It would be good to be a fly on the wall of a hall in Gulladuff in south Derry this week when the leadership of Sinn Fein meets with the families of the 1981 hunger strikers to discuss whether or not the 10 men all needed to die or not.
Richard O’Rawe, the publicity officer for the hunger strikers from within the Maze Prison at that time, broke the Sinn Fein spirit of omerta in 2005 when he published a book in which he said the hunger strikers were offered a deal sanctioned by Margaret Thatcher hours before Joe McDonnell died.
His controversial claim was that the deal was rejected by the IRA leadership outside the prison because it wished to capitalise on the political gains coming from the hunger strike. Remember hunger striker Bobby Sands was elected MP for Fermanagh-South Tyrone and Kieran Doherty was elected in the Cavan-Monaghan constituency in the Republic.
In a way it proved to the republican movement that the Armalite in one hand and the ballot box on the other was a viable way of moving its campaign forward.
Ultimately, of course, the Armalite proved fruitless but the ballot box has seen Sinn Fein go from strength to strength, at least on this side of the border.
But it is feasible that the IRA leadership would let its members inside the Maze Prison starve to death for political gain? That is the question that must gnaw away in silent moments of reflection among the families of the last five or six hunger strikers to die. Of course no-one can answer that question except those republicans themselves.
I recall many years ago Fr Denis Faul — admittedly no friend of republicans, but also no liar — telling me of an emotion-charged meeting of relatives following the start of the hunger strike. Time has dimmed the exact detail of when the meeting was, but it was close to the start of the hunger strike.
Relatives of those engaged in the fast to the death, or who were next in line after the next death, were obviously very emotionally involved in the debate. No matter how strong their republican sympathies – and there is no doubt that many of them were fully supportive of their sons, brothers, uncles or whatever – they really didn’t want to see the hunger strikers die.
According to Fr Faul, the atmosphere in the hall was electric, but at the end of all the debate, the senior Sinn Fein figures on the podium made it clear that the hunger strike would continue. There was no suggestion at that stage of any deal being struck, but what was clear was the difference in attitude between relatives of the hunger strikers and their ‘comrades’ on the outside.
Relatives had a personal desire to see their loved ones live, their comrades were fighting an entirely different war.
What happened, of course, was that the relatives came back time and time again to meetings where the future of the hunger strike was discussed until eventually their will prevailed.
Even with a movement as fanatical as the republican movement there comes a tipping point where the opinion of relatives of volunteers carry more weight than that of their commanders.
What the senior Sinn Fein figures now have to convince the families of is that none of their relatives died unnecessarily. Would the hunger strikers have made as big an impact nationally and internationally if only five had died instead of 10? Of course they would.
For, no matter what anyone thinks of the Provos – and their campaign of murder was totally unjustified – it still takes a certain kind of dedication to deliberately die for a cause.
The hunger strikers struck a chord with people who have no time for their aims or their crimes, but who had to admit they had a raw courage.
What their relatives will want to know was that courage ruthlessly exploited? Oh to be a fly in Gulladuff.