The competing roles of Margaret Thatcher and Gerry Adams during the 1981 hunger strikes have produced one of the most bitterly contested disputes of the Troubles – who was most responsible for the ten deaths? Here, in a guest column, Richard O’Rawe, the former IRA public relations officer in the H Blocks during the prison protest, explains why he believes Adams not Thatcher must carry blame for most of the deaths during the historic fast:
I never liked the tenor of Margaret Thatcher’s voice. It was either too raucous, or too fawning: too rehearsed for my liking. Image, presentation, a certain charisma: the MP for Finchley, I’m convinced, would have made it on the silver screen (but then all politicians are actors, aren’t they?) I was fortunate in that my experience of the 1981 IRA/INLA hunger had taught me not to be fooled by her ‘Iron Lady’ image, that The Truculent One was rather more receptive to the sweet scent of common sense than she let on.
Gerry Adams said as much in his 1996 autobiography, Before the Dawn when he wrote ‘Margaret Thatcher presented a public face as the Iron Lady who was “not for turning”, yet she was no stranger to expediency.’ Mr. Adams went on to refer to him seeing a draft of a speech that Mrs. Thatcher intended to make at imminent international conference in Ottawa, where she hoped to announce an end to the hunger strike.
For that to happen though, she had to persuade Mr. Adams and his committee of political colleagues and advisers to accept a set of proposals that she had sent them on 4 July 1981 and which they had rejected. At that point there had been four deaths in the blocks but Mr. Adams and Co. spurned the British prime minister’s offer, the hunger strike continued, and accordingly another six hunger strikers lost their lives.
It is now eight years since my book Blanketmen and three years since my second book, Afterlives were published. For seven of those eight years I have had the fight of my life with Gerry Adams and his acolytes. Throughout I have stood by the assertion that the British government had made a substantial offer on 4 July 1981, which was rejected by the committee – against the wishes of the prison leadership, of which I was a part.
Furthermore, I said that the committee did not make the hunger strikers aware of the particulars of the Brit offer. On both accounts the hard evidence has shown that I was telling the truth. My vindication has come via a tortuous process of British government Freedom of Information requests, the release of thirty-year British government documents, the verbal and written testimony of the intermediary, Brendan Duddy, and the numerous contradictions and evasions from those who tried, unsuccessfully, to cover for the committee.
All that remains to be settled is the motivation for the committee’s behaviour. Was it out of its depth in its attempts to outsmart the British? Or was it so intoxicated with the prospect of impending electoral success (in the impending by-election for first hunger striker, Bobby Sands’ seat) that they took a decision to ignore the offer and thence allow for hunger strikers to die?
When I sat down to quietly collect my thoughts before I began writing this article, I asked myself a series of questions: what do I want to say about Margaret Thatcher? That I despised the woman? Of course I did. She was no friend of the Irish – much less Irish republicans. She had it in her power to go the clichéd ‘extra mile’, but didn’t. But then: would the extra mile have mattered to Adams and Co.?
Margaret Thatcher is dead. There’ll be no crocodile tears or sugar-coated words from me about the life and times of the Iron Lady. She was our avowed enemy and we expected no quarter from her. Still, we can’t blow back the tide of history and we can’t resurrect our brave, brave hunger strikers. We can, however, treat our own with respect. We can be honest. Our hunger strikers deserve that. If that means Big Gerry and his committee accepting culpability for the deaths of the last six hunger strikers, then so be it.