Robert Gerard Sands (Irish: Roibeárd Gearóid Ó Seachnasaigh; 9 March 1954 – 5 May 1981) was a member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) who died on hunger strike while imprisoned at HM Prison Maze in Northern Ireland. Sands helped to plan the 1976 bombing of the Balmoral Furniture Company in Dunmurry, which was followed by a gun battle with the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Sands was arrested while trying to escape and sentenced to 14 years for firearms possession.
He was the leader of the 1981 hunger strike in which Irish republican prisoners protested against the removal of Special Category Status. During Sands’ strike, he was elected to the British Parliament as an Anti H-Block candidate. His death and those of nine other hunger strikers was followed by a new surge of IRA recruitment and activity. International media coverage brought attention to the hunger strikers, and the republican movement in general, attracting both praise and criticism.
Sands was arrested and charged in October 1972 with possession of four handguns found in the house where he was staying. Sands was convicted in April 1973, sentenced to five years imprisonment, and released in April 1976.
Upon his release, he returned to his family home in West Belfast, and resumed his active role in the Provisional IRA. Sands and Joe McDonnell planned the October 1976 bombing of the Balmoral Furniture Company in Dunmurry. The showroom was destroyed but as the IRA men left the scene there was a gun battle with the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Leaving behind two wounded, Seamus Martin and Gabriel Corbett, the remaining four (Sands, McDonnell, Seamus Finucane, and Sean Lavery) tried to escape by car, but were arrested. One of the revolvers used in the attack was found in the car. In 1977, the four men were sentenced to 14 years for possession of the revolver. They were not charged with explosive offences.
Immediately after his sentencing, Sands was implicated in a fight and sent to the punishment block in Crumlin Road Prison. The cells contained a bed, a mattress, a chamber pot and a water container. Books, radios and other personal items were not permitted, although a Bible and some Catholic pamphlets were provided. Sands refused to wear a prison uniform, so was kept naked in his cell for twenty-two days without access to bedding from 7.30 am to 8.30 pm each day.
In late 1980, Sands was chosen Officer Commanding of the Provisional IRA prisoners in the Maze Prison, succeeding Brendan Hughes who was participating in the first hunger strike. Republican prisoners organised a series of protests seeking to regain their previous Special Category Status, which would free them from some ordinary prison regulations. This began with the “blanket protest” in 1976, in which the prisoners refused to wear prison uniforms and wore blankets instead. In 1978, after a number of attacks on prisoners leaving their cells to “slop out” (i.e., empty their chamber pots), this escalated into the “dirty protest”, wherein prisoners refused to wash and smeared the walls of their cells with excrement.
While in prison, Sands had several letters and articles published in the Republican paper An Phoblacht under the pseudonym “Marcella” (his sister’s name). Other writings attributed to him are: Skylark Sing Your Lonely Song and One Day in My Life. Sands also wrote the lyrics of “Back Home in Derry” and “McIlhatton”, which were both later recorded by Christy Moore, and “Sad Song For Susan”, which was also later recorded. The melody of “Back Home in Derry” was borrowed from Gordon Lightfoot’s 1976 song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”. The song itself is about the penal transportation of Irishmen in the 19th century to Van Diemen’s Land (modern day Tasmania, Australia).
The 1981 Irish hunger strike started with Sands refusing food on 1 March 1981. Sands decided that other prisoners should join the strike at staggered intervals to maximise publicity, with prisoners steadily deteriorating successively over several months.
Shortly after the beginning of the strike, Frank Maguire, the Independent Republican Member of Parliament (MP) for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, died suddenly of a heart attack, precipitating the April 1981 by-election.
The sudden vacancy in a seat with a nationalist majority of about 5,000 was a valuable opportunity for Sands’s supporters “to raise public consciousness”. Pressure not to split the vote led other nationalist parties, notably the Social Democratic and Labour Party, to withdraw, and Sands was nominated on the label “Anti H-Block/Armagh Political Prisoner”. After a highly polarised campaign, Sands narrowly won the seat on 9 April 1981, with 30,493 votes to 29,046 for the Ulster Unionist Party candidate Harry West. Sands became the youngest MP at the time. Sands died in prison less than a month later, without ever having taken his seat in the Commons.