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40 years ago, Bobby Sands starved to death in Belfast prison

The death of Bobby Sands and his companions was a turning point in the conflict in Northern Ireland between, since the end of the 1960s, Republican Catholics, supporters of reunification with Ireland, and Loyalist Protestants, defenders of maintenance under the British crown. .

Hygiene strike, then hunger

In 1978, the Republican prisoners began a hygiene strike to denounce “inhuman” conditions of detention and to demand the restoration of their status as political prisoners, repealed two years earlier.

Covered only with blankets so as not to don the legal uniform, the protesters refuse to wash themselves, use the toilets and leave their cells.

Considered the leader of some 450 Republican militants imprisoned in the “H blocks” of the fortress prison of Maze (Long Kesh, Belfast), Bobby Sands decided, on March 1, 1981, to refuse all food “until death”.

A member of the “provisional” IRA since the age of 18, he has already spent eight years behind bars. Sentenced for the first time, in 1973, to five years in prison for possession of a firearm, the young father was arrested a year after his release, in 1977, and is now serving, for the same reason, a longer sentence. severe 14-year-old.

“A crime is a crime, nothing but a crime”, repeats at will the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in response to the desire of the paramilitary group to have its members recognized as the fighters of a “war of liberation national ”.

A slow agony

On April 9, 1981, from his cell in Long Kesh, Bobby Sands was elected member of the House of Commons against a Protestant-Unionist candidate.

This victory gives an immediate impact to the movement joined by other prisoners.

On the 54th day of his hunger strike, the IRA activist “weighs only 44 kg. A sheepskin blanket was placed under his body to prevent his bones from piercing his skin (…) He was also wrapped in a very soft texture blanket intended to keep his body warm ”, reports Agence France Presse.

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, backed by Westminster politicians, has remained adamant.

The last days of Bobby Sands are marked by feverish political activity and multiple attempts at mediation carried out in particular by the European Commission of Human Rights and the personal envoy of the Pope who gives a crucifix to the young man, on the part of John Paul II.

On May 5, disfigured by hunger, deaf, blind, Bobby Sands died at the age of 27 in the Maze prison infirmary. Margaret Thatcher, supported by Westminster politicians, remained adamant. When she died in 2013, graffiti on the walls of West Belfast wished the Iron Lady to “rust in hell”.

Crowd at funeral

On May 7, the activist’s funeral turned into a show of force for the republican movement.

More than 70,000 people invade Milltown Cemetery, on the hillside above the Catholic ghettos of West Belfast. A flag in the Irish colors of green, white, orange envelops the coffin.

Nine other prisoners let themselves die of hunger until the end of August and the last strikers abandoned their action on October 3, under pressure from the families.

This tragic episode becomes a rallying cry for IRA activists, who are increasing the attacks across the UK. The nationalist movement later supported the Good Friday Peace Accords in 1998, before renouncing violence in July 2005.

The three decades of unrest have claimed more than 3,500 lives.

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