July 1981

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Uncovering the Truth About the 1981 Hunger Strike

Derry Journal: O’Rawe and Greg Harkin

1981 hunger strike – an offer, a deal or what?
Published Date: 18 April 2008

Richard O’Rawe has made a number of complaints regarding the assertion by Colm Scullion in the Journal two weeks ago that no deal was made with the hunger strikers before Joe McDonnell died in July 1981.

Among other things Mr O’Rawe states the Journal should know “that Bik McFarlane, who was OC of IRA prisoners during the hunger strike, has always denied that any offer of any sort was ever made by the British at any point (see UTV Live, 1 March 2005,
in reply to question from reporter Fearghal McKinney).”

Mr O’Rawe continues: “Equally, your reporter fails to point out that Colm Scullion now contradicts McFarlane’s denial concerning events on 6 July 1981, when the British offer was brought to us.

Colm says: ‘I agree with Richard that there was certainly an offer which Richard was made aware of by Brendan McFarlane who was a few cells away.’

“While it may not have been his intention, Colm has now utterly destroyed McFarlane’s previously held contention that there was ‘no offer whatsoever’.

So, from Bik McFarlane denying the existence of any offer, Colm now has me sitting in an H-Block cell, with himself – three days before our comrade, Joe McDonnell died – studying a Brit offer, sent to me by none other than Bik McFarlane!

“From the moment my book on the hunger strike ‘Blanketmen’ was published, Sinn Fein’s spin doctors failed to co-ordinate their denials of my assertion that myself and Bik McFarlane had accepted a British offer which amounted to almost four of our five demands, but were overruled by senior figures outside the jail.

Now suits needs

“Bik’s initial denial that there was never any British offer has now been replaced by an admission by Colm Scullion that there was one and, more significantly, his admission has been echoed by prominent figures in Sinn Fein – presumably because it now suits their needs.

“When people change their stories halfway through in this sort of way, others are entitled to view everything they say, and their motives for saying it, with scepticism and doubt.

“Now that Sinn Fein and Colm Scullion accept that there was a British offer, a number of questions follow, none of which have so far been satisfactorily answered by the leadership.

“What, for example, was Bik McFarlane’s opinion of the offer? Did he communicate his opinion to me? Did he communicate his analysis to the ‘committee’, the caucus of leading Belfast Republicans who had been designated by the IRA Army Council to advise the prisoners on the running of the hunger strike? What was the committee’s view of the offer?

“Did they communicate their view to Bik? Why did Bik for 26 years, deny that an offer had been made?”

Mr O’Rawe goes on to ask whether or not the Journal correctly quoted Mr Scullion.

Mr O’Rawe also states that the Journal referred to the ‘IRA hunger strike’ instead of the IRA/INLA hunger strike.

Greg Harkin, of the Derry Journal, replies:

In his book, published 25 years after the ending of the hunger strike, Richard O’Rawe states that there was ‘a deal’ in July 1981 which could have saved the lives of six hunger strikers but that this was squandered by the IRA leadership outside the prison.

Recently, he quoted his cellmate Colm Scullion as having vindicated this claim.

The 1980 hunger strike ended but was not resolved when, according to the prisoners, the British reneged on what they appeared to be offering.

This directly led to the second hunger strike and to the prisoners’ position that any deal must be copper fastened by a British government representative speaking to them.

In Chapter 7 of his book, ‘Ten Men Dead’, David Beresford, writing about the July 1981 period, said: “The prisoners were insisting that someone senior from the NIO had to go in to confirm the details of what was on offer; to ‘get the fine print from the horse’s mouth’.”

In July 1981 the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace (ICJP] were attempting to mediate between the two sides.

At the same time the ‘Mountain Climber’ (codename for Michael Oatley, a British Foreign Office representative), contacted Derry man Brendan Duddy, recently the subject of a BBC documentary, ‘Secret Peacemaker’. Duddy, in turn, was in touch with the republican leadership.

It appears to me that the test of whether these exchanges and the offer or offers from the British were genuine – regardless if it was two concessions or four concessions on the prisoners’ five demands – would have been a British government representative confirming it to the strikers and guaranteeing any deal or offer.

There is no evidence that an offer became a deal nor does Richard O’Rawe provide any. Richard O’Rawe never met with the hunger strikers in the prison hospital, never met with the ICJP and nor was he dealing with the republican leadership outside the prison.

According to the ICJP, whilst Joe McDonnell was dying, the NIO promised the ICJP that it would send someone into the prison to discuss the offer and six times over this two-day critical period the NIO failed to do so.

Bishop O’Mahoney (ICJP] contacted the NIO and told the prisons’ minister he was “shocked, dismayed and amazed that the Government should be continuing with its game of brinkmanship.” He said, “I beg you to get someone into prison and get things started.”

On the 8th July, the day that Joe McDonnell died, his fellow hunger striker Laurence McKeown (who also rejects Richard O’Rawe’s version) was brought from his cell to the governor’s office.

There, the only NIO representative a hunger striker was to see, read him a statement from Secretary of State Humphrey Atkins reiterating that there had been no change in the British government’s position.

Brendan Duddy, the man closest to the negotiations between the British and the republican leadership, makes absolutely no mention of a deal but says that he told the British their position was “completely crazy.”

The Mountain Climber makes no mention of there being a deal.

The British government makes no mention of there being a deal. Clearly, it would have been in its interests to have damaged the republican leadership were Richard O’Rawe’s allegation true.

The ICJP in a press conference condemned the British government and NIO for failing to honour an undertaking to send a representative into the prison to explain the offer.

Now, Colm Scullion, who was in the cell with Richard O’Rawe, has for the first time spoken to say that, yes, there was an offer, but there was no deal.

Finally, there is Richard O’Rawe’s own testimony written in smuggled letters to the outside when his memory was fresh.

“The British government’s hypocrisy and their refusal to act in a responsible manner are completely to blame for the death of Joe McDonnell… At face value it (Humphrey Atkins’ 8th July statement] amounts to nothing.”

On July 23rd , two weeks after McDonnell’s death, O’Rawe wrote: “…only direct talks between the British and ourselves…can guarantee clarity and sincerity and thus save lives…At present the British are looking for what amounts to an absolute surrender. They are offering us nothing that amounts to an honourable solution…”

“They are offering us nothing” hardly sound like the words of a man who believes that there was a deal – but we will leave it up to readers to make up their own minds.

Mr O’Rawe’s entire argument rests on what constituted a ‘deal’ or ‘offer’.

The fact at the time was this – republicans, having been given guarantees in 1980 which were then reneged upon by the British government, would accept no deal in 1981 unless it was stood over by an NIO official.

That didn’t happen. Even Mrs Thatcher says that. And Mr Scullion’s quotes are correct.

The Journal accepts entirely that we should have referred to the 1981 strike as the IRA/INLA hunger strike.

Sourced from The Derry Journal

Category: 2008, Derry Journal, Media, News articles, Richard O'Rawe, Statements

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


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