The election of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands as MP for Fermanagh/South-Tyrone in 1981 remains a divisive issue for the area’s Protestant community decades later, a study has claimed.
A Church of Ireland report entitled Whatever You Say, Say Nothing interviewed Protestants living in Clogher Diocese and probed their experience of the Troubles.
The report recommended more be done to deal with the continuing legacy of pain in Co Fermanagh’s Protestant community, which felt it was being wiped out by the IRA during the Troubles and which remains uncertain of the future.
The report gathered the views of individuals living in border areas and delved into complex relationships within Protestantism and between Protestants and Catholics.
Some of those interviewed pointed to a fragile peace between the minority Protestant population in Fermanagh (35%) and the majority Catholic population (65%), but warned a neighbourliness based on delicate compromises avoided addressing unresolved issues of power, hurt and history.
“The question of whether or not there had been a concerted campaign of ‘ethnic cleansing’ in the Border regions was for most interviewees an accepted fact,” the report found.
“Many people were able to articulate various detailed accounts of how this occurred in practice, identifying the individuals and families directly affected and in some cases going further and identifying those they believed — often citing this as ‘common knowledge’ — had carried out the acts of violent terrorism.”
The report added: “What was in no doubt was the vicious finality and painful legacy visited upon the few and observed from a distance by the many.
“One person was unequivocal: “It wasn’t ‘the Troubles’, it was violence!”
“Another commented: “When you reflect on what happened to the Border Protestant people during the Troubles it’s amazing that the population remained as settled as it did.”
The study was funded by the Irish government and International fund for Ireland to help develop Protestant communities in cross-border areas.
But the Church report found that elements of political history remain a sore point. In 1981 the IRA prisoner Bobby Sands led a hunger strike that eventually saw 10 republicans die at the top security Maze prison.
The decision to stand Sands as a candidate in a by-election for the Fermanagh/ South-Tyrone Westminster seat provided an outlet for nationalists who were sympathetic to the hunger strike and angry at the refusal of the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to negotiate a settlement.
But the Protestant community saw the vote as support for an IRA terrorist.
The report said: “Another powerful and lingering issue for a number of people is the vote of their neighbours in 1981, which saw Bobby Sands — a convicted IRA activist and hunger striker — returned as MP and elected representative for Fermanagh and South Tyrone.
“It was a substantial vote — 52%, against (unionist candidate) Harry West’s 48%. Many Protestants and unionists saw it, both then and now, as a clear and unambiguous vote of support for the retention of the ‘armed struggle’ and the purging of Protestants from the land.
“They couldn’t understand it then and they still can’t. The collective ‘nailing of the colours to the mast’ was stark and shocking, but made things very clear — whatever about our previous neighbourliness, whatever about our friendly and co-operative arrangements, all of that is now over.
“In the eyes of some, any pretence of trust and co-operation between the communities
was, and remains, just that; pretence.”