Robert Gerard "Bobby" Sands (Irish: Roibeárd Gearóid Ó Seachnasaigh; 9 March 1954 – 5 May 1981) was an Irish volunteer of the Provisional Irish Republican Army and member of the British Parliament who died on hunger strike while imprisoned in HM Prison Maze.
He was the leader of the 1981 hunger strike in which Irish republican prisoners protested against the removal of Special Category Status. During his strike he was elected as a member of the British Parliament as an Anti H-Block/Armagh Political Prisoner candidate. His death resulted in 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.
In 1972, Sands joined the Provisional IRA. He was arrested and charged in October 1972 with possession of four handguns which were found in the house where he was staying. Sands was convicted in April 1973 sentenced to five years' imprisonment and released in April 1976.
On his release from prison in 1976, he returned to his family home in West Belfast, and resumed his active role in the Provisional IRA's campaign. He was charged with involvement in the October 1976 bombing of the Balmoral Furniture Company in Dunmurry, although he was never convicted of this charge with the presiding judge stating that there was no evidence to support the assertion that he had taken part. After the bombing, Sands and at least five others were alleged to have been involved in a gun battle with the Royal Ulster Constabulary, although he was not convicted due to lack of evidence. Leaving behind two of their wounded friends, Seamus Martin and Gabriel Corbett, Sands, Joe McDonnell, Seamus Finucane and Sean Lavery tried to make their escape in a car, but were apprehended. Later, one of the revolvers used in the attack was found in the car in which Sands had been travelling. His trial in September 1977 saw him being convicted of possession of firearms (the revolver from which the prosecution alleged bullets had been fired at the RUC after the bombing) and Sands was sentenced to 14 years' imprisonment within HM Prison Maze, also known as Long Kesh.
Immediately after his sentence he was implicated in a ruckus and spent the first 22 days on boards in Crumlin Road Prison, 15 days naked, and a No. 1 starvation diet every 3 days.
In prison, Sands became a writer both of journalism and poetry—being published in the Irish republican newspaper An Phoblacht. In late 1980 Sands was chosen as Officer Commanding of the Provisional IRA prisoners in Long Kesh, succeeding Brendan Hughes who was participating in the first hunger strike.
Republican prisoners had organised a series of protests seeking to regain their previous Special Category Status and not be subject to ordinary prison regulations. This began with the "blanket protest" in 1976, in which the prisoners refused to wear prison uniform 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.
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 in order to maximise publicity with prisoners steadily deteriorating successively over several months.
The hunger strike centred around five demands:
1. the right not to wear a prison uniform;
2. the right not to do prison work;
3. the right of free association with other prisoners, and to organise educational and recreational pursuits;
4. the right to one visit, one letter and one parcel per week;
5. full restoration of remission lost through the protest.
The significance of the hunger strike was the prisoners' aim of being declared as political prisoners (or prisoners of war) and not to be classed as criminals. The Washington Post, however, reported that the primary aim of the hunger strike was to generate international publicity.
Sands died in the prison hospital after 66 days of hunger-striking, aged 27. The original pathologist's report recorded Sands' and the other hunger strikers' causes of death as "self-imposed starvation", later amended to simply "starvation" after protests from the dead strikers' families. The coroner recorded verdicts of "starvation, self-imposed".
The announcement of his death prompted several days of riots in nationalist areas of Northern Ireland. A milkman and his son, Eric and Desmond Guiney, died as a result of injuries sustained when their milk float crashed after being stoned by rioters in a predominantly nationalist area of north Belfast. Over 100,000 people lined the route of Sands' funeral and he was buried in the 'New Republican Plot' alongside 76 others. Their grave is maintained and cared for by the National Graves Association, Belfast. Sands was a Member of the Westminster Parliament for 25 days, though he never took his seat or the oath.
In response to a question in the House of Commons on 5 May 1981, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said, "Mr. Sands was a convicted criminal. He chose to take his own life. It was a choice that his organisation did not allow to many of its victims". The official announcement of Sands' death in the House of Commons omitted the customary expression of sense of loss and sympathy with the family of the member.
He was survived by his parents, siblings, and a young son (Gerard) from his marriage to Geraldine Noade.