more common throughout Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia. The highest public profiles went to recent hunger strikes by leftists in Turkey and by the Iranian journalist Akbar Ganji. Less well known are a spate of hunger strikes in Belarus or the hunger strike by Russian workers who cleaned up after Chernobyl but were not given the higher pensions they were promised in return by their government. These strikes may not have "quite the iconic imprint" as the 1981 H-Block hunger strike, says the reporter, but they do take their inspiration from Bobby Sands and his comrades.
The US government remembers Bobby Sands. At Guantánamo, when more than a hundred prisoners went on hunger strike to demand their rights in late 2005, the US authorities were thinking about May 1981. They knew that they could not afford to let a single prisoner die on hunger strike. They force-fed the prisoners for hours, reportedly on a special "feeding chair" with thick tubes that they stuck down the prisoners’ noses, without anesthetic. A report by the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention of the UN Commission on Human Rights found that the Guantanamo doctors "violated the [prisoners’] right to health, as well as international ethics for health professionals." The report indicated that the doctors and prison authorities might be guilty of torture. All to avoid creating another Bobby Sands at Guantánamo. All to avoid more of those damning editorials and protests.
Back in Belfast, Bobby’s comrades remember him not for how he died but for how he lived. In Belfast on March 9, what would have been his fifty-second birthday, hundreds of fellow ex-prisoners and others gathered to remember him. Laurence McKeown, the last hunger striker, whose mother took him off of his strike after he went into a coma on his seventieth day, held a rapt audience in laughter and tears as he told stories about his time in prison with Bobby. Bik McFarlane, who took over as the prisoners’ commanding officer when the hunger strike began, sang "Song for Marcella," which he wrote in prison to commemorate Bobby Sands, twenty years ago.
Bobby Sands died is remembered by many. Others follow his example, even though they do not know the name of the man whose lonely protest set the stage for their protests today.