July 1981


Uncovering the Truth About the 1981 Hunger Strike

Forget the myths, Adams didn’t trade lives for votes

Forget the myths, Adams didn’t trade lives for votes
Critics of the Sinn Fein president’s role in the hunger strike have failed to make their case. It lacks credibility, says Chris Donnelly
Belfast Telegraph
Wednesday, 5 January 2011

It is a historical feature of Irish republicanism that rival factions have vied for the status of legitimate claimants to the republican mantle, utilising republican icons both from the living and deceased in pursuit of that objective.

Mainstream republicans lost the support of War of Independence veteran Tom Maguire once abstentionism was settled within Sinn Fein; subsequently, Joe Cahill assumed the status of the senior living republican icon until his death.

The association of one prominent member of the Sands family with a dissident republican outfit in the early peace process era was regarded as a coup by the overly- optimistic dissidents who believed – prior to the Omagh bombing – that they were laying the foundations for a return to war.

But the 1981 hunger strikers have been afforded an iconic status amongst republicans of the present generation due to the enduring legacy of self-sacrifice associated with their actions.

It is, therefore, perhaps inevitable that allegations concerning Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams’ role during the hunger strike period should not only have surfaced, but have been so eagerly welcomed by disaffected – and dissident – republicans in recent times.

Richard O’Rawe’s narrative is constructed around the central theme that Gerry Adams wilfully dismissed the lives of fellow republicans simply to gain electoral support for Sinn Fein. It is a convenient narrative for dissident republicans and hence the decision of the more vocal amongst their numbers to adopt O’Rawe’s cause – nowhere more so than in the blogosphere, where arguments have raged on local political websites for years.

It is wholly unsurprising that the Sinn Fein president has spurned opportunities to respond publicly to Richard O’Rawe; Adams is sufficiently long in the political tooth to avoid falling into a trap from which only his antagonist would benefit from having his stature uplifted through such an encounter.

What is missing from O’Rawe’s narrative is a reasonable explanation for the alleged behaviour of Adams. Observing the plight of his comrades in prison, why would he so recklessly dismiss their lives? Suggestions that the motivation was the prospect of electoral advances are extremely dubious.

How could Gerry Adams have known what mileage there was in the electoral route for republicans?

All evidence points to the fact that, while republican leaders were keen on broadening their battlefield and maximising the potential to garner the legitimacy proffered by an electoral mandate, the same republican leaders clearly believed that the British Government would be forced from Ireland by military means and not by electoral victories. Brighton, the Libyan shipments, the European and England campaigns that followed Sinn Fein’s electoral foray through the 1980s, all indicate clearly that an Adams-led republican movement was nowhere near concluding that an electoral path would ultimately provide the only long-term future for the republican struggle. It stretches credibility to believe that Adams was willing to sacrifice the lives of of his colleagues to ensure the re-election of a republican candidate in Fermanagh South Tyrone.

O’Rawe’s arguments have been countered repeatedly by Danny Morrison and others more centrally involved in the prison discussions at the time in what has become a seemingly endless bout of bickering which has led many families of the deceased hunger strikers to request an end to the dispute.

Alas, it would appear that their collective calls are destined to fall on deaf ears for some time to come.

First published in the Belfast Telegraph

Category: 2011, Belfast Telegraph, Commentary, Media


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

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