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Hunger strikers wanted more than vague promises

(by Danny Morrison, Irish Times)

The claim that the IRA's army council was responsible for prolonging the hunger strikes is wrong, writes Danny Morrison.

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 British government.

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 Seán McKenna.

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 settlement.

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 that account.

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.

February 5, 2005

Danny Morrison is the author of several books, including All the Dead Voices.

This article appears in the March 5, 2005 edition of the Irish Times.

All of Danny Morrison's articles can be found at DannyMorrison.com.