Northern Ireland

Legacy of Bobby Sands MP's victory echoed through the years

Bobby Sands sent shock waves through the political establishment when he was returned as MP for Fermanagh South Tyrone in 1981.
Bobby Sands sent shock waves through the political establishment when he was returned as MP for Fermanagh South Tyrone in 1981. Bobby Sands sent shock waves through the political establishment when he was returned as MP for Fermanagh South Tyrone in 1981.

The election of hunger striker Bobby Sands as a Westminster MP forty years ago marked an historic change and set the republican movement on the path to political settlement.

Sands’ defeat of unionist candidate, Harry West on April 9 1981 is now considered a key staging point on a journey which ultimately led to the Good Friday Agreement.

The hunger-striker’s supporters merely saw the decision to contest the Fermanagh and South Tyrone by-election as a means of highlighting the campaign for political status. While returning officer, Alastair Patterson showed his anger at being interrupted by a republican roar as he declared Sands’ victory, the implications of the result could not have been envisaged.

The success of the ballot box gave influence to the doves within the republican movement who were even then attempting to move away from the Armalite policy of the hawks.

World-wide reaction to Sands’ victory enabled them to convince the movement it should abandon the policy of opposing elections in the north. Within a year, Sinn Féin was contesting elections, placing the movement on a political path.

Unionist and British reaction was predictable. The late Ian Paisley – who eventually shared power with Sinn Féin – said the vote was for an “IRA commandant”.

He said: “Now we know where the Roman Catholics in Ulster and the so-called moderates stand”

Tory minister, Francis Pym called on the Westminster parliament to immediately seek ways of having the new MP removed while Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher said his success would not change her policy or attitude to Northern Ireland. Thatcher also rushed through new legislation to ensure no other political prisoner could stand for election.

The Prime Minister gave her reaction to the Sands victory at a press conference in Saudi Arabia when she refused to meet a number of TDs from Dáil Éireann to discuss the hunger strikes.

She famously said: “We are not prepared to consider special category status for certain groups of people serving sentences for crime. Crime is crime is crime; it is not political.”

The victory was greeted euphorically in nationalist and republican areas although in Belfast, Cookstown and Lurgan, celebrations later led to rioting.

While press reports show the British government played down the victory, it was viewed differently throughout the world and led to more intense efforts to reach a solution. Within days – On April 25 1981, two European Commissioners attempted to visit the new MP. However, they were unable to as Sands insisted he would only meet them if new the IRA leader in prison, Brendan McFarlane, Gerry Adams and Danny Morrison were also present.

Three days later, envoy to Pope John Paul II, Rev John Magee visited Sands but couldn’t persuade him to end his hunger strike. Following talks with Northern Ireland Secretary, Humphrey Atkins, Fr Magee paid a second visit to Sands but without success.

In America, reaction was mixed with the conservative press continuing to oppose the H-Block campaign. However, the Regan administration adapted a less strident approach. President Ronald Regan said the US would not intervene although he was “deeply concerned” at events in the north.

The success of the Fermanagh and South Tyrone campaign was repeated just months later when, in June, Belfast hunger-striker, Kieran Doherty was elected TD for Cavan-Monaghan, setting the republican movement further on the political road.