Dissent is and always has been entwined with media depictions of it, whether it wants to be or not, and whether that coverage is beneficial or not. The traditional assumption is often that it is, however; as Thatcher famously announced: “We must try to find ways to starve the terrorist and the hijacker of the oxygen of publicity on which they depend.” Thatcher’s government used censorship against the threat of the Provisional IRA in the 1980s, as well as the ANC, who were at the time branded ‘terrorists’ also (and Nelson Mandela in particular). The voices of Irish Republicans were dubbed with the voices of anonymous actors, in a bizarre and at times comic form of censorship, which bore more resemblance to a Monty Python sketch than anything else. The British press, meanwhile, whenever it did mention the IRA, did so with dehumanising and insulting language, comparing Irish revolutionaries (the IRA of the 1920s as well as post-1960s) and the Irish more generally to chimps, Frankenstein, crazy drunks, pigs, a vampire, an inferno, Jekyll and Hyde, and various images of idiocy and barbarianism.
In general, though, the Provisional IRA was given as little coverage as possible from the 1970s onwards, in line with Thatcher’s insistence that depriving the cause of any publicity would stifle them. Indeed it did, but the Provisional IRA fought back with actions that would win their cause and people worldwide interest and at times solidarity, if not the British press (who only changed tack in the 1990s, after the peace talks). The Hunger Strikes, and specifically the death of Bobby Sands, offered a narrative that went some way to counter the British press’ dismissal of the Republican cause.
The hunger strikes of 1980-81 (there were ten deaths in all from the strikes – Sands’ was the best known) took place in Long Kesh prison in Belfast, at the end of a long protest about prisoner status: the Republican prisoners wanted to be recognised as prisoners of war, while the government insisted that they be treated as non-political criminals. While the ‘dirty protests’ began as a long campaign of non-cooperation, continued mistreatment by prison guards and a refusal to take their arguments seriously by the government meant that these protests evolved into the hunger strikes. These went some way to change the public image of the Republican movement from violent perpetrators and troublemakers, to tragic victims.
Drawing on familiar pacifist and religious iconography, popular support for the hunger strikers, the other prisoners, and the Republican cause itself rose exponentially as a result. Public rituals of self-sacrifice, and symbolic gestures about life, death and resurrection were inherent in the hunger strikes, and meant that these protests chimed with the people on a deeper level. They asserted a sense of identity that was bound up in Catholicism and Republicanism, which made these two strands harmonious and all the more powerful for that fusion. The activists themselves became, not merely men, but transcendent figures who would inevitably remind people of the religious figures they had known of since childhood, who had an emotional effect because of a mixture of those early memories and spiritual ideas.
When it came to the media representations of the hunger strikes, these tended to be local rather than national or international at first, given the use of censorship by the British. However, that local awareness gave the activists a local audience and sympathy that was perhaps more powerful because it was exclusive to a grassroots audience at that point. Later, when Bobby Sands died and the story was told further afield, even the most basic facts told a story of martyrdom, and a sense of tragedy, given Sands’ age, his background and the fact that he starved to death for his beliefs. Even the most hardened and distant audience would likely be concerned or ashamed that he suffered such a death. For even people who had no political sympathy, who were not of the same background and identity, would nevertheless recognise that story – that sense of tragedy and self-sacrifice that is ingrained in story-telling across cultures, and which explains, perhaps, why martyrdom is a story used by political actors in so many different settings. The fusion of fame and suffering is one that seems to arrest audiences everywhere. Whatever is the reason for this – be it voyeurism, deeply ingrained social ritual, confused admiration or sympathy – martyrdom is powerful as a political tactic and a narrative arc.
And yet the Conservative government at the time did not quite realise how powerful it could be. While Thatcher’s rationale for ignoring the strikers was that any negotiations or change in status would “represent an acknowledgment of Irish Republican Army violence outside the prison” (Fierke, p. 107), this strategy backfired, partly because she underestimated the power of the hunger strikes from an emotional point of view. The self-sacrifice and deaths of the hunger strikers drew attention to their plight, drew attention to (and empathy towards) the victimhood of Catholics in Northern Ireland (especially given the symbolism inherent in the strikers’ martyrdom) and ultimately encouraged support for the Provisional IRA in spite of their violence.
People were reminded of why these young men had joined the cause in the first place: a series of events in which Catholics were victimised, and peaceful protesters killed. In particular, the shooting of thirteen unarmed civilians during a demonstration in Derry in January 1972 (Bloody Sunday), by British paratroopers, had inspired young activists to abandon more peaceful means of dissent and join the Provisional IRA instead. The substance and history of the cause was exposed, the contemporary Provisional IRA were tied into a longer tradition of Irish Republicanism, and that helped its public image and suggested a more complex story than a simple ‘good versus evil’ and the terrorism narrative of Thatcher’s government and the British tabloids. The lines blurred, the characters, these ‘terrorists’, became first human, then saintly. And with this surge in public support, it became difficult for the British government to keep up their story that the Provisional IRA were a group of troublemakers with no real public support.
The British press, of course, used their expected language of condemnation and vitriol when covering the strikes and Sands’ death, and underplayed the huge effect on public support. The Daily Mail, when Bobby Sands died of hunger, called him out as guilty of “a moral fraud” and the Daily Telegraph called him “ruthless” and corrupted”. The Express dwelled on political failure: “Sands will find no victory in the grave… The shadow of Bobby Sands will pass…” While The Sun focussed on the supposed victory of the British, at his death: “Blackmail has failed… The society which has stood firm against violence in long blood-stained years will remain unshaken.” At the news of Sands’ funeral, the Mirror published an account which insisted that: “[Sands’ funeral was] a pathetic end for a man who never played more than an average part in the deadly moves called by his IRA masters.” The Daily Mail called it “a macabre propaganda circus” and “a gangster parody”. (Roy Greenslade)
Despite this coverage, Bobby Sands’ death was not easily forgotten or dismissed – quite the opposite in fact. Sands became a martyr to the cause – a secular Saint, of sorts. His story, and death, became known and mythologised not only in Northern Ireland but worldwide. Even the British press could not ignore him, especially since he was by this time an elected MP. While coverage of his death remained characteristically derisive, it nevertheless broke the censorship policy that had been in place before and hinted at the reality of public support for Sands and Irish Republicanism in general. Censorship, then, while an ideal for some governments in their dealing with dissent, even in the 1980s, before the Internet, was not always realistic in the face of particularly compelling personalities and their stories.
This is an edited extract from Shooting Hipsters: Rethinking Dissent in the Age of PR by Christiana Spens (forthcoming 2016).