Fr Joe McVeigh describes his role in events leading up to the death of Bobby Sands
I WAS back in New York on study leave when I heard that a second hunger strike had begun on March 1 in 1981.
Bobby Sands, who had been leader of the republican prisoners in the H Blocks, had refused to take food and announced that he was on hunger strike for the five demands of the prisoners. Bik McFarlane reluctantly (he says himself), took over as leader of the prisoners.
While on the blanket, Bobby Sands showed himself as bright, intelligent and with leadership qualities. His passions were music and poetry. He was a young man with everything to live for, but he had deeply held beliefs and was determined that the British government would not criminalise him or the Irish struggle. It is clear from his writings that he had this exceptionally strong sense of history and of the continuity of the Irish struggle for freedom.
"I am a political prisoner", he wrote in his diary during the strike, "because I am a casualty of a perennial war that is being fought between the oppressed Irish people and an alien, oppressive, unwanted regime that refuses to withdraw from our land.
"I believe that I am but another of those wretched Irishmen born of a rising generation with a deeply-rooted and unquenchable desire for freedom."
Shortly after hearing about the second hunger strike, I opened the New York Times and read about the sudden death of Frank Maguire, MP for Fermanagh- South Tyrone. His death came as a great shock to me. We had been very close friends. I did not realise he had been so ill. I had seen Frank when I was home at Christmas. He was in bed with the flu. At least, that's what he told me. I could not help thinking about all our exploits during the time I was in Lisnaskea and afterwards in Garrison and was disappointed I could not go home for the funeral. I was still at the New York Seminary and there were complications over immigration laws.
Not too long after his funeral, I heard a report that there was a move to enter Bobby Sands in the by-election against the unionist candidate, Harry West. I thought this was a brilliant idea. There were other nationalist candidates going forward but I knew that for Bobby to have a chance there had to be a straight fight with West. All that was required was for the SDLP to withdraw and for Noel Maguire, a brother of Frank, to withdraw and support the Sands campaign.
When I got confirmation that Bobby Sands entering the election I phoned Noel Maguire and said that I thought he should consider making way for him. Noel took his own counsel and eventually decided to withdraw from the contest leaving a straight fight between Bobby Sands and Harry West.
There was a solid republican vote in this constituency. There was hope that Bobby Sands would win the election, bringing world attention to his situation and the intolerable conditions in Long Kesh prison and the British government would be forced to come to a deal.
When Bobby Sands was nominated, I decided to go home for the election. I could not bear to be in America knowing that I might be able to do some good at home in the election campaign. I came home not knowing what was a head of us. It was going to be difficult and dangerous.
I thought if I could persuade a few more people to vote for Bobby Sands, then my presence there would be worthwhile. There were some nationalist politicians like Austin Currie calling on nationalists not to vote for Bobby Sands and asking people to go out and spoil their votes. I thought this was disgraceful.
I attended a public press conference in Enniskillen, organized by Owen Carron, Bobby Sands' election agent. It put forward a broad united nationalist front, excepting the SDLP. One dissident SDLP councillor, Tommy Murray, was present, as were Sinn Fein leaders like Danny Morrison and Jim Gibney, who stayed in the constituency for the rest of the campaign.
Bernadette Devlin McAliskey joined in even though she was still on crutches and recovering from the attempted assassination some months before. I issued a press statement at that conference, which I had drafted with the help of Finbarr O'Kane on the phone to the US:
"As a Catholic priest I feel there is a moral issue in this election. I resent the implication in the statements of some politicians that anyone who votes for Bobby Sands is a supporter of violence. I do not support violence. The people of Fermanagh- South Tyrone have now a chance to protest in a non-violent and peaceful way.
"A vote for Bobby Sands in this election is a vote for justice and a vote against violence. Without justice there cannot be peace. I believe that, as a priest, I have a responsibility to support and care for prisoners as Pope John Paul II asked us to do during his visit to Ireland."
I was trying to counter the argument, put forward by some SDLP leaders and churchmen, that a vote for Bobby Sands was a vote for violence.
On the Sunday before the election, I was asked to go to speak at Masses outside Belleek Catholic church, which I did. Most people walked on by and did not look at me as I spoke through a loud hailer urging them to vote for Bobby Sands. One or two came to talk to me afterwards. The tension was high at that time. The parents and brother and sisters of Bobby Sands were staying in Fermanagh during this time and I got to know them. They were most impressive in their dignity and strong loyalty to their son and brother. You could see that they were proud of Bobby - even though they were anxious about his condition.
We had several motor cavalcades through the constituency, from Coalisland to Dungannon through the Clogher Valley and the hostile territory of Fivemiletown, through Lisnaskea, Maguiresbridge and on to Enniskillen.
The RUC were out to make life as difficult as possible for those who were campaigning, with roadblocks and surveillance everywhere.
The result of the election was announced in the Fermanagh College on 9 April 1981. Bobby Sands was elected as MP and there was great joy among republicans. There was hope this would change prime minister Thatcher's mind and persuade her to talk to the prisoners.
In the immediate aftermath of the election, I was part of several delegations from Fermanagh sent to urge those in high places to put pressure on the British government. We went to see cardinal Ó Fiaich, the Papal nuncio in Dublin and then some British officials in Stormont, Belfast. Meanwhile, the Sands family and Owen Carron, went to see the taoiseach, Charles Haughey.
Our meeting with Cardinal Ó Fiaich, on Holy Saturday 18 April 1981, was interrupted by his secretary, who informed him that the Pope had just been shot and seriously wounded in St Peters square.
The Cardinal was clearly concerned about the situation in the H-Blocks and was worried that if Bobby Sands died there would be further bloodshed. He assured us that he would be doing whatever he could to bring about a resolution that would save the life of Bobby Sands and the other prisoners now on hunger-strike.
The election victory was a great boost to their morale but was not in itself going to deflect them from their strategy which was to force the British government to concede their demands which would in effect recognise that they were political prisoners. Only then would they give up their hunger-strike.
It is clear, from his diary, that Bobby Sands understood the full consequences of his decision to go on hungerstrike. He wrote:
"I am standing on the threshold of another trembling world. May God have mercy on my soul...My heart is very sore because I know that I have broken my poor mother's heart and my home is struck with unbearable anxiety. But I have considered all the arguments and tried every means to avoid what has become the unavoidable: it has been forced upon me by four and a half years of stark inhumanity."
In the early hours of 5 May 1981, I was lying awake at home in my Father's house in Ederney listening to the radio. I heard a news flash that Bobby Sands had died. The awful news that we all dreaded was announced: after 66 days on hunger-strike, Bobby Sands died in Long Kesh prison hospital. It was one of those moments in time that I will always remember.
I knew instantly that apart from the human tragedy of it, something of huge historic and political significance had happened.
I was disturbed and angry especially with Thatcher and the British for letting him die like that.
I went to the wake in his parents home in Twinbrook, on the outskirts of Belfast, along with Fr Michael Doyle, an Irish priest working in Camden, New Jersey, who had come over to visit Bernadette McAliskey. We sat quietly in the room along with a few others, including Gerry Adams, his wife Collette and his young son, Gearóid. Nobody spoke. There was nothing to say.
I left Fr Michael in the house and went to wherever I was staying for the night. As far as I know, he stayed all night in the house comforting Bobby's parents, John and Rosaleen and the grieving family members. Michael was the right man in the right place. He had a great empathy with people in distress and was well known in America for his work with the oppressed and poor.
The funeral of Bobby Sands in Belfast, was the biggest I had ever seen. Fr Doyle and myself asked the Parish priest if we could concelebrate the funeral mass, since Bobby Sands was my MP and I had got to know his family quite well and since Fr Michael wanted to show solidarity with the family.
The Parish priest said the bishop, Dr Cahal B Daly, had made a ruling that there were to be no concelebrants at the mass. I thought this was odd, since the previous deceased MP for Fermanagh/ South Tyrone, Frank Maguire, had a cardinal, several bishops and a large number of priests concelebrating his funeral mass. Frank Maguire had once been OC of the IRA prisoners in Crumlin Road jail.
There was not much we could do about the refusal to allow us to concelebrate. The parish priest was following orders. I was very angry, but I thought about Bobby Sands and what he had been through. Nine other republican prisoners died in quick succession after Bobby Sands.
The hunger-strikers who gave their lives for their fellow prisoners and for the cause of justice showed remarkable courage and strength, as did their families. The ordinary Irish people throughout the 32 counties showed great solidarity in the face of hostility from the Dublin government and the Garda Special Branch.
I believe that it was at this time that the Catholic church alienated thousands of their people, mostly from the working class section of the community. They made a serious mistake by, first of all, failing to support the hunger-strikers and the prisoners demands and then by working, under various guises like the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace, to undermine the prisoners' protest.
At the end of the hunger-strike the prisoners themselves had some very strong words for the official church and for the Catholic middle class establishment in Ireland. Gospel of the oppressed
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Copyright © 2006 Fr Joe McVeigh