Sinn Fein is determined to keep control of Bobby Sands narrative and rewrite the past
Republicans use the hunger striker's story to radicalise the next wave of party activists, says Nelson McCausland
Robert Gerard ‘Bobby’ Sands joined the Provisional IRA in 1972 at the age of 18, and the following year he was sentenced to five years in prison for an arms offence. He was released in April 1976 and then, in October 1976, he was one of a six-man team of IRA men who were arrested after the bombing of a furniture store and a gun battle with the RUC.
This time Sands was sentenced to 14 years, where he joined the prison protests, became the OC of the IRA prisoners, was elected as MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone and died on hunger strike.
Since then he has been turned into a “hero-martyr” by the IRA and Sinn Fein and has been eulogised in rebel ballads, popularised in books and films and utilised by Sinn Fein.
The hunger strikes were part of the republican strategy of broadening the battlefield and opening up new fronts to complement the terrorist front.
They developed a cultural strategy, which was built around the Irish language, and they also developed a political strategy, “the Armalite and the ballot box”.
The name of Bobby Sands has been invoked in support of both the cultural and political strategies. An Irish-medium primary school in Twinbrook was named Scoil na Fuiseoige in honour of Sands and Sinn Fein handed out Bobby Sands medals and certificates and Bobby Sands Gaeltacht scholarships to children at a secondary school in the same area.
IRA “hero-martyrs” are usually memorialised with a rebel ballad, a mural, a booklet and an annual parade.
However, the republican machine has taken Bobby Sands to a different level altogether, as they try to turn a terrorist into a freedom fighter, poet, author and philosopher.
As regards “hero-martyrs”, Sinn Fein wants a modern “hero-martyr”, who is up there with Pearse and Connolly. They want a “hero-martyr” for the Provos, one of their own, one whose narrative they control and they welcome anything that helps to elevate Bobby Sands.
There was the 1996 film Some Mother’s Son, which starred Helen Mirren, but was written and directed by Terry George, who was associated with the Irish Republican Socialist Party in the 1970s and was imprisoned for an arms offence.
There was also a fictionalised account of Sands in the 2008 film Hunger, which was part-funded by Northern Ireland Screen.
An adulatory biography of Bobby Sands was written in 2006 by Denis O’Hearn, an Irish-American, who came to Belfast in the 1970s. O’Hearn taught at Queen’s University, sent his children to Scoil na Fuiseoige and became a governor of the school.
O’Hearn also co-authored (with Laurence McKeown, another IRA hunger striker) an illustrated children’s biography of Bobby Sands aimed at primary school children, and this was translated into Irish. Then, earlier this year, there was a full-colour graphic novel with the title Bobby Sands: Freedom Fighter, part-funded by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.
Now there is the controversial documentary Bobby Sands: 66 Days and it could be coming to a television set in your house, courtesy of part-funding from Northern Ireland Screen and BBC Four’s prestigious Storyville documentary series.
On Sunday night the Belfast premiere was hosted by the Belfast Film Festival, which was founded by Laurence McKeown, and Feile an Phobail, which looks like a wholly-owned subsidiary of Sinn Fein, so Sinn Fein must be fairly happy with it.
That means there is now a BBC Four documentary to complement the murals, the memorials, the songs, the biography, the children’s biography, the Irish language children’s biography, the Irish language medals and certificates, the graphic novel and the Hollywood films, all about a terrorist, as well as the framed photographs and the posters on sale in the Sinn Fein bookshop.
Sinn Fein wants to rewrite the history of the Troubles and impose its own narrative, which portrays evil as good.
It also wants to radicalise a new generation of young people and draw them into the republican movement.
This is about Sinn Fein rewriting the past, reassuring its followers and recruiting a new generation of republicans.