Withstanding the Regime

I did not have to wait until compelling evidence emerged during the debate in Derry’s Gasyard Centre before concluding that an end to the 1981 hunger strike might have been reached in circumstances which would have seen the book Four Men Dead become the pioneering account of what happened behind the tomb-like walls of Long Kesh and its H-Blocks. Even before the publication of Blanketmen, despite being initially hesitant, as a result of conversation with him and others I was drawn to the uncomfortable conclusion that its author was right. When the book appeared on the shelves I commented ‘there was no possible reason that I could think of that would have prompted Richard O’Rawe to craft a tale that would bring him widespread opprobrium.’ Although there was no way of assessing his account on its own terms, I instinctively felt he was on the money. It was the response to his claims that clinched it not only for me but also for a fair few others.

During our pre-publication discussions I cautioned O’Rawe that if he was right his book would prompt a certain reaction. On one occasion I suggested he consider withholding the final product on the mistaken grounds that he might not prove robust enough to face the onslaught that would come his way and told him as much. I felt there was a moral obligation to ensure that he considered the widest range of options because of the consequences. I often joked with him that I could do the solitary, was setting no example for him, and that he was under no obligation to swell the ranks of the ostracised and keep me company. While the party apparatchiks and its military goondas might have been somewhat slow in getting out of the traps when others including myself first began publicly expressing misgivings about what they were telling us regarding the potential of the peace process, by 2005 they had got their bullying act together and would hardly spare O’Rawe their wrath. He was indifferent to it all. I seemed to have forgotten he was a Spartan and was not about to hide behind his shield once the poisoned arrows began raining down on him. He would come out and fight. Once made I welcomed his decision, feeling it was the right thing for him to do.

I had seen it all before and sure enough it came pretty much as expected. It is always the way with them when they are challenged, and particularly so when the challenge has some merit to it. It is the perennial give-away and invariably produces the very outcome their response seeks to avert; the observer infers from the response more so than the challenge that the challenger must have a case. Richard O’Rawe, the former blanket man, once the authentic voice of protesting prisoners, was now to have the blanket ripped from his waist and stuffed in his mouth; it no longer a symbol of potent defiance but a gag to suffocate and produce meekness. He had to be demonised and cut adrift from the social sustenance of the Provisional community; a man who penned ‘scurrilous’ nonsense, who should have called his book ‘on another man’s hunger strike’, who stood shoulder to shoulder with Margaret Thatcher, a liar, a money grabber, a self-promoter, a frustrated entrepreneur seeking another enterprise, an unpardonable creature who should hang his head in shame, even a ‘traitor’, long before Martin McGuinness immortalised the term by hurling it at people who carried out killings without his approval. The sort of things that will be said about you, when you voice concerns, by the staffers of any institution whose sense of power, prestige and privilege are best served by silence in the face of their dubious authority.

A recent example is to be found in the Catholic Church where the senior clerics labelled people much the same as O’Rawe was labelled because a bit of public exposure was not to their liking. So, in O’Rawe’s case the slander campaign was cranked up while the whisper weasels and graffiti vandals set forth to savage his reputation. Meanwhile the muscle flexed itself and filled the doorways of those who might at one time have eaten from the tree of forbidden knowledge and who just might say something in his favour. That would never be allowed to cross the porch and enter the pubic arena.

In spite of all the attempts to generate the power of shame against him O’Rawe simply refused to submit to it. At no time was he prepared to accept the order to sit at the back of the bus. As per usual for those who resist whatever is hurled their way, endurance brings validation. And so it has been for the author of Blanketmen.

Long, arduous and acrimonious the struggle to establish a counter-narrative to the ‘regime of truth’ has survived the regime attempts to demolish it. If the facts of the matter still need to be established definitively Richard O’Rawe’s integrity and reputation do not. On that he has prevailed. For long enough it had been like watching a game of tennis with each point contested as the ball zipped back and forth across the net. After the Derry event there is a sense of the umpire having called game, set and match to O’Rawe. No judgement has been passed on the motives of those who are said to have overruled the prisoners’ decision to accept the British offer; just the fact that they did. All O’Rawe ever needed to prove, really.


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  2. Kate,

    'why is more important than ever before'

    I think that is true but don't feel O'Rawe has to bear the onerous burden of having to prove it. In order to come out on top all he had to do was prove what he alleged to be true. I think he has done that.

  3. And now the ball is in SinnFein's court.

    Good post as usual Anthony. I hope this doesn't stop now. I want the people involved to admit the truth.

    Over the years, reading everything I could, when O'Rawe's book came out..I thought about it. Could they have been that sick. My answer came up..yes they could and are.

    Walking on the bodies of dead IRA heroes doesn't seem to bother them at all. Look what they did to Brendan Hughes. They made his last years miserable.

    I hope an investigation continues and if the sickos refuse to participate again...then we will all know the truth.

  4. Sinn Fein and the revolving door strategy content to put their spin on the issue with old British tactics of censorship and selective amnesia.
    Political amnesia seems to be a requirement of the new progressive Sinn Fein.
    The hunger strike conveniently forgotten much like who was a member of the IRA within the leadership seems to lend creditability to the issue of a deal.
    If these people seriously can’t remember an issue that is unforgettably a part of the republican psyche the issue is lost.
    The revolving door tactic of amnesia is flawed surely some one would recall an important probably life saving question of a deal or offer.
    If all these forgetful people are running a political party should people be concerned that they suffer from memory lapse?
    Granted it is almost 29 years ago and memories fade though I would wonder if anyone would forget the issue of a deal or offer!
    If Sinn Fein produced concrete evidence to show there was no offer then the issue would be settled the fact they introduce shaky and questionable changing short narratives that are inconsistent indicates there is truth to be found.
    Cleary the issue has been and is still being swept under the rug the more they push it away the higher the mound of questions grows.
    As I said before I was not convinced that any one would “betray” the prisoners
    Now like many others I am convinced it is the leadership who need to disprove Richard O Rawes well solidified facts that haven’t changed.
    Keeping the issue afloat is necessary and I would encourage people to comment on the matter. It is one issue we can’ let political loyalty displace human truth.

  5. The silence from the Shinners is shameful. I'm not surprised they didn't turn up for the Derry debate because the evidence on the night was very convincing. Here’s a suggestion for the West Belfast Festival; I dare you to dedicate this years ‘Let’s Talk’ debate to the Hunger Strike and have Richard O’Raw, Willie Gallagher, Liam Clarke, Danny Morrison and Gerry Adams on the panel.

  6. Is it possible that the leadership were simply not intelligent or courageous enough to make the decision to withdraw from the strike? We know how devious they are now but back then were they simply afraid of being outfoxed by the brits.

  7. reggie,

    I think you may be right, but if so why not admit it. The question which needs to be answered is who held the decision making reigns during the second hunger strike. Richard all but admits in his book that the prisoners had conceded this to the PIRA Army Council.

    Some volunteers who were Army Council members in 1981 and have since broken with SF, appear to have shifted all responsibility for the way the hunger strike was run onto Adams and his A/C sub committee, which may be partially true, but nevertheless it is difficult to believe that members of the A/C at the time would not have know where responsibility for calling off the hunger strike lay. (Who finally made the decision to call off the Hunger strike?)

    We must also not lose sight of the fact that the hunger strikers saw themselves as soldiers, under the orders of their PIRA command structure.

    The mistake the Adams leadership are [still] making is to believe they can bat everything into the long grass and it will disappear. For what Richard O'Rawe has done is reject the scythe which left the field half cut, and gone at the job with a high tec lawnmower, which has cleared the ground for all to see.