July 1981


Uncovering the Truth About the 1981 Hunger Strike

Allegations of a rejected deal spark fury among republicans

Allegations of a rejected deal spark fury among republicans

(Catherine Morrison, Irish News)

Senior republicans last night (Monday) rejected controversial claims in a new book that Sinn Féin and the IRA blocked a deal which could have saved the lives of six hunger strikers.

Richard O’Rawe, spokesman for the Provisional IRA in the Maze prison during the hunger strikes, said he accepted a British government deal just days before the fifth hunger striker, Joe McDonnell, died in July 1981.

In Blanketmen: An Untold Story of the H-Block Hunger Strike, Mr O’Rawe claims fellow prisoners’ leader Brendan ‘Bik’ McFarlane had shared details of a “substantial” offer from Margaret Thatcher’s government, conceding four of the five IRA demands.

The only point the British had refused to concede was the free association of prisoners on the IRA wing.

Mr O’Rawe, who was serving eight years for robbery, claimed both men agreed that the offer, which was tabled by a mysterious middleman called the Mountain Climber, was sufficient to call off the hunger strike.

However, on July 6, the IRA’s army council ruled the offer was not sufficient and the hunger strikers should hold out for more concessions.

Less than 48 hours later Joe McDonnell died.

On July 22, prisoners were told that the Mountain Climber had been in touch again, but that nothing more was on offer.

Five more prisoners were to die before the protest was eventually called off in October, on less favourable terms, but after the politically critical Fermanagh/South Tyrone by-election.

In his book, Mr O’Rawe suggests that one interpretation of events was that six hunger strikers were sacrificed for political gain, to ensure Owen Carron’s election to the seat left vacant by his fellow striker Bobby Sands.

“Perhaps getting a republican elected in Bobby’s former constituency of Fermanagh/South Tyrone and thus kick-starting the shift away from armed struggle and into constitutional politics was the real reason they balked at accepting what appeared to be a very sellable deal,” he writes.

“If that were so, Joe and the five other hunger strikers who died after him were used as cannon fodder.

“No matter which way one views it, the outside leadership alone, not the prison leadership, took the decision to play brinkmanship with Joe McDonnell’s life.

“If Bik and I had had our way, Joe and the five comrades who followed him to the grave would be alive today.”

Owen Carron was successfully elected to the seat in August 1981.

Now a teacher in Co Leitrim, he refused to comment when asked by the Irish News for his views on Mr O’Rawe’s book.

“I am working, I am not going to say anything about this,” he said.

However, Brendan McFarlane strenuously denied the claims in the book, published yesterday.

“I was the person receiving communications – there was no substantive deal at all,” he said.

“The hunger strikers had actually told the ICJT (Irish Commission of Justice and Truth) that there was nothing of substance.

“It did not happen. No deal was offered to the hunger strikers whereby they could say it was acceptable.

“Richard’s whole thrust here is that the army council were responsible some how for hunger strikers dying.

“That is scurrilous, it is wrong and absolutely inaccurate.

“The hunger strikers took the decisions themselves from the first hunger strikers, from Bobby Sands right through to Mickey Devine – they took the decision themselves.

“This is a slander and a slur, this is pointing up Richard’s own idea and how he wants to sell his book. I have no idea why he is saying this.”

Danny Morrison, a former Sinn Féin press officer who was also involved with the hunger strike negotiations at the time, said the claim in the book that the army council had turned the deal down was “totally untrue”.

“After the disgraceful things that were written in that book, Richard O’Rawe should hang his head in shame for what he has said and for the allegations he has made,” he said.

“I explained to them [hunger strikers] what was on offer and we talked about it.

“We all agreed that this could be a resolution but we wanted it to be guaranteed – we couldn’t go on a whim.

“Richard said it was there in black and white, it wasn’t – this was all notional stuff.”

Magherafelt Sinn Féin councillor Oliver Hughes, whose brother Francis died on hunger strike in May 1981, also claimed the author’s allegations “did not ring true”.

“I am outraged by Mr O’Rawe’s claims that the republican leadership around the time of Joe McDonnell’s death ordered the prisoners not to accept an offer from the British,” he said.

“Having visited my brother on the blanket I think I can say with some authority that that was never the relationship between the IRA and the prisoners.”

Former Sinn Féin president Ruairi O’Bradaigh also said it was “not the policy” of the republican movement to prolong the hunger strike until the by-election which followed Bobby Sands’ death.

“I believed then, and still do, that the terms for the settlement were a matter for the H-block prisoners themselves,” he said.

However, Mr O’Rawe insisted yesterday: “This is the boys closing ranks and that is the bottom line here.

“The families are entitled to know what happened as is everybody, including the ordinary blanketmen.”

March 2, 2005
This article appeared first in the March 1, 2005 edition of the Irish News.

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