IRA blocked deal to save hunger strikers

John Burns
Sunday Times
27 Feb 2005

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THE IRA rejected a government deal to end the 1981 hunger strike by
republican prisoners that could have saved at least five lives,
according to a leading republican.

Richard O'Rawe, the IRA spokesman in the Maze prison during the
hunger strike, reveals that he and the IRA prisoners' commanding
officer accepted concessions offered by the Foreign Office on July 5,
1981, just before Joe McDonnell, the fifth prisoner, died.

They were overruled by the IRA army council, which refused to call
off the hunger strike until 10 prisoners had died. O'Rawe suggests
that the IRA wanted to use continuing sympathy for the hunger
strikers to win a by-election.

O'Rawe is disclosing details of the secret offer made by Margaret
Thatcher's government despite a threat from a senior IRA member that
he could be shot if he criticised the army council's role in public.

His claims, in a new book, Blanketmen, An Untold Story of the H-Block
Hunger Strike, to be published by New Island tomorrow, will greatly
embarrass Sinn Fein at a time when it is already weakened.

Senior party figures have been accused of sanctioning the £26.5m
robbery of the Northern Bank, which police believe was carried out by
the IRA. The party is also implicated in an investigation in the
republic into IRA money-laundering.

The concessions offered to end the hunger strike were put to Gerry
Adams, now the Sinn Fein leader, by a Foreign Office intermediary
known as "the Mountain Climber". His identity remains a mystery.

Thatcher's government effectively conceded four of the IRA demands
including the abolition of prison uniforms, more visits and letters,
and segregation of prisoners on political lines. Prison work for IRA
men was to have been widely defined to include educational courses
and handicrafts. The only point the government refused to concede was
free association of prisoners on the IRA wing.

"I thought the offer was sufficient for us to settle the hunger
strike honourably," writes O'Rawe, who was serving eight years for
robbery. "In fact, the British had gone further than I had considered
possible. I felt it was almost too good to be true."

Brendan "Bik" McFarlane, the IRA prison commander, agreed the deal
was acceptable. But the army council ruled that the hunger strikers
should hold out for more. The protest was eventually called off three
months later, on less favourable terms, after five more deaths.

"I make no apology for saying now that the army council acted in an
inexcusable manner. A generous interpretation is that they
disastrously miscalculated on all fronts," said O'Rawe. "A more
sceptical view would be that perhaps they didn't miscalculate at

Bobby Sands, the first IRA hunger striker to die, had been elected
the MP for Fermanagh/South Tyrone and the republican movement was
keen to retain the seat in the subsequent by-election. Owen Carron,
the Sinn Fein candidate, was elected in August, on the day that the
10th striker died.

Two days after the IRA rejected the government's offer, McDonnell
died. Mountain Climber was in touch again two weeks later, but Adams
told the prisoners in a smuggled message that nothing new was on

O'Rawe says the IRA gave the impression that the prisoners were in
charge of the hunger strike and were determined to get the full five
demands from the government, but this was not the case.

"Omission, rather than lies, was the order of the day. The leadership
never told the hunger strikers' relatives of Mountain Climber's
intervention and they washed their hands of any responsibility for
making or breaking the deal," he says.

O'Rawe fears that McDonnell and the hunger strikers who died after
him "were used as cannon fodder". He said: "No matter which way one
views it, the outside leadership alone, not the prison leadership,
took the decision to play brinkmanship with McDonnell's life. If Bik
and I had had our way, Joe and the five comrades who followed him to
the grave would be alive today."

O'Rawe says that when he discussed his reservations with a senior
republican in 1991, he was warned he could be killed. "I would be
wise, he told me, to stay silent about those events and that I `could
be shot' for speaking my thoughts in public. I heeded the warning,
and let down the hunger strikers."

O'Rawe said yesterday that he no longer fears being attacked. "The
war was still on in 1991, and things have moved on a long way since,"
he said.

Adams declined to comment until he had read the book, but Danny
Morrison, a former republican publicity officer, said O'Rawe's claims
were wrong. He questioned the authenticity of the deal offered by the
government and claimed the IRA army council did not run the hunger
strike. "The prisoners were sovereign, it was their call."

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