This week marks the 39th anniversary of Bobby Sands death, the first and most infamous of the ten IRA men who perished in the 1981 hunger strike. These fatal protests were a dramatic inflexion point in the Troubles with immense consequences – both accelerating the brutal violence and, through the election of Sands as a British MP, sowing the seeds for Sinn Féin’s successful entry into politics. The events sharply divide opinions, now as then, but whatever your view, most people would accept that Bobby Sands was a highly influential figure.
The Life and Literature of Bobby Sands
The late 60’s were a dark time in Northern Ireland’s history and Sands, like thousands of people who found themselves a minority in their own community, suffered appalling sectarian abuse. His family were forced out of their home, and he was subjected to loyalist threats that coerced him out of his job. This “well-spoken” teenager gravitated towards militant republicanism and, like many other young men of that era, became both a victim and perpetrator of appalling violence.
But there was another side to Sands, which helps explain why his legacy has endured. Professor Peter Shirlow, who grew up in a Unionist community, knew Sands personally and describes him as a charismatic and romantic character. He had a thoughtful and poetic side and was enthusiastically involved in the revival of Irish language and culture. His published works include “McIlhatton” and “Back Home in Derry”, which feature as tracks in Christy Moore’s iconic album “Ride On”. But it is his autobiographical book “One Day in My Life” that has endured as his most famous work.
The Battle Cry of the Blanket Men
The book, which recounts his brutal experiences in prison, ends with the Irish phrase Tiocfaidh ár lá – “Our Day Will Come”. It is no surprise that idealistic self-sacrifice, an environment of visceral violence, and an anti-British cultural revival, all combined to ensure that the words of this charismatic leader have echoed down through the decades as the rallying cry of Republicanism.
The phrase has been used extensively in the dock, including Brighton Bomber Patrick Magee, whose revenge attack was directly inspired by the Hunger Strike. It features on murals, songs, and works of literature; has been adopted as the name of an unofficial Celtic football fanzine; and is used by republican politicians to inspire followers.
There is no denying that Tiocfaidh ár lá has poetry. It meets the fabled “rule of three” long famous in advertising slogans and adopted with enthusiasm by modern politics; “Yes We Can” and “Take Back Control” being two recent successes. But it goes beyond a slogan and provides an artefact of organisational culture – an abstract typology that encapsulates the philosophy of the struggle in three words and reminds Republicans what they were fighting for. As a motivational phrase it was almost religious in its intensity, promising followers a sunlit upland in an undefined future, which would make the present sacrifice all worthwhile.
But is the “Battle cry of the Blanketmen” still appropriate for the modern day? That it retains emotional and symbolic power is not in doubt – hence TD David Cullinane’s victory speech or Mary Lou, newly elected as party leader, ended her first Ard Fheis with this unscripted remark. But both these comments, which “hark back to a very dark time” play to a narrow gallery of militancy. It is no surprise their use was condemned by political leaders across the island.
The New Ireland
A phrase so associated with the hunger strikes and violent republicanism is inevitably going to offend most people, but in particular Unionists. Divisive language, while understandable during a time of conflict, now seems out of place for a movement that aims to unite “Catholic, Protestant, and Dissenter”.
Consider also Gerry Adams, who wrote the introduction to Sands book. In Adam’s 2005 political manifesto “The New Ireland” he wrote that:
“A necessary element of any conflict resolution process is inclusive dialogue based on equality and respect” and “The New Ireland must be a shared place for all the people who live on the island”
How does Tiocfaidh ár lá – the opposite of inclusive and respectful dialogue or the creation of a shared place – fit into this philosophy?
Republicans could understandably point to equivalent rhetoric on the other side of the fence. Unionists have their own examples of the “rule of three”, albeit the less poetical “Never, Never, Never” or “Ulster Says No.” However, the most notable phrase is the blunt loyalist staccato of “No Surrender”. This shibboleth, which originated from the 1690 siege of Derry, can be used in equally divisive ways. It is more defensive and backward looking than republicanism, focused on preserving the status quo rather than creating a new dawn. But like the equivalent republican phrase it is deployed to maintain tribal cohesion, it features on murals and political slogans, and has embedded itself in an offensive way in football culture. Whilst the phrase is less common amongst mainstream Unionists, at times of stress it can be utilised in political and cultural dialogue.
Building a Shared Society
In an ideal world “No Surrender” would also disappear from our lexicon, so all sides of the political divide can come together to build a shared society. But Republican use of Tiocfaidh ár lá is not a quid pro quo, or something to be negotiated away with “nothing agreed until everything is agreed”. Coming back to Gerry Adams again “activists who want the most change have to be prepared to take the greater risks”. If Republicans want to build a United Ireland – a New Ireland – then the greater onus is on them to adopt the inclusive language that will help build a shared society.
Tiocfaidh ár lá was a motivating phrase during the conflict of the Troubles, but Republicans need to put the battle cries of war behind them. It is a time for peace. A time for justice. A time for rebuilding. Tiocfaidh ár lá is a phrase whose day has come.
My aim is to let the facts tell the story and encourage a shared debate. My ideology is to support sustainable policies which deliver the best outcome. Happy to be corrected when wrong.