New light has been shed on reported republican reaction to a British offer which might have ended the 1981 hunger strike after four deaths. Ten men were to die before the strike ended.
Evidence which has now become available helps clarify a dispute sparked three years ago by the assertion of former IRA prisoner Richard O'Rawe that terms for ending the strike, accepted by the prisoners' leadership in the Maze/Long Kesh, were rejected by IRA commanders outside. The implication is that the lives of six of the hunger strikers might have been saved if the prisoners hadn't been overruled.
O'Rawe's account was contained in his book, Blanketmen, published in February 2005. He had been IRA press officer in the H Blocks in 1981.
The Blanketmen version was angrily denounced by leading republicans, including IRA commander in the prison at the time, Brendan McFarlane, senior Sinn Fein strategist Jim Gibney and former Sinn Fein press officer Danny Morrison.
The bitterness of the disagreement was intensified by O'Rawe's suggestion that the reason IRA leaders rejected the deal was that they'd calculated that republican candidate Owen Carron would have a better chance of retaining Fermanagh-South Tyrone in a by-election if the hunger strike was ongoing on polling day, August 20: in other words, that IRA chiefs, for the sake of electoral advantage, allowed a further six hunger-strikers needlessly to die. The by-election had resulted from the death of Bobby Sands, on May 6, 66 days after he'd launched the hunger strike, a month after he'd been elected a Westminster MP. A second hunger striker, Francis Hughes, died on May 12.
INLA man Patsy O'Hara and Raymond McCreesh died on May 21. Seven weeks then passed before another hunger striker succumbed.
During this period, negotiations being conducted through the Derry man known as 'the Mountain Climber' were stepped up.
O'Rawe's allegation is that an offer from the Foreign Office, conveyed to McFarlane on July 5, two days before the fifth hunger-striker, Joe McDonnell, was to die, conceded three of the prisoners' five demands and effectively conceded a fourth.
He says that McFarlane pushed a document containing these proposals along a pipe to his cell.
He maintains that it offered that prisoners could wear their own clothes, have remission restored and enjoy more visits and letters — three of the five demands — and that while prison work wouldn't be eliminated, 'work' would be broadly defined so as to include educational and cultural activities. The one demand not covered was free association within the wings.
"It was a fantastic offer. I never expected it," says O'Rawe. He recalls a shouted conversation between himself and McFarlane, two cells away.
"We spoke in Irish so the screws could not understand. I said, 'Ta go leor ann' — there's enough there.
"He said, 'Aontaim leat, scriobhfaidh me chun taoibh amuigh agus cuirfidh me fhois orthu' — I agree with you, I will write to the outside and let them know."
Despite this, he claims, word came in from outside that the proposals were unacceptable. Joe McDonnell died at 5am on July 7, and negotiations collapsed. McFarlane flatly denies that the exchange between the cells took place.
Jim Gibney wrote in the Irish News — it seemed to many a very strong point — that O'Rawe's cellmate, who would certainly have been within earshot of the shouted conversation, had not heard any such "vital exchange". Danny Morrison declared that: "After Richard's release, he worked in the Republican Press Centre for a year and never mentioned the allegations he now makes.
"He has never explained why he only came up with the allegations 25 years after the events."
In fact, a number of republicans, including former prisoners, have confirmed that O'Rawe did voice the allegations on more than one occasion before publication of his book.
One ex-prisoner who had been on the same wing as O'Rawe and McFarlane and who also claims to have heard the exchange says that, independently of O'Rawe, he broached the subject of the rejected deal with senior IRA figures during the 1990s. More importantly, the man who was sharing a cell with O'Rawe in July 1981 confirms O'Rawe's account: "Richard isn't a liar. He told the truth in his book. I heard what passed between Richard and Bik (McFarlane). I remember Richard saying, 'Ta go leor ann,' and the reply, 'Aontaim leat.' There's just no question that that happened."
O'Rawe's account of the negotiations as seen from "inside" will not be contradicted by the account from a different perspective contained in the BBC programme to be transmitted tonight focusing on the role of the 'Mountain Climber', Brendan Duddy.
However, no independent evidence has emerged to support O'Rawe's suggestion that the IRA leadership deliberately prolonged the hunger strike for political advantage for the movement outside. O'Rawe's cell-mate does not believe that hunger strikers were allowed to die in order to maximise electoral support. The suspicions which still surround the events and which have damaged the republican leadership in the eyes of many former activists arise, it seems, not so much from O'Rawe's narrative of what happened but from an adamant refusal on the part of the IRA leadership of the time to admit to serious and, in the end, fatal errors in their conduct of the hunger strike and from determined efforts to blacken O'Rawe's name in an attempt to obscure the truth.