Sinn Fein’s vice president has described as “crass” the suggestion that IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands was not buried in the cemetery of his choosing.
Michelle O’Neill was commenting on a prison note purportedly written by Sands months before his death, in which he said he did not like Milltown cemetery in Belfast and would prefer to be buried in Ballina in Co Mayo.
The note was published on the blog of a writer and former IRA prisoner on Wednesday, to coincide with the 40th anniversary of Sands’ death.
Ms O’Neill said further correspondence from Sands from inside the Maze prison a month later showed he had changed his mind in relation to his future burial.
Asked about the focus on the initial note on the anniversary, Ms O’Neill said: “I find it quite crass to be honest. This was a man at 27 years of age who was contemplating his life, contemplating his death as he started his hunger strike.
“And I think that whenever you look at many of the communications that would have come out of the jail at that time, I think some people are referring to a point in time.
“But since that communication that was shared in the media today, I’ve seen other communications where Bobby obviously changed his wishes in terms of his burial requests.
“But could you imagine being in his position, and everything that he was contemplating at that time, and I have no doubt he would change his mind throughout the course of it. So I find it crass.
“I think today is a day for reflecting on the past, but it’s also a day for looking towards a future that’s better for all of our children and, as Bobby said himself, the laughter of our children I think is the most important thing.”
Sands, 27, died in the early hours of May 5 1981 after 66 days on hunger strike.
Imprisoned for possession of firearms, he was the first of ten republican paramilitary prisoners to die on the protest, which was part of their campaign for political status within the prison regime.
A month before his death, Sands was elected as an MP for the Fermanagh and South Tyrone constituency in a Westminster by-election.
The hunger strikes were a seminal period for the republican movement.
The by-election victory prompted the development of a wider electoral strategy, with Sinn Fein taking part in all elections in Northern Ireland from there on.
Sands was buried in Milltown cemetery in west Belfast after a funeral that saw 100,000 people take to the streets.
The prison “comm” was in the form of a typed letter based on a handwritten note that Sands appears to have sent from prison in late February 1981, ahead of him starting his hunger strike.
According to the letter, which was published on the blog of Anthony McIntyre, a former IRA prisoner and long-standing critic of Sinn Fein, Sands said he did not like Milltown cemetery and would prefer to be buried in Ballina, Co Mayo.
It also says that he would like to be buried in a blanket, not a suit or shroud. Sands was buried in a shroud.
Sinn Fein has insisted that in a further note, sent in March 1981, Sands speaks of his “change of heart on the Ballina thing”.
Ms O’Neill helped cut the first sod on the redevelopment of the Roddy McCorley Society republican museum in west Belfast on Wednesday.
Commenting on the 40th anniversary of the death, she said: “It was a huge historical time in the republican journey, in republican history, he’s someone who is an icon to so many people, including myself, for all of my life.
“And I think that today many people reflect on the journey that the republican struggle has come over the last 40 years, and the significant progress that’s been made in terms of the peace process, and that everybody’s heads are firmly fixed on the future and building a better future for us all, where we have better livelihoods, better standards of living, we have a job, we have a home.
“People are very much looking to constitutional change and to the future that’s coming down the tracks and there’s something for every one of us, not just republicans, in that future.”