A Shifting Narrative

Sometime during the week I listened to a lively BBC Radio Foyle debate between former Provisional IRA prisoners, Richard O’Rawe and Raymond McCartney. The discussion focussed exclusively on the events of early July 1981 when the republican hunger striker Joe McDonnell was close to death. O’Rawe’s position has been consistent in that he has never deviated from his claim that the Provisional leadership rejected a decision by the prison leadership to accept a British offer that would have ended the strike, thus ensuring no further loss of life. McCartney, a member of the 1980 hunger strike team, has been no less consistent than O’Rawe in his rejection of this account. For him any offers that were made were fatally compromised by the refusal of the British government to provide adequate specification for the means of their enactment.

Before the debate started I was firmly of the opinion that O’Rawe’s version of events was correct. I have long felt that there was a more authentic ring to his claims than to the dismissal of those claims by his critics. Not just because on other issues I have heard many of those critics not infrequently deny the most obvious and try to argue that black was white, but because on all of the occasions that I have discussed the matter with O’Rawe over the past decade he was so thorough and methodical in his marshalling of the evidence and appeared to have no reason to make it up as his detractors sometimes like to suggest. I have also had the opportunity to discuss the matter with some of those opposed to him. And while I never sensed that they were being dishonest in what they said to me I was never with them frequently enough to allow their arguments to grow on me. And some of those who waged their critique of O’Rawe on radio and TV tended to sound like hectoring bullies more intent on silencing him than allowing him to make any case.

In spite of that I tried not to let my prejudice shape my hearing of the Radio Foyle exchange. I could not deny that I knew from experience that McCartney would put party before accuracy. He did this in AP/RN comments hostile to both Tommy Gorman and me after we had accused the Provisional IRA of killing Joe O’Connor of the Real IRA in October 2000. He made the charge that we were guilty of fabrication. Yet I remained willing to listen as fairly as I could to any case that he might make against O’Rawe and judge it on its merits and not on the baggage and bias from yesteryear.

After the debate I concluded that nothing had emerged during it that would cause me to rethink my view on it. If persuasiveness was to be measured in points awarded for content, tone and conviction, then O’Rawe won the exchange. His argument had an internal coherence not so pronounced in McCartney’s. His delivery was weak however and McCartney scored significantly in the way listeners heard things rather than what they actually heard. In the end conviction gave O’Rawe the majority verdict. He spoke as if he was genuinely convinced of what he was saying. This corresponds to a wider view out there which holds that O’Rawe, rightly or wrongly, memory serving him or failing him, at least believes what he has to say. McCartney while presumably believing his own account seemed to lack the passion of O’Rawe in making the argument. He came across more like a politician defending a position which may have been right or could have been wrong but which needed defending nonetheless.

Central to McCartney’s critique was reiteration that O’Rawe’s argument had been persistently demolished by almost anyone challenging him. Hyperbole has long been a feature of McCartney’s discourse, at one time making itself manifest in a suggestion that Ian Paisley serving as First Minister in the Stormont Executive was a gigantic step toward a united Ireland. On this occasion the paradox seems to have escaped him that he is taking part in a radio debate seeking to demolish an argument that he feels was demolished four years ago. Moreover, if the dissection of O’Rawe has been so thorough that it has effectively demolished him, why has the haemorrhaging of support been away from the McCartney perspective and not from O’Rawe? No one, we are aware of, who believed O’Rawe at the start disbelieves him today. The same cannot be said for those who initially believed his detractors. There is a growing body of opinion rowing in behind O’Rawe - who initially fought his corner without much help from seconds – in stating that the Sinn Fein leadership has a case to answer.

Another dubious assertion employed by McCartney is his dismissal of O’Rawe on the grounds that his book Blanketmen was serialised by the Sunday Times which according to McCartney was behaving atrociously during the hunger strike. The very fact that his own party is in the executive bed with the DUP means that positions held by people in 1981 have little bearing on how they are to be viewed today. The DUP’s problem in 1981 was that all of us in the H-Blocks did not die. None of that has prevented Sinn Fein from aligning with the Paisleyite outfit.

In recent months Danny Morrison has argued robustly about the sequence of events that took place in and around the H-Blocks on the 5th of July 1981. And because Morrison has been so precise he has unwittingly helped narrow the debate down, for those trying to make sense of claim and counter-claim, to one issue. That is whether the conversation that O’Rawe claims took place between him and the IRA’s prison leader Brendan McFarlane did in fact happen. It was in the course of that conversation, if O’Rawe is correct, that both men agreed to accept an offer from the British government conveyed to them via Morrison. If O’Rawe establishes that the crucial conversation took place it is effectively game over in terms of any argument against his credibility and motives. Raymond McCartney seems to be the only person in the opposition camp so far capable of grasping this. During his debate with O’Rawe he moved to offset any credit that might accrue O’Rawe’s way in the event of evidence supporting the Blanketmen author's claims regarding the conversation between himself and McFarlane emerging.

My own view, given the evidence that I have seen, is that O’Rawe will be vindicated. Up until now O’Rawe’s shifting of the narrative pertaining to the 1981 hunger strike away from the Sinn Fein leadership has been incremental. That could change substantially if witness evidence in particular emerges from the wing O’Rawe was on at the time of the disputed exchange between himself and McFarlane. In that event there might follow a decisive shift in the battle for control of the hunger strike narrative which could see O’Rawe’s account move into pole position.

What a turn up for the hunger strike books that would be.


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  2. Kate, your putting together of this is an excellent contribution to public discussion and understanding of the events. I just viewed the Gerard Clarke intervention and found it powerful. The sense I got was the following. If I was up against Richard O'Rawe trying to defend the SF position on the matter I would have this awful feeling of 'slipping, slipping, slipping ...' It is only a matter of time before the debate shifts to why the leadership refused the offer that would almost certainly have resulted in a deal that would have saved the lives of many hunger strikers. And its explanation on that will be hamstrung by all its earlier denials over the matter. Whatever your views on the subject, good job Kate.

  3. Thanks for videoing and posting this Kate, it does look like the dominoes are finally falling into place.

  4. I attended the public debate on Saturday night and I have to say that I have never, in my life seen such a large audience captivated by every word spoken. For me as an independent thinker, I was absolutely floored by the revelations which totally vindicate Richard O'Rawe's claims that the Provisional leadership on the outside over-ruled the prisoners desire to accept the British offer and end the hunger strike. I also found it disturbing to hear that the IRSP were never informed about this offer until recently!
    The only down side of the night was that Gerry Adams, Danny Morrison and Bik McFarlane never bothered to turn up. Their version of events would have been welcomed by everyone.

    John Kennedy Cartoonist

  5. I think it is important that the full facts about the Hunger Strike come out, although there is probably no such thing as an uncontested set of facts. I get the feeling that some Sinn Féin people are getting very defensive about this whole subject, although I also get a sense that some people are really hoping for some juicy nugget of information that will forever condemn Gerry Adams to the scrapheap. It's hard to know who is really just interested in the 'truth'. Indeed, some of the points AM has made in relation to 'truth and reconciliation' in the wider process are very very applicable to this whole 'internal' debate about the hunger strike too. Some of us only want a truth here that either justifies us, or pokes the other side in the eye.

    I can see no positive outcome from this whole debate, only an increase in bitterness and sense of futility. And that's even if the whole truth is established. As Seosamh Mac Grianna once said 'Deirtear go mbíonn an fhírinne searbh, ach ní searbh atá sí ach garbh'.

    There are certainly important questions being asked. At the same time, it is my view that the whole narrative of the hungerstrike has been well-undermined already. What will enter the public consciousness? 10 brave and courageous republicans (and that's not to take away their basic humanity), are gradually taking on the identity of mere unfortunates in a bigger political row. I dont see how this can either help the families or their own legacy; but I could be wrong.

  6. Posting and forwarding Kate's video on Youtube.. thank you is a big help here in the states providing information and educating people

    Once again Anthony, thank you for this blog.. Have read the new book.. was great..posted all the reviews and many of your blogs on Myspace which forwards them to facebook. getting positive responses and reposts by many.

  7. Seán Mór

    ‘I can see no positive outcome from this whole debate, only an increase in bitterness and sense of futility. And that's even if the whole truth is established.’

    But what can be done? This is how history is constructed. Narratives compete and often suppress one another. The truth is not always the fact. A ‘regime of truth’ succeeds in becoming a regime to the extent to which it manages to suppress a competing truth.

    ‘At the same time, it is my view that the whole narrative of the hunger strike has been well-undermined already.’

    I think this is true. From O’Rawe’s book came out there has been a steady erosion of the official narrative. There is without question two definitive narratives of the strike, one weakening and one growing stronger. Unless Sinn Fein come up with something startling in response to the latest revelations the initiative will rest with O’Rawe.

    ‘10 brave and courageous … are gradually taking on the identity of mere unfortunates in a bigger political row.’

    I am not sure this is correct – taking on the identity of mere unfortunates in a bigger political row - or at least it has not truck me that this is the case. I think they are too monumental in their own right for that.

  8. AM
    "I am not sure this is correct – taking on the identity of mere unfortunates in a bigger political row - or at least it has not truck me that this is the case. I think they are too monumental in their own right for that."

    I think they will always have a special place in the minds of motivated republicans. However, I certainly detect a sea-change in any discussions about the hungerstrikers with ordinary folks who are more casual in their politics. These people represent the public consciousness more, in my view, than motivated republicans. The hungerstrikers used to have a clear identity which had two parts: they were the bravest of republicans who stood up to Britain, and they were clear victims of British policy in Ireland. Even unionists and loyalists, in spite of their hatred of the hungerstrikers, seemed to have difficulty challenging the integrity of the hungerstrikers. But some ordinary folks have been asking me questions about it all in recent times, as if because I am an ex-prisoner I might be able to give them some solace or insight. I cant.

    You are right of course when you say 'What can be done?' Nothing now. We can't unpublish a book, or undo a debate that has begun. What I am in no doubt about though, is that this 'search' for the 'truth', has damaged the legacy of the hungerstrikers by replacing the certainty of what they stood for with the absolute confusion as to who was to 'blame'.

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  10. Seán Mór

    I think you may be confusing legacy with integrity. The debate is certainly impacting on the legacy of the hunger strike but not the integrity of the hunger strikers. I think they are still viewed as they were. What is shifting is a perception of where culpability lies for their deaths. Things are not so clear cut as they used to be. So the legacy of some of the actors of the day has been affected. And their integrity is being challenged. For example the integrity of Danny Morrison stands to be damaged if it emerges that he has been falsifying accounts. On the other hand the integrity of Richard O’Rawe will be damaged if it transpires that he has been accusing Danny Morrison and others in the wrong. However when you speak of the integrity of the hunger strikers by saying ‘some ordinary folks have been asking me questions about it all in recent times’ I don’t see in that statement anything that would suggest the integrity of the men who died is being questioned. Now, you know the people you were talking to and I do not and you can make an evaluation on them much better than I can. But from what you have said in your post I am not led to the conclusion that you are.

    When you say ‘we can't unpublish a book, or undo a debate that has begun’ – is there a wish, even wistfully, on your part that we could or that the debate should not have started? If so I might understand it at a sentimental level but on an intellectual plane it still leaves you with the difficulty of constructing a mechanism for unravelling what happened.

    You also claim ‘this 'search' for the 'truth', has damaged the legacy of the hungerstrikers by replacing the certainty of what they stood for with the absolute confusion as to who was to 'blame'.’

    I think every intellectual journey begins with confusion? How many times have you and I been confronted by something that challenged or confused us and then in an attempt to impose some sort of intelligible order on the confusion we shifted position? I think it is the way the process of reasoning occurs. And if the ‘certainty’ of the hunger strike in its totality was sustained by a degree of myth do we persist in the myth? History will always be revised. I have no problem with revisionism if by it we mean revisiting and revising what we previously held as true based on new evidence. I would have problems with historical falsification.

    I am not convinced we are all that far apart on this. Experience tells me that we often arrive at the same conclusion via different routes and through the use of different language.

  11. Kate,

    Outside was always in control. Whoever claims otherwise is talking bullshit

    I think Richard said this rather than me.

    Nobody could be ordered on a hunger strike. They could be ordered off one.

    What specifically did fall the blankets way?

    For the most part it has been eclipsed by the recent revelations. It merely supported O’Rawe’s claims about the conversation on the wing between him and Bik. Often the condition under which information is obtained is also the constraint on it being used.

    There is enough out there pertaining to the Blanket shutting up shop. It was not premature to shut it up. Its purpose was never to stay around just to prove Richard O’Rawe right. The debate is going on elsewhere without the intervention of the Blanket being needed to sustain it.

    shutting the blanket was a mistake of great magnitude

    Although there is very much a backhanded compliment in that which I appreciate, a mistake does not enter into it. It was a choice. We were not slaves to it in the sense that we had to continue with it. If it was a mistake of great magnitude then it would have been imperative for that mistake to be corrected. Not one person came forward to fill the breach. There may have been a disappointment of great magnitude on the part of some that it came to an end. Yet, if so, none of the disappointed made any offer to step into the breach either.

    I have no designs on restarting it. Things come and go, they have their lifespan and are replaced with other things. Life I suppose.

  12. Thanks for your response to my posts there Mackers, and there's nothing there I would disagree with. You are right to say that my acquaintences are not really questioning the integrity of the hungerstrikers themselves, it's just that there's a huge 'BUT' hanging over every conversation now. I have to be honest and say, yes, there is a part of me would rather this debate had not entered into the public arena. At the same time, I myself have read O Rawe's book, and every morsel of information I can find on it. I must try and get my own thoughts into order on this and put a bit up on my blog, as Gaeilge! Anyway, thanks again... I'll make this my last post on this subject for now.

  13. Just an observation!
    "The sacrifice of Kevin Lynch and his comrades - their determination and their spirit - has been printed indelibly on our history like no other event. For the impact of the hunger strike went beyond what they had set out to do.
    The hunger strikers had sowed the seeds of significant change in the republican struggle. The election of political prisoners sent shock waves through the political establishment in Ireland and Britain. And it injected a political momentum into republicanism which would, in the years ahead, transform the nature of republican resistance and the liberation struggle.
    It began a process which eventually opened up a new road for republicans in pursuit of our objectives: a road that led to the creation of an entirely new set of political systems on this island designed to provide for peaceful and democratic change, and underpinned by a binding commitment to equality and human rights – including the all-Ireland Ministerial Council and the inclusive power-sharing Assembly."

    The above is part of a speech by Martin McGuiness which I found a little odd as he seems to be justifying the hunger strike as Sinn Fein’s political door opener almost like a proving ground and not exactly remembering or addressing the memory of the Hunger Strikers. Rather than speaking about the hunger strike issue of political status he super imposes the rise of Sinn Fein which seems strange. I cannot say for sure but I would assume the hunger strikers probably had little thought for the political future of a party.
    I am just wondering if he is actually remembering Vol. Kevin Lynch or using the occasion as a Sinn Fein memory.

  14. What now?

    A bunch of people got together and busted wide open the hunger strike story. Alas we all know the sordid details.

    What is changed?

    Nothing 'cept the memory and status of the strikers is in the gutter.

  15. Nothing 'cept the memory and status of the strikers is in the gutter.

    That is a rather oblique view of a tragic period I would venture to say that the prison struggle from 1976 to 1982 held the entire republican movement together.
    The ongoing argument does not tarnish the memory or conviction of the hunger strikers and their comrades.
    The political leadership and their handling or manipulation of the prison war is at question, if they failed the prisoners then the question is why?
    Politicians and freedom fighters don’t mix well, politicians have an ever changing agenda and freedom fighters have a fixed cause.
    On a human side I would say that the prisoners and their families and loved ones have more than a right to know the exact details and truth.
    In politics there is no humanity and truth is always relegated to maintain the image of a political party.
    It’s a long way back to 1976 and we tend to forget the blanket protest and dirty protest that forced the hunger strikes, the extra ordinary courage and conviction of the prisoners, their struggle can never be tarnished they won the hearts and minds of the people.
    The actions of our political leaders is questionable with their ever changing course, perhaps if they had the strength and honour of the prisoners this question mark on their actions would not be.
    I supported the prisoners then and support the prisoners now out of respect for their ceaseless effort and can only hope they receive the truth they deserve.