Another face of Bobby Sands

IssueMay 2007
Comment by Dennis O'Hearn, Marina Sitrin

One of the most influential nonviolent actions of twentieth-century European history was carried out by men committed to violence -- the ten men of the IRA and INLA who fasted to death in British prisons in 1981, causing an earthquake in Irish politics.
5 May is the 26th anniversary of the death of the first hunger striker, Bobby Sands MP. This exchange centres on a new book by Dennis O'Hearn - Bobby Sands: nothing but an unfinished song - which has a different attitude to armed struggle from PN, but which we believe casts an interesting light on less well-known aspects of modern Irish republicanism.
AG & MS: Can you talk about some of the politics that Bobby Sands and others were developing while in jail, especially the first time they were jailed. For example in Chapter Eight, there is a great deal of discussion not only about the growing anti-sectarianism of Bobby and others, but they were talking about the creation of a different sort of politics altogether. Much of what they were discussing was about creating their future ideal society in the present, something many call prefigurative politics.
DO:You've hit upon the single thing that I found both most fascinating and most encouraging in my research on Bobby Sands.
His first period in jail, during the early 1970s, is notable because he and the people around him were growing so fast in their political understanding.
In Bobby's early days in prison, he and his comrades began to question [the traditional structure and practices of the IRA] as they read classics of radical literature, particularly from Latin America, including works like Guevara's Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War.
They began to ask whether they could organise in a more collective way, with less rigid command structures, more political debate and discussion, and more egalitarianism in their tasks and duties, from cleaning toilets to running classes and military parades.
Then, when Gerry Adams and some other key people arrived in their compound, they began to change the whole movement from within the prison. The IRA changed its structures to more effective models, including a cell structure much like the FLN in Algeria.
But, more importantly, Adams encouraged the younger prisoners to debate how they could change their society by building participative community governance in their neighbourhoods once they got out of prison. There is a long tradition of this kind of thinking on the Irish left, particularly by people like Liam Mellowes, a radical Republican from the 1920s.
Even in prison, Bobby got very excited about peoples ' councils and community sel-government. He wrote an article in Irish, a language that he learned in prison, about building alternative Irish-language communities with schools and services and even factories , organised on a collective basis, self-managed.
And when he got out of jail he immediately began putting these ideas into practice. He was only out in his community, a working-class estate called Twinbrook, for six months before he got caught again. But in those six months he did incredible things to implement the ideas that they had developed collectively in prison.
He organised a group of people who set up an Irish language school, which is, by the way, still thriving today; cultural activities; a cooperative transport infrastructure; a new community-centered tenants' Association; a radical newspaper; and many other things.