By Danny Morrison
(From the Andersonstown News, 12 May 2003)
IF you type “This Day in History, May 5th” into the search engines of the History Channel or most newspapers it will show up something along the lines of, “In 1981, Irish Republican Army hunger-striker Bobby Sands died at the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland in his 66th day without food” (‘Boston Globe’). In other words, Bobby Sands’ name has been immortalised by his and his comrades’ hunger strikes twenty-two years ago.
A news reporter on Fox News in the USA last week soon found out how much a legend is Bobby Sands when he attempted a crude joke on television. At the end of the news, Steve Shepherd, said: “On this date Bobby Sands died after sixty-six days on a hunger strike in prison in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The moral of the story: eat more often.”
Irish-Americans were outraged and an online petition was soon organised which forced Fox News and Shepherd to apologise. Fox TV Network is, of course, owned by media mogul, Rupert Murdoch, an old friend of Mrs Thatcher and it was Murdoch’s HarperCollins which advanced Mrs Thatcher $5.4million for her almost unreadable memoirs.
Shortly after Bobby died in 1981 some idiot, in an attempt at irony, wrote on a gable wall in loyalist East Belfast, “We’ll never forget you, Jimmy Sands.”
Travel almost anywhere in the world, mention that you are from Ireland, and the response you are likely to get is, “Ireland – Bobby Sands!” No one answers, “England – Mrs Thatcher!” though nowadays they might answer, “England – George Bush!” Bobby Sands’ name lives on and the legacy of the hunger strikers continues to inspire not just Irish republicans but many nationalities that associate it with nobility, sacrifice and courage in the face of a bullying power.
LAST year two small events showed how ordinary people if motivated and mobilised can make a political point and their voices heard. In November the BBC World Service, as part of its 70th anniversary celebrations, announced that it was holding a poll for the world’s top tune.
The poll attracted submissions from all around the world. Nearly 150,000
votes were received from 153 countries, nominating over 6,500 songs. Even The Beatles failed to make the top ten. One of the strongest contenders was a patriotic Hindu song, ‘Vande Mataram’, which is considered by many as India’s national song.
Someone, somewhere, came up with the bright idea of nominating ‘A Nation Once Again’ by The Wolfe Tones, and encouraging like-minded people to concentrate on that one song. Using the internet and the Irish Diaspora, e-mails poured into the BBC. As a result, ‘A Nation Once Again’, written in the 1840s by Thomas Davis and first recorded in 1964, was voted the world’s top song!
Of course, the reaction of the BBC World Service to this shock result was to announce that it was going to hold yet another poll to see if its listeners agreed with the result! Whether it went ahead I am not sure – but the psyche at play was quite revealing and not too far removed, for example, from that colonial practice of postponing native elections until one gets the results one likes.
Around the same time, BBC Radio Ulster carried out a poll for Ulsterman of the Century. I hadn’t even heard it was taking place and saw no reference to it in any internet bulletin boards, which suggests that there was little or no canvassing, yet, once again, Bobby Sands was up there in the Top Five (along with Ian Paisley, and the late Joey Dunlop who topped the poll).
THE intransigence of the British government at the time of the hunger strikes was made possible because its behaviour was never checked by concerned, domestic pressure. The British public was left ignorant by the great British media who moulded the public’s opinions of Ireland and of people like Bobby Sands. The conflict was presented as inexplicable or tribal or atavistic but never in an intelligent or, for that matter, in an honest or impartial way. We saw again in the recent Iraqi war how journalists identify and bond with their own troops.
Last year the veteran BBC correspondent, Kate Adie, published her autobiography, ‘The Kindness of Strangers’. Adie would be most familiar as that figure riding atop a British army tank, in her flak jacket and helmet, reporting from the Balkans or Afghanistan. But before that her job was often to explain the North to British viewers. And to her the hunger strike was “Bog-trotting stuff.”
I have written before, how on the morning that Bobby Sands died she interviewed me on the Falls Road. It remains the most hostile interview I ever did in twenty-five years. Still, I thought I acquitted myself well and got the better of her, but it was never broadcast. The BBC claimed that the film “didn’t come out.”
In her book she makes no mention of this interview but writes about sneaking into Bobby’s wake “in a headscarf and scruffy anorak”. She says: “In his coffin, Mr Sands did not present a pale face of suffered humanity. He looked like a banana. Luminous yellow. I sniffled and coughed and looked hard. This was not the time and place to comment on the effects of hepatitis A and liver failure – nor the fact that the local embalmer had apparently used furniture varnish by the look of it. Thank God no one put a friendly arm round my shoulder at my supposed overcome state. I’d just learned what actors meant by corpsing.”
Earlier she compares the British army to the locals. “The army was full of pink-cheeked lads, squat and muscly…”
Anti-H-Block marchers, on the other hand, were, “pasty-faced, lank-haired young women, with pushchairs of mewling children. Skinny lads, with hunched bony shoulders and pipe-cleaner legs; middle-aged – or perhaps not, but older – women, in groups, all smoking during the six miles up the Falls, skin shiny with anti-depressants, and voices raucous…”
These weren’t the people, the community I saw and was with during those dark, sad days: dignified people who were shot and pulverised on their own streets for daring to oppose British policy. Kate Adie claims that what came out of Belfast was, “Efficient and carefully judged journalism”, but in her own words she reveals something of the deep-seated prejudices which informed a style of reporting that kept the British public in ignorance and which did a disservice to the living and the dead.