Following the recent disclosures from Margaret Thatcher’s private papers compiled during the 1981 IRA hunger strike while she was Britain’s prime minister, TheBrokenElbow.com asked Richard O’Rawe to assess the importance of what has been revealed and to recall how he got involved in this lengthy but pivotal controversy over a key moment in the Provisional IRA’s history:
The Rock Bar on Belfast’s Falls Road was the place to be on a Saturday afternoon if you’ve a few pounds in your pocket and a penchant for the horses. I was at the bar on just such a day, buying our company another round of drinks (my generosity was boundless) when my cousin approached me. After some small talk, he asked if I would like to participate in an oral history project. He went on to explain that the purpose of the project was to record for posterity, the participant’s role in the war against the British.
My initial reaction was negative and that was where the matter stayed for months. But a seed had been planted. Why not, I thought, give my testimony? After all, it would not be published until after my death and hopefully that would be in the distant future. Moreover, I would not be identifying comrades or referring to specific operations.
During the 1981 IRA/INLA hunger strike, I had been one of the IRA prison leaders and since my release from prison in 1983 I had told quite a few people that I felt the IRA leadership had mishandled the hunger strike. But did I want to put that criticism on the record? No. Yet something drove me on to do the interviews. Perhaps, unconsciously, I wanted to get the story out, as I knew it to be. After all, ten of my comrades and friends had died horrible deaths, and the last six hunger strikers, in my opinion, should not have died at all.
Anthony McIntyre, who we all knew as Mackers, was the researcher and we began the sessions at the start of 2001. We slowly built up to the period of the hunger strike. I was still resisting going over the top and telling my version of what happened during that awful period.
In the H-Blocks of Long Kesh, the public relations officer of the IRA prisoners was charged with drafting press statements and advising the prison O.C. on policy. Such was the case when, at the start of the 1981 hunger strike, I became the IRA prison PRO. While in that role, I became Bik McFarlane’s closest confidante (Bik had been O.C. of the IRA prisoners). Consequently, I had intimate knowledge of the hunger strike.
Mackers and I went through the deaths of our first four comrades: Bobby Sands MP., Frank Hughes, Raymond McCreesh, and Patsy O’Hara.
But when we got to Joe McDonnell’s death, I broke down. Perhaps it was frustration. Perhaps it was because I had known Joe from before our time in the H-Blocks and had regarded him as a good friend. Perhaps it was because I couldn’t understand how things had reached the stage where he had had to die – especially since Bik McFarlane and I had accepted an offer from the British which should have honourably ended the hunger strike.
I think it was the mere mention of Joe’s name in the context of historical accuracy which triggered the opening of the floodgates: from that point on, there was no holding back. I wanted to tell the truth as I knew it, of what happened at the time of Joe’s death. And so Mackers recorded my story of what happened in July 1981, how I believed senior figures outside the jail had killed off a proposal that would have handed the hunger strikers a famous victory over Margaret Thatcher and saved six of our comrades’ lives.
Afterwards I felt a burning urge to do more than that. The Boston College tape would stay secret for many years but I now wanted the world to know what I knew; I wanted those republican leaders on the outside, who took the decisions that I believe doomed six of my comrades to horrible deaths, to answer for their actions.
And so I wrote my first book, Blanketmen, in which I said that the British government had made an offer to end the hunger strike in the days before the fifth hunger striker, Joe McDonnell, died. (At the request of those involved in creating the archive I did not reveal Boston College’s role in my journey to writing the book) I added that the offer, communicated to Bik McFarlane during a prison visit, had been accepted by Bik and myself because it meant we could end the fast with honour. And I described how a committee, headed by Gerry Adams, had rejected this offer, despite the prison leadership having endorsed it. The message came in a terse comm smuggled into the jail which said that he was ‘surprised’ that we had accepted the offer and that it did not validate the loss of the first four hunger strikers’ lives.
I can sum up in a single sentence the question my book posed to Gerry Adams and his colleagues on the committee: Why had they turned down a deal that we, the prisoners’ leaders, had approved and which would have saved the lives of six of our comrades?
The book’s publication caused ructions, with defenders of the committee lining up in the media to attack me. Ed Moloney had advised me against publication, saying that I would be savaged those who supported the Gerry Adams/Sinn Féin leadership. He had been right. But I stood firm behind what I knew to be true. Simply put, I had nowhere else to go.
From the start, those shouting the loudest in defence of the committee, principally Bik and Danny Morrison, were in opposite corners. While Bik publicly said there had been no British offer ‘whatsoever’, Danny, a committee member, said there had been an offer and it ‘…was a better offer than that which the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace [a body which tried to mediate between the parties] believed they had secured.’ These two positions are irreconcilable and indicative of the malaise that infected the committee’s position. Of fundamental importance is Danny’s contention that the prison leadership and the hunger strikers ran the fast, and not the committee. We’ll come back to that.
For eight years now the battle for the truth about the 1981 hunger strike has raged. I have never altered a word of my account of what happened as I saw it in the H Blocks that awful July of 1981. In fact, I reiterated and expanded upon my position in my second book Afterlives in 2010.
One by one, my opponents dropped off until only Danny Morrison and I were left. The evidence mounted in my favour: in 2010, a journalist secured a Freedom of Information request and received a copy of a draft 1981 statement from the British Secretary of State, Humphrey Atkins, in which he outlined the offer.
Also in 2010, Brendan Duddy, the man who acted as intermediary between the British and the committee, authenticated the offer and said that the committee had sent word back to the British that ‘More was needed.’ Then, in 2011, with the publication of the thirty-year government papers and Brendan Duddy’s private records of the exchanges between the parties, and in the face of overwhelming evidence, Danny altered his position and said that there had not been an offer after all.
The irony in this whole saga is that it is Maggie Thatcher, speaking from beyond the grave, who has now proved to be the decisive voice. Upon her death in April 2013, her private papers were published and they showed that the hunger strikers – by the force of their sheer courage – had broken her resolve. Amongst her documents is a copy of a letter that is also in the Brendan Duddy files (dated 11.30pm 6 July 1981) entitled HUNGER STRIKE: MESSAGE TO BE SENT THROUGH THE CHANNEL . The substance of the offer is outlined in this message. Notably, the message contains amendments to the offer in Margaret Thatcher’s own hand-writing. Undoubtedly Thatcher’s amendments would have been incorporated in the final text that was sent to the committee (minus her hand-written notes, of course). The question therefore arises: why would Thatcher bother to amend a text if she never intended it to be read by those with whom her government were negotiating? At the end of this message there is a very telling paragraph:
‘If we receive a satisfactory response to this proposal by 9.00am on Tuesday 7 July, [a day before Joe McDonnell died] we shall be prepared to provide you [the committee] with an advanced text of the full statement [SOS Atkins’ statement announcing the new prison regime].’ Full text of statement with Thatcher’s written amendments:
So, if the committee had told the British by 9.00am on Tuesday 7 July that they accepted their offer, the choreography would have been kick-started: the British would have shown the committee Atkins’ statement; the committee would have been obliged under the agreement to ‘advise’ the hunger strikers to end their fast (which I believe they would have done); Atkins’ statement would have been released; Joe McDonnell and the five brave hunger strikers that died after him, would have survived the fast.
The committee’s reply to the British offer was nothing if not stark: ‘The position outlined by you is not sufficient to achieve this [an end to the hunger strike].’
So the committee rejected the offer and Joe McDonnell and the five heroes who perished in his wake, followed to needlessly early graves.
What is striking in both the Duddy and Thatcher papers is that the prisoners have no input into what was or was not acceptable and if these papers demonstrate anything it is that Gerry Adams and those around him had absolute control over the hunger strike. Neither the prison leadership, nor the hunger strikers, were ever shown any of these communications between the committee and the Brits. In fact, it was not until the 2009 Freedom of Information revelation, that this writer became aware that the British were prepared to release a statement from their Secretary of State containing the offer.
At the conclusion of the negotiations, on 20 July 1981, a frustrated and weary Brendan Duddy observed: ‘The British are asking for their plan to be accepted. ‘A’ won’t move.’ I wonder if this is the same ‘A’ who went into the hunger strikers nine days later (29 July 1981) and told those courageous men that ‘…there was no deal on the table from the Brits, no movement of any sort.’ I wonder what type of man could look those great men in the eye and not even blink while he proffered such an abominable lie?
‘A’ knows who he is. Does he have the courage to stand forward and explain just why he turned down Margaret Thatcher’s offer and why six more of his comrades had to die?
In the meantime the Thatcher archive confirms the truth of what happened in July 1981: there was a deal and it was the deal that myself and Bik McFarlane accepted but which the committee threw out.