July 1981

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Uncovering the Truth About the 1981 Hunger Strike

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

Why Adams sticks to his Maze myth

From The Sunday Times April 12, 2009

Why Adams sticks to his Maze myth
Liam Clarke

Thatcher’s role in the offer of IRA concessions is no longer of any real importance – but Adams’s is

Sinn Fein was quite disorganised last Sunday after this newspaper published British government documents, released under the Freedom of Information act, about the 1981 hunger strike.

The documents showed that around July 5, 1981 Margaret Thatcher made a substantial offer to the IRA leadership through a secret conduit known as Mountain Climber. The prime minister conceded that republican prisoners could wear their own clothes, and gave ground on other issues.

The offer was not made public at the time and was officially denied after it was turned down. Had it been accepted, the lives of as many as six of the 10 hunger strikers who died might have been saved. The rejected offer was similar to what did actually happen after the hunger strike ended months later.

Sinn Fein wouldn’t comment on the documents before publication, and afterwards told The Irish Times “these allegations are not true. They emanate from British Military Intelligence”. Danny Morrison of the Bobby Sands Trust welcomed the release of the papers but accused me of misinterpreting them. “The British government documents, far from being incriminating, actually corroborate the account of what happened at the time by Sinn Fein [and] surviving hunger strikers,” he claimed.

Both interpretations cannot be true and, judging by the current edition of An Phoblacht, Morrison’s comments are now accepted by Sinn Fein. The documents are reproduced in full in the republican newspaper, while the Sinn Fein press office’s contribution has been quietly dropped.

Denial may still be a fallback position. The only comment on the Bobby Sands Trust website in response to Morrison’s interpretation reads: “Danny, it is just propaganda to drop the leadership into the ashes. Hold your heads up. We have faith in you and your words.”

The schizophrenic reaction shows how difficult this is for Sinn Fein. One of the problems was set out by the Northern Ireland Office as it explained the four years of denial, equivocation and delay in releasing these documents and why it was still withholding the most sensitive material. “Many of those involved in the original issue are still intimately involved in the ongoing political process,” it told me. “To release this information at such a sensitive time might have an adverse impact on the relationship between the British and Irish governments and consequently impact on the completion of devolution of policing and justice powers.”

The main people active in 1981 and still important to the political process are in the Sinn Fein leadership. British and Irish ministers are dead, like Charlie Haughey, or long retired, like Thatcher. Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness are still operating at a senior level.

As a result of the peculiar circumstances of Northern Ireland, and their own consummate skills, Adams and McGuinness have survived long enough to accumulate the political baggage and the skeletons in the cupboard that only retired political leaders usually have. This is the most obvious reason why Sinn Fein and the Northern Ireland Office have a common interest in dampening disclosure. While Thatcher was in active politics, it was expedient for the British government to deny offering the IRA concessions. Now it doesn’t matter to the Tories or the British government what she did, but it does to Adams, who received the messages.

For a time, British figures such as Sir John Blelloch and Sir Humphrey Atkins denied any concessions were offered. Now we have official records of discussions between Atkins and Thatcher on this issue, the denials are redundant.

Yet last week Sinn Fein relied on Blelloch’s 1980s denial to maintain its position that the Brits offered nothing worth talking about to Adams, who denies he was ever in the IRA. Since he is the party president, Sinn Fein has to back Adams even if his position makes no sense.

The blanket protest was started in 1976 after Kieran Nugent told prison officers the only way he would wear the garb of a criminal was if they nailed it to his back. The anthem of the subsequent protest, the H Block song, ran: “I’ll wear no convict’s uniform or meekly serve my time/that Britain might brand Ireland’s fight, 800 years of crime.” The issue of prison uniform was the rallying cry of the whole protest. That is why Thatcher’s offer was so significant.

Ending the strike in July 1981 might have spoiled Sinn Fein’s chance of winning the Fermanagh/South Tyrone by-election. As it was, Owen Carron’s victory secured its entry into electoral politics and paved the way for the IRA ceasefire 13 years later. Richard O’Rawe, part of the IRA prison leadership, revealed in Blanketmen how he and Brendan “Bik” McFarlane, the IRA’s prison leader, discussed the British government offer and agreed it could end the hunger strike. McFarlane denied there was any offer, while Morrison says there was but it was not pinned down.

In the face of these contradictory attempts to rubbish his account, O’Rawe appears to be winning the argument. Gerard Hodgins, who was on hunger strike when the protest was called off, is a recent convert to his point of view. When O’Rawe first published his claims, Hodgins sprang to the republican leadership’s defence. “The more I see his spurious accusations in the media, the more I am inclined to believe that he is following a political agenda through which he is happy to intensify and prolong the hurt and anguish the families of our dead friends and comrades endure,” he wrote to the press in May 2006.

Last week Hodgins courageously said he had changed his mind after weighing the evidence, including the recent papers. Describing the issue as a festering sore, he called upon both the British government and the Sinn Fein leadership to “come out with full details to set all this to rest”.

Another former hunger striker, Liam McCloskey, underwent a religious realignment of his life around the time of his 55-day fast and now repudiates violence. Like Hodgins, he went on hunger strike believing that defeat was inevitable. “I didn’t think it would work but I felt a duty to the others and I knew that if I didn’t go on it, someone else would have to take my place,” he said.

McCloskey believed the offer would have been enough for him if the leadership of the INLA, of which he was a member, had endorsed it. However the INLA, three of whose members died on hunger strike, was not given any say.

Danny Morrison is clear that he gave a full explanation of an offer to the hunger strikers on July 5, but Sean Flynn, an IRSP leader who went into the prison with him on the second of his two visits that day, recalls nothing of the kind. Flynn met Kevin Lynch, an INLA hunger striker and friend of McCloskey, who was to die on August 1. Flynn is quite clear that Lynch “knew nothing about the Mountain Climber or that there was going to be a deal”. Lynch died a few weeks later.

Tommy McCourt, now a community worker but then a leader of the IRSP, visited Michael Devine who died on August 20, the last hunger striker to expire. He told Devine that the hunger strike was unlikely to succeed and that if he came off it, the INLA would back him. Devine replied that to end the strike would represent complete defeat and moved the conversation on to his funeral arrangements. He was aware of no honourable way out.

The question is, were he and the last few hunger strikers in possession of all the facts when they made their decision to die? Protecting political positions is no reason to hold back information that could answer this question.

Sourced from The Sunday Times

Sunday Times: Was Gerry Adams complicit over hunger strikers?

From The Sunday Times April 5, 2009

Was Gerry Adams complicit over hunger strikers?
Papers suggest IRA snubbed a conciliatory offer from Margaret Thatcher to ensure Sinn Fein by-election win to Westminster

Liam Clarke
Read the documents here

Did five, or even six, of the republican prisoners who were on hunger strike in the Maze prison in 1981 die to advance the political strategy of Sinn Fein?

Did Gerry Adams and other members of the IRA kitchen cabinet snub a conciliatory offer from Margaret Thatcher, then the British prime minister, which met the substance of the prisoners’ demands, just to ensure that Sinn Fein would win a crucial by-election to Westminster?

These are the explosive questions raised for Sinn Fein by papers released to The Sunday Times under the Freedom of Information Act.
Read the rest of this entry »

‘Raw truth’ of Hunger Strike

‘Raw truth’ of Hunger Strike
Sunday Times Online

Comment: Liam Clarke: Raw truth of hunger strike fights its way past myths
March 20, 2005

Anybody who wants to understand the history of the Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein should read Blanketmen, Richard O’Rawe’s searingly honest account of the events surrounding the 1981 hunger strike.

O’Rawe gives us something new in modern republican history: a participant’s account that attempts to face the facts without romanticising them.

Up to now we have had mostly anodyne accounts, in which every dead IRA man was good at Gaelic games, fearless on active service and loved his mother. Every decision taken by Gerry Adams, the infallible helmsman of the movement and founder of the peace process, was not only correct but also designed to save lives and bring about a ceasefire.

We have also been treated to cod biographies in which Adams never joined the IRA, and a book of lives of IRA volunteers in which well-known informers are revered for their dedication. In this alternative universe, the IRA never committed a crime and even when it made mistakes it was forced into them by the Brits. As Goethe noted, “patriotism ruins history”.

O’Rawe was a public relations officer for IRA prisoners and later for Sinn Fein, so it should not surprise him that the full weight of the republican propaganda machine was deployed to drown the simple truth that many of the later hunger strikers wanted to end the protest around the time when Joe McDonnell, the fifth of the 10 prisoners to die, reached the critical stage.

I know the feeling. I still remember the call from Danny Morrison to my home in North Belfast nearly 10 years ago. He was appealing to me not to write a book about the hunger strikes. He implored me not to slander the memory of the dead or bring distress to their families.

I had just conducted an interview with Geraldine Scheiss, the girlfriend of Kieran Doherty, the eighth hunger striker to die. She told me that he wanted to call off the strike and that, in his final two hours of life, asked her to get tablets to save him from death. Tom Toner, the prison chaplain, confirmed that shortly before Doherty died Scheiss had come out of his room to say he was asking for tablets “for his body”. Doherty’s mother wouldn’t agree until her husband Alfie got back to the jail. Scheiss tried unsuccessfully to get the tablets herself. By the time Doherty’s father returned to the prison, his son had died.

It was clear to me that Kieran Doherty was unhappy about the hunger strike and had expressed his doubts about continuing. He had told Mary McDermott, the mother of Sean McDermott, a close IRA comrade, that “there was a lot more to it than the five demands”. It was clear from her and from other prisoners that Paddy Quinn, another hunger striker who was taken off by his mother when he became unconscious, had spoken in favour of ending the strike.

I sent a copy of my taped interview with Scheiss to her for comment, mentioning in a covering letter that one or two passages were not clear. I got a solicitor’s letter back denying she had said any of it and saying the tape must all have been faulty. As a result I put in only what was independently confirmed.

Sinn Fein had stymied me at every turn in writing the book. I was invited for interviews and kept sitting for hours in a room with prisoners’ wives and relatives waiting for the Long Kesh minibus, only to be told that nobody was available to speak to me. Eventually two liaison people were appointed — Morrison later told me that the only purpose was to see what I was up to — but they proved quite helpful.

One was the former hunger striker Pat “Beag” McGeown, a republican of tremendous dedication, haunted by survivor’s guilt because his wife had taken him off the hunger strike when so many others had died. “You can’t really be sorry to be alive, but yes it does trouble me,” he said.

He hinted at things that would be confirmed and fleshed out in O’Rawe’s account. McGeown told me he had wanted the strike to end and that “a certain number of hunger strikers had arrived at the same conclusion and were saying, ‘Look, possibly the whole thing should be reviewed’.”

It was also clear to me that, although the IRA leadership had not wanted the hunger strike to start in the first place, once Bobby Sands was elected to Westminster things had changed. They wanted it to continue until Owen Carron, a Sinn Fein member who stood as “proxy prisoner” could be elected to the seat left vacant by Sands’s death. At the time there was a republican policy of not contesting Westminster or Dail elections and this was the leadership’s way round it. As Adams said in a 1985 Bobby Sands memorial lecture: “The hunger strikes, at great cost to our H-Block martyrs and their families, smashed criminalisation and led to the electoral strategy, plus the revamping of the IRA.”

O’Rawe puts it more bluntly. The hunger strikers, he said, may have been “cannon fodder” and six of them may have died just to get Sinn Fein’s political project under way.

The hunger strike was prolonged despite an offer to the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace (ICJP), which would have been guaranteed by the Catholic church’s hierarchy, that met many of the prisoners’ demands. Substantially the same offer was repeated through an MI6 officer with whom Adams was liaising, and was accepted by the prison leadership as the best deal available. When the hunger strike did eventually end, the same offer was at length implemented and greeted as a victory by republicans.

O’Rawe reveals that McGeown had been warned to keep quiet about his doubts when Adams visited the hunger strikers after many of their families asked him to end the strike. Adams made it clear the visit was a formality, saying that he had come because he “felt duty-bound to satisfy the clergymen and all those who were pressurising their families”.

Most tellingly of all he was accompanied by Carron, who was dressed in what the prisoners referred to as his “election suit”. The implied message was that they would be letting the movement down if they did not hold out until polling was over. Doherty did not attend because he was judged too ill. Instead Adams visited him in a private room and came out saying that “Big Doc” was determined to continue.

The price was deaths in the prison and on the streets, as hunger strike rioting continued. An honest debate on Sinn Fein’s entry to politics was avoided, and Adams’ strategy was advanced.

Some may say it was worth it. Ending the hunger strike after three or four deaths on the basis of the offer to the ICJP, and the parallel offer through MI6, would have set the Sinn Fein political project back. The Catholic church and the SDLP, who were to the fore in the ICJP, would have shared the credit, with little going the way of Sinn Fein.

Adams would then have had to argue openly for a political strategy. He might have faced a split.

Of course it is the duty of military leaders to take such decisions. Generals send men to their deaths after weighing the lives of soldiers against their overall strategic objectives.

It can be argued that Adams and the republican leadership made the right choice but it is an argument that they never had the courage to make. Certainly not to the families of the hunger strikers.

Sourced from Bobby Sands Net Resources

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