“Bobby Sands, MP: Whose Idea Was It?”

By Robert W. White

Many people readily accept the view that it was Jim Gibney who first suggested putting hunger striker Bobby Sands forward as a candidate when Frank Maguire, the MP for Fermanagh/South Tyrone, passed away.  The story is consistent with the general notion that younger, Belfast-based activists,  led by Gerry Adams, were more politically astute than the senior people in Sinn Féin, including Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and Daithí O’Connell.  On the surface, a series of events flow seamlessly from Sands’ electoral victory to the peace process and on to Sinn Féin’s status today as the largest political party on the island of Ireland — Owen Carron wins the by-election to succeed Sands and Danny Morrison proposes the “Armalite and Ballot Box” strategy; Gerry Adams is elected MP for West Belfast and then succeeds Ruairí Ó Brádaigh as President of Sinn Féin; and so on.

However, while conducting interviews for a biography of Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, I interviewed Cathleen Knowles (later, Cathleen Knowles McGuirk), who was the joint-General Secretary of Sinn Féin in 1981.  According to Knowles, it was Daithí O’Connell who suggested putting Sands forward.  The competing accounts were noted in the biography.[i]

Around the time the biography was published, my approach to “Writing the Troubles” was broadened to include visual sociology, because “the world that is seen, photographed, drawn or otherwise represented visually is different than the world that is represented through words and numbers”.[ii]  I began complementing oral history with photographs and video of individuals and events.  One product of this new approach was an open-access documentary titled, Unfinished Business: The Politics of “Dissident” Irish Republicans.[iii]  Another product, in order to get her account on record, was a video-recorded interview with Cathleen Knowles.  A partial transcription of this interview appears in my oral history of the Provisionals.[iv]  Because the written word does not do justice to Knowles’ emphatic account that putting Sands forward was not Jim Gibney’s idea, the video remained interesting but unused.

In 2018, Líta Ní Chathmhaoil was interviewed for another documentary, Cumann na mBan: The Women’s Army (2019).[v]  Ní Chathmhaoil, a member of Cumann na mBan, had also been a member of the Sinn Féin Ard Chomhairle (National Executive Committee).  After confirming that she attended the 1981 meeting during which the Sands candidacy was discussed, and without commenting on the Knowles interview, I recorded a Zoom-interview with her in the Spring of 2020.  The Knowles and Ní Chathmhaoil interviews are now publicly available in the short, open-access documentary, Bobby Sands: Whose Idea Was It?

In Sinn Féin: A Hundred Turbulent Years, Brian Feeney presents Jim Gibney’s account of what happened:

“When Frank Maguire died, I immediately, instinctively, thought we should put Bobby Sands up as the candidate, and I said to Gerry Adams—I had heard about Frank’s death that morning, I was to see Gerry that afternoon—and I said, ‘Listen, I need to see you now.  This is what we should do.  Let’s do this’ (emphasis in original)….What was motivating me was, ‘We’ve got to break through this censorship thing…If we announce we’re putting Bobby Sands up, it’s going to be loads of publicity”.[vi]

Gerry Adams, in his autobiography, seemingly confirms that it was Gibney who “raised the possibility that Bobby Sands should stand in the election”.[vii]  Cathleen Knowles and Líta Ní Chathmhaoil tell a very different tale.

Whether an account is presented in writing or through video, the fundamentals of social science remain important.  In this case, the Knowles and Ní Chathmhaoil accounts are “reliable”.  The interviews were more than a decade apart in time and the two of them took different sides in  the bitter split within Republican Sinn Féin in 2011, but still they offer very similar descriptions of the Ard Chomhairle meeting: O’Connell’s main point was that a prisoner candidate would “internationalize” the hunger strike.  Knowles and Ní Chathmhaoil also state that O’Connell’s suggestion was controversial.  Indeed, the Provisionals had never put forward a candidate for a Northern Ireland election.  Anti-election sentiment was so strong that delegates passed a motion preventing Sinn Féin from contesting local elections in the North at their 1980 Ard-Fheis.  Not only do Knowles and Ní Chathmhaoil describe opposition to having Bobby Sands contest the Fermanagh/South Tyrone election but, according to them, the opposition was from “mainly Belfast” (Knowles) and “led by Gerry Adams” (Ní Chathmhaoil).  Yet, as Gibney described it, he simply said, “Let’s do this” to Adams and that was enough. 

Ní Chathmhaoil also describes Daithí O’Connell’s response to the argument that Sands could not win, that Noel Maguire (Frank’s brother) would run, and this would split the nationalist vote.  O’Connell drew on his personal knowledge of Fermanagh and the Maguire family,  arguing  that Noel Maguire “would never stand against a hunger striker”. 

Ní Chathmhaoil comments that O’Connell had “campaigned” in the area in the 1950s.  It is a matter of record that O’Connell was wounded in the IRA’s famous raid at Brookeborough (1957) and that while on the run during the IRA’s Border Campaign (1956-62) he stayed with the Maguire family.  Even more telling, in 1955, Phil Clarke, an IRA prisoner, was elected MP for Fermanagh/South Tyrone on a Sinn Féin ticket; Clarke’s election was as much an affront to the establishment as was Sands’.  Ruairí Ó Brádaigh worked on Clarke’s campaign.  And yet, Brian Feeney writes that Jim Gibney “knew nothing about” Fermanagh/South Tyrone’s electoral history. 

Minutes, Sinn Féin Head Office Meeting, 29 May 1981[viii]

Although it might be a surprise that the younger Belfast-based activists were opposed to  Sands’ candidacy, their reservations are understandable.  If Sands lost, it would have been a disaster for the prisoners.  What is especially interesting is evidence that, for Gerry Adams at least, the reservations persisted.  On 29 May 1981, there was a meeting in the Sinn Féin Head Office to discuss candidates for the 1981 Dáil election.  Those attending included Gerry Adams, Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, Daithí O’Connell, and Cathleen Knowles, who took the minutes.  The minutes show that Adams “proposed dropping” several areas from consideration; his proposal was turned down.

The concern the prisoners would lose offers potential insight for understanding Richard O’Rawe’s allegations in Blanketmen and Afterlives.[ix]  O’Rawe writes that in July the prisoners accepted a deal with the British that would have ended the hunger strike only to have the deal rejected by an external committee that included Gerry Adams.  The implication is that the committee wanted to prolong the hunger strike so that nationalists would remain mobilized and vote for Owen Carron in the August by-election.  If Carron lost, the hunger strike would have been in vain.  But if Carron won, the benefits of an abstentionist MP not constrained by a prison cell would be incredible.  Did the documented concern in March that Bobby Sands would lose, and the documented concern in May that prisoner candidates would not fare well, persist such that the external committee was willing to let six hunger strikers die in order to help get Carron elected?

Successful politicians tend to be highly conscious of their image.  And as political actors, the Provisionals are not unique for having sanitized contested events for public consumption.  Bobby Sands, MP: Whose Idea Was It? is not meant to question the political abilities and insights of either Gerry Adams or Jim Gibney.  The key to the documentary is that it shows that the decision to put Bobby Sands forward as a candidate was contested.  Without question, other key decisions that influenced the course of the Provisionals were also contested, but how, by whom, and why, is not necessarily known to the public.  I encourage other scholars to draw on video-recorded interviews, photographs, archival footage, and the written word to offer a better understanding of these contested events.

Watch: Bobby Sands, MP: Whose Idea Was It?


Visit: The Irish Republican Movement Collection at IUPUI


(Images: Photo of Daithí O’Connell, with attribution to Seamus Murph; Photo of the Bobby Sands Funeral, with attribution to Val Lynch; Photo of Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, with attribution to Terry F. White; Photo of Gerry Adams, with attribution to Robert W. White)

Robert W. White (email: spike@iupui.edu) is Professor of Sociology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI).  His books include Out of the Ashes: An Oral History of the Irish Republican Movement (Merrion Press, 2017) and Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, the Life and Politics of an Irish Revolutionary (2006, Indiana University Press and now available in paperback).  He has also produced two online, open-access documentaries, Unfinished Business: The Politics of ‘Dissident’ Irish Republicans (2012) and Cumann na mBan: The Women’s Army (2019). A recent article (co-authored with Tijen Demirel-Pegg and Vijay Lulla), “Terrorism, counterterrorism, and the ‘rule of law’: State repression and ‘shoot to kill’ in Northern Ireland” (Irish Political Studies, online), concludes that the security forces did pursue a shoot to kill policy between 1982 and 1992. 

[i] Robert White, Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, The Life and Politics of an Irish Revolutionary (Indiana University Press, 2016).

[ii] Douglas Harper, Visual Sociology (Routeledge, 2012), p. 4.

[iii] Unfinished Business: The Politics of “Dissident” Irish Republicans (2011), https://ulib.iupui.edu/video/UnfinishedBusiness.

[iv] Robert White, Out of the Ashes: An Oral History of the Irish Republican Movement (Merrion Press, 2017).

[v] Cumann na mBan: The Women’s Army (2019), http://www.ulib.iupui.edu/video/CumannnamBan

[vi] Brian Feeney, Sinn Féin: A Hundred Turbulent Words (Dublin: O’Brien Press, 2002, pp. 288-9).

[vii] Gerry Adams, Before the Dawn (Brandon, 1996, p. 292).

[viii] Minutes of a meeting at the Sinn Féin Head Office (44 Parnell Street, Dublin), to discuss the forthcoming Irish General Election, 29 May 1981. Personal copy in the author’s possession.

[ix] Richard O’Rawe, Blanketmen: An Untold Story of the H-Block Hunger Strike (New Island, 2005); O’Rawe, Richard, Afterlives: The Hunger Strike and the Secret Offer that Changed Irish History (Dublin: Lilliput Press, 2010).


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