Hunger strike episode important in explaining reaction to Boston College project
The story is about who controls the narrative of the IRA’s part in over 30 years of violence in the North
Above, Brendan Hughes, in Long Kesh prison with Gerry Adams. Photograph: Alan Lewis/Photopress.
In his seminal account of the 1981 IRA hunger strikes, Afterlives, Richard O’Rawe writes that when, in 1991, he canvassed the idea that he might go public with his story of what really happened during the protest, that someone close to the Sinn Féin leadership told him, “as a friend”, that if he did, he could be shot. He wrote: “While he never used the words ‘shot dead’, I nonetheless felt that that was implicit in his warning” (p66). And so, fearful of the consequences, he kept his mouth shut.
And he did, for over 10 years, until the Boston College project reached out to him and he agreed to be interviewed about his role as public relations officer for the IRA inmates during the protest. He found the interviews such a liberating experience that, against my advice that his safety could be at risk, he wrote Blanketmen, his first book about the prison protest. If I had had my way Richard O’Rawe’s story would have stayed secret until his death. But he was insistent it be told.
O’Rawe’s account of the hunger strike gave an entirely different account of events from the one peddled by the Sinn Féin leadership, which placed responsibility for all the deaths on Margaret Thatcher. In O’Rawe’s account the late prime minister was responsible for just four deaths, the republican leadership for six.
Essentially, O’Rawe’s story, which in subsequent years was substantially confirmed by contemporary British documents released in response to his books, went as follows. In July, 1981, after five months of protests and four deaths, the British offered to concede a majority of the hunger strikers’ demands. O’Rawe and his immediate superior, the IRA jail commander, Brendan McFarlane, recommended that the fast should end but they were overruled by Gerry Adams; the hunger strike continued and a further six prisoners went to lingering, painful deaths. (This has been denied by Brendan McFarlane and senior Sinn Féin figures such as Gerry Adams and the then Sinn Féin publicity chief Danny Morrison).
So what was the motive for overruling the prisoners’ leaders? One possible reason was that a continuation of the hunger strike helped ensure the success of Owen Carron in that August’s Westminster byelection in Fermanagh-South Tyrone caused by Bobby Sands’s death.
That was because preserving the hunger strike also kept in place a deal with the SDLP not to intervene electorally in the constituency, thereby avoiding a split in the nationalist vote to the unionists’ advantage. Carron’s win was entirely dependent on IRA prisoners still being on protest when polling happened. Had the prisoners accepted the British offer, the SDLP would have fielded a candidate and Carron would have lost.
Instead Carron’s victory paved the way for Sinn Féin’s electoral strategy and set in motion forces that, as I write, have placed Sinn Féin on the cusp of government on both sides of the Border.
That July 1981 episode thus assumes critical historical importance. Arguably it also explains why O’Rawe was warned to keep his mouth shut in 1991, why he was so badly abused when he did make his story public and why Sinn Féin, and those like Dr Martin Mansergh (“Adams episode sounds warning on peace process”, Irish Times, May 7th, 2014) who recycle Sinn Féin’s talking points, are so agitated about the Boston College project.