Forty years ago on the Ist March 1981 the Irish Republican fighter Bobby Sands began a hunger strike for the principle of a return to special category status for political prisoners. He died 66 days later. Nine other republican prisoners also died on hunger strike. Their struggle and sacrifice transformed politics in the Six Counties and laid the basis for the emergence of Sinn Fein as a mass political party throughout the island of Ireland. During the strike Sands was elected as a member of parliament and when he died his funeral was attended by 100,000 people. The strike radicalised Republican politics and paved the way for the peace process.
As a tribute to Bobby Sands and the other hunger strikers we are proud to publish for the first time a letter that Bobby sent to Pat Arrowsmith. Well-known as a peace activist, Pat has been a strong supporter of the fight for Irish unity for decades. The letter below was written in 1979 during the so-called dirty protest when republican prisoners in the Maze demanded that they be treated as political prisoners. Their political status category had been withdrawn by the Labour government in 1976. Keiran Nugent who was the first Republican convicted after the withdrawl of special status began a blanket protest. He was joined by other IRA and INLA prisonerswho refused to wear prison uniform.
Pat Arrowsmith who is 91 on the 2nd March this year has herself been imprisoned on numerous occasions for taking direct action in the cause of peace and justice. From the early Direct Action Movement, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Committee of 100, through to the campaigns against army recruitment, against the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, and for lesbian and gay rights, she was a founder of the Anti-Nazi League and has worked tirelssly for social justice. She has stood for parliament several times on a programme of ending the war in Ireland and organised the work of the Uinted Troops Out Movement. She also participated in support for the H Blocks by taking action herself when arrested. She was force fed while in prison. Sands wrote to Pat in 1979 (see the letter below) to thank her for her work and ask for her help for support for the Hunger Strikers.
He was 24 at the time and already a leader. Bobby Sands and the other Republican prisoners sent many letters, each painstakingly written on minute pieces of toilet paper which were then folded multiple times and smuggled out of prison. They repeatedly sought support from the British labour and trade union movement. That support was sparse in coming but there were notable exceptions, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell being good examples, but none fought for the rights of the Hunger Strikers as much as Pat.
We salute Bobby Sands, as he said, ‘our revenge will be the laughter of our children’. It truly is. And we wish Pat a happy 91st birthday.
17/8/79 H Block 6
Hi ya Pat!
How are ya? A bit of a surprise for you no doubt receiving this letter. But as I’m sure you know already by the cut of the stationery, where its origin is – H.Block. Anyway Pat I’m Bobby Sands POW H Block 6 Long Kesh. I thought it may be a change for you to hear first hand from a Blanketman on H Block. So here I am. Anyway Pat things are very much the same here, torturous. We’re still lying naked save for the bit of torn, ragged blanket upon damp pieces of foam for beds, it’s very cold already, it being only August. Our appearances seem to become more ghostly each day, we’re very thin probably explained by the meagre amount of inedible food that we get. Still being hosed down, nearly every night by the screws. it’s been going on for so long now! Believe it or not one can almost adapt to it? The cell windows also have been blocked up stemming the flow of air, we are almost three years on protest now many of [us]are physical wrecks due to the conditions that we live in with no exercise or fresh air. The usual searches, wing shifts and beatings continue, forcible bathing, hosings down etc, etc. But still we resist and they torture. An interesting point I think you might like to hear is that possibly the biggest percentage of screws here are ex-soldiers, ex-RUC men, UDR etc, I think the large wage incentive and comparative safety of living inside the prisons, being preferable to walking the streets of Belfast is the attraction. But I suppose the work is all the same oppression, besides it’s much easier in here to get away with it. Anyway Pat we heard there was 10,000 at the London march and we were quite pleased to hear it, also after hearing the Reports from the Belfast March the morale is quite high. Well we’re pushing as best we can on the propaganda front, I’ll include a few wee things that perhaps you could use, if you can Pat drop us a wee note and let us know how things are going for yous, you could send it through H Block info Bureau 170 Falls Road, Belfast. Also Pat if you could, could you enclose the names and addresses of anyone you think would like to hear from us POWs in H Blocks, or anyone who you think it would be worthwhile to write to if only to inform them of H Block and Ireland, or to seek their help, whether they be approachable or unapproachable. Every little bit helps as they say, and at the minute that could not be more true because if things continue here someone of us will surely die. Anyway I’m glad to get this chance to write to you and if at all possible I will do so again if you don’t mind to let you know how things are here, I would like also to thank you and all the members of U.T.O.M. for the great work that yous have done in the past and continue to do. Perhaps victory shall be ours soon. Sealadaigh abu, See ya!
Bobby Sands Prisoner H Block.
This letter is being donated to the Bobby Sands Trust.