July 1981


Uncovering the Truth About the 1981 Hunger Strike

Adams starved hunger strikers of the truth

Adams starved hunger strikers of the truth
Did the Sinn Fein president prolong the 1981 campaign to improve the party’s electoral prospects?
Richard O’Rawe outlines the case for the prosecution

Belfast Telegraph
Thursday, 30 December 2010

In a recent column in the Belfast Telegraph, Eamonn McCann said of my 1981 hunger strike book, Afterlives: “O’Rawe – perhaps like Ed Moloney – stretches his argument too far in suggesting that Gerry Adams personally drove the decision to keep the (hunger) strike going in order to build Sinn Fein’s support. Personalising the debate around the Sinn Fein president does little to advance understanding of the factors in play.”

This is a reference, I assume, to the suspicion the hunger strike had been kept going to ensure that the republican candidate, Owen Carron, would be elected to replace Bobby Sands as the MP for Fermanagh-South Tyrone (an important step in Sinn Fein’s journey into electoral politics).

At the heart of the matter was a British Government offer to settle the hunger strike which had been made through secret contacts just weeks before the by-election for the Fermanagh-South Tyrone seat.

The fact that the offer was spurned determined the outcome of that election, because the on-going hunger strike motivated angry nationalist voters in the constituency to turn out for Carron and he won the seat.

Just weeks later, Sinn Fein adopted the ‘Armalite and ballot-box’ strategy.

Unfortunately, Eamonn does not say on what basis he reached the conclusion that it was going “too far” to suggest Gerry Adams personally drove the decision to keep the hunger strike going until the by-election.

But, clearly, he thinks I was too hard on the Sinn Fein president.

Was I? What did I write in Afterlives about Gerry Adams’ part in the hunger strike?

  • That Gerry Adams – and not Martin McGuinness, Danny Morrison or anyone else – had been tasked by the IRA Army Council to set up and manage a committee of senior republicans to help out with publicity and to advise the prisoners on a variety of matters.
  • That he was told by the army council that the prisoners were to be the final decision makers in regards to any approaches or offers from the British Government – yet he ignored that edict.
  • That he had been the main negotiator with the British Government when, on July 4 to July 5 1981, their representatives made an offer to settle the hunger strike.
  • That when the prisoners’ leadership accepted that offer, Adams wrote a communique to the prison leadership which effectively overruled their acceptance of the British offer (my then-cellmate confirmed the rejection of this offer “by the outside leadership” in an interview with Eamonn McCann which was published in the Belfast Telegraph on February 27, 2008).
  • That either in his role as the main negotiator, or as the senior republican on the committee, Adams did not tell the army council about this contact with the British Government.
  • That he did not tell the army council the British had made an offer considered to be good enough by the prisoners to end the hunger strike.
  • That he led the army council – and the republican community at large – to believe the opposite of what was actually the case, claiming the prisoners were implacable and would not settle for any less than their five demands, when he knew from the acceptance of the British offer that this was not true.
  • That he met Monsignor Denis Faul and members of hunger strikers’ families on the evening of July 28, 1981, but did not tell them about the British offer.
  • That he did not tell the families the prison leadership had accepted the offer.
  • That he did not tell the IRSP/INLA leadership about the offer (even though two of their members were among the last six hunger strikers to die). That he met the hunger strikers in the Long Kesh hospital on July 29, 1981 and told them “…there was no deal on the table, no movement of any sort…”.
  • That he did not tell the hunger strikers of the British offer at that visit and that, consequently, he deliberately misrepresented the situation to these dying men.

So, am I stretching my argument too far in suggesting Adams personally drove the decision to keep the strike going in order to build Sinn Fein’s support? I don’t think so.

Still, it would be easy enough for Adams to prove me wrong – he could follow my example and agree to participate in a republican inquiry into the hunger strike.

Or he could refute – point by point – what I have written in this article.

But I’d be surprised if he did either.

First published in the Belfast Telegraph

Read between the lines and shine Ghost Light on Gaza

Read between the lines and shine Ghost Light on Gaza
By Eamonn McCann, Belfast Telegraph
Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Nothing beats a book. Other presents might elicit a squeal of delight when the wrapping is removed, or spark an appreciative thought that this could come in handy over the year, maybe. But a good book is a joy to be savoured at leisure. Here, in my personal, eccentric opinion, are five to fit the bill.

Joseph O’Connor’s Ghost Light is a beautiful thing, eloquent, profound, affecting, told in the voice of Molly Allgood, a girl from the Dublin tenements of the early 20th century who becomes an accomplished actress and forms a passionate, unsatisfying attachment to playwright John Synge.

Molly has been virtually ignored in the many accounts of literary Dublin in the period. None of her hundreds of letters to Synge survives.

But O’Connor occupies her mind – or plausibly conveys the impression that he does. The last 10 pages – an imagined letter found after her death in dire poverty in London – is as touching as anything you’ll read.

Gideon Levy is a former Israeli army major whose columns in the Tel Aviv newspaper Ha’aretz I have been reading on the web for years.

He has a huge and heartfelt empathy with the beleaguered people of Palestine and is surely the only Israeli writer who can naturally use the phrase ‘Gaza, my beloved’.

His writing will do your heart good, and break it. The Punishment of Gaza is a collection of his columns.

You won’t find Larry Kirwan’s Rocking the Bronx easily. But ask around: it’s a blast of a book, well worth searching out.

It tells of Sean from Dublin, who travels to New York, “Clash LPs stuffed beneath my oxter, hair oiled back pre-army Elvis”, having divined that “all was not well with my love in America”.

It inhabits a dimension of Irish-America that we rarely hear of, because it doesn’t fit into any approved category.

None Of Us Were Like This Before, by Joshua Phillips, is a tour de force of investigative journalism, based on interviews with men who had tortured detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo and with the victims of the same torture, a journey into darkness at noon in America.

Phillips shows that Abu Ghraib was nothing out of the ordinary, that most torture was perpetrated as a matter of routine for reasons which arose not from any need to dig out information, but because soldiers were bored and angry, frustrated that they hadn’t experienced the sort of exhilarating action they had psyched themselves up for, and assumed – reasonably, Phillips shows – that savaging Iraqis they had in their power was their order of the day.

Dangerous a thought as it might be, what emerges is that, while the suffering of the victims was, of course, overwhelmingly out of proportion to the subsequent pain of some of the perpetrators, torture can inflict wounds on the torturer, too.

A remarkable percentage became addicted to drugs, were hospitalised for depression or committed suicide back home. This is a vivid account of the price of empire, paid for mainly by subjugated peoples, but also on occasion by the poor bloody infantry.

Richard O’Rawe’s Afterlives is the story of reaction to his first book, Blanketman, published in 2005. If you have ever wondered what the phrase ‘spitting nails’ looks like, stand alongside O’Rawe as he encounters a supporter of the Provisional leadership of the hunger-strike era.

His thesis is that the 1981 fast could have been ended on an honourable basis after four deaths, but was allowed by the Belfast IRA leadership, for political reasons, to continue through the deaths of six others.

O’Rawe was the prisoners’ PRO at the time. I interviewed his Long Kesh cellmate for the Telegraph after publication of the book.

Within hours of publication, men from Belfast descended on him to suggest that he deny that he’d said what I quoted him as saying. What they obtained fell far short of repudiation.

O’Rawe – perhaps like Ed Moloney – stretches his argument too far in suggesting that Gerry Adams personally drove the decision to keep the strike going in order to build Sinn Fein’s support. Personalising the debate around the Sinn Fein president does little to advance understanding of the factors in play.

Still, Afterlives sheds harsh light on a murky area and on the cold calculations of some who have since risen high in respectable society. O’Rawe’s story – and O’Rawe himself – are entitled to more serious attention than they have been accorded so far.

So, if there’s someone you have to buy for and can’t for the life of you think what, get them a book.

First published in the Belfast Telegraph

Other year end mentions for Afterlives:

Malachi O’Doherty (59) is writer-in-residence at Queen’s University. He says:

Afterlives by Richard O’ Rawe (Lilliput Press) is the history of the deal that could have ended the hunger strikes in 1981 and is the book no historian of the period will be able to ignore.

O’Rawe makes a contribution to history that is substantially greater than anything we’ve had to date. His style is both forensic and logical and also conversational. He would make a brilliant barrister but also a brilliant journalist.

O’Rawe faces a moral challenge to tell the truth as he sees it while going easy on the men with him in prison. What’s impressive is that generosity coupled with the ruthless pursuit of the argument.”

Martin Lynch (60) is a playwright. He says:

“Tim Parks’ Teach us to Sit Still: A Sceptic’s Search for Health and Healing (Harvill Secker) is a book he wrote about suffering very bad abdominal pain for 10 years that became an amazing bestseller. He’s normally a novelist and he writes it beautifully with literary and artistic references throughout. At one point he says he regards himself as the young boy taught by the senior water-carrier in a famous painting. It’s about vipassana meditation, a method that Parks found in holistic medicine rather than conventional medicine. And he got better, although it hasn’t helped my back yet.

The other book was Richard O’Rawe’s book Afterlives — he’s such a good writer.”

Excerpted from: Chapter and verse on all of those great reads


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Do you know this thing my friend? It has withstood the blows of a million years, and will do so to the end.