July 1981

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Uncovering the Truth About the 1981 Hunger Strike

Hunger Strikers Story Brought to Book (2005)

Hunger Strikers Story Brought to Book

From Daily Ireland, 2 March 2005
Danny Morrison

I got a phone call from the ‘Sunday Times’ last Saturday.

“Do you know Richard O’Rawe,” the journalist asked. “He mentions you in a new book he has brought out.”

That surprised me because I had waved to Richard a few days earlier when I crossed the road just below his house and would have thought he would have given me the good news – and a free copy. About four years ago he came to me and told me he was writing a book about growing up in West Belfast and could I give him advice. We met twice, once in each other’s homes. What I read was quite funny and reminiscent of my own youth. Richard said that an agent had offered to publish his book for several thousand pounds. I told him not to go down that road – which is called vanity publishing – and I gave him the names of some literary scouts and publishers. But I don’t think he had any luck. It is a tough circle to break into.

The journalist told me that his paper was serialising Richard’s book, ‘Blanketmen’, and proceeded to read out to me an accompanying feature: ‘Ireland: The men who died for nothing. Former Maze inmate Richard O’Rawe was at the heart of the 1980s hunger strike drama. His new book lays the blame for six of the 10 deaths firmly on his IRA army council masters.’

I was astonished. Richard was saying that there was a deal offered to the hunger strikers by the British before Joe McDonnell died but that the army council rejected it. The journalist quoted from the book: “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.”

The journalist also told me that Richard said the hunger strike was prolonged to get Owen Carron elected on August 20th in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. I spent some time on the telephone explaining the exact circumstances of the death of Joe McDonnell and rejecting Richard’s claims – though only a sentence or two was actually published by the paper. After the call I immediately phoned those who had worked in the H-Block office at the time of the hunger strike to alert the families who would be devastated by the allegations.

By July 1981 the (Catholic) Irish Commission for Justice and Peace (ICJP) was the latest outside body to get involved in trying to mediate a settlement. It was told by Prisons Minister Michael Allison that the government would not act under the duress of a hunger strike but that if it ended there would be a review of prison conditions. The government had promised the same at Christmas 1980 when the first hunger strike ended, only to renege on its promises. Because of this duplicity the prisoners in the second hunger strike wanted any agreement to be copper fastened.

On July 4th the prisoners issued a conciliatory statement stating that they were not looking for special privileges for themselves over and above conforming, non-politicals. Shortly afterwards the republican leadership was contacted by ‘Mountain Climber’, codename for a leading Foreign Office figure. He was in contact with the leadership through an intermediary, which wasn’t satisfactory given that messages could become distorted. We on the outside who were monitoring the hunger strike and advising the prisoners knew that there were divisions within the British government – inflexible and bigoted Home Office and NIO officials, and Foreign Office people who appreciated the damage caused to Britain’s image and wanted a settlement.

We needed to know if the Mountain Climber was acting with authority and were assured that he was. As a test of this it was requested that within hours I, who had been banned from the jail since Christmas, be allowed visit the hunger strikers in the prison hospital, acquaint them with the details of Mountain Climber’s offer, meet with Bik McFarlane and have access to an outside telephone. It was a Sunday when there were no visits. I was brought in through the prison officers’ entrance. One warder when he saw me said: “What’s that bastard doing here! This is a fuckin sell-out”. I took that as a good sign.

The men were brought into the canteen. Martin Hurson was too sick to attend but among the others were Kieran Doherty TD, Kevin Lynch, Tom McElwee and Mickey Devine, all of whom would die. Joe McDonnell – whom I had known from internment – was in a wheelchair and was in bad shape but smiled and smoked in between sipping water. I explained to them about the contact and the offer, which appeared to go further than what was being discussed between Allison and the ICJP.

The prisoners wanted to explore the offer but also had a major concern about tying the Brits to their word. The prisoners needed to see the offer in black and white to see if it represented a settlement and have it officially guaranteed. I told them I would go out and relay their views to Gerry Adams and would be back. He and other members of our ‘kitchen cabinet’ were on permanent standby at a house in West Belfast where they were taking the calls from the mediator. Bik was in the hospital circle waiting and I briefed him. We asked to see the hunger strikers but were told that we could not see them together, which was a bit concerning, so he went in.

I phoned Gerry and told them the issues around which the men were seeking clarification. I had just put the phone down to go back into the canteen when a governor came in.

“You! Get out!” He was ranting but full of glee. I told him I was there to try and sort out the hunger strike. I went for the phone to tell Gerry Adams that I was being put out but he snatched the phone from me and other prison officers came in. I asked to see the hunger strikers but was forcefully told the meeting was over. So, this was the atmosphere and it was a worrying sign that those opposed to a settlement were asserting themselves. Bik, who was still with the hunger strikers, had no knowledge of this incident.

That night the ICJP visited the hospital. The prisoners asked for Bik to be present but the NIO refused and the ICJP didn’t push the request. They offered to act as guarantors but the prisoners asked for an NIO official to deal with them directly. The ICJP said that that was not going to happen – though they were to change their minds very shortly.

In relation to my eviction the Mountain Climber explained the delicacy of his operation, what he was up against and how many were opposed to a settlement. He had been insisting on strict confidentiality. However, the leadership took a decision to divulge to the ICJP that a more solid negotiation with more on offer was going on in the background. It was explained to them that because of their intervention the British were postponing doing this potential deal to see if they could force the prisoners to accept less through the ICJP. The ICJP were angry and confronted Allison and demanded that an NIO guarantor be sent into the hunger strikers to confirm the deal. He procrastinated then said he had approval.

This was on Monday night when in Richard O’Rawe’s version the IRA’s army council sent in a communication (‘comm’) that afternoon rejecting the proposals. “Bik and I were shattered,” writes Richard. In a BBC interview on Monday Bik totally repudiated that account and the contemporaneous evidence is on Bik’s side. Bik wrote a lengthy comm at 11pm that night (which is in ‘Ten Men Dead’). There is no mention of an IRA comm and from his demeanour no evidence that he received such a missive.

Furthermore, if the NIO had really wanted to do a deal based on the ICJP’s proposals then all it had to do was send in the guarantor to the hunger strikers. Six times did the ICJP phone up Allison about the guarantor and six times it was told that one would be going in shortly, but none ever appeared. Does that sound like a government interested in a deal? Richard says that “the proposals were there in black and white, direct from Thatcher’s desk.” They were there through word of mouth. Given previous experience weren’t the prisoners right to insist that any deal be guaranteed? How can they or the republican leadership be faulted for insisting on that safeguard?

Finally, although Richard claims that he wrote the book because the families “had a right to know the facts” he did not have the courtesy to forewarn them. They would have to buy the ‘Sunday Times’ or his book to find out. I also learnt that although he repeatedly recruits Brendan ‘Bik’ McFarlane to his position he never once discussed with Bik if those recollections from 24 years ago were also his, as would be the normal practice. We now know why. Bik, who was the person dealing directly with the hunger strikers and handling communications with the republican leadership, is the true authority and he totally dismisses Richard’s account. Richard’s book which relies so much on ‘Bik and I this and that’ would have fallen asunder if Richard had consulted him.

Sourced from Danny Morrison archive

Category: 2005, Commentary, Danny Morrison, Media, News articles, Statements

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One Response

  1. […] The government had promised the same at Christmas 1980 when the first hunger strike ended, only to renege on its promises. Because of this duplicity the prisoners in the second hunger strike wanted any agreement to be copper fastened. – Danny Morrison, Daily Ireland, 2005 […]

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A day-by-day account of the events of early July, 1981.


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