July 1981


Uncovering the Truth About the 1981 Hunger Strike

Hunger strike claims rile H-block veterans (2005)

Hunger strike claims rile H-block veterans
Angelique Chrisafis, Ireland correspondent
The Guardian, Friday 4 March 2005 12.20 GMT

To nationalists it was one of the most emotive episodes of Northern Ireland’s Troubles, the event that gave birth to the electoral force that is modern Sinn Féin.

But the death of 10 republican hunger strikers in the Maze prison in 1981 became the subject of a furious row in Belfast this week after a former prisoner claimed that Gerry Adams and the IRA army council had blocked a deal to end the protest, possibly sacrificing the last six of the hunger strikers for electoral gain.

Richard O’Rawe, 51, who acted as public relations officer for the hunger strikers while he was serving a sentence for robbery, said that a deal was offered in July 1981 which addressed most of the prisoners’ demands for political status.

He said Margaret Thatcher’s government offered concessions on clothing, visits, letters and segregation which he felt was sufficient to settle the strike “honourably”.

But in his book Blanketmen: An Untold Story of the H-block Hunger Strike, published in Ireland this week, Mr O’Rawe claims that Mr Adams, on behalf of the IRA army council, effectively prevented the prisoners from accepting the deal.

He said the chance to end the strikes came after four of the hunger strikers had died, including Bobby Sands, who had been elected Westminster MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

After the deal was rejected, six more men died.

Mr O’Rawe said one interpretation was that the six were “used as cannon fodder” to ensure Owen Carron’s election to the Westminster seat left vacant by Bobby Sands’s death, “thus kickstarting the shift away from armed struggle into constitutional politics”.

This laid bare “the most appalling vista: that the republican leadership sacrificed hunger strikers’ lives”.

Republicans deny the claim. Brendan “Bik” McFarlane, the IRA commander in the Maze during the hunger strikes, said it was “scurrilous” and wrong.

He said: “As the officer commanding in the prison at the time, I can say categorically that there was no outside intervention to prevent a deal.”

Danny Morrison, a former Sinn Féin director of publicity, who was involved in the hunger strike negotiations, wrote a furious column in the Belfast paper Daily Ireland, countering what he called disgraceful, “astonishing” and inaccurate claims.

Oliver Hughes, a Sinn Féin councillor whose brother Francis was the second republican prisoner to die on hunger strike, wrote to two newspapers saying he was “outraged” by a claim which “did not ring true”.

Mr Adams, the Sinn Féin president, has remained silent.

But as the party prepared to begin its centenary conference in Dublin today, defiant in the face of what commentators have called its worse crisis for a decade, Mr O’Rawe refused to back down.

He wrote an angry piece in yesterday’s Irish News standing by his claims.

He said: “I have no reason not to tell the truth about what really happened. Can those who now deny the story say the same?”

He said in his book that in 1991 a leading republican had warned him he could be shot for speaking out.

The Northern Ireland secretary, Paul Murphy, said yesterday that he had never seen the republican movement under so much pressure as now, facing allegations in relation to the £26.5m Northern Bank robbery, IRA money-laundering, and republican involvement in the murder of the nationalist Robert McCartney in Belfast and the subsequent cover-up.

As Sinn Féin prepared for its annual conference today, the party’s Dáil member Caoimhghín O Caoláin said: “This is not an ard fheis [conference] at which republicans will be cowering for cover, as some pundits would have you believe.”

After the White House had confirmed that no Northern Ireland parties were invited to this year’s St Patrick’s day party in Washington, Sinn Féin denied that this was a move against the party over the bank robbery allegations.

Before meeting Tony Blair at Downing Street yesterday, the Irish prime minister, Bertie Ahern, said: “We are not seeking to humiliate any group or score political points.”

Sourced from The Guardian

Category: 2005, Media, News articles

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

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