Bobby Sands: hero, villain or other?

I really hate it when people who have not seen a film or play take it upon themelves to comment publicly on it – usually to criticise it in a Mary Whitehouse-style way, slamming the producers and urging others not to see it either.

So I won't do that.

But I do want to discuss the new film Hunger, which has just premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and which is the British entry in the Un Certain Regard category in the awards element of the festival.

Directed by Turner Prize-winning artist Steve McQueen, it is a film about the final weeks in the life of Irish republican prisoner Bobby Sands, who starved himself to death in the 1981 hunger strike in protest at republicans not being awarded 'political status'. Sands' death made a big impression on McQueen, then an 11 year-old west London boy.

It made a pretty big impression on me too. I was just one year older and attending school in north Belfast. The hunger-strike period was the biggest political and violent convulsion in Northern Ireland life that I clearly remember.

It was a terrible, tragic time. The seven months of the 1981 hunger strike left ten prisoners dead. Another 50-plus people were killed (by killers of various allegiance) in the Northern Ireland outside the H-blocks of the Maze prison. It is fair to say that it is unlikely that there will be too many films made about these latter victims.

Large parts of Belfast, including the areas around my school, saw regular riots – especially in the days that followed the death of a hunger striker. The road to school would be littered with burnt out cars annd debris in the morning, while buses were regularly cancelled or detoured, necessitating long, tense and uncertain walks for those of us dependent on them for the journey home. Undoubtedly, some of my school colleagues (it had a thousand, all Catholic, boys) were playing their part in the night-time riots.

It was a period of life here which inspired extraordinarily strong emotional responses. During the hunger strike Sands was elected a Westminster MP in a by-election. Many Catholics, who didn't support the IRA campaign, found themselves electorally propelled into the arms of republicans, out of sympathy for the plight of the prisoners and revulsion at Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's apparently heartless attitude. A reported 100,000 people attended Sands' funeral after he died on May 5, twenty-seven years ago. It was the start of Sinn Féin's rise and eventual pre-eminence over the IRA within the Republican Movement.

Bobby Sands was and is many things to many people. To some the ultimate selfless hero, to others a ruthless villain.

While many IRA activists died during our recent conflict, Sands is the only one to have attained iconic status among republicans, as well as among radical sections of the international community (there are memorials in Tehran, Havana and, Hartford, Connecticut).

It is clear that he was an extraordinary individual and his friends and comrades testify that he was leader of uncommon courage, commitment and loyalty. He was also a creature of his time and circumstance – although many made different choices – and it is barely conceivable that he would have ever seen the inside of a prison cell if it hadn't been for the conflict in which he was caught up. In another time and place, maybe he would simply have become a great poet, politician or – perhaps more likely, if prosaically - a coachbuilder (after school he was apprenticed to this trade).

I don't dispute any of this, but Bobby Sands has never been a hero of mine. I have always felt it better to live for Ireland (or Northern Ireland, or my family) than to kill or die for it. Thankfully, in the end, there were and are more people who think like me than like Sands.

Just as there are more young British Muslims who don't think it appropriate to strap a rucksack of explosive on their backs before boarding the number 30 bus to Hackney Wick. I doubt the nonviolent Muslims hate injustice any less than me or their erstwhile co-religionists.

To his credit, McQueen says that the film has not set out to mythologise Sands and its purpose is rather more complex:

"If anyone comes out of there thinking that I’m thinking that Bobby Sands is a martyr should basically watch the film again and look and listen," he tells Reuters.

The film undoubtedly tackles an important subject and a period which made a significant impact on the course of Northern Ireland's history. It has been a big hit with critics. Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian writes:

'Hunger is extreme cinema for an extreme subject. It is outstandingly made; long wordless sequences are composed with judgment and flair and expository dialogue scenes are confidently positioned. It surely confirms McQueen as a real film-maker.'

It may even win at Cannes. I will see it in due course and I'll make up my own mind then. I imagine I will have to go looking for it: it may be the only British entry at the world's most prestigious film festival but I don't expect it will pop up in too many UK multiplexes. More's the pity, if it might help people on both these islands confront and come to terms with aspects of our troubled, entwined history.

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