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John Paul McCarthy: Sands' death wasn't self-sacrifice: it was treason against our State

The State Papers for 1981 deal with the gravest political crisis in this Republic since the Civil War.

They show that the Irish Government's response to Bobby Sands' hunger strike was simultaneously weak and deceptive.

Far from following the hard-nosed approach of Taoisigh like de Valera and Lynch when confronting the IRA, Garret FitzGerald often sounded like Haughey in his solicitousness for the demands of the blanket-men.

Groping for weight of voice as a new Taoiseach, and under fierce pressure from John Hume and Sinn Fein, FitzGerald projected sternness while equivocating in private. He came across as being almost as deceptive as Margaret Thatcher. (Although publicly insisting she was not for turning on the H-Block strike, we know now that privately she pulled fairly hard on the MI5 back-channel lever).

Marian Finucane's guests last week on her radio show, especially John Bowman and Peter Taylor, worked these contradictions fairly hard rather than deal with the moral elephant in the room.

Despite Finucane's best efforts to make them focus on the full moral horror of the H-Block campaign of policy extortion through mass suicide, Bowman and Taylor preferred to jointly handbag Mrs Thatcher for 'letting them die'.

Bowman and Taylor's analysis rested on several tottering foundations.

Firstly, they presented the hard-nosed Thatcherite stance on prison conditions as a calamitous own-goal, the fateful British stumble that supposedly catapulted Provisional Sinn Fein into the electoral stratosphere. They also failed to consider the possibility that the H-Block confrontation simply gave firm form to a potent, and pre-existing sentiment within a section of the nationalist community in Northern Ireland, a sentiment that would probably have emerged into the electoral field through another channel if the hunger-strikes had never happened.

This sentiment was the one that sustained the Provisional IRA's campaign of sectarian violence throughout the Seventies, that tawdry decade of no-warning bombings in working-class British pubs, scores of murders of part-time police officers in front of their children, the incineration of helpless civilians in hotels like LaMon and, on one especially barbaric occasion, the torture-murder of SAS captain, Robert Nairac, that culminated in the feeding of his body into a mincing machine.

Bowman suggested that the Haughey-Thatcher 'totality of relations' summit in 1980 was the analytical axis against which we should plot the H-Block confrontation.

But it makes more sense to analyse Sands' self-immolation through the prism of his organisation's fantastic capacity for cruelty and sadism.

Far from the helpless pawns implied by the claims that Mrs Thatcher 'let' them die, the melancholy truth is that many of the H-Block blanket-men were brutal killers.

Speaking of Francis Hughes, the second man to die after Sands, the RUC's Alan McQuillan said: "He was an extremely good terrorist. He killed a lot of people. A terrible and ruthless opponent -- and in some way brave. But I saw a lot of the people he murdered, including a child, which gives a different perspective."

Far from revealing republican stoicism, the fact is that the H-Blocks showed that they would use almost any tactic to dictate terms and force British withdrawal, regardless of the impact on communal relations in Northern Ireland or on political life in the Republic.

Sometimes confrontation clarifies as much as it cripples, and the H-Blocks clarified the zero-sum dimension in the IRA's calculations.

The Bowman-Taylor relay act seemed incapable of analysing the H-Block situation as anything other than a mere shambles or formal 'contradiction', as if it was a series of policy kinks or a puzzle.

Neither seemed much interested in the basic moral problem faced in the Republic, which was the fact that Sands' Provisional IRA could only achieve its stated goals by destroying our Constitution.

The Provisional IRA was a treasonous entity, and it could only win if the Constitution was voided. Sands' starvation was not a passive sacrifice, but rather an aggressive policy on a direct collision course with our State.

By fixating on Mrs Thatcher at the expense of this basic moral problem, Bowman and Taylor missed the central moral question posed by Sands.

Must the democratic state simply yield to a treasonous conspiracy like Sands' simply because it temporarily adopts the tactics of Gandhi and Emmeline Pankhurst?

Bowman and Taylor seemed to imply that Sands occupied the moral high ground because Secretary of State William Whitelaw had already conceded special category status to PIRA prisoners for most of the Seventies. But they failed to explain how the zig-zag quality in British statecraft was morally relevant to the debate in the Republic.

As Prof John A Murphy and former justice minister Patrick Cooney insisted at the time, the Republic remained in danger regardless of what the British did because Sands was exploiting our historic ambivalence about sectarian violence, unionism and the British connection.

And however murky the road towards the final confrontation, no democratic state can yield when a self-appointed sectarian militia like the Provisional IRA formally threatens mass suicide unless that same state does what it says.

The State Papers may be heavy-going for younger readers.

They may dismiss as fantastical the notion of Sands destroying the Republic through the creation of civil-war conditions.

But if they need a crash course in the sordid reality of Sands' (very Catholic) act of self-sacrifice, I'd suggest they direct their search engines to one Dermot Nally.

Nally was Secretary to the Irish Government from 1980-1993, and the principal architect of the Republic's policy on Northern Ireland since Jack Lynch rescued him from obscurity in 1973.

If you're tempted by the Bowman-Taylor depiction of Sands as something akin to a hapless pawn in an imperial power-play, rather than a willing instrument in the IRA's sectarian campaign of violence, then you should look up the paper Nally wrote to Liam Cosgrave in 1975.

It still shocks the conscience.

Nally, writing in 1975, speculated on what would happen if Sands' IRA actually achieved its goal of forcing a British scuttle from Northern Ireland -- their stated aim in 1975 and again in 1981.

Nally predicted that an independent Ulster state would emerge after the British exit, but only after a communal catastrophe, mandarin-speak for a plain old Balkan-style sectarian slaughter.

So, as far back as 1975, Nally was warning Cosgrave that "the likely prelude to the establishment of a state comprising either the entire six counties or the part of it east of the Bann is so horrific for the entire island that I think we should, on no account, give any support or engage in any open analysis or discussion on the subject." And in 1981 we now know that Nally seemed even more convinced that leniency in the H-Block confrontation could hasten that very nightmare .

Hence the remarkably tough tone he took with FitzGerald who was not above nationalist posturing when under pressure. Nally scolded him about the "real danger of getting too close to the IRA".

"Our demands," Nally insisted, "are becoming indistinguishable from theirs."

Nally concluded that this convergence was creating "real and urgent dangers" especially because, in his judgment, FitzGerald seemed not really to have thought about "what do we do if Portlaoise [prison] erupts [in solidarity with Sands]?"

Nally's hard words were written days after bricks, stones and bottles flew during a major riot outside the British Embassy in Dublin. Here, without anything like the body armour available today, a small force of gardai heroically contained a seething IRA mob intent on wrecking the embassy.

(More than 120 policemen were injured by day's end and FitzGerald privately feared that the Dail itself might be attacked next).

The fear that suffuses Nally's letters to Cosgrave and FitzGerald should concern us more in the Republic than Mrs Thatcher's posturing.

It's not very fashionable nowadays to talk about loyalty to the state.

The lumbering ghost of Senator Joe McCarthy links arms here with Fianna Fail's devastating use of 'red scare' tactics in the Sixties and Seventies to make 'loyalty' something of a thin reed.

But it's a reed we break at our peril.

Nally's memo reminds us of a truth that Bowman and Taylor missed because of their common anxiety to ridicule Mrs Thatcher. It's a truth worth repeating.

This Republic is the only one we are likely to have for a very long time.

It may be the site of our common ruin for sure, but it is also the only mother earth available to us, and we dare not indulge those like Sands who tried to destroy it.

Whatever about Taylor who, as Mrs Thatcher might have said, is not one of us, Bowman should have done more than fixate on British diplomatic inanity when assessing the myriad ways Sands' suicide convulsed our Republic and helped elevate the misery of 1981 to near equivalence with that of 1922.

Sunday Independent