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Unionists fume over heroic Bobby Sands portrayal in comic book hunger strike story funded National Lottery through Arts Council

By David Young

A row has erupted over an "astounding" comic book biography of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands funded by the National Lottery through the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.

Authored by 80-year-old Gerry Hunt and published by O'Brien Press in Dublin, the graphic novel is called Bobby Sands: Freedom Fighter, and is set in 1981, the year in which Sands and nine other republican prisoners starved themselves to death in the Maze Prison.

Unionists slammed the book as "republican propaganda" and questioned the use of what they deemed public money in its publication.

The Arts Council stressed it had no part in the projects publishers spend their funding on.

Mr Hunt writes in the comic: "At the time this book is set, Catholics were second-class citizens with no influence in government, the police force was sectarian and Protestants dominated the Civil Service.

"The property franchise (which meant that only those who owned property could vote) rather than 'one man, one vote' weighted representation heavily in favour of the Protestant community, leaving unionists in control of all but two major councils and a disproportionate share of housing, employment benefits and school funding.

"The famous shipbuilders Harland and Wolff employed virtually no Catholics."

In fact, the one person, one vote system came into being a decade earlier.

The book, which costs €16.99, left Stormont culture, arts and leisure committee chairman Nelson McCausland shocked that public money should have been spent in supporting such a publication.

Mr McCausland said last night: "I'm astounded that the Arts Council and the Lottery should support such a book.

"This is simply Irish republican propaganda.

"The story is told in a way that endorses a Sinn Fein/IRA narrative, portraying Sands as a hero rather than the terrorist he was.

"Such propaganda, which turns a terrorist into a hero and an icon, can poison young minds and point another generation towards the republican tradition of terrorist violence."

The DUP MLA said that, in his view, support for the book was a misuse of public money.

"At a time when the arts budget in Northern Ireland is under pressure, it seems that the Arts Council can still find money to fund such a propagandist book."

The former Culture Minister also indicated that he would be putting the issue on the agenda of Stormont committee for tomorrow.

He said he would be seeking an explanation of how the graphic novel came to receive Lottery and Arts Council support.

"This is money that would other wise be going to mainstream arts organisations, spent on something positive rather than negative," he added.

TUV leader Jim Allister was also scornful of the book. "Clearly, the Arts Council and the Lottery need to explain their waste of public money on such a wholly partisan and pathetic publication," he said.

"Above all, it is unbridled republican propaganda, which no public body should support.

"As for its supposed artistic content, it is pitiful, making the Arts Council's support even more inexplicable."

An Arts Council spokeswoman said last night: "The Arts Council supports publishers of work by Northern Ireland writers and writing of cultural value to Northern Ireland.

"O'Brien Press is one of the most significant publishers in Ireland, north and south, and the Arts Council has provided funding for two titles published by O'Brien Press.

"The Arts Council does not interfere with the publishing choices of its funded publishers and supports their artistic freedom to publish titles of their choice."

She was unable to say how much support the publishers received from the Arts Council.

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