July 1981


Uncovering the Truth About the 1981 Hunger Strike

Was there a deal? The IRA hunger strike debate continues

Was there a deal? The IRA hunger strike debate continues.
Mick Hall, Organized Rage

p9-pic1Ever since the former IRA volunteer and Blanket-man Richard O’Rawe, published his book, Blanket-men: An untold Story of the H-Block Hunger Strike, (2005) there has been an ongoing and increasingly bitter debate amongst Irish Republicans; over the truth of O’Rawe’s claim that the Thatcher government had offered a viable deal, which could have ended the hunger strike after the death of Patsy O’Hara, the fourth hunger striker to die. The importance of this matter cannot be overstated, for if proved true, O’Rawe’s claim removes the shibboleth which has since become established fact, i e the hunger strikers were in charge of their own destiny. As Bobby Sands and his fellow H/S were disciplined revolutionary soldiers, this is something which should never have held water.

What I find interesting about the way this debate has developed over the last three years or so, is those who were the most vocal in claiming Richard O’Rawe was an opportunist scoundrel, or worse; and claimed there was not a shred of the truth in his claims about Thatcher making a viable offer through back channels. (British Intel) Have now moved away from using this argument, and these days mainly concentrate their fire on those who have been vocal in their support for O’Rawe.

It seems to me the main reason for this change is the reality on the ground, there is a growing consensus within the north of Ireland that the SF leadership, despite all the odds in their favor, have lost the argument with O’Rawe; and today, all but the most blind or willful, accept the truth of what he wrote. This was demonstrated last week when the main nationalist daily newspaper in the North, The Irish News, published a series of articles under the header, ‘THE HUNGER STRIKE: Special Investigation’ which solidified Richard O’Rawes claims. (Although it is important to add, many still believe little good will come from poking these coals, as when doing so people will look at the matter from todays political perspective, not the reality on the ground in 1981)

Being Ireland, this is not only about an intellectual search for the historical truth, sadly there is a darker side, on publication of the book, the ‘smear and whispering brigade,’ were set to work undermining O’Rawe integrity. Richard, who lives in the heart of Republican Belfast, had himself witnessed what it is like when a comrade receives the black spot, friends and neighbors, some of whom having known the individual all their lives, cross the road when they see them coming, if they have children they are liable to get ragged at school, doors that were always open become firmly shut.

The award winning journalist and author Ed Moloney, who has had his own experience of the ‘black spot,’ wrote in the Irish News special investigation he had advised O’Rawe not to publish the book, as the backlash against him would make his life an absolute misery. As too did senior members of the PIRA, although I presume their words were couched in somewhat different terms to those of Moloney.

But publish O’Rawe did and in the process he withstood the attacks and smears and in his own way, he has equalled the determination of his ten dead comrades. Thus SF have moved away from attacking O’Rawe’s integrity and character and have instead targeted his supporters.

They have especially targeted ‘Rusty Nail,’ a blogger on the popular Irish web site Slugger O’Toole, who has posted as they have emerged into the public domain, meticulously researched links to this story. A shoot the messenger strategy may be fine for monarchs, para-military chieftains and oligarchs, but now that the PIRA has been all but stood down, it works less well when targeted at ordinary mortals, especially one who posts verifiable links to all they publish. O’Rawes critics have been especially noisy about Rusty Nail’s use of a pseudonym, never mind that most people within Republican circles know Rusty’s real name, or that the overwhelming majority of those who blog at Slugger use pseudonyms, as the legacy of the violent years still raises justifiable fears. So why bother to attack the messenger, could it be what lays behind these attacks on O’Rawe’s supporters, is the Shinners fear of losing supporters abroad, they realize on this issue they have lost the home ground, but they are determined to continue the fight, as they are worried about loosing US support.

The core of the argument from O’Rawes book is that Mrs Thatcher made the hunger strikers an offer which conceded four out of five of their core demands, this offer was acceptable to the prison OC, but rather than rubber stamping it, the leadership of the PIRA outside the jail, advised rejecting it as they felt there was wriggle room for some improvement. When this wriggle room failed to materialize and the deal fell through, a further six prisoners went on to fast to their deaths.

Dixie Elliott, a former Blanket Man, who during the the blanket protest and hunger strikes was imprisoned on the Maze prison wing H-3, along with Richard O’Rawe and the PIRA O/C, Brendan McFarlane and is supportive of O’Rawe, wrote on Slugger last week,

“Did six men die to ‘fast-forward the move towards electoralism.”

Dixie in a few words has got to the core of this kerfuffle, for if you strip away the baggage and political garbage, I find it amazing not a single Shinner has had the confidence to answer this question affirmatively. Instead they preferred to operate in the old way and set the attack dogs on O’Rawe, rather than try to engage with him in an open and honest manner.

We all owe a debt to Richard O’Rawe and those who have supported and encouraged him. This is a very complex tale but one thing that is not complex is the truth. As the saying goes, in war time, the truth is always the first casualty, but for the Provos, the war is over, and there is absolutely no valid reason why the truth should not be told. Not least because the truth of political struggle, arms future generations in the hope they will not repeat the mistakes of their forbears. Legends are for the Gods.

As to Dixie’s question, I would ask this, would it have been such a bad thing if six men had died to ‘fast-forward the move towards electoralism? The volunteers of the PIRA were political soldiers and the truth is, many of them have died for much less. Forget where we are, and without any doubt it is not the destination many Irish Republicans thought they would arrive at when the brought their ticket at the start of their journey. Although, I doubt even a Machiavellian prince like Gerry Adams or George Smiley himself, would have foreseen the Provos running Stormont along side the DUP. I find the implication made by some in the O’Rawe camp surreal, that back in the early 1980s, the Adams leadership crew made a Fustian pact with the devil in the form of British Intel, to place Martin Mcguinness and Gerry Kelly’s bottoms in a Stormont Ministers office.

The leadership of PIRA back in 1981, justifiably had a duty to consider all aspects of the struggle, the lack of an electoral base was clearly hampering their cause. Without expanding its core support base, north and south, the Provisional movements struggle was going no where fast. The support for the hunger strikers had proved there was a support base out there, if only the movement could find the means to harness it.

Volunteers within the Maze were continuing their own war by other means, and the Blanket protest and hunger strikes were part of that. I’m sure they would have been the first to acknowledge that their struggles were part of the wider theatre of struggle.

Future generations of Historians will have much to thank Richard O’Rawe for, as we all do.

To attack Richard when leading Shinners knew he was telling the truth, was not only wrong, but plain stupid, as far to many people, on opposing sides were in the loop to keep this door firmly shut.

Thanks to the hunger strikes and countless committed activists, the SF leadership have managed to build the party as an electoral force on what were problematical footings, to say the least. However by bad mouthing O’Rawe they took a wrong turn, not least because he was once one of their own, more than that he was one of the ‘300 plus spartans.’ That he was paid back for his years of loyalty in such a disgraceful way only highlights this mistake. If SF is not to go the way of the Workers Party and become a shooting star which shone a bright progressive light across the heaven, only to eventually crash to the ground due to the weight of lies and deceit. Then it must pension off the smear and lies brigade and play a prominent role with others in setting up an independent inquiry into this contentious matter.

Sourced from Organized Rage


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

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