By Danny Morrison (for Daily Ireland)
In a forthcoming BBC documentary Richard O’Rawe once again will be claiming that the republican leadership rejected a deal from the British government shortly before the death of Joe McDonnell on July 8th 1981. Richard is a former blanket man and PRO in the H-Blocks. Whilst in jail Richard never raised his claims with the leadership in prison or the leadership outside. After Richard’s release he worked with me in the Republican Press Centre for a year and never mentioned the allegations he now makes.
He neither approached Brendan ‘Bik’ McFarlane, OC of the prisoners, nor me to ask us our recollections of this period when he was preparing for his book. Last year Richard alleged that in late July 1981 I sat at a meeting with hunger strikers’ families with a deal from the British government in my back pocket and didn’t tell them. When I pointed out that I had been in hospital in Dublin during that period Richard realised his memory was false and discreetly dropped the claim. He claims he wrote the book out of concern for the relatives, yet he never told them. Instead, he published extracts in a newspaper.
On July 4, 1981, four days before Joe McDonnell’s death, Richard, as PRO, issued a statement aimed at breaking the deadlock. It said that the British could settle the hunger strike without compromising their position by extending prison reforms to the entire prison population. At this time the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace was engaged in a mediation exercise. Behind the scenes the British government reopened a “back-channel” to the republican leadership.
The 1981 hunger strike came out of the 1980 hunger strike. The British sent a document to the prisoners which they claimed could be the basis for a settlement. However, the prisoners had already ended the strike before they received the document. The British reneged on their assurances almost immediately. That was why the second hunger strikers were to demand verification of any deal to end their hunger strike.
In July 1981 the British government had various public and private positions. Privately it outlined two different offers, one to the ICJP and another to the republican leadership. I was one of those who described to the hunger strikers, including Joe McDonnell, on July 5 what the British were saying to us. The prisoners told me they wanted the offer clarified and verified in person through a senior British representative. We passed this on to the British. However, the British would not verify to the hunger strikers their various ‘offers’. Six times they were asked by the ICJP to explain their position to the prisoners and six times they refused before Joe McDonnell died.
In his comms [communications] from July, August and September 1981 which were released as press statements, Richard makes it clear there was no deal. On July 23, two weeks after Joe McDonnell’s death, he accuses the British of deliberate ambiguity and demands clarity, yet in his book he claims that on July 6 the republican leadership rejected ‘a deal’.
Richard’s comms - which are contemporaneous accounts of the time - contradict the allegations he is making a quarter of a century later.
On July 7, the day before Joe’s death, Richard wrote: “We are very depressed at the fact that our comrade Joe McDonnell is virtually on the brink of death - especially when the solution to the issue is there for the taking. The urgency of the situation dictates that the British act on our statement of July 4 now. Finally, we advise our supporters to be cautious and vigilant and to disregard the volume of rumours that seems to be in circulation. We ask everyone to analyse and understand our July 4th statement and to be on guard for any dilution of the situation contained in that statement.”
On July 8, the day of Joe McDonnell’s death, he wrote: “The British government’s hypocrisy and their refusal to act in a responsible manner are completely to blame for the death of Joe McDonnell...The only definite response forthcoming from the British government [to the prisoners July 4th statement] is the death of Joe McDonnell... This morning [secretary of state] Mr Atkins has issued us with yet another ambiguous and self-gratifying statement... That statement, even given its most optimistic reading, is far removed from our July 4th statement. At face value it amounts to nothing.”
On July 23, nine days before Kevin Lynch died, Richard wrote: “The [ICJP’s] proposals were vague but even at that we did not believe they contained a just settlement. After Joe McDonnell’s death on July 8th the British government issued their present policy statement which in substance and even given an optimistic reading was a dilution of the diluted package attained initially by the ICJP...
“It is vital also that everyone realises that the ICJP have been victims of British perfidity [sic] and that the ambiguity which accompanies all British statements is deliberate...
“The death of our comrade Joe McDonnell on July 8th plus the Humphrey Atkins’ statement of the same day, and the evolution of bitter claim and counter-claim between the British and the ICJP left one thing clear - that intermediaries, and this is no slight on the ICJP, are dangerous and that only direct talks between the British and ourselves based on our 4th July statement can guarantee clarity and sincerity and thus save lives...
“At present the British are looking for what amounts to an absolute surrender. They are offering us nothing that amounts to an honourable solution and they have created red herrings, that is, their refusal to allow Brendan McFarlane to represent the hunger strikers, to cover their inflexibility...
Richard ‘s own words show clearly there was no deal. All surviving hunger strikers from that period are of the same view. In his book Richard alleges that the republican leadership ordered the hunger strikers not to accept a deal, yet, as his own words of the time attest, “there was no ‘elusive chain of command’... we prisoners were in complete command of the hunger strike and protest...”
I hope this closes this sorry episode and I would like to apologise to the families of the hunger strikers for the suffering and distress that this has perpetuated, but I feel that the false claims have to be answered and settled. It was the British government which withdrew political status, introduced criminalisation and was responsible for creating the conditions for a hunger strike.