July 1981


Uncovering the Truth About the 1981 Hunger Strike

Book Review: The Conflict Encapsulated


The Conflict Encapsulated

Blanketmen – An untold story of the H-Block hunger strike
By Richard O’Rawe

Book Review

David Adams • The Other View, August 2005

In Blanketmen, Richard O’Rawe claims the IRA leadership in the Maze Prison was prepared to accept a substantive offer from the British Government that would have brought an early end to the 1981 hunger strike.

Supposedly, that offer was made before a fifth hunger-striker died – Joe McDonnell – but the IRA Army Council overruled the prison leadership and the strike continued.

A decision that, according to O’Rawe, led to McDonnell and a further five republican inmates needlessly starving themselves to death before, finally, the protest ended in disarray.

The prisoners never did win a formal granting of political status, though their other less-contentious demands were introduced over a relatively short period of time after the protest ended.

This latest account directly challenges the republican and, until now, almost universally accepted historical narrative of that period.

O’Rawe’s thinly disguised charge is that, although initially opposed to the strike, the IRA Army Council and specifically Gerry Adams deliberately let it continue beyond the British offer and until it could no longer be sustained because, after witnessing public reaction to the death of Bobby Sands, they realised it handed them a glorious opportunity to garner worldwide sympathy for the republican cause and strike a massive propaganda blow against the British.

After Bobby Sands and other hunger-strikers were elected to the British and Irish parliaments, republicans needed time, as well, to properly harness that unexpectedly high level of public support and use it to build an electoral base for Sinn Fein in both Northern Ireland and the Republic.

A positive by-product of this, in O’Rawe’s opinion, is that the electoral dividend has allowed Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein to lead republicans away from violence and direct them towards seeking to achieve their aims by purely political means.

Irregardless of that, though, if O’Rawe is correct, then a cynical and carefully constructed mythology has been built around the hunger strike and sustained by the republican movement not merely for exploitation – but of absolute necessity.

Such concealment may not have been as difficult to manage as one might imagine.

By this account, the only prisoners made aware of the British offer were O’Rawe and Bik MacFarlane (prison OC during the protest), and, whether deliberately or not, the distinct possibility is also raised that Adams and another person, “Liam Og” – both part of a small group tasked by the IRA to oversee all external aspects of the protest – didn’t make the Army Council immediately aware that the prisoners had indeed signalled their willingness to accept the offer.

It is possible, that only at some later date was the leadership in its entirety brought up to speed.

So, if a secret had to be kept, the task would have been made a lot easier by the fact that, from the outset, it was a secret known only to a few people.

The motivation for this book is made clear by the author from almost the outset:
Richard O’Rawe is seeking a measure of redemption and the lifting of a burden he carries.

He feels if he hadn’t acquiesced so readily in the IRA Army Council’s decision, it might have helped save the lives of at least some of the remaining six hunger strikers who went on to die after the British offer was rejected.

Convinced he wasn’t forceful enough in trying to encourage Adams and the rest of the IRA Army Council to accept that offer, he has carried his guilt since 1981.

There is no way of telling, definitively, if what O’Rawe claims is true and little prospect of ever being able to do so.

With such carefully crafted and high profile reputations at stake; so few people completely aware of everything that took place; and the personal risks involved in undermining the accepted, and heavily propagated, history of something as totemic as the hunger strike – it is highly unlikely that anyone will come forward to substantiate his account.

Following the publication of Blanketmen, Bik MacFarlane has strenuously denied that any substantive offer was made, much less accepted on behalf of the prisoners by himself and O’Rawe.

Whatever the orthodoxy, dissenters invariably plough a lonely furrow.

If O’Rawe is mistaken, it is hard to imagine anything other than confused thinking motivating him to make these claims.

Neither, I suppose, in the absence of any corroboration, should that possibility be dismissed out of hand.

Even in the best of circumstances, it can be very difficult to keep track (particularly in a chronological sense) when several different strands of negotiation are operating simultaneously, as was the case during the hunger strike.

More so again, when one considers the emotional turmoil and added stress that must have come with being part of a prison leadership during a hunger strike.

There is, as well, another possibility that lies somewhere between the two starkly differing accounts of what actually took place and why.

The prisoners had gone on hunger strike the previous year, 1980, but that protest was brought to an ignoble end when abandoned on a promise of government concessions that never materialised.

In that context, it is hardly surprising, then, that the IRA Army Council would be loathe to sanction another in 1981.

According to O’Rawe, it was only after fierce lobbying by Bobby Sands, the prison OC, that the external leadership eventually agreed it could go ahead.

If a substantive British offer was made and accepted by the prisoners, but turned down by the IRA leadership, the previous year’s experience might go some way towards explaining why that happened.

The IRA Army Council, having only reluctantly given the go ahead for a second hunger strike, would, I imagine, be determined that the 1981 strike wouldn’t end like the previous one: on promises that weren’t in the public domain or subject to witness by mutually agreed intermediaries or, for that matter, even relayed in writing, and, therefore, could so easily be reneged upon.

Or, they might just genuinely have considered the offer O’Rawe refers to as being either too vague or not going far enough, or both.

The potential damage to republicanism, inside as well as outside the movement, contained in the scenario of a second protest collapsing early after loss of life but without substantive and non-retractable gains to point to, takes little to imagine.

Having said all of that, O’Rawe’s account is compelling: not least because, clearly, he is no malcontent with an axe to grind.

If anything, he comes across as something of a zealot who finds it extremely difficult to question, much less criticise, anything or anyone connected with republicanism.

And, hardly surprising, that is where Blanketmen grates most with someone from my unionist background.

O’Rawe, a man of undoubted intelligence, has brought himself to publicly undermine, at least partially, the most venerated of modern-day republican narratives but is immune, it seems, to other more obviously flawed republican myths and worldviews.

These he happily perpetuates throughout Blanketmen.

Not least, are his straight-faced repetitions of “the party line” on sectarianism and his seeking, often, to justify the unjustifiable.

In a book like this, the reader might reasonably have expected him to at least acknowledge the most strikingly obvious feature and one of the many common failings all our paramilitary groupings have in common: the gaping chasm that invariably exists between high-flown rhetoric and the stark reality of attitudes and actions where it really matters, on the ground.

Perhaps that is by way of deliberate or, even, unconscious over-compensation for the other claims he makes, but it is telling nonetheless.

Also, his constant drawing of parallels between the prisoners, in their suffering and sacrifice, and Jesus Christ – all but claiming, at one point, Bobby Sands to be a direct reincarnation – is, to say the least, stretching it a bit.

Admittedly I am no theologian, but I think I can safely claim that even Jesus would have found it extremely difficult to find much commonality between His own philosophy, lifestyle and actions, and those of the Provisional IRA or most of the rest of us.

In the epilogue to Blanketmen – via. various apologies, acknowledgements and explanations – O’Rawe continues his veneration of the IRA and, indeed, Gerry Adams but sticks (though, on occasion, one suspects he isn’t going to) to his original contention: that the IRA Army Council and Adams made a wrong call that needlessly cost the lives of six hunger strikers.

Another view of his, aired in the epilogue, is that British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher and the British State bear ultimate responsibility for the deaths of the 10 hunger-strikers.

By definition, that runs directly counter to the central claim he makes in his book.

According to Blanketmen, Bobby Sands forced the issue of hunger strike against wiser counsel and, early in the protest, that same counsel refused to accept a good deal when it was on offer.

Despite those reservations, I consider Blanketmen an excellent addition to the growing library of “insider” accounts of the conflict (far better than most, in fact).

Even aside from the contentious claims, it provides an invaluable insight into life on the H Blocks during those turbulent years as well as some of the thinking and the decision-making processes within the republican movement at that time.

O’Rawe is a fine writer and a man who, quite obviously and for many years, has been torn between his loyalty to the republican movement and his conscience: his decision to publish is, by any standards, a courageous one.

Some thoughts that remain with me: Blanketmen, stripped bare of any sugary romanticism, with its accounts of deliberate brutality and casual courage (often residing in the same person), ill-defined goals and supposed high principles (all confused or forgotten from virtually the sound of the first gunshot, with excuses and lies too often masquerading as explanation) and elites building fame, fortune and careers on the back of so much needless waste of life (comprised, almost entirely, of innocents and cannon-fodder), could be interpreted as the entire conflict writ small.

Also, one has always to be certain when seeking release from a burden, that you don’t simply shift an equal weight onto the shoulders of others – in this case the families of the hunger-strikers.

Though O’Rawe certainly tries hard not to do that, there is no way of telling whether or not he succeeds.

Sourced from The Blanket

Category: 2005, Book Reviews, Commentary, Media, The Blanket

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

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