July 1981

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Uncovering the Truth About the 1981 Hunger Strike

H-Block Hypocrisy (2005)

H-Block hypocrisy
Village
Saturday, 12 March 2005

Richard O’Rawe saw ten of his fellow hunger strikers die in the H-Blocks in 1981. In a new book, he claims that the IRA leadership rejected a British offer that could have ended the hunger strikes. Suzanne Breen reports

West Belfast is a small world packed with big emotions. Richard O’Rawe lives just across the road from Milltown Cemetery where three of the hunger strikers are buried.

Most mornings, he visits the republican plot where Bobby Sands, Joe McDonnell and Kieran Doherty lie. “It’s desperate, just desperate,” he says. “I don’t need to go there to remember them because they never go away.”

Gerry Adams lives in the next street from O’Rawe, Danny Morrison is just around the corner. Three men, all living in the shadow of Milltown and the hunger strike.

Until recently, republicans were united on the 1981 fast. The official – and unanimously accepted – line was that a callous British government allowed ten men to die and nothing, apart from calling-off the protest in humiliation, could have saved them.

O’Rawe has challenged that consensus. He blames the British, first and foremost, for his comrades’ deaths. But, in a book just published last week, he claims the IRA leadership – or elements of it – could have saved the last six hunger strikers.

Blanketmen: An untold story of the H-Block hunger strike also questions the motivation of Gerry Adams, who was the go-between in secret negotiations between the British and the IRA leadership. Adams has so far refused to comment on the book.

O’Rawe raises the possibility that the prisoners were “cannon fodder”, and that individual IRA figures, although initially against the hunger strike, may have come to see it as bringing a rich political harvest for Sinn Féin.

These allegations are strongly denied by Danny Morrison and many other prominent republicans from the period. The hunger strikers’ families are divided. Oliver Hughes, a Sinn Féin councillor, whose brother Francis was the second prisoner to die, is outraged by O’Rawe’s claims, which “don’t ring true”.

Michael Devine, whose father Mickey was the last to die, wants to find out more about O’Rawe’s allegations. He is concerned the hunger strike “may have been a PR exercise” to gain support for Sinn Féin.

Laurence McKeown, whose family took him off the hunger strike, has denounced O’Rawe and accused him of glory-seeking. No concrete promises were on offer from the British, he insists.

Pat McGeown was also taken off the hunger strike by his family. He later became a Sinn Féin councillor but never physically recovered from the protest and died in 1996.

His brother Michael says the discussion taking place may be hurtful but “open and honest debate” is needed. Sinn Féin made massive political gains during the hunger strike, he adds: “The Sinn Féin leadership, in my estimation, saw an opportunity for political expediency and entered into it.”

Hugh Logue of the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace, was involved in attempts to broker a deal between the British and republicans to end the hunger strike. He says O’Rawe’s book is “interesting” and raises “many important questions” which should be answered.

O’Rawe says he doesn’t regret writing it. In 1991, he started voicing private criticism about the IRA leadership’s role in the hunger strike, and was told he could be shot for it, he claims.

“I’d never have gone public during the war anyway, when IRA volunteers were risking their lives. But in times of peace, it should be easier to speak the truth, to revisit the past honestly, because you’re not caught up in the day-to-day reality of conflict.

“I was born and bred in West Belfast. I don’t need this controversy in my life. I know I will be ostracised. Even when I began talking privately, guys I’d known all my life, guys I’d operated with (in the IRA), some of my best friends from the Blocks, became very cold to me.

“My instincts were all against writing this book. But I felt I owed it to the hunger strikers to tell the truth.”

O’Rawe began writing in 2001: “I’d be in tears and have to stop. It was fucking atrocious. It was like an act of self-mutilation.”

His republican critics have pointed to the book’s serialisation in The Sunday Times. It has been suggested he was encouraged to write anti-Adams propaganda to further the agenda of a newspaper seen as stridently against Sinn Féin.

“That’s complete crap,” says O’Rawe. “The book was finished months before there were even discussions with The Sunday Times. The publishers, New Island, talked to several newspapers about serialisation. The deal with The Sunday Times was reached only about a week before publication and it was entirely the publishers’ decision.

“I’m not writing to any anti-Sinn Féin or anti-Adams agenda. In interviews over the past week, I’ve been asked by journalists if Gerry was in the IRA.

“I’ve defended him. I’ve been asked about the Robert McCartney killing.

“I’ve been asked if the leadership has sold-out because the hunger strikers didn’t die for partition and cross-Border bodies. I didn’t want to get into that. All I can talk about with authority is what happened in the H-Blocks in 1981.”

O’Rawe had joined the IRA ten years earlier, when he was 17. He doesn’t attempt to enter the canon of republican sainthood: “I joined because I wanted to belong. It was about being in the IRA more than about the ideology.

“I liked the drink, the women and the craic. It wasn’t all gloom and doom on the outside or in jail, you know.” He took pride in his image as an “RTP – Rough, Tough Provie”. He was shot by the IRA for doing “a homer” – stealing an IRA “staff” car for a robbery. He blew the £50 on drink and was shot in the leg within two hours of returning from honeymoon.

He was interned twice in the early 1970s. In 1977, he was arrested for robbing the Northern Bank in Mallusk, Co Antrim – this time it was an authorised IRA operation. O’Rawe writes about the stench and squalor of the blanket protest in the H-Blocks, of the beatings and the maggots which infested the prisoners’ beards and hair.

He speaks of the hunger strikers’ different personalities. Some were introspective. Bobby Sands was “the life and soul of the wing. He never shut up. His enthusiasm was infectious. For him, every Blanketman was a Spartacus.”

O’Rawe became the prisoners’ public relations officer. He drafted the statement announcing the start of the hunger strike on 1 March 1981. The IRA’s officer commanding (OC) in the H-Blocks was Bik McFarlane. The key part of O’Rawe’s book recounts events four days before the fifth hunger striker, Joe McDonnell, died.

The IRA leadership was in secret negotiations, through Gerry Adams, with “the Mountain Climber”, a British Foreign Office figure. O’Rawe says that on 5 July 1981, Danny Morrison visited the H-Blocks and told Bik McFarlane of an offer from the Mountain Climber.

It effectively granted the prisoners’ five demands, except that of free association in the prison.

McFarlane and himself were delighted, O’Rawe claims. They believed a few hours free movement in the day wasn’t worth one more life. The British were compromising on prison uniforms and work, visits, letters, and segregation.

O’Rawe says McFarlane wrote to Adams accepting the offer.

However, word came back from Adams that the Army Council thought the proposal inadequate and advised the prisoners to await a second offer – which never came.

At best, this was a miscalculation, O’Rawe says. At worst, certain IRA leaders wanted the hunger strike to continue until Owen Carron won the by-election in Fermanagh and South Tyrone caused by Bobby Sands’ death.

“I’m not saying the Army Council forced anyone to die on hunger strike. They totally opposed the hunger strike at the start and remained against it until Bobby died. But, I believe, certain people then saw opportunities opening up electorally,” O’Rawe says.

While the outside leadership didn’t lie to the hunger strikers or their families, there were omissions of information, he claims. He believes they weren’t told that he and McFarlane had accepted the Mountain Climber’s offer but had been over-ruled by the Army Council.

Even this apparent over-ruling by the Army Council mightn’t be true, O’Rawe suspects now. Since the publication of his book, questions have been raised as to whether the entire Army Council were informed of the British offer and its acceptance by the prison leadership.

Possibly, some key Army Council members kept this information to themselves and they, and not the full body, rejected the British offer, O’Rawe says. He alleges that certain IRA figures created an illusion in the media that they had no influence on the prisoners, who were hell-bent on dying unless they achieved the full five demands.

He says that when Adams visited the H-Blocks on 29 July, McFarlane told Pat McGeown, a hunger-striker who believed the fast should end, not to speak-out during the meeting. This is confirmed by McGeown himself in Padraig O’Malley’s 1990 book on the hunger strike, Biting at the Grave, although McGeown wasn’t at all suspicious of the request.

When Adams visited the H-Blocks, he certainly didn’t advise the prisoners to continue with the hunger strike and he warned that the British could well let more men die. However, O’Rawe claims Adams didn’t advocate ending the strike and was “never positive in his assessment of what was on offer” from the British.

Danny Morrison says O’Rawe should “hang his head in shame” for the “disgraceful things” he has written. Morrison strenuously denies that the IRA leadership rejected a viable British offer. Writing in Daily Ireland, he said the proposal was verbal and needed verification. Previous British bad faith meant any agreement had to be copper-fastened. Demanding that was reasonable and natural.

O’Rawe rejects this argument. He points to Gerry Adams in O’Malley’s book saying that, through the Mountain Climber, the republican movement was satisfied it was dealing “with people who could make decisions and implement them, people who were speaking with the authority of the British government including Mrs Thatcher”.

Bik McFarlane rejects O’Rawe’s account as “scurrilous, wrong and absolutely inaccurate”. He says: “As the officer commanding in the prison at the time, I can say categorically there was no outside intervention to prevent a deal.

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

Before writing the book, shouldn’t O’Rawe have checked his recollection of the events of more than two decades earlier with McFarlane?

“I didn’t need to because my memory of the day we received the offer is crystal clear. It was such an important moment, one of those memories that doesn’t dilute.

“There was no point discussing it with Bik anyway. He is ultra-loyal to the leadership, always has been. He’d have told me not to write the book. He is taking the party line now, like I knew he would. They all close ranks when something like this happens, it’s how they operate.”

The Army Council eventually ordered an end to the hunger strike in October 1981 as the hunger strikers’ families prepared to intervene en masse to stop the protest.

O’Rawe was released from jail two years later. He worked in the Sinn Féin press office on the Falls Road at the request of Gerry Adams and Tom Hartley. In 1984, he was involved in co-ordinating the publicity campaign against the supergrass system.

The following year, he was asked, along with two other republicans, to vet all the comms (communications) to and from the H-Blocks before they were handed over to David Beresford, a Guardian journalist writing a book on the hunger strike.

“I was given the comms by the leadership and told to remove all references to the Mountain Climber. I noticed though that the comm in which Bik and I accepted the British offer was already missing.

“Later, I wondered if there was nothing to hide, why they’d want to eliminate the Mountain Climber from history. It was an act of censorship in which, with hindsight, I wrongly participated. It was an attempt to shape the hunger strike story for the media and the public.”

He admits finding it very hard emotionally after the hunger strike: “I still do and even though we have our disagreements now, I’m sure it’s the same for Bik and the rest of the boys. We all have our demons. No one gave us counselling, we were just released and expected to get on with it.”

He dropped out of active republicanism in 1985 for family reasons. He set up his own businesses, running a taxi depot and later a bar. More recently, he has worked with recovering alcoholics and drug addicts. He is due to begin a new job working with the homeless.

He stresses that he is strongly pro-peace and sees “no place for armed struggle in the 21st century”. He says Gerry Adams “deserves serious respect” for transforming the republican movement and bringing it slowly onto the constitutional path.

But, he claims, no matter what their political achievements, Sinn Féin leaders’ accounts of the hunger strike are inaccurate and must be challenged: “I’m telling the truth here, and that’s it. That’s the bottom line. Bobby Sands wrote a poem called ‘The Rhythms of Time’. It’s about how he was kept going by, ‘the thought that says I’m right’. Whether people choose to believe me or not, I know I’m right.”p

Blanketmen: The untold story of the H-Block hunger strike by Richard O’Rawe. New Island, £9.99

Sourced from The Village

Category: 2005, Commentary, Media, Richard O'Rawe

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One Response

  1. […] This comment is also referred to in an article for the Village magazine: “Laurence McKeown, whose family took him off the hunger strike, has denounced O’Rawe and accused him of glory-seeking. No concrete promises were on offer from the British, he insists.” H-Block hypocrisy, Village, Saturday, 12 March 2005 […]

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