July 1981

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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

The Public and the Private

The Public and the Private
Anthony McIntyre
The Pensive Quill

Richard O’Rawe has just published a new book. Its title is Afterlives and was launched in Belfast on Thursday evening. Due to last minute ‘ambushes’ I was dragged elsewhere and had to cancel my planned journey north. Much to my regret, because O’Rawe is a battler who has done much to protect free inquiry from book burners and censors. Each time I have tried to phone him since his line has been engaged. I somehow doubt if it was with callers telling him how upset they were at his new work. They would rather paint on walls.

I have still to get a copy but it is being said that Afterlives is a forensic destruction of the argument that that the then republican leadership has no case to answer over its management of the 1981 hunger strike. O’Rawe sets out his stall in relation to the heated debate generated in the wake of his first book Blanketmen. It was there over five years ago that he first publicly vented grave misgivings about the longevity of the strike, expressing the view that with better management six lives need not have been lost. What he said in Blanketmen he had already been saying in private for years. In fact it was through such claims that I ended up meeting him again after a gap of many years. Our paths for long enough simply had not crossed.

Brendan McFarlane the leader of the IRA prisoners during the 1981 hunger strike has reentered the fray against O’Rawe. McFarlane, while not silent on the issue previously, has not been to the fore of the debate to the extent that some might have expected. The prolix of others who have rejected the O’Rawe claims seems not to have done the trick. Turning up the volume and drowning all else out might have made things loud but certainly not clear. So McFarlane has stepped in to the breach to make up the deficit. No easy task given that O’Rawe in the public mind has taken on the persona of writer in residence in the hunger strike debate, his account the incumbent narrative which others must dislodge if they are to make progress of their own. The once dominant Sinn Fein perspective has been rocked and now struggles to stay on its feet and avoid the telling blows that have so far penetrated its guard.

In literary terms O’Rawe’s reversal of fortunes is akin to the Soviet obliteration of the German Operation Barbarossa. Hit by a seemingly unstoppable Blitzkrieg of ill will and hate salvoes from the minute it emerged out of its birth canal, O’Rawe’s challenging account had to withstand a battle a day. But gradually and against the odds, the besieged author carefully pulled his critics onto the punch and delivered body blows that pushed them back well behind their own lines.

It is with much regret that I have followed Brendan McFarlane’s recent contributions including that in today’s Irish News. He does not seem comfortable in the role. Earlier in the week in the Derry Journal he was adding new detail to the narrative which to have any bearing should have seen the light of day much earlier in the debate. Unlike O’Rawe’s revelations, they seem awkward and grafted on, constructed from the perspective of the present rather than as an accurate history of the past.

I have long regarded Brendan McFarlane as a person of immense integrity who led from the front in the violent crucible of the H-Blocks. His task was onerous and unenviable. I feel distinctly uncomfortable about the position this outpouring of critique has placed him in and have said as much to O’Rawe. Yet the chips fall where they do and the evidence lends itself to no conclusion other than that a deal was offered which was accepted by the prisoners. This acceptance was subsequently subverted by the leadership for whatever reason and the hunger strike carried on with the resulting loss of six more lives.

Today Brendan McFarlane revealed communications written by Richard O’Rawe in his capacity as jail PRO. McFarlane claims these show that O’Rawe while in the prison was not of the view that the British had made any substantive offer. But this is old hat, a repeat of the Danny Morrison venture to Dublin a few years ago to search archives for similar communications. Morrison returned to Belfast and revealed that what he had discovered in Dublin was … Dublin. Few took the Morrison ‘comms’ disclosure seriously, intuitively knowing that the public positions of the day were not what people believed privately. How otherwise could the ‘victory’ parade presumably organised by Morrison and others in the wake of the vanquished 1980 hunger strike have gone ahead? The organisers knew privately that no victory had been achieved but publicly ran with the victory parade anyway.

Brendan McFarlane is an important witness to history. He could do worse than take stock of his situation and render a version of events that, even if at odds with the interpretation of Richard O’Rawe, at least sounds credible. The current narrative he is defending is, as William Sydney Porter might have said, ‘beautiful and simple, as truly great swindles are.’

Sourced from The Pensive Quill

Former IRA prison leader releases O’Rawe ‘comms’

Brendan "Bik" McFarlane

Former IRA prison leader releases O’Rawe ‘comms’
by Barry McCaffrey
Irish News
Nov 6 2010

Former IRA prison leader Brendan ‘Bik’ McFarlane yesterday produced secret ‘comms’ (communications) which he claimed prove that republicans did not reject a British government deal to end the 1981 Hunger Strike.

Earlier this week Richard O’Rawe, who was the IRA press officer in the H-Blocks during the Hunger Strike, published his second book Afterlives: The Hunger Strike and the Secret Offer that Changed Irish History.

In it he argues that prisoners had been willing to accept an offer to end the protest but this was rejected by the IRA leadership outside the Maze.

He claims that as a result six hunger strikers died needlessly.

Mr McFarlane said yesterday he would break five years of silence by producing secret IRA comms written by Mr O’Rawe during the Hunger Strike in which he accused the British government of trying to prolong it.

In them he writes: “It is vital also that everyone realises that the ICJP [Irish Commission for Peace and Justice] have been victims of British perfidity and that the ambiguity which accompanies all British government statements is deliberate, so that at a later stage they can abdicate their responsibility.”

In another part of the communications sent between republicans in and outside of the jail, Mr O’Rawe comments on a Northern Ireland Office decision to send officials into the prison to speak to hunger strikers.

“Understand this development for it is an extension of the cunningness that has marked the Brits’ role in this issue, he writes.

“The Brits know our stand in relation to their July 8 statement but they saw the possibility of gaining in the propaganda field, so they sent two NIO men in on their publicity mission to explain a totally rejected statement.”

In another section he refers to the British government’s refusal to allow Mr McFarlane to attend a meeting between the NIO and hunger strikers.

“Again the British are engaged in a propaganda exercise… The fact is that if the Brits were genuinely disposed to seeking a solution such a meeting would be of benefit and we would welcome it as long as the strikers are adequately represented in the person of Brendan McFarlane,” Mr O’Rawe writes.

Mr McFarlane said he rejected Mr O’Rawe’s claims that the IRA had allowed six of the 10 hunger strikers to die needlessly.

“I have deliberately resisted engaging in personal attacks on Richard for the last five years,” he said.

“But I feel it is not time, once and for all, to show beyond doubt that what he is saying is totally untrue.

“These comms are written in Richard’s own handwriting and show quite clearly that he believed that the British had no interest in a deal.

“The idea that a deal came from Thatcher and was rejected by the outside leadership for political expediency is a total fallacy.

“His claims of an alleged conversation with me in which I said we’d agreed to a deal is a complete myth.

“Richard’s own comms show that the Brits were never serious about a deal.”

Mr McFarlane said his former comrade’s claims had cause major distress to hunger strikers’ families.

“I hope these comms will prove once and for all who is telling the truth,” Mr McFarlane said.

Responding to his former cellmate’s criticism, Mr O’Rawe said Mr McFarlane should “tell the truth about the Hunger Strike rather than regurgitate this nonsense once more.”

“Of necessity, these press statements had to be unyielding and hard-hitting in tone because they were being read not just by the man and woman on the street but by the British government.

“If they had contained the least hint of weakness, that would have been seen as a crack in our resolve and resulted in a corresponding steeling of the British government’s attitude.

“What is it about this that Bik doesn’t understand?

“Perhaps he should ask his colleagues in the Sinn Fein leadership what is the difference between public statements and private reality.

“After all, for years they told us that the IRA would never, ever decommission, yet in private preparations were being made to do just that.”

Sourced from the Irish News

Comms/Press Release

NOTE: These ‘comms’/press statements were previously referred to by Danny Morrison in 2006

Interview with Bik McFarlane, Derry Journal

Commemoration event in Sandinos tomorrow night
Derry Journal
Published Date: 26 October 2010
By Staff reporter

The 30th anniversary of the first Long Kesh hunger strike will be marked in Derry tomorrow night at an event involving one of the key participants and the man who led the 1981 protest.

Foyle Sinn Féin MLA Raymond McCartney spent 53 days on hunger strike from October 1980 to January 1981 along with six other republican prisoners.

Bobby Sands began a second hunger strike in March 1981 and handed over command of the IRA prisoners to Brendan ‘Bik’ McFarlane.

Mr McFarlane, now a key figure in Sinn Féin in Belfast, will be speaking in Sandino’s Bar, Water Street, tomorrow night alongside Mr McCartney and Mary Doyle, who took part in the 1980 hunger strike in Armagh.

Speaking ahead of the event, Mr McFarlane described the hunger strike period as one of the most important in recent Irish history and compared its impact to the Easter Rising of 1916.

Brendan "Bik" McFarlane

“It was a watershed in our struggle,” he told the ‘Journal’. “It was hugely important and comparable to 1916. My ten comrades who died on hunger strike are comparable to the men who went into the GPO in terms of their influence and place in republican history,” he said.

The former H-Block OC said it was important to remember the period and to explain it to a new generation.

“The political ramifications of that are still being felt and have led us to where we are today. The foundation stone was laid for the development and enhancement of republican politics,” he said.

Mr McFarlane said he believes young people should learn more about the hunger strike period. “It is crucial that people focus on it. This was 30 years ago but, for many people, particularly the hunger strikers’ families, this is not history. It is as fresh in their memories as last week.

“When I look at it now, the age of those involved is remarkable. Joe McDonnell was the eldest by far and he was 30 years-old. The prisoners from Derry always seemed to me to be the youngest. I myself was in my 20s. But the common sense and selflessness of those hunger strikers was massive. They had fierce dedication and commitment,” he explained.

Mr McFarlane also rejected claims from some quarters that the lives of a number of the hunger strikers could have been saved and that a possible deal was rejected by the IRA leadership. “Quite frankly, it is absolute nonsense. There was no secret deal. I was there and it simply did not occur. There is not one shred of evidence,” he said.

Despite the importance of the hunger strikes, Mr McFarlane said his main memories of the period are of the loss of friends. “I remember all the lads but I have an abiding memory of Joe McDonnell at the time the back channel was opened through Derry. He grabbed my arms and told me there was not enough on offer and said, ‘don’t you sell us short.’ I think about that every day,” he said.

The hunger strike commemoration will take place upstairs in Sandino’s Cafe Bar, Water Street, tomorrow night at 8 pm.

Sourced from the Derry Journal

Sentinel: Never-before-seen 1981 hunger strike documents disclosed

Never-before-seen 1981 hunger strike documents disclosed
01 September 2010
By William Allen
Londonderry Sentinel

DOCUMENTS kept secret since 1981 have revealed a fascinating picture of how Margaret Thatcher’s Government dealt with the IRA hunger strike.

The documents released by the Northern Ireland Office show how the Government was determined to maintain a firm stance in public while trying to come to an arrangement that the IRA would agree to through secret contacts.

The request for the documents was made under the Freedom of Information Act by the Sentinel amid claims that several of the hunger strikers were sacrificed to boost the republican movement’s electoral strategy and that an acceptable offer was made but the hunger strikers were not told by the IRA.

The papers, released 15 months after being requested, show the Government was working on a number of levels, with organisations such as the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace (ICJP), while also using a secret conduit directly to the IRA – believed to be the Mountain Climber initiative.

Taken at face value, there is no evidence on whether protestors wanted to agree a deal but were over-ruled by IRA leaders. But the documents do show offers were made secretly to the IRA rather than directly to the hunger strikers, and illustrate the central role played by Brendan McFarlane, the Provisional IRA leader in the jail.

Chance to clarify

And they also show that, less than two weeks before the death of Dungiven INLA man, Kevin Lynch, the hunger strikers were offered a chance to clarify the latest position in front of relatives and clergy, but the prisoners’ insistence that they would only meet in McFarlane’s presence was rejected by the Northern Ireland Office officials, who saw him as intransigent.

The 32 newly released documents, combined with a number that were previously released, offer an amazing insight into the Government’s dealings with a range of agencies, including the Dublin Government, Irish Commission for Justice and Peace, the Vatican, and Catholic Church leaders in England as well as Ireland. They also show how the Government was involved in backdoor approaches and attempts to find a formula and form of words that would allow a solution to be choreographed – a forerunner to the way the Peace Process unfolded in the 1990s.

The documents show that the Government consistently believed the prisoners were acting under orders and that McFarlane would not consider anything short of negotiating the “five demands”.

These demands were: the right not to wear a prison uniform; the right not to do prison work; the right of free association with other prisoners, and to organise educational and recreational pursuits; the right to one visit, one letter and one parcel per week; full restoration of remission lost through the protest.

The documents show how the Government’s position shifted from its early belief that it was involved in a stand-off that there could be no compromise on, though it was consistent in demanding an end to the protest before any public moves would be made on its part. And it showed how the Government believed it was also fighting a propaganda battle.

Holy See

A telegram to the Holy See in April 1981 insists that the Government could not back down and regretted that the Pope’s personal plea to the hunger strikers to end the protest failed.

As the death of the first hunger striker, Bobby Sands drew near, a telegram to the NIO mentioned talks with an Irish government representative, saying that: “Nally agreed that while there was a concern in the south over the consequences of Sand’s death, support for the hunger strikers was very limited. However, Sand’s death, particularly if followed by Hughes, could change things.”

The documents show that a press release had been prepared before Sands died, with the time and date, and the number of days he had refused food to be inserted after his death.
But the hardline, public approach was not being followed through in private by July.

An extract from a letter – previously released to the Sunday Times – dated July 8, from 10 Downing Street to the NIO said the PM had met the Secretary of State Humphrey Atkins after the message that the PM had approved had been communicated to the Provisional IRA. It said the IRA originally did not regard it as satisfactory but when it was made clear that this ended the initiative, this “had produced a rapid reaction which suggested that it was not the content of the message which they had objected to but only its tone”.

The Secretary of State, “had concluded that we should communicate with the PIRA over night a draft statement enlarging upon the message of the previous evening but in no way whatever departing from its substance. If the PIRA accepted the draft statement and ordered the hunger strikers to end their protest the statement would be issued immediately. If they did not, this statement would not be put out but instead an alternative statement reiterating the Government’s position as he had set it out in his statement of 30 June and responding to the discussions with the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace would be issued. If there was any leak about the process of communication with PIRA, his office would deny it.”

Documents show the Government took advice from experts on what way a statement could be worded so that the IRA would accept it.

A later telegram from the NIO said a statement had been read adding: “we await provo reactions (we would be willing to allow them a sight of the document just before it is given to the prisoners and released to the press). It has been made clear (as the draft itself states) that it is not a basis for negotiation.”

Communications between the Secretary of State’s office and the ICJP, including one on July 6, suggest the body believed a statement “together with clarifications received” encouraged it to continue its efforts, with the NIO saying it did not want the public to know yet about a letter to the ICJP, as “public knowledge of the fact that they have had a letter will bring immediate pressure on us and them to disclose the contents – just now this might not be helpful”. It added the ICJP had been told it would have to become public at some point, otherwise the Government would be accused of “secret deals” but that the timing and terms of the release would need to be agreed.

The clarifications included issues like association, prison work, remission and clothing.

Another document records a statement read to prisoners from the Secretary of State, who said no moves could be made under the duress of a hunger strike but “making sure that the protestors were aware of what was available”.

It said: “Little expansion of association was contemplated but the suggestion of association of adjacent wings (made by the ICJP) was taken on board. On clothing the ‘possibility of further development’ had not been ruled out. On work, no-one would be excluded but the commitment was given to add to the range of activities, including examination of the ICJP’s suggestions. No more than the existing 1/5 restoration of lost remission to ex-protestors was promised.”

It says there was no reaction shown from the prisoners though Michael Devine and Thomas McElwee asked if officials could come and discuss the document after they had read it.
It added: “The prisoners were given an opportunity to discuss the document among themselves and also saw McFarlane for a time. Lynch and Doherty – the 2 most determined strikers – said afterwards that there was nothing in it for them.”

The undated document carries details of an IRA statement said to have been smuggled from the prison on July 8, saying that Joe McDonnell need not have died and describing Mr Atkins’ statement that day as “ambiguous and self-gratifying”.

A telegram sent by Lord Carrington on July 15 said that Mr Atkins had given instructions that a NIO official should go to the Maze to explain the Government’s “ICRC” (International Committee of the Red Cross) initiative to the hunger-strikers, and answer any questions about Mr Atkins’ statement of July 8.

A note dated July 16, says that Mr (John) Blelloch had been in to see the hunger strikers on July 15: “All 8 were there. Doherty could not read but appeared to comprehend generally. The Governor delivered the statement. The strikers listened closely…

“The prisoners then asked to see McFarlane. The Governor agreed to a limited session. Mr Blelloch asked the prisoners if they had reflected on the SoS’s statement of 8 July. They said they had and had one or two points; but they didn’t pursue this and seemed much more interested in ICRC.

“The Governor and Mr Blelloch then left and McFarlane was fetched. The Governor’s ‘feel’ was that the atmosphere was one of ‘deathly calm’. They realized the seriousness of their situation but were unlikely to act without PSF orders. They would probably decide nothing that night but want to hear the radio and possibly receive “messages” via visitors.

“At 8.45pm Mr Blelloch phoned to say that McFarlane had returned to his cell and the hunger-strikers had dispersed without requesting a further meeting.”

Secret channel

Another (previously released) document shows that Margaret Thatcher wanted to make another approach to the IRA through the secret channel but changed her mind after it was put to her that there was a risk of the offer becoming public.

A letter dated July 18 from Downing Street to the NIO said that Philip Woodfield had come to brief the PM on the situation and that after the latest IRA statement Mr Atkins felt the need to respond either with a statement or by sending in an official to clarify the position again.

“The official would set out to the hunger strikers what would be on offer if they abandoned their protest. He would do so along the lines discussed with the Prime Minister last week. He would say that the prisoners would be allowed their own clothes, as was already the case in Armagh prison, provided these clothes were approved by the prison authorities. (This would apply in all prisons in Northern Ireland).

“He would set out the position on association; on parcels and letters; on remission; and on work. On this last point he would make it clear that the prisoners would, as before, have to do the basic work necessary to keep the prison going: there were tasks which the prison staff could in no circumstances be expected to do. But insofar as work in the prison shops was concerned, it would be implicit that the prisoners would be expected to do this but that if they refused to do it they would be punished by loss of remission, or some similar penalty, rather than more severely…

“The statement would be spelling out what had been implicit in the Government’s public statement and explicit in earlier communications.”

It said the PM agreed that one more effort should be made to explain the situation to the hunger strikers, but then, following further discussions “it was drawn to the Prime Minister’s attention that any approach of the kind outlined above to the hunger strikers would inevitably become public whether or not it succeeded, the Prime Minister reviewed the proposal on the telephone with the Secretary of State and decided the dangers in taking an initiative would be so great that she was not prepared to risk them.

“The official who went in to the prison could repeat the Government’s public position but could go no futher.”

Further documents show the “network of contacts” was being followed up.

There are two documents recording details of a visit by Mr Belloch and Mr Blackwell to the prison on July 20, a week after the death of Martin Hurson, the sixth of ten men to die.
Both said the visit was prompted by a call from Kevin Lynch’s priest who said Lynch and relatives of Kieran Doherty wanted an NIO official to visit the Maze to clarify the Government statement of July 19. Both hunger strikers denied asking for a visit but “were content for an official to see the group of hunger strikers”.

Mr Blelloch gave relatives an outline of the Government’s position. The assistant governor visited each of the hunger strikers to tell them of the presence of an NIO official but all said they would only meet him as a group and “all but Lynch had said that McFarlane must be present”.

It added: “Mr Blelloch first spoke to the families and explained the position with regard to McFarlane. He made clear that he would speak to the hunger strikers as individuals or as a group and in front of relatives or priests if they wished…We then visited each hunger striker in turn and Mr Blelloch explained that he was an official from the NIO and he was there to see if he could help. In each case the hunger striker’s response was the same – they would only see him in a group and McFarlane must be present. Even Lynch who had not previously mentioned McFarlane now did so…It was decided not to approach the other three hunger strikers in H.3 since that was McFarlane’s block and they were most unlikely to agree to a meeting without his presence.”

The other document on the visit backs this up, saying: “Lynch had said he would like an official to see him and the group and Doherty had said he would like an official to see him and the group and McFarlane.”

Mr Blelloch and Mr Blackwell arrived: “The prison officer said that all five hunger strikers in the prison hospital (except Lynch) were insisting on McFarlane being present.” However it said that when they spoke to Lynch, he now also insisted that McFarlane be present so no-one took up the offer of a meeting. Officials were told he and others were too weak and needed a spokesman.

It adds under the heading “Background briefing”: “The reason they did not wish to take up the offer was because they wished to insist on the presence of McFarlane who had made clear that all he was interested in was tearing up the Government’s statements and negotiating the ‘5 demands’.”

All 32 of the newly released documents will be published on the Sentinel’s website, www.londonderrysentinel.co.uk, as well as a number of those supplied to the Sentinel which had previously been disclosed.

Sourced from the Londonderry Sentinel

NIO documents released to Sentinel

Never-before-seen 1981 hunger strike documents disclosed
Published Date: 31 August 2010
Londonderry Sentinel

A FASCINATING insight into one of the most contentious periods of the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’ has been revealed by documents obtained by the Sentinel under the Freedom of Information Act (FOI).

The hunger strike of 1981 in the Maze prison saw ten republican protestors die and caused mayhem on the streets of the country claiming the lives of civilians, Army, police and prison personnel.

Now after a 15 month tussle with the Northern Ireland Office the Sentinel has obtained 32 never before seen documents in relation to the era.

The FOI request was made by the Sentinel amid claims that the lives of several hunger strikers were sacrificed to boost the republican movement’s electoral strategy and that an acceptable offer was made to the hunger strikers but they were not informed by the IRA. INLA prisoners were also among those who died.

The papers now in the possession of the Sentinel cast new light on events and on moves to bring the hunger strike to an end.

Taken in conjunction with a small number of previously released documents, the papers, kept secret for almost 30 years, show the Government was working on a number of levels with many and varied organisations and reflects the differences in its public and private moves.

Tomorrow’s edition of the Londonderry Sentinel will reveal our analysis of some of the documents.

The documents will also be made available on the Sentinel’s website later in the week as will previously released documents that were also supplied by the NIO.

Sourced from the Londonderry Sentinel

Finding a way through a maze of missed chances

Finding a way through a maze of missed chances
Where better to examine the lessons of the Troubles and the peace process than a conflict resolution centre on the site of the Maze prison, says Liam Clarke
Belfast Telegraph
Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Why are unionists so afraid of the big, bad Maze? Peter Robinson would be foolish to listen to those in his party who want to block any re-examination of the 1981 hunger strike.

Instead, he should be demanding, if possible with the support of Martin McGuinness, that the British and Irish governments release all the papers on the period.

These should be housed in a Conflict Resolution Centre, where they can be examined by public and scholars alike.

Economically, the delay in getting the redevelopment plan underway has been like burning money.

Inaction was opposed – to his credit – by Edwin Poots the former DUP minister responsible, but his party remained paralysed in an agony of indecision which has cost the province tens of millions in lost opportunity.

It is not just the £12m spent on maintenance since the 360-acre site was first gifted by the Ministry of Defence; that is chicken feed.

This was prime development land handed to the Executive while the property boom was still in full swing.

As Sammy Wilson looks for cuts, the DUP must answer questions about why it did not strike when the iron was hot and the price was right. Dithering has lost us the multi-sports stadium that would have given Northern Ireland a slice of the action from the London Olympics.

These squandered opportunities are now gone, so it’s doubly important for the unionist leadership to get a grip on its fears and get the most from the project.

This means building the Conflict Resolution Centre which will incorporate the remaining H-Blocks and the prison hospital.

Visiting such a facility, if it is developed properly, would be a must-see tourist draw for Lisburn. You only have to look at Alcatraz to realise what an important part the Maze could play in attracting visitors to Lisburn. Yet confidence seems to drain away from the DUP and UUP leaderships every time the subject is mentioned.

Even Tom Robinson of EPIC, the loyalist ex-prisoners’ group, who you would think might have an interest in the history of the H-Blocks, is demanding that the remaining blocks be demolished. The fear is that it could become a “shrine to terrorism”.

That need not happen – especially if there was a truly representative group steering the project.

The fact is that the 1981 hunger strike and the protests which preceded it were a formative moment in both the Troubles and the peace process. It was called on the issue of prison rights, but its more lasting impact was in moving Sinn Fein into the electoral process, which in turn led to the ending of hostilities and IRA disarmament.

What went on between the British Government and Sinn Fein at the time?

The standard republican narrative is that Margaret Thatcher was, from beginning to end, determined to starve the prisoners to death in the hope of imposing a strategic defeat on the IRA. That has never entirely held water.

“Margaret Thatcher presented a public face as the ‘Iron Lady’ who was ‘not for turning’, yet she was no stranger to expediency,” Gerry Adams wrote in his autobiography.

He described how, before a G7 meeting in Canada in July 1981, British officials told him she wanted to end the hunger strike. “They fed us a draft speech,” that she wished to make on the subject and, Adams added, “there was no doubt that they were prepared to take amendments to her text from us if it had been possible to come to some sort of resolution at that time.”

Brendan Duddy, the Derry businessman who acted as a link between Adams and the British, says in Beauty and Atrocity, a recent book by Joshua Levine, that “basically everything that sorted it out was on the table”.

Richard O’Rawe, PRO for republican prisoners during the strike, says that he and some of the prison leadership were prepared to accept a British offer after the death of the first four of the 10 hunger strikers, but were overruled by the outside leadership.

His account is denied by Brendan ‘Bic’ McFarlane with whom he says he had the conversation, but it is confirmed by Gerard Clarke, another prisoner who was listening in the next cell.

O’Rawe’s suspicion is that the hunger strike may have been kept going for political reasons until Owen Carron was elected as an MP on a Support the Prisoners ticket. Certainly the hunger strike helped undermine the Sinn Fein policy of not taking part in elections. Since 2006, I have been trying, through the Freedom of Information Act, to gain access to the British papers recoding their communications with the IRA. A few have been released, memos between Downing Street and the NIO, which suggest Thatcher did make an offer which was turned down, but which was implemented once the hunger strike was ended. The rest are still being refused on the grounds that they could undermine relations with the Irish Republic, compromise the operation of an intelligence agency or even undermine the devolution of policing and justice.

There are lessons here, not only for us but for other societies seeking to learn from our peace process. Where better to tease out the answers than in a Conflict Resolution Centre on the site of the Maze prison?

While Robinson’s at it, he should consider making an imaginative appointment to the project’s steering group: Richard O’Rawe.

Sourced from the Belfast Telegraph

Jim Gibney: Hunger Striker Helped Others Through Toughest Times

Note: There are two versions of this article: the one published in the Irish News, and a slightly different one on the Bobby Sands website. Both verisons can be found below.

Hunger Striker Helped Others Through Toughest Times
Jim Gibney
Thursday Column, Irish News
8/07/10

It does not happen very often that the publication of this column coincides with the anniversary of one of the 10 men who died on hunger strike in the H-Blocks in 1981.

Today is one of those rare occasions. Twenty-nine years ago Joe McDonnell died after 61 days on hunger strike. Next Tuesday is Martin Hurson’s anniversary.

Joe was one of the oldest of 10 men yet he was also a very young man. He was just 29 years old.

Joe was married to Goretti and had two children – Bernadette and Joseph. Joe came from a large family of eight children.

He began his hunger strike on May 9 1981, four days after the death of Bobby Sands. Before his death, after 61 days, three other prisoners had died – Francis Hughes, Patsy O’Hara and Raymond McCreesh.

Joe would have heard the news of their deaths while he was in a cell in an H-Block or in the H-Block hospital wing.

There is no doubt that Joe would have known the fate that awaited him as the news of the death of each hunger striker reached his ears. Yet at no stage during his agonising hunger strike did he pause to consider his impending death.

In an article written by Danny Morrison several years ago, following a visit to the then closed and decaying Long Kesh, he recalled meeting Joe, two days before he died, in the canteen of the prison hospital.

With Joe were Tom McElwee, Kieran Doherty TD, Kevin Lynch and Mickey Devine.

Danny wrote: “Joe McDonnell, who had two days to live, was brought in on a wheelchair and kept joking throughout the visit. He smoked several cigarettes in between sipping water.”
Gerry Adams in his book Before the Dawn wrote about knowing Joe from being interned with him:

“Joe was a very happy-go-lucky guy.” He recalled Joe’s “sense of fun”.

“On the day he started his hunger strike, he sent me out a Kind Edward Cigar from his prison cell,” he said.

That wit greeted me when I first met Joe in Cage 3 in 1973 and on the two occasions I visited him when he was on hunger strike.

I wondered at the time, and still do to this day, where Joe and the other hunger strikers got their resolve to carry them beyond life.

Indeed the same question may be asked of their loved ones who stood with them as they faced their final moments.

Jim ‘Jazz’ McCann, then a very young prisoner, remembered his time with Joe on the blanket protest in the H-Blocks. “Joe was a tower of strength. He got a lot of us through the protest. He was forever the optimist. A ‘raker’ – the life and soul of the wing.”

Joe never took a visit with his family for almost five years because he refused to wear a prison uniform. But he “talked about Goretti and Bernadette and Joseph and his family, especially his sister Maura, every day and night,” according to Jim.

He was in constant contact with Goretti through comms and had visitors from across Belfast smuggle her comms to him.

Jim said: “Joe’s dream was to get a visit with Goretti and the children and to be reunited with them, wearing not a prison uniform but his own clothes.”

Former hunger striker Raymond McCartney described Joe as “the heartbeat of the wing. The wise ‘old’ man of the wing, who was very very protective of other prisoners.”

Joe had regularly argued for the hunger strike, two years before it actually began. To his comrades he was “rock-solid”, “unbending”, “stubborn and principled”, “a figure-head”, “a family man”, “a caring person”.

And a man who made others laugh while he got them through the toughest and most challenging of times.

Sourced from the Irish News


A slightly different version of this article appears on the Bobby Sands Trust website:

Joe McDonnell Tribute

July 8, 2010

Today is the 29th anniversary of the death on hunger strike of IRA Volunteer Joe McDonnell from West Belfast. Veteran republican Jim Gibney here pays tribute to the fifth hunger striker to die in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh.

It does not happen very often that the publication of this column [Jim’s weekly feature in the ‘Irish News’] coincides with the anniversary of one of the ten men who died on hunger strike in the H-Blocks in 1981. Today is one of those rare occasions. Twenty-nine years ago Joe Mc Donnell died after 61 days on hunger strike. He was one of the oldest of the ten men yet he was also a very young man. He was 30-years-old. Joe was married to Goretti and had two children, Bernadette and Joseph. Joe came from a large family of eight children.

He began his hunger strike on the 9th May 1981, four days after the death of Bobby Sands. Before his death, after sixty one days, three other prisoners had died – Francis Hughes, Patsy O’Hara and Raymond Mc Creesh.

Joe would have heard the news of their deaths while he was in a cell in an H-Block or in the H-Block hospital wing. There is no doubt that Joe would have known the fate that awaited him as the news of the death of each hunger striker reached his ears. Yet at no stage during his agonising hunger strike did he pause to consider his impending death.

In an article written by Danny Morrison several years ago, following a visit to the then closed and decaying Long Kesh, he recalled meeting Joe, two days before he died, in the canteen of the prison hospital. With Joe were Tom Mc Elwee, Kieran Doherty TD, Kevin Lynch and Mickey Devine.

Danny wrote: “Joe Mc Donnell, who had two days to live, was brought in on a wheelchair and kept joking throughout the visit. He smoked several cigarettes in between sipping water. I had been there to bring them up to date with our contacts with the British and the ultimately forlorn attempts to resolve the political status issue.”

Gerry Adams in his book ‘Before the Dawn’ wrote about knowing Joe from being interned with him: “Joe was a very happy-go-lucky guy.” He recalled Joe’s “sense of fun… On the day he started his hunger strike, he sent me out a King Edward Cigar from his prison cell.”

I wondered at the time and still do to this day where Joe and the other hunger strikers got their resolve to carry them beyond life. Indeed the same question may be asked of their loved ones who stood with them as they faced their final moments.

Three ex-prisoners who knew Joe as an active IRA volunteer outside and inside prison spoke to me about the man they knew. Seamy Finucane said Joe had a reputation in Andersonstown for being “a hands-on IRA operator”. He was a member of two active service units attached to the Belfast Brigade and Battalion staffs. He oozed confidence. “In his company you knew you were safe”.

“Being safe” around Joe is how a very young prisoner, Jim ‘Jazz’ Mc Cann, remembered his time with Joe on the blanket protest in the H-Blocks. “Joe was a tower of strength. He got a lot of us through the protest. He was forever the optimist. A ‘raker’, the life and soul of the wing.” Joe never took a visit with his family for almost five years because he refused to wear a prison uniform. But he “talked about Goretti and Bernadette and Jospeh and his family especially his sister Maura every day and night,” according to Jim. He was in constant contact with Goretti through comms and had visitors from across Belfast smuggle her comms to him.

Jim said, “Joe’s dream was to get a visit with Goretti and the children and to be reunited with them, wearing not a prison uniform but his own clothes.”

Former hunger striker Raymond Mc Cartney described Joe as “the heart-beat of the wing. The wise ‘old’ man of the wing, who was very protective of other prisoners.”

Joe had regularly argued for a hunger strike, two years before it actually began. To his comrades he was ‘rock-solid’, ‘unbending’, ‘stubborn and principled’, ‘a figure head’, ‘a family man’, ‘a caring person’.

And a man who made others laugh while he got them through the toughest and challenging of times.

Sourced from The Bobby Sands Trust website

Gerry Adams speech on Joe McDonnell: A Heroic Leader

Speech on the grounds of the Roddy McCorley Club given by Gerry Adams at Joe McDonnell commemoration, 8 July 2010

Joe McDonnell was great craic. He loved life and had a great sense of fun. He was optimistic, charismatic, a natural leader, and a practical joker. And he was a dedicated and committed IRA Volunteer who 29 years ago on July 8th 1981 died on hunger strike.

I first met Joe during internment. We were being held on the Maidstone Prison ship in Belfast Lough. The conditions were punitive and primitive. After protests by us and following the imposition of British Direct Rule it was closed. We were moved to the cages in Long Kesh. Joe was one of hundreds of men and women incarcerated without trial. And although conditions were harsh in the cages he was always cheerful.

Later when he commenced his hunger strike, four days after the death of his friend and comrade Bobby Sands, Joe sent me out from the H Blocks a King Edward cigar. Don’t ask me how he got it.

Joe was the fifth man to join the hunger-strike. He was 29 years old, married to Goretti and with two children Bernadette and Joseph.

He was born in the Lower Falls but grew up in the Greater Andersonstown area and came to live in Lenadoon Avenue where he was a well-known and very popular man.

From the day he was sentenced Joe refused to put on the prison uniform to take a visit, so adamant was he that he would not be criminalised. He kept in touch instead, with his wife and family, by means of smuggled communications –comms – written with smuggled-in biro refills on prison issue toilet paper and smuggled out via other blanket men who were taking visits.

Incarcerated in H5-Block, Joe acted as ‘scarcher’ (an anglicised form of the Irish word, scairt – to shout) shouting the scéal, or news from his block to the adjoining one about a hundred yards away. This was the only way that news from outside could be communicated from one H-Block to the blanket men in another H-Block.

Joe had been arrested at the same time as Bobby Sands and the two were very close. It was predictable, inevitable almost, that when Bobby died on May 5th after 66 days on hunger strike that Joe would take his place a few days later.

Like Bobby, Joe also stood for election. On June 11th there was a general election in the south. 9 prisoners, four of them hunger strikers, stood. It was a time of severe economic difficulties and there were many pressing issues bearing down on citizens in that part of the island. Despite that, and the fact that the political platform of the prisoners was for support for their five demands, thousands of people used their votes to back the prisoners.

Paddy Agnew and Kieran Doherty were elected and Joe came within 300 votes of becoming a TD for Sligo.

Despite this public backing the Irish government proved inept, was hostile to the prisoners and refused to stand up to the Thatcher government.

Joe died in the early hours of July 8th after 61 days on hunger strike. A few hours later Nora McCabe was shot with a plastic bullet and murdered by the RUC at the corner of Linden Street and the Falls Road.

Two days later I arrived late for Joe’s funeral having attended the earlier funeral of 16 year old John Dempsey, a member of Na Fianna Éireann who had been shot dead by the British Army.

On the Andersonstown Road, outside the building that later became Connolly House, an IRA firing party gave its last salute to a fallen comrade. As they withdrew from the funeral the British Army and RUC raided a house in St. Agnes Drive a short distance away. There was the thud and crack of gunfire and then of plastic bullets as the house and then the funeral was attacked by British forces.

The scenes were chaotic. There was a running battle between mourners and the British Army and RUC in St. Agnes Drive which spilled out onto the Andersonstown Road. Other mourners, with children, huddled in groups wherever they could to get protection from the scores of plastic bullets that were being fired. As Martin McGuinness and I pushed our way through the crowd from the front of the funeral procession the plastic bullets flew like deadly flocks of birds from the RUC land Rovers towards the mourners.

Somewhere in the middle of all this I heard that my brother Paddy had been shot. Somebody else told me he was in a Saracen which was sitting in the street. An elderly man lay on the ground in front of the Saracen refusing to let it move. It was my uncle Paddy. And then an ambulance with siren screaming flew past me. I was later told that Paddy was in that.

But despite all that was happening Joe’s funeral still had to proceed and the thousands who were there did so with the greatest dignity.

Much has been written since then about the hunger strikers, the hunger strike, and its impact. I believe it was a watershed event in Irish history. It changed the course of Irish history.

I also believe that for those today who want to know what it means to be a republican you need look no further than the men and women in Armagh and the Blocks and to the hunger strikers.

They are today’s role models. They were noble, selfless, decent men and women who demonstrated enormous heroism in the face of great hardship. They were totally committed to opposing oppression and injustice and to building a new society based on equality and freedom.

Through their efforts and those of thousands of others Irish republicanism has grown in political strength to a level unimaginable in 1981.

Two weeks ago I spoke at the Short Strand commemoration to mark the 40th anniversary of the Battle of St. Mathews. As part of those events Danny Devenny, mural painter extraordinaire, who was in the Cages with Bobby Sands, painted a new mural.

In bold words it says: ‘Understand the Past – And build a Better Future’.That’s where our focus must be. That’s what motivated Joe and Bobby and Big Doc and their comrades. And there is a role for everyone in building that new future.

Sourced from Gerry Adams’ blog, Leargas

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SPRING 2013: 55 HOURS
A day-by-day account of the events of early July, 1981.


There's an inner thing in every man,
Do you know this thing my friend? It has withstood the blows of a million years, and will do so to the end.