Hunger-strike dispute lost in translation
Hunger-strike dispute lost in translation

New light has been shed on reported republican reaction to a British offer which might have ended the 1981 hunger strike after four deaths.

Evidence which has now become available helps clarify a dispute sparked three years ago by the assertion of former IRA prisoner Richard O’Rawe that terms for ending the strike, “accepted” by the prisoners’ leadership in Long Kesh prison, were “rejected” by IRA commanders outside.

The suggestion was that the lives of five or six of the hunger-strikers might have been saved if the prisoners hadn’t been “overruled”.

O’Rawe’s account was angrily denounced by leading Republicans, including IRA commander in the prison at the time, Brendan McFarlane, senior Sinn Féin strategist Jim Gibney and former Sinn Féin press officer Danny Morrison.

The disagreement was intensified by O’Rawe’s suggestion that the reason IRA leaders rejected the deal was that they had calculated that republican candidate Owen Carron would have a better chance of retaining Fermanagh-South Tyrone in a by-election . The by-election had resulted from the death of Bobby Sands, on May 6th, 66 days after he’d launched the hunger strike, a month after he’d been elected a Westminster MP.

O’Rawe’s allegation is that an offer from the British Foreign Office, conveyed to McFarlane on July 5th, two days before the fifth hunger-striker, Joe McDonnell, was to die, conceded three of the prisoners’ five demands. He says that McFarlane pushed a document containing these proposals along a pipe to his cell. He said that it offered that prisoners could wear their own clothes, have remission restored and enjoy more visits and letters -- three of the five demands.

“It was fantastic offer. I never expected it,” says O’Rawe. He recalls a shouted conversation between himself and McFarlane, two cells away.

“We spoke in Irish so the screws could not understand. I said, ‘Ta go leor ann’. He said, ‘Aontaim leat, scriobhfaidh me chun taoibh amuigh agus cuirfidh me fhios orthu’ [I agree with you, I will write to the outside and let them know.]

O’Rawe has claimed that this conversation was the basis of an agreement by the prisoners, later overruled by the movement outside.

However, it has now been suggested that the conversation, which some denied never took place, was simply misunderstood.

The Irish phrase ‘go leor’ can be understood to mean ‘plenty’, ‘a lot’, or ‘enough’. O’Rawe’s understanding that McFarlane had agreed the British offer to make a deal was ‘enough’ is thought to have been different to McFarlane’s understanding that ‘a lot’ had been achieved.

In any event, Joe McDonnell died at five am on July 7th, and negotiations collapsed.

No independent evidence has emerged to support O’Rawe’s suggestion that the IRA leadership deliberately prolonged the hunger strike for political advantage for the movement outside.

O’Rawe’s cell-mate, who recently confirmed that the conversation took place, also said he did not believe that hunger-strikers were allowed to die in order to maximise electoral support.

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© 2008 Irish Republican News