Film review

Was IRA Hunger Striker Bobby Sands as Romantic a Figure as ‘66 Days’ Paints?

The Daily Beast

November 13, 2016

There is a surprising amount of rose-hued history in Bobby Sands: 66 Days. Brendan J. Byrne’s documentary–beautifully mounted, with great interviews, but one-sided and lacking in nuance–certainly demonstrates how Sands, the IRA member whose hunger strike in 1981 became an international cause célèbre, became an iconic martyr for the Irish Republican movement.

But towards the end the documentary–which showed at DOC NYC on Friday and is released on November 30–weirdly, and untruthfully, extends itself to arguing that Sands’s hunger strike was demonstrative of a game-changing moment, demonstrating how peaceful protest was the way forward, and murder and destruction weren’t the only routes for effecting change.

Missing in this venerating analysis of Sands’s truly totemic protest is the gnarlier fact that the IRA’s bloody terror campaign continued for many years after the hunger strike he was part of.

In 66 Days‘s eyes, IRA soldiers like Sands appear to exist as liberation freedom fighters, seeking to jettison the oppressing British Army and their Government overseers from Northern Ireland.

That, for sure, is how Sands and other Irish Republicans saw it, and many others, especially in America, who helped fund the IRA.

But the IRA’s more memorable and resonant methods were to maim and kill–and not just British soldiers and politicians, but civilians too. This was not a peaceful liberation movement; how could it be given that their experience of the British occupation of Northern Ireland was oppressive and violent itself?

The documentary shows scenes of bombs going off, but it doesn’t dwell on the destruction they caused, or interrogate how Sands himself felt about murder and maiming others in the course of doing what he believed in.

Instead, we hear from him in voiceover, as reading from his own writings; and that voiceover is plaintive and romantic, musing on belief and mortality, and fades as his own health fades during the hunger strike.

Despite its own bias, or blind-side, 66 Days remains an extremely involving film, because of the intimate recollections Byrne gathers from those who knew Sands, whether in jail or outside. It also strongly testifies to Sands’s charisma, leadership, commitment, ideals, and legacy.

He was one of ten prisoners who had gone on hunger strike in 1981, until their objective–to be classified as political prisoners–had been met by the British Government.

At the Maze prison he was serving a 14-year prison term on a weapons possession charge. The documentary details three dovetailing narratives: Sands’s thoughts and decline over his 66 days of hunger striking, the history of conflict in Northern Ireland, and Sands’ own life.

One interviewee contends at the outset that the hunger strike itself showed a modern audience that the intimacy of the pain of a hunger strike showed how one’s sense of self could be taken away and a slogan or brand supersede that.

Sands’s own words as the fast took hold balance the political and personal: “I’m standing on the threshold of another trembling world. May God have mercy on my soul,” he writes. He saw himself as a political prisoner, a casualty of the “perennial war fought between Irish people and an alien, oppressive regime that refuses to withdraw from our land.”

Beyond sketching that the Republic of Ireland became so in 1922, while Northern Ireland stayed under British rule, with the Troubles themselves beginning in 1969, the documentary supplies no other context. It either assumes the audience knows, or doesn’t think to answer the most basic questions itself. Why did the British want to exert themselves in the North?

Who were the main players? How had that worked until the formation of the IRA in the late 1960s? How had the tensions grown so darkly and violently between Republicans and Unionists, between Catholic and Protestant? What led to the Troubles themselves? All of this goes unquestioned and unanalyzed.

We learn that Sands was born in Rathcoole, a predominantly loyalist district of north Belfast, in 1954. A pal recalls how there were cross-community football games back then, but they couldn’t survive into the 1970s. Again, a voice explaining why is missing. Catholics were being forced out of homes, communities were being razed. Again, missing: why?

Sands himself recalled how he had come to realize how “our people” had been on the receiving end of police brutality and general discrimination; he saw it all around him–and, in the excellent archive of the film, the film shows communities becoming war-zones: tanks on the streets, women resisting, children and teenagers throwing stones and firebombs at British army tanks.

The hunger strike, and institutionalized fasting, has roots deep in Irish tradition, we learn. Three days in, Sands is down to 62 kg and feeling “exceptionally well.” A journalist who saw him said he had said: “If I die, God will understand.”

By day six Sands was writing that he couldn’t give a damn if food had been placed on his knee; he contented himself with thinking having a “great feed up above” if he was deemed worthy of one.

Sands had joined the IRA in 1972, the bloodiest year of the Troubles, with 497 deaths. The Protestants, led by the thundering-voiced Ian Paisley, were stunned at the transformation of what they saw as a civil rights movement into something more violent. Soon, the Unionists themselves had formed their own terrorist group to fight the IRA. Northern Ireland became a powered keg; and soon the IRA exported its bombing campaign to the British mainland (the significance of this goes unexamined in the documentary too).

The documentary touches on but doesn’t precisely chart the growth and pivotal moments of Sands’ own radicalism, which was very personal, and rooted in the discrimination and prejudice he and his family faced.

After Sands joined the IRA he was first sent to jail at Long Kesh in 1973, charged with possession of handguns. At Long Kesh, the prisoners had special category status, could wear their own clothes and didn’t have to work. The inmates became well acquainted with the works and modus operandi of political revolutionaries–including the idea that it is not those who inflict the most suffering who win, but those who suffer most.

By day 15 of his own hunger strike Sands was meditating on what he was doing: while he wanted to eat, he did not want the British Government to rob those resisting them of their true identity, or let them label the liberation struggle as criminal.

In his home life, friends recall, Sands faced the conflict many radicals did: commitment to family versus commitment to the cause; in Sands’ case, the IRA came first.

By 1976, when he was released from Long Kesh, 1500 lives had been lost in the Troubles. The documentary graphically shows the prisoners’ dirty protests, of smearing their feces on the walls; they would tear parts of their mattress–already soaked in urine or the water of guards hosing them down–to spread it on the walls.

Sands recalled being naked, having a “diseased chamber pot” and gazing out of the window–the view of the world, a life-giving luxury–until even those windows were blocked by the authorities.

A prison officer recalls the atmosphere from his side: 40 prisoners wanting you dead, the prison itself an open sewer. Your life was in danger on the outside, so were your partner’s and family’s.

Throughout the hunger strike and his declining health, Sands remained focused on his political aims; the martyr icons of the Republican movement, the documentary illustrates, dated back to the 1916 Easter Rising. “I have gotten by for 27 years, so that’s something. I may die, but the Republic of 1916 will never die,” Sands wrote on day 24 of the hunger strike.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, like Sands, was resolute. Political status would not be conferred on the prisoners, she would not be blackmailed. (It was later revealed that Thatcher had a grudging respect of the hunger strikers.)

Yet it was their hunger strike that captured the public imagination, the documentary states. That is not entirely true. It rather depended whose side you were on, how you saw the Struggles, and the activities of the IRA. But it is true that it galvanized American fundraising and political lobbying (by Ted Kennedy, most notably)–even if the IRA leadership had not wanted a second round of hunger strikes after a first round of them a few months before had ceased with no concessions won.

Sands told the leadership: Sack me or back me.

The same prison officer as above recalls putting three meals into the cells every day: on a tray there could be two scoops of potato, some fish, a ladle portion of peas, two slaves of bread and butter, and some tea. The officer’s attitude was: “I’m putting food into you. If you don’t want to eat it that’s up to you. It was their choice if they wanted to commit suicide. That’s their choice.”

By the 28th day, an expert relates what would have been happening to Sands’ body: extreme dizziness, cold, and a growingly faulty metabolism. He was also elected an MP.

Here, the documentary makes a comparison between Sands and Thích Quảng Đức, the Buddhist monk who burned himself to death in 1963, protesting the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government. But the two men’s struggles were different: one was peaceful, the other part of a violent struggle for liberation–during the parliamentary election which he won, a census worker was killed by the IRA.

For Sands his momentous political victory as he sat starving himself to death meant nothing, though it was a huge PR coup for the IRA, and served to underscore Sands’ own fame.

Sands’s health continued to decline after day 45 of the hunger strike, and–his weight at 47 kg, the last rites were administered. He was nearly blind, and his political opponents wanted him to die, emphasizing the suffering the IRA had put their enemies through and asking: what about the rights of the 2000 dead of the Troubles.

Some Republicans also saw an advantage in Sands becoming a martyr, and others in the documentary subscribe to the power of the hunger strike showing “the triumph of failure,” and the soldier “becoming an artist” even, occupying “the moral imaginative high ground.” Again, these thoughts are presented uncontested; they are just one, biased interpretation of the hunger strikers’ actions.

The power of 66 Days resides in the memories of friends and those close to Sands, such as the friend who saw him on day 62. Sands told him he couldn’t see him, and reached out his hand to say goodbye. “Tell the lads I’m hanging in,” Sands told him.

Sands’s mother asked there be no more death and destruction after her son’s death. The documentary illustrates this death–on the day 66 of the title, Sands aged 27–with some moving final words of his and images of an animated figure in a tiny cell.

On the Republican side, and their supporters, the documentary shows how Sands’ death was “sucked into the mythological tradition.” Certainly, Sands and the IRA were deified as freedom fighters in many countries–as the documentary demonstrates–but that deification was not uniform.

There are few dissenting voices here, and the testimonies of critical voices–like a smattering of British political figures–feel partial and not fully extrapolated.

All of Sands’ fellow hunger strikers died too, and the British Government eventually conferred the ‘political status’ on IRA prisoners in all but name.

The documentary says that Sands’ iconic hunger strike–Michael Fassbender famously evoked it in Steve McQueen’s 2008 movie Hunger–eventually led to the brokering of peace in the province in the early 2000s. This is a bit of a stretch.

Contributors to 66 Days also contend–unchallenged–that Sands’s hunger strike showed how people dramatizing their own suffering was more effective than murder and maiming. But the hunger strike did not occur in such theoretical or story-making isolation: the bloodiness of the IRA’s campaign continued unabated after the end of the hunger strikes in 1981. As the documentary relates, 3,532 lives were lost between 1969 and 2001.

Perhaps we don’t know, but isn’t another interpretation that Sands saw his hunger strike as just another method to destabilize what he saw as his and the Northern Irish people’s British oppressors; the hunger strike another method of resistance alongside the armed kind, not instead of it.

Sands, ironically just like his nemesis Thatcher, was rigorously rooted in firm conviction and unshakeable ideology. It was the breaking of these firmly held positions, these long-cherished violent stalemates, that led to the brokering of peace.

The hunger strikes of 1981 and Thatcher’s response to them were in direct contravention to the sensitive negotiation and malleability required of those participating in the political process that led to peace in Northern Ireland. 66 Days celebrates the conviction and bravery of the hunger strikers, without ever fully interrogating the harder questions of what was done and to whom and at what cost in the name of their staunchly held beliefs.

What Bobby Sands did in jail was singular and astonishing, a true, self-sacrificing demonstration of political conviction, but a more delicate examination of what preceded it, a more embracing context of the politics of all sides around it, the bloodshed that took place around it, and what it really engendered afterwards, would make 66 Days feel less like a full-hearted tribute and more like a clear-eyed documentary.