‘Tiger kidnappings were a new phenomenon here in the mid-1990s and I researched the subject ...the characters in the book were created from my imagination, but some readers may see them as real people’
As he publishes his gripping crime novel based on the 2004 Northern Bank robbery, Richard O’Rawe talks to Laurence White about Bobby Sands, the failure of the armed struggle and his life as a writer
The hearty laugh gives the game away. Asked if any of the characters in his debut novel, Northern Heist, are based on real people, Richard O’Rawe says: “I created the characters from my imagination, but some people may see them as real people.” And then he laughs.
It is inevitable that parallels will be drawn between some of the characters in this novel about a tiger kidnapping and the robbery of National Bank in Belfast, and those involved in the real-life robbery of the Northern Bank in the city in 2004 when £26.5m was stolen, making it then the biggest heist in UK history.
Richard admits the Northern Bank robbery had long fascinated him. He wondered how the robbers, thought to be the IRA but denied by republicans, could pull off such an audacious crime.
“This book has been in the pipeline for about eight years. I knew The Times reporter David Sharrock and we came up with the idea of writing something about tiger kidnappings — where people essentially are ordered to rob their own banks or premises while their families are held captive.
“Before that robbers simply walked into banks, held up staff at gunpoint and then fled. Tiger kidnappings became a new phenomenon here in the mid-1990s and I decided to research the subject.”
The idea of a novel lay dormant until about five years ago when Richard decided to press ahead with the project. His first draft got no response from publishers and then he set it aside to write the biography of his childhood friend Gerry Conlon, who was one of the Guilford Four wrongly convicted and jailed for 15 years for planting two bombs which killed five people and injured many more.
When Richard returned to his novel he rewrote the second half of the story and it was immediately snapped up.
It is a page-turner with a polish unusual in a debut. A frequent complaint about novels set in Northern Ireland is that writers get small details wrong and that grates with readers familiar with the setting. Richard, of course, avoids that mistake.
The plot is straightforward. Professional gangster James ‘Ructions’ O’Hare plans one final big bank robbery and puts together a crack team to carry it out. The era is post-conflict Northern Ireland but elements of the IRA are still in existence and James is determined they won’t get their hands on the loot.
Loyalty and betrayal, love and hatred all feature and the seamy underbelly of modern life, gangsterism, child sexual exploitation, drug deals, kangaroo courts and money laundering is explored, lending authenticity to the plot which rips along at a fast pace.
While the basic storyline will be familiar, Richard manages to introduce sufficient twists to keep the reader guessing as to the eventual outcome.
Richard (64), who describes himself as a writer and biographer and “one who enjoys life”, says he loves a challenge. “I wonder can I do something — not a case of should I do it but can I do it. That was part of the motivation for this book. I had to try and etch out a story from a fairly mundane situation. I had to put humour into it — one character preaching outside the bank says the wages of sin are death, but Ructions believes the wages of sin are great.”
His first venture into writing — the story of the Blanketmen, the republican prisoners who went on dirty protest and ultimately hunger strike in defiance of the government’s determination to criminalise them and make them wear prison uniforms — led to a huge controversy in republican circles.
Richard, who describes himself as still a committed republican but a member of no political party, was one of the protesters.
“I, along with Brendan ‘Bik’ McFarlane, ran the hunger strike on a day-to-day basis within the prison. We decided who was going to go on hunger strike and we liaised with a committee known as the Kitchen Cabinet led by Gerry Adams on the outside,” he recalls.
“After the first four deaths there was a natural break until the next hunger striker Joe McDonnell would reach crisis point. I was worried about the situation and had a feeling the British government would dig in and we would be in virtually a second hunger strike. On July 4, 1981, I put out a statement which was an attempt by me and the prisoners to get both ourselves and the British off the hook on which we had stuck ourselves. The statement did not mention political status and said we would be happy if all prisoners in Northern Ireland could wear their own clothes.”
Richard claims that the following day the government told go-between Brendan Duddy that prisoners could wear their own clothes. “This was the one demand that could not be fudged. Bik wrote to Gerry Adams telling him our collective view was that the offer was sufficient to end the hunger strike but Gerry Adams said that it was not enough to validate the four deaths that had already occurred. As a result another six men died.” He adds: “I was very angry then and I am still very angry, not in a vengeful sense but angry that six of my comrades died who shouldn’t have died. They should be alive today and should have had the opportunity to have kids like the rest of us.”
He says he does not have any bitterness towards Gerry Adams but would like him simply to accept that there was an offer made which could have ended the hunger strike. “I cannot live with him saying there was no offer when there is evidence that the British were keen to see the hunger strike ended.”
His explosive claims led to an immediate furore of denial and counter-claims.
He remembers coming back from Dublin after the book launch when another republican telephoned him and said: “I think you are going to be nutted.” Richard replied: “I don’t give a (expletive) — I am going home.”
He admits he was never directly threatened although “a couple of heavies started on my daughter one night, calling her father all sorts of names.”
He adds: “That is not to say I didn’t live with the thought on a number of occasions that if circumstances were right I could be killed. Whether there was ever any validity to that thought was another matter.”
It is ironic that a man writing about a bank heist should have served time for exactly that crime. Richard was jailed for eight years after being part of a republican gang which robbed a bank in Mallusk. “We never even did a dry run. We were from Ballymurphy and didn’t hardly know where Mallusk was and were caught fairly soon after we ran out of the bank.”
Being caught up in the Blanketmen protest caused him grief at home. He had been married only six months when he was arrested and, by taking part in the protest, he lost a day’s remission for every day of revolt.
“My wife Bernadette had a young child to mind — I didn’t see her until she was six years old — and she was not republican-minded. She was angry that I was on the protest but at that stage I was in my early 20s and, with the absolutism of youth, was absolutely convinced of the righteousness of the struggle and the perfidy of Britain and Thatcher. I was absolutely blinkered and didn’t see right or left.”
But today he beams with pride when he looks at a photograph taken this year showing his wife Bernadette and daughters Bernadette and Stephanie (the couple also have a son, Conchuir) graduating from Queen’s University on the same day, with the two accepted to go on to further studies.
So what was it like to be confined to a cell with excreta smeared on the walls, and not washing. “After a couple of days the smell didn’t bother you any more. You were living in a sort of bubble, albeit a very dirty bubble. My hair grew down to the small of my back and my beard to my navel.
“But I met the most wonderful people in jail. I was one of the few people who spent the last three years of Bobby Sands’ life on the same prison wing with him and could call him a friend. It was a hard time and a cruel time but I tend not to dwell on the darkness because I don’t want the memories to take me down psychologically.”
From a staunchly republican family in the Lower Falls area of Belfast, Richard lived on the same street as Gerard Conlon. His grandfather was a republican and his father had been interned in both the 1940s and 50s. He was in the IRA and Billy McKee and Proinsias MacAirt, founders of the Provisionals, were among his best friends. “When the Troubles broke out it was almost a certainty I would gravitate towards the IRA,” he says.
He was interned twice and those times in detention were the hardest, he remembers. “Being on the blanket was hard but at least you knew at some stage you were going to get out but not knowing if you were going to get out and not having a release date was psychologically overbearing.”
Looking back, he says the armed struggle didn’t work — “it was a dismal failure” — and adds: “What we ended up with, Bobby Sands would not have missed his breakfast for. The political solution was on offer from 1973. The only difference was another 25 years and another 2,000 people killed.
“I think we all should bear some responsibility for the deaths in the Troubles. It is easy to say that republicans were solely responsible. But they did not create gerrymandering or treating Catholics as second-class citizens. When the Troubles began and Catholics were shot and streets of homes burned, republicans thought that this place was irredeemable. The curfew imposed on the people in the Lower Falls and the use of CS gas then was the biggest catalyst for the IRA. Republicans were responsible for a lot of deaths and I am very contrite about that. I don’t believe any of it was worth the loss of one life. I am genuinely sorry anyone lost their lives,” he says.
Richard is full of praise for former SDLP leader John Hume, describing him as “the colossus of politics here over the last 50 years”. He adds: “It was him who came up with the Good Friday Agreement in 1973 at Sunningdale and he was the one who gave the republican leadership a way out of the armed struggle. Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness have to be given credit for cajoling the IRA away from the armed struggle — it was the right thing to do.”
For Richard, the quality of whose work has been recognised by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, the future holds more writing opportunities. He hopes to be involved in drafting a screenplay for his Gerry Conlon biography, In The Name Of The Son, either for a film or documentary, or perhaps both.
He also hopes to have a first draft of a new novel ready by next Easter; this time there will be no Troubles element. Perhaps he has had enough of them in the past.
Northern Heist by Richard O’Rawe is published by Merrion Press, price £12.99