The Irish Times today (Apr 3rd) marks the victory in the 1981 Fermanagh-South Tyrone by-election of Bobby Sands, who just shy of a month later would die on hunger strike, the first of ten republican prisoners who would sacrifice themselves ostensibly for the cause of political status but in reality so that Sinn Fein could enter electoral politics.
And since that move into electoral politics would cause unsustainable friction between the political ambitions of Sinn Fein and the violent methods of the IRA – a battle which Sinn Fein would eventually win – it is at least arguable that the 1981 hunger strikers began something that ultimately we would recognise as the peace process.
There were two key aspects of the death toll. The first was the number who gave up their lives, so many that anger at the British – or rather the imperious Margaret Thatcher – spilled over from the traditional but limited republican constituency into more moderate Nationalist homes, threatening the SDLP’s traditional electoral hegemony in that community.
The second was the extent to which the hunger strikes normalised and legitimised electoral politics in a community that had long regarded elections as a virulent political poison, a sellout by any other name. When Bobby Sands died and the British banned serving prisoners from standing in the resulting by-election, Owen Carron, a Sinn Fein activist, stood and won the seat. And when a general election was called that torrid summer in the Republic, protesting prisoners stood and won seats in the Dail.
These election results terrified constitutional politicians on both islands, but persuaded hitherto republican zealots that maybe elections weren’t such a bad thing after all. This would not have been possible had the hunger strike been called off after Sands’ death, or when it became clear, as it did not long afterwards, that Mrs Thatcher would not give the IRA the victory its supporters wanted. And the longer the protest lasted, the more legitimacy was bestowed on the idea of fighting and winning elections.
It is therefore entirely appropriate that The Irish Times chose the anniversary of Sands’ election rather than his death to mark the importance of the part he played in these events. Nor is there much wrong with the paper’s choice of interviewees, tediously familiar though some of them are, especially those from Sinn Fein.
No, the problem is the dog that didn’t bark.
One of the reasons why the hunger strikes lasted so long was the failure of efforts to negotiate a settlement, particularly one that coincided with the by-election in Fermanagh-South Tyrone caused by Sands’ death and which Sand’s election agent, Owen Carron was tipped to win. Had the settlement been accepted and the prison protest ended it is probable that Carron would not have become the area’s MP and the North’s subsequent history might well have been very different.
The story of how all that happened was first told by the prisoners’ then public relations officer in the jail, Richard O’Rawe, in interviews for the Boston College archive. After he was interviewed by Anthony McIntyre he decided, very much against my advice, to write a book about the experience. I knew the Provos would make his life hell. But, seeing that he was determined, I then gave him as much help as I could.
To be sure the book was very controversial but as time has passed, the essential truth of his account has become more widely accepted, not least when Brendan Duddy, the Derry businessman who was the go-between to the British government in the episode at the centre of O’Rawe’s story confirmed the account.
But O’Rawe does not exist in The Irish Times‘ hunger strike universe. You can read Mary Lou McDonald’s view of the hunger strikes, Michelle Gildernew’s and Danny Morrison’s. But not Richard O’Rawe’s. It is as if he never existed. In such ways is history scrubbed clean.