Your columnist Fintan O'Toole (March 1st) readily accepts Richard O'Rawe's
claim in his new book Blanketmen that the IRA army council was to blame
for six of the 10 hunger-strike deaths by refusing a deal from the
The 1981 hunger strike was a direct result of the 1980 hunger
strike. The British government had said that it would not act under
duress but would respond with a progressive and liberal prison regime
once it ended. The prisoners called off the fast to save the life of
However, the British immediately reneged on their promises. Because
of this duplicity the hunger strikers of 1981 were adamant that any
deal must be copperfastened.
By early July 1981, and after four deaths, the Irish Commission for
Justice and Peace (ICJP) became involved in trying to mediate a
Around the same time the republican leadership was privately
contacted by "Mountain Climber", codename for a leading Foreign Office
figure, by telephone through an intermediary. This method was not
satisfactory given that messages could become distorted, but we had no
choice if lives were to be saved.
I was given a special visit with the hunger strikers on Sunday, July
5th, and told them we were in contact with the British. The offer was,
of course, less than what the men were demanding.
Both in regard to this offer and the separate initiative undertaken
by the ICJP the prisoners' major concern was a mechanism for ensuring
the British did not renege.
As was agreed with Mountain Climber I was allowed to send for and
meet Bik McFarlane, the IRA OC. I was also allowed the use of a
telephone to speak to Gerry Adams in Belfast.
When I attempted to return to the hunger strikers a governor
intervened, ordered me out of the prison and snatched the phone from
me. We were aware of major differences between the Home Office, the
Northern Ireland Office (NIO) and the Foreign Office over the hunger
strike, and my being ordered from the prison was worrying.
That night the ICJP visited the hospital. The hunger strikers asked
for McFarlane to be present, but the NIO refused. The ICJP offered to
act as guarantors, but the prisoners asked for an NIO official to deal
with them directly.
In relation to my eviction Mountain Climber explained the delicacy
of his operation and that there was major opposition to a settlement.
He had been insisting on strict confidentiality.
However, we took a decision to divulge to the ICJP that a more solid
negotiation was going on in the background. Because of the ICJP's
intervention we felt that the British were postponing doing this
potential deal to see if they could force the prisoners to accept less
through the ICJP.
An angry ICJP then confronted prisons minister Michael Allison and
demanded that an NIO guarantor be sent in to the hunger strikers to
confirm a deal.
In Richard O'Rawe's version the IRA's army council sent in a
communication ("comm") on Monday afternoon rejecting the proposals.
"Bik and I were shattered," writes O'Rawe. McFarlane totally repudiates
The contemporaneous evidence is on McFarlane's side. At 11pm on July
6th, the latter wrote a lengthy comm (which is in Ten Men Dead, David
Beresford, 1987) in which there is no mention of an IRA comm. From his
demeanour there is clearly no evidence that he received such a missive.
Furthermore, if the NIO had really wanted to do a deal, even one
based on the ICJP's proposals, then all it had to do was send in the
guarantor to the hunger strikers. Fr Crilly (ICJP) confirmed this on
Thursday on BBC Radio Ulster. Six times the ICJP phoned Allison about
the guarantor going in, but none ever appeared and Joe McDonnell died
on July 8th, followed by five others.
O'Rawe says: "The proposals were there in black and white, direct
from Thatcher's desk." They were there through word of mouth. Given
previous experience, were not the prisoners right to insist that any
deal be guaranteed? How can the hunger strikers or the republican
leadership be faulted for insisting on that safeguard?
Laurence McKeown, who was then on hunger strike (surviving 70 days),
criticised O'Rawe's version and said yesterday: "We wanted definite
confirmation, not vague promises of 'regime change'."
O'Rawe claims he wrote the book because the families "had a right to
know the facts", yet he did not have the courtesy to forewarn them. He
never once discussed with McFarlane if those recollections from 24
years ago were also his, as would be the normal practice. We now know
why. O'Rawe's book which relies so much on "Bik and I this and that"
would have fallen asunder if O'Rawe had consulted him.
It is telling that not once in the past 24 years has the NIO stated
that before Joe McDonnell's death it made an offer to the hunger
strikers which was turned down by the IRA's army council. I wonder if
Fintan O'Toole would have commented had O'Rawe's book been titled,
Blanketmen - Thatcher killed hunger strikers.