In 1981, during the height of The Troubles in Northern Ireland a young IRA recruit, Bobby Sands, was arrested for the second time and placed in the notorious Maze Prison on an arms possession charge. While there he and the other prisoners argued that they were not criminals but rather political prisoners and should be treated differently. In previous years the British government had allowed these prisoners special status in terms of the conditions of their imprisonment but Margaret Thatcher had revoked these and put harsh conditions in place. To protest this treatment and draw attention to the IRA’s demands, Sands decided to sacrifice himself and went on a hunger strike. Ten other prisoners joined him and for 66 days he held the attention of the world as he slowly declined and ultimately died from starvation. Several more of the other hunger strikers also died until the British relented under public pressure and lifted the harsh conditions for the prisoners. His actions brought attention to the conflict generally in Northern Ireland and to the manner in which the British chose to suppress it. The film uses actors, newsreel footage and interviews with survivors and others who were present at the time as fellow members of the IRA, British police and others. It is an objective enough picture but clearly paints a positive one of Sands himself.
I confess I am of many minds about this film. While many want to point to Sands’ courage and initiative in giving up his life for his cause, it is his cause that one has to question. The Catholic population in Northern Ireland were isolated and in a minority but they were hardly in need of the kind of terrorist campaign the IRA waged. 3500 innocent people were killed by the IRA during their so-called war. They themselves suffered little as they cowardly shot unarmed women and children and planted bombs that they triggered from a safe distance. During Sands’ hunger strike some innovative IRA types thought it would be great to have him run in a by-election for a Northern Ireland seat in the British House of Commons. He won of course but on the day of the election some brave IRA gunmen knocked on the door of a house in Belfast and shot an unarmed mother dead for the crime of helping collect census forms. That I should praise Sands’ for his courage defending these terrorists is beyond me. On the other side however, his death brought attention to the fact that the British and Irish both had done nothing to resolve the conflict. Over the next nearly 2 decades slow action was taken to bring peace to the situation which meant reconciliation among the IRA and the equally abhorrent Ulster Defence League. The real courage was with the relatives and friends of the victims of the conflict who were able to forgive or forget what had taken place. Still as you can see the film makes you think and also to be fair does not shy away from labelling the crimes of the IRA. Worth a watch in this reviewer’s opinion.