Thank goodness this seems like an epoch ago! Even though I’m half Irish, I’m glad to say that the carnage we once witnessed year after year in Northern Ireland now seems a distant nightmare. One can’t be complacent but – fingers crossed – we don’t look set to return to those days anytime soon.
Here’s a reminder of how awful it was – the latest update from The Observer in 1980. What a sad front cover.
In 1979, Thatcher pledged to bring back hanging during the General Election that saw her take power for the first time – beating Jim Callaghan and Labour. In one conversation made public in 2014 she made it clear that hanging should be re-introduced for terrorists in Northern Ireland.
Capital punishment had only been banned under 15 years earlier by a Labour government. But the movement against it had been gathering pace since the 1930s. Thatcher undoubtedly supported the rope and wanted a free vote in parliament. In answer to a question put to her in a newspaper attacking her over the issue, she replied:
For my part, I have always supported capital punishment for terrorists, and will continue to do so.
In May 1981, IRA (Irish Republican Army) hunger strike Bobby Sands died in prison. He’d been elected as an MP from his prison cell where he and other IRA members, banged up for terrorist offences, had refused to eat for weeks.
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher basically refused to yield and Sands popped his clogs. Thatcher was not prepared to treat IRA inmates as political prisoners – which was their demand.
As a result of his death, many bands cancelled their gigs in Ireland at that time. Not so much out of sympathy for Sands – though some may have supported his stand – but because of security fears.
One band, Matchbox, said they were “very nervous about going” over to Ireland. Heavy metal combos Girlschool and Vardis also decided to stay away from the Republic of Ireland, under advice from the gig promoters.
It’s hard to believe now but going over to Ireland was a big deal at this time for many UK bands – especially in the north where ‘the troubles’ were in full force. Every week, people were being killed in sectarian murders between Catholics and Protestants – as well as clashes with the army, police and bombs going off in shopping precincts and other meeting places.
The troubles also spilled over on to the UK mainland and two years before, Lord Mountbatten – a member of the Royal Family – had been assassinated while on holiday in Ireland.
When The Specials went to play in Ireland they made great play of the fact that as they had done in England, they were going to plead the case for unity among the youth and against the horrible divisions that had led to very real bloodshed.