Blanketmen, Richard O'Rawe claims the IRA
leadership in the Maze Prison was prepared to accept
a substantive offer from the British Government
that would have brought an early end to the 1981
that offer was made before a fifth hunger-striker
died - Joe McDonnell - but the IRA Army Council
overruled the prison leadership and the strike continued.
decision that, according to O'Rawe, led to McDonnell
and a further five republican inmates needlessly
starving themselves to death before, finally, the
protest ended in disarray.
prisoners never did win a formal granting of political
status, though their other less-contentious demands
were introduced over a relatively short period of
time after the protest ended.
latest account directly challenges the republican
and, until now, almost universally accepted historical
narrative of that period.
thinly disguised charge is that, although initially
opposed to the strike, the IRA Army Council and
specifically Gerry Adams deliberately let it continue
beyond the British offer and until it could no longer
be sustained because, after witnessing public reaction
to the death of Bobby Sands, they realised it handed
them a glorious opportunity to garner worldwide
sympathy for the republican cause and strike a massive
propaganda blow against the British.
Bobby Sands and other hunger-strikers were elected
to the British and Irish parliaments, republicans
needed time, as well, to properly harness that unexpectedly
high level of public support and use it to build
an electoral base for Sinn Fein in both Northern
Ireland and the Republic.
positive by-product of this, in O'Rawe's opinion,
is that the electoral dividend has allowed Gerry
Adams and Sinn Fein to lead republicans away from
violence and direct them towards seeking to achieve
their aims by purely political means.
of that, though, if O'Rawe is correct, then a cynical
and carefully constructed mythology has been built
around the hunger strike and sustained by the republican
movement not merely for exploitation - but of absolute
concealment may not have been as difficult to manage
as one might imagine.
this account, the only prisoners made aware of the
British offer were O'Rawe and Bik MacFarlane (prison
OC during the protest), and, whether deliberately
or not, the distinct possibility is also raised
that Adams and another person, "Liam Og"
- both part of a small group tasked by the IRA to
oversee all external aspects of the protest - didn't
make the Army Council immediately aware that the
prisoners had indeed signalled their willingness
to accept the offer.
is possible, that only at some later date was the
leadership in its entirety brought up to speed.
if a secret had to be kept, the task would have
been made a lot easier by the fact that, from the
outset, it was a secret known only to a few people.
motivation for this book is made clear by the author
from almost the outset:
Richard O'Rawe is seeking a measure of redemption
and the lifting of a burden he carries.
feels if he hadn't acquiesced so readily in the
IRA Army Council's decision, it might have helped
save the lives of at least some of the remaining
six hunger strikers who went on to die after the
British offer was rejected.
he wasn't forceful enough in trying to encourage
Adams and the rest of the IRA Army Council to accept
that offer, he has carried his guilt since 1981.
is no way of telling, definitively, if what O'Rawe
claims is true and little prospect of ever being
able to do so.
such carefully crafted and high profile reputations
at stake; so few people completely aware of everything
that took place; and the personal risks involved
in undermining the accepted, and heavily propagated,
history of something as totemic as the hunger strike
- it is highly unlikely that anyone will come forward
to substantiate his account.
the publication of Blanketmen, Bik MacFarlane
has strenuously denied that any substantive offer
was made, much less accepted on behalf of the prisoners
by himself and O'Rawe.
the orthodoxy, dissenters invariably plough a lonely
O'Rawe is mistaken, it is hard to imagine anything
other than confused thinking motivating him to make
I suppose, in the absence of any corroboration,
should that possibility be dismissed out of hand.
in the best of circumstances, it can be very difficult
to keep track (particularly in a chronological sense)
when several different strands of negotiation are
operating simultaneously, as was the case during
the hunger strike.
so again, when one considers the emotional turmoil
and added stress that must have come with being
part of a prison leadership during a hunger strike.
is, as well, another possibility that lies somewhere
between the two starkly differing accounts of what
actually took place and why.
prisoners had gone on hunger strike the previous
year, 1980, but that protest was brought to an ignoble
end when abandoned on a promise of government concessions
that never materialised.
that context, it is hardly surprising, then, that
the IRA Army Council would be loathe to sanction
another in 1981.
to O'Rawe, it was only after fierce lobbying by
Bobby Sands, the prison OC, that the external leadership
eventually agreed it could go ahead.
a substantive British offer was made and accepted
by the prisoners, but turned down by the IRA leadership,
the previous year's experience might go some way
towards explaining why that happened.
IRA Army Council, having only reluctantly given
the go ahead for a second hunger strike, would,
I imagine, be determined that the 1981 strike wouldn't
end like the previous one: on promises that weren't
in the public domain or subject to witness by mutually
agreed intermediaries or, for that matter, even
relayed in writing, and, therefore, could so easily
be reneged upon.
they might just genuinely have considered the offer
O'Rawe refers to as being either too vague or not
going far enough, or both.
potential damage to republicanism, inside as well
as outside the movement, contained in the scenario
of a second protest collapsing early after loss
of life but without substantive and non-retractable
gains to point to, takes little to imagine.
said all of that, O'Rawe's account is compelling:
not least because, clearly, he is no malcontent
with an axe to grind.
anything, he comes across as something of a zealot
who finds it extremely difficult to question, much
less criticise, anything or anyone connected with
hardly surprising, that is where Blanketmen
grates most with someone from my unionist background.
a man of undoubted intelligence, has brought himself
to publicly undermine, at least partially, the most
venerated of modern-day republican narratives but
is immune, it seems, to other more obviously flawed
republican myths and worldviews.
he happily perpetuates throughout Blanketmen.
least, are his straight-faced repetitions of "the
party line" on sectarianism and his seeking,
often, to justify the unjustifiable.
a book like this, the reader might reasonably have
expected him to at least acknowledge the most strikingly
obvious feature and one of the many common failings
all our paramilitary groupings have in common: the
gaping chasm that invariably exists between high-flown
rhetoric and the stark reality of attitudes and
actions where it really matters, on the ground.
that is by way of deliberate or, even, unconscious
over-compensation for the other claims he makes,
but it is telling nonetheless.
his constant drawing of parallels between the prisoners,
in their suffering and sacrifice, and Jesus Christ
- all but claiming, at one point, Bobby Sands to
be a direct reincarnation - is, to say the least,
stretching it a bit.
I am no theologian, but I think I can safely claim
that even Jesus would have found it extremely difficult
to find much commonality between His own philosophy,
lifestyle and actions, and those of the Provisional
IRA or most of the rest of us.
the epilogue to Blanketmen - via. various
apologies, acknowledgements and explanations - O'Rawe
continues his veneration of the IRA and, indeed,
Gerry Adams but sticks (though, on occasion, one
suspects he isn't going to) to his original contention:
that the IRA Army Council and Adams made a wrong
call that needlessly cost the lives of six hunger
view of his, aired in the epilogue, is that British
Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher and the British
State bear ultimate responsibility for the deaths
of the 10 hunger-strikers.
definition, that runs directly counter to the central
claim he makes in his book.
to Blanketmen, Bobby Sands forced the issue
of hunger strike against wiser counsel and, early
in the protest, that same counsel refused to accept
a good deal when it was on offer.
those reservations, I consider Blanketmen
an excellent addition to the growing library of
"insider" accounts of the conflict (far
better than most, in fact).
aside from the contentious claims, it provides an
invaluable insight into life on the H Blocks during
those turbulent years as well as some of the thinking
and the decision-making processes within the republican
movement at that time.
is a fine writer and a man who, quite obviously
and for many years, has been torn between his loyalty
to the republican movement and his conscience: his
decision to publish is, by any standards, a courageous
thoughts that remain with me: Blanketmen,
stripped bare of any sugary romanticism, with its
accounts of deliberate brutality and casual courage
(often residing in the same person), ill-defined
goals and supposed high principles (all confused
or forgotten from virtually the sound of the first
gunshot, with excuses and lies too often masquerading
as explanation) and elites building fame, fortune
and careers on the back of so much needless waste
of life (comprised, almost entirely, of innocents
and cannon-fodder), could be interpreted as the
entire conflict writ small.
one has always to be certain when seeking release
from a burden, that you don't simply shift an equal
weight onto the shoulders of others - in this case
the families of the hunger-strikers.
O'Rawe certainly tries hard not to do that, there
is no way of telling whether or not he succeeds.