Bobby Sands was nobody’s victim

The debate provoked by Hunger is a chance to remind ourselves there’s a difference between a sacrifice for a cause and victim politics.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

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On the 30th anniversary of the death of Bobby Sands, read this piece written by Mick Hume in 2008 to mark the release of the movie Hunger.

Bobby Sands, the leader of the Irish Republican Army hunger strikers who died in prison in 1981 – but not before being elected as a Westminster MP – is suddenly back in the news with the release of the new film Hunger this week. I have not seen Steve McQueen’s movie yet, so will leave that to Kevin Rooney, who reviews it on spiked today (see A real Hunger for change).

But I have seen the reaction from critics who accuse the film of turning Sands into an almost-innocent victim of prison brutality, and failing to show the reality of IRA terrorism that got him jailed. And I have seen the sympathetic response from others who evidently find it easier to embrace Sands as a victim of Margaret Thatcher today than as the hated IRA gunman of 27 years ago.

This debate is all about rewriting the story of Bobby Sands from the perspective of today. Yet to me, the most striking thing about his struggle is how it contrasts with the victim politics of our own time. Whatever else you think he was, Sands was not a victim. He did not go on hunger strike to advertise his personal martyrdom or his suffering to the world, but in support of the political demand that he and other Irish republican inmates be recognised as Britain’s prisoners of war. When the hunger strikers demanded ‘Political Status Now’, it was not the political status of persecuted victims they sought, but of legitimate POWs.

At this point I should perhaps declare an historical interest. Supporting the hunger strikers’ demand for political status was the first left-wing campaign I got involved with as a student in Manchester in 1981 (alongside protests against police racism during that summer’s Moss Side riots). I even marched from Manchester to Blackpool to demand that the conference of the Trades Union Congress support the hunger strikers’ demand for political status on behalf of the British working class. It may not surprise you to learn that the union leaders were less-than-keen to do so.

Of the many minority causes that old Marxists like me campaigned for back then, few were more bitterly unpopular in Britain than the hunger strikers’ cause. It was an issue that polarised opinion as little else. But some of us believed that the British state was fighting a colonial-style war in Northern Ireland, and supported the demands for ‘Troops Out Now’ and ‘Self-Determination for the Irish People’. From the mid-1970s, the Labour government had sought to disguise the true character of the conflict by withdrawing political status from Irish prisoners of war and declaring them to be common criminals. Thatcher’s Tory government intensified that policy of criminalisation. The hunger strikes were a desperate protest for the return of political status. Ten republican hunger strikers died in 1981, of whom Sands was the first. Thatcher’s government refused to concede. Yet 27 years on, does anybody now seriously deny that there was a war in Northern Ireland?

That is all history now, and we can put it to one side here. Because Sands’ story can be seen to have a more contemporary relevance. From whichever side you look at it, his stand provides a striking contrast to the degenerate state of the politics of protest today, and the elevation of victim politics.

In recent times, it has become standard to use self-styled suffering and victimhood as a banner, a political identity. To show that one has suffered is seen as the path to the moral high-ground and political authority. What exactly that authority might amount to is less clear, beyond the plea for recognition and redress. In extreme cases, even death has been used to highlight an individual’s victim status, in the hands of suicide bombers. As analysed previously on spiked, attacks such as the London bombs look more like narcissistic, nihilistic look-at-me stunts than part of a political struggle (see 7/7: a very British bombing, by Brendan O’Neill).

With its Catholic roots, Irish republicanism always had a streak of wallowing in misfortune, long before it became fashionable in Britain. There used to be a famous slogan painted on walls in West Belfast and Derry, particularly during the hunger strikes, about how ‘those who can suffer the most’ would triumph. But despite that, the ultimate sacrifice made by Sands and his fellow hunger strikers seems very different to the victim politics of our time.

The hunger strikers did not claim to be innocent victims. They were active members of the IRA and the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), organisations that used violence against what they saw as the British oppressors, in pursuit of the political ends of a united Ireland. They had no death wish, and unlike the recent suicide bombers they did not set out to make martyrs of themselves. But from a position of powerlessness in prison, they used the last weapon of a hunger strike in order to pursue their political goals.

Sands accepted and sought to use his death, not as an end in itself or an advertisement of his righteousness, but for a constructive purpose. The hunger strikers made specific political demands, far removed from the incoherent cries of victimhood we hear from wannabe suicide bombers today, and their campaign made a major political impact in Ireland. It galvanised a mass movement of support that culminated in Sands’ election as MP for Fermanagh and Tyrone, and the huge funeral cortege – equivalent to a fifth of the Catholic population of Northern Ireland – that followed his coffin.

It is often said that the difference between ‘traditional terrorists’ such as the IRA and the likes of al-Qaeda is in the scale of indiscriminate violence they use today. That is only part of the story. The bigger point is that Irish republicans such as Sands had clear political aims and were accountable to a constituency of support, so that their use of violence was largely focused. They did not claim to be acting ‘on behalf of’ some invisible and silent community, as, say, Islamic terrorists often do today. Sands’ death brought out 100,000 people to march on his behalf, not the other way around.

For today’s suicide bombers it seems that the suicide and the bombing are ends in themselves, violent acts of exhibitionism, terror for its own sake. For Sands and his comrades it was all a means to an end (and not simply the ‘end’ of entering paradise with a harem of virgins); the hunger strikes and the bomb or gun attacks that got them jailed were all part of a political struggle against the British forces of occupation.

There was a difference, too, in terms of the campaigns in Britain. We were trying to win support in solidarity with a genuine struggle. We did not claim to be acting ‘on behalf of’ the unknowing poor or the planet, or speaking for ‘the voiceless’ as many patronising campaigns seem to these days. There is a difference between showing solidarity and showing off.

Don’t misunderstand me; 1981 was not the good old days. Nobody in their right mind would want to see that situation recreated today. The hunger strikes were horrific. They also ultimately failed to achieve their aims.

But we should not allow history to be rewritten too easily. Not everybody who makes a sacrifice, even the ultimate one, for a cause does so to be a martyr on a cross. Bobby Sands was nobody’s victim.

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked. He is speaking in the session Radicalism then and now: the legacy of 1968 at the Battle of Ideas festival at the Royal College of Art, London on 1&2 November.

Previously on spiked

Kevin Rooney reviewed the Bobby Sands biopic, Hunger. He also argued that no amount of rebranding and mural erasing can cover up the deep divisions in Belfast. Elsewhere he attacked a journalistic tendency to depoliticise the war in Northern Ireland. Michael Fitzpatrick explained how the left betrayed Ireland’s ‘68. Brendan O’Neill saw in the Paisley and Adams power-sharing deal the ghosts of politics past. Elsewhere he questioned why Bloody Sunday has gained so much recent attention and said the annual Orange men’s ‘Battle of Drumcree’ is pure pantomime.  Or read more at spiked issue Ireland.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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