Page last updated at 06:28 GMT, Friday, 26 September 2008 07:28 UK

Sands vote still border raw nerve

Provisional IRA men at the funeral of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands
Provisional IRA men at the funeral of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands

The 1981 election of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands as MP remains a sore point for Protestants in County Fermanagh, a new study has claimed.

The Church of Ireland report interviewed Protestants living in the Clogher Diocese about the Troubles.

It has recommended more be done to deal with the legacy of pain in the area's Protestant community.

It said the community felt it was being wiped out during the Troubles and remains uncertain of the future.

Some of those interviewed pointed to a fragile peace between the minority Protestant population in Fermanagh (35%) and the majority Catholic population (65%), but warned a neighbourliness based on delicate compromises avoided addressing difficult and unresolved issues of power, hurt and history.

Bobby Sands
Bobby Sands was elected as an MP in 1981 while in the Maze prison

"The question of whether or not there had been a concerted campaign of 'ethnic cleansing' in the border regions was for most interviewees an accepted fact," the report said.

The report added: "What was in no doubt was the vicious finality and painful legacy visited upon the few and observed from a distance by the many."

The study was funded by the Irish government and the International Fund for Ireland to help develop Protestant communities in cross-border areas.

The church report found elements of political history remained a sore point.

In 1981, IRA prisoner Bobby Sands led a hunger strike that eventually saw 10 republicans die in the Maze prison.

The decision to stand Sands as a candidate in a by-election for the Fermanagh/South-Tyrone Westminster seat provided an outlet for nationalists who were sympathetic to the hunger strike and angry at the refusal of the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to negotiate a settlement.

But the Protestant community saw the vote as support for an IRA terrorist.

Sands received 52% of the vote against (unionist candidate) Harry West's 48%.

'Purging of Protestants'

"Many Protestants and unionists saw it, both then and now, as a clear and unambiguous vote of support for the retention of the 'armed struggle' and the purging of Protestants from the land," the report said.

"They couldn't understand it then and they still can't. The collective 'nailing of the colours to the mast' was stark and shocking, but made things very clear - whatever about our previous neighbourliness, whatever about our friendly and co-operative arrangements, all of that is now over."

The report revealed a complex picture where personal grief and anger have become intertwined with the history of the Troubles.

But the report added: "A number of lay people reported that they had a strong sense that their Roman Catholic neighbours did not approve of or support the campaign of terror and violence that the IRA waged against the border Protestant people but that they suspected that their neighbours were unable to communicate as much or reach out a hand of friendship for fear of possible repercussions."

The report points to a further gulf in understanding when it tackles the issue of nationalist unease at Protestant neighbours joining the B-Specials police reserve and, later, the Ulster Defence Regiment.

Some contributors suggest the motive was often economic, with rural Protestant families keen to earn the extra money offered by part-time security force jobs.

But the report said dialogue was crucial and suggested using the 400th anniversary of the Plantation of Ulster next year "to creatively raise and proactively seek to address some of the historical legacy issues".

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