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Saturday, 5 May, 2001, 08:26 GMT 09:26 UK
Anniversary of IRA hunger striker

Prisoners on the so-called dirty protest
Republicans in Northern Ireland are commemorating the 20th anniversary of the first IRA member to die in the 1981 hunger strike.

Bobby Sands from west Belfast died on 5 May that year after refusing food for 66 days.

He was elected as MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone in a by-election while he was on hunger strike.

Sinn Fein's Jim Gibney was a key figure in the Sands election campaign.

He believes the roots of the current peace process can be traced back to that period.

Bobby Sands: first hunger striker to die
Bobby Sands: first hunger striker to die
"Republicans got more confidence about opening up a new front, ie, the elections," said Mr Gibney.

"Many republicans then were trying to argue for the building of a political party; let's get involved in elections and 1981, tragic year that it was, encouraged republicans to take that step."

One of the key demands of republican prisoners was the right to wear their own clothes.

When this was refused they started a blanket protest where they abandoned the prison uniform in favour of blankets.

Two years later the protest escalated with prisoners smearing their cells with their own excrement, which became known as the dirty protest.

'We were shattered'

The IRA's commander in the Maze prison in 1981 was Brendan "Bic" McFarlane.

He heard the news of Bobby Sands' death through BBC radio on a smuggled handset hidden in his cell.

"I distinctly remember it was David Capper who was the newscaster," he said.

"He said that at 17 minutes past one, Bobby Sands had died.

"Not just me but everybody else, we were shattered.

"The British had chosen a battleground to defeat the republican struggle," said Mr McFarlane.

He added: "The prisoners took it up with the blanket protest right through to the hunger strike period and the hunger strikers took up the challenge as well.

"It was the only means that they felt they could attempt to defeat the British policy and they did.

"Criminalisation was nailed to the ground by the hunger strikers beyond a shadow of a doubt and as a direct consequence of that we have had the political development that has brought us to where we are today."

David Ervine: Hunger strike was "cynical"
David Ervine of the Progressive Unionist Party, which has links to the loyalist paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force, said some loyalists had a grudging respect for the hunger strikers.

But Mr Ervine, a former UVF prisoner, accused the republican leadership of cynically using the events of that period to launch Sinn Fein.

"I have no doubt that the hunger strike was Sinn Fein's launching pad, an act of serious cynicism," said Mr Ervine.

"I do believe that it was avoidable.

"The British Government I believe were to blame for the policy at the time."

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See also:

04 May 01 | Northern Ireland
'Error of judgement' in 1981 hunger strike
28 Jul 00 | Northern Ireland
The prison that served its time
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