I once asked a former member of the British Army Intelligence Corp if there was any substance in the British Government’s alleged fears that if they were to announced their withdrawal from the Six Counties, the Loyalist Paramilitary’s would conduct an OAS* type campaign in England. He replied he could not see this happening as the Loyalist terror groups, the UDA, LVF and the UVF, unlike the Provisional Irish Republican Army, simply did not have the stamina necessary to conduct a bombing campaign on the British mainland. The book ‘Blanketmen, An Untold Story of the H-block Hunger Strike’ by Richard O’Rawe, more than adequately answers the question what gave the Provos such tenacious stamina to fight a thirty odd year war against not only one of the world’s major military powers, but also one of the most experienced armies in combating insurgencies.
I would appeal to all those who have been warned off reading this book by the heavy handed attempt by the Provisional Republican Movement apparatchiks to discredit Richard O’Rawe to place any doubts that may have been raised in their minds about him to one side and make their own mind up after having read Mr O’Rawes book. By so doing I guarantee they will come away with the belief that the aforementioned attack on O’Rawe was sadly yet another example of the PRM leadership over-reacting and scoring, not for the first time, an own goal.
Richard O’Rawe is an honest writer who as a Republican POW in the Maze prison, was party to many of the events he describes in his book. In his search for the truth as he sees it, he places his own human frailties, misdemeanors and doubts before his readers without fear of embarrassment or condemnation. When the book was first published, some people not as familiar with the Provisional Republican Movement as perhaps they themselves believed, asked contemptuously, who is this man O’Rawe?
At the time I did a round-robin amongst ex Blanketmen enquiring of them their opinion of Richard O’Rawe. The one word that continuously came back when I asked about O’Rawe was, “sound”. To be called “sound” by people who went through the Maelstrom of the Blanket protest is about the highest compliment they could give.
In the book O’Rawe lays out his service to the republican movement, warts and all, but I will leave it to Bik McFarlane and the late Cleaky Clarke, both Adams men to the core, to express what people thought of O’Rawe in the H Blocks. In a Com[secret communication] sent out to Gerry Adams near the end of the Hunger Strikes Bik McFarlane wrote, “There is a growing feeling amongst those with what I would describe as a bit of savvy (The Dark and the Author) that our present troubles may prove insurmountable.” The Dark was Brendan Hughes, the Author Richard O’Rawe (Com sent from the H-block’s from Bik McFarlane to Gerry Adams on 29th September 1991).
After the Hunger Strike ended O’Rawe ended up in H Block 1; on arrival in the block he found there was no IRA command structure on the wing. Cleaky Clarke, who held the senior command in the conforming blocks, ordered the exhausted O’Rawe to take command and organize a PIRA chain of command, which he successfully did.
So, far from being a bit player as has been suggested in this momentous prison struggle struggle, O’Rawe was at the centre of the storm as the Prisoners PRO. Having inherited the job from Bik McFarlane, who was moving up to replace Bobby Sands as OC of the O’glaigh na hEireann prisoners in the Maze. O’Rawe was also close [at this time] to the two most influential Republicans in the Maze Prison, Brendan ‘the Dark’ Hughes and Bik McFarlane. Thus he was in a unique position to observe this titanic struggle unfold, from the first hunger strikes, which ended in confusion, through to the ending of the Blanket protest, the deaths of the ten men on the second hunger strike and finally the ending of the Maze prison protest. After which the prison returned to a degree of ‘normality’ under a new regime which eventually incorporated most, if not all of the Hunger Strikers Five Demands.
As this is a review of O’Rawe’s book I don’t wish to go into the tortuous behaviour of the PRM leadership in detail prior to this book’s publication. Save to say this about the two men who were put forward by SF to challenge O’Rawe’s interpretation of events. Bik McFarlane behaviour was fair enough, due to the nature of his profession at the time, but for Danny Morrison to attack a former comrade and a fellow scribe in the manner he did, with snide innuendoes about O’Rawe only having written the book for money, etc, was contemptible and sad to see. Far from criticising his fellow Republican for writing about his experiences during the period of the Blanket protest and the hunger strikes, surely Morrison should have encouraged and welcomed it, even if he differed with O’Rawe’s interpretation of a certain key event. For Morrison is well aware far too often history is written by the oppressors, not their victims. Thus when on the odd occasion the reverse occurs, a certain solidarity is called for.
That so many years after the event there will be different interpretations of the Hunger Strikes is inevitable, as we all see things differently and it is the nature of a writer to be subjective. Argue out the differences in a comradely manner, not stoop to nasty innuendoes and smears. What a missed opportunity this has been. For would not a debate between the two old comrades, Morrison and O’Rawe, who now disagree on things they both experienced from a different perspective have been advantageous to all who wish to understand this period? It would also, at this time when Republicanism is under the spotlight in a less than favorable way, have shown a more heroic side to the struggle and displayed the British Government in all its hatefulness. Perhaps if the bitterness recedes we can look forward to such a debate sometime in the future at the Féile an Phobail West Belfast.
As to the claims the book makes that it was the PIRA Army Council (AC) who called the shots during the Hunger Strike. I do not wish to go into this here, for to do so would not only prolong the controversy over this matter, but also promote this part of the book out of all proportion to the overall context. Thus it is for the readers of the book to make a judgment on this and for history to decide the merits of O’Rawe’s supposition. However if one concludes the AC did behave in this way, should we be surprised as all of the Hunger Strikers, bar those who belonged to the INLA, were disciplined solders of O’glaigh na hEireann, the supreme authority of which was the Army Council? The members of the AC had responsibility for the big picture of the struggle and not just the front that was being fought out within the Maze prison.
Thus it would hardly be surprising if the Army Council were involved in the most intricate details of the Hunger Strike; as not to do so would have been a negation of their duty. As to Mr Adams’ role, think what you will about him, but he is not a man to shirk his duty to the Provisional Republican Movement [as he sees it], nor does O’Rawe claim he did so during the Hunger Strikes. Indeed he all but claims the opposite is true.
Myself I read this book in one sitting, enthralled by the story O’Rawe relates to his readership. Heroism, human endurance beyond belief, and leadership responsibilities are portrayed that would have broken the average man or woman and these qualities were shown by leading Republicans both inside and outside the Maze. A comradeship developed amongst the hunger strikers and their immediate comrades within the jail, which those of us who were not party to this struggle at the sharp end will in truth have difficulty in fully understanding. Looking back we can see it might have been better if this or that had been done differently, but those who led this struggle were either battered and bruised prisoners or members of a Republican movement who were up against the full force of the British State. The true marvel of the Hunger Strikes is that so few mistakes were actually made, for this truly was a David and Goliath struggle.
Although I can hear the jeers from some quarters, I will conclude with two quotes from Father Denis Faul, who these days gets a bad press from republicans, which in the overall context of the man’s work down the years he did not entirely deserve. The first quote on reading it in the book enraged me and made my heart go out to Bik McFarlane. The priest stormed into the prisoners canteen on hearing of the death of Martin Hurson and shouted at McFarlane, “You are responsible for the death of Martin Hurson”; a vicious row ensued during which Bik McFarlane quite correctly sharply pointed out it was the Thatcher Government who bore responsibility. The argument continued until Fr Faul countered in the manner of a man who had lost the argument, “You should go on Hunger Strike yourself, McFarlane, and see what it was like.” With the pressures of leadership on Brendan McFarlane’s shoulders at that moment, to be on Hunger Strike would I have no doubt have been a heavenly release, if only, the man must have thought and wished. The second quote from Father Faul is well known, yet it still sums up the Hunger Strikers attitude perfectly and will until eternity. After trying to persuade Bobby Sands to give up his Hunger Strike, Sands turned to Faul and quoted the priest’s master Jesus Christ, “Greater love have no man for his friends than to lay down his life for them.”
In the scheme of things, this basically sums up Richard O’Rawe’s interpretation of the Hunger Strikes. Myself, I’m certain these gallant warriors also gave their lives for something else: the dream of a Democratic Socialist Republic. Without getting all dewy eyed, is there a nobler cause than the human freedom such a Republic could herald.
* When General Charles de Gaulle recognized the Algerian Liberation Movement the FLN was not only unbeatable but had the wind of history in its sails, he decided to withdraw and grant Algeria full independence. The settler population decided to fight a rearguard action within mainland France using bombings and assassination as their main tactic.
A version of this article first appeared on The Blanket. [http://lark.phoblacht.net/]