July 1981


Uncovering the Truth About the 1981 Hunger Strike

Brendan ‘Bik’ McFarlane: “It did not happen” (2005)

Former comrades’ war of words over hunger strike

(Steven McCaffrey, Irish News)

The man who led IRA prisoners inside the Maze jail during the 1981 hunger strike has dismissed a controversial new book on the period as fictitious.

Brendan McFarlane speaks to Steven McCaffrey about a period that still stirs deeply held emotions among republicans.

In his book, Blanketmen: An Untold Story of the H-Block Hunger Strike, Richard O’Rawe fondly re-calls his former republican comrade Brendan ‘Bik’ McFarlane.

Describing him as “six feet tall and full of bonhomie”, a “striking character” and a “great singer”, the author writes that both men were avid fans of Gaelic football and that they “whiled away the time dreaming of the day when the Antrim football team would grace Croke Park in an all-Ireland final”.

But it seems such close ties inside the Maze prison’s H-blocks have not survived the book’s publication.

“He [Richard O’Rawe] uses me to give credence to his argument. It’s ‘Bik and Richard this’, and ‘Richard and Bik that’. And it’s totally erroneous, totally and absolutely erroneous,” Mr McFarlane told the Irish News.

“I was absolutely horrified to read the account that Richard had laid out and I just could not for one second understand where he was coming from. I haven’t a clue as to the motivation behind it.”

Mr McFarlane was the officer commanding (OC) of IRA prisoners in the Maze during the 1981 hunger strike when 10 republicans died. Mr O’Rawe was the prisoners’ press officer.

Both were close to the action but they now give very different accounts of what went on.

Mr O’Rawe said that on July 5, after the first four prisoners including the now iconic Bobby Sands had died, Danny Morrison, director of publicity for the republican movement at the time, visited Mr McFarlane to brief him on a British offer of a deal.

Mr O’Rawe said his OC returned to the block after his meeting and passed a ‘comm’ (communication) down to O’Rawe’s cell detailing the offer.

In Blanketmen, the author writes that the deal seemed to largely meet the prisoners’ demands for political status. He claims that he then spoke to Mr McFarlane from their respective cell windows.

“We spoke in Irish so the screws could not understand,” Mr O’Rawe told the Irish News.

“I said, ‘Ta go leor ann’ – There’s enough there.

“He said, ‘Aontaim leat, scriobhfaidh me chun taoibh amiugh agus cuirfidh me fhois orthu’ – I agree with you, I will write to the outside and let them know.”

But in his book Mr O’Rawe alleges that the IRA leadership outside the jail did not believe the deal was enough.

Three days later a fifth hunger striker, Joe McDonnell, died. Five more men were to starve to death before the strike ended.

Mr O’Rawe controversially asks if the IRA leadership sacrificed the last six hunger strikers to fuel the new groundswell of support buoying their movement.

Prior to the hunger strikes Sinn Féin, in the author’s words, “barely existed”.

Years of prison protests had failed to generate popular support but the funerals of the hunger strikers drew tens of thousands.

At the time of the alleged deal republican candidate Owen Carron was fighting a by-election in Fermanagh/South Tyrone to hold on to the Westminster seat that Bobby Sands had won from his bed in the prison hospital.

By any measure of history 1981 was a watershed.

The election victories meant that Sinn Féin became a political force, kickstarting the wider movement’s gradual shift away from violence.

The worry for the republican leadership is that if the book’s claims were true, it would necessitate a hugely embarrassing rewrite of their own political history.

Mr McFarlane rejects the book’s central tenet.

“That any republican should ever conceive in his wildest imagination that we would put hunger strikers to death to get somebody elected to a Westminster seat or anywhere else, I think it is absolutely disgraceful,” he said.

The 53-year-old described the book as deplorable.

Married with three children, he was brought up in the Ardoyne area of north Belfast. Unlike Mr O’Rawe, he did not come from a republican family and at the age of 16 left Belfast to train as a Catholic priest in a north Wales seminary.

He returned to Belfast in the summer of 1969 and after witnessing the violence that ignited the Troubles, he found it difficult to settle back into his studies.

Within a year he was home to stay.

He was already involved “in a small way” with Belfast republicans when he left the Divine Word Missionaries behind and joined the IRA.

Five years later Brendan McFarlane was sentenced to life imprisonment in connection with a gun and bomb attack on the Bayardo Bar on Belfast’s Protestant Shankill Road that killed five people.

His time in prison was marked by protest and escape attempts. He returned to his religious calling in 1978, when he tried to escape the Maze dressed as a priest, but was quickly caught.

However, in 1983 he led the mass break-out of republican prisoners from the top security jail when 38 escaped.

In January 1986 he was recaptured in The Netherlands along with fellow escapee Gerry Kelly.

Nearly 20 years later Mr McFarlane is sitting in Sinn Féin’s modern press centre on the Falls Road. Its gable wall carries the famous mural of Bobby Sands.

During the interview Gerry Kelly, now a prominent Sinn Féin representative, calls in to the room. Jim Gibney, the party strategist reputed to have proposed putting Sands forward for the Fermanagh/South Tyrone seat, also briefly walks in.

The hunger strike past and the Sinn Féin present are intertwined.

Mr McFarlane said he has “countless memories” of 1981.

“For [younger people] this is an element of history. For the families of the hunger strikers and for us who were at the coalface of it, this was last week. And it is as sharp and as raw as that,” he said.

He described the bonds forged during the prison protests as being those of “brother as opposed to comrade”.

Recalling an encounter with Bobby Sands prior to the strike, Mr McFarlane said Sands demanded to know if he “had the list ready”.

Mr McFarlane said he was shocked to find that Sands wanted to know who was scheduled to follow him to death.

The first hunger strike at the Maze in 1980 ended without death amid speculation of a deal. During it the men starved as a group.

The second hunger strike began with Sands, while another man was to join each week, cranking up the pressure. It took 66 days for Sands to perish.

“We had these smuggled crystal [radio] sets and at night we would fix it up with a wire to the window for an aerial and we would listen in to the Radio Ulster news,” Mr McFarlane said.

“On the early morning that he died I had the radio wired up. I actually heard it on the 2am news.

“I remember distinctly… ‘Bobby Sands, hunger striker, MP for Fermanagh/South Tyrone, died at 1:17am today’.

“And even though we were waiting for it, it still shocked. I woke up Paul Butler, who is a councillor in Lisburn now, and told him.

“We rapped down at the heating pipes beside each cell and passed the word quietly.”

Mr McFarlane said he also had fresh memories of July 5 – the day at the centre of Mr O’Rawe’s claims.

“Danny Morrison and myself had a visit together. He informed me that that morning the British had opened a line of communication to the republican movement in relation to the jail hunger strikes. My eyes widened.

“And he said to me ‘I am instructed to inform you, do not under any circumstances build up your hopes’.

“Danny then went and briefed the hunger strikers. I was able to go in and talk to them [and] went back to the block later that afternoon.

“I went back to the block, wrote out a quick note, passed it up to Richard, informed him that the British had opened up a line of communication.

“We were not to spread the word. I told him and I think I told one other member of camp staff. I told him again that we need to see what’s going to happen here.”

Asked whether was any information was passed to Mr O’Rawe on what might have been on offer?

Mr McFarlane replied: “There was no concrete proposals whatsoever in relation to a deal.

“According to Richard he has a deal done. Richard then says that he shouted down to me that ‘that looks good’. ‘I agreed’ and that I would write out to the army council and say that we would accept the deal.

“That is totally fictitious. That conversation did not happen.

“I did not write to the army council and tell them that we were accepting [a deal]. I couldn’t have. I couldn’t have accepted something that didn’t exist.

“He then says that the conversation continued at the window in Irish to confuse the prison guards so they wouldn’t hear. But there’s 44 guys on that wing who have Gaelic.”

“Not only did I not tell him. That conversation didn’t take place.

“No way did I agree with Richard O’Rawe that a deal was offered and that we should accept it and that I would write to the army council and say that ‘that is a good deal we’re accepting it’.

“And one thousand per cent, the army council did not write in and say ‘do not accept the deal’.”

Mr McFarlane insisted that “prisoners took the decisions”.

“I have spoken to Richard on numerous occasions in the years that I have been released and never on any occasion did he ever raise any difficulties, problems, doubts, in relation to the hunger strike period. Never once broached the subject.”

Mr McFarlane said Sinn Féin had contacted the hunger striker’s families to “allay any fears” over the book.

Blanketmen asks questions of the republican leaders of 1981 and records Gerry Adams’s central role.

Mr McFarlane raised this point and said: “I think the vilification of Gerry Adams in this is scandalous, absolutely scandalous.”

Last night (Thursday) Mr O’Rawe stood over his account of events and said the communication from Mr McFarlane did contain details of a deal that they agreed to accept. He reiterated the question: why would he make it up?

“The only person who can answer that is Richard O’Rawe,” Mr McFarlane said.

“But I categorically state that never did I write to the army council telling them that we were accepting a deal, because a deal did not exist.”

March 12, 2005
This article appeared first in the March 11, 2005 edition of the Irish News.

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Category: 2005, Brendan 'Bik' McFarlane, Interviews, Irish News, Media, News articles, Statements

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