July 1981

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Uncovering the Truth About the 1981 Hunger Strike

Dead Men Talking …

Dead Men Talking …

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By Richard O’Rawe
New Island, stg£9.99

Book Review

Maurice Hayes

This is a really gripping book, and an important one too for an understanding of the dynamics both of the 1981 Hunger Strikes and of the rise of Sinn Fein as a political force. It is the first account written by an insider, and it is as near as you will get to hearing dead men talking about their concerns, their dreams and the relentless loyalty to a cause that drives them to their deaths.

Ricky O Rawe was the Communications Officer in the H-Block, and one of only two people in the prison to be fully in the loop between the IRA command and the hunger strikers as they faced death, one after another. The story is told with a stark honesty, which discloses the author’s mental agony at the moral dilemmas he faced then and which have clearly stayed with him since.

One gnawing doubt is whether he was ever fully in the loop, whether others in the chain of command had a hidden agenda, and whether six men died, not to achieve the five demands for which they went on strike, but to advance the political prospects of Sinn Fein.

The most controversial part of the book is the claim that after the first fourth deaths, the British Government, through an emissary code-named The Mountain Climber had offered a compromise, which those in charge in the Block had been prepared to accept. They were over-ruled by the Army Council, which did not allow the offer to be disclosed to those still on strike, or their families. Thus six men more were sacrificed in a hopeless struggle which they themselves believed could not be won.

Two excellent books on the hunger strikes, by Beresford and O Malley, suffer by comparison in having been written from the outside. Both conform to the accepted wisdom that the prisoners were in control at all times.

This account makes it clear that although the initial impulse came from the prison, with the Army Council sceptical at first, after that the IRA were in full control. They dictated the course of events to the extent that although the doubts of the hunger-strikers were known, and their willingness to come off, they were not allowed to do so, in order, the author suggests, to ensure the success of a Sinn Fein candidate in a by-election.

This account correctly places the hunger strike in the context of the Dirty protest, which was almost more harrowing as men subjected themselves to unbelievable treatment for years on end. Without the dirty protest and the collegiality arising from it, it is unlikely that the hunger strikes could have been sustained.

What is clear, too, is the de-humanising effect of the prison regime, how prisoners and prison officers without mutual respect brutalise each other, and the gratuitous brutality of soldiers and police in and out of prison.

In the end the hunger strikes collapsed because the families, encouraged by Fr Denis Faul, took their men folk off. The Army Council remained obdurate to the last, Sinn Fein took off into politics, and the five demands were more or less conceded quietly by Jim Prior and Grey Gowrie when they were exiled to the NIO.

It is hard to contest the claim that the last six deaths were unnecessary (if indeed any was justified). Four at least of these, by this account, went to their deaths knowing that the hunger strikes would not succeed and their sacrifice was vain. That they persisted makes their personal courage all the more remarkable.

This is a story of heroic self-sacrifice, which must be recognised, but also of devotion to a cause carried beyond all reasonable limits, of a level of obedience to a chain of command which most armies would envy, and blind belief in the dubious proposition that the IRA Army Council, as the successor in title to the Second Dail, is the legitimate government of Ireland.

Senator Maurice Hayes is a former Ombudsman in the North

 

 

Sourced from the Irish Independent

Category: 2005, Book Reviews, Media, News articles

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