29.9.09

Richard O'Rawe: Search for truth a sacred duty

THE HUNGER STRIKE: Was there a deal?

Irish News
28/09/09

Former IRA prisoner Richard O’Rawe caused huge controversy in republican circles when in his 2005 book Blanketmen he claimed that the British government had been ready to offer a deal which could have ended the hunger Strike after four deaths...



FUNERAL: An IRA guard of honour flanks the coffin of Bobby Sands, the first hunger striker to die in 1981

As one of the 300 Spartans who spent years on the blanket protest and as the prisoners’ PRO during the 1981 Hunger Strike, I have drawn great inspiration and strength from my 10 heroic comrades who died on hunger strike.

Some years ago I published a book entitled Blanketmen in which I recounted my first-hand experiences of that time.

It was instantly slated as ‘scurrilous’ and ‘slanderous’ by some republicans, who, instead of engaging in a respectable debate about the issues I had raised, demonised and vilified me. One leading republican said that I “should hang my head in shame” and that my book should have been called, ‘On another man’s hunger strike.’ It is not I who should hang my head in shame. I have told no lies.

In my book, I said that on July 5 1981 Danny Morrison came to the prison and made our OC, [Brendan] Bik McFarlane aware that someone called the ‘Mountain Climber’, a contact with the British government, had delivered an offer to the IRA leadership.

McFarlane denied this saying: “No offer existed.” I said that McFarlane and I were enthusiastic about the British offer, and had a conversation out our windows, during which we accepted it. McFarlane denied this saying: “That conversation did not take place.”

I offered that a communication came into the prison from Gerry Adams on July 6 1981 which said that the Mountain Climber offer did not validate the deaths of our four comrades and that more was needed.

McFarlane denied that this occurred. Matters stayed like that for about four years. Then in May 2009, at a Hunger Strike conference in Derry City, things changed dramatically.

The journalist Liam Clarke had obtained, under the Freedom of Information Act, a copy of the July 5 Mountain Climber offer.

For the first time in 28 years, I found out that the offer was, in fact, a statement from the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, which was to be released in the event of the Hunger Strike ending. Brendan Duddy (the Mountain Climber), who had been a panellist at the Derry City conference, confirmed that he had passed this statement on to the IRA leadership.

The importance of this cannot be overemphasised because here was the document which determined the fate of the last six hunger strikers. No evidence exists to say that the hunger strikers ever set eyes on this document. Certainly, it was never smuggled in to Bik McFarlane or me.

Who took the decision to withhold this decisive document from the prison leadership? Did they also keep it from the hunger strikers, and if so, why? Brendan Duddy also confirmed that the message the IRA sent back to the British was that “more had to be added”.

Former blanketman Gerard ‘Cleaky’ Clarke then affirmed that he had heard the crucial conversation between Bik McFarlane and me. These revelations prompted the collapse of Bik McFarlane’s position.

In a newspaper interview on June 4 2009 he admitted the British had made the approach I had written about but claimed that they had failed to “expand the offer”. He also said: “And I said to Richard this is amazing, this is a huge opportunity and I feel there’s a potential here [in the Mountain Climber process] to end this.”

So, in the space of a couple of sentences, Bik confirmed that what I had always said was true – there had been an offer after all, he and I had liked the look of it and we had a very positive conversation about it.

I had been looking forward to a healthy public debate with Gerry Adams, Danny Morrison and Bik McFarlane at the Derry conference in June but unfortunately they declined the offer to attend. Instead they chose to convene a closed meeting with some families in Gulladuff, south Derry in July and no-one with an alternate account to theirs was invited. A motion that Willie Gallagher of the IRSP and I stop any further probing into the Hunger Strike failed to get unanimous support.

Not to be outdone, however, the next day Sinn Fein members visited the families throughout the north and asked them to sign a pre-prepared statement which incorporated the failed motion from the night before. Some families did sign the statement and those who did not released their own statement publicly asking Gerry Adams, Danny Morrison, Bik McFarlane and myself to support an independent inquiry into the events of 1981. Having nothing to hide, I responded positively. The others have not.

Despite the viciousness of the attacks on me, and despite the intensity of the ongoing debate, nothing in my approach is intended to, or could ever detract from the heroic sacrifice of the Hunger Strike martyrs.

Regardless of what people may choose to say or think, I have no political agenda.

My intention has always been to seek the truth and nothing less, something which the hunger strikers and their legacy deserve as a matter of respect.

That, I suggest, is the sacred duty of all of us who bore witness to this momentous event in Irish history.

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