I think Bobby Sands is smiling.
In 1981, Bobby was an Irish prisoner in a British jail. As a member of the Irish Republican Army, he led a hunger strike for political prisoner status, an action that ended in death for him and nine of his comrades. This country's only permanent memorial to these 10 men is a Celtic cross that resides at Bobby Sands Circle off Maple Avenue in Hartford.
The decision by the IRA to end its war against the British occupation of Ireland's north is historic. It marks a significant step toward the goal of one united republic, north and south. It is part of a century's quest for the equality of all the people on that troubled island. Bobby Sands may be the best example of the complicated process that the Irish republican movement has undertaken, a strategy that has balanced armed struggle and electoral engagement.
While on hunger strike, Bobby ran for and won a seat in the British Parliament, a position he never took. But since that time, his party Sinn Fein, the political arm of the republican movement, has grown into the largest political party operating at every level in Ireland, winning seats in the British Parliament, the European Parliament, the northern Assembly and the Irish Dail Eireann (parliament) as well as local and county seats. Sinn Fein has become a threat to the political status quo the same way the IRA has threatened military rule in the north.
The fight for Irish freedom has been supported by many people in Hartford for more than a hundred years, since the first Irish immigrants to this city donated their first dollars to the Patrick Pearse branch of the Friends of Irish Freedom. When Eamon de Valera came to Hartford in 1920, he was hailed as a hero even though he was a fugitive who had escaped from a British prison some months earlier. De Valera was welcomed by the mayor and city council and treated to a parade to the state Capitol. He later became the first president of the Irish Republic, a country divided then as now by British rule in the north.
Similar support has been accorded modern-day republicans from Joe Cahill to Martin McGuniness and Gerry Adams, always sponsored by local Irish Americans of the Irish Northern Aid Committee, a local support group that for 35 years has undertaken the republican cause in the face of indifference or hostility.
I am no expert on the Irish political scene, but I have stood with Belfast mothers whose sons were killed by "non-lethal" plastic bullets fired by police. I have picketed at the British Embassy in Dublin with members of Ogra Shinn Fein, the party's vibrant youth wing. I have marched the route in Derry that took nonviolent protestors to their deaths at the hands of British paratroopers in 1972.
But my most important education has come from the ordinary working people who have spent their lives supporting the Irish republican movement: the thread mill worker, the cook, the construction worker, all of whom made me welcome in their homes. They taught me that the truth behind "the Troubles" is not about religion but really a fight for first-class citizenship. I also attended 2005's Sinn Fein convention in Dublin, which commemorated the centennial of the party's birth. I was struck by the matter-of-fact business to which the delegates attended, from a debate over affirmative action to the creation of programs for unemployed youth. I realized that the aspirations of the Irish people are unstoppable, despite the many mistakes that have been made.
Most troubling has been the violence that has cost lives on all sides. All civilized people condemn the carnage caused by bombs and guns. But as Americans, we are schizophrenic about violence when it comes to causes we see as just.
Was John Brown a madman or a hero? It depends on which side of the slavery debate you were on. Do we see Nelson Mandela's African National Congress as a liberation movement or a terrorist group? The Irish republican movement will undergo the same scrutiny as history progresses.
In the meantime, we should welcome the IRA's decision to completely end its armed campaign and engage in purely political work. Irish Americans and others have the responsibility to help "build an Ireland of equals," as Sinn Fein says. Or as Bobby Sands wrote: "Everyone, republican or otherwise, has their own particular part to play. No part is too great or too small; no one is too old or too young to do something."