A meeting to tackle the controversy over the handling of the 1981 hunger strike has failed to resolve the debate.
Emotions rose and tempers flared in Gulladuff, County Donegal, amid allegations of Sinn Féin “control freakery” as the party sought to tackle damaging claims over its handling of the famous hunger strike.
Ten prisoners died in pursuit of political status -- six more than some believe was necessary -- but the huge publicity helped to spawn Sinn Féin as a political party.
The meeting was organised by Sinn Féin in response to recent claims that a deal was offered by the British government in the hours before Joe McDonnell died. Mr McDonnell was the fifth of the 10 hunger strikers to die.
It is alleged that the potential deal was scotched by the republican leadership outside the prison in order to advance their own selfish political ambitions. The claims are largely based on the individual recollections of prisoners at the time. Sinn Féin’s new political policies, of accepting power-sharing within the Six Counties, British courts and the PSNI police, has undoubtedly fuelled the controversy.
The family of Bobby Sands refused to attend the Gulladuff meeting, having parted ways with the Sinn Féin leadership several years ago. The family of Kevin Lynch said they could not attend.
However, family members of the remaining eight hunger strikers who lost their lives did attend, and heard addresses by Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams, Danny Morrison of the Bobby Sands Trust, as well as Brendan ‘Bik’ McFarlane, who was officer in command of IRA prisoners at the time of the Hunger Strike.
Michael Devine whose father, Derry man Mickey Devine was the last hunger striker to die, left the meeting early. Mr Devine said afterwards he did so because he could not put his point across.
The meeting was organised in response to claims originally made by Richard O’Rawe, who was publicity officer for the prisoners at the time. He stated in his 2005 book that the deal was turned down by the Sinn Féin committee outside the prison. He claimed Sinn Féin wished to capitalise on the political gains available through the Hunger Strike.
He claimed the deal was sanctioned by then British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher and would have met three and possibly four of the hunger strikers five demands.
Sinn Féin has always rejected his claims.
The meeting was described by all participants as “highly emotional” with family members visibly upset.
There was a call for a united statement from the families to end the recent controversy and there was also a counter-call for an independent inquiry into what happened. Both failed to get full support.
IRSP spokesman William Gallagher -- who attempted to gain entry to the meeting on behalf of the Republican Socialist Movement, who lost two Volunteers in the strike -- said the whole debate had brought back painful memories for the families.
“It was a complete farce from beginning to end,” he said. “Goons from West Belfast patrolled the parking lot and guarded the door to the community hall.”
Mr Gallagher was refused access to the meeting and said those who were also kept out included a former hunger striker, a former prisoner and a relative of a teenager who died in riots surrounding the hunger strike. In an explosive description of the meeting, he went on to describe bitter confrontations at the door of the meeting involving prominent Belfast republican Bobby Storey.
The meeting itself, he claimed, was “a manipulative back stabbing session”.
“O’Rawe was demonised in the meeting, called a liar, painted as the villain and ascribed nefarious motives for pursuing the truth. Some families’ representatives were characterised as ‘anti-GFA’ [the 1998 Good Friday Agreement] and those who had attended [a previous debate in Derry] many of whom were former blanketmen [protesting PoWs] were derided as ‘yahoos’.
“A dubious motion was attempted to get the families to agree to a joint statement that would say they were all agreed any probing into the past should cease. They ‘had enough’, ‘old wounds had opened up’, and O’Rawe ‘should stop’,’ he was ‘only after money for books’.”
A subsequent statement by almost all of the family members present, described Gallagher’s account as “inaccurate and offensive”.
They also said they had rejected a request by Tony O’Hara, brother of Patsy O’Hara, to meet with Richard O’Rawe and Willie Gallagher.
“We asked Tony to express to Richard O’Rawe and Willie Gallagher our wish for them to stop what they are doing and to give us peace of mind.
“Our loved ones made the supreme sacrifice on hunger strike for their comrades. They were not dupes. They were dedicated and committed republicans. We are clear that it was the British Government which refused to negotiate and refused to concede their just demands.”