For the cause or caucus
Richard O'Rawe's book which claims that the six H-Block hunger strikers were allowed to die purely for political expediency is reviewed by Hugh Logue who was part of the team that negotiated to end the hunger strikes
by Richard O'Rawe
New Island, €13.99
The old adage that troubles come in three will have credence in Sinn Féin. Just when they had hoped that they were emerging from the Robert Mc Cartney murder and the Northern Bank raid, along comes Richard O'Rawe's Blanketmen to unsettle that holy of holies, the 1981 H-Block hunger strike, during which 10 hunger strikers died. For republicans that is the shrine from which all popular support has flowed in the last twenty years. Prior to it, Sinn Féin was a political fig leaf on a military movement, extremely cynical of electoral participation. O'Rawe's assertion that six of the hunger strikers were allowed to die to secure the electoral success of Owen Carron in Fermanagh South Tyrone is as unwelcome to Sinn Féin as it will be unsettling for the families of the hunger strikers.
Blanketmen is an important, interesting yet intriguing book. Intriguing, in that in this well written and readable book, there is no acknowledgement of assistance in editing, researching or proofing of the text.
The book is important and interesting in that, unlike other books emanating from the republican movement, O'Rawe did not submit it for the Imprimatur that accompanies texts from that movement. This, in part, explains the virulent antagonism avalanched on the author by some republican protagonists.
The 1981 hunger strike history is an area where any unauthorised attention is unwelcome to republicans and is, according to them, an unwarranted intrusion into their preserve.
I recall in 2001, a senior republican telling me that any 20th anniversary commemoration of the Hunger Strike would be "very muted because of the range of views, feelings and passions it could arouse within the movement – not all of them positive!"
In truth, there are many valid reasons why revisiting the hunger strike might be approached with caution, since it reopens what were anguished times for the families, revisits the grotesque horror that was the H-Blocks and revives painful memories many hoped they could leave behind. From Sinn Féin's perspective, it is best left to the iconic photo gallery it has carefully staged. Above all, to explore the motives for the continuation of the hunger strike is betrayal.
O'Rawe asserts that the hunger strike was resolvable before the fifth hunger striker Joe Mc Donnell's death, that the prisoners informed their command that the deal on offer was acceptable and that the IRA Army Council – advised and guided by Gerry Adams – refused the settlement offered directly to Adams by a British Government agent code-named "Mountain Climber."
The motive for rejection, O'Rawe claims, was to prolong the strike until after the by-election in Fermanagh-South Tyrone, thereby securing Owen Carron's election – an election that would launch Sinn Féin into electoral politics. Only a very small caucus, headed by Adams, was aware of this plan.
The author claims that the terms for resolution offered by Mountain Climber were similar to those arrived at between the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace (ICJP) and the Northern Ireland Office Minister after many hours of redefining clothes, work, recreation and association; terms that were not bettered throughout the hunger strike protest.
O'Rawe, as Public Relations Officer, together with the prisoner OC (Officer Commanding), drew up a conciliatory statement of clarification on 4 July which suggested that what was on offer could form the basis for ending the hunger strike. It was set up for an agreement by the hunger strikers, and when it emerged on the late afternoon of 4 July, the ICJP were with some family members and some H-Block committee members at a meeting in Greenan Lodge. We were reviewing our earlier meeting with the hunger strikers, and some family members knew the conciliatory statement was coming. That meeting ended on a more hopeful note than any before or after. However, Danny Morrison, at Adams' behest, visited the strikers on the afternoon of 5 July.
Until now, we and the families have been led to believe that it was the unpardonable failure by the British to validate their offer that resulted in the hunger strike not being called off. Now we hear from O'Rawe that the British did make the offer in secret, that it was rejected by Adams and co, but presented as the hunger strikers' refusal to accept.
Did Morrison use his visit of 5 July to stiffen the resolve of the hunger strikers and reject the statement issued by the prisoners of 4 July? Was that the reason the hunger strikers – rightly sceptical of British intentions to honour their words – resisted the ICJP request, when we met them that evening, to issue a statement inviting the British to come to the prison and offer to them directly what was being intimated privately?
O'Rawe was close to the heart of operations at the time within the prison. His tale is a consuming, grim narrative of the utter squalor of the dirty protest, as prisoners were steeped in their own sewage in a display of unbendable will and indomitable spirit. He details their misery as they sank into the vileness of their conditions. He describes the interminable beatings and humiliations visited on them – beatings that would surely have justified a successful appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. (Something which, together with the late Paul O'Dwyer, I initiated much earlier, but which was rejected by the hunger strikers on the advice of Adams, lest republicans lost control of their driven agenda.)
While there is much awfulness, the account does have its humour and its cameos. For instance the authentic language of O'Rawe's cell mate from Bellaghy – where girls are "blades" or "cutties" – would leave Seamus Heaney proud of his fellow Bellaghyman's vocabulary .
Ultimately, after Owen Carron's election, the hunger strike began to unravel and disintegrate. The immense courage of Catherine Quinn in breaking rank to take her son Paddy off the hunger strike has never been recognised. A widow, in her fifties, Quinn's quiet resolve was truly heroic and ranks with the highest acts of human dignity in the history of the troubles.
In the end, the books stands or falls on the veracity of its core assertion: that the republican leadership, and Gerry Adams in particular, allowed the hunger strike to be prolonged, and so caused six more hunger strikers to die to secure the election of Owen Carron. The case is well made and the recent comments of Monsignor Denis Faul, since the book was published, that Adams' insisted that Owen Carron accompany him to visit the hunger strikers, adds strength to it.
Adams has not had his say. Maybe there was a good explanation for Owen Carron's presence. The other member of that visiting trio, Seamus Roddy, gave immense help to the ICJP and was completely in favour of the settlement.
Indeed, what have the British to say? What has Mountain Climber to say? Will we have to wait for the 30-year release of papers to uncover their shenanigans?
What we know for sure is that the British procrastination on spelling out the terms on offer was unforgivable. Were the republican leadership's actions and decisions any more forgivable, or understandable? That is the question Blanketmen poses and it may not go away until it is answered rather than shouted down.
Hugh Logue was a member of the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace (ICJP) team that in 1981 intervened to seek a resolution of the hunger strike. He is a senior European Commission official