If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they'll kill you - Oscar Wilde
There has now been a debate on the 1981 hunger strike spanning almost half a decade. Taking their seats on either side of the debating chamber are what may be generically termed the O’Rawe and Morrison perspectives. Use of these terms allows the discussion to be simplified without being compromised by distortion. These shorthand devices permit the tagging of a claim to a certain camp without having to actually implicate either Danny Morrison or Richard O’Rawe in anything that may flow from any particular claim. To say that the Morrison perspective holds that a certain position is either right or wrong does not mean that the statement should be attributed to Danny Morrison or that he even agrees with its content. Same for Richard O’Rawe.
When the author of Blanketmen first made public his misgivings in his book about the management of the hunger strike a more conciliatory approach from his detractors would have gone a long way. It could have capped the discussion. They could easily have acknowledged that the conversation between O’Rawe and Brendan McFarlane on July 5 1981, which has been the subject of much impassioned debate, took place and then moved to create a context favourable to their own narrative: they were in the midst of negotiations; decisions had to be made on the hoof; there was uncertainty about the Brits’ true position and it had to be tested; the British had no one dying in comparable circumstances and could afford to play brinkmanship; events were moving at breakneck pace; in the midst of it all the jail leadership through no fault of its own failed to appreciate that things were changing by the minute and that a much better deal was in the offing if not yet actually on offer; it needed to be explored further to ensure that the strikers got full bangs for their bucks; the republican negotiators delayed in giving the true jail response to the Brits in the hope of getting something much stronger; in the event they misjudged the timing and have been haunted by it ever since. Even had they called it right they can still not be certain that the British would have honoured any of it.
Only the most poisoned would have been at their throats for that. A more general attitude would have been ‘there for good fortune go I.’ Now that window of opportunity is being drawn shut. What room is left for a benign interpretation is being closed down as O’Rawe’s critics paint themselves into a corner. In ensuring that O’Rawe had to fight to maintain his integrity they have handed him the garrotte with which he seems set to strangle their credibility and narrative. They have also given legs to the spectre not conjured up by O’Rawe – only raised by him as one among a number of possible explanations – that there were political and electoral calculations behind the decision to overrule the prisoners.
Trapped by its own intolerance the Morrison perspective was incapable of even acknowledging that a different point of view could be legitimate without necessarily being right. O’Rawe had to be depicted as a Fagin-like character pick-pocketing the hunger strikers’ mantel of legitimacy and whose work was scurrilous in nature. The complete unwillingness to accept a different viewpoint or come up with something other than a strident roar accompanied by whispering campaigns has led to the debate being where it is today, more contentious than it was four years ago, hard fought and conducted in an atmosphere of acrimony. Small wonder there are those who long for a return to the old certainties of 1981. But like a face finger-drawn on a beach those old certainties have been wiped away by waves of doubt, never to return.
Something atypical from O’Rawe’s critics when Blanketmen first came out – something not laced with the typical parsimony that we have grown used to over the years – would have been the a stitch in time that might have saved nine. That was forgone in favour of the more odious notion of stitching up O’Rawe. Now as the threads of the official narrative continue to be pulled it will require the needle of a surgeon applied with more dexterity than witnessed up to now to restore the tattered and torn official narrative to something that even vaguely resembles its former self. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men had a less daunting challenge.