It was a brave pop band that went to Northern Ireland at the start of the 1980s and loudly advocated a non-sectarian message – but that’s what The Specials and The Beat did in 1981.
On the UK mainland, 2tone bands had made racial unity central to their musical message. When it came to the violence torn province, unity of Catholic and Protestant youth was their plea. I write about this tour in my biography of Neville Staple – Original Rude Boy. And below is a press clipping from my archives.
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 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.