Clarification urged in hunger strike debate

The controversy over the 1981 hunger strike has continued with conflicting messages from the current and former Sinn Fein leaders, and from former prisoners who were inside Long Kesh prison at the time.

The current president of Republican Sinn Fein Ruairi O Bradaigh, who was president of Sinn Fein until 1983, has denied that the party was aware of any British offer for the hunger strikers to end their protest.

Mr O Bradaigh was based in Dublin at the time of the hunger strike, in which ten men died.

“Sinn Fein’s task in 1980-81 was to campaign in support of the hunger strikers,” he said. “Sinn Fein knew nothing of conditions alleged to be on offer for settlement of the strike.

“I do not believe that the army council of the IRA was aware of such alleged conditions either. In the interests of historical accuracy I wish to place this information on the public record.”

Last week, Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams said that details of an offer had been passed on verbally to both the IRA and INLA prisoners inside Long Kesh by the then Sinn Fein press officer Danny Morrison. The intervention came through an intermediary after four prisoner had died, and a fifth, Joe McDonnell, lay dying.

The offer is said to have included up to four of the prisoners’ five demands for political prisoner status. Mr Adams insisted that it failed because the British government refused to allow an accredited British official to explain the new position to the prisoners amid considerable mutual distrust.

Although three of its members died, the INLA have denied being informed of any offer to end the hunger strike.

However, former republican prisoner Richard O’Rawe has claimed that an offer was conveyed (verbally) to -- and supported by -- the IRA leadership inside the prison. More controversially, he has also implied that a potential deal with the British was subverted by the northern-based leadership outside the prison in order to boost their own political agenda.

“None one of us prisoners in Long Kesh were told that the offer came in the form of a statement from the then secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Humphrey Atkins, which the British, as documents recently disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act made clear, would have been released if and when the Hunger Strike ended,” Mr O’Rawe writes.

“So, why was this offer not sent in to the hunger strikers so that they could properly evaluate the attitude of the British?

“Who took the decision to withhold it from them? And the biggest question of all - why?”

Mr O Bradaigh has said he doubts that the northern leadership acted autonomously without his knowledge by rejecting an offer without the knowledge of the full IRA army council.

“The Brits were up to their tricks,” he said. “They would always have something else going on -- and that is the diversion -- while the real thing is going on somewhere else.”

Amid some calls for an independent inquiry into the matter, the families of most of the hunger strikers have expressed anguish at being forced to relive the trauma of the hunger strikes and have backed the Sinn Fein position.

In extended comments on the issue, former republican hunger striker Bernard Fox said he had been deeply distressed by the allegations.

The west Belfast man, who spent a total of 22 years in prison, was on hunger strike for 32 days when the protest was ended and was a close friend of Joe McDonnell.

“Joe loved life and had no desire to die but he was determined and pragmatic and was not for settling for anything other than the five demands - that I can say for sure.

“I wasn’t in the hospital at that time and I don’t know what the men were told or not told but I do know that there was no deal.

“Offers, yes - there were plenty of offers.

“Sure wasn’t Kieran Nugent given an offer of a convict’s uniform in 1976, an offer he declined?”

Having been interned twice the former IRA man was returned to the H-Blocks as a convicted prisoner in 1977 and immediately joined the blanket protest (against prison uniforms) before volunteering for the Hunger Strike.

He spent 32 days on hunger strike before the protest, which claimed the lives of seven IRA and three INLA prisoners, came to an end.

“It took me 20 years before I could even speak openly about my experiences,” he said.

“It’s still emotional and raw for me even now. These claims just add to that pain.

“I can only imagine what it must be like for the families of the 10 lads.

“Bik [McFarlane] was chosen to act as our OC [officer commanding]. It’s a job no-one envied - the pressure must have been unbearable.

“Regardless of what I or anyone else may think about the political direction he has taken since, at the time we knew he wasn’t going to let us down.

“To suggest that he in some way colluded with the outside leadership to let his comrades die is sickening to me and does not hold up to scrutiny.

“After the first hunger strike we, [the prisoners] were very clear we wanted our demands in writing and delivered by a representative of the British government so there could be no reneging this time.

“Look, I would never criticise any former blanketman. We all suffered equally and the comradeship we had at that time was the only thing that saw us through.

“But try as I may I cannot understand where some people are coming from or why they would wait all these years to bring this out.

“Thatcher and the British government are responsible for the deaths of our comrades -- that’s where the blame lies.”

In 1998 Fox was released from prison under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

He has since parted company with Sinn Fein in disagreement over its political direction.

“I have no personal or political agenda,” he said.

“My only concern is for the families and how all this must be hurting them.

Addressing calls for a public inquiry, he said: “I have no time for inquiries. What you need is not an inquiry but the truth and it would be naive to think the British will ever tell the truth.

“If there are unanswered questions my advice would be to seek clarification.

“That way the families who have called on all this to stop can be left in peace.”

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