Richard O’Rawe And The Hunger Strike Narrative
Afterlives: the hunger strike and the secret offer that changed Irish history’ by Richard O’Rawe, was first published in 2010 by Lilliput Press, as the sequel to the author’s highly controversial first book, Blanketmen: an untold story of the H-Block hunger strike (2005).
Richard O’Rawe was PRO of the Provisonal IRA prisoners in the H Blocks of Long Kesh prison, during the tragic hunger strike of 1981. O’Rawe’s first book Blanketmen caused extreme controversy, among Irish Republicans especially, due to its challenge to the orthodox versions of the H-Block hunger strike and the Provisional Sinn Fein leadership, whose near-meteoric political gains were directly related to the groundswell of Irish nationalist sentiment, caused by the martyrdom of the ten hungers strikers in 1981.
Prior to the publication of Blanketmen, it was universally accepted, within Irish Republicanism at least, that the hunger strikers themselves were ultimately in sole command of their own destiny and it was they alone who decided to continue the stailc to its tragic end, with the ‘outside’ Provisional leadership having nothing more than an advisory role. Equally universally accepted, and not just within Irish Republicanism, was that the hunger strikes of 1981 and the ultimate price paid by the 10 H-Block martyrs, were the catalyst for Provisional Sinn Fein’s rise to political power and the emergence of a symbiotic ‘peace process’.
O’Rawe’s first publication maintained that a hunger strike ‘kitchen cabinet’, comprising of Gerry Adams and other prominent Provisional Sinn Fein figures such as Danny Morrison and Tom Hartley, were the final arbiters as to the tragic trajectory of the hunger strike. Central to Blanketmen’s significance was that Adams et al overruled the acceptance of a ‘deal’ offered by the British government, via a secret mediator codenamed ‘the Mountainclimber’, which had initially been accepted by the H-Block prisoners’ leadership, under the command of Brendan ‘Bik’ MacFarlane.
O’Rawe, as PRO of the protesting prisoners in the H-Blocks, would have been intimately cogniscent of the secret negotiations and would have been a confidante of MacFarlane. As a consequence of this overruling of the H-Block prisoners leadership’s decision to accept the ‘Mountainclimber deal’, O’Rawe maintained, six of the hunger strikers went on to lay down their lives when an acceptable deal already existed and, by definition, the Sinn Fein leadership cynically allowed six hunger strikers to die, as it was politically expedient to do so. It was literally too much of an appalling vista for many within Irish Republicanism to contemplate, not least the Provisional Sinn Fein leadership who owed their political, and even literary, careers to a general acceptance by Irish Republicans of the previous hunger strike orthodoxy.
If Blanketmen raised serious doubts over the official view of the 1981 hunger strike, the subsequent events set in motion by its publication, such as admissions by intermediary Brendan Duddy (‘The Mountainclimber’) and by other H-Block prisoners, added to the points contained therein, went some way to fulfilling a notional criteria that on the ‘balance of probabilities’ O’Rawe’s thesis was tragically correct. Many people felt that Afterlives fulfilled the more stringent notional criteria of proving ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ that Adams-Morrison-MacFarlane et al had indulged in a cover-up of the true events pertaining to the 1981 hunger strike. An acceptance of the O’Rawe thesis, is to accept the culpability of those, like the Adams committee, who have been publicly involved in promoting a public lie for 30 years. There are no gaps in O’Rawe’s thesis nor leaps of faith required on the part of the reader. O’Rawe does not come across as a bare-faced liar and he certainly had much to lose by challenging the orthodox view and not towing the accepted orthodox line, regarding the events of 1981.
I must admit when I first heard of the book Blanketmen and the author’s startling revelations years ago I did not want to believe them. Back then, I asked people who would have been very loyal to the Sinn Fein leadership what they thought of O’Rawe’s book and why he would have written what he did? I was given a variety of reasons why O’Rawe would manufacture a story, such as: monetary gain, egotism and that he had turned bitterly against Provisional Sinn Fein. I must also admit that, back then, I more or less accepted their explanations and I did not even read the book to make up my own mind because I guess, like many people, it was much easier to discount an isolated voice in the wilderness. It was also much easier then not to read the book and adhere to the accepted hunger strike thesis, backed up by several authors, accepted hunger strike ‘experts’, leading Republicans etc.
But even back then, despite O’Rawe’s version being too terrible a vista to contemplate, there were niggling doubts, which surely must have visited even the most sceptical or Provisional Sinn Fein leadership-loyal individuals, such as:
- What if O’Rawe is right?
- What if O’Rawe is even half-right?’
- Would an ex-blanketman really make up lies like that?
- If the accepted hunger strike line is a grand lie, what else is a lie?
Even following the publication of both Blanketmen and Afterlives many people are still roughly at the ‘stage’ of ‘disbelief’ described above, in that O’Rawe’s thesis would be more of an ‘inconvenient truth’ to investigate. Plus, until five or so years ago, the accepted hunger strike ‘line’ was an unchallenged historical monolith, a quarter of a century in the making.
There is little doubt that more and more people are being convinced by Blanketmen and Afterlives and especially in the significant year of 2011, the momentum is steadily growing. However, there is a distinct correlation between those who are publicly supportive of O’Rawe’s account and those who are critical of Provisional Sinn Fein and vice-versa. For many, in either ‘camp’, acceptance or non-acceptance of O’Rawe’s thesis has been a near article of faith and there has been little cross-pollenation. Ironically, it may only be when those people whose careers depend on the majority within Irish Republicanism disbelieving O’Rawe are no longer about or no longer in positions of power, that the Blanketmen and Afterlives thesis will overtake the ‘orthodox’ hunger strike line, that is so closely linked to the Provisional Sinn Fein leadership. After all, it took 25 years+ to enshrine and entrench that particular version in the Republican consciousness, so it may take that again, to not only refute it but to replace it as a widely-accepted truth.
(First written, 2011. Edited 2013)