• Sun. Oct 24th, 2021

40 years ago Bobby Sands died, ancient wounds reopen

Byeditorial

May 5, 2021

The 40th anniversary of Bobby Sands’ death could not have come at a more delicate time for Northern Ireland. In concrete terms, perhaps for the first time since April 1998, when the Good Friday Agreement was signed, the peace process is shaking dangerously, under the pressure of the contradictions exposed by Brexit, of the political crisis within the Protestant-Unionist political front. , of the discontent of Catholics. It may also be for this reason that the British and Irish press seem mostly to ignore the anniversary, as if to exorcise the risk that the reopening of ancient wounds could aggravate the problems of the present. Certainly more numerous were the articles published between the end of February and the beginning of March, to commemorate the beginning of the hunger strike decided in 1981 by the group of IRA prisoners, led by Sands, in the Long Kesh prison. the ‘Maze’, the Labyrinth. The action was decided after the failure of previous attempts (the ‘blanket protest’, the ‘dirt protest’) to force the London government to restore the status of political prisoners, canceled in 1976, to the imprisoned IRA fighters in the infamous H Blocks. Unlike the previous hunger strike in 1980, when all the Republican prisoners who took part in it stopped after 53 days, faced with the desperate conditions of one of them, Sean McKenna, and the vague promises, never materialized , by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a different modality was chosen for that of 1981. The various prisoners would have joined the hunger strike at regular intervals, to maintain constant protest and public attention. The first to start was Bobby Sands, on March 1st. Death at 27 after 66 days of hunger strike Sands died at the age of 27 after 66 days of a dramatic tug-of-war with the British government, which did not yield to internal and international pressure from those who asked for openness to some form of dialogue. His slow and relentless descent into physical annihilation is dramatically described in Steve McQueen’s 2008 film ‘Hunger’, starring Michael Fassbender as Sands. Meanwhile, shortly after the strike began, Sands had become a full-fledged member of the House of Commons, elected to the Northern Irish College of Fermanagh and South Tyrone on the Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, with over 30,000 votes, the youngest Westminster MP.After Sands, in just over three months, 9 other Republican prisoners who had joined the strike died one after the other, 6 of the IRA and 3 of the Inla, (Irish National Liberation Army). The hunger strike ended definitively in October, when the other prisoners participating in it understood that their families would authorize force-feeding, to prevent their death. Later, the British government enacted a reform of the prison system in Northern Ireland, which accommodated many of the demands made by prisoners. Yet, despite the suffering – martyrdom, he immediately claimed the Wrath – of Sands was not isolated, it was precisely the name of Sands to identify with a protest that had two recognized historical merits. The first, that of having lifted the veil of international indifference that enveloped the ‘Toubles’ for years, the riots, as the British euphemistically defined the conflict, earning much support for the cause of Republican Catholics; the second merit was that of making the IRA understand that military strategy alone could not be enough. After his death, the IRA also gave itself a political strategy To the armed struggle, the Northern Irish republicans thus joined that politics, starting right from the election of Sands, after participation in elections had always been considered a taboo. Other years of violence, grief and political ambiguity certainly followed, but the natural outcome of the renewed IRA strategy, with the progressive growth, in terms of political relevance, of Sinn Fein, eventually led to the peace accords of 1998. then, with the historic signing of the Belfast Agreement, on Good Friday, today it shows all its limits and pushes both the London and Dublin governments to tone down and invite all Northern Irish political actors to be reasonable. Brexit, above all, has reopened old wounds. The Northern Irish Protocol, that chapter of the agreement between London and Brussels that regulates the new non-EU status of the six counties of Northern Ireland and their relationship with the neighboring Republic of Ireland, has raised a very strong wave of discontent among Protestant unionists The creation, in fact, of a border in the Irish Sea, between Northern Ireland and the rest of Great Britain, in the eyes of the Unionists is the attestation of a second-class citizenship, which distances them from the United Kingdom and brings them ‘too close’ to the Republic of Ireland. Not to mention the difficulties in managing the traffic of goods at the border, and the pangs of the economic crisis in the areas of the Protestant working class, which feels left behind, compared to the relative well-being which it would have benefited from thanks to the peace agreements and the generous contributions of the European Union the Catholic community, after years of subordination. The contradictions of Brexit and the political crisis of the unionist front An explosive situation that led to the resignation of Arlene Foster in the space of a few weeks, after the outbreak of the first violent demonstrations. The ‘strong woman’ of the Dup, the Democratic Unionist Party, the main unionist political formation, which shares power with Sinn Fein Catholics under the ‘power sharing’ agreement established in 1998, was forced to leave her role of party leader and first minister of the regional government. What put her out of the game was an internal revolt of the deputies and the leaders of the Dup, who accused her of excessive passivity with respect to the contradictions that emerged with Brexit. Adding to the anger of the Protestant community was the recent acquittal of 24 Sinn Fein politicians, including deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill, who had attended the former leader’s funeral last June in the midst of a pandemic. Wrath Bobby Storey, violating the lockdown rules. For the unionists, this was yet another sign of favorable treatment for Catholics by the institutions and the police. A paradoxical reversal of the balance of power, according to the narrative of the most extreme fringes of the unionist front, compared to the years in which Northern Ireland still retained the ancient name of Ulster, Catholics were in fact excluded from political life and kept to margins of the economic one, and the police, later reformed in 2001, called the Royal Ulster Constabulary, were mostly Protestant and often colluded with the unionist paramilitary bodies. In short, a Northern Ireland in which Bobby Sands had grown up, maturing his radical choice to join the IRA, explained by himself as a reaction to the violence of the Protestants. “I had seen too many houses destroyed, fathers and sons arrested, friends murdered. Too much gas, shooting and blood, most of it from our own people. At 18 and a half, I joined the IRA,” he said. the reopening of another ancient wound, this time for the Catholic community, with the unexpected and rapid conclusion of the trial against two former British paratroopers, accused of the murder of an IRA commander, Joe McCann, which took place almost 50 years does. The acquittal of the two former soldiers, now in their seventies, has been greeted with emphasis by the British conservative press, which disputes the attempt, more political than judicial, to bring to the bar decades later how many, among the soldiers sent from London in the years of ‘ Troubles’, would have been guilty of crimes. In this climate of political and emotional instability, aggravated by the difficulties imposed by over a year of pandemic, there is now the risk that with the arrival, in the summer, of the season of the Orangutan marches, other painful wounds may reopen. Those same Orangemen marches that at the beginning of the 1970s inevitably resulted in riots and violence between Protestants and Catholics, to the point of pushing young people like Bobby Sands to embrace the armed struggle. (By Marco Liconti)