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Hunger striker Bobby Sands is just a money-spinner for Sinn Fein, writes Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

Published 01/03/2016

Bobby Sands
Bobby Sands

As the 35th anniversary of the H-Block hunger-strike approaches, the power of that tumultuous event to still divide Northern Ireland is evident.

Last week, unionist and nationalist representatives were at each other’s throats over the publication of a comic book about Bobby Sands.

To a majority of Catholics here – even those who never backed the IRA – Sands is a hero. Those who refused to support republicans when they were taking life, came to sympathise with them when they sacrificed their own.

Most Protestants, by contrast, see Sands first and foremost as a terrorist and loathe his lionisation. Growing up I remember the jokes circulating about slimming clubs and the like. But I always believed that, beneath attempts to poke fun at the hunger-strikers, lay fear. 

OBSTACLE

Fear that a movement, whose members would inflict such torture on their own bodies, would never be defeated. But, in the end, they were.

No matter how Sinn Fein tries to dress it up, no matter how much they strut and swagger, the British won the war. The IRA ended its campaign without achieving its aims.

By calling a ceasefire in 1994, the Provos tacitly admitted that their violence, not partition as they had always maintained, was the biggest obstacle to peace.

A British declaration of withdrawal, wasn’t remotely on the radar, let alone the negotiating table, when the IRA ended their campaign. The border that they railed about for years remains firmly in place.

Sinn Fein leaders did all the things they’d pledged never to do. Sign up to policing, enter Stormont, and have their armed wing decommission its weapons - something the IRA hadn’t done in its entire history. 

The Provos continued to rule their own community with an iron fist for many years into the peace process.

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The murders of Andrew Kearney, Charles Bennett, Robert McCartney,  Paul Quinn, and countless others, is testimony to that. But their war against the British state ended conclusively.

Of course, the authorities have made concessions. There has been a greening of political and cultural life. The Orange state is dead and buried.  But, on the big issue, unionists won. The constitutional position of Northern Ireland has never been more secure.

Bobby Sands is now nothing more than a money-spinner to Sinn Fein. His family recognise that which is why they’ve demanded the disbandment of the Bobby Sands’ Trust, saying it doesn’t act on his behalf.

The 10 hunger-strikers didn’t just die for political status in the H-Blocks. They died for a 32-County Irish Republic and that’s nowhere on the horizon.

I don’t for one second believe that Sands would have gone 66 minutes without food, let alone 66 days, for what Sinn Fein secured.

That’s why unionists shouldn’t get over-excited about a £5,000 Arts Council grant for a comic book about a hunger-striker.  It’s a very small price to pay when you consider how far the Provos have come.

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