Last Friday morning, August 1st, former comrades of Bobby Sands - ex-POWs Sinead Moore and Jimmy Burns - unveiled a remarkable white marble bust of Bobby in the Felons Club on the Falls Road in west Belfast. Two days later thousands more travelled to Derrylin in County Fermanagh to celebrate the lives and heroism of the 10 hunger strikers who died in 1981 and also of Michael Gaughan and Frank Stagg.
The marble bust, which was commissioned by the Bobby Sands Trust and shaped from a block of marble by Paraic Casey, is a fine representation of Bobby and a tremendous piece of sculpture. I would urge any of you either visiting the Felons or just passing by to take a few moments and go into the foyer to admire the bust which has been set in a recess into the wall. Art is very important in whatever form it takes but to carve something out of stone or wood or marble into an image of a living person and to capture the essence of that person takes enormous talent.
Even now 33 years later it’s hard to take in that the events of that time – events which led to the deaths of Bobby and his nine comrades inside the prison, and of more than 60 others outside. We get a small sense of it when we realise that prior to August 1st 1981 Bobby, Francie Hughes, Raymond McCreesh, Patsy O Hara and Joe McDonnell had already died. Friday was Kevin Lynch’s anniversary. It was Big Doc’s – Kieran Doherty – the following day - Saturday. It will be Tom McElwee’s anniversary this Friday and on August 20th it will be Mickey Devine’s.
Some of them I knew before they went into prison. Others I met in prison. I’m very proud to say that Bobby Sands was my friend. I had been interned in Long Kesh and was then sentenced for trying to escape and found myself in Cage 11, in another part of the camp which held sentenced political prisoners. Bobby was one of those.
He was a wiry, long haired individual. I remember him as a keen sportsman who played soccer or gaelic football whenever he got the chance. He had a good sense of humour and liked music. He was very good on the guitar. He was also a gaelgoir. He famously went on into the H-Blocks where he taught the other prisoners Irish.
There was a study hut in the cage – which was in reality not much bigger than a garden shed. It had a few tables and chairs in it. At one time we kept pigeons in it. In another of the cages they lowered the ceiling and used the space to store the ingredients for poítín until it was found by the screws.
I had been asked by Danny Morrison, who was then the editor of Republican news to write for the paper. Consequently I would sit in the study hut trying to scribble down my thoughts. Bobby would have practiced there. I have an abiding memory of him sitting playing the classic Kris Kristofferson song, ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ over and over again. Later when he went to the H Blocks Bobby wrote songs including ‘McIlhatton’ and ‘Back home in Derry’.
There was once a great moment at Christmas when we put on a concert. Bobby and Dosser, Big Duice, and Big Igor decided to mime to the Queen song ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. But being the consummate professionals they were they decided to create the iced smoke effect from the music videos. Igor had the notion that if you ground down table tennis balls and light them that that would produce the smoke effect. He was right in one respect. It did create smoke. Lots of it and he almost choked most of us to death. We had to evacuate the big hut.
In Cage 11, as in other cages, we inculcated an education ethos. Sometimes Long Kesh is presented by those who don’t know better as a ‘university’ as if we were all stupid before we went into prison. Not true. People got involved because they were political activists and were against injustice and because we wanted change. In the prison we got the chance to read and debate and discuss.
Bobby was very much a part of this. He took part in all of the discussions. He read a lot. He was very intelligent, very committed, and all the time was asking questions. He was an internationalist. He read about other struggles. In those days the big international struggles were Cuba, south America, the struggle against apartheid in south Africa and Palestine.
I have no doubt that Bobby would have been appalled, as we all are, by the shocking images from Gaza, and outraged at the failure of the international community to challenge the aggression of the Israeli government.
Martin, the Palestinian Ambassador Ahmed Abdelrazek agus mise
Twice in the last few days I have spoken to Saeb Erekat the Chief Negotiator of the Palestinians. He has told me of the terrible conditions of the people of Gaza and also of the Unity Government’s efforts to secure progress through negotiations. It’s very important that we raise our voices on this issue; that we continue to organise and lobby and challenge the propaganda of the Israeli government.
We also need to write and text and email the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin on its recent decision to abstain in the vote at the UN Human Rights Council. That decision was a disgrace and we need to be telling them that they didn’t do that in the name of the Irish people.
Bobby was also a leader. It was after the first hunger strike and the way that British reneged on the possibility of getting decent conditions around the five demands, that Bobby resolved to lead the second hunger strike. He knew that the stakes had been raised and he knew that it was almost certain that he would die.
Bobby was an ordinary working class lad from north Belfast. He was a poet, a gaelgoir, a writer, a political activist, a political prisoner, who ends up an MP, and who is seen everywhere by those who love freedom, as a freedom fighter.
And if you want to understand what motivated Bobby then I would urge you to read any of his books or poems or short stories. In recent days his Prison Diary has been republished. He kept it for the first 17 days of his hunger strike – before he was moved to the prison hospital.
On the last day he wrote; “Tiocfaidh lá éigin nuair a bheidh an fonn saoirse seo le taispeáint ag daoine go léir na hEireann ansin tchífidh muid éirí na gealaí”. - The day will dawn when all the people of Ireland will have the desire for freedom to show. It is then we’ll see the rising of the moon”.
For me that’s the essence of how you win struggle because in that little phrase Bobby is recognising that the only people who can actually win freedom are the people themselves. You can create the conditions in which people can take freedom but ultimately it needs the people to win freedom.