The limits of memory

  • 11 March 2005
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Richard O'Rawe's own memory of the hunger strikes is flawed, and his assertions are wrong, writes Denis O'Hearn, the author of a forthcoming biography of Bobby Sands

The "blanket protest" was tightly organised. Sensitive information was strictly controlled among a few people. Just two people, Brendan Hughes and Bobby Sands, took many decisions. Communications were extremely difficult but Sands and Hughes always had adjoining cells and their ability to organise the protest was enhanced by being able to speak directly through the pipes at the back of their cells.

In the period approaching the hunger strikes they widened their "in group" to include a few others like Brendan "Bik" McFarlane. But even a single cell in between prisoners made it difficult to pass detailed information. By his own admission, Richard O'Rawe had no standing in this group until the beginning of the second hunger strike.

O'Rawe's assertions depend on his memories of secret negotiations between the republican movement and a British Foreign Office agent called "the Mountain Climber". When Sands commanded the blanketmen during the first hunger strike, leading republicans apprised him of these secret negotiations. Sands kept this information strictly private between himself, McFarlane and Brendan Hughes (who was in the prison hospital). Indeed, Sands was so concerned about security that he kept a lot of details to himself.

When the Mountain Climber resurfaced as Joe McDonnell neared death, McFarlane was equally security-conscious. He was reluctant to pass detailed information about him even to other prisoners on his wing.

But let us assume that McFarlane told O'Rawe most of what he knew. Among the tricks memory can play is to transform one thing into another. O'Rawe repeatedly refers to "the Mountain Climber's offer" as if it was a concrete thing, ink on paper. In reality, it was never more than a set of verbal proposals.

To see how this memory trick has affected O'Rawe's reason, it is important to think back to how the first hunger strike ended. The hunger strikers were in the prison hospital, isolated from Bobby Sands and from republican representatives like Danny Morrison. They thought they had struck a deal with the British authorities. The Mountain Climber was to deliver a document to the H-Blocks but before it reached the hunger strikers, Sean McKenna was wheeled away on a stretcher, in a coma. Brendan Hughes told the prison authorities to feed him and he called-off the hunger strike.

When a written document finally arrived in the prison, it was unacceptable to Sands and McFarlane, who felt that the British authorities had tricked them. They vowed that any subsequent hunger strike would continue until they had an acceptable agreement in writing, with proper guarantors who could make the agreement stick. These men trusted the British authorities in no way. Thus, each man embarked on his strike individually so that no-one could end his fast except himself or McFarlane, and then only on the basis of an acceptable written agreement. (O'Rawe's admission that he does not know how this procedure was decided shows that he was excluded from crucial decisions.)

In the days before Joe McDonnell's death – the controversial period in O'Rawe's book – no written agreement ever reached the prison. McFarlane waited for a written document in the hope of saving McDonnell's life but none ever came. Yet there is the phrase in O'Rawe's book: "the proposals were there in black and white, direct from Thatcher's desk". How can he know this, if the only proposal O'Rawe ever saw was written by Bik McFarlane in ballpoint ink on a cigarette paper and delivered through the heating pipes at the back of his H-Block cell?

The statement about "Thatcher's desk" is flashy and attractive for a publisher trying to sell books. Yet if he could, would O'Rawe retract that part of his story? In the absence of such a written offer, he would have to consider that the hunger strikers would never have called-off their action, regardless of what the IRA Army Council said. This being the case, O'Rawe's implication that he and McFarlane could have called-off the hunger strike before Joe McDonnell's death is spurious and his whole story begins to fall apart like a house of cards.

According to O'Rawe, on 5 July, 1981 he and McFarlane "accepted a set of proposals that had been presented to them by an intermediary from the British government". Yet McFarlane wrote a letter to Gerry Adams the following night. He apologised to Adams that he had not been able to write to him since he saw Danny Morrison the previous day, the meeting where O'Rawe says he received the "British proposals" that they both "accepted" that night. His attitude toward "proposals" from the Northern Ireland Office could not be clearer. McFarlane wrote that he gave the hunger strikers his appraisal of what was on offer.

"I said parts of their offer were vague and much more clarification was needed to establish exactly what the Brits were on about. I told them that the only concrete aspect seemed to be the clothes and no way was this good enough to satisfy us."

McFarlane makes no indication of any row over an alternative offer from the Mountain Climber or even of willingness to accept such an offer. But I know from reading scores of these letters that when Bobby Sands or Brendan McFarlane disagreed with the republican movement, they did not hesitate to let them know.

Throughout the following days McFarlane repeatedly made two points to Adams. First, that negotiations between the Northern Ireland Office and the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace were "a mystery tour" that was meant to undermine the hunger strikers by creating the impression for their families that the British were making a genuine offer and republicans were rejecting it. Second, he felt the British were playing with Joe McDonnell's life as they had played with Sean McKenna's, refusing to make a genuine offer until the last minute.

On McDonnell's death, McFarlane wrote angrily that the British were "trying to play us close to the line" and "made a blunder and didn't reckon on Joe dying so quickly". Later, he wrote that "they were operating every bloody angle they could lay their hands on to outflank us in some way and take Joe to the brink". He never hints that the IRA Army Council were responsible for extending the negotiations beyond McDonnell's death.

One last, surprising piece of evidence in this dispute comes directly from Bobby Sands. O'Rawe states in his book: "The only core demand on which there had been little movement (by the British) was free association. In the end I concluded that, while this was more than a peripheral demand, it was not as important as the clothes and the prison-work issues."

O'Rawe may find it surprising that Bobby Sands strongly disagreed with him. Sands wrote several letters before his hunger strike to stress that he considered free association to be the most important of their five demands.

By the time he went on hunger strike, Sands was writing privately that he could wear prison-issue clothing and he could even do prison work, but that the most important thing that defined him and his comrades as political prisoners was their ability to come together freely to organise discussions and, so doing, to raise their revolutionary consciousness and solidarity.

"They want to stop men mixing freely as this leads to discussing and politicising" Sands wrote to Gerry Adams on Christmas Eve 1980. "We must break it, that's the point."

For O'Rawe to call hunger strikers "men who died for nothing" is inaccurate in much broader terms than simple Irish politics. During the period that O'Rawe is discussing, young prisoners on Robben Island, along with an ageing Nelson Mandela, went on hunger strike, successfully, to demand that their children be allowed to visit them on the island. In Cerro Hueco prison in Chiapas, Mexico, Mayan political prisoners organised the first hunger strike in Mexican history and won their freedom. It was a key event in the formation of the Zapatistas.

Even today, when the cold war is over and radical movements are supposedly a thing of the past, movements throughout the world, especially in the developing world, draw inspiration from the example of the Irish hunger strikers. Depending on your perspective, this may be a good thing or it may be a bad thing. It is certainly not "nothing".

Have some republicans used the hunger strikers for electoral gain? Perhaps, but apparently not in the manner O'Rawe states.

His book and the reporting that followed clearly demonstrate the limitations of memory and personal knowledge. They are limitations that social scientists ignore at their peril and that journalists too often exploit without question. 

Denis O'Hearn is Professor of Social and Economic Change at Queens University Belfast. His biography of Bobby Sands is forthcoming.