1.3.05

Richard O'Rawe

IRA2

IRA blocked deal to save hunger strikers

John Burns
Sunday Times
27 Feb 2005

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THE IRA rejected a government deal to end the 1981 hunger strike by republican prisoners that could have saved at least five lives, according to a leading republican.

Richard O'Rawe, the IRA spokesman in the Maze prison during the hunger strike, reveals that he and the IRA prisoners' commanding officer accepted concessions offered by the Foreign Office on July 5, 1981, just before Joe McDonnell, the fifth prisoner, died.

They were overruled by the IRA army council, which refused to call off the hunger strike until 10 prisoners had died. O'Rawe suggests that the IRA wanted to use continuing sympathy for the hunger strikers to win a by-election.

O'Rawe is disclosing details of the secret offer made by Margaret Thatcher's government despite a threat from a senior IRA member that he could be shot if he criticised the army council's role in public.

His claims, in a new book, Blanketmen, An Untold Story of the H-Block Hunger Strike, to be published by New Island tomorrow, will greatly embarrass Sinn Fein at a time when it is already weakened.

Senior party figures have been accused of sanctioning the £26.5m robbery of the Northern Bank, which police believe was carried out by the IRA. The party is also implicated in an investigation in the republic into IRA money-laundering.

The concessions offered to end the hunger strike were put to Gerry Adams, now the Sinn Fein leader, by a Foreign Office intermediary known as "the Mountain Climber". His identity remains a mystery.

Thatcher's government effectively conceded four of the IRA demands including the abolition of prison uniforms, more visits and letters, and segregation of prisoners on political lines. Prison work for IRA men was to have been widely defined to include educational courses and handicrafts. The only point the government refused to concede was free association of prisoners on the IRA wing.

"I thought the offer was sufficient for us to settle the hunger strike honourably," writes O'Rawe, who was serving eight years for robbery. "In fact, the British had gone further than I had considered possible. I felt it was almost too good to be true."

Brendan "Bik" McFarlane, the IRA prison commander, agreed the deal was acceptable. But the army council ruled that the hunger strikers should hold out for more. The protest was eventually called off three months later, on less favourable terms, after five more deaths.

"I make no apology for saying now that the army council acted in an inexcusable manner. A generous interpretation is that they disastrously miscalculated on all fronts," said O'Rawe. "A more sceptical view would be that perhaps they didn't miscalculate at all."

Bobby Sands, the first IRA hunger striker to die, had been elected the MP for Fermanagh/South Tyrone and the republican movement was keen to retain the seat in the subsequent by-election. Owen Carron, the Sinn Fein candidate, was elected in August, on the day that the 10th striker died.

Two days after the IRA rejected the government's offer, McDonnell died. Mountain Climber was in touch again two weeks later, but Adams told the prisoners in a smuggled message that nothing new was on offer.

O'Rawe says the IRA gave the impression that the prisoners were in charge of the hunger strike and were determined to get the full five demands from the government, but this was not the case.

"Omission, rather than lies, was the order of the day. The leadership never told the hunger strikers' relatives of Mountain Climber's intervention and they washed their hands of any responsibility for making or breaking the deal," he says.

O'Rawe fears that McDonnell and the hunger strikers who died after him "were used as cannon fodder". He said: "No matter which way one views it, the outside leadership alone, not the prison leadership, took the decision to play brinkmanship with McDonnell's life. If Bik and I had had our way, Joe and the five comrades who followed him to the grave would be alive today."

O'Rawe says that when he discussed his reservations with a senior republican in 1991, he was warned he could be killed. "I would be wise, he told me, to stay silent about those events and that I `could be shot' for speaking my thoughts in public. I heeded the warning, and let down the hunger strikers."

O'Rawe said yesterday that he no longer fears being attacked. "The war was still on in 1991, and things have moved on a long way since," he said.

Adams declined to comment until he had read the book, but Danny Morrison, a former republican publicity officer, said O'Rawe's claims were wrong. He questioned the authenticity of the deal offered by the government and claimed the IRA army council did not run the hunger strike. "The prisoners were sovereign, it was their call."

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