July 1981


Uncovering the Truth About the 1981 Hunger Strike

Salvaging History from Deceit

Salvaging History from Deceit

Some disguised falsehoods represent the truth so well, that it would be bad judgement not to be deceived by them
– Francois de La Rouchefoucauld

Forum Magazine Editorial • June/July 2006

Throughout February 2005 the airwaves and print columns were dominated by the gangland-style murder of Robert McCartney. Two months into Sinn Fein’s centenary celebrations, party spokespersons had hoped to be questioned about “the legacy of one-hundred years of resistance”. Instead they riggled like eels under a sustained media inquisition and were haunted by the ubiquitous image of the McCartney sisters, a group of articulate young women whose decency and courage could not be dismissed as hooey or yet another securocrat plot to undermine the peace.

Later that same February, UTV commissioned a report on a controversial new book written by Richard O’Rawe. Although few would have guessed it at the time, Blanketmen was about to radically alter the conventional republican perception of the 1981 hunger strike.

Sinn Fein strategists had earmarked the centenary celebrations and the 25th anniversary of the hunger strike as spring boards for the party’s continued growth in the run-up to the next southern general election. However, the centenary celebrations were overshadowed by a murder reminiscent from a scene out of The Sopranos. Then Blanketmen reeled off the printing presses and the Adams-McGuinness leadership’s role in the 1981 hunger strike was thoroughly re-evaluated as a result of the author’s startling allegation. O’Rawe contends that five days before the death of Joe McDonnell, the IRA prison leadership had accepted a British offer to end the hunger strike. This offer was subsequently rejected by the IRA Army Council. Consequently, six hunger strikers needlesssly died to secure newly-acquired electoral gains and thus nurturing an incremental shift towards electoral politics. This alternative narrative was not part of the Sinn Fein script.

Predictably, the Provisionals lost no time in slandering O’Rawe and contemptuously dismissing his claims. An acrimonious public debate ensued. But amid interpretation and counter-interpretation, claim and counter-claim, where lies the truth in the Blanketmen controversy?

An examination of the Provisional’s contradictory responses to O’Rawe’s account provides essential clues. In February 2005 UTV’s Ferghal McKinney asked Bik McFarlane, the O/C of IRA prisoners during the hunger strike, about the existence of a British proposal immediately prior to Joe McDonnell’s death. McFarlane replied there was no offer ”whatsoever.” Some Provisional elements have stuck rigidly to this line. For example, as late as 12 May 2006, Jim Gibney wrote in the Irish News: “Joe McDonnell died on July 8. The British did not offer an agreement before he died.”

Gibney persevered with this line, ostensibly indifferent to the fact that McFarlane had since amended his initial comments by stating there was ”no concrete proposals” in relation to a deal. The shift from no proposal ”whatsoever” to ”no concrete proposal” was significant. Jim Gibney’s version also contradicted Danny Morrison’s earlier May 5 contribution to RTE’s Morning Ireland, in which he reluctantly conceded that a British offer had been made prior to Joe McDonnell’s death. Throughout, the Provisional’s position has been fluid and inconsistent. Their interpretation of the facts varies with each interviewee.

Jim Gibney also claimed that: “O’Rawe stands alone in this, awkwardly close to those who stood with Thatcher 25 years ago this year.” This is a tad rich, coming as it does from a member of a party that has agreed to administer British rule for the forseeable future. However, far from standing alone, O’Rawe’s account has been affirmed by Hugh Logue, who worked with the Irish Commission during the prison protest and by Denis Bradley, the former British government-provisional leadership intermediary. Furthermore, in the Irish News, Anthony McIntyre stated that a republican prisoner on O’Rawe’s wing provided him with independent confimation of the existence of the British offer; while Brendan Hughes, prison O/C during the first hunger strike, disclosed that O’Rawe had previously discussed his concerns with him.

While Provisional spokespersons exhibit contradictory accounts, O’Rawe’s version has been solid, thoroughly scrutinised and verified by numerous independent sources. Unfortunately, O’Rawe may ultimately have to wait until the 30-year embargo on British state papers is lifted before he receives documentary verification and before Provisional mendacity is thoroughly exposed.

The Provisionals, having lost the public debate, decided to steer clear of the issue. It was a classic case of when truth stands in your way it’s time to change direction. In place of informed dialogue, a concerted campaign of slander, innuendo, and wrath sought to silence O’Rawe. When this failed the author was subject to intimidation. A gang of thugs painted disparaging graffiti on the walls close to his home. The viciousness of the vitriol directed against this former blanketman has been dispicable. While the cowradice of the ceasefire soldiers, brandishing paint brushes to harass and intimidate, is equally contemptable.

“If all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed – if all records told the same tale – then the lie passed into history and became truth.” The words of George Orwell in his masterpiece 1984. Richard O’Rawe has endeavoured to ensure that one lie does not pass into history and become transformed into truth. And for this we should be thankful.

Sourced from The Blanket

Category: 2006, Commentary, Media, The Blanket

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

There's an inner thing in every man,
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