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Uncovering the Truth About the 1981 Hunger Strike

A bizarre tale with a ring of authenticity

Thursday, April 07, 2005

A bizarre tale with a ring of authenticity

blanketmenBlanketmen
By Richard O’Rawe
New Island Books • £Sterling 9.99

Reviewed by John Cooney
Western People

During the 1981 hunger strikes in the H-Block of the Maze Prison a regular visitor was the Dungannon priest, Father Denis Faul, whom the prisoners nick-named “Denis the Menace” because of his campaign with the prisoners’ families to end their fast.

Recalling their ordeal in one of the most gruesome episodes of the Troubles some 24 years later, Fr Faul, then chaplain to the prisoners, says that he felt at the time that there was “a political dimension” that made his humanitarian campaign more difficult.

Fr Faul’s recollection has been stirred and given significance in the light of the publication of Blanketmen by Richard O’Rawe, the IRA spokesman inside the H-Block, in which he makes the sensational claim that Gerry Adams rejected a secret offer from the Thatcher Government to end the hunger strikes.

In his “An Untold Story of the H-Block Hunger Strike” O’Rawe, a former IRA bank robber, writes that he is making this offer public, because his conscience no longer allows him to paper over the truth. O’Rawe insists that he has no right to deny the families and the Irish people of his first hand-account, and he believes that the dead hunger strikers would be dishonoured if he continued his silence.

In doing so, O’Rawe has uncovered a smoking gun that not only clears away much of the mythology surrounding the republican movement’s canonisation of Bobby Sands and his nine fellow prisoners as martyrs, but also maintains that six of them were sacrificed as part of Adams’ evolving strategy to move from armed struggle to political participation.

Already, Brendan ‘Bik’ McFarlane, the Officer in Command in the H-Block, and Danny Morrison, Sinn Fein’s Alastair Campbell, have rubbished O’Rawe’s book, and they have either tried to ignore his documentation or distort it. Although Fr Faul admits that he did not know of this intriguing development, he is inclined to give it credence.

O’Rawe’s new material is that in response to a statement from the prisoners explaining their demands for political status on July 4, 1981, contact was made with Adams and the IRA Army Council by a British Government intermediary, code-named “Mountain Climber”, alias, it is believed, Michael Oatley of the Foreign Office.

Remarkably, Danny Morrison was allowed admission to the prison next day, where, according to O’Rawe, he told ‘Bik’ about “the Foreign Office contact’s bona fides, stating that our outside leadership was certain that he had the endorsement of Thatcher herself.”

In the subterfuge language used by “Mountain Climber” the British were called the management, the Army Council were the shop stewards and the prisoners were the workers. The concessions included the abolition of prison uniforms, more visits and letters and the segregation of prisoners on political lines. But not conceded was their demand for free association of prisoners.

O’Rawe claims that both ‘Bik’ and himself, the only two inmates privy to the offer, thought it “was sufficient for us to settle the hunger strike honourably.” Bik, O’Rawe adds, sent an immediate secret comm – communication – to the Army Council.

All that was left was for the Army Council to rubber-stamp acceptance of the deal a matter that Bik and O Rawe considered a formality, given that it conceded four of the five main demands.

To their horror, Adams and the Army Council “overruled us ostensibly on the grounds that there would probably be a second improved offer.” This offer, expected by Adams who was liaising with ‘Mountain Climber’ by phone in a safe-house, never materialised.

Where the plot thickens, tragically, is that the prison leadership had accepted the ‘Mountain Climber’ deal days before the fifth hunger striker, Joe McDonnell, died. Five others, Kieran Doherty, Kevin Lynch, Martin Hurson, Tom McElwee, and Mick Devine also died before the protracted hunger strike was called off, largely from its inherent futility and growing pressure from family relatives desperate to prevent even further loss of life.

Not only could six of them have been saved, but acceptance of the offer would have meant that the four who had died before the concession was made – Bobby Sands, Francis Hughes, Raymond McCreesh and Patsy O’Hara – would have been seen to have broken the Thatcher Government’s resolve not to capitulate on their status as criminals.

Despite the disadvantage of not having an index of names, O’Rawe’s book has the ring of credibility, because he does not rely just on memory but uses documentation. He cites copiously from communications between the prison leadership to and from Adams and the Army Council. He was given access to the IRA archive in 1985 when he discovered that a key document was missing: “the fateful comm. from ‘Bik’ accepting the ‘Mountain Climber’ deal, its fate unknown, but its absence surely significant.”

The assertion that no such comm. ever existed, no doubt, will be a line of defence deployed by Adams, whose touch of “Pontius Pilate” conduct is also depicted by O’Rawe as prolonging the hunger strike to enable Owen Carron to hold Sands‚ Westminster seat in the second Fermanagh-South Tyrone by-election. This victory consolidated Adams’ move into constitutional politics.

Focus on this controversy, however, should not deflect from the evidence provided by O’Rawe that Adams’ the “Big Boy” who still claims he was never an IRA member, was a chief architect of the Provos’ earlier strategy of a “long war” that caused such awful sectarian carnage.

Ten dead men must be turning in their graves.

Sourced from the Western People

Category: 2005, Book Reviews, Media, News articles

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