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'Natural leader' 40 years on from his death we reveal how Bobby Sands joined the Provos

Exactly 40 years after Sands’ death, we have spoken to some of his closest friends and learned what turned the soccer-mad boy into a committed paramilitary who would spend almost all his adult life in prison before dying there on May 5 1981 at the age of 27

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Bobby Sands in Long Kesh prison

Bobby Sands in Long Kesh prison

Bobby Sands in Long Kesh prison

We reveal for the first time today how hunger-strike icon Bobby Sands joined the IRA.

And that he was sworn in by a man who was to become another republican legendary figure – Bobby Storey.

Exactly 40 years after Sands’ death, we have spoken to some of his closest friends and learned what turned the soccer-mad boy into a committed paramilitary who would spend almost all his adult life in prison before dying there on May 5 1981 at the age of 27.

In 1976, Sands was arrested after a botched bomb attack on a furniture store in Dunmurry, near his new family home on the Twinbrook estate. He was sentenced to 14 years for possession of a handgun. But it was already his second stint behind bars as an IRA man.

But unlike many of his IRA comrades in the Maze, Bobby Sands wasn’t brought up in the classic Irish nationalist tradition.

Although he learned Irish in jail and even went on to teach the language to his fellow prisoners, Sands never spent summers in the Gaeltacht regions of Donegal.

When his family moved from Abbots Cross in Newtownabbey to nearby Rathcoole as a way of escaping sectarian harassment, Sands spent his summer holidays playing football with Catholic and Protestant friends on pitches in the middle of the estate.

Sands, who supported Aston Villa, played for the religiously mixed Stella Maris and Star of the Sea clubs.

Based at Greencastle on the Shore Road, Sands’ Star of the Sea team-mates included Raymond McCord, who comes from a Protestant background.

McCord, whose son Raymond Jnr was beaten to death by the UVF, is today well known as a relentless victims campaigner.

Growing up, Bobby Sands was always comfortable in the company of Protestant friends.

After all, his father John was Protestant. And his mum Rosaleen’s two sisters had also married Protestants.

“In those days among youngsters, religion meant nothing. It was just as it should always have been. As a youngster Bobby Sands was hyperactive. He just couldn’t sit still. Bobby was a bundle of relentless nervous energy,” said one of his friends.

But he added: “The only time I saw him down was when I visited him in jail after the first time he was sentenced. He was learning guitar and was mad about the music of Arlo Guthrie.

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“But he was also depressed and he told me he wanted out of the IRA,” he said.

Rathcoole was two-thirds Protestant and it followed that the majority of Bobby Sands friends on the estate were also Protestant.

But we have been told that as the Troubles progressed and division intensified, some of Sands’ teenage Protestant friends increasingly developed anti-Catholic views. Some of them went on to join Protestant paramilitary organisations.

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Bobby Sands (right) with other inmates in Long Kesh during his first spell in prison

Bobby Sands (right) with other inmates in Long Kesh during his first spell in prison

Bobby Sands (right) with other inmates in Long Kesh during his first spell in prison

 

And one former Catholic pal from the estate reveals that Sands as a young boy once was at an ambush on teenage Catholics leaving a Government Training Scheme near Rathcoole –  and Sands was on the Protestant side!

A man who witnessed these events as a teenager told us this week: “There was a training scheme based at Feldon House, Mill Road, Bawnmore.

“It was the summer of 1970 and we were bussed out to Feldon House from Belfast. But because of the location, it soon became a sectarian interface and attacks on the boys were commonplace.

“One day as it neared time to go home, the tutors told us there was a possibility of a sectarian attack as we walked to the buses. They warned us not to delay.

“When we stepped outside at around 4pm, we could see a large crowd of Protestant teenagers had arrived from Rathcoole and Mount Vernon.

“They were all shouting at us and I could see Bobby Sands standing in among them.”

Skirmishes aside, that Sands enjoyed his childhood in Rathcoole was clear in letters from him released this week when he told how he would have loved to have been laid to rest on Carnmoney hill overlooking the estate.

But he added in the letter written a week before he started his hunger strike: “I wrote a poem about this once... as you know I grew up there, but even I realize that this during a war could never [be] for obvious reasons.”

Instead he asked to be buried in the Republic, before apparently agreeing in a subsequent letter that he would be laid to rest in the republican plot at Belfast’s Milltown Cemetery.

But there is no doubt it was the dramatic increase in sectarian violence and intimidation of Catholics living in Rathcoole – which had been built as a mixed estate – which conditioned Sands’ changing attitudes.

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Bobby Sands’ eight-year-old son Gerard at his father’s funeral

Bobby Sands’ eight-year-old son Gerard at his father’s funeral

Bobby Sands’ eight-year-old son Gerard at his father’s funeral

 

It also caused the Sands family to move home once more, this time to a house on Summerhill Road in the middle of the then still religiously mixed Twinbrook estate, near Dunmurry.

Bobby loved it because the new family home looked out onto football pitches.

But he had been badly scarred by the sectarian strife and abuse his family had suffered at the hands of some loyalist neighbours – many of whom had been his friends – in Rathcoole.

And he even had to quit his job as an apprentice coach builder because of sectarian intimidation.

Bobby recalled how his hopes of a normal life were shattered: “Starting work, although frightening at first became alright, especially with the reward at the end of the week.

“Dances and clothes, girls and a few shillings to spend, opened up a whole new world to me.”

Within a week of moving to Twinbrook in 1972, Sands made the momentous decision to join the IRA.

A local IRA chief approached Sands in Twinbrook and a few friends he’d made playing football, asking them to attend a secret meeting in a house at Ormond Drive.

Teenage boys from Catholic families intimidated out of other parts of Belfast were also invited to come along.

Six teenagers attended the meeting. It was chaired by the IRA chief who was originally from Co Derry who introduced the boys to future IRA leader Bobby Storey from Riverdale and John Pickering, a young IRA man from Andersonstown.

Pickering was a cousin of future Irish President Mary McAleese. He was later convicted of murder and he also spent 27 days on hunger strike in the Maze. He and Storey were already big hitters in the IRA in west Belfast and they were spearheading a recruitment drive in Twinbrook, where the Provisional IRA was practically non-existent.

One lad whose family had recently been forced from their home on the Cregagh estate in east Belfast told Pickering and Storey: “If I join up, I won’t be shooting at the Brits or peelers. I’ve got nothing against them. And I won’t be doing any kneecapping or robberies.”

He added: “I only want to shoot Orangemen.” The lad was told he wasn’t suitable as an IRA recruit due to his sectarian views. Three weeks later, he was kneecapped and when he recovered, his family moved to Australia.

According to one of those present, John Pickering produced two automatic rifles and a handgun. He proceeded to show the others how to strip the weapons down before reassembling them. They were all give an opportunity to hold the weapon.

Several of the teenagers agreed to join the IRA. One of them was 18-year-old Robert Gerard Sands.

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Bobby Sands, circled in front row, in the Star of the Sea soccer side, in front of Raymond McCord

Bobby Sands, circled in front row, in the Star of the Sea soccer side, in front of Raymond McCord

Bobby Sands, circled in front row, in the Star of the Sea soccer side, in front of Raymond McCord

 

The IRA chief who hailed from Co Derry was delighted. He knew that among this batch of new members, he had recruited at least one volunteer who would do anything for the IRA.

As the IRA meeting drew to a close, the older leader left the house first. And as the others hovered around the door with the weapons, a British Army mobile patrol passed nearby.

Suddenly one of the IRA men dropped to one knee and he opened fire at the soldiers with a rifle. But the British soldiers returned fire immediately and the IRA group, including Storey, Pickering and the new recruit Bobby Sands, ran for their lives.

“The bullets zipped past us and some even ricocheted off the pavement next to us.

“We were all very lucky to escape unscathed,” said one of those present.

He added: “If he wasn’t hooked before, Bobby Sands was certainly hooked in that moment. The excitement of it acted like a magnet to him.”

Less than a year later, the police found four guns in a house where Bobby Sands was living. He was brought to court and after being found guilty, he was sent to prison for five years, where he enjoyed political status in Long Kesh.

Despite telling a friend during a visit he wanted to quit the republican movement, on his release in April 1976, Sands re-immersed himself in IRA activities.

And on Thursday October 14, he was arrested again after a shootout with police following a bomb attack at the Balmoral Furniture Company in Dunmurry.

Up to 14 IRA men were involved in the attack which destroyed the building. Two IRA men were wounded in an exchange of fire with police and Sands was connected to a gun found in a getaway car.

In court, Sands was convicted of possession of the gun and jailed for 14 years. Observers say by the time he returned to jail, Sands had noticeably matured and he had developed a reputation as a voracious reader of Irish history. He also began to write.

He penned a lengthy piece about his experiences at the hands of RUC interrogators in Castlereagh, The Crimes of Castlereagh.

It struck a chord with his fellow prisoners who regularly asked him to recite it for them. 

Sands also threw himself into the struggle for political status for IRA prisoners, which had been halted when Long Kesh was replaced by the Maze Prison.

Richard O’Rawe – a former IRA comrade and close friend and now a successful author – remembers one moment in particular when Sands lifted the spirits of all republican prisoners.

“It was 14 January 1981, a few months before he died. The republican prisoners had wrecked the wing a part of our protest. We were all naked and we broke everything we could get our hands on.

“The screws battered us stupid before forcing us onto a wing with no windows. There was no heating and the floors were freezing. But the adrenalin was still in us though and our spirits were high.

“But gradually the cold began to get to us. We settled down hoping time would pass more quickly. We wanted the morning to come hoping the screws would pass us fresh blankets.

“The cold was really relentless. But then Bobby Sands began to sing. He shouted words of encouragement to the men and he recited his poetry which meant so much to us all.

“I remember saying to myself: ‘Bobby Sands, where do you get this energy from?’” said O’Rawe.

He added: “Bobby Sands was a natural leader.”

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A recently discovered picture of Sands in a republican march carrying a flag past Andersonstown RUC station weeks before he was jailed in 1976

A recently discovered picture of Sands in a republican march carrying a flag past Andersonstown RUC station weeks before he was jailed in 1976

A recently discovered picture of Sands in a republican march carrying a flag past Andersonstown RUC station weeks before he was jailed in 1976

 

After an earlier hunger strike was called off when prisoners believed they’d won concessions for political status, the authorities again refused to pass on clothing left by relatives.

A second hunger strike began in earnest.

A month before he died on May 5 1981, Bobby Sands was elected to the Westminster Parliament to represent Fermanagh/South Tyrone.

His legacy might still divide a deeply scarred society, but there’s no doubt he was a unique character who is still revered by many today.

The tragedy is that instead of fulfilling his undoubted extraordinary potential, he was to spend all but a few months of his adult life inside a prison cell, a prison he would only leave in coffin.

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