Why should we be surprised at this violation of the Magna Carta when the nation that wrote the document threw it out a quarter century ago?
The name Bobby Sands is emblazoned on the Irish psyche, 25 years after he began his hunger strike on March 1, 1981. He died 66 days later, on May 5. Nine of his comrades followed him to their graves. It is an irony of history that as we arrive at this anniversary, men have been on hunger strike in Guantanamo, being cruelly force-fed and artificially kept alive. No one wants another Bobby Sands.
Some memories fade, others remain. It was not that long ago that I arrived in Kingston, Jamaica. The first person I met was a combi-taxi driver.
‘Where you comin’ from, brother?’
‘Ah, Ireland, Bobby Sands, the IRA is fighting for their freedom!’
I’ve heard many similar stories over these 25 years. Most have one thing in common: they come from people who have themselves been in struggle in places like South Africa, Palestine, Turkey and Latin America. The example of Bobby Sands still means a lot to such people. When Turkish political prisoners went on hunger strike five years ago, their secret codeword for their plans was ‘Bobby Sands’.
But few people know who Bobby Sands really was, and how he and nine others could endure such a slow and painful death. Until recently, with the unfolding of the Irish peace process, his comrades were either in jail or unwilling to talk.
Some things about Bobby Sands will be familiar to veterans of political struggle. He grew up in Belfast under extreme violent threat, first from racist (Protestant) gangs, then from representatives of the state: the police and the British army. He reacted to those threats by joining the IRA, believing that to be the only way to fight the violence that was aimed at his community.
At seventeen, Sands was jailed for his IRA activities. He spent all but six months of the rest of his life in prison. There, he became politically conscious. He learned about other struggles and revolutionaries: Che Guevara in Cuba, Camilo Torres in Colombia, George Jackson in Soledad.
But the greatest lessons he learned were practical. He learned the importance of education and, particularly, of learning the Irish language. By using Irish to discuss strategy with his fellow prisoners under the noses of the prison guards, he made it a living language. Likewise, he brought history and politics to life for his fellow prisoners.
This political awareness is why, when Britain stripped IRA prisoners of political prisoner status in 1975, they refused to be branded as criminals. When they rejected prison uniforms, their jailers threw them naked into their cells, draped only in a blanket. They were under 24-hour lockup, seven days a week, without reading materials.
While not quite in total incommunicado like the prisoners at Guantanamo, these ‘blanketmen’ might have stayed there for years, quietly suffering in what Sands called ‘these concrete tombs’, the H-Blocks of Long Kesh prison near Belfast.
But then Bobby Sands arrived. He convinced his fellow prisoners to reclaim their prison spaces, to take visits with friends and relatives, even if they had to wear prison uniforms on visits. Once they left their cells, the prison corridors became a battlefield. Prisoners used visits to smuggle in writing materials and tobacco, and to smuggle out accounts of the inhuman conditions of their imprisonment.
Bobby led by example. His smuggled accounts of life in the H-Blocks, written out on toilet paper in tiny script, showed the world what was going on.
Sands wrote about the daily events like mirror searches, where the prison guards forced the men to squat over mirrors while they searched up their anuses for illicit ballpoint refills. He wrote about how the men retained their dignity: the stories they told at night, the singsongs and talent contests, the political debates.
Most of all, he wrote of the inhumanity of the process that he called the ‘conveyor belt’. This was the process whereby hundreds of young Catholics were lifted from the streets and held incommunicado in interrogation centers. In a practice that foreshadowed Guantanamo, the government told detectives that interrogations differed from interviews, and mistreatment was justified if it led to confessions. From there, the suspects were convicted in juryless courts. And then they were thrown into the H-Blocks.
This should look familiar. Michael Ratner from the Center for Constitutional Rights argues that Guantanamo Bay has taken U.S. citizens back nearly a thousand years, before the Magna Carta, in terms of the rights that were established by that noble document in 1215, written into the US Constitution, and lost in the post-9/11 moral panic. Had he been looking at Ireland 25 years ago, perhaps he would not have been so surprised. After all, the Magna Carta was an English document, and it was England that ignored it in its fight against the IRA, Maggie Thatcher’s ‘terrorist threat’.
Article 39 of the Magna Carta reads, “No free person shall be jailed without a jury of his peers.”
Bobby Sands was jailed by a judge sitting alone, a judge who even admitted that the police had produced no evidence to tie him to the bombs that he was accused of planting. The ‘pig-in-a-wig’ is how Sands described him in his ‘Castlereagh Trilogy’, a savage poetic variation of Oscar Wilde’s ‘Ballad of Reading Gaol’ that satirically charts the process from arrest and interrogation, to juryless conviction and, finally, to naked imprisonment.
In the H-Blocks, Bobby Sands was stripped of nearly everything he had. They even took away the furniture, leaving the men to sleep on foam mattresses that were soaking from the urine that lay in pools on the floor.
Yet a funny thing happened to the prisoners. The more they lost the stronger they became. Stripped of reading materials and the most rudimentary implements in life including even their beds, they created a political letter-writing factory and a site of cultural production, with Bobby Sands at its center.
It was in these unspeakable conditions of twenty-four hour lockup that he wrote songs such as ‘The Voyage’ and ‘McIlhattan’, which are now standards in the Irish folk repertoire. His ‘One Day in My Life’ stands alongside Solzhenitsyn as a classic of prison literature and an account of the grim realities of Gitmo-like prison life.
Despite interventions on behalf of the prisoners by churchmen and politicians, Margaret Thatcher refused to compromise. ‘A crime is a crime is a crime’, she said. ‘It is not political, it is a crime.’
So Bobby Sands and his fellow prisoners decided that they had no recourse left but hunger strike. They went into their protest knowing that they would die. But Bobby Sands hoped that their sacrifice would heighten public awareness of their plight and that the people would force Thatcher to move.
The people responded. They elected Sands to the British parliament. When he died, hundreds of thousands attended his funeral. Parliaments closed down in mourning. Nelson Mandela led a group of young prisoners in a protest on Robben Island and Mayan militants went on the first hunger strike at Cerro Hueco prison in Chiapas.
Twenty-five years ago, Bobby Sands and his fellow prisoners took a stand and the world listened. Even the New York Times editorialized that Sands ‘bested an implacable British prime minister’. The Irish prisoners eventually won their rights. Irish Republicanism was immensely strengthened as it gained a true icon.
No wonder the US government, with the complicity of the British and MI5, will go to any lengths to ensure that no prisoner dies on hunger strike in Guantanamo.
Denis O’Hearn is author of ‘Nothing but an Unfinished Song: Bobby Sands, the Irish Hunger Striker Who Ignited a Generation’, Nation Books, 2006. He is Professor of Sociology at Queens University Belfast and Binghamton University.